69. Various methods of escape

In which there is a reunion.

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Matt

So I sat on the beach and read. I don’t know what I read, it didn’t really matter. I got from one end to another of several iBooks, hardly taking any of it in, trying to make my peace in my mind with what had happened. It kept coming back to the fact that I couldn’t change any of it; nothing I did, said or thought now would change what I’d done, said or thought in the past. I’d well and truly fucked things up, and the only thing to do was accept that and move past it. Trouble is, it wasn’t that easy, except in the most theoretical of ways. It was as if my life had been trundling along in its groove, and suddenly there was a derailment, and I had no idea how to get it back on track.

So sitting and pseudo-reading was all I did, and at least my body relaxed, if my mind couldn’t. Was it wise to be alone with my thoughts right now? I knew a few people who would have said no, but one of them was preoccupied with being a new father, one of them had been permitted to help and had noticeably stopped giving unwanted opinions as a result, and one of them was my mum.

I hadn’t spoken to Mum since the whole Jules thing blew up in my face. The last time I’d seen her was at the hospital with the rest of the family on the day Charlie was born, but I hadn’t spoken to her properly then. God, that seemed such a long time ago, but it was less than a week. I’d texted her to say I was going away, not having the inner strength for a call or a visit, and I’d given Beth dispensation to fill her in while I was gone. I knew she wouldn’t contact me, but would worry about me, and guilt made me call her after I had been away a few days, costing me an arm and a leg and quite possibly a vital bodily organ such as a spleen, or a gall bladder.

‘Hi Mum.’

‘Matthew! Where are you?’

‘Egypt.’

‘You sound so close.’

‘Nope, thousands of miles away.’

‘How are you dear? Beth told me about your troubles. I’m sorry things went badly for you.’

‘I’ll be OK. I just needed to get away, to try to work it all out. Sorry I didn’t tell you, it all happened a bit quickly.’

‘Not to worry, dear. Are you taking care of yourself? Eating enough, getting enough sleep, all the other things mothers are supposed to worry about?’

‘Yeah, Mum. The food’s great. Sleep, meh, who needs it. Not for want of trying.’

Mum sensibly changed tack, quite possibly realising she had as much information about my health as she was likely to receive.

‘Beth said Andrew’s joining you?’

‘Yeah, he’s coming on Saturday. I’m keeping his sun-lounger warm till then.’

‘Oh well that’s good, at least you won’t be on your own. It’s been a while since you saw him, hasn’t it?’

‘Yeah, years, since he buggered off to save Africa.’

‘Well, I’m sure you’ll enjoy seeing him again. Maybe he’ll look after you.’

I couldn’t do anything more to reassure her than I was; I could hear the worry in her voice.

‘I’ll be OK, Mum. I’ll be back in a week or so, I’ll come and see you. I’ll bring you a plaster pyramid, or a papyrus with your name in hieroglyphs.’

‘That would be lovely, dear.’

Mum always appreciated any gift as if it were priceless, however much or little thought had gone into it – her old house had been packed to the rafters with things Jay and I had made or bought for her when we were younger – but I knew the thing she’d most appreciate would be to see me. Especially if the alternative was some crappy tourist tat. I’d save that for Jay.

‘No one will be able to say I didn’t think of you while I was out here.’

‘You’re a good boy.’

‘Yeah, well, that remains to be seen. I’ll see you when I get back.’

‘We’ll have a good talk. Goodbye, Matthew.’

‘Bye, Mum.’

It was a brief conversation, and I’d told her nothing, but I knew that me being in contact would put her mind at ease. I’m sure they were all worried about me spiralling down into my friendly neighbourhood black pit of despond while I was out here, but that wasn’t where I was headed. I wanted to try and sort myself out, work out what had happened and how to make sure it never happened again. Part of that meant digging deep into my psyche to ascertain just what it was that I wanted out of life.

OMFG what a whiny git I am. Was. Still am, I suppose, as here I am years later still going on about it all. The truth is, Lau, I want you to know it all. I never told you absolutely everything, and some things you just don’t say to your gorgeous wife – things like, you know, being with other women and shit. And you’re so cool about everything, I know you would have just listened and then said something bloody awesome, but shit, look how long it’s taken me to get this far in The Ballad of Matthew Scott. And now I just don’t have the time or the breath to say it all, so I hope one day you find this; I’m going to be a bit creative about leaving clues, so one day, after, you’ll find this and you’ll know everything. Ha, and you won’t be able to argue or ask me any of your bloody annoyingly penetrating questions. So there. See how grown up and mature I am. I love you, by the way. Always will. Holding hands forever.

So where was I? Oh yeah. Beach in Egypt. Fucking awesome, or it should have been. I suppose it was the ideal place to try to sort my life out, and I did do a lot of thinking. Hardly noticed the beach, probably would have been cheaper to turn the lights on and the radiators up in Jay’s conservatory. But I guess there’s something about being ‘away’ that can help when you’re thinking about serious shit.

I contemplated work, and whether I was going to be able to go back, with Jules there. I knew we would both be professional, that wasn’t the problem, but I also knew how stressed it would make her, and, yeah, how stressed it would make me. But I wasn’t in any state to go job hunting, and so I was going to have to go back and see how it was, try to keep Lexi’s inquisitiveness to a minimum, try to make things work at work.

I contemplated my life in the city that now felt like home to me. All the same objections applied to an immediate decision, but maybe it was time to think about moving away, trying some of the exciting jobs I’d thought about when I was younger, leaving Matt the Lad behind and starting over. Again. It was an option that both excited and terrified me in equal measure, and one I didn’t come to any conclusions about.

And then I contemplated the big thing, the one that had caused all this in the first place, the reason I was sitting here on a beach in northern Africa turning myself inside out. The thing that had lurked unexamined inside me for fuck knows how long. The thing that had destroyed Jules and me.

Family. My suddenly discovered need to have a family of my own, not just one that involved me being an uncle or a brother. Mum, Dad, kids. House, garden, car. Small unit of people. Possibly a dog, to make up the numbers.

I’d tried to convince myself, a few times, that it was just a weird moment, that it was an aberration, but I failed to make myself believe it. Once uncovered, the need had settled over me like a blanket, and no amount of denial or self-delusion was going to make it go away. It was what everyone did – not that I only wanted what everyone else had, that’s not what it was all about, but now I knew I wanted it, the unfairness of everyone else having it sliced into me. Even Nico and Lis were expecting a baby – they’d announced both this, and the fact that they were coming back to England in time for the birth, on the same day that Charlie was born. It was all working out for everyone else, but I couldn’t have it, or at least that’s how it felt.

Dec had sent a few texts, with pictures of Charlie, documenting the tiny amount of sleep he and Amy were achieving, but obviously so proud of her and his new status as a parent. I knew with every pang of envy that it was what I wanted, but at this moment it was unachievable.

Just thinking about the ramifications made my head spin – I was nearly thirty-five. The practicalities were that available women were becoming fewer and further between. Available women who didn’t already have children were even fewer and further. I didn’t think I wanted someone else’s children, I didn’t even think I wanted ‘someone else’. This thing had blown my world apart, and I wasn’t going to take second best just because there was some kind of hypothetical clock ticking in the background. And my heart was breaking, I could feel it heavy and dysfunctional in my chest – being with someone else was not something I could even imagine. It was another thing I couldn’t solve, would drive myself mad thinking about too much, so I parked it, along with all the other things, and tried to read my book and wait for Andrew, while the sun shone and the waves crashed and life went on.

I thought that when Andrew got there, things would carry on pretty much as they had been – beach, book, beer – but with someone to share the short walk to the bar. But Andrew had changed. Admittedly, I hadn’t seen him for several years, and until our recently rekindled contact I had thought of him as a devoted churchgoer. Even before that, he was a settled family man, seemingly happy to stay with the insurance company he’d worked for until he retired or keeled over from a heart attack like all good managers should if they worked hard enough. The last time I’d seen him which was about a year before he left for Africa, he’d been a fairly unprepossessing man, hair starting to thin, paunch starting to develop, middle age starting to approach. He wasn’t even thirty, but he’d had that air about him of resigned contentment; Cindy’s makeover was long-forgotten.

I nearly missed him when I went to meet him at the airport, because I didn’t recognise him. The hair was gone, I mean virtually all gone, shaved so close to his head that to all intents and purposes he was completely bald. He’d lost weight. He was wearing stylish clothes, and reflective sunglasses, and my gaze slid over him as he dropped his bags and walked up to me, arms held wide, a big smile on his face. I almost looked behind me to see who this dude was greeting, then he shoved his sunglasses up onto his hairless head and I recognised his eyes.

‘Matthew Scott come here and give me a bloody great man cuddle you bastard.’

I did as I was told, and saw over my shoulder several people turning their heads to look as he practically lifted me off me feet with a big roar.

‘God, Matt, you haven’t changed a bit.’

‘Whereas you, Andrew, have changed most of your bits. Looking good, you dog.’

We grinned at each other and hugged again.

‘Oh mate, it’s great to see you. It’s been too long. Here, give me a bag, the car’s this way. I hired it for the week, so we can go see dead Pharaohs or some such shit.’

‘Really? You’re here for the archaeology?’

‘Well not exclusively, but I thought we could give some of it a try.’

‘You’re the boss. Thought we could try the nightlife, though.’

‘Yeah, sure, if you want. This place is club city, according to the PR.’

‘What, you haven’t sussed them out yet?’

‘No, I’ve been chilling.’

I was getting the feeling that Andrew wasn’t just here to offer me a shoulder to cry on, which was fair enough, and I mentally adjusted my expectations as we walked to the car.

‘Well we need to get you out there, my boy. Back on the pony, or whatever the fuck the term is.’

‘Ha, I don’t think so, mate. I’ll be your wing-man, if you need one, but I really don’t need any complications right now.’

‘Who said anything about complications? No strings, that’s the way to go.’

‘Yeah, been there, trying not to go back there again.’

‘OK, whatever, mate. We can talk about it later, yeah? What car have you hired?’

‘Oh, nothing fancy, they drive like maniacs out here – I didn’t want any scratches.’

‘You haven’t changed at all, have you, still bloody meticulous as hell.’

I was reeling a little from how different Andrew was; I kept stealing glances at him, trying to get used to what he looked like, and to the unfamiliar feeling of being the boring one at the party. I hadn’t felt like that since I was at school. I hoped I would be able to keep Matt the Lad in retirement, but it looked like Andrew the Lad was in full employment and possibly recruiting help. Quite a few female eyes slid his way as we walked; it wasn’t his looks, it was his ‘look’. The way he was dressed, the way he carried himself, the way he looked back. I recognised it, as it had been me until a year or so ago. It said ‘notice me’. It said ‘give me a try, I’ll make it worth your while’. It said ‘hello ladies’. It might as well have said ‘get your coat, love, you’ve pulled’. Sighing internally, and realising that Andrew had his journey as much as I had mine, I unlocked the car and got in.

Andrew spent half of the short trip to the hotel checking his reflection in the mirror, wiping off microscopic specks of dirt, turning his head this way and that. I hoped I wasn’t going to have to tell him he was being a dickhead too early in the week.

We got back to the hotel, where we changed into shorts for the beach, and headed out, picking up drinks along the way. As we settled onto the sun loungers, I got a reassuring glimpse of the Andrew Distock I knew of old.

‘I heard this at work the other day: x squared asks x cubed if it believes in God. X cubed says ‘Well I do believe in higher powers’. Ba ding cha.’

‘Don’t tell me David Dibley still works for Eyeti. He was hawking that one around when I first started there.’

‘Really? Bollocks. Never heard it before. I forgot you know some of the old stagers there.’

‘Is Celia still on reception?’

‘Yeah, good old Ceel. Has covered for many a hangover for me.’

‘Always has a paracetamol.’

‘And a disappointed shake of the head. It’s like she’s your mum or something.’

‘How’s it going at Eyeti?’

‘Great, love it. Got you to thank, though, mate. You’re fondly regarded, even now. They’re all sad you don’t keep in touch.’

‘I do Twitter and Facebook.’

‘Not the same, though. You should come up, we could have a reunion.’

The thought of it made my blood run cold. Not that it wouldn’t have been great to see everyone, but imagining going back to Stafford, where part of my life had ended, where all those people knew all that shit, all those lies, about me – I was never going to do it. The place I was born was now dead to me, and I put Andrew off.

‘Yeah, well, needed to leave it all behind when I moved away.’

‘What exactly happened? You never told me the whole story; I know there was a woman, and you got ill.’

Maybe it was time to talk. It was the main reason I’d dragged Andrew all the way out here, after all. I swallowed hard and gave it a shot.

‘Well, the short version is I got dumped on from a great height by the girl of my dreams when she went back to her psychotwat of an ex-boyfriend, I nearly died of pneumonia, she took all my stuff while I was in hospital, and told all our friends I’d slept with her when I knew I had HIV.’

‘Fuck, Matt, you’ve got HIV?’

I rolled my eyes.

‘No. She told everyone I had. A few weeks after she left, I got ill and ended up on a drip. She didn’t even call to see how I was, she just cleared the flat out and told everyone a load of shitcrankery.’

