15. More than one way home

In which Dec swallows a bit of pride and takes some advice, Matty goes home and Cal carries on with the intros.

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Dec

Waking up from that dream of togetherness was hard. A fog of sadness settled over me as I got ready to go to training. Knowing you’ve stuffed up your friendships fairly irretrievably is one thing. Facing up to it and carrying on, seeing the same people every day who used to be your mates, is another. I wasn’t sure how I was going to carry on without them all. I guess it was part of my ‘best shot’ to give it a try. Took some deep breaths, left the flat.

The morning was a continuation of the day before. I hadn’t really expected anything else. Stuart’s words seemed to have made little difference. The only real change was we were practising plays, kicks and set pieces rather than rucks and mauls. The tackles came in as hard, there were as many digs and gouges, although they were more careful not to make them obvious to the coaches. At the end of it all I was exhausted, both from the strength of the punishment I had been receiving and from the effort of keeping a lid on my temper. As we walked off the field, Big walked beside me and briefly put his arm round my shoulder.

°Chin up.

He walked off ahead. I felt another hand on my shoulder. Looked behind me. Nico.

>OK?

I nodded. He looked at me, shook his head and trotted in front. I dragged my aching body into the changing room, the last to return. Arriving at my peg, I discovered my towel, clothes and trainers were wet. It wasn’t water. There seemed little point in showering.

I wasn’t officially supposed to wear my Raiders training kit outside of the training ground, so I turned my sweaty shirt and shorts inside out to hide the logo, and stuffed the rest in my bag, not oblivious to sniggers from various parts of the room, and resigned myself to a smelly journey home.

When I arrived in the lobby, I could hear sounds coming from Rose’s flat, but I couldn’t stop until I’d sorted out my clothes and myself. I dumped the lot in the bath and showered, hoping the water would get rid of the worst of it before I put it in the machine. New bruises and scrapes had appeared on top of yesterday’s; I also had a black eye and one of my fingers was swelling from being bent backwards. Much as I was determined to ride it out, I wasn’t sure how long my body would last.

I didn’t know how I was going to manage at the gym on my non-training days. I would have to rely on Becky to help me through it. I slumped against the wall and turned the spray on me. When the water ran cold, I climbed over the side of the bath, squeezed out my clothes and towel and bundled them into the washing machine. I was so tired, my body ached so much, I lay face down on the bed and slept.

When I woke up, it was starting to get dark. The wintry kind of ‘hasn’t really been light all day and now it’s getting gloomy’ twilight. I didn’t seem to have changed position all afternoon – checking my phone I saw I had been asleep for nearly two hours. I had a huge crick in my neck. My back, legs and arms protested every movement. I ignored my body, got off the bed and ran a bath. Sitting in the warm water soothed the aches a little.

I was aware of the daily likelihood of time passing, me doing nothing but training and recovering. This was my foreseeable future. More than a little daunting. No complaints, really.

Feeling somewhat more mobile, I went downstairs and tried Rose again. I could hear her TV through the door, but she didn’t answer my knock. I called through the letterbox.

‘Rose, it’s Declan. Are you in? Put the kettle on.’

The TV went off. There was silence for what felt like a long time. At last, I heard the chain slip back, and the door opened.

:Hello, love. Alright?

‘Not so bad. Few aches and bumps, from training. Could do with a cup of tea and a chat if there’s any going.’

Rose hesitated, seeming reluctant to let me past the front door.

:I don’t know if that’s a good idea, really.

I was taken aback. Belatedly, I wondered if she had company – just because I was a Billy-no-mates didn’t mean Rose never spoke to anyone else. Or maybe she wasn’t feeling well?

‘Oh. Are you OK?’

:I’m fine, love. It’s just, after what you said the other day, I think I should keep out of your business and let you get on with things like you asked.

Oh, no no no, she’d misunderstood something I’d said and thought I didn’t want to talk to her. I frantically searched my memory for exactly what I had said when I last spoke to Rose. I thought it had gone so well, I’d even congratulated myself on being diplomatic and calm and saying what I thought without upsetting her. How had I managed to fuck this up too? I was horrified.

‘Rose, no, fuck, no, whatever you thought I was saying, I wasn’t saying that. I was pissed off with you for talking to Nico, because I felt, feel, ashamed of the mess I’ve got myself into. Nico has been so good to me, I was embarrassed. Maybe it came out the wrong way. No way did I want to upset you or want you to stay away. I thought you were OK with it. I’m so sorry. Shit, I’m such a fucking dick.’

Rose looked at me for a few seconds.

:Well maybe I’m just a silly old woman too sensitive for my own good. Perhaps we do need a cuppa, sort it all out?

‘That would be great. I’m so sorry …’

She stood aside to let me in, and I apologised all the way down the hallway. Rose had been one of the few bright spots in the past couple of weeks; I couldn’t bear the thought of adding her to the list of people who didn’t want anything to do with me.

:Right then, let’s get the kettle on. First off, love, stop saying sorry, it’s getting a bit annoying. Shall we agree we’re both sorry and leave it at that?

‘Agreed.’

I smiled with relief and sat down at the table.

:Second off, well, I’m not very good at criticism, I suppose. I can dish it out, but it’s hard to hear. Took it a bit personal, what you said. You were right, I can be interfering, and I don’t always know when to stop yapping. I’ll remember in future. Don’t want to feel like I have for the last few days, like I’d messed it all up for you.

‘Rose, you haven’t messed anything up for me. OK, then, my turn, third off, I’m a stubborn bastard and I’m not very good at accepting help. I’ll remember that people like helping and maybe swallow my pride a bit, yeah? And, obviously, I’ll remember not to criticise you at all, ever again, about anything.’

:Sarky so and so. You, stubborn? Never. Here’s your tea.

‘Hm. Could do with more milk, and maybe leave the teabag in longer next time.’

Rose cuffed me lightly on the back of the head.

:Get away with you. I think, as a fourth off, I’m going to ask you to tell me if I cross the line again. I might not like it, but it won’t hurt me to hear it, and I’ll try not to let it upset me.

‘Alright then. And fifthly and lastly because I’ll lose count, give me a slap immediately, if I upset you at all. I’d rather that and know what I’ve done, than find out like this.’

:Done. Oh love, I’m glad we’ve sorted that out. I’ve been miserable, wondering what you’ve been up to. How’s it all been going? Have you been back to your club? What’s happened to your face?

I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

‘Fuck, Rose, I thought I’d cocked it all up with you too.’

I told Rose the story of the last couple of days, the pain and humiliation of training, the glimmers of light with Big and Amy, the meal with Nico, and his offer. Rose’s face lit up when I mentioned that, but she managed to rearrange the smug look into a neutral smile.

‘I haven’t decided about it yet. It’s a shitload of money to lend someone you don’t know very well. I don’t think I can accept it. I shouldn’t have people making it easy for me, I should be doing it the hard way.’

:Oh love, that’s just nonsense. Why don’t you think you deserve help? You’ve got yourself in a right state by not asking for help, it’s about time some things went right for you, isn’t it?

‘Lisa said something similar last night. But Rose, I’ve ruined so many things, so many friendships. It’s like I shouldn’t be allowed to start again with new people, when I haven’t mended things with everyone else yet.’

:Don’t be so hard on yourself, love. Friendships don’t often break, just get bent out of shape a bit. Ones that don’t last probably wouldn’t have anyway.

I thought about Jay and Beth and seriously doubted her.

:Can I give you some advice? Just this once, then never again. Well, alright, until something else occurs to me that I can’t help saying.

I nodded.

:Take this money from your friend. For two reasons: people like to help. Turning him down will make him feel bad. Plus, being able to pay all your friends the money you’ve borrowed will make them think a lot better of you. It’ll make your life a lot easier, you can start thinking about other things, get on with it a bit.

She made total sense but I was struggling with doing anything to make my life easier. Wading through contempt, pain and humiliation seemed a suitable punishment for the mess I’d made of everything. I remembered my deal with Rose, though, and thought about how I might go about swallowing my pride. It wouldn’t be easy.

‘It’s just hard. I’ve done everything on my own since the accident, for months now. Feels like forever. I’m not used to people helping me. Letting people in is difficult. Scary, I guess.’

:I know, love. But letting people in is the only way out sometimes.

Rose could be many things: interfering, talkative, annoying. Today she was wise.

‘But it’s not just that. It feels like I’m giving up on them, like I should stick with everyone and how it is now, because that’s how it is, what I’ve chosen. If I let other people help, start again, I’m leaving them behind – oh I don’t know, I’m not explaining it very well.

:It’s alright, love, I get the drift. I want to make one thing very clear to you. Yes, you have done some things you’re not proud of, and hate yourself for it. But you’re getting punished enough. Look at you, black and blue, miserable, feeling like you’ve lost all your friends, don’t own anything worth spitting on. I don’t really understand why you wouldn’t want to change that for the better, and hearing you say you don’t deserve it breaks my heart, it does. You’re a good lad, you care about people and you try to do the right thing. What you deserve is a reward for that, not this punishment that never seems to end.

It was hard to hear, harder to believe. I was silent.

:Come on, now, love, drink up, I’ll put the kettle on again.

Tea – Rose’s answer to all of life’s awkward silences. I smiled and handed her my mug.

‘Rose, can I tell you everything?’

:What do you mean, love?

‘Well, you know a lot of it, but kind of in bits and pieces. I’ve had a go at you for speaking out of turn, but maybe if I’d told you everything in the right order, without crying or puking or swearing at you or whatever, things might have been different.

Rose tried to hide her eagerness and failed spectacularly.

:If you’d like to, love.

‘OK then.’

While Rose made more tea, I started with my adoption as a baby by Australian parents. I had never known my birth parents, or known anything about them, or wanted to, apart from the facts that they were English, and they hadn’t left me because they’d died. It was enough that they hadn’t wanted me, I didn’t need to know the reasons. The couple who adopted me had always been Mum and Dad to me. We emigrated to England when I was nine, Dad having got a job over here.

As Rose and I drank, I told her about when I was thirteen, and my parents were killed in a car accident. I had no family in this country, and Mum and Dad’s family in Australia were too old or uninterested to look after me. I was put into foster care while they tried to figure out what to do with me. Three years later I was still in care when I was offered the scholarship to Raiders. I had gone pretty wild and learned to fend for myself.

I told Rose how moving in with Jay and Beth had eventually settled me – didn’t go into details, she already knew a lot of that anyway, what they’d meant to me.

Moved on to my more recent history: the accident, inquest, passport, demand for money, stealing the charity money, borrowing from everyone, Jay’s reaction when he found it all out. It was a grim little tale.

Rose listened almost without comment, the occasional:

:Oh, love.

When I had finished she sat back in her chair and looked at me.

:Oh, love, listening to all that just breaks my heart. You’ve had a lot to cope with, and you’re so young. A lot of second chances that haven’t worked out. You’ve lost three families. I can see why you think you have to do everything on your own, feeling out of control is scary, but just remember: there’s no limit to second chances. You don’t have a quota, you just have to take them when you get them.

She looked at me assessingly.

:You know, love, I think we could help each other out. I don’t think I’ve told you this, but I couldn’t have kids. It was one of the reasons I split up with my husband. As well as him being a two-timing bastard, of course. Anyway, one of the ways I deal with not having children of my own is mothering other people. Also known as interfering, or taking care of people if you’re being kind. I’m thinking you need a bit of mothering at the moment, someone to take care of you, look out for you. I like doing it, makes me feel needed. How about it? You come to me when you need a mam, a bit of support, a chat. I’ll cook you soup, kick you up the backside if needed, or make myself scarce, whichever seems best.

I looked over at her. I had only known Rose for a short while, but she had barged her way into my life and found a place in my heart I hadn’t known was there.

‘Do you know what, Rose, you’re fucking amazing.’ I managed eventually.

:It’s a deal, then?

‘Deal.’

I stood up and gave her a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. Rose had managed to make me feel better about myself than I had in many weeks. I owed her a lot.

A couple of cups of tea later, I was starting to flag. I was aware of tomorrow’s training session approaching, and needed to get some restorative sleep. I said goodbye to Rose and made my way upstairs.

Nico: =I just find out what they do. I don’t like. I talk to Stuey tomorrow. Tell me you OK.

Me: =I’m OK. Thanks.

Quick meal, showered, collapsed into bed.

Dreaming. I am flying, with Mum. She holds my hand and leads me across the sky, telling me the names of the stars.

Matt

And so, one day, they brought me home. There was a long debate about an ambulance, but they’d bought me a wheelchair, and I’d had a few goes in it, being pushed up and down the corridors like a sodding old man, and I thought I could manage the journey to their house, which was all of ten minutes away, so it was left to Jay and Beth. Mum was thankfully absent, as I think her twittering, on top of Beth’s fussing, would have literally driven me over the edge into true insanity, and I don’t use the word literally lightly. As it was I had to rely on Jay more than I’d thought I would, and by the time we got to the new house, he had to lift me bodily out of the car and into the accursed wheelchair, then again into the brand new state of the art up and down electric bed they’d put in the downstairs room that was to be my home for the foreseeable.

I lay in my new room, exhausted, looking out of the window into the garden. There was a rabbit hutch and a bird feeder, and a big swing, and it seemed I would finally have something to look at again.

Cal

So, just carrying on my intros, but maybe a bit out of sequence: My sister, Iz, came along when I was six, and turned my world upside down. I think I expected her to be an instant playmate, and didn’t realise she was going to need to bulk up a bit before she could stand in goal for my penalty shoot-outs, so after all the build up waiting for her to arrive, she was a bit of a loud, smelly anti-climax. Sorry, Iz, love you heaps, but you didn’t half have stinky shit when you were a baby.

Iz and I have the same hair. It’s yellow and very curly. I mean, blond ringlets, who gives that to a boy? I bloody hate my bloody hair, but on Iz, well, if ever hair was meant to be on a girl, it is this hair. I keep mine so short, you can hardly ever tell it’s curly, and I’ve managed to destroy nearly all of the photos Mum has of me when she cruelly made me grow it, but Iz has cultivated this mane of blonde curliness that has men falling at her feet. Even when she was little, or rather especially when she was little, everyone wanted to touch her hair, and old ladies would give her sweets (it nearly persuaded me to grow mine, but not quite). Iz would always make a bee-line for the men, who couldn’t resist picking her up and cuddling her, giving her all the attention, and she loved it, lapped it up, got away with murder and late bedtimes by looking up from underneath her eyelashes and tossing her curls. If only I could say it made her a spoilt brat, and maybe it did a bit back then, but Iz is the best sister, the kindest woman, the most beautiful person, now. Back then, I gave her a thoroughly deserved hard time, and teased her as much as the League of Older Brothers expects, naturally.

Dec

Day dawned and with it a hefty dose of reality. Still sore from yesterday, and sad from dreaming about Mum, I had to kick-start myself into some semblance of liveliness.

I was very glad it was the last Raiders session of the week. Tomorrow I would be able to relax in the civility of the gym. Today, I remembered to pack spare clothes that I intended to leave in the car park. Tried not to drag my feet from the bus stop to the stadium, but it was hard to hurry towards what was waiting for me.

It was more of the same. Bruises on bruises, bone-crunching tackles, stamps, prods, I sucked it all up. At the end of the session, I lay on the turf, eyes closed, panting, head spinning, unable to move. I felt something wet hit my chest. Looked down, a gobbet of phlegm nestled in the middle of my shirt. Looked up, DivDav jogging away.

>Hey! David Allsop! Come here.

Struggling, I sat up.

‘No, Nico.’

DivDav sauntered back to where Nico stood.

>I see what you do. You don’t do again.

DivDav shrugged.

%Whatever.

>I mean it. You lay off Declan, or it is trouble for you.

DivDav shrugged again and walked away. Nico crouched down to where I sat, panting.

>Declan, this cannot be. You must speak to Stuey, or Don or someone.

‘No.’

He stood up and held out a hand. I took it and pulled myself to my feet, then bent over with my hands on my knees and puked up some bile onto the grass.

>Declan, I really worry.

‘It’ll be OK. It’s not that bad.’

>Huh. I don’t believe you. You can’t take this every day, is too much.

‘I’ll be OK, you go.’

He stood by me for a couple of minutes, then walked off with an exasperated sigh. I stayed bent over for a few more minutes while I got my breath back, then slowly made my way to the changing rooms, where someone with a huge imagination had pissed on my clothes again. I bundled them up and went out into the car park where I had stowed my bag behind a wall.

Checking there was no one around, I quickly slipped my shorts off and trousers on, and put a hoody on over my shirt. Making my way across the car park, I heard my name shouted behind me. Recognising DivDav’s voice, I kept on walking. He didn’t pursue me, but shouted out:

%Fuck off Summers. Don’t go running to your new sugar daddy every time it gets rough. Take it like a man, if you can remember how.

I kept my head down and walked away, hard as it was to do. I longed to confront him, but apart from being in no physical state to do so, I didn’t think the club would look sympathetically on it; it was also probably just what he wanted.

I was waiting at the bus stop, having just missed a bus, when Nico’s red Honda pulled up. He leaned over and opened the passenger door.

>Get in. I take you home.

I was actually relieved. I hadn’t been looking forward to standing at the bus stop in the cold for another twenty minutes, and then the bumpy bus journey back, stiffening up all the way. I got in.

‘Thanks, appreciate it.’

>Ha, I expect you to argue. You must feel very bad.

‘Bad enough, I guess.’

>I talk to Stuey. He will talk to people again. I talk to David also. Tell him what I think. He is coward.

‘Bet that went down well.’

>Declan, he piss on your things.

‘Oh. Mystery pisser solved, then.’

>He think is funny. I tell him grow up.

‘Cheers, Nico, probably just made things a zillion times worse, but thanks for trying.’

>How can it be worse? You are beaten up every day, they ruin your clothes, spit on you … and you take it. You don’t get angry. You don’t fight. You don’t stand up for yourself. You let them. I don’t understand.

‘They deserve to have their say however they want.’

>No. Not like this. Is not right. You need to take my money. You pay people back, this stops.

I was silent for a short while. It really would make things a lot easier, take away some of the worries that kept me awake at night. I fought an internal battle with myself, feeling ashamed that I needed to accept help but relieved that help had been offered. Weeks of punishing training sessions stretched out in front of me, with no let up and everybody hating me. Hating myself instead, I took the easy way.

‘OK.’

A pause. Nico slowed the car and looked over at me.

>You say OK?

‘I said OK.’

>Ha! I think I have to beat you up myself to make you say yes. Good for you, Declan. Is great. This make it better for you.

‘I had a long chat with Rose last night. She gave me some good advice. I would be very grateful to take you up on your offer.’

>Ha, Rose, she is something, huh? I hope you are nice to her.

‘I try my best. But I will pay you back, and I will pay you back quickly.’

Nico dropped me off outside the flats, and I slowly made my way up to mine. I ran a bath, undressed, inspected the damage and eased myself into the hot water. Cuts stung, muscles stiffened, bruises developed, I drifted in an unthinking sea of exhaustion and pain.

I must have fallen asleep, as I woke with a start in cold dirty water, to the sound of the door entry buzzer. Thrashing around, I slipped trying to get out of the bath and banged my elbow on the tap.

‘Shit shit shit.’

I grabbed a towel and headed for the intercom. It buzzed again. I picked up.

>Hey, is Nico.

‘Oh, OK, come on in. It’s up the stairs, number six.’

Pressed the button to open the front door, surprised. Realised I had no clothes on. Quickly dried myself and pulled on some vaguely clean clothes, just as Nico rang my doorbell.

‘Hi, er, come in.’

>I come to find out your bank numbers. You tell me, I do this quick.

He held up his phone.

‘Er, OK, bloody hell, Nico. You didn’t have to come by specially.’

>But now I am here. Lis, she say do it, go, Declan he will pretend to forget. Do it before Declan change his mind. She very bossy.

He looked around, frowning.

>You don’t have much things.

‘Sold most of my stuff.’

>Huh. You sure do. Come, where is your numbers?

I rummaged in the pile of bills and junk mail collecting in a drawer in the kitchen, and found a bank statement. I handed it over to Nico and he called his bank while I looked out of the window as if I wasn’t listening. He transferred a large sum of money into my bank account, as if it was it was every day that he gave thousands of pounds to someone who had recently stolen a similar amount from a charity. It made me feel ashamed, that he could have so much faith in me.

When he was done, and had disconnected from the call, I turned to thank him.

>Now you pay back everyone, is finished. Good, huh?

‘I guess I’ll have to wait a few days while it goes through, but yes, good. Thanks so much. I really don’t know what to say. Say thanks to Lisa.’

>You thank her yourself. She say come to dinner again. Ha, I think she want to watch my try, you are excuse.

‘I want to set up some kind of repayment.’

>Is no hurry.

‘I’ll pay you back every month, is a cheque OK?’

>However you like. Is no problem.

‘For fuck’s sake, Nico, I want to do this properly. I need to pay you back the same way I wanted to pay everyone else back.’

>OK, Declan, I see this bother you. We talk about it tonight.

Cal

Uncle Matty got better enough to come home, but only after more days and days of sitting watching him, though he was a bit more interesting now, because he’d talk, even if he was hard to understand. I knew what he was saying better than anyone else, and I could tell people what he’d said.

So when Uncle Matty was better enough to get out of bed and be pushed in his wheelchair, he came to live with us in our new house. He had his own room downstairs, with his own shower and toilet too, and I was allowed to play in his room, and talk loudly if I wanted to, unless Uncle Matty was having a bad day, which meant when he was feeling too sad to play with me and so no one talked to him, and he just wanted the door shut all the time.

But mostly, I played in his room, and he was either asleep, which was a lot, or he talked to me and asked me about my games, and about Mum and Dad and Granny.

It was weird at first, spending so much time with Uncle Matty, because I’d only really seen him a few times before he came to live with us. He had come to visit us with a lady a couple of times; I remember him giving me some Jurassic Park toys – I think that was the same time I walked in on them early in the morning. Whoops. I said no porn, and I meant it, but whoa, Matty, way to nearly blind a small child.

But anyhow, Uncle Matty living with us meant I got to know him, and as he got better, and he could play with me and go out with me, I got to like him a lot. He never treated me like I was a kid, even though, obviously, I was. If I asked him a question, he’d think about it seriously and then tell me the truth in a way that made me trust him not to hide things from me, but I knew he didn’t always tell Mum and Dad everything I said. I suppose a lot of that was because he hated everyone knowing everything about him. And he knew loads about space and dinosaurs and trains, and when he read me things from my books, he always added things that he knew about, like wondering how big a Tyrannosaurus Rex was if it was stood next to our house, or whether Thomas the Tank Engine would beat the train from Stafford to Stoke, or if the moon would be bright enough to sail a boat by.

