139. Love letters

In which a loved one is remembered.

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Cal

A couple of months after Matty died, there was an email from Lau.

I was at home studying when it popped up in my inbox, and I immediately clicked on the link to open up the document. Two hours of reading had gone by before I looked up, neck stiff from being bent over the laptop for so long. Two hours, and I was nowhere near finished.

I reluctantly closed down the computer and went to pick up Conor and Lily from Mum, who had been giving me a break from them so I could get some work done. I felt a twinge of guilt as I walked up to the front door, knowing I should have been writing my essay, but Lau had been right; it felt like Matty was talking to me. He wrote like he spoke, not afraid of using flowery words, or more fruity words, and definitely not a shrinking violet when it came to writing about his sex life. I hadn’t got to any bits with Lau in yet, and wondered if I would actually be able to read them. Time would tell.

Mum answered the door with Lily in her arms, and I could hear Conor squealing delightedly somewhere else in the house. Mum gave me a hug and tilted her head in the direction of the squealing, while Lily held her arms out for me.

‘Someone’s having fun.’

I raised an eyebrow.

‘Grandad’s giving Conor pony rides.’

‘Really?’

‘Really. I fear for his knees. But it’s great to see. There has been laughing.’

‘What, real laughing? Bloody hell.’

I carried Lily into the living room to see the spectacle for myself. Dad was, indeed, crawling around on all fours, with a very excited Conor sitting astride his back shouting ‘faster horsey’ and pulling on Dad’s collar like it was reins. Dad had a huge smile on his face, which I hadn’t seen for two months or more, and he was making clippy cloppy noises with his mouth.

I had a flashback to a much younger me. Dad had carried me around this very living room in exactly the same fashion, and I had squealed much as Conor was doing now. Lily reached out an arm, clinging on to me with her other hand.

‘Lil doot.’

‘Maybe when Grandad’s finished giving Con a ride, Lil.’

‘Lil doot Ganda.’

Dad looked up, his face red with exertion, but looking more animated than I’d seen him for a long time. If I’d known messing about with the kids would have this effect on him, I’d have brought them over every day for the last two months.

‘OK, Conor my man, let your sister have a go.’

‘Oh but Grandad …’

‘Come on, mate. Fair’s fair. I think Nana’s got something for you in the kitchen.’

A boy after my own heart, young Conor Scott could not resist the thought of Beth Scott’s cooking and he scooted out in search of cake or cookies, or whatever Mum was likely to be enticing him with.

Dad sat up on his haunches, panting slightly, and looked up at Lily.

‘Jesus, this is more tiring than being at the bottom of a ruck.’

‘Have a break then, before round two.’

‘Nah, can’t disappoint my girl.’

And with a whinny, he dropped back down into a crawl, while I held Lil on Dad’s back, and watched my daughter being entranced by riding her ‘pony’.

After a while, Dad had had enough, and Mum and Conor came back in, Conor carrying a mug of tea towards me.

‘Hey, Con, look at you carrying hot drinks all by yourself.’

I took the mug from him, and looked up at Mum as I felt it wasn’t actually that hot. I wrinkled my nose at her, but took a sip of the tepid liquid.

‘Yum, mate. Best tea ever. Thanks a lot Nana.’

Mum laughed. ‘You’re welcome, sweetheart. Did you get much work done?’

‘Hmm, well, I started off with good intentions, then that email came from Lau and I got sidetracked.’

‘What email?’

‘She sent it to everyone, this afternoon. With Matty’s story.’

‘I haven’t checked my emails yet today, we’ve been a bit busy with your children. What story?’

‘Matty wrote a story, apparently. Well more like his life story. Lau’s just found it, and she sent it to everyone.’

‘Really? James, where’s the laptop?’

I glanced at Dad, and saw a closed look had settled back on his face. Dammit. He’d forgotten himself playing with Con and Lil, and now he’d remembered he was feeling miserable.

‘Where you left it?’

‘I left it in here. Have you moved it? Oh, there it is.’

The computer had got pushed under a sofa, probably while Dad was winning the imaginary Grand National. Mum opened it up and logged on, while I sipped some almost cold tea and Conor and Lily tipped the box of Lego out onto the floor.

I watched as Mum read the email, Dad watching the children as if he didn’t care, but all his attention was focussed on Mum.

‘Ohh. God, Cal, that’s just amazing. Did you know he was doing that?’

‘I don’t think anyone knew. I read a bit of it – well, a lot of it – this afternoon, when I should have been writing about the spinal nerves, but it’s pretty long. I haven’t even got to Lau yet.’

‘What do you mean, ‘got to Lau’?’

‘Well it’s his whole life, not in minute by minute detail, but from when he was little. He’s been around a bit, hasn’t he.’

Mum clicked on the computer and read, presumably the start of Matty’s tale. As her eyes darted along the words, I saw amusement turn up the corners of her mouth, and then she laughed out loud.

‘Oh my God, it’s just like him talking.’

‘I know. I couldn’t stop reading it.’

‘James, you have to read this.’

Mum held the laptop out towards Dad, but he pushed it back.

‘No I don’t. No thanks, Beth.’

‘But James, you’d –’

‘Enough. I said no.’

I’d never heard Dad use that tone, not with Mum. I mean, at Raiders we’d heard it all the time, but this was different. He really meant it. For a minute I thought Mum was going to push it, and I braced myself for impact, but she nodded and folded the lid of the computer down, looking back at me with a too-bright smile on her face.

‘I’ll save it for later, then. Thanks, sweetheart, it could have stayed there for days before I saw it.’

I wondered if words would be said after Conor, Lily and I had left, but somehow I doubted it. Mum never backed away from a fight, but she was backing away from Dad a lot these days, and it seemed wrong somehow. She usually knew what she was doing though, and surely she’d talk to someone if she needed to, wouldn’t she?

So I read Matty’s story. God how I wish I’d read it when he was still alive, it helped me know him so much better, understand why he was so fiercely independent. But I suppose that was the thing. Matty didn’t like people knowing shit about him, he liked being in control. Lau was the only one who got right in there, full access all areas, and I guess as long as he had that, as long as there was someone who completely got him, then that was OK. It made me worry more about Lau, though, about where she would anchor herself now Matty wasn’t there digging his heels in and holding them both in place.

And Matty’s story helped me understand more about Dad. Dad never talked about his dad, my grandfather who died long before I was born. Gran never really talked about him either, so I never thought about him. But I could kind of see how Dad would feel that he needed to look after Matty, as his little brother, even when they were grown up, hence the dashing up to Stafford when Matty was ill the first time, and hence the guilt now he hadn’t been able to stop Matty dying. Not that there was a thing he could have done about it, but I could see now, Dad was feeling guilty. Wasn’t there something about stages of grief? I was sure one of them was guilt. Maybe Dad was stuck there. I had no clue how to help, other than lend my children for pony rides as often as I could, which at least got him smiling.

Laura

From: bjscott@myweb.com

To: lustylau@hotnet.co.uk

Subject: Re: Matt’s Story

Hi Laura. I’ve just finished reading Matty’s book. I cried all the way through, I don’t know how you managed to finish it, it’s so lovely. What a lovely thing for him to do for you and the children, I feel like I understand him so much better. I want to do a remembering thing for him, but maybe I’m having trouble putting it into words. I miss him so much, he’s left such a large gap in all our lives. It was very moving to see how much he loved you, and to know how much he loved his family, all of us. I’ll come round soon and we’ll have a good old natter. James hasn’t read it yet, I think it might be a while before he can bring himself to, but he’ll get there one day.

See you soon – lunch on Sunday?

Beth xx

Dear Laura

I will see you at the weekend anyway, but I wanted to send you this, something more permanent.

I have read Matthew’s words, even the – I’m not quite sure how to put it, dear – livelier portions. It wasn’t easy reading, it all feels so recent, and I’m not sure I’m ready to consign him to history just yet, but thank you for sharing it with me.

Matthew was never an easy person to understand, and this has helped considerably. I will always remember him as a kind, caring, gentle boy who did the right thing, once he’d worked out what it was. He was so good to me, to the detriment of his career and his life at the time, and what happened to him was undeserved and cruel.

He loved you and the children very much, and despite having been taken from us too soon, it gladdens me that he had so much happiness in his life.

With much love

Carol

‘Laura, I just finish Matty’s story. I cry very much, is beautiful, like Matty. We miss him a lot, to get texts to make us laugh, to see him smile on Facetime, to say ‘no I am OK’ when he don’t walk or breathe good. He is brave, special man. We come to see you soon, we have holiday in England. Much love Nico and Lis xxx’

From: andypippadistock@hnxn.com

To: lustylau@hotnet.co.uk

Hi Laura

Wow. I just got through Matt’s tome. Took me a while, and I had to go back and read a lot of it again, there was so much in there. He thought about a lot of shit, didn’t he.

I don’t know where he found the energy or the persistence to keep it up, I know I’ll never be able to stick at anything that long.

OK, you asked for us not to forget Matt, not that it’s likely that we will, he’s blazed a trail through all our lives, you only had to be there at his funeral to see how many people were there, and hear what they were all saying about him, how much everyone thought of him. But anyway, if you want the Andrew Distock perspective on Matt Scott, here it is.

From the day we first met, back on the first day of secondary school, we were mates. I mean, the person who shares your all-encompassing love of Tottenham Hotspur has to be special, right? So we were destined to be mates. Matt was the same as me, a weedy nerd, with a sense of humour, and although that first day he pretended to like Spurs because I did, he came back the next day knowing shit about them even I didn’t know. You had to respect someone who was that desperate for a friend – ha, no, that’s not what it was. Matt never did anything half-heartedly. He’d find out everything he possibly could about it before taking the plunge, and then once he’d decided, that was it, part of him. So Spurs, sorry Matt’s family, my fault.