Talking about it wasn’t helping. It was stirring everything up, making me feel all the anger, the hurt, the shame. I didn’t want to talk about Carrie, I realised. It was a long time ago, and the deeper she stayed buried the better.

‘Shit, mate. Sounds like you’re well rid. Is she still in Stafford?’

‘I have no idea. I don’t want to know anything about her. Can we talk about something else?’

‘Sure. Oh, I ran into someone who knows you. Mercy Carter.’

Oh bloody hell. More blasts from the past to bring it all back.

‘Really? I bet she had a lot of nice things to say about me. Where did you meet her?’

‘Club. Only last week, actually. I mentioned I was coming out here, must have said your name, she gave me a funny look and told me you left her on top of a hill when some woman called you. Must have been some woman, Merce is a babe.’

‘She deserved better than she got from me.’

‘Nah, don’t think like that. You take your chances, don’t you.’

‘I used to think so. It feels like it’s all coming home to roost at the moment.’

‘You and Jules?’

‘Yeah.’

Finally. Well, I say finally, Andrew had only just got here, but I’d been waiting for him to come for days, so I could talk to him about this.

‘What happened, then? Another woman?’

‘No, nothing like that.’

‘Was she playing away?’

‘No. It’s … complicated. Or simple, maybe. My mate had a kid, and I realised I want a family too. Every girl’s dream, right? Captain No Commitment suddenly wants a baby. Except Jules doesn’t. Ever. We didn’t stand a chance after that.’

‘Shit. Harsh. I must say I wouldn’t have seen it coming either, you’ve never seemed particularly family oriented.’

‘It surprised me too. I spent a lot of time convincing myself it was something else – I don’t know, cold feet about moving in together, or overload of baby hormones or some such shit.’

‘What, you moved in with her?’

I’d forgotten that Andrew didn’t know, that no one knew apart from my family.

‘Well technically she moved in with me, but yeah. She’d only been there a week when it all went tits up.’

‘God, Matt. Bit of a turn up for the books for you, isn’t it?’

‘I’ve been trying to clean up my act, be a bit more responsible.’

‘Don’t see the point. You’re only young once.’

‘But I think that’s part of it. I don’t feel young any more. I feel like I’ve been fucking about my entire life, disregarding people’s feelings, and now I’ve worked out what I want, but I’ve still hurt someone I care about.’

Andrew’s expression changed briefly, and some kind of sadness clouded his eyes. Then he hid it and offered to go and fetch more beer.

So that was the subject broached. Andrew hadn’t seemed particularly keen on soul-baring, but he had only just arrived, and maybe we would settle into our old routine of addressing issues through kidding around. My phone pinged with a text just as Andrew returned with the drinks, and I opened up yet another picture of Charlie.

‘Day seven in the Summers-Wright household of no sleep. She certainly can yell.’

Dec had sent it to everyone; he’d probably forgotten that texting me in Egypt would cost me almost as much as it cost him, but I didn’t really begrudge him it, and must have had a daft grin on my face, as Andrew remarked on it.

‘What’s got you all soppy?’

I showed him the picture of Charlie.

‘Jeez, you have got it bad, haven’t you. I remember when Rebecca was that tiny, she was a squealing mound of puke and shitty nappies. Not the most enjoyable time.’

‘Have you managed to see Rebecca since you got back?’

The same cloud I’d seen before creased his forehead.

‘No. Karen won’t talk to me. If I went over there, I don’t think she’d let me see her. It’s killing me, it’s not even like I can talk to her or Skype or anything.’

‘She can’t do that, you’ve got a right to see her.’

‘There’s nothing I can do from home. Until she comes back to the UK, I’m stuck.’

‘Do you think she will?’

‘I don’t bloody know. She’s got me by the bloody short and curlies now we’re divorced. I should have thought it through, but I just felt so fucking guilty I gave her everything she wanted. Anyway, not here to dwell on things that can’t be changed. I was chatting to a couple of girls at the bar, they’re going to a club tonight. Up for it?’

Well I wasn’t, not really, but I made an effort for Andrew, as he was obviously very up for it, and had flown to another continent because I had asked him to. After an hour or so more on the beach, we went back to the hotel for dinner, then downed a few more beers before heading out to the club Andrew had heard about.

It was a revelation, watching him go to work in the sea of dancing women, and I had a disorienting sensation of seeing myself through someone else’s eyes. Andrew did things exactly as I had, honed in on the same type of woman, used the same moves. He left me behind fairly swiftly after arriving, and I sat at the bar and watched his progress. A couple of women came up to me and tried to chat, but I rebuffed them as gently as I could. The whole thing was leaving me cold; I couldn’t believe I’d behaved like this only a year or so ago. Most of the women here were at least ten years younger than Andrew and me, and it felt, well, if not wrong, then slightly creepy. Andrew, with his shaved head, looked somewhat ageless, though, and he had no difficulty finding several dance/drink/smooch partners throughout the night. Eventually he came over, young skinny blonde hanging on his arm.

‘Not joining in Matt?’

‘Just watching tonight.’

‘You’re missing out mate. Me and Jody here are heading off, but Jody’s friend Layla … that’s her in the neon pink bikini top… thinks you’re cute.’

‘Oh. Well, thank your friend, Jody, but if you’re going, I’ll go back too.’

‘No, mate, stay, don’t leave on our account.’

‘I’m a bit tired, bed sounds good.’

‘Don’t I know it.’

Jody giggled.

I stumbled back to the hotel on my own, having left Andrew and Jody behind when they got engrossed in snogging against a wall. I’d had a bit more to drink than I’d intended, but I was happily pissed, not out of my skull, and although it was late, or early, depending on your point of view, I was too drunk to sleep just yet. I pulled my phone out and sent Dec a text, my judgement impaired enough that I didn’t think about waking him, Amy or Charlie up.

‘Hope Charlie’s keepin u on yr toes.’

It didn’t take long for a reply to wing its way expensively back.

‘Thanks 4 that. Just got 2 sleep.’

‘Turn yr fone off then.’

‘Will do now. U OK?’

‘Yeh. Bit pissed. Been 2 club w mate. Weird. Feeling my age.’

‘U should b more careful. Clubbing 4 da youth only. Need 2 talk? Awake now. Again.’

And I did. I suddenly missed home, the ease with which I could connect with people who knew me and cared about me. I called Dec’s name up on the screen and pressed.

‘Hey. This must be costing you a fortune.’

‘Yeah. Too pissed to care.’

‘So you’ve been clubbing, then.’

‘If you can call it that. More like standing at the bar drinking overpriced watered down beer watching my mate work the room, feeling slightly nauseated.’

‘Not much fun then.’

‘Something of an eye-opener, actually. I’ve been a dick in the past, and now I can see Andrew’s being a dick, I’m not sure whether I should tell him.’

‘Would you have listened if someone had told you?’

‘Good point. Not sure I want to spend a week trying not to pick up women, though. Andrew’s pretty full on.’

‘Would it hurt? It’s not like you’re …’

There was a pause while Dec tried to find a diplomatic way to say Jules had dumped me and I was now available.

‘Yeah, I know I’m technically single, but I came out here to get my head straight. I don’t think a shagathon is going to achieve that.’

‘Fair enough. How’s it been going, the getting your head straight?’

‘Well I was kind of hoping Andrew would be helping me out, but it hasn’t worked out like that so far. I’m expecting life, the universe and everything conversations with a bloke who’s only interested in the closest pair of decent tits. Oh maybe I do just need to chill. When the fuck did I turn into Mid-life Crisis Angst Man?’

‘About the time you made an important decision about what you wanted from your mid-life? It’s got to be a lot to get your head around, you’re not going to sort yourself out in a few days, are you. Give yourself a fucking break; you’re there for a holiday with your mate. Enjoy yourself, don’t overthink shit, don’t sit there punishing yourself for shit, but if you don’t want to do what he’s doing, then don’t.’

‘I suppose. Is it selfish to just want things to be how I want them?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Thanks.’

‘You asked. I didn’t say I think there’s anything wrong with being selfish, especially now. You’ve had a fucking nightmare of a week. Take some time to do all the guilt, all the regrets, get pissed, cry if you want, get it all out of your system. Then you’ll have a clearer head to help you decide what you want to do next.’

‘Where does all this wise shit of yours come from? You don’t fancy jetting out here for a few days do you?’

‘Nope, too busy getting no sleep, wiping baby puke off my shoulder and emptying the nappy bin.’

‘Sounds awesome. Seriously though, you sound like you’re enjoying yourself just a little bit.’

‘I am, mate. Charlie’s the best thing that ever happened to me, to us. She’s bloody amazing. Oh, bit of news for you. We’ve found a house.’

‘Dec, sorry to break it to you, but there are houses bloody everywhere. They’re not exactly camouflaged. I can see one or two out of my hotel window. ‘

‘Ha ha. We’re going to move.’

‘Bloody great news. Buying or renting?’

‘Renting to start with, but I think the landlord might sell. Three bedrooms, big garden, Ames loves the kitchen. Fuck, I sound like a bloody grown-up.’

‘Again, sorry to break it to you, mate, but you’ve got a job and a missis and a kid. You’re so a grown-up. Whereas I have only one out of three, and will remain ungrown-up for quite some time the way things are going. Email me the details, yeah?’

‘OK, will do. Or Ames will, not quite sure how to do it.’

‘Oh bloody hell, Dec, you’re bloody hopeless.’

In the background I heard a shrill cry.

‘Bollocks. I’ve woken her up. I’m going to be in the shit now. Better go, Matt, don’t forget, pity party then head space.’

‘Cheers, mate, I fucking love you, man.’

‘Yeah, you’re pissed, have another think about that in the morning.’

As we disconnected and I lay on my bed watching the ceiling gently spinning, waiting to start feeling tired, I thought about the conversation I’d just had with Dec, and suddenly wanted to be at home. I was missing all the excitement with Charlie, I was missing just being there with everyone who I knew so well, and who cared about me, and I was here with Andrew, who was different from how he used to be, and I didn’t want to spend my week here getting to know him. I wanted it to be like it was before, which was bloody stupid; I wasn’t like I was before, and it was about time I started looking forward rather than backwards. If I was missing home so much, I should just change my flight and go back. Before I made a decision, I fell asleep.

I woke up slowly, the dull thump of a hangover beating a slow, steady rhythm behind my eyes. It was light, and late, and I’d missed breakfast, although I wasn’t sure I could have faced it anyway. I usually drank lots of water before sleeping if I’d been on the beer, but with my late night chat with Dec, I’d forgotten, and I was paying now.

Squinting against the sun coming through the uncovered windows, I turned onto my back and waited for the churning to stop. I was still in last night’s clothes, my mouth felt furry and my tongue thick, and I needed to freshen up. Much as I didn’t want to get up and have a shower, a shower was what I needed.

I hauled myself off the bed, breathing in wafts of body odour and stale beer, and stumbled hesitantly to the bathroom, running my hands through my hair. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and quickly looked away to avoid the gaze of the scruffy, pale eighty year old man who seemed to be looking back at me.

A shower invigorated me somewhat, and after I had dried off and dressed, I checked my phone, wondering if Andrew was up and about, or if he was trying to disentangle himself from Jody. There were no messages, so I sent him one.

‘U up yet?’

While I waited for a reply, I thought about my half-made decision to go home early. And I saw what a selfish bastard it would make me, to ask Andrew out here for a week then piss off home because I was a bit homesick and things weren’t going as I’d hoped. It was only a week, wasn’t it, and I hadn’t seen Andrew for years. If I was truly serious about getting my act together and treating people with more respect, I could sodding well start now. I took a paracetamol, straightened my shoulders and waited for Andrew to text me back.

While I waited, I went in search of breakfast. I had missed it in the hotel, but found a small café that served reasonable coffee and baklava, which was as good a breakfast as any. Dec texted half way through.

‘How’s the head?’

‘Getting better. How’s the baby puke?’

‘None so far today. Result. Talked 2 yr mate?’

‘Not yet. Do not disturb on his door.’

‘Enjoy the peace then. Charlie says hi.’

‘Send Charlie my heartfelt greetings. Can’t wait 2 c her. Missing out.’

‘Will send u pics.’

‘Gr8. Thx.’

Dec immediately sent several photos of Charlie, with and without her parents. They all looked so happy and right together, and I guiltily felt another stab of envy. I’d thrown away everything I had with Jules for this, but who knew if I would ever have it? Was it worth it? Couldn’t I have just this once made a decision that was about someone else and not all about me? Isn’t that what you did for people you loved?

And as I thought it, I realised it. I loved Jules. I had tried so hard not to, I’d played along with her ‘no such thing as love’ spiel, I’d told her I didn’t love her as a joke, as well as in all seriousness, so many times. I’d told myself I was never going there again, after Carrie, determined no one was going to get past my defences. None of it was true. I was well and truly in love with her, and I’d tossed it away because of something I wanted. Maybe I would have made the same decision if I’d realised earlier, I’d never know now, but Jules had deserved to know that, and it was unlikely I was going to get the opportunity to tell her. Even wanting to tell her was the act of a selfish bastard. Shit. Fuck. This was going to seriously do my head in. Just as I was reaching a peak of silently berating myself, my phone pinged. It was a text from Andrew.