Matt

For a while, the transition tired me out so much that I slept far, far more than I woke, but I soon got into a pattern, where Jay would come in first thing in the morning and put me on the toilet. I mean physically put me there. I could no more walk than I could fly, at first, and he had to manhandle me out of bed and into the wheelchair, push me to the small en-suite bathroom and then manhandle me onto the pan. The first couple of days, he carried me from the bed. It was beyond humiliating. And before you ask, no I couldn’t wipe my own arse, not to begin with, so yeah, he had to do that too. But he always tried to take my mind off it by talking about something completely a propos of nothing while he was doing it, and although I expect it was the least favourite time of the day, for either of us, he helped me through it. He always told me to ‘be strong and stay positive’, it was like Jay’s thing to say when he ran out of idle chatter (which happened frequently) and he wanted to appear supportive and inspirational. I tried, but being strong is hard at times when opening your eyes feels like you’ve lifted a tonne, and staying positive presumes at least a measure of being positive already.

I was thin, so thin. I’d always been a skinny runt, but I could feel my ribs, see them when they changed my shirt, and could feel the very sockets of my hip bones. It was hardly surprising Jay had been able to carry me; the few times I looked in the mirror, I saw a skull looking out at me. Cal thought I looked like a ‘skellington’, and also thought this was really cool, but I saw the worry in everyone’s eyes when I didn’t finish my meals, and tried as hard as I could to fatten myself up. It didn’t have a noticeable effect; I’d always been able to eat vast amounts of food and not put weight on, and so now I had no appetite, I obviously wasn’t putting enough fuel into my greedy metabolism, and apart from anything else it meant I was always cold. So I had to drink build-up drinks, which looked foul and tasted worse. But I tried to do it without complaining, because it made them feel better, and took some of the terror away from behind their eyes.

Cal

We moved back to Devon not long after Uncle Matty was really better, but he came with us, and I guess that was the start of this big family thing we’ve got going on. It was more complicated than that, because a lot of it was to do with Dec, but although Matty being ill was terrible, and him nearly dying was more terrible, I think if it hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be this remarkable group of people who are The Scotts, even though half of us aren’t even called Scott.

I’m realising that telling you about each person at a time is going to get confusing, because I can’t talk about Matty back then without talking about Mum and Dad, or Dec, and I’ll end up repeating myself. So I think that’s how I’m going to do this. I’m going to do a bit of When Cal Was Little with all the main people in my story (except, obviously, the people I didn’t know back then), and then I’m going to bundle it all together and tell it like it was with everyone. Maybe I’ll change my mind half way through, I’m told that’s what I do, so don’t hold me to anything.

I’m going to tell you about Dec next. I was really little when Dec came to live with us, and I don’t remember it. I remember him, because it’s difficult not to remember a lanky, loud-mouthed, rude, sulky big boy, who should have scared me to death, and who should have considered himself far too cool to hang out with a two year old, but didn’t.

I remember Dec reading me bedtime stories, playing football with me, walking me to school, sitting on the edge of my bed when I was poorly, playing with my cars and my models, picking me up and carrying me on his shoulders; all the things you could wish a big brother would do. I also remember him with some very scary friends, who all wore black and had funny coloured hair, and I remember him swearing a lot. Not that it’s hard to remember the swearing, because he still does that, so it’s a constant reminder.

Dec and Matty, they are both responsible for my occasional lapses when it comes to the odd f-word, and I blame them all the time. Much good it does me.

So, Dec was there from the beginning, or that’s how it felt, and we were mates, or brothers, or something, it’s getting complicated again, because it’s not something that has a name. He was only supposed to be with us a short while, Dad says a few weeks, Mum says longer, but Dad never pays attention properly, so I’m more of a mind to believe Mum. But anyway, he lived with us for three years, and I never thought much about it, it was just normal. Of course, there aren’t many families that have random teenagers who appear and stay, without some sort of formalities, but that’s what happened with Dec. I think Mum and Dad thought about, I don’t know, fostering or adopting or something, but in the end time went on, and Dec was eighteen, and it was too late.

And maybe if they had, maybe all the rest wouldn’t have happened, maybe Dec would have felt more secure or something, I don’t know, you’d have to ask him. I was only five at the time, so I didn’t really have a clue what was going on, but Dec was just, all of a sudden, different; he stayed in his room and didn’t play with me or read me stories, and then he left. He put all his things in bin bags and took them away, and didn’t say goodbye, so I didn’t know if he was coming back or not, and Mum and Dad wouldn’t answer when I asked where he was, at least not any answer that meant anything, even though I asked a lot, and then we moved up to Stafford, and Dec wasn’t there any more, and it all felt weird.

I think I’m going to tell you more about all that later, so that’s enough of Dec for now.

Granny always seemed to be around in those early days, despite the fact that she lived up there and we lived down here. We never saw much of Matty, even though they both lived in Stafford, but Granny was always visiting. She’d bring chocolate, which so wasn’t the only reason I looked forward to her coming (oh it so was), and she’d talk to me about little boy things like Lego and dinosaurs really seriously, as if she cared about them as much as I did. She gave the best granny cuddles too, and most importantly would sometimes stick up for me against Mum if I wanted to watch cartoons.

Dec

The next couple of weeks saw a big decrease in the amount of damage I was taking in training. I paid back all my friends, their friends and the acquaintances I had borrowed from, and this immediately changed the atmosphere on my part. People talked to me, involved me in their conversations, Big even came out for a drink with me. That was a great night. Nothing crazy, I didn’t even have a beer, but just chatting with a mate about football, films, girls, nothing serious, it was almost therapeutic.

I made an agreement with Nico and Lisa to pay them as much as I could afford every month. It wouldn’t leave me with much, but they didn’t know that, and the quicker I paid it back, the better I would feel. It was going to take me a long time, I’d still be paying them this time next year. I was even more grateful to them, realising this, as it would have taken me an equally long time to pay back everyone I had borrowed from, and they wouldn’t have been so understanding.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. There were still people waiting on the result of the visa and passport episode who were less than charitable towards me. At best they ignored me, at worst they still gave me physical reminders of their annoyance at every opportunity. There was no more pissing on my clothes. DivDav seemed surprised and pleased when I paid him back the money I owed him, and shook my hand.

%No hard feelings, mate.

We hadn’t spoken much since, and I hadn’t hung out with them all, but there was a little progress. Nico and Rose had been right, paying back the money had made a big difference.

Now I wasn’t taking so much physicality, I was feeling the benefit of training. Checking in with Stuart every week, he said he was pleased with my fitness and willingness.

Although Raiders’ legal people had sorted my passport and visa – I now officially had dual nationality, wasn’t going to be deported, and didn’t need a work permit to continue playing – the hearing about it all was coming up. It would all be over one way or the other pretty soon.

I was going to the gym on most of the days when I wasn’t training, and also doing a lot of walking, out in the fresh air, trying to clear my head. Lots of time to think, trying to make sense of how I’d got here, trying to put it all somewhere it didn’t hurt me as much. Still a worthless piece of shit, really.

I was missing playing a lot. I had played regularly for the reserves, and although we never got a huge crowd, being part of that experience was what it was all about for me. Now I wasn’t even allowed to go the stadium to watch games, and felt disconnected from it all.

I missed Jay, Beth and Cal so much, I knew there would always be a huge hole in my life where they had been. Beat myself up about them every single day.

Rose helped, a lot. She chatted when I needed chat, listened when I talked, gave advice whether I wanted it or not, and seemed to know when to leave me alone. Nico continued to look out for me, I went to dinner with him and Lisa a couple of times. I had a lot to be thankful for.

Cal

And Baggo. I’ve already mentioned him, but Baggo was my mate from the instant we met, in the playground, on the first day of school. He knocked me over as he was running away from Maisie Cunningham, who was trying to kiss him, and he gave me a Pokemon card to say sorry, and I gave him a plastic triceratops to say thanks, and there we were, mates, united against unwanted kissing from girls. Which is ironic, as later we were united for the very much wanted kissing from girls. Any girls.

Baggo and me have played together, worked together, prowled together, hurt together, laughed together and cried together, although it’s doubtful that either of us would admit to the crying. He was always the confident, naughty one, and I like to think I was a steadying influence on him, although to be honest if my mum had been anyone other than Beth Scott, things could have turned out very differently. When we suddenly left to go to Stafford, Baggo was the one I missed the most; when we returned, seeing him again was my most anticipated event.

Is that enough scene-setting? There are other people in my story, but they come in later, and I’d like to get on with this, see if I can do it in a way that makes sense.

So, I’ve kind of made a start, I’ve explained a bit about Dec and a bit about Matty, or what I can remember or have been told from when I was young.

The Dec/Matty thing is kind of tied together, because it all happened at the same time, and although I know it was all hugely upsetting for everyone at the time, I think things would have been very different for us all now if it hadn’t happened.

I suppose, in my six-year-old world, I was oblivious to a lot of it, because I think you just accept more when you’re younger, but maybe the major stuff stuck.

Dec

I had just got back from the gym one Sunday night when my mobile buzzed in my pocket. Reached for it, glanced at the name on the screen. A lurch beneath my ribs. Jay Scott.

14. Help me hold on

In which Dec gets an invitation, and we hear more snippets from Matty and Cal.

Dec

It was only just over a week since I was here last, joining in the same banter and conversation as everyone else; it felt like a million years ago. I slipped in through the open door and found a spot in the corner. Nobody seemed to notice, there wasn’t a sudden hush as I walked in. But there wasn’t a chorus of greetings either.

I changed next to Alex Bidworth – Bids – one of the older members of the academy. We nodded at each other but did not exchange any words. One by one we all made our way to the training pitch. I followed Bids. The person behind me, who I didn’t see or turn around to acknowledge, spent the short walk kicking the backs of my heels. Decided that ignorance was, if not bliss, then at least the best policy.

The training session consisted of rucks and mauls, trying different patterns, practising distribution, banging heads and most other parts with each other. A lot. I came in for a lot of punishment. I was kneed in the back, kicked on the elbow, slapped, poked, head-butted, strong-armed, you name it. I took some fairly massive hits, which left me reeling. I took it all without comment. I would have a lot of bruises tomorrow, but if that’s how the players chose to express their feelings with me, I had no right to complain. I was, after all, the worthless piece of shit who would be screwing up their season if Raiders lost out on a top four league position. It hurt, physically and emotionally, but I deserved it.

It was a fairly brutal session. The academy and senior players trained together, and some of the senior forwards packed a meaty punch. It was always punishing, but today I got extras.

Finally, near the end of the morning, I was on the end of a massive no arms tackle from Miles Abrahams, nineteen stone tight-head prop. I literally saw stars. Dropped, felled, to the ground.

The world disintegrated into a confused whirl of darkness, light and noise for a few seconds. I tried to get to my feet, but couldn’t get my limbs to work together. The medics, who always sat on the side-lines for training, were above me administering cold packs and icy water to various areas in an attempt to revive me a bit.

^Okay, let’s stop there for a minute.

Stuart called the players to him. I made an effort to sit up, then get up. I was pushed back down, more cold stuff applied. Fingers waved in front of my eyes. Asked to count. Managed that. Shook my head a few times to try and get rid of the fuzziness. Faces peered in my eyes. Hands helped me to my feet. Stood, swaying. Couldn’t quite remember how to walk. Stuart looked over at the medics and raised his eyebrows in a question. They nodded.

^Declan go and get changed.

‘I’m OK.’

^Just go.

I turned slowly and made my way dazedly towards the changing room. As I left I heard Stuart’s voice:

^Right, I think you’ve all made your point. That’s enough. Someone is going to get seriously hurt. It stops now …

The club doctor followed me, asked me to do a few more concussion tests, let me go.

I stood under the hot shower in the changing room, feeling lucidity and coordination return. Assessed the damage. There weren’t many parts of my body that weren’t reddening in preparation for bruises. I felt as if I had been run over by a fleet of trucks, each one adding it’s own slap to the ear or poke in the ribs. My neck and back were going to be particularly sore in the near future, but I was going to have to get used to it. I stayed in the shower until I heard everyone return, then changed while they showered.

My clothes were still damp from the morning rain; I should try and remember to bring spare clothes tomorrow. When I was going to have to do this all again. The banter and chat from the shower excluded me, and I left quickly, feeling the pain from that as much as the physical punishment.

The bus ride home stiffened me up. By the time I got back to my flat, I could barely walk up the stairs. I ran a bath, climbed laboriously over the side, and sat there for about an hour, topping up the hot water. I was so exhausted and battered I couldn’t think. This was good, even if the pain wasn’t. Floated along on steam and nothingness until I felt I could rouse myself enough to make it back over the side of the bath.

Started to get hungry; nothing like a bit of physical exertion to stimulate the appetite. Phone pinged. Several messages, a couple from people I could face getting messages from.

Nico: =Hope you OK. Tough session.

Big:

(I was a bit apprehensive about this one, I hadn’t been contacted by any of my mates for several days. Checked it anyway. He had a right to a say.)

=Guys out of order today. Stuey bollocking shld sort. Cu 2moro.

I was really, overwhelmingly touched. It felt like a major olive branch. I texted back my thanks.

DivDav: =Same again tomorrow, wanker.

No olive branch there. Fair enough. A voicemail message from Stuart:

^Well done this morning, tough one. I’ve had a word, but don’t expect an easy ride. Same time tomorrow.

The afternoon drifted by in a haze of avoidance. Didn’t want to sit for too long; muscles would stiffen, brain would work overtime. I wandered around the local shops, hood pulled up, avoiding eye contact, looking like a shoplifter. Ambled to the park, sat on a bench watching leaves blowing around. As I was about to get up, my phone rang. Nico.

>Declan, how you do?

‘Hurting.’

>Huh. No surprise. This morning is hard on you. Is serious?

‘I don’t think so.’

>Is good. Listen, my friend, there is something I want to ask you. Can you come to us tonight, we talk, I ask? Lis will cook. She make chicken balti. She cook very good.

Unexpected. Welcome. Undeserved. This attention from Nico was something I would have dreamed about a year ago. Now I felt like I was – what? A sponger? A free-loader? Something like that. Still, an invitation from a hero was what it was, even if accepting it made me a selfish worthless piece of shit.

‘I’d love to.’

>You know our house?

He gave directions. Easy bus ride. Arranged a time. Hung up. Started to walk out of the park. The phone rang again. The screen announced Amy Wright. I was puzzled.

Amy was DivDav’s girlfriend. I knew her pretty well, we’d all hung out together a lot. Dav and I had both fancied Amy, but he had made a determined play for her and got his woman, and I’d backed off. I hadn’t spoken to any of the girls in our group since everything had started to go wrong. Apart from the texts a week or so ago, there had been nothing. This was going to be another of those unpredictable calls. I hesitated, then answered.

‘Amy?’

)Hi Dec. I just wanted to find out how you are. David told me what went on in training this morning. It sounded really mean. Are you OK?

I was surprised and humbled.

‘Yeah, I’m OK thanks. Great to hear from you.’

)Yeah, well, I’ve told David it’s completely not on, and I’m going to tell the others as well. They’ve got to give you a chance. I’m sure there were reasons for everything. They should just talk to you, sort it out, instead of all this macho boy stuff.

Didn’t need this sympathy. Needed to hear the same condemnation I was giving myself.

‘Really, Amy, it’s OK. It wasn’t too bad. Nothing I didn’t have coming. Just a couple of bruises.’

Huge body covering bruises.

‘Thanks so much for ringing, but I’m OK.’

)Oh, well, alright then. Just wanted to make sure. You’ll be alright?

‘I’m fine.’

)OK then. See you around.

Tears sprang to my eyes. It was almost harder to face understanding and sympathy than rage and exclusion. But both were pretty hard.

Wiped my eyes, and continued walking back to the local shops. Picked up some wine to take with me to Nico’s. Still couldn’t quite believe I was going to have dinner with Nico Tiago and his new wife. I put thoughts of what he wanted to ask me to the back of my mind, and concentrated, as I walked home, on what I was going to wear. Not much choice; I had sold all my good stuff, and only really had a couple of t-shirts, hoodies and a pair of jeans left. They could all do with a wash, but they would have to do. Knocked on Rose’s door. Thought I heard the TV through the door, but there was no reply.

Showered, changed and made my way to the bus stop, walking more slowly than usual on account of my aching body. Had to wait in the rain for a bus, and then make my way in more rain for the short walk to Nico’s house. Rang the doorbell. Nico answered, smiling. I handed over the wine and stepped over the threshold, unwilling to go further as I was dripping water onto the carpet.

>You are on time – is good. Oh, but you are very wet.

‘It’s pissing down out there. I came by bus.’

Nico called out behind him as he beckoned me inside.

>Lis, baby, Declan is very wet.

~Well get him a towel or something, and some spare clothes if he needs them.

Lisa came out to meet me. We had met before, she was a good friend of Beth’s, and she had been to the house many times when I was there.

~Hi Dec. Great you could come. Oh, look at you, you’re soaking. Nico will get you some dry stuff and put your things in the dryer, yeah? ‘Scuse me, got to get back to the chicken.

Nico went upstairs, leaving me trickling slowly in the hallway. He reappeared shortly with an armful of items and a big towel. He seemed quite amused.

>Ha! I don’t know if this is OK. You are tall, I am not. You have no choice though. You will scare Lis to sit in your skin. You can change in here.

He showed me into the downstairs loo. I dried off and changed, leaving my socks and trainers next to the radiator. Nico’s clothes were too short, and a bit tight. I had already been feeling a little awkward, and this compounded the feeling. I bundled up my wet things and opened the door. Nico laughed and pointed at my bare ankles.

>Ha! You look like your cat die.

‘What?’

>Your flags are half down – up – what is it?

‘Half mast?’

I had no idea what Nico was talking about, but he seemed pleased with himself.

>Ha, yes! This is English words, yes? Is not a good look for you. I take these to the drier.

He picked up my clothes and disappeared with them into the kitchen. From beyond the door, I heard him.

>How I work the dryer?

~You’ll have to spin them first, they’ll never dry if you put them in like that.

>Huh. How I spin?

~Oh give them here. Watch this for a minute. Don’t let it boil.

>If it boil, what I do?

~Oh for God’s sake, Nico, you really are hopeless. I know you do it on purpose. Go and see to Dec, yeah? I bet you just left him standing in the hall, didn’t you. No, here, I’ll do it.

Nico reappeared, smiling.

>She love me really, I think! Come in here, sit down. I open this.

He gestured to the wine bottle in his hand. I followed him into the spacious lounge, and sat down.

>You want?

He held up the bottle.

‘Er, no I’d better not. Don was pretty clear about no alcohol. And my last experience wasn’t too positive. Better do as I’m told, I think.

>Huh – oh I remember you say hangover. Big one?

‘Fucking enormous. Lots of vodka. Lost two days. Scared myself a bit.’

>You look better now. You look horrible on that day.

‘I was pretty horrible. It all seems like a bit of a bad dream. Learned my lesson though. That one, at any rate.’

>Well, I have wine. Ha, Don don’t tell me not, so is OK.

He opened the bottle and poured a glass.

>I see you have good bruises from the morning already.

He gestured to my face, where my cheek and chin had taken some obvious hits. I shrugged.

‘It was a tough session.’

>I think people are too tough. I say to them. They can hurt you.

‘I think that was the intention. Fair enough. I expected it. Nico, thanks, really, but, fuck, you don’t have to stick up for me. You’ll get yourself dragged into all this, you’re really better off out of it.’

>Hey, I already tell you I decide what is better for me. I think tomorrow is not so hard for you.

I had no answer to that. Didn’t want to think too much about tomorrow.

>I check on chicken. We are late – big surprise, huh?

Nico sprang up and left the room. I heard his and Lisa’s voices as they had an indistinct conversation in the kitchen. I looked around. The room was large and subtly decorated. There wasn’t much in the way of ornaments or pictures, but a framed Argentina shirt was hung over the fireplace. I went over to have a look. It had been signed by members of both teams. There was a small metal plaque with an inscription – ‘England v Argentina – Twickenham’ – and the date, which was just over two years ago. It was the game I’d been to .

The lounge door opened.

>We are ready soon.

‘I was at this match.’

>You were? It is special for me, to play against England, and it is my fiftieth cap. You were there?

‘I saved up for weeks.’

I could still remember my excitement, I talked about it for days before and even longer afterwards.

‘You were great. I can still remember your try. Right by where I was sitting. It was fucking awesome. Amazing take, brilliant run, fantastic dive.’

>You make me blush. To score that try was increible. I don’t believe it that you were there! I have a DVD here …

The door opened again.

~It’s on the table, come and get it – oh sorry, I’ve interrupted rugby talk. Well, all the more reason to come and eat now, yeah? It’ll go cold if I let you two get started.

We followed Lisa into the kitchen, where there was a large table. The balti smelt good, and there were plates of naan bread, a large bowl of rice, poppadoms and a dish of mango chutney.

‘This looks amazing.’

~Thanks. Sit down, help yourself. Nico, did you open that bottle? Oh, you’ve got yourself a glass, and mine is ..?

Chuckling, Nico went back into the lounge to retrieve the bottle.

~Your clothes should be dry soon. Sorry Nico’s don’t really fit you, you’re a lot taller than him. Haven’t you got a coat?

It had been a good one, and I’d sold it on eBay for thirty quid.

‘No, I lost it.’

~Bad luck!

Nico came back, filled a wine glass for Lisa, and we sat down to the meal. It was delicious; Lisa was a really good cook. Conversation was fairly standard, the weather, the buses, the chicken balti and various recipes for cooking it (which Lisa insisted on giving me and I had no intention of ever using), and their wedding, which had only been a few months ago.

There were quite a lot of wedding photos around. It had been a big occasion, some of the players had gone to the main event, the whole squad had all been invited to the evening party, but I had been too self-absorbed to attend.

Nico and Lisa had met at a club function, shortly after Nico arrived at Raiders. Lisa owned a sports equipment business that had sponsored some of the Raiders players in the past. Her company was looking to expand its media profile, and when Nico arrived they made a deal and fell in love. That, at least, was their potted version of their history.

I wondered when Nico was going to ask me what he had brought me there to ask. Eventually a look was exchanged between them, and Nico took a deep breath.