We geeked along through school together, with our nerdy side-kicks at times, but we both changed when we got to Uni, I guess life caught up with us, or maybe it was my girlfriend at the time with her hair-cutting scissors. We both got more confident, Matt was a particular favourite with the ladies, but he was always a gentleman himself. He remained a gentleman, even in the midst of his young, free and single days. He knew how to treat – well I was going to say a woman, but he knew how to treat everyone. He had this way of just being easy with everyone. Oh, I see that could be a double entendre, because there were times when, yes, he was very easy, but that’s not what I meant. He never made you feel like it was an effort to be with you, you always had his full attention.

I am going to miss the old bastard a lot. It’s not like we spent a lot of time together, sometimes it could be a year between contacting each other, but we’ve texted, emailed and called each other, whenever, as if we only saw each other at school yesterday. I think he’s the only person I’ve known who, after several months of not being in touch, could send me a text that said ‘Whoa just found out Spock fought Wolverine and WON!!’ and then we could both be happy with nothing more for another year, when one of us would call the other one and we’d spend an hour gossiping about films and computers and nothing remotely important.

Pip read some of Matt’s story too, and she said something that really hit home. She’s only met him a few times, and once was at our wedding, so she had other things on her mind, but she said ‘He was always just out there, wasn’t he?’ She meant that what you saw was what you got. I guess, reading about it all, yeah, that was true. He tried hard to hide a lot of what he was feeling, but to people who knew him, he was an open book.

Becca remembers him fondly as ‘your sweary Spurs nerd mate’, and I suppose if you were going to soundbite Matt, that would sum him up somewhat. But there was so much more to him than that. He was sensitive and kind, loved you and the kids to the moon and back. I can’t imagine how hard it’s been for you, Laura. I’m proud and glad to have known him, and thank you for sharing this story with me.

Please keep in touch.

Yours,

Andrew

Cal

Once I’d finished Matty’s lengthy story, which I had to read in-between assignments and studying, I called Lau. I pressed her name, and as I was waiting for her to answer, I felt tears welling up in me. Shit. I really didn’t want to cry all over her, I hadn’t cried over Matty for weeks. I was just about to hang up when she answered, getting the full force of a huge sniff and a choked back sob.

‘Cal! Whatever’s the matter?’

‘Sorry … Lau. I wasn’t … I …’

I sniffed.

‘Shit. OK. I’ve stopped now. I wasn’t going to bloody snivel at you, it just came over me, when you answered. Shit. Shit. OK. I’m OK.’

‘Are you alright, flower?’

‘Yeah, yeah, I just wanted to say, I’ve read Matty’s bloody long story thing, shit, you could have warned me.’

‘I did say in my email …’

‘You said about intimate shit, I thought you meant bed stuff.’

‘I did. Why, what did you mean?’

‘All the bloody emotional shit. Jesus, Lau. That bastard, he never says an emotional word to any of us from one decade to the next, and then he bloody whacks us round the head over and over with this.’

‘Did you really not know how he felt about you?’

‘Well, I suppose I did. But to see it there, just written, in plain sight. Jesus. Sorry. It was awesome, reading it. I might give it a try myself, write something.’

It would be once I’d qualified as a Physio, but once all that was out of the way, I really felt like I wanted to do the same for my family, tell them how things started out for me.

‘That would be great, flower. I’ve started doing mine.’

‘Really? How’s that going?’

‘It’s a bit stop and start. But it’s helping.’

‘That’s good, Lau. I’m glad something’s helping. Chrissie says come over soon, have dinner, watch a DVD, chill.’

‘I’d love that. I haven’t had a smush with Conor and Lily for ages.’

‘Oh, yeah, that’s something else. We’ve been meaning to ask, with Matty gone, Conor’s lacking a godparent. Would you do it? I mean, not the whole ceremony and shit, just do the job?’

‘Oh Cal! Really?’

‘Yeah. We’d like it, a lot.’

‘So would I. Thank you my love.’

Lau had always been unofficial godmother to the kids, with or without Matty. She was great with them, and they loved her, and we just wanted to recognise it, as if she was doing it for Matty as well as for us.

‘Has anyone else finished Matty’s book?’

‘Yes, I’ve just heard from Andrew, do you remember Matty’s friend from Stafford? He emailed me with some memories. Nico’s read it, Carol sent me a lovely letter –’

‘Gran’s read it?’

‘Yeah. I wondered if she’d find some of it a bit difficult, but when I called her she said it helped her, that it made a change for Matt to be open about things, although it was typical to do it in a way that no one could argue with.’

‘Ha ha, well she’s right there. She knew him pretty well, didn’t she.’

‘Yeah, your gran always had Matt sussed. Beth’s read it too, no one else has let me know yet, but they might not.’

‘Not Dad, then?’

‘No, not that he’s said. Your mum said he’s still struggling with it all.’

‘Yeah, well, he’s not a great talker. I think, having read this, he thinks he should have been able to do something.’

‘Mm. I know what you mean. Maybe I’ll have a chat with him.’

‘Can’t hurt. Anyway, let us know about coming over. Or just come, we’re always here. Unless we’re not. Ha ha.’

‘I’ll text, flower. Take care, Cal.’

Laura

‘Just started Matty’s thing. Jesus Laura, how did you read it? I’m in bits. God I miss him. Jay.’

‘Jay.’

‘Laura?’

‘Hi. Where are you?’

‘At home. Beth’s out, she had a – oh shit.’ Sniffing.

‘I’m coming over.’

I got out of the car and hurried up the path, tapping on the door before letting myself in.

‘Jay?’

There was no answer for a few moments, then from the office:

‘In here.’

I opened the door to Jay’s office. He was sitting at his desk, in front of his computer, and he turned as I opened the door. I could see his sadness on his face, and tears had tracked their way down his cheeks.

‘Oh flower. Come here.’

Jay stood up, and I hugged him, and we cried for a little while. Since Matt died, Jay had cried a lot, as if it had opened something deep inside him. Slowly the sniffing and gulping subsided, and I needed to wipe my nose. I released Jay and rummaged in my bag, and found tissues for both of us. Jay stepped back, looking embarrassed.

‘Sorry, Laura. I don’t know why I keep doing that.’

‘Because you’re sad. I keep doing it too.’

‘But it’s been months.’

‘And have you stopped missing him?’

‘No.’

‘Then keep on doing it. It’s all fine, no-one’s judging you, except you.’

Jay nodded, but didn’t say anything. I suspected that he was his own harshest judge, and somehow crying was something to be ashamed of.

‘How far did you get?’

I gestured to the computer. Although the screen saver was showing pictures of Iz and Cal when they were little, I was pretty certain that Matt’s story, the cause of all this, was lying in wait underneath.

‘I only just started it. I’ve been trying to pluck up courage, Beth’s been going on, you know what she’s like. In the end, I thought, it’s only words, everyone else is saying how great it was to read it all, how it was just like hearing him talk, and maybe I was ready for that, but Jesus, Laura. He hated me.’

‘What? No he didn’t. He loved you.’

‘It’s there in black and white.’

‘Let me see.’

Jay moved the mouse and the screen saver disappeared. He pointed to the offending sentences, and I read It’s one of the reasons I hate him. Not really hate him. Oh but, yeah, really really hate him. He’s my brother, doesn’t that come with the territory?’. I looked up at Jay.

‘This is only the second page.’

‘What’s that got to do with it? Jesus, how many more times does he say it in the next hundred?’

I sighed. I could really see how it would look to Jay, but I’d read this many times, and I knew Matt inside out. I hoped I could explain without making things worse.

‘Jay, Matt wrote this story for lots of reasons. Some of it was so that he could say how he felt without having to literally say it face to face, but a lot of it was a way of working out for himself how he was feeling. He didn’t hate you, but you can’t deny that you had a love-hate brother thing going on when you were younger?’

Jay looked at me and slowly nodded.

‘If you think you can read more, you’ll see it, how much he loved you, all the things he wanted to say to you but never did because neither of you said stuff to each other.’

‘He doesn’t say he hates me again?’

Jay looked like he really wouldn’t be able to deal with reading those words again. I quickly reviewed the rest of Matt’s story, in an attempt to be honest and to prepare Jay if I could.

‘Well, he has written about that time you fell out about the Raiders job –’

‘Oh Jesus.’

‘– and he’s pretty straight about how he felt at the time, but keep on going and it’s got a happy ending. You know that, right? You know he loved you.’

‘I suppose.’

‘Don’t suppose, Jay. Know it. You don’t have to read it all, or any more of it, but don’t stop there thinking he hated you. Look, just a few lines down: ‘I also hate him for rescuing me when I nearly died. I also love him for rescuing me when I nearly died. My relationship with Jay is really fucking screwed. But then again, probably no more screwed than any other family’. He was trying to work it out, not tell the world how it was. Had you not read any further?’

Jay shook his head. I tutted.

‘Boys. Get it now?’

Jay nodded.

‘Thanks, Laura.’

Cal

Mum told me later that Dad had started to read the story not long after I called Lau, and he’d only got a few pages in when he had to stop. He’d texted Lau, something along the lines of ‘how did you manage to read this?’, and she went straight over. She somehow got him to talk about Matty, using whatever magical speech extraction methods she possesses, the witch, and Dad had a good blart (see? I’m picking up the Stafford lingo now). After that, things were easier for him. Lau gave him a good talking to about not feeling guilty, and told him that if he read Matty’s story, it might help with that, although she could see that it might be too difficult for him to do. Dad started to read it, a bit at a time, when he felt able to cope, and eventually he finished it, and agreed that it helped, that he still felt sad he and Matty hadn’t been able to say important things like how much they loved and admired each other face to face, but that in the same way he could see how Matty felt, Matty must have known how he felt.