‘Sorry. L8 nite. Where r u?’

I texted the name of the cafe, and waited for him to arrive. While I waited, I opened a writing app on my phone, and started a letter to Jules. When I’d seen the psychologist, he’d suggested it as a way of organising my thoughts. I didn’t have to send it, but he said it was a way of putting things away that I was getting stuck on.

Thinking about Adam made me remember I had an appointment with him next week sometime that I needed to cancel. Being on holiday was as good an excuse as any, and I quickly rang him. Being on holiday was also a good excuse not to hang about on the phone to make another appointment, and I told him I’d call when I got back, although I had no intention of doing so.

Andrew turned up just as I was disconnecting from Adam. He seemed to have lost a bit of his bounce, which I put down to a late night and lots of cocktails.

‘Hey. Alright?’

He shrugged and sat down.

‘Hanger? I had a monster this morning.’

‘No, not really. Didn’t have a good night.’

‘Oh? It looked like it was going well from where I was standing.’

‘Yeah, well, turns out Jody was underage.’

‘Shit. Did you find out before, or …’

‘Yeah, before, thank Christ. Something she said rang bells, and I counted back, and she couldn’t possibly be twenty like she said.’

‘Fuck, Andrew, even twenty makes you almost old enough –’

‘Yeah, yeah, spare me the sermon. In a few years that might be Rebecca with some dirty old man drooling all over her. I hope he does the decent thing like I did. Shit, I’ve come down to earth a bit this morning.’

He put his elbows on the table and leaned his face into his palms, then looked up, running a hand over his shiny head.

‘I got an email from Rebecca last night. Karen let her use her allocation to contact me. Christ, Matt, I miss them so much. What am I fucking about with all this shit for?’

‘I thought it was over with you and Karen.’

‘It is, our marriage is, because it was what she wanted. I destroyed it when I slept with someone else. But … oh I don’t know, I’m so fucked up. When we did the religion thing, it really changed her. She was so fired up, so passionate about it all, and that was exciting, it was a shot in the arm for us, and that’s what I got swept up in, but for her it changed from passion to almost obsession, and it changed her. She changed too much, for me. I still love who she was, before, but maybe not who she became, after. God didn’t do us many favours, really, the bastard. She’s still Rebecca’s mother, and I miss Rebecca so much. I’m on the same continent – why did I come here on holiday? I should have flown on a bit further and started pounding on their door, trying to see them. But Karen wouldn’t want to see me, I’ve gone back to my heathen ways. It’s such a fucking mess.’

‘You could still get a flight out, couldn’t you?’

‘Yeah, I suppose so, but I don’t think I should just turn up unannounced. And if I reply to Rebecca’s email, they might not get it for months.’

‘Do they really not have phones or anything?’

‘Well there is one in the main office, and field workers have basic ones for safety.’

‘Couldn’t you get a message to her?’

‘Not reliably. Maybe I should start making some plans, though. If I email back with a date, say in three or four months time, email the main office and ask them to pass it on, then I can get my shit together and get out there, try and sort some of it out.’

‘Sounds like a plan.’

‘Sorry, Matt, I know you wanted me out here to cheer you up, and I’ve just dumped a major downer on you.’

‘Cheer me up? I wanted you out here so we could talk, you bloody goon. Is that what all this party animal shit has been about?’

‘Maybe a bit. I have been going over the top recently, back home. Changed my image, liked the response it got, didn’t know when to stop. Acting like a bloody thirty-something adolescent.’

‘Been there, mate. Catches up with you in the end, one way or another.’

‘I guess so. It’s just been … after the last year, finding a way to feel good about myself has been addictive. I’ve always been a bit of a geek, a bit of a Melvin, but with the stress of breaking up with Karen, I lost weight, and needed to buy new clothes, and – do you remember at Uni, being made over by Cindy?’

I nodded. ‘Hard to forget.’

I chose not to remind Andrew that I’d slept with his girlfriend moments after being made over by her myself.

‘Well I remembered how that felt, what a boost it gave me, and I had another go, and it bloody well worked. I had half the admin team at Eyeti swooning.’

‘Half? There are only three, aren’t there?’

‘Yeah, well, technically, you’ve got me there. But you know what I mean. It’s heady. Especially when you feel a bit past it, and your wife doesn’t want you anymore.’

‘Or especially when you’ve just recovered from a shitty disease and moved to a new city. I know exactly where you’re coming from. Mate, you haven’t done anything wrong. Fuck, who would I be to judge anyway, I’ve been doing the same shit since I moved away from Stafford. But I’ve had enough now, it’s affecting people I care about, and I’m trying not to be such a bastard.’

We continued comparing ageing bastard notes for a long time. Our experiences were so different, but our behaviour so similar, that we helped each other work a lot of it out. We had both been responding to major setbacks; mine were being ill and being dumped, his were leaving his wife and daughter in a country thousands of miles away. We had both needed to feel a) important and b) in control. We had both gone about it in the same way, and had come to the same conclusion, that using people to feel better about yourself wasn’t really a satisfactory method of dealing with your shit.

Andrew decided that he would try to contact Karen while he was here, just in case there was any chance he could fly on before going back to Stafford.

I decided to finish my letter to Jules; I still didn’t know if I was going to send it to her or not, but a lot of it was an apology, and I wanted to give her that at least.

So eventually I got what I wanted, after a bit of a false start. Andrew was different; his experiences over the past few years had changed him, as I suppose mine had changed me. But in the end I felt as at ease with him as I had through school, Uni and beyond, and we spent the next few days either on the beach or wandering around various nearby tourist spots, chilling, chatting, arsing about when the mood took us.

We were watching the sunset, having a couple of beers, when Andrew’s phone rang. He looked at the screen and frowned, but answered.

‘Andrew Distock … oh, hey … yeah … really? … yeah, I could be there tomorrow, I’m in Egypt at the moment … on holiday, with Matt … ha ha, no, nothing like that, we’re a couple of pensioners really … yeah, I’ll get on it now, book a flight, I’ll let you know … no, don’t worry, I’ll hire a car or something … I really want to see her too, I’ve missed you both. Are you sure it’s OK? … great. Thanks, Karen. It means a lot … I know … we’ll talk, yeah? … no, I know, I’m not expecting anything, I just want to see Rebecca … OK. Well, hopefully I’ll see you tomorrow then … yeah, will do … bye.’

He disconnected and looked at me, fear and excitement mingling on his face.

‘Did you get that?’

‘Yeah, you’re deserting me.’

I put on a pout.

‘Too bloody right. You’re a miserable git, I’ve had a rubbish time and I’ll be glad to see the back of you.’

He raised an eyebrow and grinned, to show that what he actually meant was ‘I’m sorry I’m running out on you’.

‘Sod off back to your bloody family, then, you inconsiderate bastard.’

I grinned back to show him I was pleased for him – bloke speak for ‘I’m really glad you’ve sorted your life out a bit, and I’m happy for you but will miss your company’.

So the next morning I drove Andrew to the airport and waved him off to start a new page in his life-story. Then I drove back and kicked my heels at the resort, wondering what to do next. I started another book, but it didn’t grab my attention, and I found my mind wandering as I read and re-read the same few pages. I was thinking about the same few things, going over them, and in the end I decided to ditch the book and just write a list, as if I was going shopping for ingredients for a scrumptious ‘Matt’s Perfect Life’ cake.

My list included: Leave the past and all its shit behind, and stop letting it influence me in the here and now.

Make peace with Jules, if at all possible.

Be the best uncle I can be to the awesome children already in my life.

Be a sensible, mature grown up.

Be nice to my awesome family.

Find the perfect woman.

Have perfect children.

Get real about the last three, Matt, no make that four.

Well, it was a bit of a fantasy list. You have to have something to aim for, don’t you?

And then Dec bombarded me with tons of pictures and video of Charlie, and it made me really homesick. So I changed my flight, managed to wangle a refund on my room, and flew home early.

29. Anticipation

In which it is Christmas Eve and fever pitch is approached from several angles.

Matt

The next day began much as the others had, with Jay coming in, helping me to eat breakfast, drink some tea and then drink some of the ghastly build-up drink. Then it was time for the loo. My exciting life was the envy of all.

I could get myself out of bed and into my wheelchair without help these days, I was such an elite athlete, and on good days I could just about wipe my own arse and get myself back in my chair. Still didn’t have the energy to propel the wheelchair across the two metres of carpet to the bathroom though.

There was a shower in the bathroom, but it wasn’t a wet room; I was a long way away from being able to get into the cubicle and have a really good scrub, and I felt dirty, soiled, grimy. Jay had to give me a wash every day, although I did as much as I could with the bits I could reach. Often a shave was beyond my strength, and I convinced myself the stubble made me look dangerous, rather than how it actually made me look, which was like I was auditioning to sell the Big Issue.

That morning I managed a lot for myself, taking the flannel out of Jay’s hand at one point as he started to rub it over my face.

‘I cahn duh ih, thahks.’

‘Right you are, mate. Sorry, wasn’t concentrating, I’m used to doing it with Cal.’

Yeah, Jay, that made me feel tons better. But maybe he had things on his mind.

‘Tehnager trauhmas?’

‘Ha ha, no, everything’s working out OK so far. He’s still in bed, not that I’m surprised, he spends most of his life in bed.’

I could relate to that – maybe we had more in common than I realised.

‘Tahked tuh him yeht?’

‘No. Later today, maybe.’

Jay seemed reluctant, and I wondered how long he was going to put off having his serious conversation with Dec.

‘Dohnt lehv ih too lohng.’

‘Yeah yeah, don’t go on, already got Beth giving it all the ‘don’t put it off, it’ll spoil Christmas’ shit. Don’t need you nagging me too.’

It felt good to nag him, I didn’t have much opportunity to get my own back these days, but I shrugged and handed him the flannel.

‘You look like you’ve put on a bit of weight, mate.’

I looked up in pleased surprise.

‘Rehly?’

‘Yeah, a bit. Still look like an anorexic scarecrow, but it’s good to see. You still planning to do Christmas dinner tomorrow?’

Having Christmas dinner at the table with everyone else had become the focus for me of the last week. I hadn’t been ‘out’ to the rest of the house since I’d been here, and now I could sit out in the chair for a little while, I really wanted to join in with the festivities, rather than hear it all going on while I listened from my room.

I’d told Beth my plan, and she’d initially demurred, saying I wasn’t strong enough, but I badgered her, told her how good it would be for me, promised to rest between now and then, eat what they put in front of me, drink my disgusting build-up drinks, be a good boy, and eventually she gave in. I had no idea how long I would last, maybe not beyond the turkey being carved, but making the effort was important to me.

‘Yeh.’

‘Glad to hear it. Family Christmas, yeah?’

‘Yeh.’

‘Mum’ll be here soon. She called last night, all in a dither about something or other, did we want her to come early.’

‘Yeh?’

‘She had that thing at her friend’s, drinks thing, I said I’d go and get her if she wanted, but she chose the drink over us.’

‘Typihcal.’

‘Be prepared for a full on mothering assault.’

‘Dohnt mihnd.’

And I didn’t. Of all the people who fussed about and told me what to do, Mum was the one I was least resentful of. Not that I enjoyed it, but I knew how worried she was about me, and how traumatised she’d been by finding me half-dead on my bathroom floor. She didn’t come and see me every day, but three or four times a week she got the bus over, so she could sit and look and sigh.

‘You have been warned.’

Cal

I didn’t wake up until Mum came in to get me up and ask what I wanted for breakfast.

Dec was still asleep when I went downstairs, and he stayed asleep for hours. He always used to be asleep for hours, when he wasn’t doing training or playing in a rugby game, so although I was a bit disappointed he wasn’t playing with me, I wasn’t surprised.

After a while, Mum looked at the clock, tutted, and went up the stairs. I followed her, and she tapped on my bedroom door.

Dec

I must have fallen asleep for a while, because I woke up on my own, still up against the wall, with a stiff neck. It was light outside, and I could hear voices from downstairs. I should really get up. Before long, there was a tap on the door.

_Dec, are you awake in there?

‘Mm.’

_Just wondered if you want any breakfast? Only it’s getting on a bit.

‘What time is it?’

_Eleven thirty.

I couldn’t believe I had slept away my first morning here with them.

‘Shit.’

_Yeah, Cal’s right behind me here.

‘Sorry, yeah, I didn’t realise the time. I’ll get up now.’

_We need to do your dressings sometime today.

‘Yeah, sorry Beth, I meant to get up, I just went back to sleep.’

_Don’t worry, sweetheart. So, breakfast or not?

‘I’ll grab something quick in a minute shall I?’

_OK. Just so you know, James’s mum’s here.

‘Thanks for the warning, no wandering down in my boxers then.’

_If you could avoid it; I don’t think she’s ever forgotten that incident.