>Declan, we talk, Lis and me. I know yesterday I tell you I forget, but I can’t. I ask people at the club. You borrow a lot. People, they are against you for this. We want to lend you money to pay them back.

I looked down at my plate. My appetite had fled and I felt shame burn my cheeks. Without looking up:

‘No.’

>Why not?

‘Because I’m in the fucking mess I’m in because of borrowing money. If I borrow more, it just makes it all so much worse. I have to do this, sort it out, myself.’

>Huh. How about you think of it as those adverts, those what is it ‘consolidate your debts’ on TV. Then you don’t piss off lots of people, you only have one to worry about. That one is me. You don’t piss off me, or Lis will be mad. Your friends they like you again and things they are easier for you.

He made it sound very tempting, too easy. It should be hard. It had to be hard. Shook my head.

‘No.’

~Dec, how are you managing paying back all the money you owe?

‘Getting there.’

~Getting there as in you’ve nearly done it, or as in you’ve made a start and now you don’t know how you’re going to finish it?

I was silent. She’d pretty much nailed it.

~Can I just ask, you said the mess you are in is because of borrowing money, yeah? I know a bit about what’s been going on with you. Could it also be that you didn’t ask for help when you needed it, and that has been a big part of it too? All we’re saying is we’d like to help, and we’d like you to not be too bloody-minded to think about saying yes. Have a think about it, yeah?

I was humbled. Could not believe that there were such good people. Could not believe that such good people would waste their time, effort and money on me. They needed to know the truth about me, what a worthless piece of shit I was. I looked up.

‘Lisa, do you really know what’s been going on? Why I’ve borrowed so much money? What I did?’

Lisa gave me an appraising look.

~We got some edited highlights from Jay. It all seems like a bit of a nightmare.

>I know Jaime is mad, I see him yell at you in his car. Maybe he not very fair to you.

I tried to remember what Jay knew and what he might not. His version wouldn’t do me any favours, but then I didn’t really deserve any.

‘Why do you still want to help me? I …’

It was hard to say it.

‘… stole charity money. A lot of money.’

>We know this. Jaime, he is angry, we think maybe he not tell us all, about why you do it. You are not a bad person, we know this.

~You don’t have to tell us why you did it. But we know enough to think you didn’t do it for yourself or to hurt anyone. It doesn’t make any difference to us offering. We know how much it was. We want to help you make things better, yeah?

I looked at both of them in amazement.

~Really, Dec, don’t say no through some sense of pride or shame or stubbornness. You know, sometimes people do stupid things when they’re desperate. We want to make sure you don’t go to a loan shark or start dealing drugs or selling your body or something.

‘What the …’

~I’m kidding! Well, about selling your body anyway. You’re too scrawny to get much for it. Declan, if it can help at all … well, please just think about it, yeah?

I looked down at my plate again, unable to meet their eyes. It was true I was getting more desperate, and my methods of solving my financial problems had so far not been either logical or successful. Thinking about it wasn’t agreeing, and it bought me some time to work out how to turn them down without offending them.

‘OK. I’ll think about it.’

Thinking also didn’t cost anybody anything, and it would stop them going on about it. A big smile from Nico. Lisa took my hand and gave it a squeeze.

>Good decision. You let me know when you say yes!

From the hall, I heard the phone ring. Lisa started to get up.

>Let the machine pick up. What is dessert?

~You were supposed to get dessert.

>Huh. Sorry, baby, I forget. What else we have?

~Nico …

While they bickered back and forwards my attention was caught by the answering machine. With a lurch to my gut, I recognised the voice. It was Beth.

_Hi Lis, just got your message. We’re fine, staying with Carol till we find somewhere. It’s a bit of a squeeze. Cal loves it, she spoils him all day. Matty’s very poorly, James is in a bit of a state. Call me later.

Lisa must have realised too late that I had heard the message. She put her hand to her mouth and looked at me, concern creasing her brow. The blood had drained from my face. It was hard to hear Beth’s voice again. I swallowed. My mouth felt dry, and my heart was racing.

Sitting on my own all day, I could push things to the back of my mind. I was suddenly confronted with exactly what I had thrown away. It opened a hurt place in me that I had begun to close off. Jay and Beth would have been the very people I would have turned to for help, in any other situation than the one I’d got myself into. I’d chucked it away. My hands were trembling.

>You look horrible. Here, have some water.

Nico poured some into a glass.

~Sorry, Declan. That was harsh for you.

>You don’t speak to them before they leave?

I shook my head, remembering what they’d both said the last time either of them spoke to me.

~Declan, Beth is my friend. I know how much you’ve meant to her and I think I can see how much they mean to you. This has been hard on you all, yeah? Maybe if you give them time.

I shook my head.

‘I’ve fucked too much up, I don’t think there’s any coming back from it. They both want me to stay away from them. Jay and I are done. He said so.’

~Well people say all sorts of things, yeah? You never know. They are both very hurt at the moment. They’ve got a lot on their minds.

‘Mm.’

>Hey, you know Lis used to go out with Jaime?

I looked up, surprised. And, despite myself, interested.

~Nico, I don’t think –

>Yeah, long time ago. He is much older than her, he is still a player here. She work in the office. She dump him though. She know she will find a much, much better man. Much more handsome and charming. And more young.

He sat back, smugly. Lisa batted him on the arm.

~Big head. It’s true, though, from my dim and distant past. Jay and Beth have been great friends. Don’t give up on them, yeah?

Easy enough to say. It wasn’t down to me. Too much had happened, too much said, or rather unsaid. Couldn’t see a road back.

There was a clatter at the back door. A small tabby cat pushed its way through the cat flap, sniffed the air and made straight for me, twining itself round my legs and mewing. I glanced down, then looked more closely.

‘Is this Tabitha?’

Beth’s elderly cat. She had ignored me for most of the time I lived with Jay and Beth, except when it was up to me to feed her.

~Yes! We’re looking after her until they get settled. I forgot you’d know her. Looks like she remembers you.

The cat jumped on my lap and head-butted my nose. She reminded me again of things I’d had, and lost.

‘Probably remembering all the good times at her food bowl.’

~She does like a feed. She’s on a diet though – got a bit podgy in her old age.

‘Poor Tabs, I don’t expect a diet’s going down very well.’

~She’d be a bit more annoyed, and a bit thinner, if Nico didn’t keep giving her leftovers. I keep telling him she’s not a dog, and she needs to lose weight. He’s just a sucker for a pretty face.

>Is true. Is why you so fat.

~Right, you’re washing up, mister.

Seeing Tabitha, along with hearing Beth’s voice, had brought back lots of memories. I couldn’t stop them crowding in. I was overwhelmed with sadness, and I suddenly needed to know about them.

‘Where have they gone? I don’t even know where the fuck they are.’

A look passed between Nico and Lisa.

~Dec, I’m sorry, this is really difficult. Jay and Beth, well they were very clear, they don’t want you to know any details about anything, and they don’t want you to contact them. We can’t really tell you anything without breaking promises, I hope you understand. They’ve gone … away. They’re not local. That’s all I can say, sorry.

It was another blow, coming hot on the heels of the flood of memories. I felt a million miles away from them all in my head, but hadn’t really thought about them literally being somewhere else. I felt my cheeks begin to burn, and tears begin to prickle at the corner of my eyes. Frantically tried to blink them away.

‘It’s OK. Sorry, unfair of me.’

A short, awkward pause.

>Hey, I know, why don’t we watch the DVD of my amazing try, while Lis gets dessert?

It was as good a diversion as any. Lisa tutted and rolled her eyes.

~So this means I get dessert, and clear up, and fill the dishwasher, while you sit on your arses and watch rugby, yeah?

>Of course not, baby. You can fill the dishwasher tomorrow.

Nico got a clout for that one.

‘I’ll help.’

~Don’t be daft, go and watch your game. Your clothes should be dry, I’ll bring them through.

‘Thanks, Lisa. Great meal.’

We passed the rest of the evening watching the game, replaying Nico’s try several times so he could bask in adulation. We tried to spot me in the crowd, but it was impossible.

I walked home, having missed the last bus, but not wanting to tell Nico, who wanted to drive me. The rain had stopped, but it had turned cold, and my socks and trainers were still damp. It was fairly late by the time I got back. I listened at Rose’s door for signs of life, but couldn’t hear anything; I’d have to call on her tomorrow.

Back in my flat, I got undressed and flopped, tired, into bed. My bangs and scrapes were going to hurt tomorrow, but for now I was ready to sleep deeply.

Dreaming. Flying. High above the city. Looking down at a group of people in the park. Everyone is there – Mikey, Bonksy, DivDav, Big, Danno and the girls, Amy, Sarah, Katie, and Cara. They are sitting on the grass, having a laugh. I circle round, then fly down lower. I wave at them. They all wave back, and beckon me down. As my feet touch the ground, they all run away, laughing. I give chase – I can fly faster than them. I get in front of them, they all gather round, smiling, laughing, pleased to see me, taking my hand, taking me with them.

Cal

I suppose I should say a bit about Mum and Dad, they were fairly influential in my early years. Mum gets some bad press from Matty, although I know she knows he loved her really, and I suppose she can be a bit full on when she’s worried about you, which is most of the time, for most of us, but she’s this wonderfully big-hearted person, and she genuinely cares about everyone she meets. Maybe she has the urge to help too much for her own good, and could do with reining in the need to visit old ladies she meets at the bus stop with casseroles and stuff, and to realise she can’t fix all the problems in the world single-handedly, but I doubt it will ever happen, and she’ll carry on trying to make things better one person at a time.

Anyway, when I was little, before Iz came along, it was just me, Mum and Dad, or mostly Mum, because Dad would be at work. Who can really remember their parents at that age? I’d love to say we had a great time, and I’m sure we did, Christmases were awesome, there was always lots of food, lots of laughter, we did things together. I turned out alright, I think, so it must have been fine. Sorry, Mum, that doesn’t seem like much of a compliment – you are amazing, and I wish I could be more specific about your amazingness. I think maybe I’ll remember more when I get to the next bit.

The same is true of Dad. Obviously, I now know that Jay Scott is forever linked with England and Raiders (I saw the Scott Suite at the big hotel before they redecorated – Jesus, Dad, how did your head not get too big to get out of the door?), and I have been asked so many times, by journalists, supporters, even other players, ‘what was it like growing up with Jay Scott?’, and I have a bit of a chuckle to myself before I say ‘oh, you know, he was my role model’, because he really was my role model, but not in the way they want to think. My dad always got away with doing as little as possible at home, by using his charm and the twinkle in his eye to get round Mum, or by pretending to be asleep.

That’s not to say he was a lazy bastard who never lifted a finger, although he was a lazy bastard who never lifted a finger, but we’d do things as a family, he’d play with me endlessly, do all the Dad things you expect dads to do. Neither he nor Mum ever raised their voice when it wasn’t deserved, as far as I can remember, and when I think about being a kid, it feels like I was safe and loved.

Dad liked being outdoors and being active rather than being indoors and being productive, so we’d often go to the park and kick a ball around when it looked like Mum might be about to find a job for him to do, and I hate to admit that I have inherited the same dislike for housework and handy-manning, much to Chrissie’s disgust. Sorry babe.

Matt

And the next mystery – the ever-present Jay, Beth and Cal. Every day, one or all of them would be there with Mum. Why were they up here and not down in Devon being all busy with rugby as per?

It took a while longer to get to the reasons for this one, mainly because they were so evasive, and when you’re bloody exhausted and saying two words together feels like climbing a mountain, evasiveness works, so it wasn’t until I was quite a lot better that I found out that Jay had given up his job. For me. To come up here and look after me for the foreseeable. Well, that filled me with pride and gratitude and love and shit, but it also filled me with guilt, that Jay had given up the job he’d loved for me, that finally there was something more important than his bloody rugby, and it turns out it’s me. I’d never have asked that of him, I didn’t think I’d ever have done that for him, but I suppose who knows.

But now he was here, and he’d got this big house with a downstairs bedroom so I could go and live with them while I got better (although no one actually said what would happen if I didn’t get better), and they’d got Cal in a new school, and so it was all going to be lovely, and that should make everything alright. But they didn’t say what had happened to the golden-boy rugby protégé, where he was in all this, and they didn’t say why they weren’t talking about me going home, to my flat. I had to wait until a lot later, until I actually got out of there, before they told me either of those little nuggets.

So I stayed in hospital and got stronger, although not strong, and I was a bit easier to understand, although not easy. Cal was best at understanding me; he seemed to have some kind of universal translator in his head that picked up any of the unintelligible bollocky shit my mouth was trying to come out with and reworked it into proper words in two seconds flat. Maybe he was closer in age to a time when unintelligible bollocks was all that he could say as well, but the best conversations I had were when Cal was around. There’s a lot to be said for being six, can’t recommend it highly enough.

And although I got better bit by bit, it was slow bit by slow bit, because my body had the bastard MS coursing through it, and it had joined forces with its new chum pneumonia, and between them they were frolicking hand in hand through my energy levels, my concentration and my strength, gleefully kicking the shit out of all of it as they went.

And there were days when I didn’t want any of it, when having them there, reminding me what they’d given up for me, was too much, days when I remembered too much of my life before, with Carrie, and what she’d ripped from me with a scrap of paper and a few words. And on those days I wouldn’t even look at them; I’d turn away from them, close my eyes, tell them to leave me the fuck alone, even if Cal was there to hear the ‘fuck’, and although on the outside I was blank, on the inside I was screaming at the unfairness of it all and wishing I’d died when I had the chance.

13. A little bit stronger

In which Dec gives it his best shot, and we catch up with Matty and Cal.

Dec

There weren’t many cars in the car park yet. There was no training on Mondays, but players came in for team and individual reviews of the weekend’s game. I scanned the players entrance, couldn’t see any reporters. Hopefully they had given up. Made my way to Stuart’s small office. The door was open, but I gave it a tap. He looked up from some papers on his desk. Smiled.

^Declan. Thanks for coming. Take a seat.

I sat down, apprehension gripping me.

^OK, let’s make a start.

He put away the papers, and got out another folder, which had my name written on it. I shifted nervously in my seat as he got out a sheet of paper and glanced at it.

^Right then, Declan. First thing to mention is that I’ve had a chat with Don and some of the other coaches, and we feel that it would be best if you joined the squad for training from now on.

I was surprised, and delighted.

‘But I thought I couldn’t train here …’

^Well, all other aspects of your suspension remain in place, especially while the club are trying to sort out your passport and visa. Did you bring your passports in today?

I handed them to him.

^Thanks. But if the aim of all of this is to see how things go with you back amongst us, well, you need to be back amongst us. Tomorrow, 8.30, rucks and mauls. Up for it?

‘Yeah!’

Qualms I may be feeling about seeing everyone again were buried under a surge of pleasure. This place was a part of me. It had felt like an amputation over the last few days, not being able to come here. It had its own character, depending on what day it was. Training days were businesslike, forming team bonds, developing skills. Match days were vibrant, full of noise and colour, slowly building to an excited climax at kick off. On the rare days when nothing was happening here, there was still a sense of anticipation. It never really seemed to sleep.

^OK, that’s great. Well, now, obviously you’re not going to be playing any games with us for a while, or using club facilities, so we need to make sure you’re keeping as fit as possible. You’ve been putting on weight the last month or so, and you need to get rid of it. As well as training here with the squad on Tuesdays, Wednesday and Thursdays, I want to go over a programme for you to complete on other days. You’ll have to find your own facilities. And start paying attention to what you eat. OK?

‘OK.’

^I’d also like you to come in every Monday morning to review your progress, see how it’s all going. You can come in after the match reviews are all done.

The programme he outlined was pretty standard. He double checked I understood everything, gave me a copy and sat back in his chair, giving me an appraising look.

^Declan, I’ll be honest with you. There are a lot of doubts upstairs that giving you this second chance is the right thing to do. There is also a lot of bad feeling towards you and the position you have put us in. Being docked significant points at this stage of the season would be fairly damaging to our chances of finishing top four. You’ve got a lot of work to do, not only on the training pitch, but also on your relationships with the rest of the squad, to prove you’re worth it. I hope you have the strength for the next few weeks. It’s going to be tough, but I believe you can do it. Work as hard as you can, and make the outcome about other people, other situations, things you can’t influence now, not about your performance. Give it your best shot?

‘OK.’

I made my way back out to the players entrance, head full of the meeting with Stuart. He was pretty straight-laced, no-nonsense, and I felt he was willing to give me a go. If the club had forced him into it, he gave no sign. I felt more positive than I had for a long time.

This morning I had thought my time as a Raiders player was almost at an end; I saw a chink of hope now. It could still all end, but for the time being I was still here. As long as I lived for now and didn’t think too far in the future, I could cope.

As I passed the media office, I heard my name called through the open door. Adrian Peters, head of media, was getting up from his desk and waved me in. He wanted me to talk to some reporters who were waiting by the players’ entrance, so they’d go away. It was the last thing I wanted to do after the other night, but ‘giving it my best shot’ probably included this.

Adrian reminded me of a few points from my recent media course – things they might ask, how to not answer a question, what I could and couldn’t say, basically ways to sell my soul for the good of Raiders. Fair enough.

.Oh, and they’ll want pictures, so let them take as many as they want. Don’t smile, though, they’ll make it look like you’re taking the piss.

He didn’t mention the picture in the Herald, but he didn’t have to. I needed to put right some of what I’d screwed up.

‘OK.’

.Thanks, Declan. Good luck.

I went through the door. It wasn’t a barrage of noise and light, there were four men standing there, looking bored, although they perked up when they saw it was me. At least someone was pleased to see me.

“Declan! Can we have a quote?

“Declan, have you spoken to Jay Scott?

“Anything you can tell us about the points decision?

“Have Raiders have overturned your suspension, then?

‘Hold on guys, one at a time.’

Tried to appear relaxed and unconcerned. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a small group of people standing and watching. Glanced up. It was Ben Hearne, Michael Foster, Brett Deressie, Dan Hart and David Allsop, known to me in another life as Big, Mikey, Bonksy, Danno and DivDav. All looking very amused. Great, now I had to perform for them too.

I turned back to the reporters, two of who were also photographers. I had no idea where they were from, or if any of them were the same people who had put my picture in the paper last week, but I tried to follow Adrian’s advice, remembering some of the techniques they would use to make me say something unguarded. They tried to trip me up, but I thought I did pretty well, answering questions without giving much away.

They wanted photos afterwards – stand here, look up, give us a smile. I ignored it all and faced the cameras grimly, remembering the image Adrian wanted me to show. Eventually they’d had enough, got what they wanted, or realised they weren’t going to get any more, and they walked off.

I looked over at the group of lads who used to be my mates. They were lounging against a low wall, arms folded, smirking sardonically. Undecided as to what I should do, I nodded in their direction, took a step towards them.

They stood up and walked as a group through the players’ door. A well-aimed ‘wanker’ was hurled in my direction. I don’t know what I had expected, these were guys I had been best friends with, played with, trained with, spent down time with, helped home when we were all drunk, and I had spent a lot of the last few months distancing myself from them, lying to them and borrowing money off them that they seemed unlikely to get back any time soon. Giving it my best shot was going to be tough without them. Being here at all was going to be tough without them. I had no one to blame but myself, worthless piece of shit that I was.

Sighing, I set off across the car park, heading for the bus stop. I still needed to buy some food, which I could do at the supermarket on the way home. Hated shopping. But unless I learned how to cook vegetables in the next few hours, I was going to be very hungry. Maybe a few vegetables wouldn’t hurt – Beth had always looked after my nutrition, cooked the right things, balanced diet and all that; she knew what rugby players needed. Now I was fending for myself, and relying on my own woeful cooking ability, it was usually heating up a shepherd’s pie or chicken nuggets, and Stuart was right, it was affecting my body shape and my fitness. However, today was not going to be the day I addressed this.

The bus was empty, the car park was full, and the shop was heaving. I grabbed a basket and headed towards the ready meals. Picked up a couple of curries and some sweet and sour chicken, almost grabbed a few beers but remembered Don’s orders and settled for diet cola. Headed to the tills. There were huge queues everywhere. I aimed for the self-checkout, but it still looked like a long wait.

Drifted off into a supermarket trance, staring at nothing in particular, shuffling forwards as the line moved slowly on. I heard my name. Turned round. Two men behind me in the queue were looking at me. I raised my eyebrows at them. They looked away. My attention now directed behind me, I heard a few snatches of their conversation.

*… reserves player … visa … lose points … Scott …

I resisted the urge to turn round again, but the back of my neck prickled uncomfortably. Being part of Raiders meant I was occasionally recognised, but usually people just said hello or said they were Raiders fans, shook hands and walked away. Being the subject of a muttered conversation felt very awkward.

I paid for my stuff and walked out, glad to leave the crowds behind. I hadn’t got far before I felt a hand on my shoulder. Defensive, I shrugged it off, turned and faced the two men from the queue. Stood in a relaxed posture, not aggressive but not submissive either.

*You Declan Summers?

The shorter man thrust his head towards me.

‘Yes.’

*You tosser.

He folded his arms and waited for my response. I didn’t give him the satisfaction of one. Just looked at him.

*I’ve watched Raiders for fifteen years, since before they got promoted. Never known the like. They should have thrown you out on your arse.

His mouth was a contemptuous sneer. His taller, bulkier mate stood just behind him, arms at his side, fists clenched. If I wasn’t careful, it was going to turn nasty – not that I wasn’t more than capable of looking after myself in a fight, but it was the sort of trouble I had to avoid. I decided to let him have his say; most of the supporters would feel the same way he did, and didn’t even know the half of it. I waited again.

*You’re a disgrace.

Couldn’t argue with him there, had thought it myself many times over the last few days, weeks and months.

*Can’t believe they didn’t sack your sorry arse straight off, never mind all this pissing about with suspensions.

Again, no arguments from me. I stood my ground, however – a small spark of pride making me incapable of being submissive.

*Well I hope you’re fucking proud of yourself, you’ve cost us a place in the play-offs.

I was well aware of how any points deductions would affect the club and the people who worked and played for it. The knock on effect on the thousands of Raiders fans was also huge. I felt a need to answer him, but without getting myself punched. My heart was beating fast. I tried to keep my tone of voice even.

‘No, I’m not proud. I know what it might have cost everyone. I’m sorry.’

He seemed a bit taken aback that I hadn’t been defensive or confrontational. I wasn’t sure whether or not I had managed to defuse it.