Laura

From: ellsbells@bipbopboo.co.uk

To: lustylau@hotnet.co.uk

Subject: Re: Matt’s Story

Hi Mum

So I finally did it, I read Dad’s book. I got up early and turned my phone off, and got like snacks and drinks and stuff, so I didn’t have to stop for anything. It took me all day, and then some. It is so awesome. A bit weird in places, especially all the steamy love scenes with you, like ew parental advisory or what, but all the OTHER WOMEN – what on earth was he trying to do, get a publishing deal with eroti.com? But I loved loved loved knowing what he was like when he was younger. You forget that your parents were ever your age, don’t you? Does Granny have any pictures of him when he was little, or when he was at Uni or whatever? I can’t remember ever seeing him in his nerd days, surely there is some incriminating evidence somewhere??

He was the best Dad ever, I know he hated being ill, but it never mattered, he was just as awesome when he was in bed as he was when he was up and about. I never told anyone this, but part of me liked it when he wasn’t well enough to get up, because I could just go and be with him, and we could natter, and swap games and things on the computer, or he’d be asleep and I could just do my own thing, and he didn’t have anywhere to be, it was just us. When he was up and about, there were always more people who wanted to talk to him – oh, that sounds like no one talked to him when he was ill. No, he had loads of people around, didn’t he. It’s just when he was upstairs, people were more likely to think he needed a rest, and he probably did, but I could sneak in and just be there, have him all to myself.

Just one thing – how did he know about me and Basty? We were so like careful, because we weren’t sure, and we didn’t want this big thing. I swear there are too many people in this family who have a freaky like psychic vibe going on. Still, I’m glad he knew. I’m glad everyone knows now.

Can this be my memory thing? This email? I did a special font and everything. I don’t think I’ll ever do like a bazillion page thing like Dad did, but I love that he did it, it’s so him. Reading it made me miss him more, but feel close to him again.

Love you Mum, see you soon.

El xx

From: tom@linebreak.co.uk

To: lustylau@hotnet.co.uk

Subject: Re: Matt’s Story

Hi Lau

Here’s something for your memory thing for Matty.

01100111 01101111 01101111 01100100 00100000 01100010 01111001 01100101

0100100100100000011011010110100101110011011100110010000001111001011011110111010100100000011000010110111001100100001000000100100100100000011001010110000101110100001000000111000001100001011011100111010001110011

0

Tom

‘Hey Mum.’

‘Hi Josh, how are you doing?’

‘Good. Yeah. Can I have longer to read Dad’s thing? I don’t know about it. I know Ella’s done it, but …’

‘As long as you like, my love. You don’t have to at all, if you don’t want to.’

‘Yeah. I might not. After the letters, they were a bit full on for me, it was a bit, like, intense.’

‘I know, flower. Don’t worry, there’s no pressure either way.’

‘Yeah, but everyone else has read it, and they’re talking about it like it’s some amazing thing, but … oh I don’t know, I’m just being a dick.’

‘You shouldn’t worry about what anyone else has done, Josh. Tell you what, shall I give you a quick summary?’

‘Er … how quick? It was, like, twelve million pages long wasn’t it?’

‘Very quick. Three words.’

‘Really? Go on then.’

‘I love you.’

‘What?’

‘That’s what he was saying, in his roundabout, never coming to the point kind of way, to all of us. He was just telling us he loved us. So you don’t have to read it, because you know that, don’t you.’

‘Yeah. Thanks Mum.’

‘Hi Lau. R U home? Just found completely the perfect thing 4 yr Matt memory collection – this photo. <pic>. Says it all, when I remember him it’s like this, laughing, making everyone else laugh. It’s on my phone, and yrs 2, now, but maybe we can get it on yr computer, without Tom – let’s b brave! A x’

‘Hey Lau, it’s Charlie. Bugger, I hoped you’d be there. Oh well, I’ll just have to do this, I’m like on my way to work. I did it, I read it, it was hard, wasn’t it, reading all that, the last bit especially, when he started to get worse. Look, I don’t think I’m going to do anything like that, I don’t really do writing, but I just wanted to – oh, return to city centre please – where was I? Oh, yeah. I just wanted to say I loved him, I really loved him, he was so fucking great and it’s so fucking unfair that he’s not here any more I can’t say any more, I’ll just get too upset. I put off reading it for like weeks, but I’ve done it now, and I’m glad I did. I can’t say any more, I’ll be a wreck, and I don’t want to smudge my mascara. God, Lau, you told me he was a bit of a goer, I had no idea, he knew his shit when it came to the nasty, didn’t he. Like, whoa Matty. Anyway, if I keep on I’ll just be in pieces, so I’d better go. I’ll come and see you tonight, maybe we can look at some photos or something. I finish around five thir- <beep>

Dear Matty

Lau sent us all your book, and I’ve read it over and over again. It makes me feel like you’re still here, as if you’re talking to me. Lau said it would be good if we could write some of our memories of you, and I think it will help her so I’m going to do it. Not like you did, because there are only so many hours in a day, but the highlights. You seemed quite fond of bullet points, so here are mine about you.

  1. You were an awesome cook. I loved it when we stayed at yours and you’d do breakfast, because it wasn’t just cereal or toast, it would be eggs benedict or croissants with pate or something else delicious. And that time when Beth had the flu and you did Sunday lunch – don’t tell Beth, but I sometimes wished she was ill more often so you could do the roast potatoes.

  2. You gave the best hugs. I still remember from when I was little, you reading me stories before bedtime, but later too, I always felt safe when I was surrounded by your arms.

  3. You were completely naughty. Someone only had to make a rule, and you were looking for a way to break it. You were the best at breaking rules and getting away with it.

  4. You were so brilliant with computers. You helped me set up my blog for Rosa Is Red, and I’ve got so much business from it, it’s like you’re still a part of it all, and I love that.

  5. You talked to me like I was a grown up, and I don’t often get that, being the the youngest. I guess I realise now that maybe you understood that better than anyone else.

  6. We had the same birthday, and that means we’re the same somehow, which makes me happy.

  7. e^x=x because I want to think of you trying to solve it and never being able to, so you’ll always be here somewhere.

Rosa x

From: Izflo@pfsnet.com

To: lustylau@hotnet.com

Subject: Re: Matt’s Story

Lau, OMG, that was just awesome. It was like getting a letter from him or something. Thank you so so soooo much for sending it, sorry it’s taken me a while to reply, but I’ve read it over and over, and been thinking hard about my best memories of him. He’s been in my head for the last month, all the things he wrote about, when I was little and he was Unca Matty, and all the things he didn’t write about but I can remember, like all the chats we had, all the bad guy advice he gave me, I mean advice that was bad, not advice about bad guys – although maybe there was that too. There’s so much awesome stuff he did, it’s great to remember him like this rather than just being sad. Maybe we should have done it while he was still here, maybe it’s made me think about saying what people mean to me while they’re still here to appreciate it. You and Matty, Lau, you were so awesome when I needed it, when I couldn’t talk to Mum without screaming at her, I think we might have had a serious falling out if I hadn’t been able to Facetime you or drive over at midnight to get things off my chest. But anyway, I’ve come up with a Matty-style top ten awesome things about him that I remember. They are, in no particular order (except they are 1-10, but not order of awesomeness):

  1. Yeah, I remember the park and the Pizza Place, and I remember loving spending time on my own with Unca Matty. He was fun, I never even noticed he was ill.

  2. He never minded doing girly things – I was always painting his nails and putting bows in his hair, and he’d drive home in them or, who knows, maybe just round the corner and take it all off, but sometimes he’d still have purple nails the next time I saw him, like he’d been to work in it or something, and that was pretty cool.

  3. He never let Cal boss me when he was around, he always stuck up for me. Thinking about it, there was a similar age gap between him and Dad …

  4. God, was there anything he wasn’t good at? Computers, maths, cooking, women, handymanning, housework – you lucked out, Lau! But so did he, with you. He was a babe for an old guy though LOL.

  5. He was never too busy for us lot. If we called or texted or Facetimed or came round, he always made time for us. I mean, his job was pretty full on, right? But we were more important.

  6. He gave me a pair of shoes for my twenty-first that I’d been hankering after for months. I don’t know how he knew, I hadn’t told anyone. Maybe you had something to do with it, Lau?

  7. Ben really liked him. That means a lot, Ben’s quite particular, but he really likes me, too, so I know he has good taste 🙂

  8. He loved being active, walking, getting out in nature, going for a bike ride, swimming in the sea. It was hard to see him in bed, as if it was prison, but then when he’d get a bit better and go out again, it was like you could see him coming back to life.

  9. He had a quiet word with a bloke who was hassling me. Did you know that? This bloke kept calling me and texting, and it was freaking me out. Matty made me tell him who it was, and I don’t know what he said or did, but it stopped. Oh you probably know, there’s not much you don’t know, and you two always told each other bloody everything.

  10. Last one. Or not the last, because there’s so much in my head now that I hope I never forget, but last one to go wherever it is you’re going to keep all this. You. You and him, Lau. You were always, always so into each other, I’ve never seen anything like it. Even when he was with us all, messing about, chatting, playing games, his eyes would follow you, like he couldn’t stop looking at you. When you weren’t there, you could just tell he was thinking about you all the time. You were the soppiest couple I’ve ever known, always holding hands, snogging, whispering lewdness in each other’s ears – yeah, we all knew what you were up to. I’m glad you had it, had him, had each other.

So that’s it, the top ten. I’ll come and see you soon, and we can go through the rest of the pop chart if you like!

Take care of yourself, Lau. You know where I am if you need a chat, it’s about time I returned the favour.

