22. Hold on we’re going home

In which Cal uses a fire engine as a listening device, and Dec discovers that bad news hasn’t finished with him yet.

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Cal

Once we got back, I showed Uncle Matty my fire engine, and made a road in his room so I could put out lots of fires. I did a lot of listening while I was playing – Uncle Matty’s room was good for being able to hear when Mum or Dad were on the phone, and sometimes I could just kind of go and hang about outside the room they were in, and sometimes I would hear things, and even understand what they were about.

So when I heard Mum talking to Rose, I drove my fire engine into the hall and wheeled it up and down outside the living room where Mum and Dad were both sitting on the couch. The phone was on speaker, so they could both hear, and although I didn’t understand everything, it seemed like Rose had been helping Dec, and that Dec had been sad, and had missed Mum and Dad and me. Rose asked if we were going to go and visit Dec again, and I held my breath so I could hear what they said.

‘Oh Rose, I don’t think we can at the moment. Matty’s got to be our priority, he needs both of us here. This weekend was too hard on James’s mum.’

‘Oh, well, I’m sure he’ll understand, love. He’s that happy that you came to see him, though.’

‘I know. Do you know when they’re likely to let him go home?’

‘He’s hoping for tomorrow.’

Tomorrow?

‘He had a little walk, and his physios think he’ll be OK. He’s coming back to me for a little while.’

‘Oh, well, that sounds great. Are you OK with that?’

‘Yes, love, I’m looking forward to it, actually. I’m good at looking after people.’

‘Rose, we won’t be able to get down there for a while, but we might ask Dec up here for Christmas, if he’s well enough.’

I nearly jumped up and cheered when Dad said this, but I stayed quietly on the floor in the hall.

‘Oh love, that would be tidy. I’d been wondering what to do – I was going to go to my sister’s, she’s in Wales, but I was going to cancel, go in the New Year when he’s more settled.’

‘Well we don’t want to mess you about, we haven’t decided for definite. And he might not want to come.’

I heard Rose snort.

‘I don’t think that’s very likely, do you, love? Just let me know.’

‘Thanks, Rose. You’ve been amazing. Please keep in touch; I know Dec’s not likely to tell us how he’s really feeling, he likes his independence, so it would be great if you could let us know what’s what.’

‘Of course, love. As soon as I know what’s going on, I’ll give you a call. I’m going back to see him tomorrow morning anyway. You take care, loves, and remember I’m on the end of the phone.’

‘Thanks, Rose.’

‘Yes, thanks Rose, for everything.’

‘Bye, love.’

I stayed outside the room with my fire engine, because Mum and Dad were talking to each other now.

‘That feels better.’

‘I know. Where did he find her?’

‘Nico says she lives downstairs, but I don’t know how Dec knows her apart from that. She’s a weight off my mind, though, James. Matty was alright this weekend, but I really don’t want to leave him again until he’s stronger.’

‘No. He was a right grumpy git about the bloke from the agency, had a go at me for cancelling the woman.’

‘Yeah, Carol said he got on really well with Sally, but hardly looked at Ian. Maybe we should have talked to him about it.’

‘We didn’t get much of a chance, did we.’

‘I suppose not. So, I did the test.’

I wondered what test Mum had done. I had spelling tests at school, but Mum knew all her spellings, and was good at sums as well. And I’d been with her all day; we’d been to the supermarket, and Boots, and then we’d had sandwiches for lunch, then Mum had done some washing while I played in Uncle Matty’s room, then we’d made some fairy cakes, and then Dad had come back from watching his rugby team and we’d had dinner, and then it was now, and she hadn’t done anything that looked like it was a test.

‘And …?’

There was a silence, and I couldn’t tell what was going on, but Dad suddenly gasped.

‘Really?’

‘Yes.’

‘Oh my God, Beth. Oh my God. Fanbloodytastic.’

There was more silence, and what sounded like kissing.

‘We can’t say anything, though, not for a while. It’s not far along. Oh but James, I can’t help being excited. I’ve wanted this for so long.’

We’ve wanted this. Neither of us wanted Cal to be an only child. I’ve always seen him with a brother or sister.’

I was rooted to the spot, trying really hard to make sense of what they were saying. It sounded like happy things, things that they were both pleased about, and I wanted to be pleased and happy too. I didn’t want to let them know I’d been listening, but I couldn’t stay out of the room any longer. I pushed my fire engine up to the doorway and rolled it through into the living room.

Mum and Dad were cuddling on the sofa, and they turned towards me as I came in. I made some fire engine noises for added effect.

‘Cal! Where did you come from, sweetheart?’

‘From Uncle Matty’s room. Can I choose?’

‘What do you want to choose, mate?’

‘Can I choose a brother or a sister? I want a brother, so he can play football with me.’

Mum and Dad looked at each other, and then at me.

‘Cal, did you hear what Daddy and me just said?’

‘Yes, about me having a brother or a sister. Daniel Glover is having a sister, but I want a brother.’

‘OK, come here a minute, sweetheart.’

Mum held her arms out to me, and I got up and went over to her, to be scooped up onto her lap. She held me tightly and talked into my ear. Not quietly like she was whispering, but like she really wanted me to listen.

‘Cal, this is very important. Daddy and I might be having a brother, or a sister, for you, but it’s a secret. It’s Top Secret, like Spy Kids. You can’t tell anyone, not Granny, not Uncle Matty, not anyone. Do you think you can keep a secret for a little while? Until we know for sure? Just for a few weeks?’

I nodded. Having a brother would be exciting, and it would be hard not to tell, especially if I could beat Daniel Glover’s sister with a brother, but as long as I didn’t have to keep the secret forever, I would probably be able to do it.

I was a little hazy on how you got brothers, but Owen Little’s brother, who was ten and knew a lot, said that sometimes people chose brothers and sisters, it was called dopted or something. Maybe Mum and Dad were going to choose a brother for me, in which case I was glad I’d said I wanted a brother, so they knew.

‘Good boy.’

‘Yeah, nice one mate.’

Dad put his hand up so I could high five him, and then he snuggled up so he was cuddling me and Mum at the same time. I felt very happy, being snuggly with them both, and then I remembered the other thing I’d heard that had made me happy. But if I said I’d heard it, they’d know I’d been listening for quite a long time, so I said it as if I’d just had an idea.

‘Mummy, how will Santa know where Dec’s house is?’

‘Well, Santa knows where everyone’s house is.’

‘Yes, but what if he thinks Dec’s house is here, and brings his presents here?’

‘Well, that would be terrible, sweetheart, but Santa doesn’t make mistakes like that.’

‘But what if he does?’

‘Hmm. It sounds like you might have a plan.’

‘Yes. If Dec is here on Christmas, then Santa will know where to bring his presents.’

I felt Mum and Dad look at each other over the top of my head. Then I felt Dad shrug.

‘Would you like Dec to be here for Christmas, mate?’

‘Yes.’

I couldn’t believe how well my plan had worked. They’d totally fallen for it. I was so sneaky.

‘He can sleep in Daddy’s office, I suppose.’

‘Oh, but I want him to sleep under me, in my bottom bed.’

Mum laughed. ‘You have given this some thought, haven’t you. Are you sure, Cal? Dec is messy, and he goes to bed quite late, and –’

‘I’m sure, Mummy.’

‘Alright then. Would you like to ask him when we talk to him?’

‘When?’

‘I’m not sure, it will have to be when he gets home.’

‘But that might be tomorrow.’

Oh. I’d given it away now. Mum laughed again and squeezed me tight.

‘Oh Cal. You’re my best little spy. Come on, sweetheart, it’s time for bed. Let’s go and get your PJs on.’

Dec

The day wore on, the light faded and I started to doze. Weird half-dreams mingling with semi-wakefulness gave me a strange feeling of floating. People came in, asked me questions, I assume I replied, faces came and went, felt my pulse, took my temperature, gave me pills, gave me dinner.

In one particularly bizarre lucid dream, Big stared down at me. I opened my eyes fully, a bit shaken, but he wasn’t there, and the room was now completely dark. I could see a light from the door, which wasn’t quite shut. Couldn’t hear any sounds, even distant voices or footsteps. I felt very alone, and a bit freaked out. Still a bit spacey. Very much wanted to talk to someone, anyone, just to feel a bit more real. Thought about getting out of bed. Pete had said I needed to practise walking, and I hadn’t even stood up since the physios left. Thought some more about getting out of bed. My experiences of the afternoon made me cautious, but I wanted company more. There must be someone around somewhere. And I really needed to pee.

I began the process of getting out of bed. Found the remote control by feel, and checked the bed was as low as it would go. Sat the mattress up. Swung my legs over the side, so much easier than last time I tried. Feet touched the floor. Result. Tried to find a lamp, as it really was dark, but hadn’t noticed where it was or where to switch it on. Braced knees and thighs. Tentatively leaned my left arm on the cupboard. Deep breath. Stood up. Swayed gently in the dark. Stayed upright. Remembered Pete’s instructions: left, right, left, right. Started with my left leg, easy. Made it to the door and out into the corridor. Looked both ways. Some kind of front desk to my left. Shuffled along to it. Nobody there.

‘Hello?’

Nothing. Looked for a bell or buzzer or something. Nothing easily identifiable. Looked up and down the corridor. Where was everyone? Saw a sign saying ‘Toilet’. Well that was a start.

Made it inside, lifted the lid, aimed – tricky using semi-working left hand – peed. Stung a bit, the result of pulling on the tube earlier. No blood. Another result.

Heard voices. Someone was around, somewhere. Shuffled to the door. Looked out into the corridor. A couple of nurses standing near my door looking concerned. They noticed me and looked relieved. One of them hurried over to me.

*Declan! We wondered where you’d got to.

‘Needed a pee.’

*You managed on your own OK?

‘Yeah, no worries.’

I sounded more confident than I felt.

*Well that’s great. Is there anything you need?

‘Wha time issit?’

She checked an upside down watch on her tunic.

*Two thirty, give or take.

‘In the morning?’

*Yes, lovey, it’s the middle of the night. Bit disoriented?

‘Been ‘sleep a lot.’

*It’s been a funny old day for you by all accounts. Maybe back to bed and sleep properly, start again tomorrow?

‘OK. Felt weird on my own.’

*I’m not surprised. Would you like some company for a bit? Till you drop off?

‘Please.’

She walked back with me, watched as I manoeuvred myself back into bed, then sat in the chair.

*Do you want to chat, or sleep?

‘Sleep if I can.’

*OK lovey, I’ll stay for a bit, happy to talk if you feel like it.

‘Thanks.’

I felt a lot more concrete with someone with me, less insubstantial. I was also very pleased with myself for making it to the toilet on my own. Eyelids soon drooped and I slept properly.

Dreaming. I am flying. Trying to catch someone, just out of my reach. They are wearing brown boots. Nearly catch up with them …

…woke up. The patch of sky I could see through the window was blue, and it seemed to be sunny. I could hear noises from beyond the door; voices, clatters, some kind of cleaning machine. I had no idea what time it was, but the world was obviously awake. So were my stomach and my bladder.

After last night’s success, I decided I would take another trip down the corridor. Repeated the moves that had got me out of bed and on my feet the night before. Incredible that something so simple, that I usually did without thinking every day of my life, could make me so cautious and (when successful) so proud of myself.

Wandered out of the room and down the corridor to the toilet. While I peed, I noticed a mirror above the sink. Hadn’t actually seen the face that had launched a thousand tears yet. About time I gave it a look.

With some nervousness, I shuffled over to the mirror. I kept my eyes down, then slowly raised them. I had expected some bruising and swelling, but I hadn’t expected something out of a horror film. I hardly recognised any of my features. My eyes were swallowed up in a mess of puffy purple. The rest of my face was swollen and reddened or bruised. There was a big graze on my forehead. There was a large plastic guard taped over my nose, which seemed twice its normal size. There was a long row of stitches reaching from my scalp down by the side of my right eye to my cheek. The hair had been shaved away around the beginning of the scar, highlighting its vividness. There was a shorter row of stitches above my top lip, and another row touched the left corner of my mouth. My lips were distended and discoloured. The bruising extended in patches around my neck into the collar of my shirt.

It was pretty shocking. I wasn’t surprised Beth, Rose and Lisa had cried; I was close to tears myself. I leaned on the sink with my left hand, feeling sick. I realised for the first time what had happened to me, and how lucky I had been. I knew there were more stitches elsewhere – I had seen some on my legs, and knew I had pulled some in my back when I fell yesterday. I also had broken bones. I could have lost an eye, or had a fractured skull, or bled to death. Someone had wanted to do that to me. My legs wobbled, and I had to lean heavily on the sink. There was a knock on the door.

¬Declan, are you in there?

It was a well-timed Nurse Michelle.

‘Yeah.’

¬Are you OK?

‘Not sure.’

¬Shall I come in?

‘Yeah.’

I heard the sound of the lock, the door opened, and she came in. I started to sag at the sink.

¬What’s up, feeling a bit wobbly?

‘Yeah. Jus saw myself. Bit of a mess, aren’t I?’

¬Oh, I didn’t realise. Had nobody showed you a mirror? Bit of a shock, I expect. Here, come and sit on the loo for a bit.

She helped me over, shut the lid and supported me while I lowered myself down. I leaned forwards, breathing heavily.

¬Better?

‘Mm.’

¬Good job I came looking for you. A couple of your friends have popped in, your bed was empty, Sheila told me you came for a wander up here last night, so I thought I’d come and find you. What shall I tell them?

‘Who issit?’

¬Two lads about your age, what did they say their names were? Ben and David, I think.

Big and DivDav? I vaguely remembered Big being around at some point yesterday after I fell off the bed. Hadn’t seen DivDav for quite a while, unless he’d cropped up in the missing hours of Saturday. Didn’t feel too presentable, and now I knew what I looked like, I was self-conscious.

¬I’ve told them the physios are coming up soon, so they can’t have long, if that’s any help. Are they good friends?

I shrugged. It was difficult to evaluate my friendships in light of everything that had happened recently.

¬I can get them to come back another time if you like.

No, I wanted to see them. Things wouldn’t get back to normal until I began facing everything. Had to start somewhere.

‘No, s’okay.’

¬How are you feeling? Need a few more minutes?

I nodded.

¬Alright then. I’ll let them in to your room, you sit there for a bit till you feel like wandering down. I’ll be at the desk – give me a shout if you need me.

She left the bathroom and I heard the lock turn from outside. A few deep breaths; nausea started to subside. Stood up. Avoided looking in the mirror again. Opened the door and walked down the corridor, catching Michelle’s eye at the desk and giving her a left-handed thumbs up.

The door to my room was open, and I could hear voices I recognised. I got to the door and walked in. Big and DivDav were sitting in the two chairs by the bed. They stopped talking and stood up when I entered the room.

%Holy shit! Sorry, Captain, Big said you were … but I didn’t realise … holy shit. What the fuck … what happened?

‘Can’t ‘member.’

I walked to the bed and sat down on it. Big and DivDav sat back down on the chairs.

°Still no luck with your memory?

‘Not yet. Thanks for coming.’

%No problem, mate. I feel terrible, you were out there because of me, weren’t you?

‘Can’t ‘member.’

%Oh, course. How are you feeling?

‘Better than yessday.’

°Well that’s good I suppose. It all looks pretty painful.

This stilted conversation was almost as painful.

‘Been fucking agony, actually. Bit better now. Jus saw my face. Could get a part in Evil fucking Dead. Got physio inna minute.’

This felt like the most words I had uttered in one go for a long time, but it made me feel more normal to talk to them like I usually would, rather than exchanging polite sympathies.

%Yeah, that nurse said, we won’t stay, mate, just wanted to see how you are. And, er, I wanted to apologise for how I was, you know, before. Would have done on Saturday night, but … you know. I was well pissed off, tried phoning, texting, went into the club to find you. Missed all the fuss with the ambulance and that.

I didn’t really know what Dav was talking about, the jumble from Saturday afternoon and evening still not resolving itself. Decided to focus on his apology.

‘No worries. Thanks. Means a lot.’

%Er, don’t know if you know, Raiders aren’t keeping me on.

It rang a vague bell, but I shook my head, surprised and sad for Dav.

‘Nah mate. Sorry.’

%Yeah, well, I had a feeling. Think I kind of took it out on you when things started going your way again, you know, being allowed back to training and that. Felt unfair. I was a bit of a knob. Sorry.

°Come on, Dav, we all played our part. Doesn’t look like Cap holds a grudge.

Wasn’t sure if that was true; DivDav had been particularly instrumental in making a lot of the last few weeks truly miserable. But his apology couldn’t have been easy, I was still pretty much a worthless piece of shit after all, they were calling me Captain again, and I decided I had no room in me for grudges.

‘Nah mate. S’okay. Been a knob too.’

°Know what, when you’re more up to it, we should get everyone together for a night out. Or in. Get fucking wasted.

‘Great idea.’

%Yeah, great. When are you out of here?

‘Hope today.’

%Give you a bell, then.

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

‘Keep in touch, then.’

°Will do. Dav, we’d better go, that nurse’ll be on the warpath if we stay too long.

They stood up. I did too, just took a little longer. There was some awkwardness while we decided how to say goodbye – couldn’t shake hands, hugs cost too many man points, in the end both gave me a light punch on the shoulder.

%Take care of yourself, mate.

°See you soon.

I watched them leave. Noticed that DivDav was wearing brown desert boots.

The physios must have been waiting outside, as they knocked on the door immediately. I sat back down on the edge of the bed. They went through virtually the same routine that Pete and Janie had the day before, and came to the same conclusion.

*You’re a bit stiff, that’s just the bruises, but nothing that time and moving around won’t see to. I think you’re good to go. We’ll leave you to make your arrangements. Nice to meet you.

And quick as that they were gone. I was elated, but unsure what to do next. I couldn’t contact anyone as my phone was in small pieces in some police station. Decided a chat with Nurse Michelle was on the cards. I wandered down the corridor to where she was sitting in front of a computer. She told me I could go as soon as I’d been checked by a doctor and got a supply of painkillers, then she helped me out by finding Rose’s number, and dialling it for me, as my fingers were still having trouble working difficult things like buttons on phones.

:Hello?

‘S’Declan.’

:Oh hello love! I wondered if I might hear from you this morning. Have you seen the physio?

‘Yeah, I can go home.’

:Oh love, that’s grand. Any idea when?

‘Got to sort meds and see doc.’

:OK love, I’ll be there as soon as I can, will you be able to get in my car?

‘Find a way. Thanks Rose.’

:You’re welcome love. Won’t be long.

She disconnected, and I imagined her rushing about tidying up, straightening cushions, making sure everything was just so for her guest, who wouldn’t notice any of it. Smiled to myself.

¬All sorted then m’dear?

‘On her way. Might have to wait for me.’

¬I don’t think she’ll mind. She seems very fond of you. Relative is she?

‘No, good friend.’

¬Lucky you. OK, I’ll sort out all the official stuff, you go back to your room and I’ll sort some breakfast for you too. Oh look, here’s another one of your friends.

I turned round. Nico was walking down the corridor, smiling widely.

>Declan, I see you are well and charming the nurses – ha, is beautiful Michelle. Hello. Declan, this is better than yesterday. You look good. No, you look horrible still, but from yesterday you look good. Every day you are better, by next week you will be number one handsome man, or maybe number two. I am still number one.

Nico’s self-confidence was, as ever, unshakeable.

‘Going home.’

>Today?

‘Yeah.’

>This is good news. I hear you fall yesterday, I worry.

‘I’m OK.’

>I see this. You talk much better, you walk, increible. I go to match reviews, I can not stay, but I am happy to see this. You call me later?

‘No phone.’

>Huh. You go home to your flat?

‘Rose’s.’

>Huh, is good. I call her later and talk to you. Declan, I am so happy to see you so better. I see you soon.

He gave me a quick hug and walked back down the corridor, not before blowing a kiss to Michelle.

¬He really is something else. Is he always so full on?

‘Pretty much.’

¬OK, m’dear, back to your room with you, breakfast is on its way, you wait for Rose. What do you want me to tell visitors? Is it OK for them to come in?

‘S’kay.’

¬Right then, off you go.

No other visitors were forthcoming, hardly surprising as they would all be on their way to the club for the Monday morning analysis of Saturday’s match. That would be why Big and Dav had been so early.

I ate my breakfast as well as I could with my mangled left hand. Scrambled egg and toast, not too difficult. Rose arrived just as I was finishing a mug of tea, holding it precariously with a couple of fingers in my left hand.

:Oh love, you look heaps better. Still a bit of a sight, but there’s a spark about you now. I was so worried yesterday. Have you been for another walk like you were told to?

‘Went to the loo. Twice.’

:There’s grand, love, how did you manage? Not with the loo, thanks, but with the walking.

‘Good.’

:And your talking’s much better. No need for little Calum to tell us what you’re saying. Such a difference from yesterday. You really are made of strong stuff, aren’t you love.

I thought about my wobble when faced with my reflection. Not much strong stuff on display there.

‘Saw my face.’

:Oh love, hadn’t you seen yourself before?

I shook my head.

:Bit of a shock I expect.

I nodded.

:Well, it probably looks worse than it is. Wait till the stitches are out, and the swelling goes down. You’ll be fine. Might have some scars to tell a story about – girls like a bit of a story, especially if it makes you look tough but vulnerable. Right, love, what’s going on with this doctor? Do I need to go and hurry him up?

‘Yeah.’

So off she went to cause some trouble on my behalf. I sat back against the pillows and listened to her voice drifting down the corridor. Occasionally I could hear Michelle try to get a word in, but mostly Rose was talking. Felt a bit sorry for the medical staff, they didn’t really stand a chance. Not sorry enough to do anything about it, because Rose was making sure I was going the fuck home. After a while there was silence. Footsteps. Rose returned. She had a glint in her eye.

:By, those doctors are slippery devils. Trying to say they had a clinic or something. He’ll be here in ten minutes. Or there’ll be trouble.

‘Thanks.’

:Have you got anything you need to pack up? What happened to your clothes?

‘Don’t know.’

:Honest, what are they thinking, sending you home without clothes? You can’t go home in your pyjamas, love.

‘Bloody well will though.’

:I’m going to find out. And what about all your stuff – keys, phone, what happened to all that?

‘Don’t know.’

:Right, wait here, love.

As if I was going anywhere, but I did start to wonder what had happened to everything, although I knew about my phone, more or less. Couldn’t remember if I’d had my keys with me or not. Bit of a problem if not, couldn’t get into my flat for clothes or anything. Suspected the clothes I was wearing on Saturday, my Raiders training kit, had been ruined, probably cut off and severely bled onto at the very least. I’d had a kit bag, which I’d put the clothes I’d worn to the ground in. My keys must be in there; I always put them in my pocket. Couldn’t remember where I’d left the bag. The holes in my memory weren’t being filled in, except in tiny flashes at odd times, and it was very frustrating.

Rose came back after a while. She had little news.

:Apparently everything you came in with would be in this cupboard, apart from your clothes, which they had to throw away, shoes too. Let’s have a look in here.

She opened the cupboard door. There was nothing inside apart from a pack of wipes and Cal’s dinosaur magazine, which had been soaked in the falling out of bed event yesterday, and whose pages were stuck together.

:Well that settles that. No keys, no phone – oh, that policeman had your phone, didn’t he. One mystery solved then. Any ideas where your keys are?

I shrugged.

‘Could be at the club. Had kit bag. Don’t know where.’

:Hmm, maybe we could call someone? Have you got the club number, or what about Nico, maybe he could look?

‘Numbers were on phone.’

:Oh you youngsters, nobody remembers things these days, rely too much on bits of kit to do the remembering, you do. OK, let’s think. How did you remember my number this morning?

‘Nurses had it.’

:OK then, love, let’s see if they’ve got anyone else’s then.

Off she went again, on another mission.

Not having my phone was going to be a real pain. I stored all my contacts there, I don’t think I’d ever written anyone’s details down. I was going to be seriously out of touch while I got everything sorted.

Rose came back looking pleased with herself.

:I got hold of Nico. He gave me his number the other day, I forgot it would be on my phone. He’s going to look for your bag after his meeting. If he finds it, at least you’ll have some clothes, even if your keys aren’t there. I’m going to ring the landlord, ask if they can get you a spare. We’ll get you sorted, love, now all we need is for that doctor to turn up. Let’s see if we can grab a cuppa while we’re waiting.

Off she went again, in search of tea. I was starting to get a bit fidgety. Never had been very good at just waiting. Now I was feeling more alert, I just wanted to go. I’d walk naked to Rose’s car if that was the only way to do it, didn’t really care if I had to go barefoot in my pyjamas.

Rose came back after a while, two mugs of tea balanced in one hand, holding her phone to her ear in the other. I was pretty sure she wasn’t supposed to be using her phone in here, but wasn’t about to tell her.

:I see, well, we’ll sort something out, don’t worry … no, no, love, sounds like you’re best off throwing it away … thanks for looking, can’t have been very nice … alright, love, talk to you later.

She hung up. Looked at me. Put the mugs on top of the cabinet.

‘Well, love, you’ve got some good friends and some rotten enemies. That was Nico. He found your bag, it was in an office, but some disgusting pig had used it as a toilet. No keys. He’s throwing it all away. Who’d do that to you, love?

DivDav for a start, he’d done something similar before, to my clothes at any rate. I thought we’d made up this morning, now I didn’t quite know how to take his apology. I kept silent and shrugged, hiding my dismay.

:Right then, I need to contact the landlord and get you another key. We need to get you some clothes so you can leave here decent. And some shoes. I’ll ring him now, maybe he’ll let me in to fetch you something. Has that doctor been by yet?

‘No.’

:Right, something else to chase up then.

The morning wore on with one frustrating delay after another. Rose managed to contact Tony, the landlord, who, after talking to me, agreed to go with Rose to pick up some clothes and trainers from my flat. The doctor visited me, and signed off on my discharge, but only once the pharmacy had made up my prescription for painkillers. Apparently the pharmacy were very busy and would get to my prescription when they could.

Cal

And then, with one thing and another, I didn’t really think about having a brother for a long time, because it was nearly Christmas, and I had written a list, but I needed to sort out Optimus Prime. I had wanted to put him on my list to Santa, but Dec had said he would get me one for my birthday, before it all went wrong. If I put Optimus Prime on my list to Santa, and then Dec remembered and gave me a late birthday present, I would have two, and I would rather have a Grimlock and an Optimus Prime than two Optimus Primes. I needed to talk to Dec so I could sort it out.

The next day, Mum had texts and phone calls all day from Rose, who told her that Dec was coming out of hospital and going to live with Rose for a while. We were going to call Dec and I was going to ask him to come to live with us for Christmas, and I would be able to ask him about Santa.

Mum made me practise what I was going to say, even though I didn’t need to practise to talk to Dec. She said because he’d been in hospital, and had been sad, we had to be careful with him, and so I practised like she told me.

Dec

More waiting. Lunchtime came. Cheese sandwiches. Chewing seemed to be back on the agenda. Rose reappeared, quite a long time after I’d expected her back. She looked worried.

:Sorry I’ve been so long, love. Bit of a problem with your flat. The door was open when we got there, it’s all a bit of a mess. Same thing that’s happened with your bag. Smelt foul. All over your clothes, bed, sofa, everything. They smashed stuff up, your plates and food and that, your telly too. About the only thing in your flat worth breaking. Tony’s called the police, and he’s staying till they arrive, then he’s going to call someone out to clean it all up. Are you sure your keys were in your bag?

‘Can’t really remember. In my jeans pocket?’

:Then probably the person who did your bag got your keys and let themselves in. I don’t know, love, I just don’t understand it. Anyway, I’ve called in at the supermarket and got you some clothes. Had to guess your size, might be a bit big, but better that than too small. Not the trendiest either.

She waved a carrier bag in my direction.

‘Shit, Rose, my flat?’

My brain had just caught up with what she had said.

:Oh, I’m sorry, love, shouldn’t have just blurted it out.

‘All my stuff?’

She sat by the bed and took my hand.

:Sorry love, all over your clothes, there just wasn’t anything I could bring.

‘Got nothing left … nothing.’

I almost couldn’t breathe, just the latest in a long line of indignities and insults. I was starting to think that even if I was a worthless piece of shit, I still didn’t deserve all this. Whenever things started to get a bit better, something new would come along and take it all away again. I could barely get my head round what must have gone on in my flat while I wasn’t there, that someone would just go in and …

:Oh, love, I never thought of it like that. We’ll get you new stuff. Better than this stuff, I’ll go out later.

‘Not the point. My home, my fucking stuff. And your fucking stuff. Your telly. Too much.’

I was angry, furious. Felt completely powerless to do anything about it.

:I’m sorry love, so sorry. It’ll all be cleaned up soon, once the police have finished. And I don’t want you worrying about my telly, it was really old. Here, put these things on, see if they fit, I’ve got trainers too, look –

I was breathing heavily, trying hard to keep my anger under control. Didn’t want to think about Rose’s bag of clothes. Wanted to smash things. Didn’t want Rose in the line of fire. Didn’t think I should really smash things in a hospital either. Several deep breaths later, just about pushed it far enough down. Rose was looking at me with concern.

:This has really upset you, hasn’t it, love.

‘Yeah. Fucking bastards.’

:Well, I think that’s what they wanted, to get under your skin. Don’t let them win. I can see how angry it’s made you, try to put that somewhere and use it later. Deal with this, focus on getting home with me, use being angry to fuel something else, getting better, working on getting fit again. I know it’s hard, you want to punch someone I expect. It’s not fair, not after everything that’s happened to you. Just use it, don’t let it use you.

‘Fuck. Fuck! You’re right. Sorry. Wise old Rose. Fucking, fucking hell.’

A few more deep breaths. A few more fucks. Still wanted to smash things, deep down somewhere, but much less likely to do it right now.

:Less of the ‘old’, you. And I’ll let you off the language in the circumstances. Good job little Calum’s not here, he wouldn’t believe his ears.

A tap on the door. Nurse Michelle.

¬Everything alright in here? Mind keeping the noise down a bit? I know you’re feeling better but we’ve got other sick people here and everything.

:Sorry, love, Declan’s just had a bit of a shock. Think he’s OK now.

‘Sorry.’

¬Well, OK, just as long as everything’s alright. We’ve just had word from the pharmacy, they’re sending your meds up, it’s all OK for you to leave, whenever you want.

:Oh that’s grand. I think we’re almost set, you just need to get changed. Alright now, love?

‘Kay.’

She put the bag of clothes on the bed.

:I’ll wait outside, come and get me.

I got changed as quickly as I could; my plastered right arm gave me some difficulty, both getting my pyjama shirt off and the new one on. Pulling trousers up was tricky too, although thankfully Rose had chosen tracksuit bottoms with no zip or buttons. She had neglected to get underpants, something I was quite pleased about as the thought of her pondering boxers versus briefs, and exactly what she thought my size was, was somewhere I didn’t really want to visit. No socks either, but the trainers were a good enough fit and had Velcro fastenings, although it was hard to bend down to reach, and my fingers didn’t grip very well.

After a struggle, a lot of pain and a ‘fuck’ or two, I was finally ready – sweating, a bit dishevelled and in need of a good scrubbing in many areas, but ready to go. I picked up the pyjamas and put them in the bag. It was amazing how difficult simple actions like that were with only a few working fingers, and two arms that didn’t really bend properly. Refused to get frustrated. Managed it in the end. Left the room and found Rose in the corridor.

:Here you are, I was just about to send a search party. Having trouble, love?

‘A bit. Diddit though.’

:Well done, love. You show ’em. Let’s go then.

So we did, picking up the pills from Michelle on the desk as we went. Slow progress, but I walked all the way to the outside on my own. Lots of looks from people, some sideways glances, some open-mouthed staring. I suppose I was a bit of a sight with my bruises, stitches and swollen face, but I stared everyone down from behind my puffy eyelids. Rose fussed and twittered, telling me every ten seconds to

:Be careful, love.

:Mind the door, love.