*Why don’t you just piss off and do us all a favour?

‘OK.’

I turned and walked away, wondering if he and his mate were going to follow me. My senses felt the air behind me for signs of pursuit. My nerves were strung so tightly that if I had felt another hand on my shoulder I might have lashed out blindly. The short walk to the bus stop seemed to take hours, but when I reached it and turned around, there was no sign of the two men. My legs were shaking and my breath was quick and ragged, my heartbeat loud in my ears. I was going to have to get used to this type of confrontation. In a way, I was public property. Felt very alone.

When I got home, I knocked on Rose’s door. I hadn’t seen her for a couple of days and felt bad. There was no answer.

Upstairs in my flat, I put my shopping away, had some lunch and thought about what to do next. Nico would be picking me up later, but that left the afternoon to fill. Looked at the television, but couldn’t face another afternoon of quiz shows and antique programmes. I needed to do something to stop myself thinking. I had too many thoughts spinning in my head. Too many things I needed to do that I had no way of doing.

I made a start on the charity money. I had the details of the accounts I needed to pay into, and wrote some cheques from my savings account. It didn’t quite meet the promised amounts, but I had now done what I had promised Don I would do; I felt a bit better, having repaid at least some of my debts, although I wasn’t sure where the last few hundred pounds I owed the charities was going to come from. Ignoring this, I walked up to the post box and fulfilled one of my many obligations. The rest would be a bit harder to complete.

Back home, I was still restless. In the end, I cleaned the flat. It didn’t need doing, Rose had only sand-blasted it a few days ago. I never cleaned, hated housework, could hardly remember how to use the hoover. But it was physical, and stopped the spinning thoughts.

A couple of hours later, slightly warm and feeling very virtuous, I decided to call on Rose again. I had no idea if she had a job, or what else she did during the day when she wasn’t fixing up my life. About time I found out.

I went down the stairs and knocked on her door. She seemed delighted to see me, fussed about making tea, putting out a plate of biscuits, talking nineteen to the dozen the whole time about absolutely nothing. She didn’t mention any of my troubles, and neither did I. I was grateful; I’d spent too long thinking and I needed some light relief. I told her I had cleaned my flat, maybe expecting some sort of pat on the back.

:Whatever for? Didn’t we just give it a huge clean?

‘I know. It was a kind of a workout. Needed to burn off some energy. Besides, I found some bits you missed.’

:You never did, you cheeky monkey. Get away with you and drink your tea. Last time I tidy up for you, that is.

We bantered back and forth for a while, making our way through the tea and biscuits. Stuart would undoubtedly have disapproved, but company and talking was something I’d missed, and it felt important to join in with Rose and her need to feed me.

I asked her if she had a job, and she told me she worked part time as a receptionist in one of the big opticians in town. I could imagine her lording it over the front desk, knowing everyone’s business, dispensing advice with the contact lens solution, and I told her so. She gave me an appraising look.

:You know, you really seem quite chirpy. Good to see, love.

‘Yeah, I think I’m getting there. I’ve been a monumental dickhead – sorry – idiot and knocking myself out with vodka was utterly stupid, but in a way it might have helped a bit. I feel, kind of, can’t think of the word – does ‘purged’ sound right?

:You tell me, love.

‘Well, I know I’ve fucked up, upset a lot of people, done some bloody stupid things, I know that, and some of that might be fixable and some of it might not, and if not that will be bad and I’ll have to deal with it. But today, I feel like I’ve made a start.’

I told her about my meeting with Stuart and holding my own with the reporters, but also about the reaction of the lads afterwards.

:Oh I wouldn’t take too much notice. They’re just boys, aren’t they.

‘Yeah, same age as me, Rose.’

:Then you know what I mean. You all muck about taking the mick out of each other and not saying how you feel. They’ll come round, give them time.

‘Well I guess I’ll see tomorrow. It’s pretty obvious there are plenty of people out there with an opinion they’re not afraid to share.’

Rose was great at sugar-coating things, but I knew it wasn’t going to be as easy as she was making it seem. I told her about the confrontation at the supermarket.

:You didn’t know them, then?

I shook my head.

:That’s out of order, that is, people should mind their own business and keep their opinions to themselves.

‘Just like you do, eh!’

:Watch it sonny, you’re not too big for a clout for your cheek. You know what I mean though. Much as I yap, I’d never have a go at someone I’d never met.

‘I guess people have an emotional attachment to a team they support. It can mean a lot if it’s something you’re really into. I know what it means to play. Raiders are a part of them, and I’ve hurt them through what I’ve done.’

Just another thing to add to the list of repayments I’d never be able to make.

‘Anyway, I’ll know more about what I’m up against tomorrow when I go to training.’

:Good luck, love. Ooh, you know what, I’ve been meaning to ask if you’d give me a hand with something?

‘No worries.’

:Well I’ve got this cabinet, it’s old and heavy, it’s full of stuff, and I can’t shift it. I want to move it to give me more space in my spare room. I think I need a strong young man. Can you think of anyone I could ask?

I laughed.

‘Yeah, I can think of someone. Come on, let’s go and have a look.’

Rose put me to work, firstly removing the various items of china, tea-towels, and other clutter, and then moving the cabinet into the tiny space she had allocated for it. It took some doing, and then we put all the stuff back. As we were finishing off, my phone pinged. At the same time, Rose’s entry buzzer went. On my phone was a text from Nico. Shit, Nico! I glanced at the time on my phone. 5.50. Shit.

Nico: =Where are you? I am outside. I try your buzzer.

At the same time, it was like some weird stereo, I heard Nico’s voice on the entry phone.

>I look for Declan Summers.

:And who are you?

>I am Nico.

Rose looked at me, eyebrows raised. I nodded, trying to send a text at the same time. Shit.

:He’s here, I’ll buzz you in.

I rushed to Rose’s front door.

‘Nico, I’m so sorry, I lost track of time.’

>Ha, is no worry, I just get here. My car is on lines, you are ready?

‘No, I haven’t got my kit together. Can you give me a minute?’

>OK, but hurry. What is traffic wardens like here?

‘No idea. Do you know, Rose?’

She had, predictably, had come out for a nose.

:Well –

‘Great, can you tell Nico while I go and grab my stuff?’

I dashed up the stairs, leaving her to it. A short while later I was back downstairs. Rose was saying something I didn’t catch to Nico, but stopped when I appeared.

:Alright love, enjoy the gym. Trying somewhere different are you?

‘Yeah, Nico’s sorted something.’

I edged towards the door, knowing that Rose could be difficult to escape from.

>Hey, Rose, you come too!

Nico flashed a cheeky smile at her.

:Oh get on with you. You’d have a shock if I said yes, now wouldn’t you. Have a nice time. Maybe, if you give me a bit of warning, I’ll drag out my Lycra when you go again. Then you’ll be sorry.

>Ha! I hope you do this, I enjoy. OK Declan, let’s see if I get a parking ticket.

In the car:

>Rose, she is nice lady. She talk weird, I don’t understand all.

‘She’s great. And very Welsh.’

>Huh. I think she tell me she worry about you.

‘Yeah, well Rose is a professional worrier stroke interferer.’

>Ha! You talk weird too. Rose, she say, I think, you owe money?

‘She what?

>She just talk. She –’

‘Fucking hell, Nico, that’s out of order!’.

I was instantly furious. Who the hell did she think she was? She hardly knew me, and she had only just met Nico. He could have been anyone. I had enough people knowing enough of my business, without Rose spreading the good news where she felt like it. She’d gone too far.

>I don’t think she mean to make you angry. She try to help.

‘That’s not the point. It’s up to me to tell people about my stuff, not her, and not when I’m not even there. Shit, sorry, that’s just made me so mad.’

>Huh. I see this. Forget I say. I forget too. OK?

‘Hm.’

Rose wasn’t getting off that lightly. I seethed in the passenger seat, unable to make any conversation or really reply to Nico’s attempts to chat.

When we reached the gym, Nico handled the receptionist with charm and an easy smile, booking us in for an immediate introductory session with a trainer who had been recommended to him. We found the changing rooms and got into our gear.

>What is this?

Nico was pointing at my shoulder. I looked down. There was an oval bruise about the size of a thumbprint, black with purple and yellow tinges, just above my collar bone. Luke’s friendly warning had obviously yielded results. I hadn’t noticed it before.

‘Don’t know. Probably did it when I was drunk.’

>Huh.

Nico looked round my shoulder to my back.

>There is more here.

I felt his finger touch four points in a row on my shoulder blade.

‘Don’t know what to tell you. I was pretty out of it.’

>Huh. You must be careful. And sober.

I don’t know why I didn’t tell him about Luke. Maybe I was embarrassed at the way I had capitulated, maybe I felt that Nico had already found out enough shaming information about me for tonight.

We went to meet Becky, who was going to set us up with a programme for our session. She was very friendly, easily charmed by Nico, did not seem to recognise me, was perfectly pleasant and professional, and we had a great hour or so. I managed to dissipate some of my anger towards Rose with the exertion I put into the exercise. I was going to confront her when I got back, but now I might be able to do it without losing my temper.

Nico and I made arrangements for more sessions; he seemed pretty pleased with the set up at the gym, and would continue to use it for extra training when he felt he needed it. I would go there on days when I wasn’t training at the club. I paid the fee, wincing at the cost and how much it would set back my plans to repay everyone, then Nico took me home. Quiet journey. I was pondering how to talk to Rose. Nico tried a few times to start a conversation, but gave up.

At my door:

>Be nice to her.

‘What?’

>You will be cross with Rose, yes?

‘Yes.’

>She is nice lady who care about you. Do not mess up.

Good advice, and having had a cathartic training session, advice I would try to take.

‘Thanks Nico. And thanks for the gym.’

>You are welcome. Next time I go, I call you.

‘Thanks.’

And so, on to Rose. I half expected her to open her front door when I came into the lobby, but she didn’t. Maybe she guessed what was coming, maybe she genuinely didn’t listen out for the comings and goings through the outer door, or maybe, and more likely, she hadn’t heard me come in. I knocked on her front door.

:Hello, love. Didn’t expect to see you again today.

‘No. Er, Rose, I need to talk to you about something.’

She frowned slightly.

:OK love, come in. Shall I put the kettle on?

‘No, it’s OK, thanks.’

We sat at the kitchen table. I didn’t take my hoody off. I fiddled with my fingers nervously. Nico’s words stayed with me. Rose had been great. She had cleaned up my vomit. She had listened to my troubles. She had taken a lot of shit from me. But she had overstepped the mark. I had come to rely on Rose an awful lot over the past week, but I hardly knew her. I was unsure of the right way to approach this; I needed to say it, but without upsetting her. Never been very good at this sort of thing. Rose waited.

‘OK, er, it’s just this. Nico said you told him about me owing money. I wish you hadn’t.’

:Oh love, I’m sorry. It’s just he asked how you were doing, and I’d been worrying about it, and it just came out.

‘Rose, I can’t have you blurting my stuff out to people. There are things about all this that the club don’t want going public. You never met Nico before, you don’t know what he might do, or who he might tell.’

:No, but you talked about him, and he seems a very nice young man.

‘Nico’s great, he’s solid, but he’s a smooth talker and people tell him stuff. That’s beside the point. I’m just asking you to please not talk about my business with anyone else, unless you’ve checked with me. You know a lot about me, stuff that other people don’t know. I can’t talk to you if I can’t trust you.’

Rose looked sad, but not inconsolable. I seemed to have hit the right note.

:OK love, I’m sorry, I’m a big blabbermouth. I hear what you’re saying.

‘Thanks. Just needed to say it. I really appreciate everything you’ve done, you know with helping me out, cleaning me up. I’d hate to offend you.’

:No love, you’re right, it’s your business. I’ll keep my nose out in future.

I searched her face for signs of indignation, but she seemed to have taken it very well.

‘Thanks, Rose. You’re great.’

:Hmph well don’t know about that. Cup of tea now?

‘No, best get home. Thanks anyway.’

The rest of the evening I spent in front of the small television, eating a ready meal and watching nothing on TV. I tried not to think about tomorrow’s training session and what it might bring, but it was at the back of my mind the whole time, and I couldn’t concentrate on anything. In the end, I went to bed early.

Couldn’t sleep, my mind was full up with conversations, confrontations and speculations. The day’s events replayed themselves over and over, as I tried to make sense of my past, present and future. I must have dozed throughout the night, but when my phone bleeped to wake me up, I felt as if I hadn’t slept at all.

Cal

I should tell you about Nico – as I said before, Nico Tiago was a huge hero of mine for a long time, and is one of the all-time huge influences in my rugby career. I feel incredibly lucky, because not many people can say they’ve not only played on the same pitch as their childhood idol, but also had Sunday lunches with him and been on holiday with him. If I’m honest, I still have a lot of man-love for Nico, even if his son is taking advantage of my cousin. In a nice way, of course.

But back then, when I was little, well although my dad is one of rugby’s biggest names, I was only into football, for the longest time. Mum wouldn’t let me go to rugby games, because she thought it was too violent, so I didn’t really know what my dad did for a living – and he retired when I was two, so I don’t remember him playing at all. So apart from being somewhere Dad went to work, rugby wasn’t something I was aware of, but I loved football, and I loved Arsenal above all else, and if you’d asked me before I was six who my hero was, I would have said Theo Walcott.

I knew Nico as one of Dad’s friends, and it wasn’t until Dad and Dec took me to see Raiders as an after-Christmas treat that I caught the rugby bug, and got all starry-eyed about Raiders’ best player, Nico Tiago, who scored two tries that game, and pretty much every game I ever saw him play after that.

Nico looked out for Dec in that difficult time when Dec and Dad didn’t speak, and as a result he and Lis got hoovered up in the grand ‘Dec’s part of this family’ thing that went on later, so he was around loads more, and I loved it. It was almost as if Theo Walcott had announced he was going to be my uncle, with weekly visiting rights. I hung on every word Nico said, copied his accent, his bad English, tried to walk like him, the whole package. We’re still great mates, although living on opposite sides of the world can lend a bit of perspective to man-love, as can being married yourself, and knowing that his son is doing your cousin. Ha ha, only kidding, Basty. A bit.

Matt

So it took a long time to get to the bottom of it, what had happened. I’m not going to say days, or weeks, or months, because time didn’t seem to have any meaning in there. I couldn’t count the days because I couldn’t see a window to tell day from night, and if I asked them what day it was and they said Wednesday, well first I’d forget which day it had been yesterday, or last time I’d asked, and then I’d forget which Wednesday it was. So, yeah, a long time. But I got there, in the end. Here it is, if you’re interested.

I nearly died. Oh, I already said that. Sorry. I got ill again at home, but this time I didn’t call Mum. I can’t remember why, maybe it happened quickly or something, I just can’t remember. So anyway, Mum started to worry when she hadn’t heard from me for a couple of days, and some kind of motherly sixth sense kicked in and she tried phoning me, even phoning my mobile, which she never does. But to no avail, so she hopped on a bus, and used her newly acquired spare key to get in, and there I am all unconscious on the bathroom floor, the contents of the bathroom cabinet scattered around me, various bodily fluids having left me at some point, looking a bit the worse for wear – oh alright, Mum thought I’d already had it, I was barely breathing, pale as death, cold to the touch. Fuck knows how long I’d been there. She called an ambulance and they whisked me off here, pumped me full of medical shit and stuck me in intensive care, where it transpired I had pneumonia.

The doctors told her I was lucky she’d found me when she did, maybe a few more hours would have been too late. Even pumped full of medical shit and hooked up to enough electrical kit to power a small village, I wasn’t out of the woods, and I’d hovered there, would I make it or wouldn’t I, for a week or so. And then I’d woken up and put everyone’s mind at rest. But seeing the circles under Mum’s eyes, that hurt me, that I’d done that to her.

Dec

I dragged myself out of bed and into the shower. Needed to be fresh. Didn’t feel anything approaching fresh. Packed my Raiders training kit in a bag. It would be the first time I had worn it since the day I was suspended. It had been thoroughly Rosed, and there were no remnants of my alcoholic excesses. Still felt weird looking at it, as if it was a costume from another time. My boots were another matter. The leather had soaked up various liquids, and looked much the worse for wear, and the actual studs had been worn down – I must have walked home in them or something. They stank. I would have to get some more pretty soon, and I wrapped them in a plastic bag so they didn’t stink up my kit as well.

With a feeling in the pit of my stomach similar to starting the first day of term, I set off for the club. The buses were full with early morning workers, but nobody looked twice at me, and I felt happily anonymous. It was drizzling when I got off the bus, so I got pretty wet on the walk along the bypass.

I made my way through the players’ entrance to the changing rooms. There were already quite a few people in there; I could hear the chatter from down the corridor and my heart pounded as I approached the door.

12. Against the wind

In which Matty rallies somewhat, and we find out what’s bothering Dec.

Matt

I am with Carrie. We are having a picnic in a park, a rug beneath us, food and drink spread out on it. I stand up to go, and she looks at me, bright blue eyes begging me to stay. She takes my hand, pulling me towards her and I fall …

Dec

I lay for a long time, just looking at the ceiling. Concentrating on the bland whiteness. A cure for thinking. Eventually I had to get up. I was hungry and I needed a pee. Hard to believe that ordinary things like that could matter.

I heard my mobile ping in the pocket of yesterday’s discarded trousers. I got out of bed, picked up the phone and took it to the bathroom. Once I had peed, I checked the message.

Nico: =I come this morning, we train together. Gym 10.30.

Really didn’t feel like training. What time was it? Phone said 9.30. Could text back and put him off. Considered it. But this was Nico bloody Tiago.

A couple of years ago I had spent a large part of my teenage savings travelling up to Twickenham to see Nico Tiago play for Argentina against England. When he joined Raiders at the beginning of last season, it was unreal. I had trained beside him under Jay’s coaching, hardly believing my luck. Worthless piece of shit or not, you didn’t text Nico Tiago and make an excuse. Better get moving then.

Made a reasonable stab at organising myself. Toast and tea for breakfast. Showered. Shaved. Dressed appropriately. Remembered to take phone, keys and wallet with me. Kit bag. Set off down the stairs.

Rose was lying in wait; her door opened as I reached the entrance hall.

:It’s good to see you up, love. Just on your way out, are you?

‘I’m going to the gym.’

:Oh that sounds like a grand idea. Blow the cobwebs away.

‘Something like that. Has to be done.’

I fidgeted, wanting to be away, not wanting to be rude.

:Sleep alright?

‘So-so. Lot on my mind. Listen, Rose, I’m meeting someone at the gym, don’t want to be late. Really sorry. I’ll call in when I get back, yeah?’

:Right you are love. You can take the telly back with you.

‘Great, see you later’

The gym was where I thought it was, just down the road from the corner shop. I was a bit early, and Nico was nowhere in sight. I asked at the desk, but they hadn’t seen him. Waited ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Thirty minutes. Started to think he had been taking the piss. At ten past eleven I was just about to walk back home, when he sauntered in the door. His easy smile faded a bit when he saw the look on my face. He checked his watch.

>Sorry to be late. I am always.

He shrugged with a sheepish grin.

>Come, meet Luke.

We changed quickly in the changing room, and walked onto the gym floor. Nico waved to a tall blond man who was adjusting some weights.

>Lukey! Please come to meet Declan.

The blond man walked over slowly, looking less than thrilled at the prospect.

+Nico. Alright?

>I am good. This is Declan. He is my guest today. Can we talk about a programme for him?

+Could I just have a quick chat with you, Nico?

He looked pointedly at me. I moved away and stood watching from a distance. I had a feeling events of the last few days were about to cause more trouble.

As they talked, Luke looked at me several times. He didn’t look happy. Nico seemed unflustered. I remembered Nico saying that Luke used to be a trainer at Raiders, and began to understand his unhappiness. I walked over. Clearly heard the words:

+… lying little bastard …

And some of Nico’s reply:

>… give a chance …

‘Nico, I think I’m going to head off. No worries. Thanks for inviting me.

>No, Declan, you must stay. Lukey will help us.

Luke didn’t look like he had any intention of helping me, and was clenching his fists intimidatingly.

‘It’s OK, I understand. I wouldn’t want me here either if I was him. Thanks anyway.’

I turned and walked away. Nico’s raised voice echoed behind me.

>If you don’t train him, you don’t train me also. I go.

+Wait. Nico. OK, alright, I’ll give it a go.

>Thank you. Declan, come back. Please.

I turned round. Nico was beaming. Luke scowled, but did not protest when Nico beckoned me back.

Together we went over a programme of weights, treadmill, spin and rowing. Luke asked questions about my programme at the club, and what he suggested for the morning wasn’t that different. Nico and I worked together, not talking much. Luke adjusted speeds and weights and tensions from time to time. It was a good work out, and felt great to do something so physical after my days of inactivity.

We showered and changed quickly afterwards. Then, in the lobby:

>I need to eat. You come for lunch? There is great sushi bar. I fetch the car.

He jogged out of the door before I could reply. I waited. A hand on my shoulder, not gentle.

+A word.

I turned to see Luke, closer and more in my face than felt comfortable.

+I don’t want you in my gym, you little shit. I don’t want you hanging around with Nico either. Piss off now, before he gets back, or you’ll regret it.

He gripped my shoulder again. Squeezed. Very hard. Lost my bottle. Had no fight left. Turned and walked away. I guess sometimes you can be a worthless enough piece of shit that you text Nico Tiago and make an excuse.

I slipped in the front door as quietly as I could, not wanting Rose to hear and come out to chat. I promised myself I would pop down later. My quiet entry worked, and I made it to my flat undetected.

The work-out had energised me, but my encounter with Luke had brought home to me how difficult things were going to be for me now. I was going to meet people with similar feelings to him on a daily basis at the club, in the street, in the supermarket. I was going to have to get used to it.

My mobile rang. Nico. Thought about ignoring it. Didn’t.

‘Nico, hi.’

>I get your text. What happen?

‘Yeah, sorry, I remembered I had an, er, appointment. Had to go. Sorry.’

>Huh. Luke, he say you change your mind and are allergic to fish.

‘Oh.’

>So which is true?

I paused, thrown.

>Or maybe Luke say something to you? This morning, he is a dick.

I took a deep breath, not believing I was about to blow off Nico Tiago.

‘He did make it clear that he didn’t think his gym was right for me. But to be honest I can see his point. I’m nobody’s ideal customer at the moment. I’m a fucking disgrace. Thanks for taking me this morning, but I think it’s best if you just leave me alone.’