I had met Jay’s mum many times on her visits to Jay and Beth. I used to sleep on Cal’s floor so she could use my room, but when Jay and Beth had the conservatory built, they used it as a guest room, so when she stayed I had forgotten she was there. I had met her at the bottom of the stairs, bleary with sleep, wearing only my boxers which I quickly realised from the shocked direction of her gaze were gaping rather revealingly. Jay hadn’t let me forget that one for some time.

‘Be down in a minute.’

I dressed quickly, spraying deodorant in lieu of a proper wash, as I’d got used to doing recently. I really hadn’t meant to sleep in for so long, but Cal’s night time visit had stopped me sleeping properly and I must have been catching up.

Cal

I went downstairs to wait for Dec in the kitchen. I’d been playing in Uncle Matty’s room, but I knew Dec would get his breakfast first, because he always did. Granny had come earlier, and she and Mum were doing cooking. The table was a bit messy, but there was room for my dinosaurs to make footprints in the flour while I waited for Dec.

Dec wasn’t long, and I stared when he came in. His hair was all short! Yesterday, his hair had been long, and like a girl, and now it was short and spiky. I hadn’t noticed when he was in bed, because it was dark. I looked at him now, as he talked to Mum and got his breakfast, but then he took his cup and his plate into Uncle Matty’s room, so I picked up my dinosaurs and followed him.

Dec

Downstairs, the kitchen was busy. Beth was peeling vegetables, Jay’s mum had an apron on and she was doing something with flour in a bowl. Could have been making pastry, I’d never been that knowledgeable about things that went on in the kitchen. Cal was sitting at the table, playing with dinosaurs. There was a radio on, playing a cheesy Christmas song. Oh yeah, it was Christmas Eve. I kept forgetting.

‘Hi Mrs Scott.’

#Declan. How are you?

It wasn’t a warm welcome. I sensed disapproval. Maybe I was being over-sensitive.

‘I’m good thanks. You?’

#I’m well, thank you.

‘It’s busy in here.’

_Lucky for you, you didn’t get up sooner, we’d have put you to work spud bashing.

‘Can I do anything now?’

_No, sweetheart, I was teasing. It would seem a bit strange to have you helping out voluntarily, not like old times at all. We’ve got it covered. Actually, though, tell you what you could do later, there are some things we need to do without a certain someone in attendance, and if you could go out with Cal for a bit after lunch that would be great.

‘Consider it done.’

_Kettle’s on, cup of tea? James is in with Matty.

‘I can do it. Anyone else?’

I made my tea and took it in to Matt’s room, only realising afterwards how easily I had lifted and poured everything. From the toys scattered on the floor, it looked like Cal had already been busy.

Matt

Jay helped me get dressed and was adjusting the bed when Dec walked in holding a mug. At least I assumed it was Dec. The long unkempt hair had disappeared, swallowed up overnight and replaced by a short, spiky haircut that had been messily arranged to hide the scar disappearing into his scalp. The nose was still obviously askew, and he needed to ditch the forlorn crop of straggly bum-fluff asap, but there was only so much a haircut could patch up.

He smiled at us.

‘Morning.’

Jay looked pointedly at his watch.

Well just about – bloody hell, where did all the girly hair go?’

‘Beth gave it a trim last night.’

Beth fancied herself as a bit of a hairdresser, and was always grabbing the scissors and snipping bits off Jay’s and Cal’s locks, whether they wanted it or not. To be fair, Cal had blond ringlets that would be the envy of many a fairy princess, and his hair needed a bit of taming now and then, but Jay had pretty standard mid-brown slightly wavy hair, and he put up with the fiddling with more patience than I would have given him credit for.

Beth had cut my hair shortly after coming out of hospital, as it had got so overgrown that it was either that or call in the dog groomers, but never again. Not that she did a bad job, really, but I’d got used to Becky, the girl who did my hair at Classy Cuts in Stafford city centre, and Beth twittered far too much, and didn’t ask about my holidays, and there was altogether too much fannying about and shit. Ugh. Anyway, she had managed to turn the kid into a half-decent looking human being rather than a two-legged afghan hound, so I suppose she deserved credit for that.

‘Much better. I see your sleeping habits haven’t changed much.’

‘Had a late night visit from Cal.’

Ah, let me guess, he persuaded you to let him get in your bed and you spent the rest of the night with no room while he slept like a log.’

‘Pretty much.’

Well you’ll know next time. We don’t let him in anymore.’

‘He said you – oh.’

It was entertaining to see the realisation cross Dec’s face that he had fallen for the oldest trick in the book, the ‘my mum and dad let me’ trick.

Yeah, you’ve been Cal-ed. You’re out of practice, mate.’

Dec laughed. ‘I guess I am a bit. Hi Matt.’

The hint of banter that had begun yesterday felt like it needed a boost.

‘Mohning – ahftenohn?’ I raised an eyebrow.

Dec grinned and took the baton.

‘Yeah, whatever. Don’t you start, I thought us cripples were sticking together.’

‘Fuck ohf.’

I grinned too, enjoying myself.

‘Fuck right back off.’

His grin widened, and it was so great to hear someone telling me to fuck off, even if it was a joke; everyone was nice to me, even when I was being an annoying git, even Jay, who took less of my shit than most.

That’s what I like to see, a bit of Cripples Corner team spirit. Keep the morale up, boys. Oh, hi Cal.’

None of us had seen Cal sidle into the room, eyes wide at the amount of forbidden words that had just been uttered in the house.

Cal

It was just as well it was me and not Mum who had been listening from the hallway. She would have said ‘honestly’ to all of them. I giggled to myself, and Dad looked round and saw me.

‘Daddy, you just –’

Shh, I know, won’t happen again. Let’s have a look at this Lego here, shall we?’

I loved it when Dad played with me, he was really good at building things and remembered how to make a spaceship without reading the structions. I had a really good game going, so we both knelt on the floor and started building while Dec talked to Uncle Matty.

Matt

I looked up at Dec, who was biting his lip and looked pensive.

‘He’s in trohbl now. Cal alwahs tells.’

‘We probably are too, then.’

‘Noh, crihpls privileges.’

It felt like I had an ally. Like a naughty school friend who, with a bit of encouragement, might help me put itching powder on the teacher’s chair or switch the sugar for salt. It felt good, kind of like things didn’t always have to be so bloody serious any more.

Jay looked up from Cal’s cars.

Guys, you’re not helping. ‘

I laughed, but something went the wrong way, and fuck fuck fuck I started to cough, and then I couldn’t stop, and I was choking, gasping for breath, unable to suck enough into my lungs before the next cough tried to force itself out. Jay was instantly by my side, and I distantly heard Dec and Cal leave pretty sharpish.

Dec

łShit. Dec, can you take Cal for some squash in the kitchen? I just need to help Matty a minute.

I herded Cal out, the coughing and gasping sounding behind us. The kitchen was full of noise and activity. Something was steaming on the hob, the radio was still on, and something was being done with – I’d been right – pastry. Beth looked up.

_Everything OK?

\i’m having some squash.

‘Jay’s helping Matt – he’s having a bit of a cough.’

_Ohh, does he need any help?

‘He didn’t say.’

_I’d better go and see.

She washed her hands and hurried out.

‘OK, Cal, where’s the squash?’

\that cupboard. I want purple.

‘You’d like purple, please, is that what you said?’

\purple please.

I poured out the squash, filled up the glass and gave it to Cal, who sat at the table to drink it.

‘Can I get you anything, Mrs Scott? I might do another cup of tea.’

#Actually that would be nice. It’s been a busy morning so far.

I made the tea and put a mug in front of her, again feeling pretty pleased with how well I was managing with lifting the kettle and pouring the large milk bottle.

‘What’s that you’re making?’

#Mince pies. I brought some with me but we thought we’d do a few more. Matthew really likes them, it’s a good way of bulking him up a bit.

_Beth’s mince pies are great – er, I’m sure yours are too.

There was an awkward pause.

#You look like you’ve been in the wars. Jameson said you were in a fight?

I sensed more disapproval.

‘Well, no, not a fight exactly, I was on the wrong end of a kicking. Didn’t know much about it till I woke up in hospital.’

#You’re still recovering are you?

‘Yeah, had to have an operation, but it’s all going to plan I think.’

#Jameson and Beth were pleased you could come for Christmas.

It seemed obvious but unspoken, however, that she wasn’t that pleased.

‘It’s great to see them, and Cal. I’ve really missed them.’

#They’ve had a hard time over the last few months.

‘I know. I regret everything I’ve done that’s made it harder for them.’

I was very aware of Cal’s small ears listening while he played with his dinosaurs.

#You won’t upset them again, will you?

‘No.’

Cal

Granny wasn’t being very friendly to Dec. Granny was better than Mum and Dad at not saying things she didn’t want me to hear, but I’d heard her call Dec ‘that boy’ a few times, and she hadn’t looked very pleased when I’d told her Dec was coming for Christmas. Now she was using her ‘telling off’ voice, although Dec didn’t look like he thought he was being told off, at least not like he used to when Mum did it.

I didn’t want Dec to be told off, so I thought of something I could ask Granny, even though I knew the answer.

‘Granny where is your bed?’

I knew exactly where Granny’s bed was; it was in the spare room, where it always was.

Dec

Jay’s mum held my gaze while she answered Cal. I looked back at her and nodded. It was an acknowledgement and a promise.

Cal

‘It’s in the spare room, dear.’

Granny didn’t look at me while she answered, she was looking at Dec, as if she was saying one thing to him with her eyes and another thing to me with her mouth. Dec nodded, as if he was agreeing with her, and then she looked at me.

‘Will Santa know you’re here and not at home?’

‘Yes, dear, he knows where everyone is. He knows Declan’s here too.’

Granny always called people by their full names. She called me Calum, and Dad Jameson, and Dec Declan and Uncle Matty Matthew.

‘Dec probably told him – he can talk to Santa.’

I’d spotted an opportunity to put Dec in Granny’s good books. She couldn’t be cross with someone who could talk to Santa – it could make a big difference to how many presents you got.

Dec shrugged. I suppose it wasn’t polite to boast about it, although Granny didn’t look as impressed as I’d thought she would.

Dec

I shrugged with a modest smile.

#Oh, well that’s alright then. Calum, what are you having for your lunch? How about some beans on toast?

\kay. Can Dec share my beans?

‘How about I make it, eh, Cal? Remember woossy beans?’

Cal

‘Woossy beans! Can we have woossy beans?’

Woossy beans was my and Dec’s favourite thing when he was looking after me. It was beans on toast with woosser sauce in it, and we both said it was the finest lunch. Mum had tried to make it, but it never tasted the same as when Dec did it.

‘I’ll check in the cupboard – any idea where Worcester sauce might be, Mrs Scott?’

Matt

Then, while I was struggling to pull in the tiniest amount of useful breath and largely failing, Beth came in, and started rubbing my back while Jay filled a bowl with hot water and menthol, and put it under my nose. None of it ever worked, the coughing had always stopped on its own eventually, but just having them there calmed me, because when it happened, it felt like I was going to die, that I would never catch my breath again, that my insides were trying to hurl themselves out via my windpipe. But Beth knew how to offer soothing, comforting words, and whether they needed to call someone, and Jay – well, Jay was pretty useless, really, but he’d never leave until it was all over and he knew I was OK. Part of me wondered if he was waiting for an opportunity to chuck me over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift so he could show off his strength, but that hadn’t been necessary so far and I was damned if I was going to give him the satisfaction – and then it stopped.

I gradually got more and more air inside me and the need to manually haul each breath in subsided; an extreme lethargy swept over me and took me down and I was asleep before they’d laid me down and put the duvet over me.

Cal

Granny opened the cupboards and tried to find the woosser sauce, but she still wasn’t having much luck when Mum came back in. Granny stopped looking so she could ask Mum how Uncle Matty was. I thought it was obvious that Uncle Matty was alright, otherwise Mum wouldn’t have come back in the kitchen, but I didn’t say this out loud.

Mum told Granny that Uncle Matty was asleep now, and asked what she was looking for in the cupboards.

‘Worcester sauce. For Cal’s lunch.’

Mum looked like she was going to say I didn’t like woosser sauce, then she thought about it, and I saw her remember that I only liked it in beans.

‘Ohh, woossy beans! You haven’t had that for ages, Cal.’

‘Dec’s making it for me.’

‘Are you sure you can manage, Dec?’

‘I’ll give it a go. Everything’s working much better now. I may need a hand to spread the butter, oh and possibly to open the tin.’

I kept forgetting that Dec had hurt arms. I could see he had a hurt face, but his arms seemed the same as normal until he couldn’t break apart the small Lego, or he couldn’t lean down on them for as long as he usually did.

Dec

We made the woossy beans on toast together, Cal and I ate it, then we got ready to go out. Beth had suggested the local garden centre, which was just down the road, and had lots of Christmas decorations, lights, and most importantly a Santa’s Grotto.

_You might not get in, but it’s worth a shot. Don’t promise Cal, though, in case it doesn’t happen.