:Don’t go so fast, love, you might trip over.

:Are you sure you don’t want a wheelchair, love?

:Watch that little boy, love …

I let her get on with it, mostly ignored her, concentrating on one foot in front of the other and not banging into anything. The main entrance seemed miles away, but it arrived eventually. I sped up as I approached, couldn’t wait for the outside. It felt like I had been here for weeks, instead of less than forty eight hours. Finally through the doors, I stopped and breathed in fresh air.

21. The consequences of falling

In which Dec tries to find his feet and Matty tries to find stuff out.

Dec

Nurse Michelle popped her head round the door.

¬Sorry to break up the party, the police are quite anxious to have a word with Declan. I’m going to have to ask you to leave. You can visit again this afternoon if you want to.

:Any idea how long he’s going to be in here, love?

¬Well, we’ll ask the physios to have a go at standing him, and if he can stand up on his own and walk unaided, it could be later on tomorrow or the day after. We need to get the catheter out and make sure he can get to the loo on his own. Might try that today, even, it’s not good to have it in too long. He’s had several bangs to the head which need an eye for the next twenty four hours in any case. Is there anyone at home to look after him?

>He live on his own.

:I live downstairs. He won’t be on his own.

¬Well that’s great, should speed it all up if there’s going to be someone around when he goes home. I’m going to send the policeman in now. Declan, do you want anyone with you?

‘Ruhz.’

:Of course, love, as if I’m going anywhere!

>I guess that mean we are not wanted. We will be back, Declan. Be careful with yourself.

~Bye Dec. Chin up – oh, but mind the stitches. See you soon, yeah?

And so it was just Rose and me. She gently took my injured hand and gave it the tiniest squeeze.

‘Thnks Ruhz. Yohr graat.’

:Oh love, I was worried when I didn’t hear from you all day yesterday. I wondered if it had all gone like you thought it would, and you’d gone off doing something silly. I was so relieved when I saw you on the news. When you didn’t come back, I thought you must have gone out celebrating. Ah love, look at you. I can’t believe someone would do this to you.

‘Dint I call yuh?’

I’d certainly meant to, but couldn’t remember doing it.

:No, love. I left you a couple of messages.

‘Sohry.’

:Oh love, don’t worry about it, I’m just glad you’ve still got your job. I hope all this –

She indicated my battered body.

: – doesn’t affect things with your club.

Hadn’t considered that. Put it to the back of my mind as something to worry about later. Had enough going on just now. Rose brushed my hair back from my forehead. I had a sudden memory from my childhood of my mum doing exactly the same when I was ill or upset. It was a bit overwhelming.

:What about your visitors, though, love, your Jay and Beth and little Calum, I was that pleased for you. How about that?

Now they were gone it all felt unreal again, and I could easily have doubted they had been here, if it wasn’t for the dinosaur magazine lying on top of the cupboard by the bed.

‘Cahn bliehve ih. Hahpy.’

:I’m happy for you, love, they seem lovely, obviously care a lot about you. Did Jay say he stayed here all night with you?

‘Thihnk so. Wahs ouh of ih. Noh hehr when I wohk up.’

:I expect he had to go and get a bit of sleep, or a bit of breakfast. I’m glad I met them.

A knock on the door.

¬Declan, this is DI Johnson. He just wants to ask a few questions. Are you up to it m’dear?

‘Mm.’

¬OK. DI Johnson, Declan’s speech is not that clear due to his facial injuries. He is also on a lot of pain medication. Don’t tire him out, please.

ϙUnderstood. Hello there. OK if I sit down?

He took a notebook out of his pocket, and began asking me about the previous evening. I wasn’t much help. Barely being able to talk aside, I couldn’t remember leaving the club, and nothing of the attack, except the boot coming towards me. It was difficult for me to take in exactly what had happened to me, let alone remembering. Everything from late afternoon and evening was foggy, vague and jumbled. I remembered watching the game, and bits and pieces of the press conference but everything after that was a blur.

DI Johnson picked up a plastic bag he had placed on a chair when he came in. It was a mess of broken bits, the remains of a mobile phone.

ϙDoes this look familiar?

‘Fhone?’

ϙIs it yours?

He held the bag closer to my face. There wasn’t much left, I really couldn’t tell; my phone was pretty nondescript, just black, no fancy cover. If it had been smashed, it could well look like this bag of bits.

‘Duhnuh.’

ϙOK. No problem, it is rather mangled. Can you tell us your number? We might be able to check, if there’s enough left of it.

I couldn’t remember the number, but Rose had it on her phone, and she told him.

ϙWas anyone expecting you to be out in the car park at that time? It would have been sometime around seven o’clock, that’s when you were seen leaving the bar.

I kept telling him, it was all a haze. I suppose he had to ask, but it wasn’t jogging my memory at all.

‘Duhnuh.’

ϙCan’t remember any arrangements with anyone?

‘Nuh.’

He asked a few more details: people I could remember talking to, phone calls or texts I could remember. I really struggled to recall anything useful.

ϙAnyone you can think of who may have wanted to hurt you?

Only about ten thousand Raiders fans.

‘Nuh.’

ϙOK, I’ll leave it there. I may come back if anything turns up on the phone. And if you remember anything else at all, however small, please contact me. Here’s my card.

‘Kay.’

I was pretty exhausted. It had been wonderful – amazing – to see everyone, but I was seriously flagging now. I closed my eyes and drifted away.

Dreaming. I am standing surrounded by people, everyone I know and care about. They start to walk away, in different directions. I can fly. I fly above them and watch them go. The higher I fly, the easier it is to watch everyone at the same time.

Matt

True to his word, Jay was back early enough the next morning that he could sort me out. I wasn’t any more pleasant to him than I had been to Ian, although Jay wasn’t as prepared to put up with it.

‘What the fuck’s the matter with you, Matty? You’re not making this easy, you know.’

‘Sohry if meh bein ihl is suhch an incohvehience.’

‘You know I didn’t mean that. You can help a bit, is all I meant. Try pushing with your arms, at least.’

‘Why dih yuh cahcel Sahly?’

‘What?’

‘Yehsday, sohm blohk cahm.’

‘What, the agency?’

He took my silence as a yes.

‘I didn’t cancel her, I didn’t ask for her, I thought you’d prefer a bloke to wash your bits and pieces.’

‘He wahs shih.’

‘Sorry, mate. I didn’t know you had a preference, although maybe I should have guessed you’d rather have a woman’s hands on your balls.’

‘Fuck. Ohf.’

He’d hit a nerve, unintentionally. There had been absolutely no stirrings from my balls or any other part of my male anatomy since … I couldn’t really remember. Since Carrie left me, certainly. I’d expected to be at least mildly turned on when Sally washed me, but there had been nothing, and it felt wrong.

‘What is it then? I’m not quite sure what I’ve done.’

You’ve just walked all over me without even asking me, is what you’ve done, you’ve just assumed I don’t have an opinion, or rather you’ve guessed what that opinion is, and now you’ve just second guessed it. But I didn’t have the strength, the breath or the courage to say it all.

‘Wanted Sahly.’

It sounded petulant, even to me.

‘Sorry, mate, I’ll remember next time, but I don’t think we’ll need to use them again, we’re not planning on going away again any time soon. Oh, Beth went shopping and got you something, should make life a bit easier for you.’

He went out of the room, and came back in with a cup. It was made of plastic and had a lid with a spout. It looked like something you gave a two year old to drink juice out of. I looked at it with disgust

‘Wha the fuck’s tha?’

‘So you don’t spill so much tea. We’re going to have to buy a new bed if you drop much more.’

‘No Tohtenham ohns left?’

I was actually close to tears, but tried to make light of it, as if having a football team’s logo emblazoned on a baby cup would somehow make it more manly. All the hope that Sally had given me for a quick recovery dribbled away.

‘Ha ha, I don’t think so. Maybe we can get you a sticker, if you’re a good boy.’

And that was the root of it, really, the fact that Jay could joke about me being a child and getting a sticker, when I actually felt like a child, like everyone made decisions around me but not with me. He still thought I was his little brother. Well, I was still his little brother, but I wasn’t still twelve, he wasn’t still the boss of me. Oh, that sounded like I was still twelve.

Then, as always happened, I reminded myself that he had given up his job, his fucking job, and uprooted his family from Devon to come and live in shitty Stafford, although admittedly the nice part, so he could look after me. And I kept my thoughts to myself and drank out of the cup, because it was the least I could do not to spill tea on the bed and break it.

Dec

I came to, gradually, later. Rose was asleep in the armchair by my bed. Did a quick check of my moving parts. Seemed slightly easier, although trying to move set up a chorus of protests from various areas. My mouth felt more a part of me, and I could open my eyes further, although my head was pounding. Couldn’t move my right arm, which was plastered all the way up and ended in the stabbing, tearing pain of a broken collar bone. Tried the left arm. Managed to move it, but my hand was swollen and bruised, and the little finger had a splint and bandage on it, so wiggling any of my fingers was difficult and painful. My elbow bent a bit more than it had this morning. Tried moving my head from side to side. That hurt a lot, and sent shooting pains down my neck, shoulders and back. Moved toes, feet and legs. It hurt, and they were stiff, but everything seemed to work. It also tugged on the tube for my pee, which felt really weird. I wasn’t quite sure what it was or how it was attached, but I decided I wanted it removed as soon as possible.

Thought I might try getting out of bed. I was already in a semi-sitting position, propped up with pillows and the mattress, which had been raised at an angle. I tried sitting more upright, so I would be able to swing my legs over the side. It was slow, painful progress. Every tiny movement set off sharp digs, pulls and stabs from stitches, bruises, broken bones. It was almost like being beaten up all over again.

I had just about pulled myself up into a more upright position when Rose woke up with a start. She looked disoriented for a few seconds, then looked over at me. Frowned.

:What on earth are you up to, love?

‘Wanna gerrup.’

:Whatever for?

‘Neeto gerrouof here.’

:No arguments from me there, love, but if you fall flat on that big ugly broken nose of yours, you’ll be staying for several more days at least, and that’s a fact. You’re woozy on painkillers, only have half a working arm, and who knows if your legs will even stand you up properly. Wait for a nurse to get here, at least, so you can have some proper supervision. Please, Declan. I can see you’re about to argue with me and do it your own way. I don’t think I could bear it if you hurt yourself again. Please.

Unable to go against her pleading, I flopped back on the pillows. That hurt too.

‘Ahsk nuhrse foh meh?’

Rose paused, considering.

:Alright, I’ll go and find someone. Promise me you won’t try it while I’m out the room.

‘Prohmis.’

While she was gone, I tried limbering up by moving as many bits of me as I could. If I got used to how much pain there was going to be before I actually did anything, I might be able to push through it. I had done it in games and in training before, not to this extent, but knew that I had the capacity to ignore pain to achieve a goal. After a while, Rose returned.

:They’ll come and help you in a bit, I think they’re dishing out pills at the moment. Think you can wait?

I sighed.

‘Kay.’

:Anything you want? There’s a little shop downstairs, sells papers, drinks, everything. You missed lunch, they brought something then took it away again.

‘Whatime issit?’

:Half past two.

I had been asleep for several hours. I was really thirsty.

‘Drink.’

:OK, love. Anything particular?

‘Vodka Redbull.’

I tried a cheeky grin.

:In your dreams. Anything doable?

‘Joos. Apple.’

:Right you are, love, I’ll be back in a tick.

Rose hurried out, and I drifted into a doze again. Before I could sleep too deeply, there was a knock on the door. Nurse Michelle. Seemingly the front of house for the Summers function.

¬You have a visitor, if you’re up to it.

‘Who?’

She turned round to someone behind her.

¬What’s your name please?

-Don Barker.

¬Declan?

‘Kay.’

My pulse rate had shot up; I suddenly remembered Rose’s throwaway comment about my newly restored status at the club being affected by my injuries. Thought about feigning sleep, but that was only postponing it, and he already knew I was awake. Don walked in and sat on the chair by the bed.

-Hello Declan. You actually look better than you did last night, although that’s not saying much. How are you?

‘Pruhty shit. Yuh wuhr hehr?’

-I came as soon as Jay rang me last night. You were out for the count though. Do you have any idea who did this?

‘Nuh.’

-Have you spoken to the police?

‘Yuh. Noh much tuh tell. Cahn member.’

-Oh, well, maybe something will come back, these things can take time. Would you –

The door opened, and Rose came back in carrying a bag that seemed full of more than just apple juice. She stopped when she saw Don, who stood up and held out his hand in greeting. Rose ignored it.

-Hello, Don Barker.

:Rose. Who are you?

-I’m Declan’s boss.

Don paused so Rose could tell him who she was. She was returning no such favour. There was a silence. I caved.

‘Ruhz is guhd fruhnd. Joos?’

:Oh, yes, love, here you go.

She emptied the slushie cup, and poured some juice into it. Put the straw in the cup. Held it up to my mouth. I sipped. Heaven.

:Got a few more bits in case you’re hungry. Can’t go missing your lunch. So, Mr Barker, is Declan keeping his job?

I spluttered.

‘Ruhz! Bluhdy hell!’

Don laughed.

-You’re quite direct aren’t you! Fair enough. Yes, Declan will be keeping his job. We’ve got a place for him, all the rehab he’ll need, we’ll keep our end of the bargain if he keeps his.

I sank back with relief. Rose patted my hand.

:Well you wouldn’t have asked, would you love? Best get things out in the open, I say.

Don looked like something had just occurred to him.

-Are you the lady who lives in Declan’s building?

Rose looked wary.

:Yes.

-Ah, I’ve heard a lot about you from Nico. He credits you with keeping Declan together, helping him through the last few weeks, making sure he turned things round so he could stay at Raiders.

:I didn’t have much to do with it –

‘Bolluhks. Cuhdn’t huv dun it wuthout yuh.’

:Well, we’ve helped each other over the past few weeks I suppose. Declan is a lovely lad, he’s been a bit sad and mixed up. Needs someone who understands.

-Well, I think you could be right there. Declan, I’ve spoken at length to Nico and Jay, who are both very worried about you, not just because of this attack, but your state of mind. I’m glad you seem to have mended some bridges with Jay. As part of your rehab, we’d like you to make contact with a psychologist who helps out at the club from time to time. I think there are lots of issues you could sort out that might prevent anything similar happening again.

Rose looked at me.

:Oh love that sounds grand. Someone proper to talk to, get it all off your chest.

‘Got yuh.’

Talking about all my shit to a stranger was the last thing I wanted to be doing.

:I know, love, but I can only do mam chat. Doesn’t solve much. Not like a professional. You can still chat to me, I can still stick my oar in. Why don’t you do this as well?

I really didn’t like the thought of a psychologist, but I wasn’t being given much of a choice.

‘Kay.’

Rose wasn’t finished sticking her oar in today.

:This rehab you mentioned. Do you have physios?

-Yes, the club have several physios, we’ll devise the best prog –

:Are they available today?

-Er… it’s their day off … why do you ask?

:Well, Declan can’t go home until a physio says he can stand up without falling flat on his face. Any chance yours could come down and give him the once over? Might speed things up a bit.

Don laughed again.

-It hadn’t occurred to me. Is he up to going home so soon?

:I think he wants to try, if he can, right love?

‘Yeh. Need tuh gerrouof here.

-OK then, I’ll see if I can contact someone. I’ll have to go outside to use my phone. Back in a minute.

Don shut the door behind him as I left, and I turned to look at Rose.

‘Ruhz, yuhr tehrible.’

:Sticking up for you, that’s all. You’d still be here next Christmas if we did things your way.

‘Thahnks.’

:You’re welcome, love.

Rose showed me the contents of her carrier bag. She seemed to have brought every type of junk food the shop could possibly have sold. Sandwiches, crisps, a nutty energy bar, a pork pie, chocolate. I couldn’t remember the last time I ate – was it lunchtime yesterday? What day was today?

‘Ruhz, what day issit?’

:Sunday, love.

‘Seehms long tihm ago.’

:What does love?

‘Yessday.’

:Well a lot’s happened, hasn’t it. Who’d have thought yesterday morning, when you could hardly speak for thinking it was the end of the world, that you’d have your job back and your family back? How are you now, love? I mean, in yourself. It’s obvious the outside of you’s not up to much at the moment, but when I dropped you off yesterday morning, I was that worried. Now, you seem different, like, I don’t know, a weight’s lifted off.

‘Yeah. Behter.’

I didn’t really have the right words to explain the difference between yesterday morning and now. I’d been falling apart, but somehow, despite everything that had happened, I had been glued back together by keeping my job and finding my family.

: I’m glad to hear it. You’ve been beaten black and blue into the bargain, mind, you’re bound to be feeling a bit out of it. All those knocks to the head aren’t helping either. Oh, love, I wish you could remember what happened. What if they have another go?

‘Lethem try.’

:Well the state you’re in, they’d have no trouble finishing the job, so ten out of ten for bravery, but nothing for common sense. Anyway, what do you fancy out of this lot?

I looked at the pile of food Rose had bought. Didn’t think I’d be able to manage most of it – chewing was a bit beyond me right now, crisps would lacerate and rub salt in too many wounds, nuts too crunchy –

‘Choclut plehs.’

Rose broke off a square and put it in my mouth. I hadn’t realised how hungry I was. As the chocolate melted on my tongue, my mouth filled with saliva, and I became aware of how empty my stomach was. It let out a rumble. Rose gave me a look.

:When did you last eat?

‘Carn member. Lunch yessday?’

:Oh love, what do these people do all day in here? You need sustenance. Try some of this other stuff.

‘Too hard. Carn chew.’

Rose looked stricken.

:I’m sorry, love, I didn’t think. Crisps, what am I like? Right, I’m going to find some proper food if I have to raid the kitchens myself. Assuming these places still have kitchens. Be back in a tick.

And she was off again.

Matt

Jay was sitting in the chair by the bed later, doing some paperwork on his knee as I dozed.

‘Soh wha’s stohry wih the adolehscent?’

Jay looked up, frowning slightly.

‘Dec?’

‘Yeh. Muhm said bihg rihft, then yehsday ahl behter?’

‘Well I suppose that’s a very short way of saying it.’

‘Spihl?’

He sighed. ‘Really? Could take a while.’

It was something of a novelty, Jay having more than five words to say to me at a time, and I wanted to encourage it while it was on offer.

‘Sehm tuh hahv tihm on my hahnds befohr I ruhsh off tuh my nehxt appoihment. Kehp trahk if I nohd ohf, thogh.’

‘OK then. Weren’t we just off to Portugal last time you were down?’

I nodded.

‘Jesus, where do I start? A lot of it we didn’t know till later, but I’ll do my best. Everything was going great, Dec had turned into a good kid, did what he was told, worked hard. Then when we came back from holiday, he was like a different person, he sulked in his room, didn’t talk, ate his meals at different times to us.’

I thought back to how Dec had been last time I saw him, how open he was, how different from the sullen uncommunicative teenager I’d always seen before.

‘Wha was ih?’

Jay told me the long, involved tale of Dec’s indiscretions, misdemeanours and misfortunes, which included some kind of fraud, some kind of theft and some kind of accidental death. Above all, it involved Dec not telling anyone about any of it.

‘I didn’t find out about any of this until, well it all came out on the same day, about an hour after Mum called me and told me she’d found you on the floor of your bathroom.’

‘Shih.’

‘Yeah, well, it wasn’t the best day. By then, he’d moved out, been gone a couple of months, and we hardly saw him, or spoke to him, so the last thing I needed was being landed with all his shit when I just wanted to get up here and see what was going on with you. I was seriously angry, and I told him we were done with him. Then I handed in my notice at Raiders and we were off.’

I’d had no idea how traumatic it had been, and swore again to give Jay an easier time about everything. It would probably last half an hour, but at least I’d sworn it.

‘Buh wha now?’

‘Well, in-between there was a lot of other shit. Do you know Nico?’

I shrugged, not being able to summon the thinking power to trawl through Jay’s rugby-mates contact list.

‘He’s one of the Raiders players. Him and his wife – oh, you know Lis?’

‘Yuhr ex?’

‘Yeah, Jesus, don’t blurt that out in front of Beth though, it doesn’t get mentioned. Anyway, Nico and Lis decided to take Dec under their wing a bit. They told us, but we didn’t want to know, didn’t want to be involved. And Cal got hold of my phone and called Dec while we were out visiting you one time, and I tore him off a strip and probably caused him some kind of emotional trauma. And Cal ran away from the hotel when we were back down in Devon.’

‘Muhm said.’

‘Did she tell you Dec found him?’

I nodded.

‘So it’s been a bit of an action-packed few months, all told.’

‘Sohry.’

Jay’s eyes softened, and he reached over and ruffled my hair.

‘Don’t be yampy Matty, sometimes you have to do what you have to do.’

‘Buh Muhm said ih’s ahl hahpy now.’

I was getting tired, taking all this in, but I wanted to hear the end. I wanted something else to focus on apart from my bloody woes.

‘I wouldn’t say happy exactly, but yeah, something’s happened that’s changed things. Dec was – he’s been beaten up, glassed and kicked in the car park at Raiders. I found him.’

‘Hohly shih.’

‘Yeah. I didn’t know it was him though, just tripped over this bloke, looked down, shitloads of blood, like splattered up the side of a car and running across the ground. This bloke, Jesus, his face was just blood, glass all over the place, his clothes were all cut; you could see gashes through them. He was kind of mumbling, but he stopped after a bit. I got Beth to call an ambulance, and had to stay with him while it came, but then we were still going to come back up here. The police wouldn’t let me go, though, until they’d talked to me, and they kept me bloody ages. Cal was getting seriously bored, we were waiting in one of the suites at Raiders with nothing to do. Then they finally came and talked to us, and asked if I knew the victim. I said I didn’t recognise him, but neither would his mother, so they asked if I knew Declan Summers, and then it twigged. The bloke I’d found on the ground, with his face smashed in, was Dec. Jesus, I was nearly sick. I’m sorry, mate, but I just needed to go to the hospital and make sure he was OK.’

‘Sohkay. Fuck.’

‘Yeah, you could say that. It was weird, though. The night before last, sorry, I’m not telling this very well, God, was it only Friday? Well, Raiders got docked a ton of points because of the passport thing. We were staying with Nico and Lis, and I had a feeling Dec’s name would get a mention, I mean, it was his passport all the fuss was about. I’d said to Beth, beforehand, you’re sure they’re not going to want to talk about Dec, because Lis had been making these ‘maybe you don’t know the whole story’ noises, and I didn’t want to know.

That seemed about right. Jay was never one for facing a confrontation head on.

‘Nico was out when we got there on Friday evening, but when he came back he said he knew we didn’t want to hear it, but Dec was seriously disturbed, like mentally unwell, like the points thing had unhinged him somehow. It worried me, hearing that, and me and Beth talked into the small hours about whether we’d made a mistake cutting him out like we had. Cal really missed him, and so did we, I guess. Anyway, I went to the hospital as soon as I found out, and he was lying there, face all swollen and bruised, stitches everywhere you looked, they broke his fucking arm in three places, nearly broke his jaw.’

Jay’s own jaw tightened as he spoke, and I could see how much it had affected him, how much it was still affecting him to tell the tale.

‘He was medicated up to his eyeballs, so he was virtually unconscious, but I just wanted to be there when he woke up, so he had someone with him. But it took a long time, and while I was sat there waiting, I just realised that we were OK now. We’d been in this bad place, but things were OK. It might take a bit of talking, but we’d get there, things could get back to how they’d been.’

‘Soh is heh cohming tuh lihv up hehr?’

‘Oh fuck knows, Matty, I highly doubt it. We haven’t even talked to him properly, he can hardly speak his face is such a mess. He’s so Raiders, I doubt he’d give it up, and I don’t think he should if things work out for him. Haven’t really got the room, either, although I could always do without my office I suppose. We might ask him up for Christmas, though, if he’s well enough, see how things go.’

I looked at the Christmas tree sparkling in the corner of the room, lights flashing. Cal had been so excited about it being December that he’d apparently wanted a tree in every room as soon as they moved in, but had had to compromise with one in the living room and one in my room.

I hadn’t given Christmas much thought. It was going to be a weird time. Last year I’d been in New York with Carrie, and the world was mine. This year the world had kicked my arse, and it owned me instead. One teenager more or less wouldn’t make much difference to me in life’s grand scheme.

‘Greht.’

‘You won’t have to see much of him, if he comes.’

‘S’fihn.’

Dec

The square of chocolate had melted and slipped smoothly down my throat, but had hardly touched my awakened hunger. I looked longingly at the opened bar that Rose had left on the top of the cupboard. Surely if I was really careful, and did it really slowly, I could just twist round and reach it? My bruised hand wasn’t working great, but I only needed to break a bit off. It wouldn’t take much. Surely.

I inched my legs to the side of the bed. If I could get my legs over the side, the momentum would lift me up into a sitting position on the side of the bed, wouldn’t it? Little by little I moved my left leg nearer to the edge of the mattress. My heel eventually hung over the edge. I moved my right leg next to it. Shoved the left foot with the right and both feet were dangling in space, pulling painfully on all sorts of aches and pains. Feeling the twist in my spine, I braced myself with my left elbow, which didn’t seem to want to bend completely, and gave an almighty heave to push both legs over the side. The combined push of my arm and my legs did indeed manage to sit me up over the side of the bed, but it hurt a lot.

Breathing heavily, and waiting for the throbbing to subside, I sat wondering if a bite of chocolate was worth it. Couldn’t see any way back now. My feet didn’t reach the floor, and there was no way I would be able to get my legs back onto the bed. The bed seemed to be some kind of automatic high-low thing; it was at its highest setting and the controls were nowhere to be seen. The gap between my feet and the floor was only a few inches, but it felt insurmountable, as although my legs were the least injured part of me, I wasn’t sure of them.

Rather than plunging into the relatively unknown, I decided to edge my way along the bed until I was close enough to reach the chocolate. This was more easily thought than done, as I only had one arm to brace myself with, and at the end of that was a bruised hand with a broken finger. The other arm was heavy with plaster, and with every movement I felt the ends of my collar bone scraping together, and the thump of my pounding headache . So, slow progress.

Finally I thought I was close enough to try reaching. I was going to have to stretch forwards and sideways, and possibly twist my hips to the left a little bit.

I’m not sure what happened. I was doing it all really carefully, but all of a sudden my arse was in mid-air, followed shortly by the rest of me, and I was on my way to the floor.

I tried to grab hold of the bed to save myself, but only succeeded in catching my fingers in the sheet and painfully wrenching my right shoulder. My head hit the cupboard, which rocked, and sent the vase of flowers to the floor, where it smashed next to me, closely followed by Cal’s bottle of blackcurrant, the jug of water and the carton of apple juice. The stand with the drip hanging from it started to wobble.

As I hit the floor, everything that had been cut, scraped, broken, bruised or otherwise damaged, protested this new mistreatment. All at once, in a huge burst of pain. I shrieked. The drip stand fell on top of me and the tube was pulled from my arm. Something had happened to the pee bag, which had been strapped to my leg, and it was leaking piss all over me and the floor; something unmentionable seemed to have happened to the tube. I couldn’t move.

I started to cry – big, baby, shocked, hurt tears. Too much to handle. I half expected someone to come running, but no one came. Couldn’t shout. Couldn’t reach the alarm call button. Could only hope Rose would be back soon. Lay there, getting cold, feeling water, blackcurrant, apple juice and piss soaking into my pyjamas. Sniffed back tears.

In time, to my great relief, the door opened. I was in the wrong position to see who it was, but I didn’t care.

°Shit!

A pair of feet wearing brown Chukkas was right by my head. I looked up the legs and beyond, and saw Big. He stood looking at me with a stunned expression.

‘Help.’

°Shit, Captain, I’ll go and get someone.

He ran out of the room and returned quickly with a couple of nurses. They positioned themselves beside me, exclaiming, picking bits of broken vase off my face, standing the drip back up, checking me over. Apart from the indignity of the piss, and the entire situation, I didn’t seem to have sustained further damage.

°Anything I can do?

Big moved close to me again, and something about the combination of his boots and the broken glass caused a flashback.

I was on the ground in the car park again, seeing a brown booted foot coming towards my face.

Back on the floor in the hospital, I flinched away from the nurses, and tried to curl into a ball, crying out in agony as everything hurt all over again. For a short time every stab of pain felt like a punch or kick.

*Hey, hey, steady now, Declan, it’s OK, take it easy. You’re OK. Can you tell us what happened?

*Maybe you’d better come back to see your friend later?

°Sure thing. OK.

I heard the door close.

*Where’s this blood coming from? I thought it was all blackcurrant, but he’s bleeding here, look, and here. The cannula has come out and I think he’s pulled some stitches. And I think he’s pulled on the catheter tube. We’d better get the doctor to check him over before we try and move him.

One of them left. Rose chose this moment to make her re-entrance.

:Oh my – what’s happened? Declan?

‘Rohz, sohry.’

She bent down, pushing the nurse, who was trying to check my pulse, out of the way.

:What have you done?

‘Wanted choclat. Sohry.’

:I told you I was going to find you something. You promised me you wouldn’t try on your own.

‘Sohry.’

:What’s he done to himself? Where’s all this blood coming from?

Rose sounded panicked.

*It’s not blood, it’s Ribena. We’re going to get the doctor to have a look. It doesn’t look like he’s made anything any worse, apart from pulling a few stitches, and a bit of a problem with the catheter. That’s going to hurt for a bit. Declan, I’m going to try to sit you up. You need to get out of these wet things before it ruins your plaster cast. Can you help at all?

I could barely lift my shoulders off the ground, but I did that and felt her arms go underneath, slowly levering me onto her knees, and from there, bit by bit, into a sitting position, leaning back against her. In another lifetime I would have been embarrassed or maybe even enjoyed it but didn’t have the energy for either, and it was so painful.

*Okay, any chance you could lean forwards and support yourself?

Gave it a go. Managed it.

*Great stuff. Right, lets get that top off. Er, are you his mum?

:No love, just a friend.

*Maybe you’d like to wait outside?

:Hm. Well just until he’s changed, then I’m coming back in. OK Declan?

‘Kay.’

The nurse took off my top and wiped me down with some disposable cloths that seemed to be kept in the bedside cupboard.

*Have you got any fresh pyjamas? Let’s have a look – oh, here.

I’d forgotten about the ones that Beth had brought earlier. The nurse pulled the clean shirt over my head, handling the plastered arm with skill and tying the hem of it out of the way of my soaking bottoms.

*Hmm, changing your lower half is going to be a bit more tricky, don’t really want to do that on the floor with all this glass and liquid. We need to get you back on the bed, it’ll need more than just me, and we need to have a bit of a clear up. I’ll get your friend to come and wait while I get someone to help me.

Rose came back in, and knelt down beside me.

‘Mind yohr clothes.’

:Don’t you worry about me. It’s you we need to worry about, love.

She started to pick up the larger bits of glass and put them in an empty carrier bag.

:What are we going to do with you? I’d say your stubborn streak is going to get you into trouble, but it already has so many times it’s not really worth saying. Bet you gave yourself a bit of shock, love. Were you trying to stand up?

‘Noh. Fell off bed. Too high. Cuhdn’t reach’

:So did you even get the chocolate in the end?

‘Noh.’

I started to laugh, an edge of hysteria.

:And look, here it is.

Rose picked up the chocolate bar from somewhere on the floor. It dripped purpley yellow droplets.

:I’d guess you don’t want any of it now?

This also struck me as very funny, and I laughed again. It was very close to weeping. I got myself under control with an effort.

The nurses returned, with a white-coated doctor in tow. He had a quick look in my swollen eyes, checked some reflexes, prodded, poked, asked a few questions, restitched the busted stitches, gave me the all clear, and got the nurses to remove the catheter tube completely, with Rose asked to briefly leave the room again while they did so.

*You’ll have another large bruise on your gluteus maximus – that’s your backside – to add to your collection, but I don’t think you’ve broken anything else.