>Oh you think is best.

He sounded amused.

>I decide what is best for me. Best for me is to train with you. We find another gym.

‘Nico, I really don’t –’

>Enough. I decide. I let you know when I find somewhere good. Bye.

He hung up.

Stuart Clarke called after lunch, asking me to go in early the next day to go over what he called a plan of action. He had sounded brisk and professional; I couldn’t hear anything else in his voice, no opinions leaking through. Didn’t know him all that well, but so far it felt OK.

Washed up some plates and mugs. Made a cup of tea. Ordinary tasks designed to keep me busy enough not to think. But in the end, in a flat devoid of television, computer or books, thinking was almost all there was.

So I plugged the headphones in my phone, put some music on and took stock. Counted my blessings. There weren’t many, and what there were, were not of my own making. Still, it was easier on the mind than the alternative.

Blessing number one: I was still just about connected to Raiders. Somehow I had managed that. It wouldn’t last, but for now I still had it.

Number two: People had helped me and been nice to me. Without Rose, I couldn’t imagine the state I would have been in yesterday when I finally woke up. Nico had been needlessly kind; he and his wife were friends with Jay and Beth, and I would have expected a different response from him. I didn’t deserve any of it, but they didn’t seem to see that.

Number three: I was fit and healthy, things that people always seemed to count in lists of blessings.

That was pretty much all I could think of. Didn’t take long. The other side of the coin, the messed up last few months of my fucked up, pathetic waste of a life, produced a longer list. Thinking about all the things I needed to sort out, to put right, would never be able to put right, took much longer. My mental list started chronologically.

Matt

I am sleeping. It could be night or it could be day. There are sounds. I do not know what all of them are, but one of them is Jay snoring. The other sounds could be machines – there is a bleep, and a tick, and a rasp, and something with air rushing through it. I thought I was sleeping, dreaming, but now, maybe, I am awake. I open my eyes and it is bright, too bright, and I close them again and I fall …

Dec

It all began when I crashed my car. Jay, Beth and Cal had gone on holiday in the summer. I was looking after the house and the cat while they were gone. The first night they were away, I had been coming home after an evening with the lads. I’d had a beer, only one, as I’d known I was giving Bonksy, Big and Danno a lift home. It was pretty late, the roads were empty.

As I drove along the bypass, on my way home after dropping the lads off, I lost control of my car. I still don’t know what happened, one minute I was driving, the next I was swerving, terrified, all over the road. They did all sorts of tests afterwards, couldn’t find anything on the road, couldn’t find anything wrong with the car, but couldn’t blame it on me.

As the car span out of control and veered off towards the ditch at the side of the road, I saw someone picked out in the headlights. Too late to avoid him, even if I had been able to. The car caught him on its way into the ditch, stopped with a jolt.

I sat there, stunned and shaking. My airbag had inflated, pinning me inside the car. I wasn’t hurt, but for a long time I couldn’t move or think, just sat there, gripping the steering wheel. Once I tried to move, to undo my seatbelt, I realised I was stuck, and I had to manoeuvre my phone out of my pocket to dial 999. They all arrived in a clamour of sirens and blue lights, got me out, found the man under the car, zipped him into a body bag and took him away. I was breathalysed, checked out, questioned, released. My car was taken away. I didn’t get it back.

By the time Jay and Beth came back from holiday, a couple of weeks later, my life had taken on a surreal edge where I couldn’t tell them about it. The police had finished with me, I didn’t claim on my insurance, and I just couldn’t tell them. I was full of guilt about the man who had died. I didn’t know anything about him. Couldn’t stop thinking about him. The crash replayed itself over and over in my head. Everything together was too much to cope with, and reduced me to a robot. I could only exist, anything else was too hard, too much to process.

I was already thinking of moving out when the man’s son came to see me. The inquest had been about a week before, and had been reported in a minor way in the local press. I’d used a police-recommended solicitor, it had all seemed fairly straightforward, and I’d managed to keep my whereabouts for the day from anyone who knew me.

Keeping everything from Beth and Jay was getting harder; Beth in particular always seemed to know when something was up with me, and she kept asking me what was wrong, pushing me to talk. Moving out seemed to be the only way to stop all the questions.

When he knocked on the door, it was the middle of the day. Jay was at the club, Beth was out somewhere with Cal. I had been sitting listlessly on the sofa, watching a movie channel on TV. I nearly didn’t answer the knock, but Beth was waiting for a delivery, so I went to the door. The man was tall and heavily built. He had short brown hair and a scraggy beard. He was wearing a Raiders shirt and baggy jeans. I could not guess at how old he was. Older than me.

|Hello Charlie

I was put instantly on the back foot and on the alert.

‘Sorry, what?’

|You are Charlie Collier, aren’t you?

‘Don’t know what you mean’

|Alright then Declan, if that’s the way you want it. I’d like to talk to you.

He stepped forwards. I blocked his way, held my hands out in front of me

‘Whoa, hold on –’

There was no way he was getting into the house. Lots of Raiders supporters knew where Jay lived, not many made a nuisance of themselves, but I didn’t know this bloke, and he intimidated me more than a little. He raised his voice.

|Well we could talk about it out here, Charlie, where anyone can overhear, but somewhere more private might be best. What do you think?

He moved forwards again. Torn between protecting Jay’s property and worrying about what he might be going to say, I decided to let him in, just to the hallway. Another shameful choice. Me first. I left the front door ajar, stood between him and the door to the lounge. Tried to appear unconcerned. Heart was pounding, wondering how he knew, what he was going to do.

‘What do you want?’

|Well, son, you’ve caused me a bit of trouble.

‘What?’

|You had an accident last month.

‘What do you mean?’

|Stop playing dumb, boy, you know what I mean.

His tone was aggressive and I shrank a bit.

|You drove your car into a ditch on the bypass. Hit an old man on the way. That was my old dad.

I reeled as if I’d been punched. I think I physically stepped backwards to keep my footing.

‘I – don’t know what to say. I didn’t know he had any family.’

|Yeah, well, we haven’t always got on. But recently, now, we got on better. He was right fond of my little girl. Jessie, she’s called.

I shook my head, confused, not sure why he was telling me this.

‘I’m sorry. I really am so sorry about your dad.’

Just saying those words brought back memories of someone saying exactly the same to me – the lorry driver who had killed my parents. It hadn’t helped me at all, and now it made me realise how my accident had affected someone else. The guilt I had begun to bury surfaced again, with extras.

|Well, that’s good of you. But sorry isn’t really enough, see.

‘What do you mean?’

|Well, my little Jessie she’s not well. She’s got cystic fibrosis, might not have long, little mite. My old dad, he wanted to do something for her, was going to give us the money for an extension to the house so’s she can have a nice room, convert the garage, with all the equipment and stuff she needs. Our house is real small, her room is pretty cramped. Well, now he’s dead, his money’s all tied up with solicitors, he didn’t change his will. Me and the missus, we can’t afford it on our own. We’ve promised Jessie, see, picked out colours and everything.

I was struggling to keep up with what he was telling me, and how it was relevant. I just kept nodding.

|So, what I’m coming to is, you say you’re sorry my old dad got in the way of your car, but my Jessie’s the one that suffers. You get to live here in Jay Scott’s posh house, nice and cosy, while my dad’s in the ground and little Jessie has to grow up, if she does grow up, in that dingy little room. I think, Charlie, that you owe us. You need to pay for what you did.

Now I understood. My insides turned to ice water.

‘But I don’t have any money, really. I can’t help you. I’m sorry, so sorry about your dad, and your daughter, but I haven’t got anything.’

|Is that so, Charlie? See, when I saw you at the inquest, it didn’t register at first. You looked familiar, but I couldn’t place you. Then I put two and two together. You looked just like the lad I’d watched playing for Raiders reserves a few months before. The more I looked, the more I thought you didn’t just look like him, you were him. Seen your face around the place, too. Asked around. Found out you lived here. Very nice. Raiders know you’re Charlie Collier? Jay Scott know you’re Australian? Anyone know you killed an old man?

I reeled again. Didn’t answer him.

|Thought not. Would have been all over the press, wouldn’t it. Now, it seems we can help each other out. I need a lot of money to help my little Jessie. You need someone to keep their mouth shut. Job done. Is there any way you could see that we could work this out?

My brain was working overtime.

‘How much do you need?’

A smile.

|Ah, see, we’re working together already. I’ve had a quote for ten grand.

‘What? I can’t get that sort of money. I told you, I haven’t got anything.’

|Maybe you should try. I’ll let you think about it. I’ll be in touch.

And he walked out of the front door and down the drive as I watched him go.

I stayed in my room that night, didn’t eat, didn’t talk to Jay, Beth, or Cal. Told them I had a headache. Thinking, thinking. I had no way of getting the money. Must have fallen asleep.

Woke in the early hours with a plan. The charity money. If I paid it back quickly enough, no one would know. Told myself it was borrowing, not stealing. Maybe if I sold a lot of my stuff, put most of my pay into it, I could do it, pay it back before anyone noticed. It could be worth the risk.

The man’s story had resonated with me. His manner had been intimidating, and he had threatened me, but I had believed him about his daughter. I thought his tone had softened when he talked about her. I did feel I owed him something for the death of his father. If I could do this, and no one found out, I might feel less of the crushing guilt I had been carrying with me since the accident. That was how I convinced myself, how all the real lies started.

He called round a few days later, again when I was alone in the house. He stayed on the doorstep.

|Hello Charlie. Had any thoughts about our talk?

‘I can get your money.’

He smiled briefly.

|That’s my boy.

‘But I can only get you this much. I can’t get you any more’

He put on a hurt expression.

|I don’t know what you’re suggesting, lad, I only need this one favour, that my old dad was going to help me out with. I’ll not come knocking again. When can you get it?

‘Tomorrow.’

|Bring it to The Bell, four o’clock, should be nice and empty. I’ll buy you a pint.

And so it had begun. I emptied the special account, put the cash in an old rucksack and gave my life away.

From there, it had been a downward spiral. I needed to get away from Jay’s house, scared the man would come back when Beth and Cal were around. I couldn’t tell them the reason I wanted to move out. I made up improbable excuses like wanting my independence, outright lies like starting a course to get a qualification for when I’d finished with rugby and needing to be closer to college, things we had discussed in a general way before, but had decided there was no rush. I sold everything I had that was worth anything, and moved into a small furnished flat as soon as I found one cheap enough. I put as much of my pay as I could back into the charity account and kept my fingers crossed that I could keep it quiet until I’d paid it all back.

It was much harder than I’d thought it would be, now I was paying rent on the flat and with all the bills, food and bus fares. I felt the sense of urgency, and I ended up borrowing money from all my friends, their friends and then people they barely knew. I borrowed from the bank, but they weren’t keen to lend me a lot as I had nothing. I told them it was for a new car. I was in a lot of debt, and people were beginning to chase me.

So I had already killed an old man, hidden it, stolen from a charity, lied about my passport, lied about everything else and borrowed more money than I knew how to pay back. Add to this my broken relationships with Jay, Raiders and all my friends, and my small list of blessings retreated to a dot on the horizon.

To top it all, it had all been for nothing. I had given it all away to some con man, in a completely pointless act. Fucking idiot. I couldn’t see a way out. People were beginning to seriously chase me for the money I owed them, I had had another sprinkling of texts reminding me how much I owed and when I had promised it. I was out of ideas, and pinned with inertia.

From beyond the front door, I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. I was expecting the ring on the bell, which came shortly afterwards. Rose, I predicted.

:Only me love.

A wry smile on my face, I got up and opened the door. She stood there with a small, old style large-backed portable television in her arms, and a carrier bag bulging with various cables and what looked like a digibox. She was out of breath and red in the face, so I took it all from her and beckoned her in.

‘Thanks for this, it looks great.’

:A bit old fashioned, and the vertical hold goes sometimes, but I think everything’s there that you need. Don’t ask me to set it up for you though. I just unplugged it all, that was complicated enough.

‘Cuppa?’

:If you’re having one, love. Enjoy the gym did you? Didn’t hear you come back.

While she parked herself on the couch, I shouted through from the kitchen, above the noise of the kettle.

‘It was OK. Don’t think they really wanted me there. Trainer is an ex-Raider. Not very friendly.’

:Oh don’t take no notice. People shouldn’t be so judgemental. Don’t know everything, do they.

‘I think he knew enough. Anyway, it was good to have a workout.’

:Sounds like it did you some good, love. Think you’ll go back?

‘Er, not there. Maybe somewhere else.’

:Well I wish I had your energy. I need a whiff just coming up your stairs. Glad I’ve got a ground floor flat, I am.

‘I hate staying still, really. Can’t believe how long I’ve sat around up here feeling sorry for myself.’

:Oh, love, you do sound a bit better.

I walked back to the living room carrying her tea.

‘Dunno about that, but I had a big think this afternoon. I think I’ve moped around long enough. I’m trying to think of ways to put things right. Some things, anyway. Not coming up with much.’

I told her about going through my texts and the increasingly insistent demands for repayment.

:Oh love, I can’t really help you much. I haven’t got any savings to speak of, my husband took it all when he left. And I don’t earn much from my little job –

I had to stop her.

‘Rose, Rose, the absolute last thing I’m doing is asking you for money! Fuck no! That’s how I got half way here in the first place. You’ve already helped me out more than enough. Thanks, though, you are bloody great.’

She blushed.

:Well, that’s alright then. But if you need anything else –

‘Yes, I know exactly where you are.’

I made a start on putting the television and digibox together. Even though I wasn’t great with technology either, it wasn’t complicated, and I sorted it fairly quickly. Rose, even though she professed to have no technical know-how, couldn’t resist giving her advice. I flipped the switch, and the screen lit up. The picture was a bit squashed, and the sound was tinny, but we sat and watched a late afternoon quiz show together, drinking tea and eating biscuits, chipping in with the odd answer and congratulating ourselves when we got one right. I hadn’t enjoyed myself so much in ages.

Rose left, eliciting a promise that I would

:Pop in and see me, love, I’d like to hear how you’re getting on.

The afternoon rolled on towards evening, and it passed in a haze of brain-numbing television. Brain-numbing was good: tomorrow was Saturday. Match day. Raiders at home. Tonight, players in the match day squad would be getting an early night, other members of the squad would maybe go out for a meal with wives or girlfriends, some of the younger among us going to a club for a drink and a laugh. Those who needed to be up early for the under elevens training would be regretting it. It was part of my life, and I felt rudderless without it.

Usually there would be a flurry of texts making arrangements, re-making them, organising lifts, generally pissing about. We all had nicknames – mine had been Captain Sensible, as I was usually the one who sorted out taxis, reminded everyone we had training in the morning so should call it a night, gave lifts when I’d still had my car. I had only been peripherally involved in all that for the last few months, and nobody had called me Captain for a long time, but they were still my mates, we shared a bond through Raiders, and I missed them all. I was not looking forward to tomorrow. After more terrible Friday TV, I went to bed.

Dreaming. I am flying. So are Bonksy, Mikey, DivDav, Big and Danno. We all fly together, high above the pitch, throwing the ball to each other, laughing, spinning, looping the loop. Crazy patterns, beautiful lines, we are invincible.

Matt

Then I open my eyes again and it’s darker, easier. The sounds are all there, except Jay snoring, but I don’t think about the noises, as I’m in a strange room. I’m in a room that is all curtains, and I am in bed, although that shouldn’t be so surprising, as I’ve just woken up. Where am I? What’s going on? I was just fetching something wasn’t I?

‘… next time I ask, Cal, just tell me if you need to go, don’t wait until the last minute.’

The curtains are moved aside, and I can’t really see that well because it’s all blurry, but it looks like Beth. Beth stands there, holding the curtains apart so Cal can come in. I can tell it’s Cal because his blond curls are so shiny and bright. Beth hasn’t seen me yet, and I want to shout ‘over here’ but there’s something in my mouth and it’s stopping me talking, and anyway, she soon looks over at me and she gasps, lets go of the curtains – which fall on Cal so he has to fight with them – and rushes over.

‘Matty, oh Matty, sweetheart.’

And it seems like I might have missed something important, but trying to think about it is hard, and so I think I’ll just close my eyes, just for a second. And I fall …

Dec

I woke up near dawn and I was alone.

Couldn’t stand the thought of another day on my own in this flat going over what a mess I’d made of my life. Needed to get out, escape from it all, from my thoughts, my fuck-ups and particularly from Raiders match day. Spent a long time planning my route. Filled a backpack. Caught the early bus out of the city. Got off at a bus stop on a country lane. Walked all day. Didn’t think or feel anything except one foot in front of the other, left, right or straight on for twenty miles or so. Caught the bus home. Grabbed a takeaway. Ate it watching more brain mush. Avoided the news and sports reports. Went to bed. A good day.

No dreams.

Matt

And the next time I woke up, Mum was there too, and they all looked at me when I opened my eyes, but I couldn’t stay awake for long, even though there was a lot I wanted to ask them, which was very frustrating, and I resolved that next time I woke up I really would try hard to stay awake, as Mum would call me a lazybones and that was a laugh, as it was Jay who was the lazy sod, right down to his bones, and the thought made me chuckle.

‘What’s so funny Matty?’

‘Lahzh … bohns.’

Where had that come from? Not out of my mouth, surely. I spoke clearly, loved using words to make a point and take the piss, unless I’d had a few beers, then things sometimes got a bit less clear. But I didn’t remember having beers. Surely that would be the sort of thing you’d remember? It ought to be. Next time I had beer I’d definitely make a note somewhere, so I wouldn’t wake up wondering.

‘Matty? Jesus, did you actually hear me?’

‘Yehh … cohrhs.’

Again with the words. It must have been a hell of a party. Hope I enjoyed it. Hope I gave someone a good time. Oh, no, I wouldn’t have, because I’m with Carrie now, she’s my girl and – oh, no, too, too much, way too much remembering, fuck off all you remembery shit, let me go back to where it was just dark and fuzzy, when I was asleep or dead. Let me be dead again.

‘Matty, oh bloody hell, here.’

I felt something wipe my eyes, and opened them. It was so out of focus, everything was blurred, where the fuck were my glasses, but it looked like Jay, and it felt like he was wiping my eyes with a tissue. What the fuck? Get off Jay, I’m not four years old for fuck’s sake. I tried to move my head away, or grab his hand – it was worse than Mum licking her thumb and wiping dinner from the side of my mouth – but I couldn’t seem to move much at all.

Dec

Wanted to do the same on Sunday, but no buses to speak of. Oblivion was going to be harder to find. Muscles aching from yesterday’s walk. Ran the bath and lay back in the hot water. Watched the steam rising, concentrated on the lazy curls until the water cooled. Still needed to get outside. Walked the streets for a while, still fairly early, not many people about. Walked past a church that was open. Maybe I could do with some quiet contemplation.

Sat inside, watching the light change through the stained glass windows. Peaceful. Helped. People came in, sang, prayed, went away. Allowed my thoughts to wander over the various messes I’d got myself in. Tried to find someone else to blame. Kept coming back to me. Sat there a long time. No divine inspiration. Quite a bit of self-condemnation.

Took my phone out, plugged my headphones in and blocked the world out with music, scrolling through all the pictures I had stored. Reminders of better times – nights out, silly faces, Jay and Beth and Cal, holiday in Ibiza, my car, Cal riding a bike, celebrating a win in the changing room, a birthday cake. I lost myself in memories, living in the past feeling infinitely better than living in the present.

Eventually, a priest came and gently told me he needed to lock up, asking if I needed anything. I shook my head, smiled at him and left. On the way home, the phone pinged with a text.

Nico: =I hear about a gym. We go tomorrow. I check it, is OK for you. I pick you up 5.30. I will be late 😉

I acknowledged his text, then walked home, the winter light fading fast. Once behind my own front door, I thought about eating. Checked my supplies. Rose, in her enthusiasm for cream of chicken soup, had got me little else that I could cook. Potatoes, cabbage, other things that were very healthy, but needed peeling, chopping and otherwise preparing in a manner I could only guess at. I settled for chicken soup tonight. I would need to shop tomorrow.

Sunday night TV even worse than Saturday. Antiques, hymns, local programmes, reality dance shows. All very well when you’re taking the piss out of them with your friends, but no company when you’re on your own. Another early night.

Dreaming. I am flying. Just flying. All night long.

Matt

And after that, everything was real again, albeit in bits and pieces. Jay, Beth, Mum and Cal were here every day. Here was hospital. I’d nearly died. They didn’t tell me that straight off. All I could cope with to start with was they were all here, and here was hospital, and in the beginning they had to tell me that a lot of times, because I was tired, and I felt like shit, and I kept forgetting what they told me.

And I couldn’t bloody well speak. It was like my brain went in one direction, and my mouth went in the other, and I had no breath, so even when I managed to say some piece of unintelligible bollocks, I could only say it one unintelligibly bollocky word at a time, sometimes with pauses in the middle, if the word was a particularly long one, like ‘hello’.

Dec

Woke lying on my front with my arms stretched wide. Felt like I was still in the air for a time. Drifted. Wonderful. Small sounds slowly intruded on my tranquil floating – traffic outside, doors opening and closing in the hallway, voices, a police siren far away. Reality came in piece by piece and shattered it all. Everything came crashing back, one hit after another, knocking me down until I fell from the sky to the world.

My phone bleeped urgently, blasting away all traces of the spell. It was the alarm, telling me to get up, get dressed, get to the club to meet Stuart Clarke and start sorting my life out.

11. Pieces of the night

In which Matty continues to teeter perilously between one world and the next, and Dec continues to encounter setbacks.

Dec

Woke with a start. Daylight. Thumping head. Dry furry mouth. Body aching all over. Still wearing training kit. Still stinking. Still a worthless piece of shit. Stomach growled. I was hungry. Really hungry. Well, I could do something about that.

Sat up carefully and swung leaden, aching legs over the edge of the bed. Dizzy. Stood up. Wobbled to the kitchen. Found biscuits. Ate. Crumbs stuck to the inside of my mouth. Drank water. Lots of water. Hands shaking so much I nearly dropped the glass. Leaned against the sink, tap running fast, panting noisily. Life one piece at a time.

:Alright, love?

Startled, my whole body jolted. Wheeled round to face her, heart pounding.

‘What the fuck.

:Sorry, love, didn’t mean to make you jump. I did knock. Heard you moving about from downstairs. I still had your key. Just wanted to see how you are.

‘Give me the sodding key. Leave me the fuck alone.’