It showed how much of Beth’s trust I had lost that she felt she needed to tell me how to be around Cal. It was a reminder of how much I had to do to prove myself to them.

_Can you ring me when you’re on your way back, give us a bit of warning?

‘Haven’t got a phone.’

_Oh, of course not, sorry, we haven’t – no, I forgot. Take mine, the number’s under ‘Home’.

Beth sounded like she had started to say something and then changed her mind. She had probably remembered what happened to my phone and was being considerate.

She gave me some money, just in case we got in to see Santa, which I really didn’t want, but I hadn’t got my new bank card yet, so I still had no cash. Not that there was anything in my bank account any more. So I had to accept Beth’s money. We walked along the path, Cal holding tightly onto my hand, chattering all the way.

We spent a long time at the garden centre looking at all the sparkle. There were loads of people there, and it was bustling and noisy. There was a long queue for Santa, so I asked Cal if he wanted to wait, it looked like at least forty-five minutes to me. He was keen, with conditions.

\can I have a slushie?

Cal

After lunch, which was the best woossy beans I’d ever had, Dec took me to the garden centre, which was just down the road. There were lots of Christmas trees and fairy lights, and a giant reindeer made out of sticks, and the most ginormous tree, even more ginormous than ours. Dec and I walked around looking at everything, and then we saw Santa’s Grotto, and I wanted to see Santa. Because it was Christmas Eve, there were lots of people, and lots of other children wanted to see Santa, so there was a line, and Dec said it would be a long time to wait, but he would buy me a slushie and wait with me.

While we waited, we started a story. It was one of our stories like we used to do on Sunday afternoons when it was raining, and I wanted to go to the park but the swings would be all wet. How it worked was, we had to make everything we saw go in the story. There was a lot to see while we were waiting in the line for Santa; when we first stood in the line, we were near a giant animaltronic Santa, which wasn’t as good as the animaltronic Tyrannosaurus Rex was going to be at Dinosaurland, because the Santa was just waving his arm and turning his head, but he was the first thing to go in our story, because I started. We decided that Santa needed a sleigh, so we looked around to see something that he would be able to use. At first we didn’t see anything, and then Dec said:

‘Oh, you know what, Cal, I bet Santa’s sleigh is like a Transformer. I bet it kind of looks like one thing most of the year, and then on Christmas Eve, when he needs it, he presses a button, and it turns into his sleigh.’

This sounded like the best thing about Christmas I’d ever heard.

‘Yeah, I bet Santa’s sleigh is a dinosaur the rest of the year.’

‘I bet it is. I bet it’s a dinosaur made out of … er …’

Dec looked around, trying to find something like the rules of the story said.

‘Out of shovels, which stick up for spines on his back, and big hammers for his feet …’

‘And his eyes are torches, and when he changes into the sleigh, his eyes are the headlights.’

‘Good thinking Batman. And if it’s really snowy, he can use the shovels to dig a path.’

We carried on thinking about the story all the way in the line to Santa, and I had a really happy feeling inside, because I was with Dec and we were doing things like we used to, and it didn’t seem like we waited a long time at all before we were at the front, and a bit of me was disappointed because we were going to have to stop our story, and I knew that stories like that were never as good when you started them again, but most of me really wanted to see Santa so I could check about the things on my list.

I knew that this Santa wasn’t the real Santa, he would be one of his helpers just dressed up like Santa, but he would know what was on the list I sent him, and he would probably know Dec as well.

Dec

Cal was so creative and he sparked my imagination; I’d missed being with him loads, and was really enjoying getting reacquainted. We were soon at the front of the queue, Cal by now very excited. When it was his turn, he ran over to Santa and jumped up onto his knee.

*Hello young man, what’s your name?

\calum. Are you really Santa, or a helper?

*Well, I’m real and a helper. The real real Santa is coming tonight with your toys.

\did Dec ask him about Optimus Prime?

‘You know I did Cal, it’s all sorted.’

*Yes, I believe it’s all on the list?

Santa looked at me, did a slight double take presumably at my scars and bruises. I nodded.

\what about a Arsenal shirt?

Another look from Santa. I shrugged. Optimus Prime was as far as my Santa knowledge went.

*You’ll have to wait and see. It’s nice to have surprises, isn’t it?

Cal

I nearly said that it’s only nice if you get what you want and not if you don’t, but I was trying to be good and not mind too much if I didn’t have an Arsenal shirt because some children in Africa don’t even know Arsenal.

Dec

Cal continued to grill Santa.

\will Dec get a stocking?

Another shrug from me. An exasperated look from Santa behind his beard and glasses.

Cal

I asked if Dec would have a stocking, because he didn’t used to, but I didn’t know if this year was different, because it felt a bit different, and Santa said he would if he’d been good boy. I wasn’t sure if Dec had been a good boy, with him stealing and lying and making Mum and Dad cross, so I didn’t say anything else, and thought I might share some of my toys with Dec if he’d been too bad to have any of his own.

And then Santa said I could choose a present for today, from his lucky dip sack. There were lots of presents to choose from, but because they were all wrapped up, I couldn’t tell what they were. I looked at them, trying to decide whether I wanted the biggest, the smallest, or one that looked interesting. In the end I saw one that wasn’t big, or small, or flat and square like a colouring book, but was lumpy and hard when I squished it. I tore the paper off, and it was a dinosaur, but not one that I knew. It had its mouth open, and pointy white teeth, and a button that made its eyes flash red and a roar come out of its mouth. I showed Dec, who smiled at Santa, and made me say thank you.

Dec

Beth was just clearing away wrapping paper and sellotape when we arrived back. Cal didn’t notice, he was so intent on showing off his dinosaur.

\look what Santa gived me.

_Ooh, didn’t you do well. Did you have a nice time with Dec?

\we did a story about a dinosaur Transformer who was made of shovels and turned into Santa’s sleigh.

_Well it’s original. You’ll have to tell us that one, Dec, in case we’re asked for it again in the near future.

\can I show Uncle Matty my dinosaur?

_No, sweetheart, Uncle Matty’s still asleep. Play with Dec in the living room for now.

She looked at me to check.

‘Yeah, come on Cal, didn’t I see Jenga in your room?

\yes … but I’ve got Whirly Racers too.

‘Whirly Racers it is, go and fetch it.’

He ran out of the room to fetch his game.

_Thanks, Dec.

I shrugged, smiled and followed Cal. As I walked out I heard

_See? He’s so good with him.

#I do see that. He reminded Calum of his manners earlier. They seem very fond of each other.

We spent a lot of time racing small cars on the living room floor. Cal gave me the worst cars, so he won most of the time. He seemed very pleased with himself, whether because of his victories or his strategy I wasn’t sure. Half way through the afternoon, Beth came in with a bag.

_We need to do your dressings, Dec. Cal, go and sit with granny for a bit. She’s in the kitchen.

\oh but I want to watch.

Beth looked at me.

‘It’s fine, I don’t think it’s too gruesome.’

_Alright, then, stay for now but you go when I say, OK?

\kay Mummy.

I took my shirt off and Beth started to unwind the bandages that held the dressings in place, looking like she knew what she was doing – of course! She’d been a nurse, many years ago before she had Cal.

‘You’re good at this.’

_Don’t sound so surprised, it was my job.

‘I know, I just remembered.’

_It’s one of the things that made it easier to decide to look after Matty. I’ve seen it all before, I know how to do things, some idea about medication, when to call a doctor, all that stuff.

She carried on taking the dressings off, cleaning the scars with some fluid and cotton wool.

_These look pretty good, the stitches have nearly gone, there’s no swelling, no leakage. I think this could be your last dressing, Dec.

Cal had been watching intently, looking slightly disappointed that there wasn’t more blood.

\where does the sewing go?

_They’re special stitches that melt away after a while, so Dec doesn’t have to get the doctor to take them out. Is that what happened with the stitches in your face, Dec?

‘No, they took those out, and the ones in my back and legs. I had it done on Monday.’

Beth started putting new dressings on, and wound new bandages round them to hold them in place.

\mummy, can I have a bandage?

Cal

Mum never let me have plasters unless I really had a cut, but this time she looked at me and smiled.

‘How about a little tiny one on your finger?’

‘Kay.’

I held out my finger and Mum tied a bandage on the end of it. I held it up so Dec could see.

‘I can be in Cripples Corner now.’

I thought it would be alright to say it now I had a bandage. I was wrong.

Dec tried not to laugh, but Mum got cross.

‘Cal, remember what I said about not repeating everything Daddy says?’

‘But Dec and Uncle Matty say it too. It sounds funny.’

And it really wasn’t fair that everyone else was allowed to say it and I wasn’t.

‘Yes, I know, sweetheart, but it’s not, it’s not a nice word.’

‘Is it a swear?’

‘No, not a swear, but something I don’t want to hear you saying.’

‘Sorry, Cal, my fault mate. Let’s agree not to say it, if it upsets Mummy, yeah?’

That was a bit annoying. I wished I hadn’t said anything, because now nobody was allowed to say it.

‘Kay.’

‘Thanks, Dec. Right, I think that’s you all done.’

‘Nice job. Very professional. Good, eh, Cal? Bandage brothers, that’s what they’ll call us.’

‘Yeah, bandage brothers.’

I loved the name. And it sparked something off in my mind that Mum and Dad had talked about a while ago, about choosing a brother. If I could choose anyone for my brother, I’d choose Dec.

‘Dec, are you my new brother?’

‘What?’

Dec looked confused. Maybe I’d got it wrong. But Dec didn’t have a mummy and daddy, I was pretty sure of it, and if Mum and Dad wanted to give a me new brother, it just made sense to have Dec – he already did all the things brothers were supposed to do, like playing with me, and wrestling with me, and knowing which was a stegosaurus and which was a triceratops. And we already knew him. Then I saw Mum look at me and shake her head.

‘Cal –’

‘But Mummy, you said I might be having a new brother –’

‘Cal! I also said it was a secret.’

Well now I was really confused. If I could choose Dec as my brother, surely he’d have to know the secret too? I decided not to say anything else about it, because it just seemed to get me into trouble, even when it all made perfect sense.

Dec

I was a bit slow, but got there in the end.

‘Beth!’

She sighed and rolled her eyes.

_Yes, well now you know. But Carol doesn’t know yet, it’s very early days. I should have known big-mouth here would spill the beans, he heard me and James talking and worked it out. I suppose we’ll have to tell her now. God, she’ll never forgive me for you knowing before her.

‘Knowing what? Never heard a word. Congratulations for nothing, by the way. Wow.’

_Thanks, Dec.

She gave me a big, tired smile, patted me on her perfectly executed bandages, and left me to more Whirly Racing with Cal. I wondered briefly whether Beth’s news would change anything, but it was just one more thing I had no control over, and things had already changed beyond recognition anyway, so I hardly thought about it again.

Cal

So now Dec and I knew a secret together, and that felt better. Mum smiled at us, and then left us to get on with more Whirly Races.

Uncle Matty was asleep all the afternoon, and Dad was in his room, watching in case he coughed again or got more poorly, so Dec and I played and talked and fed Percy and made up more stories. The stories were mostly about Christmas, because Christmas was tomorrow, and I couldn’t think about much else.

At dinner time, Dad came out of Uncle Matty’s room, and Granny went in instead. They could have put the speaker on to hear for coughing, but when Uncle Matty had coughed a lot, they were all worried about him, and wanted to be near him, and wanted him to be in the quiet, so I couldn’t play in there.

Dec

The afternoon wore on, grew dark and became Christmas Eve proper. Cal got more and more excited, talking nineteen to the dozen about Santa, stockings and presents. Jay, who had been sitting with a sleeping Matt most of the afternoon, emerged for dinner looking tired. His mum went to sit in while Jay ate. Beth rubbed his shoulder.

_How’s he doing?

łStill sleeping it off. He’ll be OK, I think. He’s got some of the colour back in his cheeks. He wants to join in tomorrow so much, he needs to rest up. Jesus, Beth, I hate it when that happens. He can’t get his breath, you can just see it sucking his strength, right before your eyes.

_I know, it’s horrible. You were great.

łSorry, Dec, we’ve left you with Cal all day.

‘I’ve had a great time. Been exploring my inner six-year-old.’

_Oh, James, just to warn you, Cal told Dec our news.

łOur news? Oh. Shit.

Cal, wisely, didn’t comment on this particular swear and carried on eating his dinner as if butter wouldn’t melt. Jay put his face in his hands and breathed in deeply.

łWe’re going to have to tell Mum, now, aren’t we. And then your mum, and oh God, everyone. So much for keeping it quiet.

Beth nodded.

_Can’t be helped. Nice Christmas present?

łYeah, think positive.

He kissed her on the cheek, looked at me and winked.

Cal

Mum told Dad that I’d let Dec know the secret – Dad said a swear, but Mum didn’t say ‘James honestly’, and Dad winked at Dec, so I thought it might be OK. Dad said they’d have to tell Granny, so it wouldn’t be a secret for much longer, and I was glad because sometimes it was hard to remember not to say things until I’d said them and it was too late.