*So lets have a go at getting you back into bed. We could use a hoist, but how about having a go using those legs? Oh! The glass has been cleared up.

:I did the big bits, but there’ll still be some slivers in the water there. Careful where you’re kneeling –

The door opened again. Don.

*You can’t come in, sir.

-What’s going on?

*Please wait outside.

:Declan’s had a bit of a tumble. I’ll fill you in.

Rose left with Don. The nurses had a discussion about the best way to get me off the floor. They didn’t seem too confident, and were starting to err on the side of a hoist. Didn’t fancy that.

‘Lemme try, plehs.’

*It’s not as simple as that. We don’t want you falling again. You were lucky just now, but you’ve got plenty of injuries as it is –

The door opened.

-Can I have a word? I’ve got two of my physios on the way. They don’t know Declan’s had a fall, but maybe they could help get him back into bed and have a look at his mobility at the same time? Two birds with one stone? They’re literally on their way, should be here any time.

The nurses looked at each other over the top of my head. One shrugged, the other nodded.

*What do you think, Declan? Can you wait a few minutes? We can get a towel for you to sit on.

‘Kay.’

Undignified doesn’t even begin to describe the wait for Pete and Janie, the Raiders physios, to arrive. Sat on a folded up towel, in a purple puddle of piss, while people cleared up around me, cold, feeling very foolish, hurting everywhere, while Rose and Don attempted small talk with the nurse who remained with me, was not an experience I would rush to repeat.

I huddled as small as I could, feeling conspicuous, helpless and stupid. I was sure I was more mobile than everyone was making out, but their protective instincts were in full flight, and I wasn’t allowed to move. I almost wished I’d agreed to the hoist, although I wasn’t quite sure what it was and suspected it would involve me dangling in mid-air somehow.

When Pete and Janie finally arrived, I nearly wept with relief, and was incredibly grateful for their no-nonsense attitude. Don filled them in with the latest developments. They knelt beside me and gave me the once over, carefully moving all my joints to check range of movement, ignoring what they were kneeling in and my soaking pyjama bottoms.

$Blimey, Declan, you look like you’ve been in a fight with the front row. Just stretch your arm out to here … great.

£Can you bend your left knee? Good … and your right one … great. OK, what I suggest is using your quads and knees, which seem in fairly good shape compared to the rest of you, to try standing. We’ll be behind you supporting – you’ve got some tender areas on your back, we’ll do our best but it might hurt a bit.

‘Skay.’

£Good lad. OK then …

Working together, they supported me and guided me slowly to my feet. I could do most of it myself, ignored the pain, wobbled a bit and was glad of their arms holding me steady. The audience of Rose, Don and the nurse made me self-conscious, but I tried to put it out of my mind so I could concentrate on walking. After the initial burst of pain from falling, I had started to feel more physically with-it, and was determined to show them all I could do it.

$Well done, Dec. OK, would someone like to get rid of that towel and mop up the rest of this water? Not a good idea for any of us to slip just now.

The nurse had the mop and bucket ready, and made short work of the remaining mess. She also dried it off with the towel and some paper sheets she had brought from somewhere.

£OK Declan, we’re going to let go just for a few seconds and see how you manage standing unsupported. Ready?

‘Kay.’

£After three …

I stood, unsupported, like I’d been sure I would be able to. Felt great. A bit wobbly, but managed it all on my own, ignoring all the pain as an irrelevant annoyance. Result.

£OK Declan, great stuff, we’re still here. We’re going to try a little walk. Up for that?

‘Kay.’

£This is the easy bit. We’ll have you doing weights in a week or so, you’ll wish you’d stayed in bed …

Pete and Janie supported me again as I took a few steps, then slowly let go. I felt like a complete novice, as if I’d never walked before. This time yesterday I hadn’t given a thought to how my legs worked, now it was taking all my concentration. I started walking. One foot in front of the other. Bloody hurt, didn’t care. I could walk. I could go home. I wobbled to the door. Turned round on my own. Wobbled back to the bed, where the nurse had put another towel. Sat down. Looked at everyone watching me. Grinned a stupid grin.

‘Diddit.’

Got a round of applause. Felt ridiculously proud of myself. The nurse looked at Pete and Janie.

*So what’s the verdict? He has to stay in tonight, but how about tomorrow?

£Well I don’t know about you, Janie, but I think he just needs a bit of practice and he’ll be fine. With all these other injuries, it’s going to take a bit of adjusting, but Declan’s strong, and he can compensate. Keep on trying, Dec, you’ll get your balance and start to feel what you can do and what you can’t. Just watch that right arm, it might throw you off. And, listen to me, do not push yourself too hard.

Janie nodded her agreement.

$If you can get your own physios to sign off first thing tomorrow, I think going home would do him the world of good.

‘Bluhdy right.’

:Oh love, that’s great.

$I’ll email them when I get back, and ring them first thing.

*OK, we need to change Declan’s pyjama bottoms. Everyone out, now.

Once everyone had gone, the nurse changed my pyjama bottoms and gave me a quick wash. She was young and pretty, and this time I quite enjoyed it. She helped me get back into bed, and I managed most of it myself, maybe leaning on her a little more than was strictly necessary. She showed me how to use the controls to lift the bed up and down, and change the position of the mattress, explaining that it was on the high setting earlier to make it easier to care for me on the bed. Now I was obviously more mobile and independent, I could stay down low and get in and out as I wanted.

*I don’t think we’ll put the catheter back in –

‘Yay.’

*– but you’ll need to get to the loo yourself. If you need any help, press the button here. If you see any blood in your pee, let us know straight away. Alright, all done here I think. Shall I send your friends back in?

‘Plehs.’

Rose sat down, pulling her chair next to the bed.

:Your boss and those physios have gone. They said they’re going to email and talk to the hospital physios first thing. I don’t know, they seemed to think you’ll be up and about in no time.

‘Bluhdy will.’

:Oh love, have you seen yourself?

‘No.’

:You’re covered in bruises, plaster casts, stitches. You need to take it easy.

‘Need tuh get moving.’

:That’s what they said. You rugby players are a tough lot, although some might call it stupid.

‘Both.’

She tutted and shook her head.

:Listen, love, I’ve been having a think. Rather than going home to your flat, with the stairs and being on your own and that, how about starting off with me in my spare room? I’d keep an eye on you, keep you out of trouble, make sure –

‘Yes plehs.’

It sounded like the best thing anyone had ever suggested. I really wanted to get out of this bed, out of this room, go home, but to be honest, my flat didn’t feel like home. There was no one there, nothing there, and I’d spent far too much of my time there being in a dark place. Staying with Rose might just help me to get properly back on my feet, in more ways than one.

:Oh love, that’s grand. I thought you were going to argue –

My stomach gave out a large rumble.

:Oh my – I totally forgot your soup! I put it down somewhere when I came in, seeing you on the floor was a bit of a shock. Do you know there’s no kitchen here? One of the nurses gave me her tin of soup, she was going to microwave it for her tea. Lovely girl, she was. Where did I put it, now?

She looked around and located the bowl on the windowsill.

:Stone cold, not that I’m surprised. Shall I heat it up again?

‘Mm, plehs.’

She hurried off again. I lay back and closed my eyes, the day’s events so far had drained me. I had no idea of the time, it must be late afternoon. Drifted for a while before Rose returned with a steaming bowl.

:It’s cream of chicken, would you believe, do you remember that day when you had it with me? Want me to feed it to you?

‘No thanks, I’ll try.’

:OK love, here’s that plastic spoon we used for your slushie. I’ll just give it a rinse.

Eating with my left hand would have been a bit of a challenge under normal circumstances, but the swelling together with a splinted little finger added an extra dimension of difficulty. I spilled a lot down my chin and on the bedclothes. Rose was on mopping stand by and soon put a towel down my front to catch the drips.

:Well I think this will need a bit of practice, love. Maybe we should avoid soup for a while. How is it?

‘Dlishus.’

I finished the bowl, lay back on the pillows and sighed. I had a lot going round my head, today seemed to have lasted forever. Needed some head space.

‘Rose, goh home.’

:No, love, you’re alright, I’ll stay as long as you need me.

‘Plehs, go home.’

She opened her mouth to argue, thought twice, closed her mouth and nodded to herself.

:Well maybe I could be getting on with a few things. You’ll be alright?

‘Fine.’

:Shall I come back tomorrow? You’ll need someone to fetch you home.

‘Plehs.’

:You look done in. Shall I ask them to stop visitors for now?

‘Plehs.’

:Alright, then, love, I’ll leave you to it. Behave yourself. Call me when there’s any news about going home.

She squeezed my arm and left the room. I let out a breath I hadn’t realised I was holding. Today had been a crazy day, preceded by two equally crazy days. Starting with the build up to and aftermath of the points deduction on Friday, through the ups and downs of what I could remember of Saturday, I had woken up in hospital today, with some fairly serious injuries. I had learned to talk. Jay, Beth and Cal had visited me; we were going to be OK. I had been visited by the police. I had nearly wrecked my chances of a recovery by falling out of bed. I had learned to walk. I had some pretty amazing people looking out for me. My head was swimming. Nearly forgot I was a worthless piece of shit. Nearly.

By far the most significant item on that list was the visit from Jay, Beth and Cal. I knew I still had a long way to go with them, things were still tentative and fragile, and Jay’s news about Matt made me feel even worse about the way I had behaved, but to know they still cared about me was enormous. I spent a long time dwelling on that. Smiled a lot.

A few less welcome thoughts intruded, including my flashbacks while on the floor. Up until then I hadn’t remembered anything about what happened in the car park, but now bits and pieces kept popping into my head. Nothing substantial, and nothing I would have any confidence in telling anyone. Just flashes – images which set off corresponding pains all over my body. The brown boot heading towards my face continued to haunt me, and this in particular started a hearty throb in my broken nose.

I had time to start to wonder who had attacked me. There was a pretty long list of people who would be justified in holding a grudge – Raiders fans, people I had hassled for loans, players whose careers and prospects I had damaged with the points deduction – but I couldn’t come up with anyone I knew personally who I thought would beat me up, slash my face, break my bones. Who even knew if it was connected? I had no memory of it, and nobody seemed to have witnessed it. Maybe I got into an argument or a fight in the car park about something totally random. Saturday had been a pretty full on day, it wouldn’t have taken much to push my buttons – although it had been years since I’d felt the need to throw my fists around to make a point. I tried to force my memory but it remained stubbornly blank.

20. Hope in front of me

In which Dec and Cal find out what happens when you bounce on the bed, and explanations are attempted.

Dec

Noises, voices, pain, blurred, sleep, jumbled dreams. Dreamt Jay and Beth and Cal had been here.

Woke up suddenly. Sound of running water. Couldn’t open my eyes. Back hurt. Head hurt. Arms hurt. Legs hurt. Shifted position to continue inventory. Agony. May have screamed, or it may have been in my head. This was the worst fucking hangover I’d ever had. I thought I wasn’t supposed to drink? Why had I been drinking? Don was going to be so pissed off. I tried to open my eyes and look at where the sound of water was coming from, but my head started pounding and I groaned.

¬Oh hello. You’re back with us then. Just in time. I’m going to bathe your eyelids. Get some of this crusty stuff off. Might help you open your eyes. Lovely sunny day out there, shame for you to miss it.

Tried speaking, to whoever it was. She sounded friendly enough.

‘Phlwuthchst.’

Shit, what the fuck was wrong with my mouth? I could hardly speak, and when I tried, it hurt like a bitch.

¬I think you’ll need me to bathe your mouth too. Then you can tell us what you really think.

Whoever this was had the right idea. I needed to start talking, so I could ask some questions. If only I could think what the questions should be. Felt something warm and wet dabbing at my eyes. Stung like crazy. Whoa, this was the weirdest hangover ever. Winced. That hurt even more. What the fuck was happening to me? I tried to move my head away, felt a hand on my cheek, steadying me.

¬Sorry m’dear, won’t take long. Keep still.

Did as I was told, hoping things would become clearer in time. Images from before began to flutter into my head. Sounds, voices – Cal. Jay. Had I dreamed it? Or had Jay, Beth and Cal really all been here, with me?

‘Cckchll’

¬Wait a bit, m’dear, not quite there yet.

‘Vthhh’

¬I see we’re going to have some trouble with you. Bit of patience please.

‘Zshhay’

¬I know, I know, I’m going as fast as I can. OK, that’s your eyes done, have a bit of a go opening them. Slowly, it might hurt.

Again, did as I was told. Through a small opening, beyond the blur of my eyelashes, I saw a blonde woman peering into my face. She was wearing a white tunic. She was pretty. Her name was Michelle, and she was a nurse. It said so on her name badge. Jay’s voice drifted across my memory …

łAh mate, you’re in hospital.

Tried to remember more, but everything was jumbled up and confused. I was in hospital? Bit more than a hanger, then? Tried to remember what I’d been doing to end up here, but it was a blank. Wait, I saw Don yesterday, he told me I’ve still got my job – started to smile at that, but it hurt so much I stopped moving my mouth. The nurse was still looking at me.

¬Hello! Very good m’dear. Your eyes are still very swollen, so it’ll be a while before you can open them the whole way. But not bad for a first try. It should get a bit easier now we’ve got all the gunk off.

She smiled and turned back to a bowl on a trolley.

¬OK then, mouth next.

She dipped some cotton wool into water in the bowl and dabbed it across my lips. She was gentle, but it still stung a lot. What had happened to my mouth? And my eyes? Why did I need a nurse? I was still fuzzy, couldn’t work it out, I tried to think about it, but the stinging from whatever was on the cotton wool was too distracting. Some of the liquid dribbled between my lips. It tasted vile and it stung to buggery. The cotton wool came away red. The nurse discarded it and got another bit.

¬Alright there?

Couldn’t speak, so nodded as much as I could, which wasn’t much.

¬Goodo, let’s keep going then. Nearly finished.

Three more bits of cotton wool later, and she was done.

¬OK, that’s that. Have a bit of a move of your lips if you can, see how it feels. Couldn’t do it before we got rid of the crusty stuff, in case it split again.

Did as I was told. I was getting good at it. Tongue felt huge and furry. Lips very painful, bruised, split and swollen. It all felt very disconnected from my face.

¬Like a drink?

Fuck, yes! I was parched. A drink suddenly seemed like the best idea anyone had ever had.

‘Mm.’

¬Ok, then, let’s sit you up.

She pressed some button somewhere that made the bed sit up underneath me.

¬Start with water. Here you are.

She held out a plastic tumbler, with a straw in it.

¬Small sips, please.

Even though it hurt to suck, it was the most delicious drink ever. Felt it running across my swollen tongue and down my throat. Sipped and sipped until the glass was empty. She took it away from my mouth.

¬Try now – would you like to say a few words?

From between my filmy eyelids I saw her hold an invisible microphone up to my mouth. All my questions fought briefly for dominance, but it seemed I needed above all to know if what I remembered from last night was real. Had they all really been here or was it some kind of dream torture? Nothing was clear in my head, it was all scrambled. How the fuck was I going to ask?

‘Hee …’

Stopped in frustration. My mouth wasn’t making the right shapes to say the word.

¬No rush, take your time.

‘Hhshay.’

Bloody hell this was difficult.

‘Ghshay.’

Shook my head. Tried again.

‘Gshay.’

Better.

‘Shay.’

Best I was going to do.

‘Shay. Mm. Shay.’

After all that, she looked puzzled.

¬Alright, might take a bit of guess work, I’ll give it a go. Want me to say something? No. Ask me about something?

‘Mm.’

¬OK. Where am I, what am I doing here, isn’t that what they do in the films?

No response from me. I did want to know what I was doing here, but there was something more important I needed to know.

¬Sorry, flippant. OK, have another go.

It was worse than frustrating. Tried another tack.

‘Vsstrrs’

¬Ooh, visitors?

At last.

‘Mm.’

¬Well I’m glad we sorted that one out. You’ve had quite a few visitors since you came in yesterday. Want to know about that?

Sagged with relief. Now I was getting somewhere.

‘Mm.’

¬OK, let’s see, I wasn’t on when you were admitted, but when I got here you had a family with you.

That was it. Surely it must be them? Hope and caution battled in me. Don’t get carried away, it can’t be possible.

‘Mm. Mm.’

¬Hey, we got there, that didn’t take long. The mum and little boy left earlier on, but the dad stayed until we moved you in here, a couple of hours ago. What else did you want to know?

Tried to say where are they, but only ended up blowing bad breath over the bedclothes.

¬Wondering when they’re coming back?

Or if. But when would be better.

‘Mm.’

¬I’ll see if I can find out. Might be something on your file. Depends if they talked to the charge nurse before they left. Won’t be a tick.

She walked briskly out of the room. Left to myself, I sank into the pillow. Looked up through the gap in my eyelids to the ceiling. Couldn’t face thinking about whether they had really been here, or what it might mean if they had.

Started to catalogue the pain, trying to work out what the fuck had happened to me. I hurt pretty much everywhere. Face felt giant, and there seemed to be something stuck to my nose. Scalp hurt. Back shrieked. Couldn’t move my right arm. Glanced down. Plaster from knuckles to shoulder, sleeve cut off. Left arm, blackened hand peeking out of long sleeved pyjama top, sore and swollen. Metal splint on little finger. Tube from a drip on a stand by the side of the bed disappeared up my left sleeve. Tried to bend at the elbow. Stopped trying pretty quickly. Looked down at feet, humps under the bedclothes. Terrified I wouldn’t be able to move them. Tried an experimental toe-wiggle. Pain shot up my shins as I saw movement under the blankets. Moaned in pain and relief.

Checklist of body parts taken, but really none the wiser as to how I got here in this state, I looked beyond the bed. I was in a room on my own, bed, two chairs, a bedside cupboard with a vase of flowers. A card with a stegosaurus on it that said Hope Your Recovery is Dinomite. It was the sort of thing Cal might have chosen, but I couldn’t reach it to see who it was from. Painting of a tree screwed to the wall. A small window looking onto the side of a building. A patch of blue sky. In the corridor outside the door, footsteps, voices.

¬…that’s great, he’s had a pair of hospital ones, but having his own will make him feel much better, more like himself. I think he was just asking about you actually. He’s in here.

I looked at the door through the rapidly expanding slit in my vision, heart beating fast with expectancy. Thought my heart might burst with relief and joy when Cal ran into the room, followed by Beth and then Jay. Tried a smile, no idea what shape my lips made.

Cal

Because we were in a rush, we went out without me having my juice, and I asked a few times on the way if I could have a drink. Maybe I asked a lot of times. So when we got to the hospital and passed the shop near the door, Mum went in and got some purple squash that we could fill up with Dec’s water, and she picked up some pyjamas on the way to the till to pay. I hoped they weren’t for Dec, because it wasn’t a very exciting present, and I told Mum that Dec might like a Mars bar instead, so he could share it with me, but Mum said no. So I thought of something else.

‘I think Dec would like a magazine, Mummy.’

‘Oh, really, Cal? Any magazine in particular?’

‘This dinosaur one has got a toy of the front.’

‘Yes, I can see. How about you give Dec the magazine, but keep the toy?’

I could hardly believe my luck. I hadn’t even had to be that sneaky. And Dec would like the magazine; he talked to me about dinosaurs all the time. If I was really lucky, he’d say I could keep the magazine as well.

We walked along the corridors and up the stairs; there were loads of interesting things to see, like a lady on a big bed with wheels who had a plastic mask over her face, some people wearing all green running and shouting ‘get out of the way’, and someone in a wheelchair with a big bag on a pole like Dec had, only it was being wheeled along by the side of the chair. I didn’t have time to ask about one thing before I saw the next – it was a lot more exciting than Uncle Matty’s hospital.

And then we got to the place where Dec had been last night, but Dad took us round the corner, saying that Dec had gone into his own room early this morning, just before Dad had come back to go to sleep. We saw a nurse come out of a room, and Dad stopped her.

‘We’ve come to see Declan Summers. It’s not too early is it?’

The nurse looked at Dad with her head on one side.

‘Are you family?’

‘Ye … es.’

‘Oh, you were here last night, weren’t you. OK, that’s fine, then. He hasn’t been awake long, but I’ve just bathed his eyes and his mouth, he might even be able to talk to you.’

‘How is he?’

‘He was a bit disoriented, which is to be expected, and very battered and bruised, as I’m sure you know, but his CT scan showed nothing to worry about, and with a bit of luck he’ll be able to get back to normal.’

‘Oh James, that sounds great, doesn’t it. We’ve brought him his own pyjamas, I hope that’s OK.’

The nurse stepped towards the door she had just come out of, and opened it.

‘That’s great, he’s had a pair of hospital ones, but having his own will make him feel much better, more like himself. I think he was just asking about you actually. He’s in here.’

I ran in the room, wanting to see what Dec looked like this morning, and keen to show him the dinosaur magazine. Dec was sitting up in his bed, and although his eyes were swollen almost shut with bruises, they were open, and he was looking at me. His mouth moved, and I thought he might be trying to smile.

‘You’re in a different room please can I have some purple squash?’

‘Cal! Sorry Dec, he’s been saying he’s thirsty all the way here. We got you some blackcurrant squash, by the way, hope you don’t mind sharing. And some pyjamas. You don’t have to share those.’

Mum bent down and kissed Dec on the cheek while I stood at the side of the bed and looked at him. Then Mum made me a purple squash and I sat on the chair and drank it all in one go, waiting to see what would happen next.

Dec

Beth bent down and kissed me on the cheek. Bloody hell it hurt, but no way was I going to show it. Would have hugged her if either of my arms could have moved. She opened the bottle, poured some into a glass, filled it with water from a jug on the top of the cupboard, and handed it to Cal. He drank in big, noisy gulps, and started to wipe his mouth on the back of his hand when he’d finished, before he caught Beth’s eye and took the tissue she held out to him, as she looked at me and spoke.

_The nurse said you were talking.

‘Mm.’

_Although not long speeches yet I see.

She was being bright and breezy, but her eyes were wary. Jay was hanging back, looking tired, a guarded look in his eyes, tense and ill-at-ease. But it was so, so unbelievably good to see them. I felt like they could be dream people, about to disappear in insubstantial wisps. Still no idea what had happened to make them be here.

‘Gutuhsyu.’

A pause while Beth tried to translate.

_Sorry, Dec, you’re going to have to try again. Haven’t got my ‘I’ve been hit by a truck’ head on yet.

Had I been hit by a truck? The state of my body said yes. Memories from yesterday were vague and fragmented. No idea how I’d ended up here in this state, and as my brain started to wake up a bit, I was starting to worry.

Cal

I wasn’t sure why Mum thought Dec had been hit by a truck, when even I remembered he’d been hit by a bad man, but I was as good at understanding Dec as I was at understanding Uncle Matty, so I told her what he had said.

‘He said, ‘good to see you’. I heared him.’

Mum looked at Dec as if she didn’t think I could possibly have got it right, but Dec confirmed it.

‘Mm.’

Just to make it clear that I knew what I was talking about, I told them what that meant, as well.

‘That means yes.’

Dec

_It’s good to see you too, Dec. But not like this, so…

She waved her hand vaguely over the bed, and with horror I saw tears fill her eyes. Jay came over and put his arm round her protectively.

Cal, saviour of us all:

\do you like your dinosaur card?

‘Mm. Fm yu?’

\of course it’s from me. Stegosauruses are the best ones. I choosed it from the shop downstairs. It says ‘Dinomite’ but it’s spelled wrong on purpose so it looks like dinosaur. Mummy buyed it. And a Mars bar but I ate it. And some flowers, the nurse put them in a pot. We got you some squash today because I was thirsty. And a dinosaur magazine. Do you want to see it?

‘Mm. Luvtuh.’

\you can’t have the toy on the front, but you can see the picture of the triceratops in the middle, it’s awwwwesome.

Without warning, he launched himself onto the end of the bed, bouncing the mattress. There was such a protest of pain from every part of my body I couldn’t help myself shouting out:

Fuck!

Cal

I stopped dead, mid-crawl. Dec was not allowed to swear when I was nearby, and he had just shouted the baddest word I knew, very loud. He didn’t even look sorry, he just looked like he was breathing fast, and trying not to say it again. Mum didn’t even tell him off.

‘That was a very big swear.’

I wasn’t sure why no one had said anything; this should have earned Dec at least an ‘honestly Dec’, but Mum didn’t even look cross.

‘Yes, sweetheart, I understood that one. I think Dec means that he would like you to get off his bed and stop bouncing.

‘Mm.’

It seemed that Dec being hit by bad men changed quite a lot of things.

‘Let’s pull this chair next to the bed, you can sit here and show him your magazine. OK Dec?’

‘Grut.’

‘That means great.

‘Yes, Cal.’

I sat on the chair and held the magazine up so Dec could see. I couldn’t really tell if he was looking, because his eyes were nearly shut, but his head was pointed towards the pages and he did little nods every now and then as I turned over the pages. It wasn’t quite the same, because usually Dec would have been talking to me, and telling me stories about the pictures, making up names like ‘Terence the Pterodactyl’ and ‘Howard the Hadrosaur’ to make me laugh, but this time I did all the talking, because it hurt Dec to speak.

Dec

He flicked over a few pages, explaining what all the pictures were of, just like he would have done all those months ago when everything was normal and they still cared and I wasn’t in a hospital bed hardly able to move.

I was still trying to work it all out, looking from Cal to Beth to Jay, when I heard voices outside, one raised in protest, one stating intent.

¬You can’t go in, he’s already got three visitors, you’ll have to wait for someone to come out. There’s a chair here, look. I’m sure they won’t be long.

:Look, love, I’ve come all the way from across town, on my day off, on the bus, and you’re not stopping me. I’ll sort it out in there, you don’t have to worry.

‘Rz.’

Cal looked up at me, puzzled. The door opened.

¬You can’t just –

But she could, and she did. The nurse hovered at the door, looking at me. I tried to nod that it was OK, as Rose bustled forwards. She stopped in her tracks when she saw me, and for the second time that day I saw eyes fill with tears. No more crying over me, please. Couldn’t take it.

:Oh love, look at you.

She came over to hug me. Didn’t think I would survive one of Rose’s envelopings.

‘Nnuh.’

Cal

As Mum stepped forwards, hands out ready to stop her, I realised why Dec didn’t want the cuddle. He didn’t want to do a big swear to this lady.

‘That means no.’

The lady stepped back, and looked at me, Mum and Dad.

‘Rz. Hh.’

Rose looked at Dec again, her mouth open a little bit.

‘Sry. Hrts.’

I thought she might not know what Dec was saying, so I told her what he meant.

‘Dec can’t talk properly. He said he’s sorry it hurts. He means if you cuddle him he might cry, or say a big swear. I jumped on his bed and he said a very big swear.’

The lady looked at me and smiled.

‘Well thank you young man, I see you speak Declanese. He says a lot of big swears, he seems to quite enjoy it. It might not have been your fault, love.’

I grinned at the lady. I liked that she called Dec’s way of talking ‘Declanese’.

Dec

‘Rz. Shay. Vth.’

I tried to direct her gaze with my eyes, but she probably couldn’t see much of them underneath my swollen eyelids. She looked at Cal, already trusting him to know what I was saying.

\I don’t know what Rz means. Jay is my Daddy and Beth is my Mummy.

Light dawned in Rose’s eyes and she glanced quickly at both of them, then back at Cal.

:I can help you there. I think Rz must be me. I’m Rose.

She looked at me, eyes shining; she looked as happy as I felt.

:Oh Declan, they’re here, love.

She turned to face Jay and Beth.

:You’re Declan’s family, aren’t you. I didn’t know you’d … you must have … didn’t know you were here. Oh, there’s grand now. He’s told me lots about you all.

\what did he tell you about me?

Rose turned back to Cal.

:Well, let’s see now. You must be Calum. Declan says you really like dinosaurs. You’re very good at football and your team is … er … Arsenal?

\who’s my favourite player?

Cal was relishing his role as official examiner.

:Oh, er …

Seeing mild panic behind Rose’s eyes, I ventured

‘Thuh Wct.’

:No chance, love, but thanks for trying. Sorry, love, I expect he told me, but I’m not much good at footballers.

\what did he say about Mummy and Daddy?

łThat’s enough, Cal.

It was the first time Jay had spoken since he came into the room. Rose spoke to Cal, but directed her words at Jay.

:He’s alright, love. I’ll tell you, shall I? Declan told me your mam and dad were like the best family he could ever have wanted. He told me he did some wrong things, and wishes he hadn’t because losing his family has made him so sad and it’s made a lot of trouble for everyone, and meant he couldn’t see you and your mam and dad any more. He also told me that your mam makes really good roast potatoes, better than mine he says, although I find that hard to believe, and your dad drives too fast, which I think Declan quite likes.

Cal

Dec really had told Rose everything about us. Dad really did drive fast, and Mum really did cook roast potatoes. I didn’t even know who Rose was, I’d never seen her before, but I wondered if Rose was Dec’s mum, although I thought he didn’t have a mum. Before I could ask, Rose started talking again. She talked a lot. She wanted to know what had happened to Dec, but Mum wasn’t just going to tell her without permission from Dec.

‘If that’s OK with Dec.’

Mum looked at Dec, checking. I don’t think she knew who Rose was either.

‘Mm. Rzs gd frnd’

‘He said Rose is a good friend.’

‘Thank you sweetheart, I think Dec’s getting a bit easier to understand. OK, well, lovely to meet you Rose. Actually, Nico told us a lot about you, how you’ve looked after Dec. Thanks for what you said. It means a lot to James and me.’

So she did know who Rose was. I would have to ask later if she was Dec’s mum.

‘As for what’s happened, well, Cal, why don’t we go and get you a slushie, and Rose and Daddy and Dec can have a talk?’

I was torn between wanting a slushie, and maybe other things if I asked enough times, and wanting to stay and find out what Dad said to Rose.

‘But they won’t understand Dec if I’m not here.’

‘I think they’ll be OK. Green or blue slushie?’

Dec

He skipped out of the room with Beth.

\green. And can I have Monster Munch…

Cal’s list of requests faded into the distance. Jay and Rose talked while I lay back and let them. I didn’t know how I had ended up here, most of it was very hazy, a lot of it was missing. Now I’d had a chance to think, I could remember everything up to leaving the little office to go to the press conference, then there were fragments, shards I didn’t really want to explore as they mostly held pain.

A sudden recollection of lying helplessly on the ground watching a boot approach my face. Maybe not a truck then.

I tried to focus while Jay told Rose about finding me in the car park at Raiders Stadium, half underneath a car. He had only called at the club to drop off some paperwork on his way back up the motorway, and had nearly tripped over me. He hadn’t recognised me, so bloody and battered was my face. He had to talk to the police before they would let him drive back, and it wasn’t until they asked him if he knew me, that he realised. They had come to the hospital straight away, Jay had sat with me all night, Beth and Cal staying with Nico and Lisa.

łThey moved him to this room late last night, or more like early this morning – only a couple of hours ago, actually. Apparently the police thought it might be a good idea. Think it might be some kind of payback for the – I don’t know how much you know –

He looked over at me.

‘Rz kns vrythng.’

łOK then, payback for the points Raiders lost because of the passport thing. Lots of angry people, but nobody knows who did it.

:Well I’m glad you were here, love, I’d have hated to think of him being alone.

łI think Dec’s had quite a few visitors, not that he’d remember many of them, he’s been pretty much out of it since he came in. Massive dose of painkillers, as well as the bangs to the head. The doctor said he might not remember much about any of it. He woke up for a short time last night, but they whacked more meds in and he was out for the count again. Not surprised he’s been lazing around half the morning.

:He is a bit of a lazy sod.

‘Pss ff’

:Well that came out loud and clear, love. So, what’s the damage? I can obviously see his face, don’t know if you’ve seen yourself yet, love, you’re a bit of a sight. Plenty of time for that, now. And a broken arm. Anything more serious?