I was almost growling, but she handed me the key and patted me on the shoulder.

:Whatever it is, love, I’m sure it’ll be alright.

Anger welled up, rage from a thousand places.

‘What the fuck do you know? Who the fuck are you anyway? Get the fuck out. Just fuck off.

Moved towards her, fist raised, a reflex. She put her hands up defensively and backed away.

:Alright, I’m going. Sorry to have disturbed you, I’m sure.

Turned back to lean against the sink. Heard the door shut as she left. Eyes screwed shut against the light from the window. Stomach still growling with hunger. Turned round to the fridge. A sandwich, on a plate, covered with cling film. A handwritten note on the top: Protein is good for hangovers. Protein meant meat right? Mouth filled with saliva. So hungry, didn’t even wonder where the magic sandwich had come from. Tore the cling-film off. Smell of egg hit me like a punch. Bile rose into my mouth. Ran to the bathroom. Puked up digestives and water. Flashbacks. Recent memories of puking here, in the lounge, in the kitchen sink. Fun times. But … no memories of clearing up. Surely she hadn’t …

Rested my head on the toilet bowl, unable to think with the renewed pounding in my head blotting out everything. Mouth felt disgusting, bits of vomit clinging to my lips, regurgitated biscuit on my chin, mucus hanging from my nose, tears of humiliation running down my cheeks.

Stood up unsteadily. Turned on the tap. Drank. Rinsed my face. Without lifting my head too far, loaded my toothbrush. Got rid of the worst. Rinsed and spat. Flushed toilet. Again thinking – surely she hadn’t …

Leaned forwards, breathing hard, hands on knees. Stench of me, puke and piss and cheap vodka, no longer bearable. Stood upright slowly. Pulled off shirt, smearing old vomit over my face and through my hair. Pushed down tracksuit bottoms and boxers. Stickiness and smell confirmed I had pissed myself at some stage. From low to lowest. Stepped out of clothes. God Almighty I still had my studs on. Ruined now, covered in filth. Slipped boots and socks off. Turned on shower. Climbed slowly over the side of the bath. Stood under the hot cleansing stream. Remembered what I’d lost.

Wept.

I stood under the shower for a long time. The water had long ago removed at least the physical evidence of my self-induced coma. Thoughts and feelings were becoming a bit clearer. I considered getting more vodka, because forgetting had its upsides. But also its humiliating downsides. I was hollowed out, as if something had scoured away everything I had ever been.

I didn’t know who I was. Everything I had dreamed of, worked for, hoped for, asked for, was gone. I had tossed it away. The steam filled the bathroom, and I began to feel even more light headed. My stomach growled again. I needed to eat.

Finally leaving the limbo of the hot shower, I climbed out of the bath and wrapped a towel round my waist. Walked through the lounge. Able to take in more, it seemed clean and tidy. It was never clean and tidy. Where had all the bottles gone? When I woke up, there were bottles. A lot of bottles.

A sour smell. The couch. It smelt like I had smelt before my shower, would have been soaked with the same fluids. Couldn’t think about it. Went into the kitchen. Avoided the fridge and the egg sandwich which I had thrust back inside. Cupboards provided little beyond a sprouting potato and more digestives. I’d really seen enough of digestives, one way and another. I was going to have to go out. I hadn’t eaten since – what day was it today? I could not compute how long I had wallowed.

From the kitchen I spotted a newspaper sticking out of the letterbox. I walked over and pulled it out. It was the local paper, dated Thursday. Thursday? Surely yesterday was … Monday? Began to realise how much I must have drunk. And why I felt so wobbly. I hadn’t eaten for several days.

As I put the paper down, the back page headline screamed out “Summers Storm Rocks Raiders”. There was a picture of me, in my puke-stained training shirt, with two days growth on my chin, snarling at the camera. Lowest? Nowhere near yet.

Almost immobilised again, but my increasingly insistent hunger was taking priority. I threw the paper to the floor. Moving dazedly to the bedroom (which offered a similar fragrance to the couch) I pulled on some clothes and shoes.

Couldn’t find my wallet. Fumbled around in trouser pockets and found some loose change. Hopefully enough for a Pot Noodle or something. Keys, keys. Couldn’t find my keys. Keys, keys, come on where the fuck are you? Sorted through the rancid pile of clothes I’d left on the bathroom floor. Not there. In the bed? Not there. Down the back of the couch? Not there. Any more stinking shit-holes to search? Could I leave my door open while I went out? Yeah, but I wouldn’t be able to get back in the main door. Nobody lets you in if they don’t know you.

Maybe that old lady from downstairs … oh fuck. I remembered swearing at her, I remembered … Jesus, did I raise my fist at her? Then I remembered hearing the hoover, and the clink of glass, and looked again at the tidy flat. Shit, must I screw up everything? Still, I was getting desperate now. Maybe she’d help me if I apologised. Didn’t she say something about having a key? No – she gave me the key. What did I do with it? Where was I when she gave it to me? Kitchen! And there it was by the sink. I held the key up like a trophy.

I left the flat as quickly as my unsteady legs would take me, feeling queasy with hunger and still fighting the hangover from a two day binge. As I reached the ground floor, a door opened. The woman from earlier came out, with a coat on. When she saw me she put her head down and began to walk past.

‘No wait, please, er, sorry don’t know your name.’

She stopped with her hand on the outside door handle. Looked at me. Assessed.

:Rose.

‘Hi. Um, I just, fuck, can I just ask, sorry, I was in a bit of a state before. Did you clean up my flat?’

I was trying my hardest to sound coherent, but it was a struggle.

:I did.

Her lips were pressed tightly together and disapproval knitted her brows in a furrow.

‘Well … thanks. I don’t know what to say. Sorry, I guess, that I shouted at you, and everything.

:You weren’t very pleasant.

‘Sorry. I’ve, er, been, er, not very well.’

:Yes I could see that

She continued to level her gaze at me. I didn’t know what else to say. My stomach made a loud gurgling noise.

‘I need to get some food.’

:I left you a sandwich.

‘Yeah, I know. Thanks. But it, er, made me sick. The smell. Anyway, I need something to eat so …’

I gestured at the door, which she was blocking. When I glanced back to her, she was looking horrified, holding her hand to her mouth.

:Oh love, I’m so sorry, I didn’t think. I always have an egg sandwich when I’ve had one too many, does the trick lovely.

Welsh. That was her accent – it was the ‘lovely’ that did it. Rose was very Welsh.

‘Yeah, well, I had more than one too many.’

:Yes you did, love. From the look of all the bottles, you’re lucky you didn’t give yourself alcohol poisoning. Or choke to death.

‘Or unlucky.’

I muttered it under my breath. Maybe that would have solved everything. Rose had heard me, though, and she focussed sharply on my face.

:What’s that, love?

Shook my head and looked away.

:Hmm. Well I’m sorry, love, I didn’t mean to make you feel worse.

‘Yeah, well, anyway I need to get to the shop, so …’

I waggled my hand at the door again.

:Look, why don’t I do you some soup?

‘What?’

:Well you’re hungry, my flat is just by here, I have a tin of cream of chicken and some crusty bread. Two ticks, that’s all it’d take.

My mouth filled with spit just hearing about it, and my stomach contracted shamelessly. But talking with a stranger not really on my agenda.

‘Oh no, you’re OK, I need to get, um, other stuff.’

:Oh come on with you.

And for a second time she took my arm and led me away.

:I see you’ve cleaned yourself up a bit. By, you were a sight. And a smell. You might have to throw that sofa away, love, if we can’t get everything out of it. Maybe your carpet too. Did you see the air freshener I left? Anti-bacterial. Should help with some of it. I used it when next door’s cat got shut in while I was work – now there’s a smell you don’t want hanging around: rampant tom cat. I had some words to say about that, I can tell you …

I realised I might not have to do much talking.

Sitting at her kitchen table, chatter floated over me. Didn’t need to reply very often; single words were, thankfully, enough.

:So, how old are you love?

‘Nineteen.’

:Oh, same as my sister’s boy. They’re up in Pontypool. South Wales. Don’t see him much, he’s that age, aunties aren’t very cool are they? From round here are you?

‘No.’

:I’ve lived here fifteen years next February. Came down with my job and my husband. Worked for the gas company. In sales. He left and I stayed. Feels like home now. Like it here do you?

‘S’ok.’

And so she talked on as she heated the soup and cut the bread. Couldn’t focus on her words, the smell of the food was all I could think about, nausea and hunger battling for dominance. Finally it was ready and she placed the bowl in front of me, a spoon into my hand.

:Eat slow now, love. Small spoonfuls. No repeat performances, please.

I nodded. It was hard to go slowly, I was so hungry. The hot liquid slid down my throat and lined my stomach. The bread (:chew it all, love, you’ll choke) was crusty and soft and filling. She tidied and washed up while I ate, talking the whole time. No idea what she said. I finished the bowlful and sat up. Started to feel – what? Normal? Very, very far from normal. But my stomach was full, the waves of nausea were receding and my head throbbed a little less.

‘Thanks, er, Rose.’

:Hit the spot did it?

‘Yeah, very good.’

Really hoped she wasn’t expecting me to stay. I had reached the limits of small talk tolerance. But really didn’t want to offend her again.

:Tidy. Now, I want you to make a list of things I can get you from the shop.

‘What? No, honestly, this was fine. Great. Thanks. I’ll sort something out.’

Wasn’t sure why she was bothering, I’d been pretty awful to her. The soup had been great, I was starting to feel much better, and really just wanted to be left alone now.

:No arguments, love. You need supplies. You’re not in a state to go out. And those noisy buggers from yesterday might still be hanging about.

Hadn’t occurred to me, but I remembered the headline and photo in this morning’s paper.

‘I think they got what they wanted.’

:Hmm. Still, I want you to let me do this for you. It’s no trouble, I’m going for myself anyway.

‘Can’t find my wallet. This is all I’ve got.’

I held out the handful of coins I’d found earlier.

:Oh, that’s in a drawer, love, with your keys and your mobile phone. I found them on the floor last night. Put them away safe.

Sensed defeat. Didn’t have the energy to fight her right now.

‘I’ll go and get you some money then.’

:No rush, love. When I get back is fine. I know where you live.

She settled at the table, satisfied that she’d won the argument.

:Now, I think more soup and bread, easy and hearty, and fruit, keep up your vitamin C. Something for the microwave?

‘Haven’t got one.’

:No microwave?

Jay and Beth had bought me a microwave when I moved out, but I’d needed the money more.

‘Sold it.’

:Oh, alright then, love. Hmm, jacket potatoes then, nice and easy, just stick them in the oven. Bit of butter …

Automatic: ‘I can’t have butter.’

:Oh, you allergic?

‘No, I’m not allowed –’

Sudden realisation that no one would care any more if my highly formulated diet plan was ignored. New loss. Every situation, every conversation, mined with reminders. All started to crowd in on me again. Still couldn’t face the specifics, but lying on top of it all was a silent scream – it’s gone, it’s gone, it’s gone.

Rose carried on obliviously, organising a shopping list, filling in the gaps my silence created. A hand on my shoulder brought me back to now.

:Come on love, back to your own place. I won’t be long. And I’ll make sure I ring the bell this time.

She steered me through her front door to the stairs.

Back in my flat, tiredness overtook me again. Rose’s continual talking had propped me up, but with nothing to focus on, a full stomach and the continued, if muted, nausea and headache, I felt heavy and lethargic. Still didn’t want to think. Too much I didn’t want to think about. Sleep was appealing. Ignoring the sour odour from my bed, I lay down.

Dreaming. Flying over houses. Seeing Jay’s house, I fly down and in through a window. I watch us all making Sunday lunch. I’m teasing Cal, Jay is teasing us both and Beth is laughing. We eat together and play football in the garden afterwards. I fly down and help Cal score a goal. We go inside and sit down just as the doorbell…

Matt

It is dark. I can hear voices, but I cannot see anything. Mum seems to be talking to Beth. I do not know where I am, whether I am standing or lying, asleep or awake, alive or dead, and I fall …

Dec

…rang. I tried to cling on to the wisps of the dream, but it was gone. All of it. As if it had died. I curled up on the bed, wrapped in misery. Bell rang again. And again. Scythed through my insides.

Fuck. Off.’

Letterbox pushed open.

:Only me love. I’ve got your bits and pieces. I can just leave the bag here, but there’s things need to go in the fridge. Don’t leave it too long, it’ll go off.

Shit. I owed her money.

‘Wait’.

And I’d told her to fuck off. Again.

‘Sorry.’

Jumped off the bed, ignoring protesting head and aching limbs. Tripped over pile of clothes. Stumbled to the door and flung it open. She was just disappearing round the corner on the stairs.

‘Wait!’

Footsteps returned upwards and then she appeared round the corner.

‘Sorry, sorry, sorry. I was asleep. I’m so sorry.’

:Don’t worry, love. I didn’t take it personally. You still look asleep, if I’m honest. Anything else I can do?’

She reached the door, picked up the bag of shopping and gave it to me.

‘No, no, this is great. Lifesaver. Really.’

The gratitude was wearing me out.

:You know, love, I’m a bit of an interfering old bat, but you don’t seem right to me. Been on a hell of a bender, you’re all over the place, shouting and cursing, bunch of hooligans hanging around till all hours. None of my business I know. But do you need any help? Is there anything I can do? Tell me to wind my neck in if you like, and I will. Just asking because, well, you have to ask don’t you.

Still a worthless piece of shit. Didn’t deserve this. Tried to say ‘I’m fine’. Choked on the words. Lips trembled. Tears welled.

:Oh love, come on now. Why don’t you just tell me? I know I yap on a bit, but I stop and listen sometimes. Might do you good to talk about it.

Say it and it’s real. No way. Suddenly her attention was elsewhere.

:Hold on, is that you?

She bent down and picked up the paper I had thrown down earlier.

:This is you! Oh! You’re that lad from the rugby club aren’t you … oh! You poor love …

She stepped over to me and put her arms round me. I stiffened. Then felt myself crumple. Dropped the bag of shopping. She was short and stout, much shorter than me, but she somehow enfolded me. It seemed so long since anyone had cared how I felt. Beyond my control now to prevent it pouring out. Heaving sobs. Streams of hot tears. Choked incoherent half-words. Leaned on her and wept it all. Emptied myself. She talked the whole time

:There love. It’s alright. Shush now. You poor love. It’s alright. Shush now. There now. There now.

Weeping petered out into shudders. Stood back from her, head in hands. Embarrassed. Wiped face on sleeve. She patted my arm.

:Alright now, love. It’s alright.

I looked at her. Her face was wet too, and she fished in a pocket for a tissue and dabbed at her eyes

:By, you needed that didn’t you, love?

A shrug. A deep breath. A nod.

:Is your mam nearby?

Shook my head.

:Can you ring her?

Old, old sadness. Pushed it back down where it came from, with an effort, so I could say it without feeling it.

‘No … she’s dead.’

:Oh love, I’m so sorry. How about your dad.

‘Same.’

Her eyes filled up again.

:Isn’t there anyone you can talk to?

Made a quick mental list of people I had alienated deliberately and incidentally over the past days, weeks and months.

‘No.’

:Oh love, you must be so lonely. Now look, you can’t go on like this. You don’t look well. Your flat stinks, to be frank, and, well, you haven’t got much stuff have you? Haven’t most of you lads got playstations and computers and the like? You haven’t even got a telly.

‘Sold it.’

:Alright … whatever you say … but you can’t stay here on your own with no one to talk to. This trouble you’re in with the rugby club – I honestly can’t say I know much about it, just saw a bit on the local news when I was waiting for my programme. Isn’t there anyone there?

Felt rather than remembered Don’s words hitting me like a hammer. Remembered Jay’s we’re done.

‘Doubt it.’

Needed not to follow this line of conversation. Not ready to explore reality yet.

‘I can’t talk about it. Please don’t ask.’

:Alright love. But at least let’s make your flat a bit more liveable. Where’s that air freshener?

And she bustled off, spraying pine freshness over the couch, putting the shopping away in the kitchen, calling me into the bedroom to make me strip the bed and put my clothes in the washing machine, tidying and cleaning as she went. There wasn’t much to clean, most it of had gone to eBay, before I sold my laptop.

As Rose made a start on scrubbing the oven, I noticed a pile of mail on the table by the front door. Mostly junk mail, but one white envelope with a Raiders logo in the corner was hard to miss. I opened it slowly and read the contents

‘No, no, no, fuck no.’

:Everything alright love?

‘Today’s Thursday, right?’

:All day, love.

‘Shit. Fuck.’

:You do like a good swear don’t you. What’s the matter, love?

‘I should have been at the club yesterday. Meeting with the coach.’

:Well there’s not much you can do about missing it. Phone and explain. They’ll understand I’m sure.

‘Rose, I really am in a shitload of trouble. I can’t just not turn up when they tell me to. Especially if it’s because I was wasted.’

:Well it’s happened now. The longer you leave it, the worse it’ll be. Just ring. What have you got to lose?

She had a point.

‘Have you moved my phone?

:It’s in the drawer, with your keys, love.

I retrieved my mobile from the drawer where Rose had put it. There wasn’t much charge left. I ignored the alerts to a whole stack of missed calls and texts.

‘Thanks, but I actually meant the land-line Should be on the table here.’

Rose pointed at the wall next to the kitchen door, where there was a large dent, and scratches in the plaster.

:See that hole?

‘Yeah.’

:What was left of your telephone was in little bits underneath that hole, along with your answering machine. I threw it away. Don’t know if you threw it, kicked it, stamped on it or what, but there wasn’t enough left of it to do you much good.

Didn’t know what to say to that. No memory of it. So that left my mobile, and the hope that neither the battery nor the credit ran out before I’d finished the call.

The phone call was painful for all concerned. I knew the girls in the office pretty well, had tried my chat-up techniques out on a couple of them a few times, sometimes dropped in close to coffee time for a freebie. They obviously knew all about me, and were distant and professional. It hurt. I was put on hold while my message was relayed to Don.

*Mr Barker would like you to come in this afternoon.

‘Yeah, what time?’

*Four o’clock would suit him.

‘I’ll be there.’

It was early afternoon now. The buses to that side of town were sporadic and I’d have to walk the last bit along the dual carriageway. I needed to make myself presentable quite quickly.

:Well done love, see that was easier than you thought.

‘They were polite.’

:Well that’s good, isn’t it?

‘We used to have a laugh.’

:Oh, well, not so good then. You need a shave. And another shower wouldn’t go amiss. Have you got clean clothes?

And so Rose carried on organising me. Still a worthless piece of shit. But it seemed like someone might be willing to help me clean the pan when I’d flushed it all away.

I sat on the bus and tried not to think. This would be the ceremonial end of my Raiders career, which had been put out of its misery yesterday. I shied away from it. I dreaded and welcomed it. I didn’t deserve to keep it. And there was my passport and visa not to think about too. Don’s words, ‘implications for remaining in this country’, had shocked me at the time, but with everything else that had been said on Monday afternoon, I hadn’t been able to fully comprehend them, or even give them much attention until now. I couldn’t deal with it.

Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think.

I walked along the dual carriageway in a kind of trance. Up the hill to the club car park.

Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think.

Started to cross the car park to the players entrance. Became aware of someone walking across from me. It was Jay. The bombardment of questions from outside my front door last night surfaced, with “Anything to say about Jay Scott’s resignation? stopping my footsteps.

If Jay saw me, he ignored me and carried on walking towards his car. I called out to him. He didn’t look up. I ran towards him, needed to talk to him.

‘Jay. Please. I didn’t know – I found out – you’re not really going?’

He got into his car as if he hadn’t heard me, not even glancing in my direction.

‘I’m so sorry. I can’t believe how much I’ve fucked everything up.’

He shut the door, started the engine, put on his seat belt and drove away, all with a determinedly grim expression on his face. As I watched the car, the brake lights went on and then the reversing lights. The car came back towards me. When it drew level, the front window came down. Jay glanced at me, then turned to face forwards. He took a deep breath and began to speak, his voice getting louder as he became more angry.

łYou really are a fucking self-centred little prick. I don’t give a shit about you or your fucking miserable apologies. Not everything is about you. The world doesn’t fucking revolve around you. People don’t live or die because of you. Oh no, sorry, sometimes people do die because of you don’t they. Fuck you. The sun doesn’t shine out of your fucking arse any more. No one gives a shit about you, no one here, no one anywhere. Just fuck off Declan. Or Charlie. Or whatever fucking lying bastard name you’ve chosen today. You make me sick. Just leave us the fuck alone. Don’t talk to us, don’t call us. Go on, fuck off. Fuck off and die for all I care.

He revved the engine and the car roared away.

His words froze me. Could hardly breathe. We really were done. Slumped to the ground and leaned against a car. Completely numb. No thoughts. No tears. Not even any feelings. It all crashed around me.

>Please I need to get to my car.

Looked up, tried to focus. Nico Tiago. With an effort, pushed myself to my feet. Moved aside. He glanced at me before opening the driver’s door. Recognition. A closer look.

>Declan. You look like you see a ghost. Many ghosts. You are alright?

Nodded. He waited.

‘Appointment with Don.’

>Huh. OK. Good luck.

I started to walk across the car park. Feet of lead. From behind me:

>Wait. Don’t go in players’ entrance. There are reporters. They annoy everyone. We all use delivery door.

Changed direction. Got to Don’s office without meeting anyone else. Knocked.

-Yep.

Opened the door.

-Declan. Come on in. Take a seat.

Closed the door and sat down. Waited. Head still full of the bite of Jay’s words. Don breathed in deeply.

-We’ve been trying to get hold of you since Tuesday morning.

Forced myself back to now.

‘I know. Sorry. I’ve been, er, ill.’

Don glanced at something on his desk, and then looked back to me.

-Declan, we’re aware that this must all be very difficult for you. But we need to figure out a lot of things. We need to stay in contact with you. You need to answer your phone when we call you.

Flashback image of hurling my ringing phone across the lounge; stamping on it until the noise stopped. Memory returned, at least of that particular event.

‘My land-line’s broken.’

-Then you need to keep your mobile with you. OK?

My mobile had been in my pocket all the time, but I hadn’t been in any fit state to answer it. Now wasn’t the time to say that.

‘OK. Sorry.’

-Alright. In any case, you’re here now. I just wanted to talk to you about what’s been happening. We need to keep communicating. Don’t go out of contact again.

I nodded.