Then Dad did the list at me, the one about going to bed. He did the list because I would sometimes try to do lots of other things before I went to bed, and the list meant I couldn’t, I could only do what was on the list.

So, Cal, after dinner it’s bath, PJs, story, bed. No arguing, no slow-coaching. OK?’

‘Kay Daddy.’

There wasn’t much room for slow-coaching if Dad followed the list, but I could at least take a long time over eating my dinner, and see if I could hear Mum and Dad saying anything interesting to Dec.

‘James, me and your mum are going to sit with Matty once Cal’s in bed. You and Dec could use the living room …’

For?’

‘Well, I know you wanted to have a talk with Dec.’

Dec

łOh, our deep and meaningful. Jesus. Sorry, Dec, not very subtle. Up for it?

‘Sure.’

It was one of the things I’d been dreading since arriving. Sorting things out with Jay was going to be painful, and bring up a lot of things I’d prefer remained buried, and a part of me worried that I’d fucked some things up so much they couldn’t be sorted or explained or forgiven. But it needed doing, and avoiding it wouldn’t make it any easier later on.

\daddy, what’s deep pan meanyful? Is it pizza?

Jay laughed out loud.

łNo Cal, it’s not pizza. I kind of wish it was.

_Daddy means him and Dec are going to talk for a while after you’ve gone to bed.

\can’t I stay and listen?

_No, sweetheart, you need to go to bed and sleep so Santa can bring your presents.

łCal, remember the list – bath, PJs, story, bed. No deep pan meanyful on the list.

\kay, Daddy.

Cal

Dad reminded me about the list, which didn’t have listening to talking, or pizza, on it anywhere, worse luck.

Dec

Cal prolonged finishing his dinner longer than I thought humanly possible – he really was an expert in avoiding going to bed. When he finally conceded that he had finished, Jay took him upstairs for a bath.

Cal

After dinner, Dad took me for a bath, and we put loads of bubbles in it and played with my submarine for ages. Dad put bubbles on my head like white hair, and put some on his chin, like a Santa beard, and it was funny.

When the water started to get cold, I got out of the bath and dried in the towel, then got my Christmas PJs on, the ones with snowflakes and Christmas trees. I’d worn them every weekend since the beginning of December, and now it was Christmas Eve, so it was definitely a good time to wear them.

Dec

Beth and I sat in the living room, watching a soppy Christmas film on TV. It might have been Love Actually, I obviously had no interest in such slushy nonsense. Jay’s mum was still sitting with Matt. In a break from the romantic traumas of Hugh Grant, I decided to check about my role on Christmas Day.

‘What’s the drill for tomorrow?’

_Not sure there’s a drill, sweetheart, we’ll just see how it goes. A lot depends on Matty. We were going to do some presents in his room, and he really wants to get up for dinner, but after today I don’t know if he’ll be up to it. He hasn’t been out of bed properly for a couple of days, so we’ll have to see. I hate to leave him out of things, but he gets so tired, we have to judge it at the time.

‘Sounds tricky.’

_It can be hard to make the call, he’s very stubborn, and doesn’t like to give in, so we just have to keep an eye on him. His colour changes when he’s had enough, so does his breathing.

‘Is he going to be OK?’

_Oh, Dec, nobody really knows. The combination of pneumonia and MS is a bit of an unknown quantity. He’s better than he was, but it’s slow progress. Something like today could be a setback, or he could wake up tomorrow full of beans.

‘It’s a bit shit, isn’t it.’

_Yes, sweetheart, it is a bit shit. Anyway, are you ready for your early morning Santa call?

‘How early is that likely to be?’

_Well, I don’t know if you remember last year, but if that’s anything to go by, it will be about three o’clock the first time, and you’ll be able to tell him firmly to go back to sleep. Second time, and if you’re lucky he’ll make it to four, he’ll be more persuasive. He definitely can’t open his stocking until five – he can come into our room to do that. It’s hanging by his bed – there’s a duplicate full stocking, James is going to change it over before we go to bed. Under no circumstances let him persuade you that he is allowed to come downstairs and open any presents under the tree. Carol and Matty will kill you if they miss anything.

‘So I’m going to have a sleepless night pretty much from three then?’

_Yep. OK with that?

‘Absolutely fine.’

Bath time over, Cal bounced into the living room carrying another large book. This one was about space. He was about to take a giant leap onto the sofa next to me.

łMind Dec’s arm.

He clambered carefully on instead, still managing to bash my bandaged arm with the huge book. I lifted my arm up and put it round him.

‘Which chapter?’

\man on the Moon.

łRight, I’m listening this time, you two. One chapter only.

Cal had chosen well, it was a really long chapter, with lots of pictures to talk about apart from the writing, and we made it last a good long time. When we reached the end of the last page, I glanced up at Jay, who was watching me in amusement.

Cal

The chapter about Man on the Moon was really long, and had lots of pictures to talk about. Dec read slowly, and we looked at some of the pictures twice, but Dad was listening this time, and when Dec got to the end of the chapter, we both looked up. Dad was looking back at us.

You may well check me out, I have read this chapter many times, and I know that is the end of it. Bed now, Cal.’

‘Ohh, Daddy –’

What’s next on the list after story?’

‘Bed.’

Have you had your story?’

‘Yes.’

So what’s next?’

‘Bed. But –’

No buts. Just bed. Come on, I’ll carry you up if you like.’

That was the problem with the list. You couldn’t argue with it, it was just a list.

Dad stood up and I jumped up so he would catch me. He held me upside down so Mum could kiss me night night, and I said night to Dec, then Dad carried me upstairs.

My stocking was lying on the top of my bed, and I climbed the ladder and hung the stocking on the end of the bed, almost hugging myself with excitement, because when I woke up tomorrow, Santa would have been, and the stocking would be full of shapes that squished and rustled, and I would have new toys.

Dec

Beth looked over at me once Cal was safely out of earshot.

_So far, so good. I’m expecting a few false starts. Right, I’ll vacate the room and leave you and James to it.

She stood up, left the room and closed the door. I flicked the TV off, and sat nervously, feeling like I was waiting for a job interview or an exam.

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

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

Cal

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

‘Great tree.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Thanks mate, it’s perfect.’

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

Dec

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

‘Oh sh – eep shoes.’

\why do you keep crying?

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

\but people cry when they’re sad.

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

Cal

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

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

‘Do people cry when they’re cripples?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry. Wasn’t thinking.’

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

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

‘Ohh, but I want to have a story.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Oh but can’t I –’

‘No. Bath. Now.’

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

Dec

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

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

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

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

‘Sounds really difficult.’

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

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

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

łSo you’re sure, it was Ben Hearne?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sounds like he’s overcome his reluctance.’

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

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

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

‘How do you know I haven’t?’

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

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

łHm, might leave it then –

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

‘Rose, hi, you got there OK?’

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

‘Good thanks.’

:How’s everyone?

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

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

‘Sounds great, have a good time.’

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

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

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

‘Bye Rose.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I grinned, wiped my eyes.

‘Ready.’

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

łHey, well done Dec, no big swears.

\what, Daddy?

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

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

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

Cal

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

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

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

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

Dec

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

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

Cal looked dubious, but let it pass.

\i don’t want a story.

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

‘Oh, OK. No worries.’

\i want you to read this book.

‘Oh.’

Immediate happiness.

‘What, the whole book?’

Cal’s face lit up.

Cal

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

‘Can I?’

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

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

‘OK, which chapter?’

Then Dec whispered in my ear:

‘Which one’s the longest?’

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

I whispered back:

‘The one with Tyrannosaurus Rex.’

Dec sat back and said, louder:

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

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

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

Dec

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

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

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

Cal giggled.

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

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

‘Come on, Cal let’s get you to bed.’

Cal

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

‘Can you tuck me in?’

‘Course.’

‘Can you carry me upstairs?’

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

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

‘Am I too strong for your arms?’

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

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

Dec

\are you coming to bed now?

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

\daddy snores, I can hear him.

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

Cal

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

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

Dec

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

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

Cal

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

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

‘But are they still cross with you?’

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

Dec

Shit, this was a minefield.

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

Cal

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

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

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

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

‘Dec?’

‘Yes, Cal.’

‘Why were Mummy and Daddy cross with you?’

Dec

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

‘I think I told you that.’

Cal

‘I’ve forgotten.’

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

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

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

Dec

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

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

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

\were you sorry?’

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

‘Yes I was, I am, really sorry.’

\did you say sorry to the people?’

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

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

Cal

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

‘Dec?’

‘Yes, Cal.’

‘Is it Christmas Eve tomorrow?’

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

‘Yeah.’

‘Is Granny coming?’

And so was that.

‘I think so.’

‘Are you having a stocking from Santa?’

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

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

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

Dec

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

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

_Dec, what are you doing in here?

‘Didn’t want to disturb you.’

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

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

_Oh.

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

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

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

Beth’s expression became wary.

_Oh? What did you tell him?’

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

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

_Did he say anything?’

‘He asked if I said sorry.’

Beth smiled, then.

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

‘No, he changed the subject.’

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

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

_Put this round your shoulders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah, looking forward to dreaming of dinosaurs.’

_See you tomorrow, sweetheart.

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

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

Cal

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

‘Mm … nnn … no … no … mm …’

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

Dec

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

‘Fuck.’

Cal

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

Dec

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

‘Cal, why aren’t you in bed?’

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

‘Oh. Sorry. Was I snoring?’

\no, you were going ‘mm mm’ and ‘no’.

‘I was probably dreaming.’

Cal

‘What did you dream?’

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

‘I can’t remember.’

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

‘I can’t sleep.’

‘What time is it?’

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

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

Dec

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

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

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

27. Who says you can’t go home?

In which there is an arrival, tears are shed, bonds are formed, and dinosaurs are encountered.

Dec

I opened the car door and got out.

~You go in, I’ll bring your bags, yeah?

I walked towards the front door, which suddenly opened and ejected a small heat-seeking missile, in the form of Calum James Scott.

\dec you’ve came it’s nearly dinner I’m having fish fingers you’re having spaghetti bognose you can see my rabbit he’s called Percy he’s in the garden.

He wrapped his arms round my legs. I had to stifle a sob and blink hard to stop tears running down my face.

‘Hey Cal, oh it’s great to see you, mate. Spaghetti bognose, eh? Sounds delicious. I’ll have to meet Percy a bit later.’

I ruffled his hair, took a deep breath to compose myself, then knelt down to give him a big hug. Cal wrapped his arms round my neck and dropped his voice to a whisper.

\did you say to Santa about Optimus Prime?

I whispered back. ‘It’s all sorted.’

Cal

I was so happy to see Dec that I grinned at him, and he grinned back, and everything that had seemed wrong suddenly seemed right. My world was alright again. Dec was here, he had talked to Santa, and it was Christmas Eve tomorrow.

‘Come on in Cal, you haven’t got your coat on, and neither has Dec.’

Mum called from the doorway. I didn’t have any shoes on either, but she didn’t mention that, and I followed Dec up the path and into the house.

Dec

Beth was standing in the doorway. I unpeeled Cal and walked up to her. She opened her arms and folded me in a huge hug. This time I couldn’t stop the tears, and we both cried. Maybe it wasn’t just ‘welcome’ – could I dare to believe it might be ‘welcome home’?

Cal

Dec gave Mum a big cuddle, and he cried, and so did Mum. I’d never seen Dec cry before, except in hospital when he was feeling hurt, and I remembered Mum saying Dec was sad, so I didn’t look too much, at least not at Dec crying. Dec’s face was very interesting, though, as it still had bruises on it, his nose looked bent in the middle, and some red lines with cuts in them down each side where the train tracks had been before.

Dec

_It’s great to see you, Dec. You’re looking so much better, now those stitches are out. I’m so glad you could make it up here. Oh, Lis, let James get that, is there any more stuff from the car?

Jay appeared at the door.

łHey mate, great to see you. You’re looking better.

Another big hug, I tried manfully not to shed any more tears, but failed. Despite all the crying, it was starting to feel like it might be alright.

łWe’ll catch up in a minute, Dec, let me just help Lis with your bags. I’m assuming you’re using your piss-poor arms as an excuse to leave the heavy lifting to a girl.

I shrugged, grinning, trying to wipe my eyes.

łYeah, yeah, go and wait in the kitchen, Beth’s got the kettle on.

It was so strange going through the front door. It was their home and not mine. This moment made me realise how much a part of their family I had become when I lived with them. Feeling a little detached, I followed Cal into the kitchen, where Beth and Lis were in full flow.

_ … welcome to stay tonight, James’s mum isn’t coming till tomorrow.

~Oh, I’d really love to, but Nico’s invited half the squad for Christmas dinner. I’m going to need all of tomorrow to get myself sorted. I’ll stay for something to eat, though. And I want the grand tour, your kitchen is lovely …

Cal

I followed Dec, Mum and Lis into the kitchen, where Mum made a cup of tea and put the spaghetti and my fish fingers on for dinner. I had another good look at Dec’s face. He looked more like Dec and less like a monster than the last time I’d seen him. In fact, I couldn’t exactly remember what he’d looked like then, but now I had loads of questions to ask him. Mum and Lis were talking about the kitchen, and Dec didn’t look at me, so I couldn’t ask straight away.