Lots of loveliness

Iz xxx

‘Dear Laura

I’ve been thinking about the story you gave me to read and I’d like to come and see you this afternoon. Matt was a special man, and I’d like to spend some time thinking about him with you.

Mum x’

From: graciesummers@tinterweb.co.uk

To: lustylau@hotnet.co.uk

Subject: Matt’s Story

Lau, there’s nothing I do that doesn’t make me think of him.

I make a coffee in the morning and I remember him insisting on freshly ground fairtrade organic; not because he was particularly ethically minded, but because he liked to be a bit awkward.

I go anywhere in this city, by bus, car or on foot, and I remember him pointing out something interesting somewhere – a bird’s nest, a stone gargoyle, a path that doesn’t go anywhere, a weird pattern in the roofs you can only see from the top of John Lewis.

I flick past a documentary on TV and I think of him going ‘oh, stop there, ooh, shoelaces’ or whatever.

I get in the car and I remember the one time he took me driving when I was learning. I know he used to like a good swear, but I didn’t think it was possible to say ‘fuck’ that many times from our house to the end of the road.

I go to the beach and I remember him trying to surf, and getting all grumpy because he couldn’t really do it very well, but we all could.

I pick up something from the bakery, and I remember him eating a bit of flapjack because he knew it was making me sad seeing him wasting away.

I tell someone I literally jumped out of my skin, and I hear him say ‘Gracie Summers, you did not. You’re not a pile of bones and guts. Literally means you actually did something’.

I go for a run and it makes me remember how much he loved being outdoors, how he’d sometimes dash out into the rain and dance about like a lunatic in the garden, while we watched through the window.

I type something on my computer and remember him ranting about the autocorrect, or taking us all on an internet safari, or setting up some intricate email forwarding system.

I talk to Dad and I remember how they used to love messing about, how it was all banter and bickering but they’d do anything for each other.

I go past your house on the way to see Mum and Dad and just for a second, it’s like it’s all still the same, you’re all there together and we’re all up the road, and any minute your house is going to be full of us, and Matty’s going to be there in the middle of it, winding us up, arguing with us, making us think for ourselves, making us laugh, loving life.

I remember him all the time, and it makes me sad, but it makes me happy. He loved life, his life, so much, it was obvious to everyone. I miss him loads.

Gracie

60. Sorrow about to fall

In which the smallest thing causes the biggest reaction.

Dec

That was it. Over. I’d said what I wanted to say, and got through it without stopping, and by not looking at anyone, I’d managed to finish reading the letter without crying myself. I’d had plenty of tears when I was writing it, had cried in Amy’s arms a few times when writing to them had made it feel like they were still alive, but this felt like a closing of sorts, and I was able to keep a grip on myself. I looked up and saw Rose and Beth wiping their eyes. I started to roll the letter and pictures up, to put them in the bottle.

_Wait a minute, Dec. Sweetheart, that was really, really lovely. I’m so proud of you. I hope you don’t mind, we’ve all got some things, a few words we’d like to go in the bottle too.

‘But … how did you know –’

)Sorry, hon. I told them you changed your mind. I wanted to do something, and I thought it might be nice if everyone did. I hope that’s OK.

‘Of course, babe. What have you done, though? There’s not much room in here.’

I held up the wine bottle I’d brought with me.

:It’s just a few words from each of us, love. Not much. We want to tell your mam and dad what you’re like, what we think of you. It won’t take up much room.

My family never ceased to amaze me. It was perfect.

‘Fuck, I can’t believe you guys, that’s a bloody awesome thing to do.’

)Shall I start?

I nodded, put my arm round Amy’s shoulders as she read from her piece of paper.

)Dec is everything to me. He is the most caring man you could wish for. He would walk to the other side of the world and back if I asked him to, he’d do anything for anyone. He’s going to be the father of your grandchild, and he’s going to be amazing. He gets up every morning to hold my hair when I’m being sick, and he sometimes doesn’t even grumble when I ask him for breakfast in bed. Dec isn’t the most practical person, and if we need anything doing we usually have to get a man in. Or Matt. But he has so much love, and is so generous with his time. He often helps Carol in her garden, he’s always at the club coaching the under elevens or publicising some charity event or something and he always has time to stop and chat to anyone – Raiders supporters, shop assistants, neighbours, anyone. Dec has really missed having you around, and I think he’ll always be sad you’re gone, but he’s got a great family who love him to bits and try to keep him sane. Having our baby is going to be the most exciting thing we’ve ever done, and I know he wishes you were here for it. Thank you for making him what he is today, for giving him to us.

Amy looked up at me and I bent down and kissed her, my heart overflowing.

‘Awesome, babe. I love you. Will you marry me?’

)Course, hon. Always. You OK?

‘Yeah, I should be blubbing, shouldn’t I, but it’s just not there. I’m OK.’

Amy gave me the piece of paper and I rolled it up with the others.

_Me next. I’ve tried to keep it short, but there was such a lot James and I wanted to say.

I held my other arm out and pulled Beth in close.

_OK, sweetheart. Here goes then.

She started reading.

_Dec was a very angry young man when he came to us. He made out he was a bit of a bad lad, but I was pretty sure I could see the real Dec underneath the attitude and the bad language. James took a bit of convincing, but with love and patience Dec stopped hiding behind his behaviour, and we saw the boy who’s turned into the lovely man he is now. You’d both be so proud of him. He’s loving, caring, loyal, he loves our two children so much, and they adore him. He’s so much a part of our family we can’t imagine it without him. Dec doesn’t talk much about you, it makes him too sad, but when he does it sounds like he had a very happy childhood. We can’t replace you, but we can love him enough that maybe it doesn’t hurt him quite so much all the time. We did have a bit of a hard time a few years ago, when things went a bit wrong for all of us, but we came through it, one way and another, and I think it made us all stronger, helped us realise what really mattered to us – things like acceptance, openness, being together, love and family. Now Dec’s going to be a father, James and I have realised how much he’s grown up, and how privileged we’ve been to be a part of his life. He’s going to be a great dad, he’s so good with Cal and Iz, he always knew just how to be with Cal, even when he first arrived as a stroppy sixteen year old, and every other word was a swear word. Now it’s just every word in three, so he’s made some progress. I’m so sorry I never met you, I would have loved to have known Dec’s mum and dad, to have found out what he was like when he was Charlie. I think you’d be very pleased with how … he’s … turned –

Beth lowered her bit of paper. Her bottom lip was trembling and some tears had run down her cheeks. It looked like there was a bit more written on the page, but she was choked up, and couldn’t read any further. I took it from her and put it with the rest, then and wrapped her up in a hug.

‘Thanks Beth. You’re fucking amazing.’

She wiped her eyes.

_Sorry, I couldn’t quite finish. There wasn’t much more, I was waffling anyway.

‘It was perfect. Can I put the cork in now?’

:Not yet love, you’ve got to listen to me yapping on now. Don’t worry, it’s not long, I’m not a great writer, or speaker.

‘Rose, you could talk the hind legs off a herd of donkeys and you’d still not be finished.’

:Yes, love but not speeches and stuff. Anyway, this isn’t a speech, it’s just telling your mam and dad some things. Hope that’s alright.

‘Come here, then.’

Amy and Beth stepped back and I put my arm round Rose. She put her glasses on and took out a piece of paper that had been folded and unfolded many times. She fiddled with it nervously, clearing her throat.

‘Rose, it’s only me.’

:No it’s not, love, it’s your mam and dad as well. They’re a lot to live up to. I just want to say it right.

‘Whatever you say will be right. It always is. They’d love you. I love you. You’re great.’

:Thanks love. You know I think the world of you, don’t you.

‘I know.’

Rose squared her shoulders, took a deep breath and started reading.

:Declan often says I’m like a mum to him. He agreed once to let me mother him, and I’ve held him to it all this time. I’ll carry on as long as he wants it, too. But I’ll never be his Mum, and that’s the thing I find really hard, that he hasn’t got you both. By, he’s a grand young man. I can’t take your place, I wouldn’t want to, but I’m very glad I’m here in mine watching him grow up. He’s a credit to you. He’s found it hard without you, but he’s resourceful and strong, and he’s made his own way. The family he’s found, all of us, well it’s not traditional or conventional, but it’s full of love and laughter and that’s the most important thing. You don’t need to worry about him, he’ll be alright. That’s all, love.

Rose took her glasses off and looked up at me. I bent down and kissed her on the cheek, pulled her in for one of her enormous hugs. Took her piece of paper from her and started to put the top on the bottle.

}Er, what about me?

I looked up at Matt, surprised.

‘You only decided you were coming this morning, you – oh, you’re taking the piss.’

He looked a bit hurt.

}No, although you’re right, I haven’t had time to prepare anything along the lines of the three muses here. Anyway, it’s only something little, and I’m not speechifying it, but this is from the first time I watched you play, a few months ago. I just wrote something on the back. It should fit in the bottle.

He held out a match ticket, from the game I had persuaded Cal to ask him to go to. I turned it over. On the back, he had written I don’t know much about rugby, but if Declan Summers is half as good a player as he is a friend, he’s fucking awesome and destined for greatness. I was really touched. This whole thing wasn’t something Matt would have felt very comfortable about, and he could easily have avoided it, or done or said something light-hearted to take the emotion out of it. Usually, a bit of banter would have occurred, but I recognised this was a serious gesture.

‘Thanks, Matt. It means a lot that you did this.’

He nodded. I put the ticket in the bottle and pushed the cork into the top. Then I wrapped some tape round it. It didn’t really matter if it was absolutely waterproof; it was never going to reach its destination, I just didn’t want it to sink while I was still watching it. I held the bottle for a while, still trying to conjure up some kind of feeling. Maybe Beth was right, and I would feel what I was trying to feel later, when I’d sorted through it in my mind. Holding onto a bottle wasn’t going to make anything happen.