łI don’t know if I can remember the full list. He seems to have been hit over the head with a bottle, they had to pick glass out of his cuts before they stitched them. He was unconscious for a while, but they didn’t think any permanent damage, though how would they ever tell, eh Dec? Some of the cuts were fairly deep, looks like a glassing, but nothing major severed. And nothing internal that they could find. But they’re being careful. He’s been punched and kicked, probably while on the ground. Lots of bruises, lots of stitches, you can see all that. Broken collar bone – might need an operation on that. Thought he might have a broken jaw, but just badly bruised. Broken nose – that can only improve his looks. Can’t look at his eyes properly yet, but they think just bruising and swelling. Broken little finger, looks like someone stamped on his hand, you can see the footprint, look…

They both inspected the damage. I could only concentrate on two pieces of information. I had been beaten up, or kicked, or something. And Jay, Beth and Cal were here. They were all here, and talking to me and looking like they cared about me and might not want me to fuck off and die. It felt fragile, though, as if it might shatter any second and leave me back where I’d been.

ł… kind of tube in for his pee at the moment – he’s been pretty heavily medicated and they couldn’t get him to the loo. Bit undignified, eh, Dec?

So that was what that weird sensation had been. Hadn’t been able to explore due to two non-functioning hands.

łHe’s been pretty lucky. Could have been a lot worse.

Not sure my pains agreed with him.

:Especially if you hadn’t found him. Oh, love. Who did this to you?

She shuffled her chair closer to the bed and tried to find a part of me to touch that wouldn’t hurt. She failed, but it was OK. I had no answer to her question.

:I don’t know what to say, love. After everything that’s happened to you. It’s so unfair.

łBloody good job he plays rugby. He’s fit and strong. He’ll heal quickly. Seen worse than this after a collision with a loose-head, eh Dec? He’ll be back in training in a few weeks.

Rose laughed.

łI’m serious! He won’t be allowed to sit around feeling sorry for himself. He’ll be back in training soon as his breaks have healed. Maybe before.

Rose harrumphed a bit and the set of her jaw told me what she thought of that.

:Well we’ll see now, I s’pose, won’t we.

There was a brief pause. Rose looked determinedly at Jay, who looked back with an amused expression on his face. Rose changed tack.

:Now, look here. Declan knows I’m an interfering old busybody –

‘Struh.’

:No, don’t you try and deny it, love. Anyway, what I want to know is, you being here with your family, is everything put right now with the two of you?

There was a weighty silence. I hardly dared breathe, although I continued to do so noisily through my swollen nose. Jay looked down at his hands. Then at Rose. Then at me. I shut my eyes completely. Would have shut my ears if I could have. Really didn’t know if I could take his answer. He took a deep breath. Blew it out. I felt like everything was balancing on what Jay said now.

łAlright then. I don’t know if this is the right time or place, Dec, but I think I need to say this. You really messed up. You pissed all over me and Beth, you pissed all over Raiders. We couldn’t understand it. Still don’t think I really get it. I thought we were finished, you and me. Well, you know, I said it all before.

The searing pain of being dismissed by Jay in the car park cut through me again. I almost gasped at the memory.

łCouldn’t even say your name, didn’t talk about it, I was so angry about everything, what you’d done, what you’d lied about. When Cal rang you that time, I was so mad at him, he stopped asking me about you too. God knows what that did to the poor little sod. Jesus, what a mess. Anyway, then you found Cal when he ran away, and, I dunno, it changed something. Started talking to Beth, we started talking about you, still thoroughly pissed off, but wondering why you’d done it all … thinking up reasons, maybe it was this, maybe that, maybe if we’d said … whatever. Then Friday we came to stay with Nico and Lis, and Nico came back and told us what a state you were in; he thought you were close to doing something daft to yourself.

Had I been? Friday night was a bit of a blur. I’d been in a state, no doubt about that, but the details weren’t easy to grasp onto.

łHe rang some psychiatrist he knows to talk about you, I think he nearly got someone to come and have a look at you. I was worried about you, for the first time in a long time. It felt weird. Beth and I talked all night, trying to decide how we were feeling. Didn’t reach any conclusions. Then something like this happens, and, shit, I dunno … turns out, we still care after all. Can’t ignore that. You’ve been a prick. But there it is. I think family stays family, in the end. Or something like that.

Wait, was Jay saying, actually saying out loud, that I was part of his family? It had never been actually said before, hadn’t needed to be before everything went tits up.

łWhat Rose just said about you telling her we’re your family, and you thought you’d lost us, that’s helped. We felt like you’d thrown all that back in our faces, didn’t want us or need us any more, so knowing you think of us as family too is really important. Dec, I really don’t understand what’s been going on with you the last few months. But I think I want to, need to. Probably need some kind of bloody deep and meaningful as soon as I can understand what the fuck you’re saying, mate.

Couldn’t speak. Even if my mouth had been working, my throat had closed with emotion. Tears leaked excruciatingly out of my eyes and stung various parts of my face on their way down. Rose patted my arm gently. The balance had tipped; it felt like things with Jay might be starting to be OK.

:I’m very glad to hear it, love. Now, what I want to know-

Cal

Mum held her hand out, and the slushie won.

‘Green. And can I have Monster Munch and another Mars Bar? And can we see if they’ve got a Lego magazine?’

Mum laughed. ‘Slow down, Cal. We’ll get the slushie first, shall we, and see how it goes.’

All the way to the shop, I asked Mum questions about Dec. Now it was OK to talk about him, there was a lot I wanted to say.

‘Why can’t Dec talk properly?’

‘You saw his mouth, sweetheart, it’s very swollen and it must hurt a lot. Remember when you shut your finger in the door and it swelled up and wouldn’t bend?’

I nodded. My finger had gone purple and blue and doubled in size. And it had hurt. A lot.

‘That’s what’s happened with Dec’s mouth. It will get better, he’ll get more used to speaking with swollen lips, and the swelling will go down.’

‘Is the bag with water in it for Dec to drink through his arm?’

‘That’s right, clever boy, do you remember from the one Uncle Matty had? Dec hasn’t been able to drink for himself, or have anything to eat, so they put special water in the bag so he doesn’t get hungry or thirsty. There’s a bag under the covers to take Dec’s wee away too, so he doesn’t have to get up to go to the loo.’

I remembered Uncle Matty’s wee bag; I had been very interested in that as well. Why didn’t everyone have one? It would save all sorts of complications. I was so interested that I asked more questions, even though I knew the answers.

‘Does his wee bag come out of his arm?’

‘No, there’s a tube coming out of his willy.’

Oh. Suddenly I remembered why everyone didn’t have one. Time for another question.

‘Mummy are we cross with Dec?’

‘Oh Cal. I know this is confusing for you. Alright, let’s see if I can explain. Dec did some things that made me and Daddy cross and disappointed. We’re still trying to understand why he did them, but I think Daddy and me feel more like helping Dec than being cross with him at the moment. He looks like he could do with some help, doesn’t he?’

‘Will he have to share my room?’

‘What?’

‘When he lives in our house.’

Mum walked on for a bit, not saying anything.

‘Let’s just wait for him to get better first, Cal. Look, there’s the shop. Go and ask for your slushie.’

I ran over to the counter and asked. Mum paid, and then thought it might be good to get some snacks for the journey home. I, of course, had lots of helpful suggestions, and Mum soon had a full basket.

I had been sipping my slushie through the straw while I waited for Mum to pay, and the ice had numbed my lips. I thought about when my finger hurt, and then about Dec’s mouth, and it made me wonder …

‘Mummy, does Dec’s mouth hurt?’

‘I expect so, sweetheart.’

‘If he had some slushie, would it make it stop hurting?’

Mum stopped and looked at me.

‘What a brilliant idea! Would you like to share your slushie with him?’

I’d been thinking more along the lines of getting him his own, but Mum was big on sharing, and I nodded my reluctant agreement.

‘Can we go and give it to him?’

‘Just let me finish paying, sweetheart, then we’ll hurry back.’

I had a few slurps of slushie before leaving the shop, just in case Dec drank the lot, and then we started back to Dec’s room, me holding the cardboard cup with one hand and Mum’s hand with the other.

Dec

What Rose wanted to know was interrupted by the door opening and Nico striding in, closely followed by Nurse Michelle and Lisa.

>Ha, you see, you say four people, but only there is two. And one of them is Rose, she is very small and quiet, she is no trouble. I am trouble if I don’t get in this room – but, ha, I am in. Thank you Michelle, you are very helping.

Lisa was watching from the rear, with a half resigned, half amused look on her face.

~I’m so sorry, he’s always like this. We’ll be quick, and quiet, promise.

Michelle gave Nico a look that was a mixture of scowl and flirty smile.

¬Well alright then, but really quick, the police want to see him, and then I think he needs some peace and quiet.

>Thank you. You are beautiful.

He blew her a kiss. The force of nature that was Nico Tiago. Michelle raised her eyebrows at Lisa and shut the door on her way out. Nico turned to his audience and bowed. Jay gave him a slow handclap, Rose sat and looked at him, mouth slightly agape, until he gave her a huge hug.

>Ah Rose, I am so happy you are here, you get my message. I worry you not know about Declan. This is Lis, my beautiful wife, I tell her all about you. I think you like her.

Lisa and Rose smiled at each other. I was keeping a low profile, trying to get my emotions under control, not succeeding. Nico turned to me, and the fun went out of his face. Lisa was looking at me with horror, a hand over her mouth. I looked away to avoid the inevitable eyes filling with tears. Nico put an arm round her.

>OK baby? I tell you he look bad. Declan, how are you? You look not so horrible as last night, but horrible still. Who did this?

‘Ownno.’

łDec’s needing translations from Cal at the moment, Nico. But I don’t think he knows who did it.

Jay raised his eyebrows at me.

‘Mm.’

łWe can work out the yeses. So I guess we can talk by process of elimination. Oh, and he can say ‘fuck’ and ‘piss off’ pretty clearly. Funny that. And other things are getting clearer slowly, but it’s still a fairly limited vocabulary.

On cue, my mini-interpreter burst into the room, carrying a large cardboard cup with a straw.

Cal

As we got close to Dec’s room, I started to run, eager to see Dec again and make him talk better. I ignored Mum telling me to walk, or failing that to hold on tight to the cup, and pushed the door to the room open.

‘Dec, drink some slushie. It’s icy. Your voice will come back. Will it go green in your wee? Can I see your wee bag?’

‘Cal! Dec’s wee is private. Sorry, Dec, he’s just so curious about everything.’

Disappointingly, this meant I wouldn’t get to see Dec’s wee bag, or any green slushie wee, so I took the cup to him and put the straw in his mouth. Mum fussed about a bit, and then everyone decided that Dec needed a spoon instead of a straw, but in the end Dec got mouthfuls of slushie, and managed to talk better, although I was right and he had the whole cup to himself.

Dec

Cal shoved the drink under my nose, the straw sticking painfully into a sore area above my lip.

_Careful Cal, look, hold the straw like this so Dec can sip. Sorry, Dec, we had this idea that the ice would soothe your throat and might make it easier for you to talk. You don’t have to.

‘Sskay.’

>I think it work already, Declan talk!

Cal noticed Nico for the first time.

\nico, Dec can talk but only I can understand him.

>I know this, Cal. But I like your way to help Declan to talk.

\i already helped him once. I jumped on the bed and made him say a really bad swear.

>Ha! I would like to try this. You show me how, maybe later. I am bigger than you, maybe he say even badder swears.

While Cal’s eyes grew round at the thought of badder swears than ‘fuck’, Beth had positioned the straw so I could sip the slushie. Although sucking hurt the muscles in my face and pulled painfully on my lips, it was worth it for the combined pleasure and relief of fluorescent green ice slipping over my tongue and down my throat. I could feel it taming the fire in my throat, most of which was thirst. I closed my eyes and moaned with relief.

~Dec, would a spoon be easier? You’ll get more in that way, yeah?

Brilliant idea. I looked gratefully at Lisa.

‘Mmmm.’

:I’ll go and sort it out.

Rose hurried off to commandeer a spoon. I could already feel the small amount of ice I had swallowed trickling soothingly down my throat.

‘Thks Chll.’

\dec said thanks Cal.

He informed his watching public.

>Cal you are small genius. You do very well for Declan.

Rose soon returned with a spoon to try.

:I thought a metal one might hurt your mouth love, so they found this plastic one, it’s not that big though. You don’t look like you can feed yourself with that arm and that hand. Can you put up with me feeding you?

Of all the recent indignities, this one was pretty easy to bear.

‘Mm.’

Rose sat by the bed and spooned the ice into me. I was very conscious of everyone watching, but the eyes on me were the ones I loved best in the world, so it was OK. The slushie was like magic. The pain and swelling in my throat reduced considerably. There was a similar effect on my lips too.

:How’s that now, love?

‘Mm … muhch bhetter’

Not bad for a first post-ice attempt. It still hurt to talk, and I wasn’t going to be making any speeches anytime soon, but it was a great start.

‘Thuhnks. Luv yuh uhll.’

A bit briefer and more sentimental than it would have been had I had my voice back properly, but the message was there. Rose, Beth and Lisa all teared up again, I really was going to have to have words about that, when I had access to more of them.

łI think it’s fair to say we all feel the same way, Dec. Fuck knows what you’ve done to deserve it. Sorry Cal. Dec’s a bad influence on me.

Jay ruffled Cal’s hair, pulled him in closer and kissed him on the top of his head.

łDec, I’m really sorry, we’re going to have to go. I … don’t know if you know … Matty’s really poorly. He’s got multiple sclerosis and pneumonia, and he’s … he nearly … he’s had a really bad time over the last couple of months.

Matt was Jay’s brother. He lived in the Midlands, near Jay’s mum.

‘Nah way. Suhry.’

łHe’s one of the main reasons I left Raiders. I need to look after him. I … I was …

Jay started to choke up. Beth held his hand.

_Dec, we’ve both said some things to you we regret. We were very angry and upset, and it was a bad time for us. I think that’s behind us now. James has been struggling with what to do for a while, since before things … well … changed between us. We felt it would be difficult to be with Matty while we still felt responsible for you. When everything happened with you, it seemed to make the decision easier. We didn’t realise how much you’d been struggling too, until Nico and Lis told us, and I’m so sorry if some of that was down to us, sweetheart.

Beth came over and kissed me on the forehead. I was almost speechless but just managed a lame

‘S’okay.’

_But we’ve got to get back home. James’s mum’s been with Matty since Friday afternoon, and we should’ve been back last night, so we’ve got to get going. So sorry, Dec, we’ll be back to see you soon. Take care, sweetheart.

Jay gave me a very gentle punch on the shoulder.

łI’ll be in touch for that deep and meaningful. We’ll sort things out properly, yeah? Be strong, stay positive. Cal, say goodbye to Dec.

Cal came to the side of the bed. He looked at me for a while, considering.

\you can have my dinosaur magazine, and you can have the toy on the front.

‘Thnks uh lo. Read ih layher.’

And then, having hugged Nico, Lisa and Rose, they were gone.

Cal

It was so fast, I’d only just got used to being there, and I hadn’t even told him about my fire engine or asked when we could go to Dinosaurland. But now we were allowed to talk about Dec, I hoped I would be able to do both of those soon.

In the car on the way home, Mum and Dad were quiet, to start with. Dad started to say something a few times, and then Mum would shake her head, Dad would look in the mirror and see me, and stop talking. So I thought if I closed my eyes they would think I was asleep, and say interesting things, probably about Dec. And it worked.

‘What did you say while we were in the shop?’

‘How do you know I said anything?’

‘Everything was different when we got back. It felt like you’d cleared the air.’

‘Yeah, well, I’m not sure the air’s completely clear, just yet. I told him we need a bloody good talk, soon as. But I said how it had been, and how it changed after yesterday, or after Friday, actually. You know what, I think we might get there. Jesus, Beth, how did that happen?’

‘I’m not sure. I’m glad, though. After everything Nico said, and all the talking we did on Friday night, I still wasn’t sure how we were going to get past everything else, but this has just … oh …’

There were a few sniffles, and it sounded like Mum was crying.

‘Oh James, I was so scared last night. I’ve been so angry with him, but I never wanted anything to happen to him.’

‘I know. That’s kind of what I told him, that it doesn’t matter any more what he did, because we’re family.’

‘Oh James, really?’

‘It’s true, isn’t it? I didn’t realise until yesterday, when I thought he might … When you think you might lose someone, you find out what’s important. How did the little bastard get himself in here?’

I opened one eye a crack, wondering where Dad meant, and if Dec had got in the car somehow, but I saw Dad put his hand on his chest, so he meant in his heart.

‘I don’t know, but I feel the same. We’re going to have to keep in touch with him. Oh! I didn’t get Rose’s number. I was going to call her later.’

‘Nico’ll have it. She’s something else, isn’t she?’

‘She seems to care a lot about him. I’m glad he’s had someone to look out for him. God, when I think about how lonely he must have been …’

‘Yeah, well, he brought a lot of it on himself.’

‘How can you say that?’

‘I’m just being honest. He fucked up, Beth. We’ve got a way to go yet before I’m Mr Forgiveness.’

‘But you just said –’

‘I said he was family and what he did doesn’t matter. I know. But before I can just forget it, I need to understand it. That’s all I’m saying. We’ll call him tomorrow, or as soon as we can, start talking to him.’

‘Cal was happy to see him.’

‘Yeah, they’ve always been great mates.’

‘He asked when Dec was going to live with us.’

‘Shit.’

One of the good things about pretending to be asleep was that Dad was allowed to do swears and I could hear him.

‘We should make sure they talk too. Cal’s really missed him.’

‘Yeah. Oh it’s all such a bloody mess, isn’t it.’

‘Maybe, maybe not any more – James could you slow down a bit? I’m feeling a bit icky.’

‘Still? That’s all weekend, Beth. Are you sure you’re not coming down with something?’

‘No.’

‘No what?’

‘No, I’m not sure I’m not coming down with something.’

‘Huh?’

‘It’s not just this weekend. I’ve been feeling sick all week, especially around coffee.’

‘Really? Coffee used to make you sick when … oh holy shit.’

‘I know. I’m going to get a test tomorrow.’

‘Holy shit, Beth. That would be fantastic.’

‘Well, let’s not count our chickens, or any other baby animals, it could still be a bug or something.’

‘Yeah, yeah, course. Holy shit.

I hadn’t understood much of what Mum and Dad had been talking about, although I wondered if we might be getting a chicken to lay eggs and keep Percy company, but the amount of bad swears that Dad didn’t get told off about forced my eyes open in surprise, and Dad saw me in the mirror. This stopped the conversation, and Mum turned music on for the rest of the way home.

19. Bless the broken road

In which a huge event has lasting ramifications for Dec, Cal is excited by all the blue lights, and Matty has a disappointment.

Cal

The next day, Dad had to go to work, Nico had to go to rugby, and I had to go shopping with Mum and Lis, and then Mum, Dad and me were going home.

I was glad when the shopping was over, and we could go back to Lis and Nico’s and have some pizza before we got in the car. Looking out for Dec had made me tired, and I hadn’t seen him anywhere. Mum had bought me a big fire engine that had blue flashing lights and real siren noises, and the ladder and the hose really worked, and I was looking forward to getting home so I could show Uncle Matty and play with it properly.

Dec

I stood smiling at the view from the window, soaking it all up. This place, this beautiful place, felt more like my home than anywhere. And I still belonged. I hadn’t really appreciated how much I had missed being a proper part of it, or how much I had been dreading being separated from it.

I was now full of energy and hopped from foot to foot. Remembered some of what Don had said about eating and drinking – there was a vending machine in the corridor so I bought a sports drink and a grain bar. Tried not to drop crumbs on the swanky chairs.

My phone buzzed in my pocket; it had been on silent.

Nico: =We are called in for special meeting before the game. Any news?

Me: =Don’t know abt meeting, but I’m staying. NOT SACKED!

Nico: =Great news 🙂

I needed to phone Rose. She would be worrying all day if I didn’t let her know. I was just scrolling through my contacts when there was a knock at the door. Stuart came in, smiled. I hurriedly put my phone back in my pocket.

^How are you feeling now?

‘Much better. Sorry, I was a bit out of it earlier.’

^We could see that. I’m sorry this has been such a stressful time for you. Hopefully things will get better for you now. Are you up to this meeting?

‘I’ll give it a go. Am I going to have to say much?’

^Adrian and Don are the ones to ask about that. You know where the media room is?

I nodded.

^OK, best get going.

‘Stuart, I can’t remember much of what I said before. Probably most of it didn’t make much sense. But thank you for this. I can’t believe it.’

^You played a huge part in this decision. It wasn’t taken lightly. Lots of people had lots of opinions, but your actions spoke very well for you. Be proud of yourself. Go on, get to your meeting.

The meeting about the press conference mainly focussed on what information Don wanted to give out and what he wanted to avoid giving out. Don wanted it to be clear that although I was remaining at the club, I was still being sanctioned by way of suspension for the part I had played in Raiders being docked ten points.

-People need someone to blame, someone to be getting punished. Declan, you’re our fall guy. We need to highlight how unhappy we are with how you handled things, so people don’t complain about you getting off lightly. I want you to be contrite and apologetic.

Adrian nodded in agreement.

.They’ll try and get an emotional reaction out of you, they might have some personal information, or use something from the past they’ve dug up, so be prepared for some questions maybe about your car accident, or maybe about how you presented yourself to the press when they took that photo of you that got in the Herald.

‘OK.’

Don didn’t want to discuss in detail the terms of my suspension, or how individual team members had reacted to the yesterday’s events. He wanted to highlight any positive consequences, like coaching the youth team and linking with Trojans, who were a Championship side in the next county. We discussed ways of deflecting unwanted questions and answering them with something we wanted to say. We went over and over the strategies. This was just as well, as I needed to focus. My mood had flipped from devastation to delight in a very short space of time, and everything felt scrambled. Adrian typed up a list for me, so I could review it while the game was on.

I was going to have to sit it out until after the match in an unused office. It was nowhere near as plush as the hospitality suite, and had no windows, but there was a TV where I could watch the game. It would be the first time I had watched any rugby for weeks – I hadn’t been able to face it on TV, and had not been allowed at the ground on match days. I hadn’t even been keeping up with scores and league positions until the last couple of days, when I needed to know how the points deductions were going to affect everything. Now I had been let back in, I was really excited to be a part of it all again.

Don wrapped up our meeting.

-OK, then, I’ve got the pre-match to attend to now. Declan, make yourself scarce. Change into your kit before the press conference. We’ll come and get you. It’ll be shortly after the game finishes. See you then.

I sat in the office for a long time waiting for the game to start. The catering staff had provided lunch, the same as the players were having together pre-match. Full of protein and energy. I was really hungry and ate it all. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had much of an appetite. Couldn’t believe how much difference this morning had made to how I felt. I had been under this cloud for weeks and now it was suddenly lifted. I felt lighter, straighter, less substantial, as if I could float away.

There wasn’t much to do in the office, and I should have been bored to tears, but I still had a lot of information and emotion to process. While I tried to get my head around things, I turned the TV on, flicking through the channels, looking for the sports channel where the Raiders game was being shown. There was a rugby preview programme on, so I stopped to watch that for a bit. They mentioned today’s game, the points deduction and how it affected league positions. Yesterday, I wouldn’t have been able to watch it; today, I sat through it. Uncomfortable viewing but bearable. I was amazed at the change in me.

I took my phone out – I needed to tell Rose. I had turned the ringer off by mistake when I put it back in my pocket and I had missed a couple of calls from her. Listened to the voice-mails:

:Alright love, it’s only Rose. Just seeing if there’s any news yet. Don’t worry about ringing back, unless you want to.

and

:Alright love, it’s only Rose. Just checking up on you. I’ve got to go to work this afternoon, but I’ll call you again when I get home. I’ll be out later, have my phone off I expect. Hope everything’s alright, love.

No point calling her now, she’d be at work. I’d do it later.

The afternoon’s build up to the game passed slowly. I imagined the gradually increasing crowd – people who liked to get there early, have a few beers, chat with their mates, get their favourite spot on the terraces, people who maybe had seated tickets who didn’t need to get there so early, all the kids getting excited, Raiders shirts, Raiders hats, Raiders flags, noise, activity, excitement.

Being stuck down here was weird; I could sense the atmosphere that would be mounting beyond the room I was in. The team would already be there, having a final team talk and any last minute physio or other treatment. They would be able to hear the crowd from the changing rooms, gradually getting louder until just before kick-off when it would reach a crescendo and the stadium announcer would whip them all up with a cheering contest. They were the best supporters, made a lot of noise, followed the team around all over the country and all over Europe. I had really let them down. It was time I repaid them however I could.

Finally it was kick-off time. I had sat through almost an hour of speculation pre-match on the sports channel, realising how little the pundits actually knew, and how much they could spin out the smallest piece of incorrect information. According to them, I was born in Australia, moved to England to join Raiders and had played for Australia under sixteens. They also said the discrepancy in my passport had been found in a routine check. They’d either got their facts completely wrong, or made it up, or it was misinformation given out by Raiders’ media office.

And then it was game time. I muted the sound on the TV for a few moments, and could hear the crowd beyond the room. It sent a tingle down my spine. They seemed to be getting behind the team even more following yesterday’s setback. I settled down to watch the team – my team.

Raiders won convincingly. Nico scored two tries. They played superbly – moves flowing, passes connecting, running, rucking, scrumming, tackling, everything was clicking. It was just the response Don would have wanted. Now the game was over, it was time for a few interviews with key players and the coaches, and then it would be the press conference.

My phone buzzed. A text

DivDav: =Good news 4 u mate. Fancy beer later?

Me: =Wld b gr8. r u @ club?

DivDav: =No but cld pick u up. Car park, 7? Usual spot.

DivDav liked to pretend he had a personal parking spot for his old Fiat. In reality it was the furthest reaches of the car park, where there was always a space.

Me: =OK, gr8.

I was more than a little touched. DivDav had given me a hard time when I was first suspended. But since paying him back the money I had borrowed, he had been more friendly. I hoped this might be another step towards healing my broken friendships.

I had just changed into my Raiders gear when a knock on the door signalled my call to the press conference. My heart beat faster as I made my way to the media room, which had been set up with microphones on a table in front of some chairs where the journalists were already sitting. More journalists than I had imagined; it was a bit intimidating.

Don led the way to the table and we both sat down behind the mics. Adrian stood, directing which journalists should ask a question. They started with the match, and Don answered the questions with his usual steady diplomacy, praising the team and the result and complimenting the opposition. They quickly moved on to the points deduction, and Don fielded all their questions with ease. He was very used to this. They addressed me a few times, asking about my suspension and how I felt about yesterday’s decision. I followed the strategy we had worked out, and seemed to get away with it. Don made a big deal out of me coaching the youth team and registering with Trojans. That seemed to go down well. There were some more testing questions.

“Has the club taken into account the death of a man in a car accident involving Mr Summers?

Don took that one.

-That is not a club matter, and has been dealt with through the proper channels.

“Declan have you any comment to make about this local newspaper report?

I was shown the back page headline from several weeks ago with my unflattering picture and description of my unkempt, drunken state.

‘I’m not proud of my actions then. It didn’t reflect well on me or Raiders, and I have given the club an assurance that it won’t happen again. The reputation of Raiders is very important to me, and I will do everything I can to ensure I don’t tarnish it again.’

“How do you feel about being responsible for Jay Scott leaving Raiders and quitting rugby?

This one threw me – I sat with my mouth open. Quitting rugby? I had not heard that version. Don took one look at my shocked expression and jumped in.

-Jay Scott’s decision to leave Raiders was a personal one, and not something Declan is qualified or permitted to discuss. I don’t know where you guys get your information from, but Jay has not ‘quit rugby’ to my knowledge.

“But he has left Raiders and not gone to a position with another club?

-That is something you would need to discuss with Jay.

A few more questions around changed priorities for the season, what might happen with my contract beyond the end of the season, all deflected. It seemed to be a big game to all of them.

And finally it was over.

-Well done, Declan. Thank you for that, I’m glad to see you’ve regained your powers of concentration. Why don’t you go and join the players in the bar?

‘Really?’

-Your suspension only covers playing; everything else is back on. Go and enjoy it. Just remember what we’ve said here this afternoon.

Almost on a cloud, I walked to the main bar, where players met with supporters and sometimes opposing players after the game. I could not have imagined this outcome to the day while I was preparing for it this morning. It was difficult to even remember clearly how I had felt when I woke up that morning – it seemed like a different life, or a long time ago. I had been in a dark place, and now it seemed like I’d been given a light.

Despite my happiness, I was apprehensive about going into the bar; Nico and Big aside, I hadn’t socialised with anyone for a long time. There would be loads of people there, whose reactions I couldn’t predict, and it could be uncomfortable. I also hadn’t drunk any alcohol since my vodka bender. Might be better to give the beer a miss tonight, especially as Don hadn’t said it was OK.

I slipped through the door into the bar. I felt like there was a bright spotlight shining on me, but in reality I was just another bloke walking into a bar. No one noticed. I was immediately aware of the less than celebratory mood, despite the win, and had to adjust mine to compensate. No one was going to be cheering my news, and I needed to show everyone I knew what I had cost Raiders. I realised with renewed respect for his people management why Don had suggested I come here.

>Declan!

Nico’s greeting ensured everyone in the bar now knew I was there. Many eyes turned towards me. Nico strode over and shook my hand warmly.

>Great news that you stay with us.

In a quieter voice:

>You are OK? I am very worried about you last night.

‘I’m good. Great, actually. Yesterday seems a bit unreal. Actually, today seems a bit unreal.’

>You look better. We talk later, OK? Come, have a drink.

He led me over to the bar, where there was a group of players and supporters watching a replay of the afternoon’s game on a large TV screen. It appeared to be about half way through the second half. Nico didn’t make a big fuss, just handed me a bottle of water.

>For clear head, yes?

I nodded and leaned on the bar watching the screen. I was getting some sidelong glances which I tried to return with a smile.

The replay of the match over, the pundits returned to the theme of the points deduction and what it would mean for Raiders. More glances slid my way. I started to feel very uncomfortable, but didn’t know what to do; whether to say something now, or wait to be confronted.

I was saved by the press conference. They showed some of it on the programme, some clips of me being apologetic and contrite, and some bits of Don outlining how I was going to help Raiders out while I remained suspended. When the programme had finished, the man standing next to me, a supporter, turned to me and said:

*Fair play to you son, you’ve owned up to it and taken the punishment. Losing so many points is a bit of a bugger, but not much anyone can do about it now. Just have to get on with it. Best of luck.

He held out his hand, and I shook it gratefully. A few people seemed to relax at this. Not everyone was so generous. I noticed several people directing dark looks at me, although Big came over, gave my shoulder a squeeze.

°Great to have you back, Captain. Fancy going out later?

‘Oh mate, that would be great, but Dav is picking me up. Do you know where he is?’

I looked around, expecting to see Dav somewhere around.

°I expect he’s off drowning his sorrows somewhere.

‘Sorrows?’

°Yeah, he didn’t get his contract extended. Found out yesterday. And Amy dumped him last week. He’s being a bit of a dick about it. Still, maybe he’s feeling better. Get together later this week then?

‘Love to.’

Cal

We got in the car to go back, and then Dad remembered he had to go to his old work to pick something up, so we stopped off at Raiders Stadium. I’d been here lots of times to Dad’s work, where he had an office that smelt like sweaty people, but I had never seen a rugby game. I liked football, and although Dad and I watched rugby on TV sometimes, I didn’t understand the rules at all, and it just seemed silly to pick the ball up and run, rather than kicking it to each other.

Dec

My phone buzzed in my pocket. Glanced at the screen. Rose. Shit. I was going to have to ring her, she’d be worried out of her mind. Couldn’t do it here though. Looked at the time. Nearly seven. Time to go and meet DivDav. I’d ring Rose back when I got outside.

I walked out into the dark car park, looking for DivDav. I couldn’t see his car over the far side, but began to walk over that way as I got my phone out to call Rose.