Matt

So he was here, at last. Not that I’d been particularly anticipating it, but the rest of the household seemed to have been abuzz for days, with lots of hoovering, discussions about meals and last minute phone calls to be had, arranging final details and gradually getting more hyperactive.

Apparently some sort of operation had nearly fucked up the whole plan, and someone had broken into Dec’s flat while he was in hospital (that felt familiar) but it was all sorted now, and a few minutes ago I’d heard Cal shouting ‘he’s here Mummy, he’s here’, and the front door opened, and there were excited voices, and a few silences where there could have been tears, but who was I to judge – the salty bastards seemed to leak out of my eyes every five minutes too. Then the voices went away, and I could hear them indistinctly from the kitchen. I strained my ears, but could hear no more than the faint murmur of voices. No one thought to come and tell me how it was going, but then my lot in life as a fucking cripple was to lie still and wait to be told what was happening.

Cal

I got bored listening to them talking about the kitchen, and if I looked at Dec’s face much longer I would ask him something, and Mum would be cross because I was supposed to remember about Dec being sad. So I went into Uncle Matty’s room, where I had a road set up for my cars. Uncle Matty was awake, and sitting up in his bed which could sit him up or lie him down using electric buttons. He smiled at me as I sat on the floor and started driving the cars and lorries around.

Matt

Cal surprised me by coming in after a little while and resuming the game he’d been playing on the floor with his cars.

‘Dec’s hehr, thehn.’

‘Yes.’

‘Guhd tuh seh hihm?’

‘Yes but he’s talking to Mummy and Lis about the kitchen.’

I smiled. I’d rather be in here playing with cars than talking about the kitchen, too. Now I knew what was going on, I didn’t feel so left out. Dec could keep his cosy chat about the (for all I knew) solid oak cupboards and (did I give a shit as I’d never seen them) granite worktops as far as I was concerned.

Cal

Uncle Matty smiled again, looking as if he knew what I meant, and would rather be in here playing with cars than talking about the kitchen, too. He watched me for a little while, then asked if he could join in. I sometimes let Uncle Matty join in by suggesting where my cars could go. As long as he understood what the game was, he was usually pretty good at suggesting, and didn’t mind if I did something different instead. Sometimes I used Uncle Matty’s bed as a ski-jump, and he would hold his duvet up so the cars could roll down it and fly off the end of his bed. But I wasn’t playing ski-jumps today.

‘Kay. This game is about roadworks. The green lorry is doing traffic lights, and the yellow car is the men with the drill, and all these cars are going to be in a traffic jam.’

‘Goht ih. Is thehr a skycohpter?’

‘There could be, in case it gets on the news.’

Uncle Matty understood the importance of helicopters, and always tried his best to get them into my games.

‘Coohl.’

Dec

I sat at the kitchen table and let their chatter wash over me. Cal had disappeared, my novelty value being short-lived. Beth put a mug of tea in front of me and ruffled my hair. I looked up at her and smiled.

_Your hair’s got really long.

‘I know, it feels a bit of a mess.’

_Do you want me to sort it out?

‘Oh, that would be great. You are pretty handy with a pair of scissors, aren’t you.’

_We’ll do it later.

‘It doesn’t feel real.’

_What, your hair?

‘No, being here. Can’t quite believe it.’

Beth sat down next to me and took my hand.

_It’s been a bit of a time for all of us, hasn’t it. The last few months have been … eventful I suppose we could call it … but I’m so glad you here, sweetheart. I wondered how it would be, but … it feels right. Are you OK?

I’d welled up again. I wiped my eyes on my sleeve.

‘Sorry, keep doing this. Just ignore me.’

~It’s true, he’s a pretty big wooss these days.

Lis grinned and winked at me. Jay came in with a bag of presents he’d brought in from the car, checking Cal wasn’t in the room.

łDidn’t know what to do with these, I presume they’re from Santa? Where’s the stash, Beth?

_I’ll take them.

Jay looked over at me.

łBloody hell, are you off again? Come on, let’s go and say hi to Matty, you and him will make a right pair.

He gestured to me to follow him and led me across the hall to a downstairs room. Cal was in there, floor covered in Lego and Transformer toys. There was a Christmas tree in the corner, and some coloured paper chains at Cal’s height across the wall. A door was half open, through which I could see the edge of a toilet and the corner of a shower. By the window, in a hospital-type bed, Matt was half sat up, thin and pale. He looked terrible; I hardly recognised him.

Matt

A short while later, I heard Jay’s voice, and footsteps crossed the hall. Jay came in, followed by a long-haired lanky man who I wouldn’t have recognised as Dec if I hadn’t had a big clue, he being the only person who wasn’t Jay or Cal or me in the room. His face was discoloured with just-beginning-to-fade bruises of varying spectacular colours; there were two red scars running down either side of his face, raised and angry looking, one of which tracked a line perilously close to his eye; his nose looked as if it had been on a journey to the other side of his face when the wind changed; and his hair – this boy needed a hair cut. Some of it had been cut or shaved away where one of the scars ran up into his hairline, and the rest of it was overgrown and a complete mess. His lower face was covered in unshaven stubble as well. Injuries aside, I wouldn’t have known him. I knew how important it could be not to instantly comment on how terrible someone looks, so I just held out my hand.

Cal

We played for a bit, then Uncle Matty got quiet, which meant he had gone to sleep and left me to play on my own. After a while, I heard Dad and Dec coming into the room. I looked up, and Uncle Matty was awake again. He lifted his hand and held it out to Dec.

I decided to stay as quiet as possible, in case anyone said anything interesting before they remembered I was there. It was also highly likely, with Dad, Dec and Uncle Matty in the same room, that I would hear some swears, possibly bad ones.

Matt

‘Heh Dec.’

‘Hey, sorry to see you so poorly.’

He obviously had no such compunction, the rude, thoughtless little git, although he clasped my hand warmly and gave me a smile that wasn’t full of pity or sympathy, so he got some points there.

‘Fehl mush behter, shuhldv sehn meh befohr.’

Dec

I suddenly realised where Cal had got his translation skills from when I was in hospital; Matt was having difficulty speaking clearly.

Cal

I looked up, because Dec needed to understand what Uncle Matty meant. Uncle Matty could talk a lot better than before, but he sometimes didn’t explain things very well.

‘Uncle Matty looked like a skellington, but now he’s like a vampire but not with sharp teeth.’

Matt

I hadn’t been aware I was being assessed using the Supernatural Being scale of symptoms, but his report was accurate.

‘Struh. Aihming fuh zombeh.’

This made everyone smile, which was always good, smiling was always good, it fended off the fussing for another few minutes. Supernatural Assessor Cal hadn’t quite finished giving his report, though.

‘Uncle Matty, you can’t be a zombie, because their arms fall off. You could be a werewolf because they are people half the time –’

And obviously, I was people at least half the time these days.

‘– or you could be … Daddy, what’s next after a werewolf?’

You’ve got me there, Cal, you’re the expert in the undead. I’m sure you’ll think of something for Uncle Matty to aspire to.’

Dec

Matt’s breathing was terrible. Laboured and rasping, he found it hard to get the breath to speak, and his words had a tendency to die away on a gasp. I tried to remember what Jay had said was wrong with him, and couldn’t. Whatever it was, it put my self-absorbed woes into perspective.

Matt

And then my body’s battery chose that moment to start blinking the red ‘recharge now’ light, and my eyes started to droop. Jay noticed; he always noticed.

Cal

Dad looked at Uncle Matty, then frowned. Uncle Matty’s eyes were starting to close. Sometimes he was only awake for a really short time.

Come on Cal, pack up your toys in the box, Uncle Matty’s getting tired.’

Uncle Matty opened his eyes a little bit.

Matt

I never wanted to send Cal away, because then I’d be all alone in the dark, so I roused myself.

‘No, sohkay, Cal can stahy.’

OK then, ten more minutes, Cal, then it’s time for dinner. Dec, I’ve put your stuff up in Cal’s room, you’re on the bottom bunk.’

Cal had a working hypothesis on this too.

Cal

I wanted Dec to know why he was in my room and not in Dad’s office. I was sure he’d agree it was the best way.

‘Sleeping underneath is best for people who can’t move properly. I’m on the top, because I can climb the ladder. Why can’t you climb the ladder?’

‘Well, I hadn’t thought about ladders, but you’re right, my arms hurt and pulling myself up a ladder might be difficult. Good thinking, Batman.’

I knew he’d think so, and he called me Batman, like he used to when I’d had a good idea, and it made me smile. I’d spent a lot of time considering whether Dec should go on the top or bottom bed, and although the top bed was the best, and it was where I slept, I was also being kind to Dec and his hurting arms.

Matt

Cal and Dec grinned goofily at each other, as if this was some kind of secret code, and Jay started to leave the room, indicating that Dec should follow him.

‘Yeah, and it’s just in case you feel the need to reach out for some chocolate in the night. Top bunk’s a bit far to fall for someone in your state. Come on, I’ll show you. You staying with Uncle Matty, then, Cal?’

Oh, the chocolate thing. It was something to do with the teenager reaching for some of the brown stuff when he was in hospital and falling out of bed as a consequence, the ninny. Cal nodded, although he didn’t seem to know what Jay was talking about, and returned to his cars. As Jay and Dec left to go upstairs, I could hear Dec talk to Jay.

‘Shit, Jay, he looks awful. I can’t remember what you said was wrong with him.’

Well, talk to him about it while you’re here, but …’

And I slept, before I got to hear what Jay was telling people was ‘wrong with him’.

Cal

I turned back to my road. Uncle Matty’s eyes were closed, so I played on my own; Mum and Lis were upstairs, talking about curtains or duvets, and I wouldn’t be able to talk to Dec about dinosaurs until later.

Dec

łHe’s got multiple sclerosis. It affects your nerves so you lose coordination and strength in your muscles. But the reason he looks so awful is he’s had pneumonia. He was in hospital for quite a while, only been out a few weeks. It was less than fifty fifty for him at one point. Much less, actually. If Mum hadn’t found him … Cal’s right, he looked like a skeleton. He’s got a long way to go yet. MS is a funny one, comes and goes, leaves you worse than you were, but no one can predict it. Pneumonia is pretty common and can be … well, really serious.

‘Fuck, I’m sorry. He’s a good bloke.’

łYeah. Anyway, before you initiate me into your blub club, I’ll show you Cal’s room and you can decide whether the dinosaur wallpaper is going to give you nightmares, or whether you’d rather have a camp bed in my office. Although I should warn you that Cal has been looking forward to you sleeping in the bottom bunk for days.

Beth and Lis were also upstairs, Lis exclaiming over various items of furniture and décor. We met up in Cal’s room, which seemed to be a mini version of Dinosaurland. Wallpaper, bedding, models on the shelves, he had the lot.

‘Whoa.’

_Think you can sleep in here, sweetheart?

‘Only in the bottom bunk. Nice and dark, can’t see all the teeth.’

łLucky you’ve got piss-poor arms, then. No ladders for you.

~Oh, Beth, that reminds me, Dec’s dressings need changing tomorrow. Rose sent along all the stuff and some instructions, can I show you? Is it in your bag, here, Dec?

‘I think so. Rose packed it all.’

~Let’s have a look, shall I show you downstairs?

Lis left with Beth. There was a pause.

łSo how is your arm now?

‘Getting there.’

Jay gave me a look, and I gave in, realising that sometimes I had to give more than the basic amount of information.

‘No, I mean it. After the operation it was so much better. My collar bone was really hurting before, the plaster kept dragging on it, and I couldn’t do anything because I couldn’t move my arm or my fingers. It bloody hurts now, but I can bend my elbow and hold things. I can feel it getting better. Slow progress though, frustrating. I just want to get back to training again.’

łGlad to hear it. When will that be? You must have seen Pete and Steve by now. And I’m sure Don has his opinions.

‘Yeah, they want me to go in on the sixth.’

łThat’s great. You’ll really start to feel a difference once they get their hands on you. Stay positive, mate.

‘Yeah.’

łHey, sounds like dinner might be ready. Let’s go get spaghetti bognose.

Cal

Before long, dinner was ready. The grown-ups were having spaghetti bognose (it was what I called it once, and after that, it was spaghetti bognose forever), and I was having fish fingers, which was my current favourite dinner of all time.

I sat next to Dec, and felt happy that we were all there again, at the table, like we used to be. I looked at Dec a lot, because although I was happy he was there, and everything felt right again, his face looked wrong, with all the bruises and cuts, and I couldn’t help being interested, even though Mum was trying to tell me to stop looking without saying it. In the end, I had to say something.

‘Dec …’

‘Yes, Cal.’

‘You know your skins were held together with sewing when you looked like a Frankystein?’

I’d seen pictures in my Mega Monsters book, and Dec’s train tracks had looked just like Frankenstein’s monster. Mum started to say shh, but I knew Dec would answer me, because he always answered me, even when I asked him about poo.