I drew my arm back and threw the bottle, as hard as I could, out into the sea. I was pretty good at throwing things, and it went a long way; we watched it bobbing for quite a while, as the tide took it further and further out. Amy and Rose had their arms round me, Matt had his arm over Beth’s shoulder. I wasn’t sure how long to stand watching a bottle getting smaller and smaller on the outgoing tide, but I knew nobody was going to suggest leaving until I made the first move.

Matt

It went much as expected, really. We all wandered aimlessly with him for most of the day, trying to help him do his anniversary thing in whatever way he saw fit, but it had all been pretty low-key, he’d seemed fairly upbeat about the whole thing, apart from a couple of times when he got a bit wobbly, and I stepped in with my metaphorical jester’s hat on and eased the tension as was my role. He even did this, like, thousand page long speech on the beach, his accent getting thicker and more Australian as he read it, and he got through sentimental addresses from Amy, Beth and Rose without any kind of emotional outpouring. It’s not that he didn’t want to get emotional, I think he kind of did in a way, but whatever it was he was expecting, he didn’t quite get there.

And then yours truly, theoretically the class comedian, well I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking. Maybe it had all got to me more than I’d realised, but we were all just standing watching his message in a bottle float out to sea, and I was re-running the day in my mind, in some kind of speeded up action replay, and I just had this image, which almost made me laugh, of Dec dashing around this town he used to live in, chasing after shadows and peering in corners, like he was trying to find something. I wondered if he knew he’d been looking for his mum and dad, and then the image changed into something even more potentially amusing, of Dec running about looking for the thing that had never left him, that he always carried with him, kind of like when someone’s looking for their glasses when they’re on their head all the time.

Obviously, it wasn’t really amusing, it was quite poignant, but it was the image that amused me, not the reality. But anyway, I just said it, without thinking.

‘Hey, you know what’s just occurred to me, Dec.’

‘No. Do tell.’

He probably thought I was going to say ‘the pubs open in half an hour’ or some such shit.

‘Well, I’ve watched you today tramping here and there, looking for I don’t know what, memories or feelings or something, and getting all frustrated because it’s not happening. What’s just occurred to me is that you’ve been looking for your mum and dad. You left them behind, in a way, when you moved to the city, and maybe part of you thought they’d be here when you came back, and you’d find them again, somehow. You’ve been looking in the wrong place. They’re not here –’

I gestured to the beach in front of us and the town behind us.

‘– or here –’

I pointed to the tattoo on his forearm, now a fairly tasteful swirl of roses and calligraphy.

‘– they’re here.’

Dec

He walked up to me and put his hand on my chest, over my heart. I stared at him, and as the truth sunk in, I felt it shockwave through me. When my legs buckled, Matt tried to catch me, but I collapsed to my knees as the memories, the sadness, the grief, the sorrow, the pain, the anger, came boiling up from the place I’d buried it all.

Matt

I don’t know what I’d expected, maybe a nod as he thought about it, a word or two of agreement. What I did not fucking well expect was for the most anguished expression I have ever seen to come over his face, as he dropped to the ground, on his knees. I tried to catch him, but he was sixteen stone of rugby player, and there was no way I could hold him. And the noises that started coming out of him – wails, moans, incoherent shouts. I was bloody terrified.

Dec

It swept over me and I knelt on the beach and sobbed and howled and raged. I couldn’t keep it buried any more, I had to let the hurt out, noisily and painfully, as memories crashed over me and feelings rampaged through me. I cried because they were dead. I cried because they’d left me. I cried for the good times I’d lost and the hard times I’d found. I cried because they were never coming back. I cried because they’d never know me or Amy or our baby. I cried for it all, everything that had been and everything that would never be and everything that should have been and everything that shouldn’t have been. I threw handfuls of sand at the sea. I pulled my hair. I shouted and screamed. But mostly I cried. I don’t know how long I knelt there, feeling it all, remembering it all, crying it all, because I’d never really cried about it before and there was a lot of crying to be done.

Matt

Dec was just beside himself, I don’t think he knew what he was doing. He hurled sand around, he wailed, he pulled his hair, he shouted, he cried and cried, tears and snot pouring out of him at the same time as all the noise, and it just went on and on. I looked helplessly at Rose, Beth and Amy, hoping for some guidance, but they were all looking as shocked as I felt.

Rose recovered first, and got on her knees beside him, putting her arms round him. I stood rooted to the spot, looking on, horrified.

‘Just hold him. He needs to know we’re here.’

Rose seemed sure, but I didn’t think any amount of cuddling was going to help him out of this, and I got my phone out in case we needed to call someone … well, who I had not a clue, but it felt way beyond me, and I wanted to hand it over to someone else.

Amy and Beth had followed Rose onto their knees on the sand, and after a while, feeling foolish, I joined them, making a circle round Dec, holding his shoulders, saying reassuring things. It seemed to last for hours, but it eventually started to calm down; it wasn’t hours, but it was a bloody long time, and then, finally, to my overwhelming relief, he stopped, and flopped forwards, head on his knees, panting and sniffing, the occasional shudder.

Dec

They all held me, even Matt. None of them tried to stop it. After a long, long time, I felt it recede, felt cleaned and emptied by it. I was exhausted, could hardly lift my head up, and I knelt on the sand trying to get my breath back. I felt Amy’s hand on the back of my neck, stroking my hair; I looked up into her eyes, which were filled with tears as she rested her forehead on mine.

)It’s OK, Dec. We’re all here. Take your time, hon.

I closed my eyes and took several deep, ragged, snotty breaths.

‘Did someone say something about man-size tissues?’

Matt

Yes, that would be me, as a joke, back when we were having a laugh at lunchtime, and nobody was going all mental patient all over the place.

‘Well I did, but I actually was taking the piss that time.’

‘Here you are, love.’

Rose could always be relied on to have a tissue. Dec blew his nose, wiped his eyes and sniffed a bit. I was still reeling from the disaster zone I seemed to have caused.

‘Fucking hell, Dec, I’m sorry. If I’d thought you were going to –’

‘It’s OK. I needed it. That was ten years worth of bottled up shit. Sorry it was a bit explosive. Fuck. Did I scare the seagulls?’

After all that, he was worried about the effect he’d had on the wildlife?

‘Sod the fucking seagulls, you scared the living shit out of me.’

I was seriously shaken up, that was my best mate, who for a bloody long time, I’d thought was going to be seeing out the end of the day in a straight-jacket.

Dec

Matt did look a bit shaken. Thinking back, although we’d both helped each other through some difficult times, and there had been tears on both sides, this was in a different league from anything Matt had ever witnessed.

‘Sorry. Call it blub club plus, or something.’

Matt

I sat down on the sand next to him, needing to tell him how scared I’d been, but unwilling to upset him any further.

‘Fuck, Dec, that was extreme. I thought you were going to stop breathing, or hurt yourself or something. Are you OK now?’

Dec

I nodded. I felt as if something that had kept me tied up had been cut away, and now I was free. It was what I’d been looking for, expecting to find, ever since we arrived here this morning.

‘Thanks for being here.’

Matt

I nodded back, but felt tears pricking at the corners of my eyes, whether of relief or concern I was not in a position to tell, so I got up and started to walk down the beach before anyone noticed.

Dec

Matt nodded in turn, got up and started to walk down the beach. He looked like he was wiping his eyes as he went. I put both my arms round Amy, held her close and stared out at the sea. The bottle had disappeared, floating too far away to be able to see. Behind me, I became aware of more sniffing. Beth was being comforted by Rose, trying to muffle it and not succeeding. They were having a muted conversation in between the sniffles.

_… I just never realised there was so much pain and hurt there, all this time.

:It’s always been there, love. He’s hidden it away. I’ve seen bits of it before, not quite like this though.

Beth looked up, saw me watching her. She wiped her eyes.

_Oh Dec, sweetheart, I’m so sorry. It just took me by surprise, that’s all. Rose did say something like this might happen, but we’d been everywhere today, and did all the words, and I didn’t think it was going to. I just got upset, seeing you like that.

I stood up, and she came over and kissed my cheek.

_Are you alright?

‘You know what, I think I am. I think I’ve been carrying all that shit around with me for ten years and it’s about fucking time I got rid of it. It feels like it’s been getting harder and harder to keep it all down there, not all of it will always go away when I try to make it. Now it’s out and gone, and I don’t have to worry about hiding it any more. Sorry if it was a bit dramatic.’

_Oh, Dec, sweetheart, well I won’t say it wasn’t dramatic, but please don’t apologise. Whatever you need, you know we’re here. Where’s Matty going?

‘I think I freaked him out a bit. He’s just getting himself together. He was supposed to be the comic relief, not the best supporting actor.’

Beth looked thoughtful, then headed off after Matt.

Matt

I hadn’t got far, and hadn’t finished wiping my eyes, when Beth caught up with me.

‘Matty, wait.’

I didn’t wait. The last thing I wanted was Beth trying to get to the bottom of things with me.

‘Matty.’

She took my arm and pulled me back, making me slow down to match her stride.

‘Well that was a bit of an event, wasn’t it.’

‘Mm.’

‘Are you alright, Matty?’

‘Not really. Are you?’

I thought if I could turn it round on her, it might focus things away from the bloody traitorous leakage running down my face.

‘No. I didn’t expect anything that powerful. I was a bit scared.’

I don’t think I’d ever known Beth to be anything other than completely in control of things, and I admired her ability to just say how she was feeling. How different my life would be if I could a) realise how I was feeling and b) say it.

‘Where did it all come from?’