-Declan, when we spoke on Monday, it was quite an emotional time for us all. I want to update you on some things. It’s not all bad news. But it’s not all good, either. Firstly, I want to talk about the Community Project money. You said you were almost able to pay back the money you took. Can you explain?

‘I’ve been saving up, wages, sold my stuff, borrowed, anything. It’s taken longer than I thought. I’ve got most of it. About a thousand short. It’s in a bank account.’

The full extent of the amount I’d borrowed, who I’d borrowed it from and how long it was going to take me to pay it all back made my blood run cold, but that was for another day.

-I’ve been asking around. Over the past couple of months, you haven’t made yourself very popular here, you’ve borrowed a lot of money. Frankly, with the potential consequences of your passport, you’re even less popular right now. But nonetheless, we have decided that if you hand over the money you have, to the charities it was destined for, we won’t press charges. To be honest, I thought your borrowing was to add to what you took, not to try to replace it, and it makes a difference, knowing your motives. To my knowledge, your actions in this respect have not reached the press, so we should be able to keep it as an internal matter. This club prides itself on its community and charity links, and if this becomes general knowledge, it will damage our reputation. It is only for this reason we are not taking the matter further; if it becomes public, we may have to rethink.

I gaped. I had not expected anything other than a visit from the police. It was more, much more than I deserved.

‘That’s … I … thank you.’

-This isn’t a let off. Your conduct has been gravely unprofessional and risked the reputation of Raiders. But we felt we had to take into account your conduct prior to this incident, and your attempts to make good. Another development of this particular saga is that we have done some investigating and it appears that the man who died in your accident didn’t have any children.

‘Whoa – what?’

My jaw dropped and I just stared at Don with my mouth open.

-Did you actually check any of his story before handing over the money?

My brain was rapidly scrambling.

‘I … no. I … just … he seemed to know all about it. I was … fuck … I’m a fucking idiot.’

I carried on berating myself silently. Don had a grim look on his face.

-Well I think your chances of recovering any money from him are non-existent, so in effect you have given away ten thousand pounds of your own money to a complete stranger.

Fucking, fucking idiot.

To say I hope you’ve learned your lesson would be very much an understatement. As a club we are going to draw a line under this, but obviously you still have some way to go to make things right. However, the other issues we discussed when we last met continue to be concerning. Concealing criminal proceedings, giving us an invalid passport, and taking the money in the first place are matters of grave concern to me. You have made some serious errors of judgement and have not used the support network available to you through the club to communicate with us about what’s been going on with you. I’m afraid we are not looking very favourably at this. Missing your appointment yesterday was an extra consideration.

Don glanced to his desk again. Following his glance this time I saw the local paper folded on his desk, ‘Summers Storm Rocks Raiders’ headline uppermost. Hidden underneath, the telling photo of me in all my glory. Don was well aware of why I had been out of contact.

-I think it may be difficult, for Raiders and for you, for us to work together in the future. You have severely damaged your relationship with the club. You should know that we are considering terminating your contract. For the time being you will remain suspended, for the time being on full pay, but will meet regularly with Stuart Clarke, who is taking over as backs coach. You are aware that Jay is leaving us?

A miserable nod. Thought again about Jay venting his disgust at me from his car.

-I think you should be aware that if Jay were staying, you would not be returning in any capacity. Stuart is going out on a limb to make sure we all have the chance to make something work with you. We will see how things have progressed in a few weeks and review it then. We want to try to re-establish some kind of trust in you; you are a promising young player and until recent events we had been very happy with your progress. But we are not willing to risk the wider club for your sake. So you have a lot of hard work to do, and I think it will be an uphill struggle. You have alienated a great many of the players, coaching staff and people working throughout the club, and it may not be possible to get to a point where we think it will work. A lot of it depends on your attitude and the amount of work you put in. But it will ultimately be a club decision. In the meantime, you need to keep fit. The conditioning team have drawn up a training programme for you. You will not be able to use the club gym, or any of your club memberships to affiliated facilities. In fact all your privileges as a Raiders player are suspended. You will not come to Raiders premises unless specifically invited by me or Stuart.

Another glance at the newspaper. He picked it up and turned the back page to face me.

-This type of image is not acceptable in a Raiders shirt. It is not acceptable from a Raiders player. I want you to lay off the alcohol. Completely. Do you understand all this?

‘I think so. I mean, yeah. I understand. I’m sorry.’

My head was spinning. I had thought everyone would feel the same as Jay, had truly expected to be dismissed. It wasn’t far from it, maybe only a few more weeks until it happened, but there was a tiny glimmer of hope. I wasn’t sure how I felt. Wasn’t sure I could even remember it all.

-It’s a lot to take in, I know. I will get a letter sent to you outlining the main points of our discussion today, and a copy of your training schedule. I also want to talk through your visa situation. We have looked into your passports. It appears that you would qualify for dual nationality, but that your British passport was not correctly registered. It still means that Raiders are likely to be punished for having you on our books as a British citizen, especially having played in that game last season. But I think it can be sorted out so you don’t need a visa. You just need to sign some forms and give us both your passports. Our legal guys are doing the rest. Declan, you were this close to potentially being deported. I hope you appreciate how serious this is.

I nodded. I had never really paid much attention to my passports, or the legal significance of which one I used. I thought of myself as Australian. I knew there were complicated rules about foreign players, but it never occurred to me that any of them applied to me. I had been extremely naïve, and very lucky. It made me feel sick to think how close I may have come to being sent back to Australia, where I knew nobody.

‘Thank you. I … I know I’ve caused a huge amount of trouble. It’s generous of the club to help me out. It’s more than I deserve.’

Don nodded.

-There is just one other thing.

He leaned back and steepled his hands under his chin.

-Jay is aware we are meeting today, and has asked me to pass on to you a request that you do not try to see him or contact him or his family.

His words stung me. The realisation that I had lost, no, thrown away what Jay and his family had given me caused me physical pain. If he didn’t want me to contact them, I wouldn’t. But I could hardly believe I wasn’t going to be able to see them or talk to them again. It wasn’t just Jay, but Beth, and Cal … it was unbearable. Don was still speaking, and I dragged my attention back to him with an effort.

-Jay’s last day with us is tomorrow. Declan, of all the outcomes of your actions, the rift you have caused between you and Jay is the one I think you will regret the most. I personally feel that the amount of trouble you find yourself in stems from not going to Jay, or someone else from the club, from the start. This might all be behind you by now if you had. You would both have had the support you need. And we may still have had our backs coach. You have burned many bridges in the last few months. I hope this isn’t the one that proves most catastrophic.

He took a deep breath and sat up.

-OK. I think that’s enough for now. Go home and sort yourself out. Turn your phone on.

He stood up and indicated the door.

It was getting dark by the time I crossed the car park. There were a few cars left, but most people would be gone by now. As I passed a red Honda, a window wound down.

>Hey, Declan.

It was Nico Tiago. I stopped, surprised.

>I wait for you. I worry. You look horrible before.

‘I’m OK.’

>You look horrible still.

‘Hangover.’

>Ha! I understand. Meeting Don with hangover is never good. I do this before. He always know!

I smiled grimly, pretty sure that none of Nico Tiago’s hangovers had been plastered over the back pages of the local paper.

>You want a lift home?

‘Oh, no, you’re OK, I’m getting the bus.’

>I am quicker. Get in.

‘But –’

He opened the passenger door and gestured me round the car.

‘OK, thanks’.

Something else a worthless piece of shit like me didn’t deserve. Added it to the tab. As we pulled away, he asked

>How was the meeting?

I thought back over the twists and turns. It had been a bit of a roller coaster. Hadn’t sorted through it all properly yet.

‘Had its moments. Not all bad. Not much good.’

>You stay here?

‘Suspended. On some kind of probation.’

>Probation?

‘Er, have to behave myself, work hard, still might have fucked it all up in the end.’

>Huh. There is hope for you then.

‘I guess. I’m pretty lucky to still have my job, for now, and not be on the next plane to the other side of the world.’

>Don send you away?

‘You know I fucked up my passport? It’s complicated. I could have been deported, let alone all the grief I’ve caused Raiders.’

It started to dawn on me how close I had been. I couldn’t think about it. Pushed it away.

>Declan, this sound bad. Is OK now? I know passport is important, rules for playing are hard to understand.

‘I think it’s sorted.’

>Good. Where you live?

I gave him directions.

>Oh is near my gym. I do extra training in the week, they have a great trainer there, he used to work for Raiders. Do you go there?

‘No. But I … guess I might have to.’

I told him about the fitness conditions of my suspension.

>I take you sometime. You come as my guest, I introduce to you Luke.

His offer was unbelievably kind. I struggled to accept it. I didn’t deserve anyone’s help. I deserved to fuck off and die.

‘Thanks’ was all I could manage.

>Great. I let you know. I turn off here?

The rest of the journey was taken up with lefts and rights and mini-roundabouts. As we pulled up outside:

>See you soon.

As I opened the passenger door:

>Hey Declan, be careful of yourself.

I nodded and walked to the front door as he drove away. Paused before putting the key in the lock. Turned and walked down the road to the park.

Sat on a bench in the dark, allowing myself to think. The aches, pains and fog from the vodka were fading, and I could feel some coherence returning. I felt anonymous in the dark. It was good to disappear.

Seeing Jay, feeling the full force of his anger, had brought home to me just how much I had thrown away. I’d cost him his job, one way or another, and I had to accept it was over with me and his family. They were gone, I had no one again. I had done it to myself.

I had thought everything else would be gone by now, but there was just that tiny bit of hope. I was still clinging on to being part of Raiders, just barely. I could feel a cliff-side facing me. I would have to swallow a lot of pride and face a lot of scorn if I was going to climb it. And I still might get thrown from the top, even if I made it up there. I sat for a while longer. Then I went home to start climbing.

Back in my flat, I plugged my mobile into the charger (also in the drawer, put there by Rose). Avoided all the messages for now, but would have to go through them eventually to clear some space. Sat on the couch – there was a lingering hint of the excesses of the past few days, but Rose must have emptied about five cans of air freshener onto it, as it predominantly smelt strongly of pine.

The doorbell went. Through the letterbox:

:It’s Rose. I heard you come in. How did it go?

‘Do you want to come in?’

:Ooh I would, love, but not if you’re busy.

I opened the door. She bustled into the room, looking about her, probably trying to find things to tidy up. She sat on the sofa. It was a bit cosy for two relative strangers, so I sat on the floor.

:Cuppa wouldn’t go amiss, mind.

‘Yeah, sure, coming up.’

I got up off the floor, noting as I did so how much easier moving around had become in the last couple of hours. The pounding headache had reduced to a dull throb that mingled with the shame, guilt and misery. I pushed it all down and tried not to feel any of it.

Rose chatted away as I made the tea, telling me about some run in with a neighbour, filling the spaces with fluff and meaninglessness and wonderful irrelevance. I felt my mood lifting a little bit. It was almost imperceptible, but I had spent so long on my own, having to keep my thoughts to myself, looking after myself, overthinking everything, that having Rose’s talk as a buffer sheltered me from the intensity of it all. I handed her the tea.

:So how did it go, then? I hope you don’t mind, I read that bit in the paper about you. Not a good photo, love, and you don’t really come off that well in the rest of it I must say. Don’t put much store by everything I read in the papers, but you really do seem to be in a heap of it.

And easy as that it was several steps backwards. Mood crashed. Climbing the cliff was going to be a slow process.

‘I haven’t read the paper, but I should think most of it was true.’

:By, you must have been through it in the past few months then, love.

‘All my own fault really.’

:Was there nobody who could help you?

‘My mates all play for Raiders. I couldn’t tell them, the club would have found out.’

:What about one of the older ones? I always used to tell my nephew to tell a teacher if he was in trouble.

‘Same thing. I had to keep it to myself.’

:I’m sure you had your reasons. Seems a shame, though, young lad like you with all this on your shoulders. No family around?

‘Not really, not now.’

Jay, Beth and Cal had become my family, and I’d blown that one out of the water. My eyes suddenly stung with tears. I hadn’t seen Cal for weeks. He was like a little brother, annoying, cheeky, wisdom of a five year old, we had fun times. After today with Jay, I knew it was unlikely I would ever see him again.

:What is it love?

I wiped my eyes.

‘Sorry Rose, I can’t keep crying all over you. Not good for my man points.’

:Don’t you worry about that, got broad shoulders I have. Want to tell me, love?

And, surprising myself, I did. I told her about how I’d arrived in the city three years ago, on a rugby scholarship. I was sixteen then, so one of the conditions was that I lived with a family to start with. Jay had volunteered; as new backs coach, he had told me he felt he was well placed to oversee the development of a potential Raiders centre.

It had been a rocky start. I wasn’t used to doing as I was told, having been in and out of different foster homes after my parents died when I was thirteen. I was pretty awful to begin with, if I’m honest; bad language, outbursts, hanging out with all sorts of weird people to get a reaction, wagging school on a regular basis. Jay and Beth were solid, though, always seemed to know how to handle my moods, tempers and rudeness. They seemed to understand me, and treated me as part of their family. I should have moved on after a few weeks, found something more permanent, but I liked it there, I liked them, and it just never happened.

As we trusted each other more, I calmed down a bit and began to enjoy being part of all that. Calum – Cal – was two when I arrived, now five, and he felt like the little brother I’d never had. Jay and I messed about like mates sometimes, but I knew where I stood with him, and he didn’t take any shit from me. Beth kept me in line with the odd word or disappointed look if I was getting out of hand, but she was great to talk to, for advice, chats, gossip about the rest of the team. I think I was a bit of a project for her; she liked a challenge.

Jay gave me no preferential treatment at the club, never gave my mates reason to shout ‘unfair’, never treated me any differently at work from anyone else. Same bollockings when I’d messed up, same praise when I’d done well. He was Scotty at work and Jay at home.

I became pretty settled. I’d progressed through the scholarship to the academy and was possibly on the verge of breaking into the first team. Life had been good.

‘And then I fucked it all up. Sorry. I know I swear a lot. Just comes out.’

:Don’t worry love, a good swear can help sometimes.

Rose had listened without interrupting through the story, which was a minor miracle. She had obviously been bursting with questions though.

:But where did it, I mean how … it sounds like such a lovely home … what did you –

‘Are you trying to ask exactly how I fucked it all up?’

:Yes, love, I suppose I am. But if it’s hard for you to talk about, you don’t have to.

I thought about it. Found a way.

‘OK, I’ll give you the short version, but I don’t think I can do details, it’s too hard.’

:Alright love, no nosy questions, I promise.

‘OK … I had a car accident. A man died. There was an inquest. Couldn’t tell anyone. Used the wrong passport as ID, which will affect Raiders, and could have got me kicked out of the country. Stole money to help the son – no – the person I thought was the son of the man who died. Couldn’t tell anyone. Moved out so I didn’t have to face telling Jay and Beth. Avoided everyone I know by telling them I’m doing a college course that keeps me busy. Told so many lies to so many people. I saw Jay today. He told me to fuck off and die. He’s leaving Raiders because of me, I don’t know where he’s going. I’ll probably never see them again.’

I pushed it down far enough that I managed to say it without getting emotional, but it still hurt pretty badly.

:Oh, love.

A silence. Rose had promised not to ask questions, but was likely to have hundreds.

:You know, I don’t even know your real name. The paper said you’re Declan, but also Charlie. Which one are you?

‘Well, I’ve been Declan for a while now. I was Charlie before. It’s what my parents called me. That’s why the passport stuff is so bloody complicated. Don’t really know who the fuck I am now.

:What does everyone call you?

‘Bloody troublemaker probably. Declan is fine.’

:Alright, then, love. So, Declan, I want to know how your meeting with your boss went today.

‘Oh … so-so. Not lost my job yet, but likely will in a few weeks. Suspended, got to work hard on trying to get them to trust me again to have a chance.’

:Well, to me that says it’s not all doom and gloom then, if they didn’t give you your marching orders this afternoon.

‘No. I was expecting them to, really, but they’ve been pretty fair. Amazingly fair. Really helpful with sorting out my passport. I wouldn’t have had a clue where to start.’

:Well I think that’s encouraging. Having a reasonable boss is important – I remember when I worked in Ponty for a solicitors, ooh now there was a boss you wouldn’t want. He had me working all hours …

And she was off again. Rose seemed to have a knack for sensing when I had reached my limits in a conversation, and could immediately launch into a lengthy story behind which I could hide and drift away. She didn’t seem to expect me to contribute to this, just to appear to be listening politely, for which I was very grateful. I hid and drifted.

: … so anyway, eventually I told him where to stick his plastic yucca plant, and walked out. Can you imagine?

‘Yes, Rose, I can imagine.’

:Now, I’ve bent your ear long enough, love. I’ll wash this cup up and be out of your hair.

‘No need, I can wash it up. I’m really feeling a lot better.’

I took the cup from her and took it into the kitchen. She was by the front door when I came out. I needed to say it.

‘Rose, before you go, can I just say, thank you so much. I don’t know what I would have done without you. You’ve been great and I am very grateful. I’m sorry for all the hassle I’ve caused you the last couple of days, how rude I was to you, I don’t know why you’ve helped me, I don’t deserve it.’

:Oh love, don’t ever say that. We should all help each other, it’s not about deserving. But you’re welcome. I like looking after people, I’m good at it. Which reminds me, I’m bringing you a telly tomorrow.

‘What?’

:Well I can’t have you sitting here staring at that big dent in the wall all day. You need something to look at, even if it’s only Countdown. I’ve got a spare in my guest room. You can borrow that.

I laughed – first time I had done that for a while.

‘Go home Rose. You’re fucking amazing.’

I gave her a big kiss on the cheek and shut the door behind her.

As I was closing the door, my phone beeped. It reminded me of all the texts and messages I needed to sort through. Not a prospect I relished. But the longer I left it the worse it would be – that cliff I’d imagined rose up above me, getting taller all the time, and the only way to make it look any less intimidating was to climb up it.

Steeling myself, also realising I couldn’t miss any more calls from Raiders, I unplugged the phone from the charger and took it to the sofa. Started with the texts. I had too many to deal with one by one, so I deleted all the spam and numbers only, then checked the names on the rest. Many from mates from the club. Many of them people I owed money to. Checked a couple. Not complimentary.

Big: =Thanks 4 losing Scotty 4 us. Twat.

Mikey: =Wot u finking? Cheers 4 pts deduction.

DivDav: =Fuck off, wanker. Don’t call me.

Danno: =Where’s my £500? U said this week.

Hurtful. Not unexpected. The younger players at the club were a tight knit group, with girlfriends included. There were messages from some of the girls too, which seemed to be fishing for more information in the guise of sympathy.

Cara: =Hope u ok. Wanna talk?

Sarah: =RUOK? Call me 2 chat.

Katie: =UOK hun? Need my money back soon. Txt me.

After scanning a few and sensing a theme I deleted all of those ones. I had borrowed money from most of my mates, and could understand how they must be feeling. Just didn’t want to read it all.

There were some texts from senior players who had my number, most asking me to get in touch with Don. There had obviously been a concerted effort to contact me. Some of them had added their thoughts on my actions. Not pleasant reading. Read it all anyway. One text from an anonymous number caught my eye before I deleted it.

No number: =Payback.

After the texts, I went through my voice-mails A few from some of my mates on Monday evening, trying to find me, after seeing me having my heart-to-heart in the changing room with Jay earlier in the day. A few from them all again, early on Tuesday morning having found out what had been going on and having a go at me. Easy to delete, but not before their anger and hurt filtered through. Several messages on Tuesday morning from various Admin staff, then more senior office staff and eventually Don sounding extremely angry and telling me to:

-Get your arse to the club right now.

Don rarely (for an ex-rugby player) swore, and even more rarely lost his temper. I realised anew how lucky I had been to keep my job. I went through the messages and texts systematically, trying to distance myself from the anger in them all.

Saved one of them till last. Voicemail from Monday afternoon. From Beth. Hardly dared play it. Finger hovered over the delete button for a long time. She deserved her say. Pressed play.

From long ago and far away:

_Dec, please can you ring me? I can’t get hold of James. He’s left me a message, I can’t understand what he’s saying, he sounds really upset. I’m worried. I think he said something about you, but I couldn’t really hear him. I’m really worried. Please ring me, sweetheart. Do you know where he is? What’s happened? I’m so worried. Please ring me and let me know you’re both alright.

Took a long time to process that one. It was from a time before she knew I’d fucked it all up, when she still cared. Played it again, to hear her voice, talking to me as if I was only across town and not across a chasm. Played it again. And again. And cried. And listened again. So, so wanted to call her, both of them. I missed them, so much. Worthless, worthless piece of shit.

There’s only so long you can huddle in the dark on a couch that stinks of pine, feeling sorry for yourself, before it occurs to you that you’d be better off in bed.

Hauled myself off the sofa and into the bedroom, stripped my clothes off and got under the duvet. Sleep didn’t come. Too many swirls and tangents inhabiting my mind. Things I should and shouldn’t have said or done. Damning myself for every one of the mistakes I had made that had led me here. Imagining, torturing myself with ways it could have been different.

Underneath it all, Beth’s voice from last night:

_Go away Dec. Don’t call us again.

And Jay’s:

łFuck off and die for all I care.

Curled myself into a ball and sobbed my wretchedness into the pillow. Must have fallen asleep eventually.

Dreaming. I am flying. Flying over a beach in Australia. There is a family on a picnic rug. Mum, Dad and me. I wave at my smaller self, who waves back. I circle a few times, then fly off over the sea. Fly and fly, high as the wind. After a long time, another beach, another country. Another picnic rug. Jay, Beth and Cal. I wave at Cal, who waves back. I circle a few times, then fly down onto the beach to join them. We all build sandcastles with Cal, then lie down on the rug, looking up at the sky. The sun gets in my eyes and…

Matt

I am running. Running across fields, running along beaches, running up hills, running through streets. Ahead is a cliff, but I do not stop running, I run towards it, to the edge, where I jump high in the air, and I fall …

Dec

…woke me up. I hadn’t pulled the curtains last night, and the sun was shining on my pillow. Shut my eyes again, hoping to find traces of the dream behind my eyelids. It was long gone, leaving me bare and raw The desolation settled somewhere under my ribcage.

10. Changes

In which we hear from Dec for the first time, while we wait for news of Matty

Cal

I’ve always fancied writing something. I used to love doing stories when I was younger, but when I started playing rugby, that just took over everything, and I let it slide. Now I’ve been to Uni doing my physio training, I’ve written loads, but it’s mostly been about muscle groups and postural management, and I think this might make my brain think in a different way.