‘It’s OK. Yes, I remember.’

‘But the sewing isn’t there now, so how are your skins still together? Will they come unstuck when you eat something big?’

Mum had explained it back when Dec was first in hospital, but I couldn’t quite believe that Dec had let a doctor do sewing on his face. Needles were sharp, Mum was always telling me to mind out when she sewed buttons on my school shirt, and surely it would hurt more to have your face sewed than to have a cut on it.

‘I hope not! My skin has grown back together now, so the doctor took the stitches out and it will stay together all by itself.’

It was a shame that I wasn’t going to see Dec’s face split open when he ate a big mouthful of bognose, but I still had more questions.

‘But how did your skins come apart?’

Dec

Fuck, how do you explain a glassing to a six year old? I looked at Beth and Jay. Jay shrugged, a look of amusement on his face. Beth looked on warily. They had always let me explain myself to Cal – there had been a fair amount of explaining at times, things like hangovers, girlfriends, speeding tickets – but Beth always kept an eye and rescued me if I was struggling too much.

‘Well, you remember when I was in hospital and I had bruises and cuts and things?’

\yes, some bad men hit you.

I silently thanked whoever had explained things so simply to Cal.

‘Well, when they hit me, my face got cut and the doctor had to sew me up so my dinner wouldn’t come out of my cheeks. That would have been a bit of a pain.

\it would be awesome.

‘Not if you’re trying to drink a slushie, you’d dribble quite a lot, most of it would fall out.’

He considered this, nodding.

\did it hurt?

‘What, the cuts or the stitches?’

\when they sewed you.

‘Well, I was asleep when they did it, so it didn’t hurt me at the time. But it was sore afterwards.

\do your lines hurt?

‘My lines?’

łHe means your scars. They are still quite impressively sore looking.

‘Oh.’

I ran my finger along the line running down the side of my face, which made it tingle and sting.

‘Well, maybe a bit when I touch them. It hurts when I use my razor.’

Cal

Dec had a lot of whiskers on his face, and it looked like he hadn’t used his razor for a long time. Dad thought so too.

‘So that’s the reason for the designer stubble. Thought you were trying a new look, to combat the girly hair.’

Dec had really long hair now, and it did look like a girl’s hair. He could probably even put it in a pony tail, like Jake’s brother did, but I was glad he didn’t.

‘OK, Cal, let Dec eat the rest of his dinner now, before his cheek falls open and his bognose falls on your plate.’

Dad was teasing. I knew now that there was, sadly, no chance of Dec’s cheek coming apart either now, or at future dinners.

Dec

_Well done, Dec, I’d forgotten how good you are at answering Cal’s questions.

It was Cal who was making it all normal. He was chatting to me like he always had, asking me the same searching questions, treating me like I was just Dec who’d been away for a bit, but was back now, rather than Dec who’d fucked everything up and nearly lost it all. Beth was threatening more tears, especially when Lis gave her hand a squeeze. Jay saved the day with:

łMore vomit cheese anyone? Parmesan to the uninitiated. Cal, more vomit on your fish fingers?

_James!

łHey, if it gets him eating it I’ll call it anything. I’ll call it a pile of sh … er … sheep sh…oes, eh Cal?

\daddy, you nearly sweared.

łNo I didn’t, sheep shoes is nowhere near a swear. You’ll have to keep an eye on Dec, though, he could swear at any moment. More sheep shoes anyone?

Beth’s teary moment passed, and chaotic order was restored to the dinner table.

Cal

Dad made a joke about the cheese being vomit cheese, which meant it smelt like sick, because it did, and then he pretended to do a swear, but turned it from a word beginning with ‘sh’ into ‘sheep shoes’ and he made me laugh, and Dec was smiling, and everything felt like it was alright, even though Mum had nearly cried and Lis had to hold her hand.

I really hoped people were going to stop crying or nearly crying soon, because everything stopped while they were doing it or nearly doing it, and I couldn’t say what I wanted to say, or get down from the table.

Dec

Lis left soon after dinner, facing a long drive back home. She asked when I wanted picking up. It wasn’t something I’d thought about, as I had been focussed entirely on getting here.

łIt’s OK, Lis, I’ll bring him back. We can take our time here, see how it goes, how long it takes Dec to get bored of us, and you don’t have to drive all that way again.

‘I can get a train, or a bus.’

łYeah, OK, Dec, we’ll drop you off at the nearest bus stop with that heavy bag you can’t carry, and you can make your own way back. Sorted, Lis, OK?

‘Just trying to be helpful.’

I grinned at Jay, enjoying the amicable bickering.

łNoted. I’m taking you back, end of.

Cal

Lis went home, and Dec came into Uncle Matty’s room to help me play with Lego, although he couldn’t do fiddly bits because of his fingers being hurt.

Uncle Matty was asleep, so I had Dec all to myself, like I used to, and Dec was as good as he used to be at playing with Lego, although after a while he said he was getting sore on the floor and was going to talk to Uncle Matty. I nearly said Uncle Matty was asleep, but I looked up, and he wasn’t, he was looking at us, so I stayed quiet.

I listened while Dec and Uncle Matty talked, although it wasn’t very interesting, but you never knew when grown-ups were going to forget you were there and say something, especially Dec, who wasn’t really a grown-up, and Uncle Matty, who was a grown-up because he was very old like Dad, but said a lot of things that made Mum go ‘Matty, honestly’.

Matt

I woke up a bit later, to find Cal and Dec playing with the cars on the floor of my room. I watched, undetected, for a while, part of me marvelling at how unselfconscious Dec was, kneeling on the floor, making ‘neenaa’ noises and handing Cal various bits of Lego, just being in Cal’s imaginary world. Another part of me was envious of the ease with which he was able, even with an apparently broken arm and some serious lacerations, to move around on the floor. I wouldn’t even be able to get onto the floor unless I rolled off the bed and fell on my arse, and I wished I had some of Dec’s apparent power for fast healing. Dec turned round after a while, and saw me watching.

‘Know what, Cal, I’m getting a bit sore kneeling down here on the floor, I’m going to sit in this chair for a bit and talk to Matt. Let me know if you want me to find anything else.’

He stood up, stretched and plonked himself in the armchair by my bed, looking at me for a while as if unsure where to start. Then, like everyone did, he started with me being ill.

Dec

I didn’t know Matt that well, and all I could really think of to talk about was his health. Not inspiring, but everyone has to start somewhere.

‘Sorry you’ve been so poorly. Not much fun.’

Matt

I suppose it was as good a place as any when it was all you really knew about someone, but part of me wanted to shout ‘I’ve had a fucking life, a fucking job, a fucking flat of my own, I love hiking, and Spurs, and reading books about maths, and there’s more to me than being fucking ill’ but I didn’t, mostly because it would have taken me about an hour and I would have fallen asleep before I got to the end.

‘Noh. Better than I wahs tho.’

In the end, I took Dec’s conversation starter for what it was. I hadn’t had anyone new to talk to since Sally, and even if I had to talk about being ill, I might be able to do it in a different way.

‘Jay said you had it really bad a while ago.’

‘I knoh they all thoht I wouldn’t mahk it. Dohnt member much. How bouh yuh?’

Dec having problems of his own gave me something to reflect back, someone else’s story to find out, and I thought I’d have a go at delving a bit into the recent travails of the adolescent. Except I realised with a sudden shift in my perception that he wasn’t anymore. He was nineteen, and he was different. The last time I’d seen him, he had been open and talkative, and that was still there, but there was a reserve. He was quieter, more subdued. He seemed older than nineteen. Maybe with everything that had happened to him in the last few months, he needed someone to talk to as much as I needed not to talk about me?

‘Getting there. It’s been a shit year – sorry Cal, pretend you didn’t hear that. But now I feel like things are getting better.’

He even noticed when he swore these days. Didn’t seem stop him, but at least he noticed.

‘Good for yuh. Yuhr face sahys dihfrent tho. Yuhv had a hard tihm, Jay said.’

I hated people talking about me behind my back, but I wanted Dec to know that I had heard a lot of his story.

‘I’ve got good friends, they’ve helped me a lot.’

A pang of envy shot through me, and I covered it up with a truism.

‘Simpohtant to hahv pehpl yuh lohv and lohv yuh.’

‘Very true.’

Jay came in with two cups of coffee. One of them was in the plastic beaker, and I cringed inwardly at what it would look like to Dec when Jay had to help me drink.

Good to see some bonding going on in Cripples Corner. Here you go, freshly made. Can you hold that OK Dec?’

So it wasn’t just me who was being fussed over. Interesting. Dec didn’t seem to mind, and just smiled at Jay as he carefully took the hot mug.

‘There’s a mat here on the table. Matty, here’s yours, do you want to sit up a bit?’

Well I was going to find it hard to drink lying down, wasn’t I.

‘Yeh.’

Jay pressed a button on the remote control that moved the bed into a sitting position. Dec sat in the chair, sipping coffee, pretending not to watch while Jay held my cup for me. Jay seemed to become aware of the awkwardness and thought of something to say.

‘Lis says hi, and it’s a shame you were too busy snoring to appreciate having a hot girl in your bedroom.’

I liked Lis, a lot. She was straight up, no nonsense, dirty laugh, heart of gold. And hot, she wasn’t wrong about that. She’d driven Dec up this afternoon, and I’d been asleep when she left. I was sorry to have missed her.

‘She’ll lihv.’

As witty comebacks go, it wasn’t top notch, but I was getting tired.

Dec been entertaining you with his exploits?’

Jay seemed to find it a lot easier talking about Dec’s troubles than he did mine. Maybe they were both part of that world, the physical world, the rugby world, where having your face smashed up was all in a day’s work, and you just got to your feet and carried on. I wanted him to acknowledge that I was trying to get to my feet, it was just taking a bit longer.

‘Exchange war stohries.’

You’ve both got plenty of those.’

Cal, who had seemed absorbed in his game, but always had his ears open, especially when you forgot about him, joined in.

Cal

I’d liked the sound of Cripples Corner when Dad said it, and couldn’t wait to say it out loud; it would sound funny. Until I got the chance, I was listening out for when I could join in with what they were saying.

‘Dec sweared.’

Matt

At that moment I loved the little six-year-old listening device, who had just dropped Dec right in it, even though he’d dropped him on the wrong person.

‘Oh, cheers Cal, I thought you were on my side.’

I tried for a bit of solidarity.

‘Swehrs allohed in Crihpls Cohner.’

Jay seemed agreeable.

Fair enough, no argument from me.’

Cal

This was going well. It felt like we were all boys together, and I wanted to be the same as them all.

‘Can I do a swear?’

It was worth a try, but Dad wasn’t falling for it.

Matt

Jay belatedly realised that he should perhaps have taken a different tack and tried to backpedal.

No. Just grown-ups. And just sometimes, when we can’t help it. Do you want any more of this, Matty?’

I decided to used the new loophole. Wait till Beth heard about it, she was going to go ape-shit. And then I could tell her she’d gone ape-shit and there was nothing she could do about it, because I totally owned Cripples Corner.

‘Noh thahks. Toh fucking tihred.’

I grinned at Cal, who was looking at me with something approaching awe, which made me grin even more, because we both knew I was about to embark on a major campaign of flouting of the ‘no swearing in the house’ rule.

Cal

Uncle Matty smiled at me. He was still hard to understand sometimes, especially when he was tired, but we could always understand his swears. I looked at him in awe. If Mum heard him he would be in lots of trouble, even though he was poorly.

Matt

Jay tried some damage limitation.

You’re taking advantage now. OK, let’s leave you to it. Come on Cal, pack your stuff away, do you want to put Uncle Matty’s bed down?’

‘Yes.’

Cal

Dad tried to be strict, but he was nowhere near as good as Mum. He tried to frown, but couldn’t help smiling at the corners of his mouth, because he thought it was funny too. And he wasn’t really cross, because he asked if I wanted to put Uncle Matty’s bed down. I loved putting Uncle Matty’s bed down. In fact, I loved moving the bed all over the place. It went up and down so it could be high or low, and it bent in the middle so it could make Uncle Matty sit up, and a bit at the end bent so that his legs went up. I played with it a lot, and Uncle Matty let me put him in any way I could think of, although I hadn’t managed to make it roll him onto the floor yet.

Matt

Cal always wanted to put my bed down, it was all anyone could do to stop him playing with the controls while I was lying in the damn thing. Sometimes I let him, to see what weird and wonderful positions he could make me lie, sit and almost stand in. Jay handed Cal the remote and he lowered the bed to almost flat, judging it correctly almost to within a degree, so my chest was tilted enough to drain, but I was still in a good position to sleep. He’d had a lot of practice and was a quick learner.

Turn the lamp off as well. Good boy. Night Matty.’

Jay flicked the monitor on without comment and walked out, after brushing a hand over my forehead. Sometimes the smallest of gestures affected me the most deeply, and I hoped the darkness hid the tears starting to run from the corners of my eyes.

‘Night Matt. See you tomorrow.’

Then Dec was gone too, as was I shortly afterwards, dragged off to the land of nod by the sleep elves.