Dreaming. Not flying. Playing. Running on the pitch, muscles stretching, catching, tackle after tackle, passing, scoring, happy.

Cal

Dad stopped the car in the car park, and I looked up at the bright lights, shining in rooms a few floors up, lighting up people who were sitting at tables and standing talking to each other.

‘Can I come with you Daddy?’

‘No, Cal, I won’t be a minute, I’m not stopping.

‘Stay here with me, Cal, we can have some of these Maltesers.’

Mum and I watched Dad walk towards the building.

Dec

Then afterwards with Jay, Beth and Cal. Laughing, talking, arguing, playing, happy. Jay is talking.

łWhat the fuck … hey, mate, you OK?

Must still be dreaming. Why is my bed so hard? Why does everything hurt so much? Why is Jay shouting?

łJesus. Shit. Jesus.

Cal

Then, just as I was about to remind Mum about the Maltesers, we saw Dad bend down and look back at us, waving frantically. Mum wound the window down; Dad was shouting.

‘Call an ambulance.’

Mum got out of the car, phone in hand, to try to see what Dad was looking at.

‘What is it, James?’

‘Dial 999. There’s a bloke here. He’s covered in blood. He’s in a bad way.’

I tried to get out of the car, being quite interested in lots of blood, but Mum stopped me, standing in front of the door so I couldn’t see. I heard her talking to her phone.

‘Ambulance … Raiders Stadium car park … my husband has just found a man covered in blood lying on the ground … I don’t know, I’ll ask.’

She shouted to Dad.

‘James, is he breathing?’

Dec

Not dreaming, then. Lots of pain. Loads of it, crashing around, banging into every bit of me. Vaguely remembered a lot of banging and crashing. Tried to stop remembering and carry on dreaming. Jay carried on shouting.

Cal

Dad shouted back.

Yeah, he’s breathing. Almost unconscious though. His eyes are fluttering and he’s mumbling.’

Mum told the person on the phone what Dad said, then Dad shouted back to her.

‘How long will they be? Jesus, there’s blood everywhere.’

Mum folded her phone up and called to Dad.

‘They said five minutes. I’m coming over, James, I can do something to help –’

Mum knew about putting plasters on and wiping cuts with TCP. She would be good with a man with blood on him, and I would be able to go with her and see it too.

‘No Beth, stay with Cal – he can’t see this.’

Dec

Beth and Cal were here? Tried to open my eyes. Wanted to see them. Hurt.

łStay still, mate, the ambulance is coming.

Drifted off somewhere quiet and soft.

Cal

Mum knew that if she went over to where Dad was, I’d follow her, so she was stuck at the car with me while Dad waited for the ambulance. We both looked out of the window at Dad as he knelt down, although we couldn’t see the man. Mum kept tutting and looking at her watch, and I watched the entrance into the car park to see the blue lights when the ambulance came. It came very quickly, and we watched as the ambulance people put the man on a stretcher and then into the back of the ambulance. I couldn’t really see the man, because it was dark, and he was wrapped up in a blanket, which was disappointing, but I hoped Dad would tell us all about it.

Some police cars had come too, and policemen were talking to Dad. I saw him running his hand through his hair a few times, and shaking his head, then looking up at the lit up rooms and nodding. Then, finally, he came back to the car so we could find out what had happened.

‘Well?’

Mum got out of the car to meet Dad as he walked back to us.

‘We’ve got to stay, the police want to talk to me.’

‘But we can’t, we’ve got to get back for Matty.’

‘I know, I said that, but they want me to give a statement, as I was the only one who found him, and you’ve got to stay because you called the ambulance.’

‘Oh this is ridiculous. Who did you talk to?’

Dad pointed to one of the policemen, and Mum walked quickly over to him. Dad opened the back door of the car for me and I got out, and we stood and looked at Mum arguing with the policeman. Mum was good at arguing, and usually won, like in cafes when the cake was dry, or taking clothes back to shops, but she didn’t win against the policeman, although she seemed to be trying her very best. She walked slowly back to us, looking really cross.

‘No luck?’

‘No, I can’t believe it, they honestly didn’t care that your disabled mother is going to have to get your disabled brother in and out of bed, on and off the toilet, undressed, dressed in pyjamas and settled for the night. We’ve got to wait here.’

‘I’ll call the agency, see if they’ve got anyone short notice. You’re right, Mum can’t do it, but they might have someone. Come on, we can wait inside, they’ve taken over one of the corporate suites as an incident room.’

Dad got his phone out and started talking about Uncle Matty as we walked across the car park and into the Stadium. We went up some stairs, and then found ourselves in a room with a window overlooking the pitch, although I couldn’t see much because the floodlights weren’t on. There were two policemen, who were using computers, but they didn’t take much notice of us, even though Mum said who we were.

We sat on a sofa, and Dad went to get us drinks and crisps from the bar. He was gone a long time, and Mum looked at her watch a few more times. She got her phone out and talked to Granny, but didn’t say anything different from the things Dad had said to her when he told her about the person who was coming to put Uncle Matty to bed.

Dad came back after a while and gave me a can of Fanta, and Mum a glass of wine.

‘Sorry, I got held up in the bar, everyone wanted to talk to me, I was trying not to make a drama of it. Do we know when they’re going to talk to us here?’

‘No, I don’t know what’s taking so long.’

We waited for a long time; I’d finished my Fanta and the crisps that Dad had brought, and Mum was trying to play some games with me, but she wasn’t concentrating very well because of waiting for the policeman to talk to her.

Finally, one of the policeman looked up from his computer and came over to us.

‘Mr Scott?’

‘Yes. This is my wife, Beth.’

‘Mrs Scott. Thank you for staying. We just want to ask a few questions, as you found the victim. I’m Detective Constable Simmonds.’

‘Are you going to take long? We need to get back home, and we’ve got a long drive.’

‘We’ll be as quick as we can, sir. Is your little boy alright here with us? Detective Peterson could look after him …’

‘No, you’ll be fine, won’t you sweetheart.’

I nodded, hardly able to believe I was going to be allowed to stay while the policeman talked to Mum and Dad.

‘Alright then. First, can we just check some of the details you gave us when you called us, Mrs Scott …’

There was a lot of talking about all the things I already knew, about how Dad found the man, and Mum called the ambulance, and why we were in the car park, and lots of things that weren’t very interesting. I started to feel sleepy, and snuggled in to Mum, who put her arm round me.

I was half asleep, not really listening to the grown up voices talking, but in that weird half-dreaming way, I seemed to suddenly be listening, as if part of me knew that I needed to be paying attention before I knew what was being said.

‘… long have you know the victim?’

‘What? I don’t know him.’

‘Oh, maybe I’ve misunderstood, sir. I thought you were a coach here?’

‘Was. I left a couple of months ago.’

‘But am I right in thinking Mr Summers has been here for several years?’

‘… er … what?’

‘My apologies, I thought you had been made aware, the victim is Mr Declan Summers. I believe he is a Raiders player.’

There was a long silence. I sat up and looked at Dad, who was looking at the policeman, with his mouth open. I wasn’t quite sure, but I thought the policeman was saying that Dec was the person who Dad had found on the ground in the car park. But surely Dad would have known it was Dec? He was only not talking to him, he wasn’t not seeing him.

‘Mummy, is Dec –’

‘Shh Cal. James – was that Dec? Could it have been?’

‘Shit. I don’t know, he was, his face was – bloody hell Beth, no one could have recognised him.’

Dad turned to the policeman.

‘Are you for real? That bloke, the one with his face mashed in, was Declan Summers?’

‘I’m sorry sir, but yes. Can you tell me how long you’ve known him?’

Mum and Dad sat very still. Mum’s arm was round me, but I saw her other hand holding Dad’s hand tightly. They didn’t say anything for a few seconds, then Mum kind of shook herself.

‘Just over three years. But we haven’t really seen him, not properly, for a few months.’

‘Do you know … have you heard … how is he?’

‘We haven’t got any news from the hospital. You’re not family? Because someone suggested there was a family connection.’

Mum let out a deep sigh.

‘Dec lived with us, like part of our family. He doesn’t have anyone else. I suppose you could say we’re the only family he’s got. James, we need to go and see him.’

She looked at the policeman.

‘Will they let us see him?’

‘They usually say family only.’

‘He doesn’t have family, not blood relatives. His parents died when he was thirteen, he was in care before he came to us. He’s going to be there on his own.’

‘You make a good case, Mrs Scott, but you’re better off talking to the hospital. I think we’re finished here, you can go now, see if they’ll let you in.’

‘Is he … how bad is he?’

‘I’m really, sorry, I don’t know. I’d suggest going to the hospital to see what you can find out.’

‘Yeah, come on Beth. You must know someone up there who can smuggle us in.’

Mum looked at Dad, and gave him half a smile, but also looked like she was going to cry.

‘Really? You don’t mind going?’

‘That bloody boy is going to be the death of me, but no, I think we both need to be there, don’t we?’

‘I can call Lis, see if Cal can go back there –’

‘I want to see Dec.’

A long look passed between Mum and Dad.

‘Sweetheart, Dec has been badly hurt. We don’t know how he is, yet. I don’t know if you can see him.’

‘I want to. I don’t mind his blood. I’ve seen Dec’s blood before, when he chopped his thumb.’

‘This is a bit different, mate.’

‘But I want to see him.’

‘Maybe it would be easier for now if he just comes with us, James. I’ll find out what’s what and we can take it from there.’

And so I was allowed to go with them to the hospital. I had to wait for a long time with Dad while Mum talked to people about how Dec was and whether we could see him. I wasn’t sure how to feel, because it sounded like Dec was more hurt than just needing a plaster, and I couldn’t imagine what that really meant. But I just felt that now, all of a sudden, the thing that had been there that had made Dad get that cross, tight look on his face had gone – in fact it had been gone since this morning, and I wanted to see Dec and talk to him. And I was a bit fascinated with the promise of all the blood as well.

After sitting on plastic chairs for ages and ages, Mum came back and sat next to Dad. I thought if I looked sleepy and leaned against Dad, they would be more likely to say things than if I looked interested, so that’s what I did, and that’s what happened.

‘So …?’

‘He’s alive.’

Dad let out a huge breath, as if it had been possible that Dec hadn’t been alive.

‘Jesus. How bad is it, then?’

‘Bad enough. Multiple fractures, he’s having a CT scan to check his brain.’

‘Shit. Shit.’

‘James.’

I suspected a look came my way, but I’d closed my eyes, so I could hear better.

‘Can we see him?’

‘After his scan. They’re admitting him, but he’ll be sedated, he’ll be out of it for several hours. They don’t expect him to wake up until tomorrow.’

‘I want to stay.’

‘I know. I had a look to see who’s on the ward he’s going to, and I know the Nurse in Charge. I’m pretty sure I can talk us in there, but maybe I should take Cal to Lis’s first.’

I opened my eyes quickly and sat up, because at this point being asleep would only get me carried out to the car.

‘I want to see Dec.’

They both looked quickly down at me, as if they’d forgotten I was there for a moment. Dad shrugged at Mum, and I held my breath, hoping they wouldn’t say no.

‘If one of us takes him back to Nico’s, and Dec wakes up, we’ll be sorry we missed it.’

‘I know, but I’m not sure Cal should be seeing … whatever he might see.’

‘I shouldn’t think it’ll be any worse than imagining it. I know I’m imagining some pretty horrific things, and I saw him at the time. He’ll have been cleaned up, won’t he?’

‘Yes, but still … oh I suppose you’re right. OK, Cal, you can stay with us for a little while, but you have to promise to be quiet and still, and when we say it’s time to go, no arguing. Otherwise I’ll take you straight back to Lis and she’ll put you to bed.’

‘Kay Mummy.’

I started practising being quiet and still right away, so they could see how good I was at it, and didn’t feel the need to take me back to Nico’s house. Another benefit of this was they forgot to talk quietly, and I found out more things, like that Dec had been hit by someone, with a bottle, and he had got glass in his cuts, and then he had fallen on the ground, and someone had kicked him. It hurts when someone kicks you, because Jake and me kicked each other once at break-time, just to see, and we both got bruises. I wondered if Dec would have bruises on his shins, like me and Jake.

After a while, Mum decided that we might be more comfortable waiting in the family room, near where Dec was going to be taken, so we went up some stairs, then Mum talked to a nurse, who showed us to a small room with some chairs and a table in it. There were toys in the corner, so I played with them while Mum and Dad sat together, not saying much, although Dad talked on his phone to Nico and some other people.

A little while later, a nurse came to get us, and said that Dec was in a bed, and that we could sit with him if we wanted to. Mum stood up and said she would go and have a look, and decide if I could go too. I went and sat next to Dad, who put his arm round me.

‘I want to see Dec, Daddy.’

‘I know, mate. But he might be a bit too gruesome just now, maybe a bit too poorly. Mummy will know if it’s OK.’

‘Will he be scary like in Monsters Inc?’

‘Ha, could be even worse, Cal. We don’t know yet. He wasn’t too pretty when I found him.’

‘But Dec isn’t pretty, he’s a boy.’

‘Yeah I know, mate. There are a few girls who might disagree with you as far as Dec’s concerned, but I know what you mean. I meant that … Cal, Dec’s not just had an accident, he’s … he’s been hit, by a bad man who wanted to hurt him, and did a good job of it.’

‘What bad man?’

‘We don’t know. The police are trying to find out.’

‘Is it because Dec did stealing and lying?’

‘Er … Jesus, Cal. I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see what Dec remembers if … er … when he wakes up.’

‘Can I tell him about my fire engine?’

‘Yeah, course you can, mate, tell him anything you like. But he’ll be asleep, he might not remember what you tell him.’

I was quiet for a while, trying to remember all the things I’d wanted to tell Dec but couldn’t before, like my new school, my rabbit and the gap where my tooth came out. Then Mum came back and stood in the doorway. Dad looked up.

‘Well?’

‘He’s asleep, or unconscious, he’s had a load of meds to knock him out. He’s due some more in an hour or so, there’s a small chance he might wake up then.’

‘Really? That’s great. What’s the … er … damage?’

Dad waved his hand around his face.

‘Oh James, his face is one huge bruise, and he’s got stitches all over the place, one lot is really close to his eye. If I didn’t know it was Dec, I wouldn’t have recognised him.’

Mum looked like she might cry, and Dad stood up and cuddled her.

‘Hey, hey, shh, it’s OK, we’re here now. What about Cal? He’s really keen to see him. I’ve told him Dec’s been hit by a bad man. He asked if he looks like something out of Monsters Inc.’

Mum looked over at me and smiled.

‘Well, he’s a little bit like a monster, sweetheart, but not as bad as Henry J. Waternoose.’

Dad looked confused; he never paid attention to people’s names in films.

‘So, are we all going then?’

‘Yeah, I think so. Cal, remember, quiet and still. Dec’s not the only poorly person here. And we’re not going to stay long.’

‘I’m staying until I know he’s OK.’

‘Alright, James, but me and Cal will have to go home and get some sleep soon.’

‘Let’s see how it goes.’

‘OK.’

Mum held her hand out to me, and I jumped off the chair and over to her. We walked along a corridor, and then through a door, where there were lots of curtains in the middle of the room, like there had been in the hospital where Uncle Matty was.

‘Jesus, if I never see the inside of one of these places again it’ll be too bloody soon.’

Mum led us over to one of the curtains and pulled it aside. There was a bed and two chairs and a table with a jug of water on it. In the bed was a man. Well, in the bed was Dec, but he didn’t look like Dec, at least not at first, or even second, glance. I had to go up really close to him to find anything that let me know he really was Dec.

He was lying very still, on his back, and he had a big cast on one of his arms from his shoulder to his fingers. I knew it was a cast because Sophie Evans had one last year when she fell out of the tree, but it wasn’t as big as this cast. His other arm had bandages on it. There was also a big thing on his nose that covered a lot of his face. The rest of him, or what I could see, was coloured black and purple, and was either swollen or had lines of what looked like tiny railway track along it. I wanted to ask what it was, but I had to be quiet and still, so I just looked. His eyes were puffed shut, and his mouth looked too big for his face.

He still didn’t look like Dec, and I wondered how they knew it was, so I turned and looked at Mum and Dad to see how they knew, but Dad was staring with a kind of surprised and scared look on his face, and Mum looked like she was trying not to cry again, and I knew that it was Dec, because they knew it was.

Mum and Dad sat in the chairs, and I sat on Mum’s lap and looked at Dec, in awe of all the bruises and swelling. I had expected there to be lots of blood, but there wasn’t any, which was a bit disappointing, although there were lots of other things to see – too many things, in fact, and eventually I couldn’t stay quiet any longer; I had to ask something.

‘What are those?’

I pointed at the train tracks.

‘They’re stitches, sweetheart.’

‘What are they for?’

‘Well, when people have bad cuts, sometimes it tears their skin apart, and the doctors have to sew it back together.’

‘Dec’s been sewed?’

‘Yes, sweetheart.’

‘With a needle?’

‘Yes. And special cotton.’

‘Will he have holes in his face forever?’

‘No, his skin will grow back together, the stitches just hold everything in place while it’s growing. Are you OK, sweetheart, looking at Dec?’

I nodded. I still couldn’t quite see Dec in the battered features of the man on the bed, but I didn’t feel sad or scared or any of the things Mum seemed to think I was going to feel.

There were lots of things to look at, all over the place; on the way in, I had seen other people’s beds with cards all round them, and some people with TVs. Dec didn’t have a TV, or any cards, although he did have a tall pole with a bag of water on it that seemed to go into his arm. I supposed that if he was asleep, he couldn’t drink water, but it would have made more sense for the water to go into his mouth rather than his arm. Then I remembered Uncle Matty having a bag like this when he was first in hospital, before he woke up, and Mum telling me it was a way to give people food and medicine if they were too asleep to eat or take tablets.

After the initial thrill, it got a bit boring sitting and watching Dec sleep, and I wanted to do something. I thought about the cards I’d seen round the other people’s beds.

‘Mummy can I make Dec a card to say get well?’

‘Of course, sweetheart. As soon as we get home, we’ll find your pens and you can draw something great for Dec.’

‘No, I mean now. Then he can see it when he wakes up.’

‘Oh Cal, there isn’t any paper here or anything. It’s a lovely idea though.’

‘I bet there’s a shop downstairs, Beth. They’re bound to sell cards. Fancy a little walk?’

‘Not particularly, why, do you?’

‘Could use a coffee, or I’ll fall asleep if I’m not careful.’

‘And your legs have dropped off, have they?’

‘No, I just thought –’

‘Yeah, the same as you always think. Oh alright. I’ll go and see what they’ve got. Would you like something to drink, Cal?’

‘Yes please Mummy.’

Mum was gone for a long time, and Dad closed his eyes and then fell asleep in the chair. I wasn’t tired, not even a bit, and now Dad was asleep, I knew I was the one who had to watch out for Dec waking up. I stared hard at him, and watched for signs of movement.

Dec

Woke up somewhere noisy and full of pain. Couldn’t open my eyes. Hurt. Everything hurt. Groaned.

\daddy.

The little boy’s voice sounded just like Cal.

łMmph.

The little boy was more insistent.

\daddy! Wake up.

Just like Cal.

łWha … shit … sorry Cal, nodded off.

Head felt fuzzy, but that sounded like Jay. Must still be dreaming.

\dec went ‘nnn’ and he moved. Daddy, you sweared.

The scrape of a chair. A hand on my arm. Felt real. Real enough to bloody hurt.

łDec, it’s Jay.

What? How? Where? Too many thoughts. Tried a smile. Bad idea. Mouth too big. Lips stuck together. Pain. Groaned. Tried to open my eyes. Eyelids too big. Stuck together. Pain. Brief tiny glimpse of the ceiling. Shouldn’t I be worried about all this? Too much to think about, let it go. Groaned.

\you’ve got a big swelled up face. It’s all purple. It looks funny.

He was close to me, I could feel his breath on my cheek. I tried to turn towards him, to see if it really was Cal. No good. Groaned.

łCal! Come here. What did we say? You can stay if you’re quiet and still. Otherwise Mummy will take you back to Lis’s. Dec, can you hear me?

I could, but saying so was proving difficult. In the end, managed

‘Mm.’

It was them, I was sure. How were they here? How the glorious fuck were they here? I didn’t even know where here was.

łAh mate, you’re in hospital. How are you feeling? Sorry, bloody stupid question, considering the state of you. Do you know what happened?

Had no idea. Couldn’t get a single thought together, apart from ‘Jay and Cal are here’. The slightest shake of my head.

łYou’ve had a bit of a bashing. We found you in the car park, blood and glass everywhere. The police want to talk to you – can you manage that?

Another small head shake. All this moving and thinking was exhausting.

łOK no problem. They can wait. Just take it easy for now.

\does it hurt?

łCal, ssh.

‘Mm.’

\dec said mm. That’s yes. He heared me.

Wanted to keep him talking, but my mouth wouldn’t work properly.

‘Mm.’

He was delighted.

\he did it again!

łOK, Cal, that’s enough. When Mummy gets back you’re off to Lis’s.

\but I want to stay. I want to tell Dec –

_Cal. Sit down here – look I got you a slushie. It’s got a bendy straw.

Beth was here too. They were all here. Couldn’t smile, mouth wouldn’t work, but felt a huge smile spreading somewhere inside me.

łHe’s awake. Not very talkative. No change there.

_Oh, Dec, sweetheart …

Felt a hand on my cheek. Tried not to wince. Tried not to groan. Tried not to cry. Failed. Started to drift in and out. Things put in my mouth. Things wiped on my face. Things poked here and there. People said my name, lots of people.

_Dec, I’m going to go now, Cal needs …

>Declan … mierda, Jaime, he look horrible …

łDec, the nurse is just …

-Declan? No, looks like he’s still out …

łDec, sorry, need to go, I’ll be back …

Matt

When I woke up it was dark, and I could hear Mum talking. Jay and Beth must have come back while I was asleep; it was only a matter of time before Jay came in and the humiliations could start again. I was going to ask him if I could have Sally instead, at least in the mornings. It would be a relief to both of us.

Sure enough, the door opened and light from the hall crept into the room along with – oh – Mum. She put the lamp on by the bed and sat in the chair, looking serious.

‘Matthew, that was Jameson on the phone.’

On the phone? Where was he then? Oh fuck, they hadn’t been in an accident had they? A sudden unwanted image of twisted metal and spatters of blood forced its way into my head, because ever since I got a cold and nearly died, I had a tendency to over-dramatise.

‘They’re going to have to stay down in Devon overnight. There’s been a … well, that boy Declan’s got himself put in hospital, some sort of fight, he’s in a bad way, and Jameson says he needs to stay there until he wakes up. He’s arranged another carer for tonight, and said he’ll be here in plenty of time for you tomorrow.’

Sorry as I was to hear Dec had been in some kind of bust-up where he’d come off worst, I was massively relieved that nothing had happened to Jay, Beth or Cal, and smiled to myself at the thought of Sally coming back later.

‘Ohkay.’

Mum seemed to breathe her own sigh of relief, happy I wasn’t kicking up a stink, as was my wont now I was feeling brighter and getting more bolshy about things.

‘Thoht he wahn’t tahking tuh Dec.’

‘So did I. It seems this altercation, whatever it was, has made him think again.’

‘Guhd thehn.’

‘Hm.’

Mum didn’t seem so sure.

‘How are you, dear?’

‘Shih.’

Troubled teenagers or not, I had still had the remains of my life torn apart by Carrie.

‘I’m sorry to hear that. You were asleep when I made dinner. Are you hungry at all?’

‘Noh.’

‘You didn’t eat lunch.’

‘Soh?’

‘So you should try to eat something.’

‘Wha fuh? Soh I dohnt geh ill? Toh laht.’

‘Matthew, don’t, please.’

I tried to spare her this, I really did, the times when it just all seemed too much and I felt like it wasn’t worth it any more, but sometimes she just went on too much, they all did, telling me what I should do for the good of my health, fussing over me. None of it mattered, none of it, in the end, if someone you love can rip your heart out and give it to the bastard you hate, then go and take everything you own while you’re dying across the other side of town.

‘Lehv meh alohn, Muhm.’

‘Don’t you want –’

‘Plehs.’

‘Matthew, if you –’

‘Pihs ohf Muhm.’

I never swore at Mum. I swore near her a lot, but never at her. It had the desired effect, as she got up without another word and walked to the door. Then she turned in the doorway.

‘Apparently the agency chap will be here at nine thirty.’

‘Chahp?’

‘Yes, Jameson thought you’d be more comfortable with a man, so he’s booked this chap Ian tonight.’

I sulked my way through efficient Ian’s clammy hands and non-existent banter. He tried talking about the weather, the traffic and the plans for the new leisure centre, but as all of these things were happening outside of my life and were being talked about by him, I had no interest. His fascinating topics of conversation dried up in the face of my lack of replying and he just got on with his job, only checking with me occasionally about which pyjamas I wore and where I wanted my drink left. I just about deigned to answer him, then closed my eyes as soon as he put me back into bed. He could assume I was asleep if he wanted to. I soon drifted off anyway, and didn’t hear him leave.

Cal

Dec didn’t say any more, even ‘nnn’, and nurses started coming over and we kept having to go back to the family room while the nurses did things. Mum showed me two cards she’d bought, one with a dinosaur on it, and one with a flower on it. Of course I chose the dinosaur, and wrote in it with my best writing. She’d also bought a Mars Bar, which I ate, and some flowers for Dec, although I thought he’d probably rather have the Mars Bar. But I wasn’t going to say so. After two times of going backwards and forwards between Dec’s bed and the family room, Mum decided she was going to take me back to go to sleep while Dad stayed.

‘I think he’s going to be OK, James, at least, you know, in general. You don’t need to stay.’

‘I’m staying until I know for sure.’

‘OK.’

‘I can’t leave him like this.’

‘It’s OK. I know. Come back for a bit of sleep, though?’

‘Yeah.’

Mum went and told Dec we were going, even though he was asleep and couldn’t hear her, then we went back to Nico’s. I don’t remember anything until the next morning, so I suppose I must have fallen asleep in the car, and Mum must have carried me out and put me to bed.

I woke up in my room in Nico’s house, when Mum came in.

‘Wake up, sleepyhead.’

I remembered why I was there, and not at home in my dinosaur room.

‘Are we going to see Dec again?’

‘We’re just going to pop in, and then we’re going home. Hurry up and get dressed, sweetheart.’

I hurried up and got dressed, eager to see if Dec’s face still looked purple and big, but Dad still wasn’t ready when Mum had finished clearing my breakfast things away. Nico and Lis were still in bed too, and I expected Dad to be in trouble for dawdling like he usually was, but when he came into the kitchen, yawning, Mum just smiled at him and gave him a cup of coffee.

‘Thanks, Beth, you’re a lifesaver.’

‘There’s plenty more where that came from. You’re going to need it if you’re going to insist on driving back on two hours’ sleep.’

‘Less than two, I don’t think I shut my eyes for more than five minutes.’

‘Oh James. Why don’t you go back to bed? Cal and I can check on Dec and pick you up in a bit.’

‘No, I want to see him.’

‘But you know he’s going to be OK.’

‘Yeah, I know what they told me last night, but it’s more than that. If he’s awake at all, I … I just want to see how he is. Not how he is like his bangs and scrapes; how he is with us.’

Mum tutted and rolled her eyes.

‘Only a rugby player would call that face bangs and scrapes, but I know what you mean. Things have changed quite a bit since Friday, haven’t they.’

I listened to all this without understanding much of it. I thought, maybe, from how they were talking about Dec, that they might have stopped being cross about him stealing and lying. But you could never tell with grown-ups; sometimes they seemed one way, and just changed their minds. So I thought I’d wait, rather than asking right away, because I didn’t want to do anything to stop them taking me to see Dec.

18. A change is gonna come

In which comings and goings lead to revelations and alterations.

Dec

Nico and Rose stepped outside into the yard to have a whispered conversation about me. I could hear snatches.

>… really worry … not well

: … worst I’ve seen …

> … call someone … my number

Once Nico had gone back over Rose’s wall, Rose continued to fuss about with bowls and washing up and some fancy dessert she’d concocted instead of apple pie. She didn’t talk much, but patted my shoulder or ruffled my hair every time she walked past. I was still sitting with my head in my hands, living second by second, and her tenderness was comforting.

After a time:

:It’s not very comfy sitting here, is it love. Let’s go and watch some rubbish on the telly.

Rose took me by the elbow, manoeuvred me into the lounge and sat me in her squishy armchair. I sat and stared at the screen, taking nothing in. The evening passed in one second intervals. No past, no future. No idea of the time. My head was full of buzzing – I couldn’t think clearly enough about anything to plan ahead, even for the next few minutes.

:I think you’re going to stay here tonight, love. I can’t see you in that empty flat of yours. The bed’s made up in the spare room. Ready to turn in?

She took my elbow again and led me to the spare room.

‘Don’t worry about brushing your teeth, love, you can sort yourself out tomorrow. Sleep in your clothes, or undies or whatever you want, don’t have any spares I’m afraid. Not much call for them these days. I’ll wake you up tomorrow so’s you’re ready in plenty of time.

She folded back the duvet and left the room. I remained standing for some time, inertia taking over. Eventually I felt my body start to tire and I lay down on the bed. Turned the light off, and spent a lot of seconds in the dark, no idea how many, just one after the other. Must have slept.

Dreaming. I am flying. I am playing. Dad and Jay and Nico are on my team. Mum, Beth, Cal and Rose are watching. We are playing the champions. I fly above the pitch and watch my team pushing back the opponents time after time. I fly down and run with them. We pass to each other, we run, we dominate, we score, we win. The crowd goes wild. I can hear Cal cheering.

Cal

We got a very big Christmas tree for the living room, which took up a whole corner opposite where the TV was, and a smaller one for Uncle Matty so it didn’t get in the way when Mum and Dad were helping him.

I got to put all the decorations on, and I chose lots of things I’d made, and some of my favourites. Mum said the tree in the living room was a family tree, because it had things I’d made on it, and things Dad had given mum, like a big red heart with bells on, and things Mum had made for Dad, and the star on the top was one Granny had bought when it was my first Christmas. I also chose a snowman that Dec and I had made last year, but didn’t get to put on the tree. Mum saw me choose it but didn’t say anything, and didn’t stop me putting it on, even though she knew Dec had made it, and I wondered if things were going to be right again, but I also know she didn’t tell Dad who had helped me make the snowman, even though she talked about all the other decorations, so that made me think again about whether things would ever be right.

I loved having Uncle Matty living with us. Although to start with, he was asleep most of the time, I was allowed to play in his room, and often made roads for my cars, or battle grounds for my other toys, on the floor near his bed. Mostly Uncle Matty would lie there with his eyes closed, and he would breathe like he was rattling, but sometimes he would be awake, and he would join in a bit.

‘Heh Cal, whohs winning?’

‘It’s not a race or a war, it’s just a game.’

‘Oh, my bahd. Wha’s Pihkachu up tuh then?’

‘He’s a policeman.’

‘Cohrs heh is.’

‘And this is his police helicopter, and he is spying on all the bad people, and when he sees them doing something very bad he rests them and they have to be in prison.’

‘Soh they hahv a rehst in prison.’

‘Yes, but when they get out, they just do something bad again, and get rested again.’

‘Sohnds cushy.’

And then he’d fall asleep again, and when he woke up I’d be doing something else, but he’d still talk to me about it, and I liked him being interested.

Uncle Matty liked birds, and knew all the different ones who came and pecked food from the bird feeder in the garden. Mum had put the bird feeder up specially for Uncle Matty, and even though it was winter, there was always lots of flapping and pecking. Sometimes I sat on the bed and we’d watch together, and I started to recognise some of them. There was a bird book in Uncle Matty’s room, and we’d look them up together sometimes.