‘Oh Matty, this has will have been building up for years. Sometimes it’s the smallest things that set it all off.’

‘And sometimes it’s the stupidest. What the fuck was I thinking?’

‘You can’t blame yourself, sweetheart. It could have been anything any one of us said or did.’

‘Nice try, but I’m pretty sure I was the one who started it all.’

‘It wasn’t your fault. I think it will have helped him.’

‘Yeah, well, we’ll see. I thought he’d sorted all his shit out with his shrink.’

‘I know seeing Adam has really helped him, but that doesn’t mean he’s sorted through all his troubles. He’s made loads of progress, but sometimes you store things up without realising. You know he never talks about his parents. Maybe he never lets himself think about them, either. All of that, back there, could be a culmination of the last ten years, and a full on day of thinking about them, remembering them, talking about them. Think of yourself as the last straw, not the only straw.’

As we walked, I looked out to sea, not at Beth. She always talked sense, really, much as I moaned about her meddling ways, but although I’d been worried about having been the one who caused it all for Dec, there were now other misgivings tapping at my consciousness. I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk about them, and didn’t speak for a while, as we walked along the shoreline.

‘Matty, talk to me. What’s bothering you?’

How did she always know? It was like she had a sixth sense when you wanted to keep something from her. I didn’t want to do this right now.

‘Piss off, Beth, sometimes people just want to be alone with their thoughts.’

‘I know, sweetheart, but when you’ve just seen your friend very distressed, and been very worried about him, maybe being alone with any thoughts that might have been thrown your way isn’t the best thing.’

‘Do you ever stop fussing over people?’

She sighed. ‘No, I suppose I don’t. And I’m not going to stop now. Please tell me, Matty. I’d like to help if I can.’

‘Seriously, Beth, just piss off. I’m quite capable of walking up the fucking beach on my own, I don’t need you to fucking babysit my every move.’

It was the tone of voice that usually worked, if the ‘fuck’s didn’t. Beth was pretty persistent, but hated being told to piss off, and usually called the cavalry, i.e. Dec, when I came on too strong with her. If I went on long enough with it, she’d give up, I was sure.

‘You know what, Matty, I think I won’t this time. What’s going to happen if you get back to Dec and you’re still being like this? He’ll know, and then he’ll spend all night trying to drag it out of you, won’t he. And that’s not fair on him, not today. So just get over yourself, tell me about it, let me help you sort it out, and we can go back and convince Dec that everything’s OK.’

Oh bollocks, she had a point. Dec was almost as good as Beth at knowing when I needed to talk, and both of them were better at knowing it than me. Sighing to myself, realising I may as well give it up willingly, rather than walk all the way along the coast to avoid it, I tried to explain.

‘It’s just bloody terrifying, the thought of how much shit we’ve all got lurking in us, waiting to burst its way out like that. I don’t think I could handle it if it happened to me. I don’t know how he’s handled it, how he’s not foaming at the mouth in the back of the little white van or some such bollocks.’

‘Oh Matty, you and Dec are so different, you’ve had such different experiences, just because he’s reacted like this doesn’t mean you will. Losing his parents like he did, when he did, we can never really understand what that’s like.’

‘Maybe, but I’ve got a fair amount of unsorted crap of my own that I’d rather not think about.’

‘If you talked about things a bit more, sweetheart …’

‘Yeah, well, that’s the thing, though, isn’t it. I don’t do talking, I do this, don’t I.’

I waved my hand vaguely in the direction of the rest of the way down the beach.

‘I’m not going to change any time soon.’

‘Oh Matty, if you’d –’

‘No, Beth. You wanted me to tell you what I was thinking. I’ve told you. Now can we go back? Fuck, we’ve walked miles.’

I turned round and looked back along the sand. I couldn’t see Dec, Amy or Rose, but they would have been small dots by now.

Dec

I stood and watched as she caught him up, taking his arm and walking further up the beach. I wasn’t sure what I’d missed; my head was still in a whirl, I wasn’t really thinking clearly. Amy followed my gaze.

)What are you thinking?

‘Nothing coherent. Still a bit wobbly. Come here.’

I pulled her into my arms, kissed her and folded her into a hug.

‘You have been amazing. How are you doing, babe? Knackered yet?’

)Not yet, but it won’t be long. There are plenty of places to sit down, I’m completely fine.

‘We should go as soon as Matt and Beth get back. Jay won’t last much longer on his own with Iz once Cal’s home from school. Rose, how are you doing? Cup of tea before we go?’

:What everyone else wants to do is fine, don’t worry about me, love.

‘How about we go back and wait in the café? Two birds, one cup of tea.’

)Good plan. I’ll text Beth and let her know.

We strolled back down the beach towards the café, arm in arm. We didn’t talk much. I tried to work out how I was feeling, how things had just changed for me. I had spent the last ten years trying to avoid feeling what I had just felt very publicly, and now everything was out there, I felt a bit light-headed, almost as if I was floating. I was dehydrated from all the crying, and my throat was sore, my voice croaky.

One of the biggest things had been what Matt had said. I could now think of Mum and Dad not as burdens of sadness to keep hidden, but as thirteen years of my life that weighed very little and that I wore with me, in my heart. I was no longer scared of what accessing the memories and emotions associated with those thirteen years would do to me; I had faced it, and rid myself of a lot of baggage. I would still be sad when I thought about them and talked about them, but I was pretty sure I would be able to do it much more easily now.

We reached the café and ordered tea for Rose. Amy had water, and put her feet up on the bench seat, resting her back against my arm and her head against the back of the seat. She looked like she might fall asleep soon. I had a sudden urge for a coke float, which used to be my favourite thing on a Saturday morning, gathered here with Billy, Jase, and Will. The drinks arrived, and Rose poured out her tea.

:Don’t know how you can drink that, love, so much sugar, it looks revolting.

‘It is pretty sweet and sickly. It’s nostalgia, really. Special treat on a Saturday morning.’

I sucked a bit through the straw, pulled a face.

‘No, it’s not the same. I don’t think I’ve got such a sweet tooth as I used to have.’

:I can get another cup, you can share my tea if you like.

‘I couldn’t possibly deprive you, but thanks for the offer. I’ll grab some of Amy’s water in a bit. She’s nearly asleep, look.’

) … no I’m not. Just resting my eyes.

:You have a snooze, love, it’s been a long day.

)Mm. Might do. Carry me to the car, later, hon.

‘OK, babe. Whatever you say.’

I reached round and put my hand on her stomach, kissing her behind her ear.

‘How’s the bubster doing?’

)Fine, hon.

:How are you doing, Declan love?

‘OK. I feel, well, apart from feeling a bit foolish and hoping not too many people were out there to see me, it feels like a good thing in a way. I didn’t realise all that was in there. I’ve been feeling a bit, like there’s something bubbling under, for a while. I could keep a lid on it, but only just, and it was making me a bit edgy. I think the lid’s blown off now, but it took a lot of crap with it. Back to manageable levels.’

:Well, good. That’s good. You gave us all a bit of a turn out there, though, love. Last time I saw you like that, remember when your team lost all those points and you poured your heart out onto my kitchen table, while me and Nico looked at each other and wondered what on earth we were going to do. This was worse, though, I … I wondered if you were going to be alright when you stopped. There was so much hurt on your face, old pain. Sometimes it’s hard to get back from those old places.

I looked at the worry on Rose’s face. I wanted to reassure her.

‘I was always going to be alright, Rose, the same way and for the same reason I was always going to be alright that time with you and Nico. Because I had people with me who cared enough about me to hold on to me. As long as I have all of you, I’ll always be alright. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but that’s the truth. If we look after each other, we can make sure we’ll all always be alright.’

Rose took my hand and squeezed it. Then her knack for changing the subject at just the right moment kicked in.

:Oh, I meant to tell you, Bron and Gethin are coming down next weekend. Gethin’s got a new girlfriend, Bron wants me to check her out.

‘Where are they all going to sleep?’

:Oh, they’ll get a B&B or something. Bron’ll stay with me, I expect.

‘I know someone who might put them up …’

Matt

‘Where are they?’

‘Amy just texted. She said they’ve gone to wait in the café. I think we should go back, and you should tell Dec why you were upset, and let him know you’re OK.’

‘You appear to be the boss.’

‘Don’t be like that, Matty, you know I’m right. Dec doesn’t need to be up all night holding you together.’

‘I suppose not.’

‘You know if you ever need someone to offload to –’

‘Yeah, you’ll be the first interfering busybody I call. Enough now.’

I started walking back along the beach, a bit faster than Beth could manage without trotting to keep up. It meant she didn’t have enough breath to badger me, and I was silent until we reached the café.

Dec

We carried on chatting until Matt and Beth arrived. Matt looked a bit wild-eyed and wary, like he did when something was up that he didn’t know how to talk about. Beth held my gaze and raised her eyebrows at me. They sat down at the table, squeezing next to Rose, as Amy was still asleep with her legs stretched out.

‘Good walk?’

}It’s a lovely location. Ten out of ten for childhood reminiscence spots.

_Matty.

}Oh alright. Dec, Beth says I should tell you, so you don’t have to drag it out of me later. Told her to piss off, but for once she stood firm. Not a big deal really. Any other day and I might have put up more of a fight, but you get special dispensation today.

_Matty. Just say it.

}OK. Well, first, before I do, I just want to check how you are. Are you still a bloody hysterical blart bomb likely to explode with salt water, snot, showers of sand and unbelievably loud noises at any minute, or are all things Summers a bit calmer?

‘I’m feeling OK, thanks for asking so sensitively.’