I loved reading everything from Matty, Lau and Dec, it made me realise that however much you think you know about something, you don’t know the whole story until you get everyone’s point of view.

Anyway, it’s about time I stopped putting it off, and just got on with writing it.

So maybe I’m not going to do it straight, at least not right away. I’m going to start with the person who’s responsible for this, for me wanting to write some kind of retro diary.

Matty.

I didn’t see much of Matty when I was really little, and then he was suddenly there, all the time, although he was mostly in bed. I was only five or six, and I remember us – that’s me, Mum and Dad – just moving house one day. We went up to stay with Granny, and then moved into our own house, because Matty was in hospital and although I don’t really remember details, and maybe my memory is coloured by knowing now what it was all about, there were a lot of quiet conversations, and I saw my dad cry for the first time ever, and I had to be really good and quiet and not make a fuss about wanting to watch Mythbusters, because Mythbusters wasn’t on Granny’s telly.

I didn’t know, then, that Matty nearly died, and I didn’t know, then, that Dad had told Dec to fuck off and die and not to contact us. All I knew was we were living somewhere else, somewhere far away from my school and my friends, and far away from Dec, and I was going to a new school, and we were going to the hospital every day to see Uncle Matty, who didn’t look like Uncle Matty, but was all thin and pale and asleep with tubes up his nose and wires from machines in him and a tube for his wee to run down into a bag.

I was quite interested in the tubes and wires, but I wasn’t allowed to touch them, and I’d sit there, sometimes with Mum, sometimes with Dad, sometimes with Granny, sometimes with all of them, and it was pretty boring, watching Uncle Matty sleeping, but I wasn’t allowed to play, or talk loudly, and had to make do with looking at magazines that I would persuade Mum to buy me from the shop near the entrance. Sometimes they were about dinosaurs, and sometimes they only had football ones.

Matt

I am on a swing. My legs are moving to and fro underneath me and someone is behind me, pushing me. As I go to and fro, up and down, the trees blur with the movement. I twist round to see who is pushing me and I fall …

Dec

łWhat the fuck is this?

Jay stood over me, holding the letter. Sitting on the changing room floor, head bowed, back against the wall, I couldn’t meet his eyes. Shook my head. Had no words. He held his hand out towards me, and I glanced at the newspaper cutting he was holding, with a sinking heart.

łIs it true, then?

I nodded, misery crashing over me.

łJesus, Dec. I don’t fucking believe it. Why didn’t you tell me?

I shook my head again, pinched the bridge of my nose, took a deep breath.

‘Couldn’t say it. Too hard.’

He slid down the wall and sat next to me. I could feel how tense and angry he was, and I tried to explain.

‘I thought, when it was in the paper, the club would find out and that would be it.’

A deep shuddering sigh. It didn’t make any sense, I knew that. Still looking at the floor, I felt the burn of his gaze.

łBut this was what –

He looked at the date on the newspaper clipping that he held

ł – back in the summer. And it’s not even about you.

His confusion and disappointment were there to hear.

‘They used my other name. When nothing happened, I convinced myself it was OK.’

łOther name? Jesus. Does Don know?

Shook my head. Nobody knew, I’d been sure of it. That was the point of all this.

łYou’ve got to tell him.

It was the only thing left, now it was out there. Heavy heart, heavy limbs, heavy head. I could hardly lift my eyes to his. It would be the end.

‘I can’t.’

It was paralysing. Reflexes moved my knees up to my chest, head down to meet them, arms folded over my head. I just wanted the world to go away.

A commotion outside, laughter. The door burst open. A group of lads, excited, banter, pushing. Jay looked up.

łPiss off for a bit would you?

They looked from him to me, smiles disappearing, turned and trooped out. Laughter started again, fading away. Jay got up and stood over me, hands on his hips.

łIt’s not a choice. He’s going to know. You need to fucking man up.

He walked away, the slam of the door juddering through me.

Alone with my thoughts. No better than sharing them. Sat until my back started to ache. Eventually forced to move by the prospect of returning laughers. Walking felt strange, disconnected. No aim, no destination. Stepped outside. He’d waited.

łCome on.

‘What?’ a whisper.

łDon’s office. Now.

No more words were exchanged, but I followed. Banter boys across the field, shouting, threw a ball between them. I was just there, I thought, that was me, now it’s gone, no longer mine. No more thoughts, just a sludge of despair. We reached the office. He knocked.

-Yep.

Jay motioned to me to open the door, so I did. Don looked at me, then behind me. A small frown appeared above his eyes at what I assumed was a gesture behind me from Jay.

-Come on in, Declan.

There was more unspoken communication between them. Jay thrust the photocopied pages at me, placed his hand between my shoulder blades and pushed me forwards. He was not in the room when the door shut behind me.

-What’s the problem?

I gave him the papers. He looked at them. I looked at the floor, felt I was melting into it; past, present, future all congealed here. Don read carefully, and several times, his brows furrowed.

-Is this about you, somehow?

He held up the newspaper clipping. Head still down, I nodded. The slightest of movements.

-Look at me. This person named here, Charlie Collier. Who is that?

Deep breath.

‘Me’.

-And how can you be Charlie Collier when you’re Declan Summers?

I could barely frame a reply, but this needed saying. It had to be explained so it could all be over. I told him about being adopted; the passport mix up that was never properly sorted out; changing my name.

-OK, so when the club asked you for your passport you showed us a false one because …?

‘Didn’t think. Didn’t think of it as false, just have two names, two passports.’

-But Declan Summers is not your name on a valid British passport?

I shook my head, although I had never really been sure about how it all worked.

-Are you a British citizen?

‘Don’t know. It’s complicated.

-Do you realise that the club will get into serious trouble if you have played as an Australian when we already had our quota of foreign players on the pitch? When you came on as a replacement last season? You’ve been here for – what – more than three years now … this could be very serious.

Head dropped again. A nod. I was tumbling into a black hole, my nightmares coming true. Don sighed and sat back in his chair.

-You really are in a lot of bother.

He picked up the letter.

-Do you know who sent this?

‘No.’

-But it’s true?

A nod.

-Look at me Declan.

With an effort I lifted my head. A spinning sensation.

-I was already going to talk to you today about something else that has come to light. I thought that was what you were here for. But this is also very serious. I have to take it upstairs. Wait here.

Left to my thoughts again. He obviously knew about the money, too. Legs wobbled. Sank onto a chair. Some time passed. A knock. Door opened. One of the senior players peered in. Nico Tiago. Argentine winger. Another of my heroes soon to dismiss me as a wasted memory.

>Don, he is not here? Ha, no, I see not, but he is back soon?

I honestly didn’t know. I shrugged.

>I have my match review now. Um. I wait?

I shrugged again, rude. What did it matter now. He sat down.

>Hey, you play for reserves last week. Is great game, very close. You play well.

This conversation should have been a lifetime highlight. I couldn’t begin to speak. Another shrug.

>Hey man, you OK?

Couldn’t even muster a shrug.

>Huh. Maybe I come back later. Tell Don I am here OK?

An almost imperceptible nod from me. No eye contact.

>OK then.

He left with a sigh of exasperation. Beyond the door, a muffled conversation.

>Jaime.

łNico.

> Your golden boy he is in there. He OK?

łDoubt it. Major fuck up.

>Huh! What he do?

łKilled someone.

>Ha! Good one. Tell me later.

The door opened.

łWhere’s Don?

‘Went out.’

łLook mate, you can ditch the attitude. I’m so fucking pissed off with you, you’re walking a really fine line.

His anger enabled me, like sympathy could not have. I stood up and faced him.

‘Go on then.’

Squaring up, hoping I could make him punch me, it was what I deserved.

łDon’t tempt me you little shit. Do you realise just what you might have pissed away? You fucking stupid –

-OK, keep it down, can we have a bit of calm?

Don walked in and took his seat behind the small desk.

-Jay, can you stay for a bit?

A pause, a sigh, then a nod. We both sat down.

-Right then. I need to clarify some of this. Jay, you have read this letter and the article?

Jay nodded curtly.

-Declan has confirmed that it is all correct. I have just spoken to the chief exec. It’s already bad enough, you have kept a lot of information from us. But there is something else that we would like you to explain, Declan.

Knew what was coming. Thought I’d have more time to put it right. Too late now.

-Some months ago, when you were part of the Youth Team Community Charity project, you were responsible for a large sum of money.

Jay turned to look at me.

-We’ve recently been contacted by one of the intended recipients of the donations. They never received it. We checked with the other recipients. Same thing. What happened to that money, Declan?

So hard. It had been the only thing to do then. Now it was destroying me.

-Can I suggest that maybe you took it?

Sharp intake of breath from Jay. A whisper.

łJesus, Dec.

Head in my hands, as if hiding would make it go away.

‘Yeah.’

łDec, what the fuck?

Turning to Don.

łHow much? Don?

-About ten thousand pounds.

łJesus. Jesus Christ. You bloody, fucking –

-OK Jay, there is still a lot we need to talk about. You can both discuss it afterwards. Declan, can you explain what you did with this money?

Too hard. Too many months of hiding, pretence and deceit to remember it right.

-You really are going to have to talk to me. I’m not going to sit here guessing all afternoon.

Tried to get the words in the right order.

‘I gave it to someone. They needed it.’

-What exactly do you mean?

‘They … came to the door. Said … it … was their dad. Needed what he … would have given them.

-Who was this?

‘His son.’

-Declan, you’re not making any sense. Someone came and asked you for money that their dad would have given them, and you just handed over the charity money?

‘Mm.’

As simple and as complicated as that.

-Tell me exactly who you gave the money to.

Annoyance and exasperation telling in his usually measured tones.

‘The son, his son, the man who –

The word nearly stuck in my throat.

‘– died.’

A silence, during which I shrivelled inside myself.

-I see.

łWell I bloody don’t. What the fuck are you talking about?

‘He needed it.’

It had seemed so clear then; now everything was hazy in my mind. I’d avoided thinking about it for so long.

-Declan, you seem to be in some doubt about this; that money was not yours to give away.

‘He was angry. Told me I had to pay.’

Don rubbed his hands over his face.

-Look, Declan, I appreciate that this is difficult for you. But there are rules about distributing money collected for charity. You have broken them. You’ve broken the law. Do you understand?

‘I was paying it back – I’ve nearly got it all.’

-You seem to think you can break rules how and when you want to. That’s not how it works. I need to know who has this money.

‘Don’t know his name.’

Don stared at me, then shook his head.

-How did you say you met him?

‘Came to the house.’

-When was this?

‘Don’t remember exactly. In the summer. After the inquest.’

łHang on – whose house are you talking about?

‘Yours.’

An exhalation of exasperation.

łYou never said a word. About any of this. Jesus.

-Declan, I need you to tell me how to contact this man.

Didn’t know. Couldn’t say.

-Son, you’re already up to your eyes with the passport business, you really need to –

łPassport? Dec, what the fuck is going on here? This is all getting a bit fucking much.

Don gave Jay the short version of how my passport had fucked things up even more. Jay became visibly more furious, glancing at me occasionally, cheeks reddening, shoulders tensing.

łYou really had us all fooled didn’t you. Jesus. No more pissing about. You’re going to tell us, right now, who exactly this man is and how exactly we can get the money back.

Looked at him helplessly.

‘I only met him a couple of times. I don’t know his name. I suppose his last name is the same as his dad’s.’

łSo, I can’t get this all straight. He comes to the house. He asks for money. You think ‘Oh, I’ve got ten thousand quid sitting upstairs in a shoebox, I’ll give him that’. You don’t even ask his name. I don’t get it. Tell me.

‘I killed his dad!’

If I said it in a rush without thinking about it, it was less painful, but it still ripped the scars wide open and the guilt poured in.

His dad was going to give him money for an extension to his house for his daughter. She’s sick. He said I had to pay for what I did. He scared me. And he was right. I did have to pay. I am paying. I’m paying it back. I’m nearly there.’

Just a few more weeks and I might have done it. Selling everything I owned, all the begging and borrowing from friends, acquaintances and then people I hardly knew, might have been worth it.

-That is really beside the point. It wasn’t your money to give away. Bloody hell this is complicated. OK, another question. There was no court case, so obviously nobody thinks you deliberately killed this man’s father. It mentions a verdict here?

‘Misadventure.’

-Which means?

‘No one knows what the fuck happened.’

-So what’s your version?

‘I crashed my car and a man died.’

And left my life splattered in the ditch with his.

-The newspaper tells me that much. Were you drunk?

‘I’d had a beer. Wasn’t drunk.’

-Was it your fault?

Ah, well, there was the question, but I couldn’t answer it.

‘I don’t know.’

A snort from Jay. He was staring stonily out of the window, which looked onto the pitch and new grandstand. The sun was beginning to set above it and a few seagulls flew lazily overhead. Field of dreams.

-So this letter we’ve received today, with the newspaper clipping, might it be from this same man? Making you pay another way?

Shrugged. Everything was ending. Didn’t matter who or why.

-You say you don’t know how to contact this man. How did you pay him? Surely you didn’t have the cash in the house?

Shook my head.

‘Special account for the charity. I was going to transfer it.’

łYeah, we all thought how responsible you were. Do him good, taking charge. That turned out well.

-So you took it out in cash?

Nodded.

-What did you do with it?

‘Met him in a pub. Handed it over.’

łClassy.

Jay’s jaw was clenched. Emanating anger.

-And have you had any contact with him since then?

Shook my head. Don sighed.

-Well I guess at least we have a possible last name and a location. We’ll have to see if that’s enough.

There was a pause. Don leaned forwards.

-OK. This is what’s going to happen.

I held my breath, braced myself for the blow.

-You are suspended as of now. You will not play or train with us until further notice. You have seriously compromised the club, and could cost us greatly, both financially and in terms of our league position. We need to look at your visa status and assess your legal situation, both with us and, I have to say, the implications for remaining in this country. We will have to inform the RFU straight away, but they will not look favourably on us, as it won’t be the first time the club has had passport irregularities. Your suspension is temporary for now while we look into this further, but we will take whatever action we think is necessary, which could well include dismissing you. We are going to have to go public with all of this immediately. Our media people can try some damage limitation, but once it’s out there, there’s no telling how big it will get. With a lot of luck it will stay local, a bit of TV, in the local papers, but the supporters’ forum will go mental with it and who knows after that. If you leave us, nobody else may want you.

I didn’t know if he meant no one as in no other team, or the world in general, but either way I was screwed. On my own again.

-You have behaved extremely foolishly. You have kept important information from us, and abused the trust of everyone here. You have stolen from the club. I don’t know if we could ever rely on you again. The trust Jay and his family have placed in you is a different matter, and I am going to leave you with him now to have his say. I’m so disappointed in the way you’ve behaved, Declan, you had such a promising future with us.

Don left the room, closing the door firmly behind him. Jay sat staring at the setting sun. His fists were clenched and his lips were pressed together so tightly they had gone white.

łI just don’t know where to start. Jesus, I don’t need this right now. You’re a complete fucking liar aren’t you? All of this shit, all this time, it’s like I don’t even know you. And he came to the house? He knows where we live. Jesus. He could be a nutcase.

‘I moved out so that –’

łYou didn’t tell us. You lied about it. The other stuff, the passport, accident, money, that’s bad enough. Jesus, bad enough. But you lied to me and Beth. I can’t believe it, all that time. You didn’t say a fucking word. Fucking arsehole.

‘I’m sorry.’

łNot nearly good enough. You can forget ever coming back here. I never want to see you again. Fuck you. Whoever you are. You’re finished, you’ve screwed your whole life up. Say goodbye to Raiders. Say goodbye to all of this –

He waved his hand at the view out of the window.

ł – anywhere.

He stood up suddenly, took a step towards me, stood over me. I waited for him to hit me – it wouldn’t be the first time someone had taken out their frustration with me on me, although Jay never had, it was unthinkable, and for the last three years I’d relaxed and almost forgotten what it was like to feel like I deserved it.

Jay’s fists were balled up and he was breathing heavily. I had no defence, didn’t want any, welcomed the punishment. His muscles twitched, he took two deep breaths.

łYou and me, we’re done.

He strode to the door, flung it open and walked down the corridor taking my dreams with him. I sat for a long time, Jay’s words sinking in heavily. I’d known he’d be upset, angry, disappointed; I’d expected a confrontation if he ever found out about it. I never thought he’d be done with me – it was worse than if he’d punched me. Hadn’t considered the full implications. The consequences now facing me were huge and I couldn’t bear it.

Matt

I am in a crowded room, a bar, and I need to get some water. I try to push through all the people, but every time a gap appears, it is filled by someone else, and I am being pushed backwards. I try to shove through again, and am overpowered, overbalanced, and I fall …

Dec

I do not know how I got home. I do not remember much of the following forty eight hours. There was alcohol. A lot of alcohol. There was a ringing phone. There was a ringing doorbell. I drank and slept and woke and drank and slept. Then I ran out of vodka, and as time passed I just woke.

Head was a solid throb of pain. Smelt vomit and piss. Lying face down on the floor. When I could move, I turned over. Nausea and pain took hold for a while, could feel nothing but spinning and churning. Opening my eyes renewed the assault. Sat up. Very, very slowly. More pain, more spinning, more churning. Still wearing my training kit, splattered with sick down the front.

Looked around; empty beer and vodka bottles, the remnants of a smashed phone beneath a dent in the plaster. Many unwelcome feelings in my gut – including aching hunger. All muscles unremittingly sore. Avoided remembering as long as possible. Couldn’t be helped, in the end. Waves, torrents, floods of it all. Shame, remorse, self-pity flowing through me, taking any last shreds of self-respect with them.

In small stages I moved from the floor to the couch. It stank as badly as me. Needed to change my clothes, but could not gather the strength. Seemed like late evening. Flat was almost in darkness, lit only by the dim orange street lamps outside. Sat for a long time. Doing nothing meant feeling nothing. I didn’t really exist. Floated outside my fucked up miserable life. Kept it up as long as I could, then the smell from my clothes and increasing growls of hunger forced me to move, get to my feet.

Trod on an empty bottle. The throbbing that tore through my head when I nearly fell made me turn on a lamp. Falling over would be worse than the light. As soon as I put the light on, the doorbell started to ring. Cried out with the pain of it, like needles deep in my skull. Fell back onto the couch. As an accompaniment to the doorbell, there was shouting, through the letterbox.

“Declan? Or is it Charlie? How are you feeling? Can we have a comment? How does it feel to be kicked out of the team?

and on and on, all the time ringing the bell.

Hands over my ears. It barely dulled the sound. The choice between enduring the noise or moving to stop it immobilised me for some time. It didn’t let up. Eventually I stood, and moved on unsteady legs to the door.

As soon as I opened the door, the flash of a camera went off. A stab of agony between my eyes blinded me. An onslaught of voices. Too many words. Too loud. Tried to shut the door, but it was held open. Sagged against the doorpost, eyes closed. Words slowly resolved themselves. The same ones that had been fired through the letterbox. Found my voice, although it was husky and broken.

‘Please leave me alone. I have nothing to say.’

More flashes. More words, catching my attention with

“Anything to say about Jay Scott’s resignation?

Through the jumble, that one got through. I gaped.

“Any comment? You were aware of it?

Shook my head, as much to clear it as to answer the question. Hit me like a body blow. Legs buckled.

‘Seriously, fuck off and leave me alone’.

Little strength left, used it all to shut the door on them. Floor broke my fall. Lay there, numb. Shouted questions continued, even a flash through the letterbox. Eventually, quiet. Thoughts returned. Worthless, worthless piece of shit. Can’t keep other people out of my misery.

Mobile pinged. Had probably pinged many times. Didn’t care. But, still lying on the floor, reached for the phone in my pocket. Scrolled down to Jay’s name. Stared at it. For a long time. Pressed call. It went straight to voicemail. Pressed home number. It rang for a long time, then it was answered.

‘Beth?’

_Yes.

‘It’s Dec.’

A long silence.

‘Please Beth, can I just talk to Jay?’

_Go away Dec. Don’t call us again.

She rang off. So I’d fucked it up with Beth too. I couldn’t take it in. She always picked me up, dusted me down and helped me out. Talked Jay round when I’d done something to piss him off. If Beth was done with me as well, I really had lost it all.

Too much. Sobs welled up and forced their way out. Big, lurching, body shuddering breaths. Loud, painful, face-soaking unstoppable tears. Curled into a ball on the floor and poured my anguish into the carpet.

Sudden awareness. A key in the lock above me. Door started to open, hit my foot and stopped.

:Hello?

Adrenaline pumped, mobilising me. Flipped up on my feet, swaying slightly, trying to keep the nausea down and ignore the pounding pain behind my eyes. Faced the opening door. A woman, older, short and stout.

‘What the fuck …’

:Sorry, love, I tried knocking, don’t think you heard. The old lady who lived here before you gave me a key. I’ve been meaning to give it back since you moved in. I’m in the flat below you. Heard you from downstairs just now, you sounded a bit upset. Thought I’d come and check. Everything alright?

She walked in. Sniffed. Looked at the vomit on my shirt and from there to the debris littering the rest of the flat.

:Rough night, love?

‘What?’

I couldn’t understand who she was, what she was doing here. She had an accent – couldn’t work out where from right now, didn’t really give a shit to be honest.

:Well I had to call the police to get rid of those buggers in the hallway. Making a right nuisance of themselves they were, don’t know how they got in, I s’pose they blagged it. Been hanging around outside on and off for a couple of days. Anyway, they’ve gone now. Here to see you by the looks of it, love.

Couldn’t face more talking. Didn’t want this woman here. Didn’t have the energy to make her go away.

:You look terrible.

‘Hangover.’

:Yes, well, I guessed that, from the smell of you and all the empties. Now, I’m good at looking after people, love. Why don’t you have a lie down and I’ll tidy up a bit?

‘No. I’m OK. Please, just piss off.’

Just want to be alone. Please.

:Oh go on, I know the flat from when I looked after Ada. Won’t take me a minute.

Pulled on my arm. Tugged me in the direction of the bedroom. I lay down. Distant sounds of clinking glass. Hoover. Slept.

Dreaming. Flying above the pitch, playing, huge crowd. I can fly. I can win it because I can fly. They pass me the ball and I fly over the line.

Matt

I am playing soldiers with Jay. He is in command and he sends me to hide up a tree. While I am up the tree, I lose my grip on the branch and I fall