Matt

There seemed to be some news about the wayward teenager when I’d been there – home, I guess – just under a week. Jay and Beth had gone off to Devon, I didn’t catch the reason, just that they’d be gone overnight, leaving me with Mum and a ‘carer’, whose name I also didn’t catch, but who was going to come in to do the Jay shifts last thing on Friday night and first thing on Saturday morning. I hated the idea, had resisted it like mad, saying I could do it myself, even though I knew I could do no such thing.

For the last two days I’d been able to stand on my own – for ten whole seconds, before my knees went and I had to lie down for a couple of hours. I hated being dependent on other people so much.

But anyway, while Jay, Beth and Cal were away, Mum sat with me a lot and we chatted, after a fashion. I asked her if she knew what was going on with the teenager.

‘Declan?’

‘Yeh.’

‘Oh, there’s been some kerfuffle, some kind of falling out.’

‘Bouh wha?’

‘I don’t really know the full story, dear, maybe you’d better ask Jameson.’

I looked at her, hoping my expression would say ‘yeah right’ so I didn’t have to. It must have got some of the way there, because she sighed.

‘He deceived them rather badly about some things he’d been up to, some kind of car accident where someone died that they knew nothing about, and some kind of thing where some charity money went missing. I think there was something about a fake passport as well. Jameson was very upset and he and Beth feel very let down that he didn’t come to them, and they had to find out from someone else. Jameson doesn’t want any more to do with him.’

‘Shih. Mus beh hahd fuh thehm.’

‘It has been, Matthew, but maybe it’s for the best that they’ve moved away from it all, up here, to make a fresh start.’

That reminded me why they’d done just that, and I went off on a little self-pitying road trip of guilt for a while. Mum’s voice brought me back.

‘Of course, he did find Calum when he ran away.’

‘Wha?’

No one ever told me anything anymore, in case I got more ill. I felt it was pretty impossible to get much more ill than I was, and wished people would keep me in the loop a bit more. If I was going to peg it, I’d rather I was in full possession of any available facts, just so I was prepared. Information was always going to come in handy, even in the afterlife, should there prove to be one. Which I doubted. But if I wanted to find out shit, I needed to stop getting sidetracked and listen when people were talking, like Mum, now.

‘While you were in hospital, Jameson and Beth went to the city and stayed in a hotel.’

‘Noht the Scoht Suihte?’

‘The what, dear?’

I shook my head, not having the energy to explain.

‘Well, Calum took it into his head to run away. He took Jameson’s phone and some money, and somehow made it onto a bus and to a theme park. There was a police search, but they couldn’t find him, Beth kept calling me, she was frantic. Anyway, Declan went off on his own search, despite Beth telling him not to, and he found him at the park, safe and well, told Beth where he was, then ran off when they arrived.’

‘Buh Cahl wahs OK?’

‘Yes dear, he didn’t even know he’d caused a fuss, although he got a big sit-down lecture about going off without telling anyone. He said he’d left a clue – he’d drawn a bus with dinosaurs on the side, but no one had thought it might mean anything. He’s a bright button, that one, it’ll get him into trouble some day.’

And then it was time for carer Sally to put me to bed. She was a large-ish woman about ten years younger than my mum, who laughed her way through my bedtime routine, ignoring the fact she was taking my clothes off and putting my pyjamas on, and believe it or not, I looked forward to her visiting the next day.

Eight o’clock was bloody early for me to be in bed, but it was the only slot the agency had available, and I was so knackered I easily fell asleep. That seemed to be all I did these days – wake up for a bit, maybe a cup of tea or a bit of food, have a brief chat with someone, or maybe listen to them fussing about whether I was warm enough or had eaten enough or had taken my pills, then fall asleep while they were talking and wake up hours later with someone different sitting next to me fussing about the same things, maybe in a different order, just to spice things up a bit.

Cal played in my room a lot, and I loved him being there, brrrming his cars or playing cops and robbers with his teddies. It made me feel normal, that a six year old kid wanted to be in my room with me, and not like some outcast with a nasty disease who needed to be locked away. I know they didn’t mean it, and it couldn’t be helped, I couldn’t join in with them, I couldn’t get about on my own, but it made me feel useless and hopeless sometimes, to hear them going about their lives outside my door, while I lay there and slept mine away.

Sally came back the next morning, saw me naked again, only this time she had to wipe my bum, a la Jay. She laughed her way through that too, and I wondered if I could ask for her to visit every day. I’d thought it would be more embarrassing having a stranger do that for me, but it wasn’t. Having Jay do it, who saw me every day, and was my brother, was infinitely worse. I asked her about it, and she said she’d be more than happy if the agency could fit it in, but she thought I’d be doing it on my own soon, so not to worry. That cheered me up loads. I recognised that I’d made a lot of progress since being admitted to hospital. It’s not hard to see progress from ‘nearly dead’ to ‘mostly alive’. But any progress I was making here seemed so slow. I tried to look back to what I’d been like in hospital, but it was all jumbled and I couldn’t get a clear picture in my head. It was heartening to hear someone say they thought I’d be better soon than I was now.

Cal

A couple of weeks before Christmas, me, Mum and Dad went back down to the city. We weren’t staying in a hotel this time, we stayed with Nico and Lis, and I was told so many times that the door would be locked at night, and I wasn’t to go anywhere without asking, that I got really bored of being told.

I liked being with Nico and Lis, because Nico made me laugh and said words like incryeeble and importanty, which sounded like words I might say but a bit cooler, and Lis always had sweets in a big tin that she let me eat when Mum wasn’t looking. She was cheeky to Dad as well, and I liked that too.

I hadn’t talked to Dec since I saw him at Dinosaurland, and although I had talked to Mum about him a bit, Dad still went all cross when I said his name. Mum said that Dec had decided to live away from us, but she didn’t really know why, and yes, he had done some bad things, but sometimes doing bad things doesn’t mean you’re a bad man. I tried to ask if we could see Dec, or if he was going to come and see us, but Mum just said

‘No Cal.’

and wouldn’t answer when I asked if that meant no never, or no not today. She looked sad and shook her head, though, and I thought she might not be as cross with him as Dad was.

Since I saw Dec at Dinosaurland, I’d stopped being worried about if he was a bad man or not. He had seemed exactly the same, and wasn’t mean or nasty to me, and my shock at him telling me he had stolen and lied faded over time.

When we went back to the city, I wondered if we might bump into Dec somewhere, and maybe he would ask us round for a cup of tea (or purple squash in my case), and things would be better. I made my mind up to keep a look out for him, just in case.

We were only going to stay with Nico and Lis overnight, then Dad was doing work on Saturday, Nico was playing rugby and Mum and Lis were shopping. Which meant I was shopping too, because I wasn’t allowed to go with Dad. I hated shopping, because they never went in interesting shops with toys and cool trainers, they always went in ladies’ shops, and sat drinking coffee and talking about hoovering, but I decided to use it as an opportunity to look out for Dec. I didn’t think I’d see him in the ladies’ shops, but there was a chance he might be walking around, or looking at the toys like he used to with me.

When we arrived at Nico and Lis’s house, Nico was out, and Lis said dinner was nearly ready, so she phoned Nico to make him come home. I was really hungry, and could smell dinner, which I hoped was chicken nuggets. Mum and Dad and Lis talked about grown up things like how many cars were on the road on the journey, but never about how many were blue or red, like I’d been counting, and then Nico came back. He seemed a bit different from normal Nico, and just stood in the doorway of the living room looking at Dad. Lis walked over to him and put a hand on his arm.

‘Nico, not now.’

‘No, Lis, I say this.’

Lis sighed. ‘Alright then, but maybe not right here.’

She looked back at me, and again at Nico, who huffed at bit.

‘Alright, baby. Jaime, Beth, there are things I must say, please. Lis will stay with Cal.’

‘What things?’

Dad looked wary.

‘Things I must say where small ears don’t hear.’

Nico meant me. People always thought I didn’t understand that I had the smallest ears, and that they didn’t want me to hear what they were saying.

‘About what?’

‘I think you know about what. Or about who.’

Dad shook his head and looked angry. He had his ‘talking about Dec’ face on.

‘Not interested, Nico.’

‘I say it here, if you don’t come.’

‘Nico…’

‘OK, then, I say. I just leave Declan, he is not right, he is crying much, too much, we worry he don’t stop. He blame himself for too much, we worry we don’t leave him on his own, we worry what he do, if he want to live, I worry about him very much –’

‘OK Nico, I think maybe this is something we should talk about somewhere else.’

Mum pulled Dad to his feet and out of the room with Nico, shutting the door behind them. Lis got out her tin of sweets and offered them to me. I took one, a green triangle, and unwrapped it slowly while I thought.

‘Why is Dec crying?’

‘Well he’s been sad for quite a long time.’

‘What about?’

‘It’s hard to explain, and maybe you need to ask Dec, yeah?’

‘I’m not allowed to talk to Dec.’

‘I know Cal. It’s hard for you all, isn’t it. Hey, while Nico’s talking to Mummy and Daddy, why don’t we play Pokemon on Nico’s PlayStation?’

What I really wanted to do was find out more about Dec, maybe go and listen to what Nico was saying in the kitchen, or wherever he’d gone with Mum and Dad, but I sensed I wasn’t going to be allowed out of the room until they’d finished talking, and so I nodded.

Lis and I were engrossed in our game, and had made quite a dent in the tin of sweets, when Nico came back into the room. Lis looked up.

‘Hey. All done?’

‘Yes, we finish talking. Jaime and Beth stay in the kitchen and wait for their dinner. Is ready, baby?’

‘Yeah, it’s ready, although Cal’s chicken nuggets might be a bit hard by now. How do you feel about rubbery nuggets, Cal?’

‘I don’t think I would like rubbery nuggets.’

‘No, I can’t say I blame you. Let’s go and see.’

To the best of my memory, the nuggets were a bit hard and a darker brown than I liked, but Mum and Dad were weird, and so I didn’t say anything. Mum and Dad hardly spoke, and kept looking at each other as they picked at their dinner. Nico and Lis talked to me, and we played ‘I went to the shop and in my basket I put’ for ages.

Our cat, Tabitha, came through the cat flap while we were eating, and she jumped up on my lap. Lis and Nico were looking after Tabs while we weren’t living at home, and I had almost forgotten about her, but I was really happy to see her. She rubbed her face along mine, and purred as I stroked her. Mum looked really happy to see her too, but Dad didn’t; he always called her ‘that damn cat’ when she did things like scratch the sofa and be sick and bring in mice with their heads bitten off, but he never called her ‘that nice cat’ when she purred, and sat on your lap to make you warm, and played with her ball.

Mum gave me a bath in Lis and Nico’s bathroom before I went to bed, and I tried to ask her about Dec, but she wouldn’t answer properly either.

‘Mummy, why was Dec crying?’

‘I don’t know, Cal, I wasn’t there.’

‘Lis said he’s sad.’

‘Well, I suppose so.’

‘What’s he sad about?’

‘We’ll have to ask him’

Can we ask him?’

‘Oh sweetheart, I don’t know. Let’s see if this boat can get from one end of the bath to the other …’

And I really was none the wiser.

Dec

Woke to an insistent buzzing, but it might have been in my head. It was dark. Couldn’t work out where I was. Who I was. Lay listening to the buzzing. More sounds, a door, footsteps, the buzzing stopped. A voice.

:You had better be the bloody Queen at this time of night.

Indistinct tinny reply.

:Don’t know what you mean. Are you a reporter?

More tinniness.

:You lot can all just bugger off, or I’ll call the police.

Silence. Thoughts swirled round. Pieced themselves together from fragments, one by one. Remembered. Sleep shattered, I lay and looked at the darkness. Second by second.

Many seconds later there was a tap on the door.

:You awake love?

‘Mm.’

:Time you were up and about. Kettle’s on.

I felt empty. Lethargy and apathy were overwhelming me. More seconds of staring. Another knock.

:Come on, love. Time to get up.

The door opened. Rose came in and crouched by the bed.

:How are you this morning? Get any sleep?

‘Bit.’

:Well that’s good. Come on then, off that bed. I don’t want to have to resort to a cold flannel.

Deep breath. Tried to move.

‘Rose.’

:Yes love.

‘Can you talk to me?’

:What about, love?

‘Anything.’

:Alright then … did I tell you about my sister’s lad and …

Off she went. Stories, news, recipes, gossip, nonsense, while I clung to her words and hauled myself back into the world.

Even one second at a time was hard, to start with. Lost concentration a lot. Rose punctuated her chatter with reminders.

:You alright in there? Don’t forget to turn the shower off, love.

:Eat your toast, love.

:I think you need to run a comb through that hair.

It got better as time went on and I could focus for longer. Rose stopped having to remind me to put one foot in front of the other, and I coped on my own. I had to get clean clothes and my Raiders kit from my flat, but one foot in front of the other was all I could handle. Didn’t think about anything, did the stairs one at a time, got my stuff together and went back down to Rose’s flat. One step, one second, one minute at a time.

Rose was in a dither when I got back.

:Listen, love, we’re going to have to be a bit clever with these reporter buggers. I’ve seen people looking over the wall, they might be round the back. They’ve been bothering everyone coming in and out too. What I’m going to do is go out and talk to them, make up some stuff. That’ll get them all round the front, hopefully. You go over the wall, here’s my keys, my car’s in the second garage from the end. Wait in the car for me. I’ll take you up the club.

It took a while for my brain to catch up, and I stood looking at Rose for a few seconds.

‘You’ve got a car?’

:Just a little runabout. Don’t use it much. Did you get all that?

I tried to remember what Rose had said. It seemed important. Today was important, wasn’t it. I had to do today, then I could stop, stop it all.

‘… Wall … garage … car.’

:Well done, love. Ready? I’ll pop out now. You go when it seems clear.

She pulled on a coat and left the flat, while I shook myself and tried to get ready to act. I peered out of the kitchen from behind the curtain. Saw the tops of two heads a bit further along, which hurried away after a couple of minutes. Jumped over the wall and ran to the garages. Fumbled with Rose’s key, opened the garage door, pulled it down almost shut behind me and got into Rose’s tiny Nissan in the dark. Shut my eyes.

Everything felt surreal. I was functioning completely on autopilot, only really able to cope with the next task. It would have to be my strategy now. Next job – wait for Rose. Waited. Second by second.

The sound of the garage door opening made me jump. I squinted in the daylight. Rose got into the driver’s seat, started the car, pulled out of the garage, got out to close the door, got back in. She was smiling, hugely pleased with herself.

:I can’t believe it worked! They fell for it. I told them a pack of lies, how they were sending a big fancy car for you in a few minutes, what a waste of money, how I’d seen you in the hallway and you’d be out any minute. I let them take pictures like I was enjoying the limelight, gave them a false name, then I walked off and let them wait. I feel like a spy, I do. You alright love?

‘Holding on. Thanks.’

:Right then, how do I get to this rugby club of yours?

I focussed on the lefts, rights and straight ons. Rose was not a confident driver and needed a lot of warning before she needed to make a turn. She didn’t talk much, except to clarify a direction, and seemed relieved when we arrived in the car park.

:Where’s the best place to drop you off, love?

I scanned ahead, checking for reporters. Didn’t see any.

‘Over there, players’ entrance.’

As we pulled up close to the door:

:Good luck, love. I’ll be thinking about you all day. Let me know when you can.

I nodded. My heart rate had shot up, my one second at a time strategy under serious threat as reality banged on the door and I could no longer push away what I was facing. I opened the car door almost in a dream. Turned back to Rose. One more thing I had to do.

‘Thanks for everything.’

She had tears in her eyes.

:You’re welcome love. Take care.

I got out, shut the door and watched her drive away. It felt like a goodbye. After today, nothing would be … the same. Turned to the players’ door. It was now open, and Adrian Peters was standing there.

.Hi Declan. Just checking you’re OK out here. We had some gentlemen of the press hanging about earlier, had to be quite firm. Seems all quiet now, though. Come on through.

I followed him into the building.

.I think Don wants to see you first, then we’ll all get together about this afternoon’s press conference. See you later.

I made my way, one foot in front of the other, to Don’s office. His door was open and he sat looking at his computer screen. I tapped on the door, heart racing, hardly breathing. He looked up.

-Declan. Thanks for coming. I’ll just ask Stuart to join us.

He pressed a button on the phone.

-Could you come up for a few minutes?

Put the phone down. Looked at me. Awkward silence.

-Any trouble getting here this morning?

‘No.’

-Good.

He looked more closely at my face.

-Are you alright? You look a bit … spaced out.

‘I’m OK.’

I tried to sit up and look normal, although spaced out is exactly how I felt. My heart was pounding, I felt sick and my head was buzzing again. I couldn’t think of a single thing to say except ‘for fuck’s sake get this over with’. The words kept going round and round my head, and I had to keep stopping myself from saying them. Don shuffled some papers on his desk and looked as awkward as I felt.

-Sorry to keep you waiting, it must be – ah, Stuart. Come on in, shut the door, would you?

Stuart came in, shut the door and sat next to me. He looked at me and nodded.

I had a strange sensation of floating away from myself, separating myself from reality. Nothing really mattered now, I knew what was going to happen, no nerves any more The floating Declan watched dispassionately. The real Declan was cocooned somewhere, not feeling a thing. Don was speaking. I drifted in and out, the odd word attracting my attention, but the buzzing drowned out most of what was said. It didn’t matter, anyway. It was all finishing now.

-… difficult time … you … the club … points … massive impact … suspend … playing … finish … Stuart …

Stuart was speaking now; neither Declan really listened, just looked out of the window, waiting for them to stop so it would be over.

^… hard decision … impressed … strong … weighed up … senior players … chance … sorry … tough …

So there it was. All finished now. Floating Declan disappeared and left me on my own. Don and Stuart were looking at me expectantly.

‘Er…’

I wasn’t sure what they wanted me to say or do, but I couldn’t go just yet. Still just a little bit more to do.

-Declan, are you alright? Did you hear what Stuart and I just said?

‘Yeah, yeah, sorry, just taking it in. I’ll … shall I clear out my stuff and go after the press conference?

Don and Stuart looked at each other.

-OK, I think we need to start again. I need you to listen. I know this is difficult, but I don’t think we had your full attention. I’m not sure you’re quite yourself. Listen to me and focus.

Don was right, it was difficult. Focussing I could do, listening I could do, but both at once … that was a bit of a struggle.

-We’re keeping you on. Stuart feels you’ve worked hard enough in training and on rebuilding relationships with the other players to warrant a second chance. Do you understand so far?

It was the words ‘second chance‘ that got through, repeated from the past by Rose – :you have to take them when you get them. The buzzing in my head stopped as I tried to make my mashed brain compute what Don was saying.

‘You’re … not letting me go?’

A smile played briefly on Don’s face.

-No. I can’t deny that you have made some serious errors of judgement, but we feel there is still a place for you here. Some of the senior players have spoken on your behalf and we also feel that the commitment, resilience and character you have shown through some hard times have been impressive.

I could hardly hear what he was saying, the blood was pounding so loudly in my ears. Don was still speaking.

-… remain informally suspended for the rest of the season, you won’t be able to play for us, but we’ll reinstate your Raiders privileges so you can continue to train and otherwise be a part of the team. We want you to be involved with the youth coaching too, and have arranged dual registration with Trojans so you can get some game time if they can use you –

My head was spinning wildly and I felt faint. It was all going too fast. It should be finished by now, over, so I could stop, but Don was saying … what was he saying? A tiny spark of hope, the last I’d allowed to hide down there somewhere, suddenly flared into life.

‘Stop. Please, sorry, just stop a minute. I … don’t get it. I’m … staying?’

Don sighed. He looked at me appraisingly.

-You are having trouble retaining this, aren’t you. I thought you didn’t look quite with it when you came in. OK. Words of few syllables. You are staying. You are still suspended until the end of the season. You are now dual registered with Trojans. Got that so far?

‘I … yes! Fuck! Sorry … sorry … I just … don’t believe it.’

Don looked at Stuart.

-I think that was more the reaction we were expecting?

Stuart laughed.

^Declan, you have shown a remarkable ability to overcome difficult circumstances. Added to this, you are a very talented young player with good levels of strength and fitness, and we feel you are too good a prospect to let go.

I was completely overwhelmed. Physically, mentally, all my senses. I lost all ability to speak or put any coherent thought or action together. Sat staring at the grandstand out of the window. My mind was trying to process the new information. One fact got through the log-jam. I was staying! It was wonderful, amazing, incomprehensible, glorious, what had a worthless piece of shit like me done to deserve it?

More words broke through.

-… Declan! I’m a bit worried about your ability to concentrate. I know this has been tough on you, maybe I hadn’t quite realised how much. I think you need somewhere quiet to have a think. We need to talk through the press conference with Adrian soon, but I think I’m going to suggest that before that, you have a sit down – maybe one of the hospitality suites? They won’t be used for another couple of hours. We’ll come and find you when we need you. You need to be coherent and follow what’s going on. Eat something and drink something. You need to be sharp. Understand?

I nodded. Followed Stuart out of the room and upstairs to one of the plush suites overlooking the pitch. I sat in a soft armchair and stared out of the window. Brain fog gradually melted away and I began to really understand what had happened. I had been given the most enormous second chance. I had spent so much of the last twenty four hours believing that all this would be gone by now, that rearranging it all in my head was proving difficult. I hadn’t lost it all. I’d thrown a hell of a lot away, but I still had Raiders. Don was right, it was going to take a lot of getting my head around.

I suddenly smiled broadly. Couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt really happy. The good feeling spread through me like a flame. I stood up, threw my arms wide and shouted:

Yes!

I felt dizzy with it. I knew I had been very lucky, it would have been a very close decision, whether I stayed or not, had more people to thank than I would ever know. But I was here and I was staying. Unbelievable. Unfuckingbelievable!

Matt

So Mum and I had another day of lazily chatting about nothing. We watched birds flitting on and off the feeder; I had started to tell the difference between them and wanted to know what they were. I knew some of them – sparrow, blue-tit, blackbird – but wanted to know the rest.

‘Muhm, nehd my iPahd.’

It was the first time I’d felt strong enough to look at a screen of any sort. Even the TV in my room was too much to concentrate on.

‘What, dear?’

‘Frohm the flah. Wahn tuh knoh wha thehs birhds are.’

‘Oh. Oh Matthew.’

Mum was looking very agitated, and wouldn’t meet my eyes.

‘We didn’t know how to tell you.’

‘Wha?’

‘It’s been emptied.’

‘Wha has?’

I had some vague idea that someone had wiped my iPad. Well no problem, it’s easy to just download it all again, you just –

‘Your flat.’

‘Wha?’

‘Oh Matthew, I’m so sorry, dear. Jameson and Beth went over there to get you some things, I gave them my key, and everything was gone. All your furniture, fridge, cooker, there was no iPad, no computer, no TV, your clothes were in a heap on the bedroom floor.’

I looked at her incredulously.

‘Brehk in?’

‘No dear. Whoever did it had a key.’

Her meaning was plain.

‘Cahrie.’

Something broke in me. I hadn’t thought there was anything left to break, but I’d obviously been saving a last tiny piece, cradling it against the hurt. Now it was shattered too. I’d wondered if Carrie had thought about me, known how ill I’d been, tried to visit me maybe, once she realised I’d nearly died. I hadn’t had the balls to ask, because to hear that she hadn’t would have stripped away that last little rag which covered what remained of my hope that it had all been some kind of übermisunderstanding. Now this news had done exactly the same job. Carrie cared less than nothing about me, and now I knew that for sure.

‘We think so, but it’s hard to prove.’

‘Dihnt she lehv anythihg?’

‘The sofa.’

The sodding rancid sofa, that I didn’t even want in the first place.

‘Hohly fuck Muhm.’

Mum took my hand and held it very tightly as tears leaked their way treacherously out of my eyes.

‘Whehr’s my phohn?’

I was going to call her, find her somehow, she couldn’t do this to me.

‘If it was in the flat, dear, it’s gone too. I’m so sorry.’

‘Fuck. Fucking bihtch.’

‘I wholeheartedly agree, Matthew. She has been the subject of quite a few late night swearing sessions of my own, believe me.’

I hadn’t given my phone a thought until now, an indication of how ill I actually was, but suddenly, without it, I was lost, adrift. I couldn’t contact anyone, not the friends who hadn’t replied to my texts, not work, not my GP, not the best Indian takeaway in Stafford, not Carrie to scream at her, nobody. She’d taken my life when she took my phone, and she would have known that, and it obviously had made no difference whatsoever. Even if it wasn’t her who actually took everything away, she was the one who’d let them in, or given them a key. I’d thought I’d be able to forgive Carrie if I ever got the chance, but this, this last indignity, this insult, while I lay nearly dying in hospital, it shifted something inside me, and the last spark of love I’d had for her winked out to be replaced by something hard and cold and ugly that needing saving for another day.

Without my phone, none of my friends would know what had happened, I couldn’t call them. Maybe Carrie hadn’t cared enough to wonder how I was in the days after she pulled my world down around me, but surely my friends would have tried to phone, would have found out where I was, somehow? I hadn’t told any of them about the bastard MS, still couldn’t find the words, had shut myself away a bit, and I hadn’t had the energy to think about it before I was confronted with it now, but there had been no contact, from anyone. Jay and Beth had been in touch with work, and there had been a card from them and some flowers, but nothing from anyone else.

It was like Carrie had taken my whole life, not just my stuff. Stuff didn’t matter, you could get new stuff, but people mattered, and … I started to wonder what she’d told them to make them stay away. I’d tried to call people before I got ill the first time, and nobody had picked up. What if she told them I’d left her, I’d been the one in the wrong? It was too much. I needed to let it go, let it float away for now. It was still tethered to me, I could feel it tugging, but I couldn’t bear to look at it.

I didn’t speak for most of the rest of that day. I told Mum to go away, I just wanted to be on my own to think about what she’d told me. I couldn’t blame them all, not really, for keeping it from me. Apart from anything, I wouldn’t have remembered if they’d told me, and it wasn’t something that would have been easy to say once, let alone twice or three times while I battled my way through the fog in hospital.

I drifted off to sleep in the afternoon, head full of my flat, my things, my nothing of a life.

17. No world for tomorrow

In which Cal takes matters into his own hands, and Dec feels the weight of responsibility.

Dec

The next few days were really tough. Things at the club had been improving, and I had started to fool myself into believing that everything was on the up. This reminder of what I had truly thrown away knocked me back a long way. I dragged myself through training sessions, then dragged myself home where I ate and slept. I couldn’t focus on anything else, my mind was full of the mess I’d made.

Cal

At the end of that week, Mum and Dad picked me up from school, but instead of going home, we set off down the motorway, back to the city. Dad had some work things to do, and Mum wanted to see people like Lis and Nico, and Trish, and we were going to stay in a hotel. I liked staying in hotels, because they had little bottles of shampoo, and I liked having different ones from different places, like the hotel in Portugal where we were on holiday in the summer.

As I sat in the back of the car, between counting red cars and singing car songs, I started to think about how I was going to be closer to both Dec and Dinosaurland, and I wondered if I was going to have a chance to do anything about my birthday plan. I had only turned six a few days ago, and although it wouldn’t be on my birthday, it might be close enough to feel like it was. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to do it, but I knew I would have to take my chance when I saw it. When I had talked to Dec, I hadn’t realised that Mum and Dad were unlikely to help me, but now I did, which made it difficult as I was going to have to do it on my own, but I was six now, and a big boy. My mind whirred with thinking.

We got to the hotel, and took our bags up to our room, or rather rooms – Mum and Dad had their room with their big bed, and I had a little room to myself which was joined to theirs by a door. We unpacked our things, and went to see Nico and Lis.

When we came back, it was late, and I was tired, but I tried to stay awake as long as possible. I wanted to see where Dad put his phone, and where Mum put the birthday money Nico and Lis had given me. Once I knew, I went to bed without a fuss, and went to sleep, determined to wake up early.

When I woke up, I got out of bed as quietly as I could and opened my door to see if Mum and Dad were still asleep. I could tell Dad was asleep, because he was snoring, and Mum had her eyes closed too. Usually, she woke up as soon as she heard a sound, so I knew I had to be super quiet.

I slipped back into my room and pulled my clothes on from yesterday, then I very, very quietly picked up Dad’s phone from the table, and took the ten pounds out of the envelope that had my birthday card in it. It wasn’t stealing, because it was my money. I made very sure that nobody would think I was stealing, and if I hadn’t had my birthday money, I would have made do without any. The birthday money was only so I could buy a stegosaurus and a triceratops.

I knew I should tell Mum and Dad where I was going, but it was a birthday surprise, and so I left them a clue. I’d seen the buses go past the hotel entrance, and sometimes they stopped at the bus stop just outside, and some of the buses said ‘Dinosaurland’ in lights on the front. I didn’t just want to write ‘I’m going to Dinosaurland with Dec’, because it was more fun to leave a clue and then they could work it out, and by the time they’d worked it out, we’d be there, and we could all have a nice time together.

So I drew a map where ‘X’ marked the spot, and a picture of a bus, and I drew the big tyrannosaurus rex from Dinosaurland on the side of it, and me in one of the windows, waving, and I left it on the table where Dad’s phone had been. I wasn’t stealing Dad’s phone, I was just borrowing it.

I slipped out of the door and made sure it didn’t make a sound when it closed – I could hardly believe I’d done all that without waking Mum and Dad up, but here I was, going out of the main door of the hotel, crossing the car park and waiting at the bus stop.

I had walked behind a man and a lady, and another man and lady had come out of the door behind me. I think when I was waiting at the bus stop, they all thought I was with the others, because the bus driver didn’t ask how old I was, or ask me to pay, or where my mummy was or anything. The two lots of men and ladies sat with a seat between them, so I sat in the middle and looked out of the window, waiting to see Dinosaurland. Just as I saw it, and wondered how to get the bus driver to stop, the man in front of me pushed a button, a bell rang, and the bus slowed down. The man and lady stood up to get off, and I followed them.

Once I was off the bus, I ran into the Dinosaurland car park, where I stopped suddenly, wondering what to do now.

I had Dad’s phone, but if they woke up and wondered where I was, they would call me, so I looked to see if it was turned on. Dad usually left it on ‘Do Not Disturb’ at night, which meant that no one could call him, but I could still play games. It looked like that was how it was now.

I didn’t want to call anyone just yet, it felt too soon. I knew Dec didn’t get up very early, and Dinosaurland looked shut for now, so there was no point everyone getting here right now. Dec and Dad would both be grumpy if I made them wake up on a Saturday morning. It was cold, though, and I hoped the people would come and open up Dinosaurland soon. Maybe they would let me in so I could wait in the warm.

Dec

The weekend came, a home Raiders game, the need to escape and avoid. I was packing a bag for a hike when my phone rang. Looked at the screen. Beth. Apprehensive, I answered.

‘Hey.’

_Dec, have you heard from Cal?

A frantic desperation in her voice.

‘No. Why, what’s happened?’

_He’s disappeared. We’re down here in the city, in a hotel. He’s gone. We woke up and he was … gone.

As Beth started to cry, an icy sliver of panic slipped down my ribcage.

‘Have you called the police?’

_Of course we have. They’re here now. Dec, he rang you before. He’s taken James’s phone, but it’s turned off. And he’s taken some money, we think.

More tears. Through them:

_If he contacts you, you will call me won’t you?

‘Oh, Beth, of course. Can I do anything, is there a search?’

_There is, but no, there’s nothing you can do. Let me know, if he calls you, won’t you.

She disconnected.

Heart pounding, I grabbed keys and wallet, stuffed my phone in my pocket. Whatever Beth had said, there was no way I could just get on with my day. I was going to look for him.

My thoughts weren’t very formed, but on the way to the bus stop I made a vague plan of going to their old house, trying some familiar places. The bus took an age to arrive. I was about to start walking when it trundled along. The journey to the old house was painfully slow. I scanned every child I saw from the bus, heart missing a beat each time I saw a small blond boy.

I got off at the stop nearest to the house. I hadn’t been here for months, and walking up the road felt strange. There was a police car outside the house. The police were obviously thinking along the same lines as me. No point looking further there.