}Fuck off, having my own mini-crisis here. Alright, Beth, I’m doing it now, I just didn’t want to set him off again. OK, Dec, when you did your little display just now up the beach, it scared ten fucking kinds of zombie-shit out of me. Not just because I thought you were going to do yourself an injury, although there was that. I’m a bit afraid of what I might have lurking down there for me, waiting to pop up at some inconvenient moment. There’s all the shit with Carrie. Then there’s the bastard MS waiting in the wings, the nearly dying of pneumonia, and although my dad died when I was two, and I thought I was OK about it because it was so long ago, that’s a nice little undercurrent too. And, oh, just all of the joys of being the current Mr Matthew Robert Scott. Shit, this is so the wrong time to be unloading all this. But anyway, long story short, I was worried about what I might have waiting to ambush me. So that’s why I buggered off up the beach, as well as to get the image of you, bawling your eyes out, right out of my head.

‘You’re not me, Matt.’

}Well thankful fucks to the god of small mercies for that.

‘Just because something happens to me doesn’t mean it will happen to you.’

}I know that, and Beth reminded me of the same thing. I think … I was so pleased with myself for working out what was going on here with you, that when it produced that reaction I was really shocked. I don’t think I could let go like that, I don’t ever fucking want to.

‘It’s not like I had a choice.’

}That’s kind of my point. But I’m not dwelling, I’m putting it all away to ponder another day. Seriously. I was under orders to tell you why I wandered off, and I’ve done my duty. May we speak of this no more.

‘OK.’

}What the fuck have you been drinking? It looks disgusting.

‘Coke float.’

}Ugh, I can’t think of many less palatable combinations than brown sugary liquid and creamy curdling blobs. Is there anything else on offer?

Matt

As promised, I briefly shared with the group why I had seen fit to flounce off, and then the subject was dropped and to all intents and purposes things returned to normal.

I still had an underlying unease, although I covered it up with my normal arsing about. Dec would have noticed if he hadn’t been preoccupied with his day, so I kept things to myself and resolved to … well, do nothing about it, I suppose.

Dec

He looked at the menu, while I considered what he had told me. Matt was really complex. People couldn’t tell when he was being serious, and he often wrapped up sincerity in bluff and sarcasm to put everyone off the scent. He had a lot of things he wouldn’t readily talk about, and pushing him to talk usually resulted in him retreating further behind his front. I hoped he would come to one of us in his own way and his own time if he needed to.

As we waited for Matt’s and Beth’s drinks to arrive, I noticed I was being stared at from the other side of the café. There was a woman at a table with a boy, who looked about eight or so. Something about his face looked familiar, but there was no way I could have known him when I lived here – he was too young. The boy was looking at me intently, but looked away when I caught his eye, and he kept glancing back to see if I was still looking, then looking away again when he saw I was. I looked at the woman, I assumed she was his mum, to see if I recognised her, but I couldn’t recall her. After a while, they got up and the woman went to the till to pay. As they passed our table, the boy slowed down and looked again. I smiled at him. He smiled back and stopped.

*Are you Declan Summers?

I nodded, and his mum turned round at the sound of his voice.

*Ned, come here, now.

He held his ground for the briefest moment, but couldn’t disobey and ran up to her, looking back at me. He tugged on his mum’s t-shirt.

*Mum, it’s Declan Summers.

*Who?

*He plays for Raiders. Uncle Jason used to go to school with him.

Something clicked. That was who he looked like – Jason Dixon. He must be related to Jase. Nephew? I tried to recall details of his family. Did he have an older sister? Couldn’t remember.

They left the café, the boy looking back over his shoulder and trying to get his mum to listen to him. I might have followed, but Amy was still asleep against me, and I didn’t want to disturb her.

:Did you know them, love?

‘I don’t think so. The boy looked like someone I used to know, I suppose he might have been related, but I didn’t know the boy or the woman. He seemed to know me, though.’

}The perils of dining with a sporting superstar, one just can’t have a mochaccino in peace these days without it being ruined by the rabble.

We finished our drinks, although I left most of my coke float and drank Amy’s water, and then we decided to put Jay out of his misery and go home. Jay had texted Beth a couple of times asking when we were going to be back, and she was starting to feel guilty.

_I hardly ever have a day off from the children, I’m just prolonging it as much as I can. He’ll cope. I might text him and tell him what to do for our tea, so it’s ready when we get home.

‘Great idea, Beth, if you really want to eat black oven chips and rubber burgers.’

}Or worse, find the house burnt down and all your possessions charred to a crisp. Nothing more likely to ruin an appetite.

_Sadly, I think you could be right. How about we pick up takeaway on the way back, then?

}Top idea. I’ll wash up.

_Really, Matty?

}Fuck, no. That’s what the dishwasher is for. Right, are we all ready? Dec, wake Amy up unless you’re giving her a fireman’s lift to the car park. Or I could go and fetch the car … oh fuck it, why did I even suggest that, you’re all going to sit here and let me sod off on my own now, aren’t you.

_I’ll come with you, sweetheart. I think Amy could do with the extra rest, and Rose has done a lot of walking about today.

‘And I’m propping Amy up. If I come, she’ll fall over.’

}You’re excused, fucking nancy. Summers is deducted five man points for using a lame excuse. Right, won’t be long. Beth, you remember where we parked don’t you …

As they left, Amy stirred and woke up. She swung her legs over the edge of the seat, sat up, yawned and rubbed her eyes.

)Hello. Did I doze off?

‘Yeah, babe. Huge snores and everything. Look – the whole place has emptied because of the noise.’

)I wasn’t snoring! Rose, I wasn’t snoring?

Rose laughed.

:No, love, but you were pretty fast asleep. Are you still getting morning sickness?

)Yeah, three o’clock every morning, you could set your alarm by it if you really wanted to be up then.

:I’m not surprised you’re tired, then, love. Shouldn’t last much longer, hopefully, first twelve weeks is usually the worst.

)Hope so. Aren’t Matt and Beth back yet?

‘They’ve been and gone.’

)What, while I was asleep? Was I asleep that long?

I laughed at the surprised look on her face.

‘Yeah, babe. They’ve gone to fetch the car so I don’t have to carry you through town over my shoulder. Sorry I wore you out today. Early night, yeah?’

)Sounds lovely. But really, an early night, with just going to bed early to sleep and not …

She stopped herself and looked at Rose, who laughed.

:I know what ‘early night’ means, love, I’ve even had a few myself, although not for a while, mind. Declan, let the poor girl catch up on her sleep and stop being so demanding.

‘It’s not my fault she’s bloody irresistible.’

:Actually, love, it is. Have some willpower.

)Thanks Rose.

‘Yeah, thanks Rose. Thanks a bunch.’

We laughed as I pulled Amy close enough to whisper in her ear.

‘You’re just too fucking gorgeous, fancy a quickie out the back, by the bins?’

She laughed and whispered back.

)Have some willpower.

I gave her a wet sloppy kiss on the cheek and hugged her tight to me. I was starting to feel some kind of normality creeping back following the weirdness of the episode on the beach. We sat and chatted for a while longer, and just as I was beginning to wonder if they’d got lost on the way back to the car park, I saw Matt’s four wheel drive pull up outside the café. He honked the horn. Amy and Rose got up and walked to the car, while I paid the bill for the drinks.

As I was leaving the café, I noticed a car coming pretty fast down the road along the seafront. It braked sharply and pulled in behind Matt’s car. Both front doors opened, and the little boy from before got out of the passenger side. A man got out of the driver’s side. The boy had a big grin on his face and turned to speak to the man.

*See, it is him.

The man stared at me, realised he was staring, closed the car door and walked with the boy to where I had stopped. I was aware of everyone in Matt’s car watching.

*Charlie?

‘Er, Declan.’

*You don’t remember me.

I thought about the boy, and who he’d reminded me of, and his Uncle Jason. I added a few years to the face of the boy from my memories.

‘Jase?’

The man smiled, nodded and held out his hand. I grinned, and clasped it.

‘Fucking hell!’

*I hope you don’t mind, Neddy here recognised you in the café, he goes to Raiders with his dad a lot. He came back full of how he’d seen you, wouldn’t give his mum any peace, she rang me and I had to come straight down, see if you were still here. What are you doing here?

‘I’m with my family.’

I gestured to the car. They all waved at him, and he raised a hand self-consciously.

*Oh, well, sorry, looks like you’re all just off. I just wanted to see if it really was you. How long has it been?

‘Probably about seven years. That’s when I left.’

*Bit longer than that, you moved about so much, changed your name, we kind of lost touch. You’re doing well for yourself.

‘Yeah, I’m doing OK. How about you?’

*Yeah, pretty good, working with my dad, he’s got this timber business. Getting married next year. Remember Suzie McDonald?

‘Really, Suzie? Fuck me. Congratulations.’

I’d had to stop myself repeating her nickname, Suzie the Floozie.

*Uncle Jason …

*Oh, yeah, right. Ned was pretty keen to get your autograph, er, it feels a bit awkward, but would you mind? He’s brought a programme.

I laughed. ‘No, of course not. Do you ever come with him to the games?

*I’ve been a couple of times, when his dad couldn’t make it. Football’s really more my game, sorry. I follow the results, though, see if you’ve scored. You usually have.

Ned handed me the programme and a pen. He’d opened it to a page with my picture on.

‘I like this picture, Ned, it was my first try for Raiders.’

*I was there, it was near where I was standing, it was awesome. Did you really go to school with Uncle Jason?

‘Yeah, I did. I was just telling everyone today, we both used to sneak over the fence at the back of my house after school, so everyone thought we’d come straight home instead of going to the park. And we used to come here on a Saturday morning and drink coke floats.’

*He called you Charlie.

‘I know. I used to be called Charlie when I was at school with Jase.’

*But are you really Declan Summers?