I thought about the places Cal would have gone on his own early in the morning, decided to try the play-park round the corner. It was empty. I didn’t know where Jay and Beth had stayed – probably the big hotel near Raiders Stadium. It wasn’t far away. Maybe Cal had gone to his old school, or to a friend’s house – I began to realise how difficult it was going to be to second guess him, and how much better the police were going to be at it than me. But I couldn’t just give up and go home, knowing that Cal was out there somewhere on his own.

I decided to change tack and head further away. People would already have looked in the obvious places. I shied away from the thought that he might not be on his own, that someone might have taken him somehow. I caught a bus heading to the big retail park. There was a large Toys R Us which Cal had been to with me. It was as good a place as any.

On the bus, lost in thought and anxiety, I nearly missed it. A large sign with an angry Tyrannosaurus Rex in full roar, underneath a scarlet header declaring DINOSAURLAND: Dream Big!

‘Stop! Please, stop.’

I stood up, rushed to the front of the bus and pounded on the bell, scoring some irate glances from several other passengers. The bus driver was apologetic.

*Sorry, mate, can’t let you off between stops.

‘How far till the next one?’

*Just up the road by the garage, look.

I couldn’t sit back down. The couple of hundred metres dragged by. As soon as the bus stopped and opened its doors, I jumped off and ran as fast as I could back to the theme park. It was still early, wouldn’t be open yet.

I sprinted into the empty car park, scouting ahead for small boys. Nothing at the entrance. The barriers to the park beyond were closed and locked, so he couldn’t be inside. Maybe I was wrong. I’d been so positive when I’d seen the sign. It was only a few days since his birthday; our plans would still be fresh in his mind. I mentally kicked myself for not thinking of it sooner.

Cal

While I was waiting to call Dec, I went behind a wooden shelter, so no one could see me. I didn’t want to have to talk to a stranger, or anyone to find me before I could make the plan happen. I sat on the ground behind the shelter, because the wind wasn’t blowing so hard there, and I started playing Angry Birds on the phone. Dad’s headphones were still plugged in, and it always sounded better with headphones, so I put those in too.

Dec

I slowed to a walk and looked around me. There were a few kiosks which were shut up, and an empty wooden shelter. I tried a shout.

‘Cal!’

Nothing. Was I wrong? I was immobilised with indecision – should I stay here and wait in case he turned up, or carry on with my plan to go to the retail park? I was just about to turn and walk back to the bus stop when I caught a glimpse of movement from near the ground behind the wooden shelter. Blond curls caught by the breeze.

I shouted out with relief and ran over to the shelter. Peered round the edge. He was sitting on the ground playing a game on the phone. Headphones in. He hadn’t heard me. I crouched down next to him, touched him lightly on the shoulder.

Cal

I had been playing for a while, and was nearly at my best ever score, when I felt a touch on my shoulder. It made me jump, and I looked up fearfully at the person crouching by me, ready to run away if it was a bad man.

Dec

Cal looked up, startled. Relaxed when he saw it was me. Took the headphones out. Smiled up at me. I did my best to hide my relief and anxiety, and smiled back at him.

Cal

It was Dec. How had he known to come? He must have known we were in the city, and realised we could do our birthday plan too. I had to admit it was pretty clever of him.

‘Hey Cal. Here you are. What’s this all about then?’

I didn’t quite know what he meant, but he was here, and it made me happy to see him, so I smiled.

‘You camed. I didn’t even phone you yet. I’m playing Angry Birds.’

‘Cal, I’m going to ring your mum. She’s very worried about where you are.’

That seemed sensible. I didn’t want to worry Mum, but I had left them a clue, so she would know where I was. Then we could go and see the dinosaurs. I couldn’t wait to tell Mum and Dad how clever and grown up I had been, but I really wanted to start my birthday treat.

‘OK, then we can go in to Dinosaurland.’

‘Well, it’s not open yet, let’s wait in the shelter for a bit. It’s wet here on the ground.’

I hadn’t noticed the damp seeping into my trousers, but as Dec mentioned it I felt the wetness on my bottom. I stood up as Dec took his phone out, but didn’t want to go in the shelter; I wanted to go into the park.

‘But you said…’

Dec wasn’t listening to me, as he spoke into his phone, guiding me to the seat with his free hand and sitting down next to me.

Dec

_Dec?

The mixture of hope and terror in her voice nearly did for me.

‘He’s at Dinosaurland.’

_You found him? Oh my God! Is he alright?

‘He’s fine.’

_Oh my God! James, Dec found him. He’s at Din –

The phone went dead and I assumed they were on their way.

‘Cal, it’s great to see you. But you shouldn’t ever go anywhere without telling your mum and dad.’

Cal

That felt really not fair. I had told them, I’d drawn the picture and the X marks the spot.

‘I know that, I drawed a map. It was a clue. They were asleep so I drawed a bus. It had dinosaurs on the side. I got on it with another mummy and daddy. I’ve got my birthday money so I can buy a stegosaurus. I borrowed Daddy’s phone so I can talk to you and we can do my birthday plan.’

I expected Dec to be impressed, but he just nodded and carried on looking at me. The wind gusted into the shelter, and I shivered. Dec took his hoody off and put it round my shoulders, but it was a big boy’s hoody, and it felt ginormous.

‘It’s too big.’

I started to shrug it off my shoulders, but Dec held on to it by putting his arm round me.

‘Yes, but you’re cold. Keep it on.’

I snuggled up beside Dec, feeling like everything was going to plan, and things might be getting back to normal. We often sat like this watching football, making up stories, playing games, and it felt like something that had gone away had come back. Dec didn’t feel like a bad man, like someone who had stolen and lied; he just felt like Dec, like he had always been. Maybe he hadn’t really stolen – maybe he’d just borrowed, like I’d done with Dad’s phone this morning. Maybe it didn’t really matter. I didn’t understand the word ‘forgiveness’ back then, but whatever it was I felt, it changed things back for me, from being scared of the Dec I thought he might have become, to welcoming back the Dec I remembered, who I hadn’t seen for ages, and who I loved. I didn’t want to sit there forever, though, I wanted to see the dinosaurs.

Dec

He sat close and nestled under my arm. How many times had we sat together like this, reading stories, making up games, watching football on TV? He was like my brother, and it tore at my heart.

\when will it be open?

‘Not for a while yet. The person with the key will have to come and unlock all the dinosaurs, and feed them too. They eat a lot. Need their porridge.

I carried on like this, talking nonsense, trying not to let Cal see how relieved I was he was safe, or how much I wanted to cry at seeing him again.

Cal

This felt more like it. Dec was making up stories that seemed just likely enough to be real, so we could carry on talking.

I grinned at him.

‘Dinosaurs don’t eat porridge.’

‘They might do here. It’d be special porridge that’d fill them right up and stop them eating people …’

Dec and I carried on talking, about the dinosaurs, about Arsenal and Theo Walcott, about what flavour ice cream was my favourite, even though he knew it was double chocolate chip, until a car came into the car park, going very fast.

Dec

There was a squeal of tyres at the entrance. Jay’s car raced into the car park and braked in front of the shelter in a shower of gravel.

Cal

When I looked up, I saw it was Dad’s car; Dad was driving and Mum was next to him. Dad always drove really fast, and the car stopped outside the shelter with a squeal of brakes, and lots of stones sprayed out from the tyres. Mum got out of the car and rushed over to us in the shelter. Dec stood up as Mum hugged me really tightly, and she was crying.

Why was she crying? I was fine, I was with Dec, my plan had worked, and everything was going to be OK. I looked over at Dad, who had just got out of the car. He didn’t look at Dec, and had that cross look on his face that he’d had for ages, every time anyone had said Dec’s name. Dad didn’t say anything, just walked over and picked me up, cuddling Mum with one arm as he held me against him.

Dec

Jay glanced at me. Looked away. I got the message. He walked over and picked up Cal, holding him in one arm with the other round Beth.

Cal

I began to get the feeling that things weren’t quite going as I had hoped they would when Dec picked up his hoody, which had dropped onto the floor when I stood up, and walked away.

‘Dec …’

Mum called after him and he turned round.

‘Thank you.’

Dec looked like he was going to say something, then he looked at Dad and seemed to change his mind.

Dec

I opened my mouth to speak, desperate to talk to them. Looked at Jay. He was staring ahead, not meeting my eyes, a grim look on his face. The dismissal was plain. I nodded and walked on. Desolate. I’d thought I’d never see them again, but seeing them like this, so close but so far away, was worse, unbearable.

Cal

No, this was spoiling everything. Dec couldn’t go now.

‘Where’s Dec going? The key person will be here soon to feed them porridge and I’m going to have ice cream and then we’re going to go in and see the dinosaurs …’

Dec

I couldn’t take any more, couldn’t bear to hear what they said to him, started to run as fast as I could and didn’t stop until I had no breath left.

Cal

As I spoke, I saw Dec run away, really fast, and I realised my plan had failed.

Maybe it would be OK if Mum and Dad came to Dinosaurland with me instead, even if they didn’t know about the stegosaurus and Ice Cream Factory.

Mum had stopped crying, and was looking at me with a sad look on her face.

‘Cal, what on earth … how did you … oh my baby, I’m so glad we found you.’

She started crying again, and Dad squeezed us both tighter. He spoke for the first time since he’d got out of the car.

‘Cal, mate, you know you shouldn’t just go off on your own, don’t you?’

And so it started, the long talk about how I always had to make sure Mum and Dad knew exactly where I was, all the time, no excuses, no maps or clues, just making sure they were both awake and that I told them with words, and never just went off and did things on my own, however clever and grown up I thought I was being. They didn’t just say it once, they said it about a million times that day. Just when I thought they’d stopped, they would say it again.

And I had to talk to a policeman, which should have been exciting but was pretty boring, because as well as asking me over and over again about how I got out of the hotel and how I got onto the bus, he just said the same things Mum and Dad had said, only he kept calling me ‘sunny’.

And I didn’t get to go to Dinosaurland after all; as soon as I’d talked to the policeman, we all got in Dad’s car and went home.

Dec

Days passed. The renewed pain and loss settled somewhere inside me, became part of me, like the rest of it. I trained, ate, slept, talked to Rose.

Rose saved me in the end. She had experienced major tragedies in her life – to my shame, things I had only been marginally aware of in my self-absorption. She couldn’t have children of her own, had tried many times before being told it would never happen, and told me how the hurt had never gone away.

:You just learn to stop prodding it, love. You never lose it, but you can live your life around it. Find ways not to think about it.

So that’s what I did. Pushed it down deep with all the other stuff I never let myself examine, and I didn’t look at it, think about it or prod it. It was better. I drifted along, worked hard, carried on finding ways not to think. Went hiking, went to the gym, kept myself physically exhausted. It helped to keep it all at bay. But it wasn’t any sort of a life.

Cal

Mum and Dad hardly let me out of their sight for ages after that. They walked me right into school, and were there by the school door when it was home time, and for ages, Mum wouldn’t let me go to play with any of my new friends unless she was there too, talking to another mum. But because of Uncle Matty, Mum didn’t have as much time to come out with me, or to have people over to play, so I had to spend a lot of time playing on my own.

While Uncle Matty was still in hospital, but had woken up, we stopped living with Granny and started living in our new house. I had a special dinosaur bedroom, which had dinosaur wallpaper, dinosaur duvets and lots of shelves for my dinosaur models. It also had bunk beds, so I could have friends to sleep over, but because of Mum needing to look after Uncle Matty, I hadn’t had friends over yet.

Uncle Matty was going to come and live with us when he got better enough, and he had his own room downstairs with his own shower and toilet behind a door. He didn’t have dinosaur wallpaper, even though I thought it might make him feel better when he came home and said he could borrow some of my models.

By the time Uncle Matty came home, it was nearly Christmas. Or rather, it was the end of November, and I was getting excited. Dad had said we could have a real tree, and I wanted a tree in all the rooms, but in the end Dad said Uncle Matty could have a tree in his room too, and that would have to be enough, and we went to choose them.

Dec

The day of the hearing about my visa and passport was looming. I didn’t have to go, Raiders were the ones answering the questions, but I was aware of a rising tension at the club.

Raiders were currently fifth in the league, in sight of a top four place. A major points deduction would make fourth place and the play-offs realistically out of reach, and everyone was on edge. A lot of hard work down the drain if it was a big deduction. A huge fine for the club in any case. Lots on my shoulders. Felt its weight growing as time passed. Spent a lot of time, despite trying hard not to, thinking ‘what if’ and going through the permutations. Fruitless, pointless activity but my brain did it anyway.

The date was set for the Friday of that week. It took forever to arrive, and came too soon at the same time. I woke up very early that morning, head full of potentials, likelihoods and probabilities.

There would be lots of people gathering at the club to use the gym, and then wait for news from the hearing in London, which was expected around lunchtime. It was not a training day, so I wasn’t allowed at the stadium. I felt very alone and separated from something that had such a huge effect on me and the people I spent most of my life with.

I couldn’t settle at home. Not having a computer, or access to any kind of internet meant I had no reliable way of getting information.

Nico had said he would text as soon as he heard anything. He had as much to lose as anyone – top flight rugby, teams getting into finals and winning trophies are some of the things that get players noticed and into international sides.

Since I had paid back all of the money I owed, there had been an easing of the exclusion and retaliation I had experienced. People had started to talk to me again, involve me in plans, suggest I might be playing again soon. A big points penalty from the RFU would be likely to put me back to square one, or worse.

I was very aware, from my original talk with Don and my continued meetings with Stuart that, although they were satisfied with the effort I had put in to making things right and remaining fit, if there was a big points loss, it might not be enough for me.

I found myself unable to face that possibility. If I lost Raiders, or even worse couldn’t play anywhere, I was scared about what it would do to me. I would have pissed away absolutely everything that had ever mattered to me, and I didn’t know how I was going to begin to rebuild my broken life.

Despite myself I had begun to hope, over the last few weeks, that things were working out. Today, I would find out whether that hope was groundless and I veered from minute to minute between wild hope and crashing despair.

I needed to find some way of following the news. The television that Rose had given me was, while much appreciated, a little bit crap, and had no twenty-four hour news station or any red button facilities. It was unlikely that the hearing would be in the headlines anyway – it mattered greatly to players and supporters of Raiders, but not very much to anyone else. I needed somewhere I could sit and obsessively check news updates on my phone.

I made my way into the city, found a café with free Wi-Fi, and parked myself in the corner with a coffee. I did a search for sports news websites, then began checking. The hearing didn’t start until ten o’clock; it wasn’t even nine yet. I realised I was being a bit mad. Couldn’t help myself. So much was riding on this.

The café was pretty busy to start with, people picking up coffee on their way to work. It emptied by nine-thirty, and then there was another wave at about ten o’clock of women with pushchairs. I was fairly anonymous, wearing hoody and baseball cap, head down, focussed on my phone.

Nonetheless I gradually became aware that I was being observed. A member of staff behind the bar kept looking over between customers. I looked her in the eye and smiled. She looked away. But looked back when my gaze was elsewhere. Eventually she came over to clear away my empty coffee cup.

*Anything else you need?

The usual line to let you know you need to buy another drink if you’re planning on staying.

‘I’ll come and get another coffee in a minute’

*Oh, I’ll bring it over. What would you like?

‘OK, thanks, another latte please.’

When she brought the coffee over she looked as if she was trying to make a decision. By the time she got to the table she had made it.

*Are you Declan Summers?

Now wary, having had a few more unpleasant confrontations since my experience at the supermarket, I nodded.

*It’s the hearing today, isn’t it? Sorry, I’m a huge Raiders fan, me and my boyfriend go to all the games. Really nervous about it.

‘Me too.’

*I’ll bet. Poor you. Can’t be much fun, waiting.

‘Not much fun for everyone else, either. It affects a lot of people.’

I had an increased awareness of just how many people were potentially waiting on a group of other people to decide how my actions would affect their future. I apologised as sincerely as I could whenever anyone confronted me.

‘Sorry.’

*Oh, no, don’t worry. Stupid rule. Raiders should have checked more thoroughly. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before, you’d think they’d be more careful. I don’t blame you.’

This was an incredibly generous viewpoint. Most Raiders supporters I’d come across were more eager to lay the blame squarely at my feet, and I couldn’t argue with that.

*Are you meeting up with them all later, wait it out together?

‘No, I’m still suspended. Not allowed at the club except to train.’

*Oh, that seems harsh. How will you find out?

‘Well that’s what I’m doing here, using your Wi-Fi, checking the news. Someone’s hopefully texting me too.’

*Oh, good idea. I won’t find out till I have my lunch later, if they’ve announced anything.

‘I don’t think we’ll know anything till later. I’m just getting ready.’

*Oh, OK, I don’t suppose you could keep me posted if you hear anything? I’ll keep you supplied with latte!

‘No worries.’

*Oh, that’d be great. Thanks.

Smiling, she walked back behind the counter.

A quick check of the various websites showed no news, a limited amount of old speculation. I went round them all again, then logged onto the supporters’ forum.

I’d never paid much attention to the fan site; other players sometimes talked about the opinions flying about on it, how did they know this, how they’d got that completely wrong, how dare they say something else. It seemed to me that they were entitled to their opinions, and if it was going to upset you, you were better off not looking. But today I looked.

There was a huge thread about the hearing (Likely Outcome Today), several smaller ones about various aspects (Here We Go Again; League Position; Foreign Player Rules) and one specifically about me (Summers: Should He Stay or Should He Go). Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have looked at any of them, but I was desperate for any type of information.

Afterwards, I wished I hadn’t read them. Most people were convinced that Raiders were in for a heavy punishment, that it was all my fault and that I shouldn’t still be playing rugby, let alone for Raiders. Even though a part of me agreed with them, it wasn’t enjoyable reading. The large percentage of people who were incredibly angry, and their unfavourable comments about me, made me feel even worse than I already did. I tried telling myself it was just people’s opinions, they didn’t know anything, they contradicted themselves and each other, but a lot of it really hit home and made me feel more guilty and nervous about the outcome.

By lunchtime, I had become really bored with reading the same news reports over and over again, but my adrenaline was pumping and my heart rate had increased immensely. I felt a bit spaced out, as if nothing was real. The café had filled up with people, and it was noisy and hot. The girl behind the counter had disappeared, I assumed she had gone on her lunch break.

Then there was a sudden flurry of news activity – no direct announcement, but the headlines and stories all changed to say it was imminent. My stress levels went into overdrive. When I got a text I thought my heart would stop.

Nico: =Bad news. 10 pts lost. Call you later 😦

Fuck. Ten points. That took us down from fifth to eighth, and well out of range of top four. It even took us close to the clubs battling relegation. Fuck. Fuck.

The other media sites I had tagged all started pinging notifications, confirming what Nico had texted, and announcing a fifty thousand pound fine. I struggled to take in how big the punishment was.

That was it, I saw no way now of keeping my job at Raiders. It was over.

I put my hands over my face and breathed deeply, trying to take it in. I felt sick, faint, unreal. I felt a hand on my shoulder. Looked up. The girl from the counter.

*Any news?

I couldn’t say it. My face must have told her.

*Oh no! What is it?

‘I’ve got to go.’

As she started to speak, I suddenly couldn’t breathe, needed to get out. I jumped to my feet, pushed past the girl and stumbled out onto the street. People surged around me. I felt like everyone was looking at me. I was rooted to the spot.

*Are you OK?

The girl had followed me out.

*You look a bit shocked. Come back in and sit down. I’ll get you some water.

I stumbled away from her, not knowing where I was going, walking, couldn’t face talking, needed to be alone, dreaded being alone. Too much, too big, too overwhelming. My head was full of noise and I zoned out.

I ended up sitting on a bench in a park by the cathedral. No memory of how I got there or how long I’d sat there, staring ahead. It was getting dark. My phone pinged in my pocket. I pulled it out and looked at the screen – I had missed texts, calls and voice-mails Dreading them, I checked them all.

Nico: =Hope you OK. Where are you?

Big: =Bugger. Call me, let’s get trashed.

Surprisingly:

DivDav: =Bad news, bad luck. Hope u ok.

The rest, a mixture of people I didn’t know well or people who had got hold of my number from somewhere, not so sympathetic. A lot of abuse from supporters. Some senior players saying their piece. All completely understandable, all making me completely miserable.

No number:=Watch your back, fucking arse-wipe

There were two voice-mails I had to check.

One from Don:

-Declan, I’m sure you’ve heard the outcome of the hearing. It’s not good. Please can you call me as soon as you get this message.

One from Stuart:

^Hello Declan, just in case you haven’t heard, it’s not good news, the board docked us ten points and a fairly hefty fine. Don wants to talk to you as soon as possible. Please ring him. If you need someone to talk to, give me a bell.

Deep breaths, tried to get my thoughts together so I could ring Don. Dialled the number.

-Don Barker.

‘It’s Declan.’

-Declan, hello. Thanks for ringing back. I assume you have heard the news about the points.

‘Yes.’

Thought about apologising, but it seemed a bit late and a bit irrelevant.

-There’s going to be a press conference tomorrow after the game. I want you to be there. I also want you to come to the ground tomorrow for a media briefing. We need to make sure we finish this off right. OK?

‘OK.’

-Come to the ground at ten. We’ll run through some things with Adrian. Kick off is at three, you’ll need to make yourself scarce somewhere while the build up and match are going on, I want to make sure the media doesn’t get hold of you before the press conference. Don’t talk to anyone who might be a reporter. Bring your Raiders training kit, but don’t wear it to the ground. Got all that?

‘I think so.’

-See you tomorrow.

Sent some texts.

To Nico

Me: =In town. OK. Sorry for everything.

To Big

Me: =Sounds good sometime, could do with a night out. Will call. Thanks. Sorry for everything.

To DivDav

Me: =Thanks mate. Sorry for everything.

Deleted all the other texts and messages. Sat, dejected and alone, head in hands, for a long time. Tomorrow. Don was going to finish things off tomorrow. Phone rang. Looked at the screen, expecting another load of abuse, but it was Rose.

‘Rose?’

:Oh there you are love. Sorry to ring you, I’m not checking up – well, alright, I suppose I am. I’ve just seen the local news. I forgot it was today, you never said. Are you alright?

‘Not really.’

:Where are you? I’ve just been upstairs, but you didn’t answer your door. Are you out?

‘Cathedral Park.’

:What are you doing out there? It’s freezing. Are you with someone?

‘No.’

:Oh love, come home. I’ve got a stew on. Apple pie for afters.

Rose, with her food and her common sense and her love. She was just what I needed. In a kind of trance I started to make my way back, focussing on Rose like some sort of homing device. Waited at the bus stop, got on a bus. My phone rang several times, but I ignored the calls until I recognised Rose’s name on the screen.

:Those reporter buggers are back, love. I sent them packing, but they’re waiting out the front. You need to come in the back.

‘The back?’

:Well, I’ve had a bit of a think, and if you go round by the garages you should be able to get over the wall into my yard. It’s dark, no one will see you.

‘Thanks for the warning.’

The phone rang again almost as soon as Rose had rung off. Nico.

>Hey Declan. How are you? You are still in town?

‘No. Going home.’

>Huh. OK. We worry, Lis and me. How you feel?

‘Bit of a daze. Got to meet Don tomorrow. That’ll be it, over.’

>You sound not so good. Come round, Lis cook something amazing. We talk.

‘Thanks, Nico, but I’m going to Rose’s for tea.’

I suddenly felt humbled by the people who, despite everything I’d done and the consequences, still wanted to help me. Worthless piece of shit.

>Huh. Hey, I think I come to you. I like to see Rose again.

I took a moment to compute this. Nico was a law unto himself, believed that what he wanted was right, and usually got his way. He had been great over the last few weeks, and talking to him about the day’s events would be welcome. I was sure Rose wouldn’t mind an extra person to fuss over, especially if he was a charming Argentinian rugby player. However:

‘She’s just told me there are reporters outside. I’m going to have to climb over her wall at the back. You won’t be able to get past without them recognising you.’

He only paused for a second.

>I get in same as you. Where I go?

I told him where he would need to park and how to find Rose’s wall. Then I rang Rose and told her. As I suspected, she was delighted. She had a soft spot for Nico that had more than a little to do with his charm and Latin good looks, and she twittered her delight when I told her, instantly changing the menu to incorporate fancier ingredients.

‘He’s not coming to judge your cooking.’

:I know. I’m a silly old woman. Just want things to be nice, don’t I. I hope he doesn’t ruin his clothes getting over the wall.

By the time I’d finished the call I had reached my stop. I could see my building from down the street and the small group of people waiting near the door. Felt another surge of gratitude towards Rose for her thoughtfulness as I ducked down the street towards the garages.

Getting over the wall was just too easy, though. Needed attention. She was looking out for me from the kitchen, and opened the door when she saw me. She gave me a huge hug and then held me at arms length to study my face.

:Oh love, you’ve got the world on your shoulders, haven’t you?

I crumpled a bit, a few tears, nodded. Wiped my eyes.

‘I think … that’s it … over. I’ve got to go to the club tomorrow. They’re going to tell me I’m finished.’

:Well, you don’t know that, now do you? Why not just wait and see?

‘I talked to Don. I can’t cost them this much and stay on. I’ve always known that, really. Tried not to think about it …’

Saying it, finally admitting it to myself, felt like pulling my heart out of my chest and throwing it on the floor. I stood and looked at Rose, unable to move or speak, feeling the final drops of hope seep out of me, leaving me completely empty.

:Oh love. I still think until you know for definite, you’ve got a chance. Anyway, kettle’s just boiled, come and sit down. Oh look – here’s your friend.

Nico landed lightly in the yard.

>Easy! Hello Rose, is good to see you again.

He walked into the kitchen and kissed her on the cheek. She didn’t quite know where to put herself, and I saw her blush.

>Declan.

He gave me a quick hug.

>Good to see you also.

He turned to Rose.

>Lis and me, she is my wife, we are very glad you look after him. He think too much, get mad with himself, we worry.

:Oh I know, love. I worry too. He often needs a boot up the backside …

While they carried on discussing me as if I wasn’t there, I made some tea. Concentrated on pouring the water into the mugs, milk into the tea, stirring. Thinking about anything else felt unsafe, very shaky ground. Handed the mugs to Rose and Nico.

:Thanks, love. I could have done that.

Now without a task, I needed to occupy my mind and my hands with something that would stop the shudders I could feel building, and would fill the emptiness inside me. Started clearing the table and putting things in the sink to wash up.

:What are you doing, love?

‘Just need to …’

:Leave it now, I’ll do it after tea.

I ignored her and carried on, filling the bowl, focussing on the bubbles, wiping plates. Rose took the cloth out of my hand. Took my arm. Led me to a chair at the table. Knelt beside me.

:I think you need to sit down and tell us about it. Pretending it’s not happening isn’t going to help. We’re here. Just tell us, love.

I tried. Started saying words, but hadn’t realised how close the misery was. It bubbled up and overtook me. All of it, from way back. Everything I’d lost – Mum and Dad, Jay, Beth and Cal, my friends. And now I was going to lose Raiders, rugby – everything I had left would be gone. Months of this going round my head. I hadn’t realised how much hope I’d allowed myself. Now I’d stripped myself of everything that defined me, everything that had ever mattered to me. I had nothing, was no one.

Covering my head with my arms, I slumped forwards onto the table. Huge sobs broke free. I could hardly breathe, drowning in sorrow and self-loathing. This was just too, too hard. I didn’t know how I was going to go on.

I felt Rose put an arm round me, say something. Couldn’t take in words. Could only keep repeating to myself what I’d done, who I’d hurt, what a worthless piece of shit I was. Over and over, until eventually, after a long time, I had no breath left for any of it or any tears left. Even that felt like a betrayal – I should weep forever for what I’d done.

I stayed face down on the table as, some time later, the shuddering sobs subsided, leaving me scraped raw from the inside. Rose was still talking, nonsense, comforting words. I couldn’t move, completely weighed down. Couldn’t open my eyes, the world was too bright and real.

:Tell me love.

It was an effort to speak, and my throat was sore.

‘Gone.’

:What’s gone?

‘Everything.’

:Oh love, don’t say that. Don’t give up.

‘Nothing left.’

>What you mean? You have Rose and you have me. Best team a man could want. Rose is beauty and I am brain. Ha, and beauty also.

And how long before I piss that away too? I really was not worth the effort.

‘Don’t fucking bother. Not worth it.’

:Declan, love, please don’t say that.

>I tell you before, I decide for myself. I say yes, you are worth it.

‘Please don’t. Just … don’t.’

I had no more left. Just wanted them to leave me alone and stop loving me. It was too much. So much more than I deserved. I’d only take it and fuck up their lives too.

>Declan, you worry me. I never see you like this.

:Come on, love, I know you blame yourself for a lot of things, but it’s never as bad as it seems. Things have been better for you the last couple of weeks, haven’t they?

To Nico:

:He’s been pretty low at times, but we’ve talked it out. He takes too much blame for things, tries to put everything right. Sometimes you just have to accept things have happened and move on.

>I see this with Declan. He let people treat him bad because he think he deserve it. They don’t have this right, but he don’t stand up to it. He deserve better than he thinks.

:No argument from me. I think we need to convince this one.

She gave me a squeeze with the arm that was still round my shoulders.

:Come on love, think of the good things. You’ve got me and Nico here. You’ve built bridges with a lot of your friends.

>You work really hard the last few weeks. You impress Stuey. You are good player. You are strong, in your body and in your head. You are determined – I say a pig head, but I be nice.

:You’ve done so much to put the things right that you did wrong. You paid back all that money, took a lot of abuse, stayed away from people you love when they asked you. You could have made it easier, but you did it the hard way, because you thought it was right.

>I think, my friend, you need to think about what you do next.

There was a silence, as if they were holding their breath, waiting for me to answer. I had nothing.

>Well, you don’t ask, but what you do next is get ready to go to the club tomorrow. You have to finish this, know for once and for ever. You owe to them to be there as they have asked. Do this for them. Don’t think what about me. Do tomorrow for them and then do the next day for us. Rose and me, we will be here. And after. We will be here. Always we will be here for you, Declan.

Some of his words sank in. He was right. I had to do this, I owed it to Raiders to turn up and hear what they wanted to say to me, then face people and say whatever they wanted me to say. The fallout from my shit could wait until afterwards. This dark emptiness would wait another day, then it could have me. I shifted in my seat, propped myself up on my elbows, head in hands.

‘OK.’

Another big squeeze from Rose. A sigh of relief.

:Good lad. One day at a time, you can manage it then. One hour at a time, or one minute if that’s all you can take. Don’t think about the next one until this one’s out the way. Don’t look back or forwards. You can do it, love.

It felt like a very tall order. I thought about the next minute. Managed to lift my head up and look at them. My face was hot and puffy, my eyes swollen and I expect I was not a pretty sight.

‘I’ll try.’

:You don’t have to do it on your own, love. We’ll help you with anything you need. First thing I think we all need is something to eat.

>Ha! I agree. I smell, is wonderful.

I could sense their relief, but couldn’t feel it in me. Rose had shown me the way to cope with the next minute, hour, day, but I could hardly bring myself to face the next second. I had no appetite, and played listlessly with the bowl of stew Rose dished up for me.

>Rose, this is good. You cook very good. You should meet Lis, she like you for sure.

:I’d love to meet her. Bring her over sometime.

>I will, we –

Nico’s phone rang.

>Hey baby … no I still with Declan … oh, mierda, is today? I forget, sorry … I don’t know if I should stay here, Declan he has hard time … no, no, oh I see what you say … you are right, OK, I come soon. But I tell them how this is … no, I know, but is very bad. I say, and they know … is my fault then, they don’t blame you … no, baby, I need to do this. I see you soon. Bye baby.

He hung up, looked down at the table, squared his shoulders.

>I really sorry, I forget … we have visitors. Lis needs me home. I feel horrible.

:Don’t worry, love, we’ll be fine. You go on.

>You are certain?

:Yes love.

>Declan I call you tomorrow, OK?

‘OK.’

I managed a tiny smile. It hardly reached my lips, let alone my soul.

16. Everything is broken

In which unexpected contact is made, which makes matters worse.

Cal

I remember when we were still living at Granny’s, Mum and Dad weren’t talking to or about Dec, and I didn’t understand it. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be talking to him either, and my birthday was coming up, and I had been starting to worry about how Dec and I were going to be able to do our plan.

Months before, when Dec was still living with us and everything was OK, we had decided that we would go to Dinosaurland, and have a great time with ice cream and all sorts of other exciting treats, on my birthday. It was just going to be me and him, and I had been looking forward to it ever since – seeing the days pass that meant that my birthday was getting closer. But Dec hadn’t told me how it was going to happen now I wasn’t in our house any more, and I didn’t know how to check, and it was my birthday tomorrow, and I wanted to know how I was going to get to Dinosaurland.

Then Mum and Dad went to visit Uncle Matty in the hospital, leaving me with Granny, and when she fell asleep in front of the TV, I had to amuse myself. I decided to draw a picture for Uncle Matty – there were already loads of my pictures all round his bed in the hospital, because all I was allowed to do when I went there was colour quietly, but I felt he needed another velociraptor for his collection – and I took my felt pens and paper to the dining room table. And there it was, Dad’s phone. Just sitting on the table, practically saying ‘Use me’.

I forgot all about the picture, and picked up the phone. Dad would let me play games on it, and I knew his code even though he thought I didn’t, but I’d never made a call on it before. I quickly checked on Granny, who was still asleep, and put in the code to unlock the phone. I remembered it because the numbers spelled a word, which was T-W-A-T, and I remembered the word because it sounded funny when I heard Dad telling Mum. Once I had opened the phone, I looked at all the pictures, to see if I could tell which one to press to call Dec. It wasn’t that obvious, but right at the bottom was a green button with a white picture on it, and I spelled the word ‘Phone’ out to myself. This must be it. I pressed the picture.

A list of names filled the screen, and when I touched the list with my finger, it moved down. I couldn’t see Dec’s name, so I moved the list down and down, and eventually I saw it. I could spell Dec’s name, and there it was. I wasn’t sure, but I thought that if I touched the name, it would call Dec’s phone, so I tried it. A picture of Dec flashed up, the one where he was standing next to his car, and I put the phone to my ear, to see if I could hear Dec talking. I could hardly believe I’d done it, but I could hear the ‘brr brr’ of Dec’s phone ringing. Except I knew it wouldn’t be going ‘brr brr’ where Dec was, because when people called Dec, his phone sang a loud big-boy song. But all I could hear was ‘brr brr’, and then I heard someone’s voice.

Dec

‘Jay?’

A short silence. A child’s voice.

Cal

That was Dad’s name, but it didn’t sound like Dec saying it, not quite. I knew what you were supposed to say when you called people, because I listened when Mum and Dad and Granny did it, and Mum let me answer the phone sometimes, if she was there too.

‘Hello?’

‘Cal?’

The voice still didn’t sound right, so I thought I’d better ask.

‘I want to talk to Dec.’

Dec

Head spinning, heart pounding

‘It is me, Cal. Er …’

Knees went, sat down on the floor, back against the wall.

Cal

I wasn’t sure, but decided to believe him.

‘You sound funny.’

‘Do I? Is this better?’

He made a voice that sounded like when he read me stories, and then I knew it was Dec and I was happy.

Dec

Light headed with pleasure at hearing his voice and then his giggle.

\that’s the Gruffalo. I want to talk to Dec.

‘Granted.’

Changed to normal voice.

‘Cal, what’s up? Does your dad know you’re ringing me?’

Cal

He’d gone back to his proper voice, and I recognised it then. I didn’t want to tell a lie about Dad knowing, so I told Dec bits of the truth.

‘Mummy and Daddy are out. Daddy forgot his phone. I know how to use it, he lets me.’

‘Who’s looking after you?’

‘Granny. She’s asleep.’

Dec

A five year old’s scorn for such a lightweight.

‘Cal, I really don’t think you should be ringing me. Your mum and dad wouldn’t like it.’

Cal

Dec sounded like he might be about to tell me off, and say I had to tell Granny or Dad, or do something else that would get me told off by someone else, so I said the thing that was important before I could be stopped.

‘It’s my birthday tomorrow.’

Dec

‘Shit.’

How could I have forgotten?

‘Sorry, Cal. Shouldn’t swear.’

Cal

I knew Dec had just said a bad word, he said it all the time, and Mum always told him off, but then he’d say it again later, as if he hadn’t been told off. I giggled again, because I felt happy talking to Dec, and everything was going to be alright now, and I could remind him about the birthday plan.

‘Daddy says that word and Mummy says ‘James honestly’. You’re taking me to Dinosaurland and then to have a Ice Cream Factory and then buy me a Transformer. Can I have a Optimus Prime?’

Dec

The absolute confidence that promises will be kept. Promises from another lifetime.

‘Yeah, we made some good plans for your birthday, didn’t we.’

Of all the unforgivable things I’d done and said recently, this was, without exception, the one that burned me the deepest. Fuck, fuck, fuck you Declan Summers.

‘Cal, I’m so sorry. I’m not going to be able to do any of that.’

Silence. Then, in a very small voice:

Cal

I couldn’t believe it. We’d planned it, everything, how we were going to go in Dec’s car, and he was going to pick me up from school, and how we were going to see the fossils first, and leave the animaltronic Tyrannosaurus Rex until last – he’d promised me. And now he was being just like a grown up and saying no.

‘Why?’

‘Well for one thing, you live a long way away now –’

Oh, well that was alright then. He was worrying about not being able to pick me up from school in his car – he wouldn’t know where my school was, and maybe we’d have to do different plans for things like that now I was living at Granny’s. I’d thought about it, and knew how to make things work.

‘I know that.’

Dec

The self-assured berating voice of a small child who feels patronised; I could picture him rolling his eyes impatiently.

\daddy can bring me in his car.

He would have a satisfied look on his face – he’d worked it all out. But from the little Nico and Lisa had said, they were a long way away, and there was no chance Jay was going to bring him to see me.

‘Oh Cal, your dad’s not going to bring you all the way down here.’

Cal

‘He will. It’s my birthday treat. I will ask him.’

I was always allowed one special treat on my birthday. Mum and Dad hadn’t asked me yet what I wanted, and I usually said pizza or burger, but this year I was going to ask Dad to take me to our house so Dec and me could go to Dinosaurland.

Dec

This was going to be tough. I didn’t know how much Cal knew, what Jay and Beth would have told him. Didn’t want to lie. Didn’t want him to know the truth. Had to choose. Deep breath.

‘Look, Cal, your mum and dad are very cross with me. They don’t want to see me, and they don’t want you to see me.’

Cal

Although I’d been aware of a bad feeling between Dec and my parents, and Granny talking about ‘that boy’ with a cross face, I didn’t know what Dec had done. He got in trouble with Mum quite a lot, mostly for saying bad words. Maybe that’s what had happened.

‘Why are they cross with you? Did you do a really big swear?’

Dec

He lowered his voice to a whisper.

\i know a bad word that starts with fuh …

I nearly laughed. Beth was always telling me off about my language. If Cal knew a bad word that started with fuh, he had without a doubt learned it from me. I hardly noticed I was doing it half the time. If only all I had done was a really big swear.

‘No, mate. I did worse things.’

Cal

I couldn’t think of what worse things Dec could mean. He had been in trouble with Mum before, about not doing the washing up, and leaving his pants in the bathroom, but neither of these seemed as bad as saying words beginning with ‘fuh’.

I heard Dec take a deep breath before he spoke.

Dec

‘I stole. And I lied.’

And a man died and I betrayed their trust and tossed my life with them down the toilet. And probably a fair bit of theirs too. But I just couldn’t say any of that to him, however true it was. There was more silence on the other end. I could hear him breathing, the distant sounds of a television.

Cal

The words seemed to hit my ears and fall straight into my heart, squeezing it painfully. Stealing and lying were really bad. I couldn’t believe Dec had done either of those things, they were things really bad people did, and I couldn’t understand how Dec could be a really bad person. I could hardly breathe, trying to cling on to the Dec I knew and not let this new Dec, who did really bad things, and made Mum and Dad cross with him, come into my world. Maybe, if it was something he had done just to me, I could say it was OK, and we could forget about it.

‘Did you steal and lie at me?’

I really didn’t want him to have done, and the thought of it made me feel small and hurt.

Dec

Of all the people I would have protected from the fallout of my screw-ups, Cal would have topped the list. I hadn’t even managed that. Fuck it, Declan Summers, you fucking worthless piece of fucking shit. Face up to it.

‘No mate, I didn’t steal from you or lie to you, I would never do that. But I took some money from some good people, and I lied to your mum and dad about it, and about some other things too. It upset them a lot, and they don’t want to be around me any more’

I felt the choke in my throat, tears on my cheeks.

Cal

Dec’s voice got funny again, and I started to feel funny too. It felt like part of my world had fallen away and left a hole, something I could fall through if I wasn’t careful; I didn’t know what I might find on the other side, and it was terrifying.

‘I’m so sorry about your birthday, Cal. I’m sure you’ll have a great day –’

No, no, I just wanted to say it was alright, I didn’t mind about the stealing and the lying, we could still do my birthday things, we’d planned it.

‘But you said you’d take me to Dinosaurland, you said we –’

I heard a noise from the lounge, and then Granny’s voice.

Dec

In the background:

#Calum, who are you talking to?

The line went dead.

Cal

I pressed the off button on the phone and dropped it on the table, so Granny wouldn’t know what I’d been doing. There was too much whirling around in my head – Dec had made Mum and Dad cross, and now they didn’t want him to live with them. Dec had stolen and lied. I wasn’t going to have my Dinosaurland birthday.

I couldn’t say any of it to Granny, and I should have picked up my pens and told her I was making up a story to myself, but I was frozen there, and I just started to cry.

I was still crying when Mum and Dad got home, not long afterwards, but wouldn’t tell Granny why. She had managed to get me onto her knee, and was cuddling me, but I was inconsolable.

So there I was, a sobbing puddle of cry-baby, dreading Mum and Dad getting home, because there would be questions, and Mum wouldn’t give up until she’d made me say what had happened, and then I’d be in trouble, which just made me cry harder.

By now, Granny had seen Dad’s phone on the table, and had asked me about it, but I had refused to answer. Granny had no idea how to work a phone, she still has limited capabilities if I’m honest, so she had no way of knowing how to tell if I had called anyone or just managed to access something scary on YouTube, so she just held me while I cried.

Eventually the door opened and Mum and Dad walked in, Mum rushing straight over to me and sitting next to Granny on the sofa. I wouldn’t tell Mum anything either, but Granny told her.

‘Jameson left his phone behind.’

‘What? But why is he so – oh. Cal, what have you done with Daddy’s phone?’

Mum is usually pretty quick off the mark, but at this stage, she was thinking I’d broken it or something. Dire consequences were always threatened if I ever used Dad’s phone without asking, in case anything happened to it. Dad headed off to the dining room, and came back with the phone in his hand, looking puzzled.

‘It’s fine.’

He knelt down in front of me and held the phone out towards me, which made me cry harder.

‘Hey, Cal, mate, what’s all this about? Did you play with my phone while we were out?’

Through my snivels I managed a nod. Maybe if they thought I was crying about that, I would get away with it.

‘Oh Cal, sweetheart, that’s nothing to get so upset about. You know Daddy doesn’t mind you playing his games, we just like you to ask first … what?’

Mum looked up at Granny, and I risked a peek to see what was going on. Granny was shaking her head.

‘I don’t think it was a game, dear. I heard Calum talking to someone.’

Mum gave me a hard look.

‘Cal? Were you talking to someone on the phone?’

I looked back, unable to nod or say anything. If I told her who I’d been talking to, I’d have to tell her what he told me, and it was just too big and bad for me to say. Dad was pressing buttons on the phone. He turned the screen to face Mum, and there was Dec’s name and a little picture of him standing next to his car.

‘Last number dialled.’

‘Oh no. Cal, did you call Dec?’

I managed the slightest nod.

What?

Dad’s yell made me jump, and I stiffened, looking up at him with wide eyes.

‘You phoned Dec?’

Dad spat his name out, as if it was a nasty taste. And he was still yelling. Dad never yelled, except when he was watching sport and his team scored. Or nearly scored. Or should have scored but didn’t. But now he was yelling at me.

‘How many times, Cal? How many times have I told you not to touch my phone?’

I cringed into Mum, trembling with guilt and shame, and paralysed with fear. I was starting to realise I had done something really bad. Maybe if Dec had done lying and stealing, Dad thought I had too. Maybe he was cross enough that he thought I was like Dec too.

‘Don’t you EVER touch my phone again. I don’t want you talking to him. I don’t want you to even say his name.’

‘James, that’s ENOUGH. You’re terrifying him.’

Mum pulled me really close and put both her arms round me, making ‘shh’ noises at me and kissing my head.

‘He’s got to learn, Beth.’

‘What, that his Daddy’s a big scary man? Look what you’ve done to him.’

Dad didn’t say anything, and I daren’t look at him, but I felt him plonk onto the sofa beside me and Mum. Mum carried on shushing me, and stroking my hair, and then she talked to me.

‘What did Dec say? What did he say that made you cry, sweetheart? Oh come here.’

She pulled me onto her lap and held her arms tightly round me, murmuring into my ear.

‘It’s alright, Cal, you’re not in trouble, just tell us.’

Mum stroked my hair and kissed my cheeks, and whispered ‘shh’ over and over, rocking me against her. I started to calm down, and my tears dried up, turning to occasional snivels.

Dec

I sat, head bowed, breathing hard, shuddering, trying not to sob, feeling sick and cold. I sat up and banged the back of my head hard against the wall. The pain felt like some kind of retribution, so I did it again. Screamed out my disgust with myself in a howl which tore at my throat.

Sat in the dark, hating myself. Realised I was going to have to let them know he’d called me, whether or not they wanted to hear from me. Texted them both, but Jay would be likely to delete any messages from me without reading them.

Me: =Cal rang me. Thought you should know. Dec.

Cal

Then Mum and Dad’s phones both pinged at once. Dad looked at his and gave a snort, showing the screen to Mum. I glanced at it, and saw Dec’s name. Mum pulled her phone out of her bag, looked at it and nodded at Dad.

‘He didn’t have to do that.’

‘What? It’s the bloody least he could do. What the fuck did he say?’

‘James, honestly.’

‘Sorry, Beth, but he’s obviously said something to upset Cal. What did he say, mate?’

I stared up at my dad, who was looking really angry, and the thought of having done something that made him so cross he stopped speaking to me as well, that he might even make me leave the house, made me cry again.

‘James, calm down, you’re not helping. Daddy’s not cross with you, sweetheart. Can you remember what Dec said?’

I shook my head, taking this as a get out. It didn’t calm me down at all, though, and all the other things were still swirling round, not least of which was that it was my birthday tomorrow, and I’d thought I was going to Dinosaurland with Dec, but it looked like I wasn’t now, and maybe I was going to be in trouble instead, and I’d made Dad cross, which was what Dec had done, and they didn’t want to speak with him or live with him.

Mum just held me tighter as my sobs ramped up again. Dad stood up and started pacing around, while Granny went into the kitchen to make some tea. Granny was always making tea. Dad sat down next to me, where Granny had been sitting, running his hands through his hair like he always did when he didn’t know what else to do.

‘I’m going to call him, find out what the … what on earth is going on. You don’t think he told him what he … that little shit.’

‘I’ll do it, James. You won’t be able to keep your temper.’

‘No, I bloody won’t. Whatever he said, it’s done this to my son, and he needs to know he can’t just go round blurting out whatever he likes, to whoever he likes, without thinking about the fucking consequences.’

‘James, honestly, just watch your language. I agree, but we’re not going to find out anything if you go in all guns blazing, you’ll just shout at him.’

Dad was quiet for a bit, then he gave in.

‘Oh alright. You ring him, then.’

‘In a bit. I think Cal needs a good cuddle, maybe some rice pudding and a story, before getting his PJs on. Maybe if Mummy and Daddy are really good, and behave ourselves, Cal might tell us what happened without us needing to ask Dec. Oh sweetheart …’

This last had started me off again, and Mum was occupied with calming me down, and with preventing Dad from phoning Dec, for a while.

Eventually, I stopped the theatrics, realising that nothing bad was going to happen immediately, but not wanting to risk Mum and Dad being cross with me in any way. I did everything they told me, even went to bed the minute they told me, without trying to drag it out like I usually did. I never wanted to make Dad cross with me like that again, and that meant being good, as good as I could, and doing as I was told, all the time.

Mum came upstairs with me, to the room that used to be Uncle Matty’s and still had all his chess trophies and computer books on the shelves, and smelt a bit dusty. The best thing about Uncle Matty’s room was the giant model of a space rocket that Uncle Matty made when he was a boy.

But that night I wasn’t interested in rockets, I just got into bed and pulled the duvet up to my chin. Mum sat on the edge of the bed, stroking my hair away from my forehead and smiling at me. She snuggled up and got my book out, and read a bit of it to me. I started to feel sleepy, and Mum stopped reading.

‘You know you can tell me anything, Cal. I won’t be cross. You’ll be doing a good thing.’

I didn’t answer her, just closed my eyes as if I had gone to sleep. I heard her sigh, then felt the mattress bounce as she stood up, and heard the door squeak open and shut as she left. I lay in the dark for a long time, thinking about Dec stealing things and lying to Mum and Dad.

Dec

Continued sitting and hating. Some time later, my phone rang. Beth. Clicked ‘answer’.

‘Hey.’

_What did you say to Cal?

‘He wanted me to take him to Dinosaurland for his birthday.’

_He’s very upset. I can’t get anything out of him. What did you tell him?

‘I’m sorry, Beth, I tried to fob him off, but I had to tell him what I did.’

_You what?

‘Not everything, no details. I can’t lie any more’

_Pity you didn’t think of that before. Don’t talk to him again.

‘But –’

She’d hung up. Sat and hated myself some more. I’d rarely been on the wrong side of an angry Beth. It was horrible, and worse that it was completely justified. All the wounds that had begun to scab over broke open, and I detested myself.

Cal

Somewhere in the darkness my thoughts turned into dreams, and I can still remember the terrifying image of Dec as a grotesque pantomime villain, cackling evilly and stealing all my toys, putting them in a sack and running away with them.

I woke up with Mum’s cool hand on my forehead and her soothing voice trying to wipe it all away, but I was freaked out, and I clung to her for a long time as I tried to forget the horrible dream.

‘What were you dreaming, sweetheart?’

‘There was … it was … Dec was … my cars … and then …’

It was no good, I couldn’t even make words, and trying to describe it was like trying to draw the wind. Mum just held me close and rocked me, until I quietened down and my eyes started to droop, then she lay me back against the pillow, kissed my forehead and said goodnight.

Dec

There was a tap at the door. Through the letterbox:

:Declan, love? I thought I heard something earlier. Been trying to decide whether to come up. Everything alright?

‘No.’

:What’s up? Do you want to let me in?

I slowly got to my feet, opened the door for her, let her in.

:You’re all in the dark. Shall I put the light on?

‘No.’

I sat against the wall again. Rose eased herself down beside me. Took my hand.

:What is it love?

It all felt so freshly broken, like that first day when Jay said we’re done. As I started to speak, the words came out in shudders.

‘Cal … rang me. It’s … his birthday … tomorrow. We’d … made plans. I’d forgotten.’

:Oh love, that’s a tough one. What did you tell him?

‘The truth, that I’m a … lying … thieving … scumbag and his parents don’t want … him anywhere … near me, so his … birthday’s fucked.’

:I hope you were a bit gentler than that!’

‘A bit. I didn’t want … to lie to him. Beth rang … and asked what I said, she said Cal was … upset, she was … so angry …’

:That must have been hard.

‘It just feels like … I’ve done it all over again. I miss … them so much. I can’t … bear that I’ve done this … to them, that I keep … doing this to them. I fucking hate myself.’

:Don’t ever say that.

‘It’s true. They’re all … better off without me. I’m a worthless … piece of shit.’

:You’re not. You’re kind and caring and you love your family. It’s hard when it goes wrong. But don’t ever say you’re worthless.

Rose sat with me the whole night, holding my hand and holding my soul. I cried quite a bit. I beat myself up a lot. She stayed through it all.

Cal

The next morning, it was my birthday, but everything still felt weird, as if something had turned the world upside down, but no one had noticed yet. Mum and Dad came into my room before it was time to get up, and gave me some presents, but I didn’t feel excited like I should have done. I wanted to be at Dinosaurland with Dec.

Just because it was my birthday didn’t mean I could miss school, though. I went through the motions of breakfast, getting washed, getting dressed; being really careful not to do anything to annoy Mum or Dad, just in case. Then I did it, I dropped my sandwich box as I was putting it in my school bag, and the lid came off, scattering bread and cheese across the hall carpet, and bursting the yogurt pot in a spray of strawberry across the floor and up the wall.

I looked at it, horrified. I’d been so careful, and now I’d done it. Mum was going to shout, and Dad would hear, and they’d both be cross, and then I’d have to go and live somewhere else. I was frozen to the spot, a huge scream welling up in me.

‘Oh Cal, honestly.’

Mum knelt down beside me and started to pick up bits of my lunch, shaking strawberry yogurt off the bag of crisps and putting the juice carton to one side.

‘James, can you get a cloth? Put this in the bin, sweetheart.’

She held out the sandwiches and the yogurt pot, then looked at me as I didn’t move.

‘Cal? What’s the matter?’

‘I didn’t mean to.’

‘I know that, sweetheart. We’ll soon have it cleared up, come on, take these to the bin.’

I continued to look at her, and she tutted and frowned.

‘Cal, come on, we’re going to be late. James can you bring me a cloth?’

There it was, that cross tone to her voice. Now I was in trouble.

Dad wandered in to the hall, still in his dressing gown, and looked at the mess.

‘Jesus, what’s happened here?’

‘Cal’s dropped his lunch box. Didn’t you hear me ask you to get a cloth?’

‘Oops, butterfingers, mate. Granny’s going to love you, getting yogurt all over her carpet.’

‘James, the cloth.’

‘Alright Beth. Jesus.’

Dad stomped off to the kitchen while I continued to stand where I was. I heard myself whimper. Mum looked at me.

‘Cal?’

‘I didn’t mean to.’

‘No, I know, sweetheart.’

She had a closer look at me, dropped the sandwich and yogurt pot she was still holding out to me, and held both my hands in hers. They were sticky from the yogurt, and I wanted to pull my fingers away, but I didn’t want to make things worse.

‘Cal, it’s only your lunch. I can make you another box up.’

‘Don’t be cross, Mummy’

‘I’m not cross, it was an accident.’

‘You said we’ll be late.’

‘Well, perhaps we will, but that doesn’t really matter, sweetheart.’

‘Is Daddy cross?’

‘I don’t expect he’s enjoying having to find a cloth, but no, he won’t be cross. What’s all this about?’

I didn’t have an answer; if I told her what I was worried about, it might annoy her – talking about Dec always seemed to make Mum or Dad annoyed these days – and I didn’t know what might happen then. Maybe they’d think I was on his side, and not want to speak to me either. The thought of it brought tears to my eyes and then they ran down my cheeks.

‘Oh Cal. Come here, sweetheart.’

Mum pulled me towards her and cuddled me.

‘Is this about last night? Your phone call?’

I was silent.

‘I talked to Dec and he told me what he said.’

What? She’d talked to Dec? But they weren’t speaking to him. Dad had called him a bad word.

‘He shouldn’t have said that to you, it wasn’t fair. You shouldn’t worry about it, it’s grown up stuff.’

It was there again, the crossness in her voice. It made me tremble. Mum felt it and stroked my hair. Dad came back with a cloth in his hand.

‘Here.’

Mum looked up at Dad, who was holding the cloth out to her.

‘Well you can see where the mess is.’

‘What, you want me to clear it up?’

‘I’ve got my hands a bit full at the moment.’

Now they were being cross with each other, and it was all my fault. Everything was going wrong, and it was all because of me.

‘What’s the matter with Cal?’

‘He’s just upset.’

‘Jesus, it’s only yogurt. Come on Cal, get over it, mate. You need to get to school.’

‘James, just … don’t push it.’

‘What?’

‘Please will you clean the yogurt up? Cal and I need to make another lunch box. Come on, sweetheart.’

Mum put me on my feet, stood up, took my hand and walked me into the kitchen, leaving Dad to wipe up the spill. She started making another cheese sandwich, and got a juice and a yogurt out of the fridge.

‘Can you find me another lunch box, sweetheart?’

After a while, when I hadn’t moved, she stopped what she was doing and turned round.

‘Cal, we need a lunch box … oh, sweetheart, please will you tell me what’s wrong?’

‘Are you cross with me?’

‘No, of course not.’

‘Are you cross with Daddy?’

‘No, Cal.’

‘Are you cross with Dec?’

‘Well … yes, Daddy and I are both cross with Dec, but it’s not because of anything you’ve done.’

‘I phoned him.’

‘Yes, sweetheart, and maybe you shouldn’t have without asking, but we’re not cross about it, not with you.’

It was as good a reassurance as I was going to get, and I fetched the lunch box as I’d been asked to. Mum seemed to relax as I started to move and do as I was told again. Dad came in with the yogurty cloth and pretended to wipe my nose with it, and it seemed like it was all OK.

I went to school, being as good as I knew how, and it was just as well I was far away from Jake Bagwell, because he’d have got me into trouble in the first five minutes, and that would have been a disaster.

Back at home, I carried on trying really hard to be good, until Mum noticed, when I said no to a chocolate biscuit. Chocolate was bad for you, and biscuits made you drop crumbs, and I was being good.

‘Are you feeling alright, Cal?’

‘Yes.’

‘Chocolate biscuits are your favourite, I got them just for you, a birthday treat while we wait for Daddy to get back.’

When Dad got back we were going to go to Pizza Place. They hadn’t asked me what I wanted for my birthday treat, so I hadn’t been able to ask them to take me to Dinosaurland.

‘But they’re bad for me.’

‘Since when did that bother you, Cal?’

‘I’m being good.’

‘Well, that’s lovely, sweetheart, but why?’

‘I don’t want you to be cross.’

‘I’m not cross. Have you done something you think will make me cross?’

I shook my head.

‘Well then, what I think is, I’d rather you were just you, than trying so hard to be good that you don’t even eat chocolate biscuits on your birthday. Everyone should have chocolate biscuits on their birthday.’

She held the plate out to me and I took one. I didn’t need much persuading when it came to chocolate biscuits.

We waited and waited for Dad, who had been visiting Uncle Matty, and Mum kept looking at the clock and sighing, and Granny kept saying,

‘Has he not texted, dear?’

Even though we would have all heard Mum’s phone.

Finally, Dad came home. Mum stood up as soon as he opened the door, and picked up her bag.

‘Where have you been?’

‘Sorry, the traffic was a bloody nightmare. Some accident blocking the bypass, diversions everywhere.’

‘Did you remember we’re going out?’

‘Oh shit, I forgot. I would have texted.’

‘Honestly James, please mind your language. Come on, we’re all starving.’

This wasn’t quite true, as we’d all had one or two more chocolate biscuits.

‘What right now? Can’t I even change first?’

‘It will be past Cal’s bed time if we leave it any longer.’

There it was again, the crossness in their voices. What would happen if Mum and Dad got cross with each other? Would they have to live in different houses, like Jake’s mum and dad? The thought crossed my mind like an electric shock. I was desperate for them to not be angry with each other.

‘I don’t mind.’

They both looked at me.

‘What’s that, sweetheart?’

‘I don’t mind to not go to Pizza Place.’

‘Don’t be daft, Cal, it’s your birthday. Daddy just wants to get changed, he’ll be super quick and then we’ll go.’

‘Yeah, mate, I’m just going now. Quick change of clothes, cup of tea, read of the paper, check my emails, and we’re off.’

‘James, you don’t have time …’

Kidding, Beth. Jesus.’

‘Well if you just got on with it, rather than messing about, we could leave sooner.’

‘If you let me go, rather than chuntering on about it, we’d already be there.’

‘NO!’

I yelled as loudly as I could, and they all looked at me. I wasn’t going to let this happen. They couldn’t be cross with each other and stop speaking and go and live in different houses. And then I thought I might get in trouble for yelling at them, and I started crying. Mum and Dad were both staring at me; Dad knelt in front of me and put his hands on my cheeks.

‘Hey, mate, what’s this all about?’

‘Don’t … be … cross … with Mummy.’

‘I’m not, mate. Beth?’

‘Cal, we’re not cross with each other, not really, come on, sweetheart, you’ve been worried about us being cross ever since last night. What’s it all about?’

‘I … want … I don’t … want … you … I’m … good … I want … you … to speak … to me … don’t … make … me … live … somewhere … else … I’m good …’

It all came out in a jumble of tears and sobs, but somehow Granny got the gist.

‘Beth, dear, I think Calum is worried that if he makes you angry, you’ll stop speaking to him, and maybe send him away, like he may think has happened in another situation.’

‘But we didn’t – Cal, is Granny right?’

I nodded against her chest. Mum pulled me tightly to her.

‘Oh Cal. That will never happen. Listen to me. We love you, me and Daddy, and nothing you can do will make us send you away, ever. Oh my poor baby, it’s your birthday, and you’ve been worrying about this all this time.’

Dad was silent, and I risked a look up at him. He looked furious, and was clenching his fists by his side, but when he saw me looking at him, his face softened and he smiled at me.

‘Yeah, mate, Jesus, it’s not you we’re mad at. Maybe we’ve been a bit generally mad about stuff, but it’s not you. Hey –’

He sat next to Mum and ruffled my hair.

‘– you know, we wouldn’t send you away, or stop speaking to you, even if you said I had a big ugly nose, or that Mummy’s bottom looks enormous in her favourite trousers.’

I giggled at Dad’s jokes, and it made it feel better, like maybe they couldn’t get cross enough with me for it to destroy my world if they could joke about it. I still wanted to know about Dec, but I was so relieved that it looked like I still had a home, that I decided not to upset things again so soon by asking. I might try not to say anything about Dec for a long time.

My tears had stopped, and I clung on to Mum, while Dad looked at me with a mixture of worry and smiles. Granny had found a tissue and handed it to Mum, who wiped my face free of tears and snot.

‘Do you still want to go to Pizza Place, sweetheart? It’s still your birthday.’

I nodded.

‘Right then. James, are you going to get changed?’

‘No, I can go like this. It’s not like the Place has a dress code.’

‘OK. Are you ready, Carol?’

‘Oh, no, I won’t come, dear. I’ve got some of that leftover pasta bake. You three go and have a lovely time.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Mum, we’re all going.’

Dad looked at me as he talked to Granny.

‘Er, that is, it’s your choice, of course, but we’d like you to join us.’

Mum laughed. ‘Oh James, we can’t go round walking on eggshells in case Cal thinks we’re upset with each other. Cal, you know that sometimes people just get a bit upset about things, but it doesn’t last, like when Jake broke your Action Man, and you were annoyed with him, but the next day you were playing with him like nothing had happened.’

I thought about it. It didn’t seem quite the same, but it would do for now. And I was going to get pizza and ice cream, which cheered me up quite a bit.

And so after my day or so of weirdness, things were better. But there was still this underlying wobbly feeling, like there was something underneath that wasn’t right. It was to do with Dec, and with not doing our plan, and with him seeming different now I knew he’d lied and stolen, and with him not living with us any more. I wanted things to be back to normal, but until Dec was here, they wouldn’t be. I didn’t know what to do about it, and I didn’t really think about it, it was just something that I felt.

When I thought enough time had gone by, I tried to ask about Dec, to find out what exactly he’d done, what he’d stolen, what he’d lied about, but neither Mum nor Dad would talk about it, and Granny said she didn’t know.

And then I got my chance.