‘Yes, I really am. What do you want me to put here?’

*To Ned, and your name, please.

I wrote in the programme and handed it back.

‘Ned, next time you and your dad, or your uncle if you can persuade him to give up the football, are at Raiders, let the girls in the ticket office know you’re there, ask them to tell me. You could come after, meet some of the players, get a tour of the ground, or something.’

Ned’s eyes went very round.

*What do you say, Ned?

*Thank you.

*Thanks, mate, that’s really good of you.

‘What’s your dad’s name?’

*Peter.

‘I’ll leave a message in the office, look out for you.’

*We should leave you to it, Char – er – Declan. Thanks for this, he’s a complete Raiders nut.

‘Keep it up, Ned. Seriously, Jase, come and find me after a game sometime, we can have a proper catch up. Great to see you, really great.’

*You too. Cheers mate, see you sometime.

We shook hands, they walked off to his car and got in. I got into the front seat of Matt’s.

}Satisfied your eager public have we?

‘Ha ha. It was an old friend.’

:Was that the little boy from the café, love?

‘Yeah, he’s Jason Dixon’s nephew.’

}Jason Dixon – why do I know that name?

‘I mentioned him today, at the house. He was my fellow fence hopper.’

}Oh yeah. So that was him. Happy reunion?

‘Bit weird meeting someone I probably last saw when we were wagging school together. His nephew’s a Raiders fan.’

}Yeah, we got that, with the autographs and the hero-worship and the big beam of light shining down on your head. Fucking egomaniac.

)Are you going to keep in touch?

I shrugged. ‘Up to him, I’ve told him to look me up after a game. See if it ever happens. I feel like I’ve left this place behind, especially after today. I’m not in any hurry to rekindle old stuff, he probably isn’t either. Good to see him, though. I was beginning to think nothing had stayed the same here. Matt are you ever going to start this car, or are we going to sit here bloody chatting for the rest of the week?’

}Yes, sir, starting the engine, sir, sorry to have kept you waiting, sir, even though it was you who was standing around outside keeping the faith with the little people, sir.

‘Piss off and drive us home.’

An hour or so later, having picked up a Chinese meal on the way home, we pulled up outside Jay and Beth’s house. Amy, Rose and Beth were all asleep in the back of the car.

}I vote we leave them here until we’ve had our pick of the takeaway, then we’ll wake them up so they can polish off the egg fried rice and prawn crackers no one ever wants.

‘Don’t like your chances if you deprive Amy of her chicken chow mein.’

}Bollocks, good point. Hadn’t taken into account hormonal surges as a risk factor. OK, better wake them up then, bagsy not it, see you inside.

Matt grabbed the bags of takeaway, jumped out of the car and slammed the door hard. Rose, Beth and Amy all woke up with a start. It was very funny.

‘Come on, ladies, Matt’s gone inside with dinner. I suggest you get going if you want there to be any left.’

)He’d better not be touching my chicken chow mein.

‘He’s well aware of the consequences if he does, babe, but everything else is fair game.’

Amy and Beth got out from either side of the car and went indoors; I stayed and helped Rose down from the back seat.

:Thanks, love. Alright?

‘I’m good, thanks, Rose. What a day. Thanks for coming.’

:You know I’ll always be there for you, love.

‘I know. It means a lot. Same here. Know what, Rose, you and me, we’re a little family all on our own, aren’t we. I mean, yeah, part of this fucking weird sprawly chaotic unexplainable one, but me and you, we’re a little unit too.’

:You’re right, love. Don’t start me off, now, I gave you my last tissue.

‘Ha ha, let’s go and fight Matt for dinner, then.’

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!

26. Get ready for this

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

Dec

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

‘Fuck off, Big.’

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

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

‘What?’

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

‘Mm. Where’s Big?’

>What is big?

‘He was just here.’

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

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

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

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

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

*Is your arm hurting? Do you need painkillers?

‘Mm, please.’

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

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

I looked at Nico.

‘Thanks for coming.’

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

*Not in here, sorry. Best go outside.

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

‘No worries. Say hi.’

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

*Hungry, are you?

I nodded.

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

‘Starving.’

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

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

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

‘Course.’

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

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

‘Sure.’

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

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

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

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

>Ha, I know this.

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

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

‘What?’

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

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

‘How far should I go?’

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

‘OK then.’

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

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

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

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

‘Rose!’

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

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

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

‘It’s nice to be worried about.’

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

:I suppose so, love.

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

:Tea if they’ve got it, ta, love.

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

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

‘Lots of painkillers. Will be sore tomorrow.’

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

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

‘Mm.’

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

: … sure he’s going to be alright?

> … fine, is normal to sleep …

: … how long I should stay …

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

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

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

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

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

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

-See you on the sixth, then, Declan.

‘Sixth. Right.’

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

‘Tell Rose.’

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

‘Thanks. You too.’

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

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

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

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

‘Still tired.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Mum?’

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

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

‘Big.’

:What’s that, love?

‘Not DivDav.’

:Sorry, you’ve lost me.

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

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

‘Shit. Big. No way.’

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

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

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

I waited for the penny to drop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No –’

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

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

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

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

Rose returned with a nurse in tow.

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

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

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

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

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

‘I don’t want to go to sleep again.’

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

:He’s staying at mine.

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

Neither of us contradicted her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘He loves gore. The bloodier the better.’

:Oh, typical six year old then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Had stuff on my mind.’

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

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

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

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

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

>What business?

Rose ignored my scowl.

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

>Declan, you remember?

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

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

>Declan, you must tell the police.

‘Rose thinks it was a dream.’

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

‘I know the difference.’

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

‘I’m sure I remember.’

>Then I call, like last time.

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

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

‘Stay, please. When’s he coming?’

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

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

>I call Lis to say I stay longer.

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

ϙWhat made you remember?

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

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

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

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

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

>Do you know yet the anonymous numbers?

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

‘No, I’m away.’

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

‘Rose, have you got Jay’s number?’

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

>Huh. Ben Hearne. You are sure?

‘I’m sure.’

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

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

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

:You do talk some nonsense, lad.

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

:But you’ve had your dinner.

>She don’t know this.

He winked at Rose and stood up to go.

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

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

He left and it was just Rose and me again.

Matt

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

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

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

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

Cal

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt

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

Since they came back from Devon, Cal had talked a lot about Dec and his scars and bruises, seeming to find it all fascinating rather than horrifying, and I was looking forward to having a look for myself, nosy parker that I was. I knew Beth and Jay were nervous about him coming.

Jay felt that things hadn’t been properly sorted, and wanted to get to the bottom of everything. He wasn’t a fan of long conversations, but he seemed to have resigned himself to this particular one.

Beth just wanted everything to be lovely again. She’d been hurt more by Dec shutting himself off and not telling them about some pretty huge shit than she had about the actual huge shit, and wondered if things could ever be back the way they’d been.

It could be pretty handy, being a useless lump in a bed, who couldn’t talk much. People opened up, told you stuff. Of course, sometimes it meant you had to lie there while they fussed and went on at you as well, but the payoff was you sometimes got to hear the good shit, always provided you could a) remember it and b) not fall asleep at a crucial point.

Then Dec was here for Christmas. He was here for four days, and by the time he left, he’d changed things for me, and he was my mate, and part of my family. The End. What, you want details? My version of events? Blow-by-blow account? Oh alright then, if you insist.

Cal

So after what felt like years, it was at last the day that Dec was coming. I had tidied my room so that you could see the carpet and all my toys had been put away to leave room for Dec’s clothes and trainers and pants. I so wanted Dec to see my dinosaur bedroom; my old bedroom had Ben 10 curtains and blue walls, but my dinosaur bedroom was cool, and it was a big boy’s bedroom. And Dec hadn’t seen Percy, my rabbit, yet. Mum had never let me have a pet, because Tabitha, our cat wouldn’t like it. But Tabitha lived with Nico and Lis now, and I had Percy. Dec would love him.

Mum had a text from Lis to say that they were driving in Lis’s car, and that they should be at our house in a few hours. Mum had made some dinner, but we weren’t going to have it until Dec got here.

Dec

It was finally Tuesday, the day I was going to see Jay, Beth and Cal; the day, if it all went right, I was going to get my family back. Rose left in the morning, torn between wanting to be on her way to her sister’s and staying to fuss over me, but finally leaving me to it along with a long list of things I had to do and say, pots of jam to give to Beth, and a couple of her speciality huge hugs.

I wandered around restlessly, waiting for Lis to pick me up in the afternoon. I did some exercises, watched some of a Christmas film on TV, ate lunch, paced some more. Lis, of course, showed up dead on time.

The car journey was nearly as tortuous as the waiting had been. It should have taken about two and a half hours, but loads of other drivers seemed to be making an early Christmas getaway and the motorways were pretty busy. Being stuck in several traffic jams did nothing for my nerves. We got there in just over three and a half hours.

Cal

It got dark, and although I kept looking out of the window, I couldn’t see anything. Lots of cars went by, but I could only see their headlights, and none of them stopped. I took up a permanent position at the hall window, and pressed my face to the glass.

Finally, a car stopped outside, under the street-light, and a light went on inside the car. I saw Dec in the passenger seat, but he didn’t get out straight away. I jumped off the chair I’d been standing on and ran into the kitchen.

‘He’s here, Mummy, he’s here.’

Dec

It was early evening, dark and cold as Lis pulled up outside the house, following my directions via a map on her phone. I had managed to get us lost once, but we had found our way again and now we were here. My pulse rate rose with anticipation. I was finally here, I would find out if it really was all OK, if we could be together again, if things could be mended, or … not. I was excited and terrified.

~Ready?

Deep breath. I looked at Lisa, who gave me a reassuring smile.

‘… Ready.’c