32. You can’t always get what you want

In which Dec has dreams and nightmares, Matty has dinner and gets brave, and Cal finds his favourite joke.

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Iz

At this point, it is worth mentioning that I realise Christmas is being related in a lot of detail. The thing is that all three versions of that Christmas – Dec’s, Matty’s and Cal’s – give pretty much chapter and verse of what happened over those few days, and it’s because that Christmas was so important. Cal says he can remember so much of it, even though he was only six, and Dec goes all misty eyed when you mention it. I expect if you quizzed them really hard, neither of them would actually admit to being able to remember the specific conversations, and Lau is pretty sure Matty used a fair amount of artistic license in his retelling. But Cal and Dec both say they can remember how it felt, how it was the sense of everything coming back together that made it special, and maybe beyond that, of our family becoming something more than the sum of its parts. So please bear with this retelling.

Dec

Cal went back into Matt’s room and played with some of his toys in there, while I sat and watched from the chair next to the bed. Matt was still asleep. My disturbed night and early morning started to catch up with me, and I found myself dozing too.

Dreaming. I am running, trying to fly but can’t get off the ground. The man in brown boots is chasing me, and I keep looking behind me, trying to see his face, but I can’t quite make it out. He is gaining on me. Just as I manage to launch myself upwards into the air, he catches my ankle and sends me spinning to the ground. Blows from fists and feet hit me, and I lie helplessly as his brown boot moves in slow motion towards my face …

Cal

So, all the presents were opened, and Mum and Granny were making dinner, Dad was watching TV and drinking beer, and Dec and I were in Uncle Matty’s room. I was playing on the floor, and Dec had started off watching me from the chair, but then had fallen asleep. Suddenly, he made a noise.

‘Unh’

Matt

The next thing I know I’m pulled out of my comfy darkness.

‘Mm … ungh … no … no …’

I opened my eyes to see Dec sitting in the chair, apparently asleep but looking like it wasn’t a pleasant experience. He was twitching and murmuring. Cal had looked up from his toys, and wandered over to stand next to me, looking interestedly at Dec. He glanced at me.

‘Dec does mms and nos when he’s asleep. Sometimes he does a big swear.’

I wasn’t sure what to do. Wasn’t there something bad about waking people up from nightmares? Maybe Cal shouldn’t be in here. I was caught in indecision as Dec’s murmurings got louder, and he kicked out with a foot.

‘No … no … wana … ungh … aah … no … NO!’

And with that, my dilemma was solved, as Dec’s eyes opened. He looked dazedly at us for a moment, then collected himself, gripped the arms of the chair, levered himself upright.

Cal

I went to stand in front of Dec, interested to see what he looked like when he was having a bad dream. When he did it in the night, it was dark, and I couldn’t see his face. Dec’s eyes opened, and he looked like he thought he was somewhere else, then looked at me and Uncle Matty. I didn’t know if he knew if he’d been talking. I was disappointed he didn’t do any swears.

‘You shouted.’

‘Yuh ohkay? Mahking noises.’

‘Oh God.’

Dec rubbed his face with his hands.

‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to doze off. I was dreaming.’

What’s going on in here?’

Dad must have heard Dec shout. I hadn’t said anything about Dec’s bad dreams, because once it was the daytime, I’d forgotten about them.

‘Dec was dreaming. He makes noises.’

‘Yeah, I’ve had some weird dreams. Not sure it’s good for Cal, I’ve woken him up a couple of times’

Dreams about what?’

‘Oh –’

Dec looked at me, and I knew I wasn’t going to get to hear what the bad dreams were about.

‘– people chasing me, flashbacks to … recent events.’

Jesus. How long for?’

‘Pretty much since it happened, it’s been worse since the op. Don’t know if the anaesthetic messed me up a bit. First time it’s happened during the day, though. Sorry, Matt, did I wake you up?’

Matt

I made as light of it as I could, just in case Jay felt like using the fact I’d had a somniloquist to contend with against my ability to eat dinner at the table with the normal people.

‘Noh, was entertaihing. Meh and Cal enjohyed the shoh.’

It had certainly been true of Cal, who had watched with unconcealed captivation.

Cal

Uncle Matty didn’t seem to mind; he seemed as interested as I was.

‘Maybe I should sleep on the sofa tonight.’

I don’t think that’ll be necessary. Let’s see how it goes. Cal, were you scared when Dec shouted?’

I wouldn’t have said yes, even if I had been, because I didn’t want Dec to sleep on the sofa instead of underneath me.

‘No, he makes lots of noises. I waked him up, he said I could.’

There you go, then, mate. Seems OK for the time being. Bloody head-case. OK, guys, I think lunch is nearly ready. Matty, are you still up for joining us?’

Uncle Matty was going to sit at the table with us for Christmas dinner. It would be the first time he had been out of bed to anywhere else in the house apart from his room, and I could tell he was excited about it. He was smiling, and his eyes were wide and sparkly.

Dec

As we crossed the hall, the smell of dinner wafted out of the kitchen, and I remembered Beth had asked me to set the table.

‘I’ll be right there, Cal, just need to talk to Mummy.’

I popped my head round the kitchen door. The table was already set. Beth and Jay’s mum were busy with steaming pans and pouring things and sizzling things.

‘Sorry, Beth, I fell asleep. This all smells amazing.’

_Don’t worry, sweetheart, it’s all done now.

‘Anything I can do?’

_Has James checked with Matty about dinner?

‘Yeah, they’re getting sorted now.’

_Oh good. See, Carol? James wouldn’t let him if he didn’t think he was up to it. We’ll keep an eye on him. OK, Dec, no I don’t think there’s anything. Maybe keep Cal occupied while we’re waiting?

‘On it’.

Cal and I played for a while. The clattering continued in the kitchen, and then the door opened and Beth called out

_Dinner’s ready.

‘Come on, Cal, let’s go and get some Christmas dinner.

\can I take Optimus Prime?

‘I guess so.’

\and my stegosaurus book?

‘I think just one thing.’

He chose the Transformer and we went into the kitchen. The table was magnificent, a huge turkey in the middle and bowls of hot vegetables and roast potatoes, jugs of gravy, stuff I didn’t recognise, all around it.

‘Wow. Good work, Beth, Mrs Scott.’

#Thank you Declan. You know, why don’t you call me Carol?

‘OK, thanks.’

I looked at her, surprised, and she gave me half a smile. Cal climbed into his seat and plonked Optimus Prime onto the table. He had a sideways glance at Beth to check it was OK. She raised her eyebrows at him, but didn’t say anything.

\dec can you sit next to me?

I looked at Beth.

‘Don’t know, mate, we’d better see what your mum wants to do.’

_Well there’s a space for Matty here, everywhere else is up for grabs.

\next to me, next to me. Granny, can you sit the other side? You can play with Optimus Prime.

#Thank you, Calum. I’m honoured.

As we both sat down in our appointed places, the door opened and Matt and Jay came in. Matt was in a wheelchair, which Jay pushed up to the space at the table. Matt was smiling broadly.

}Whoa, awsohm.

_Glad you could join us, sweetheart. James, sit next to Matty so you can help him.

}Noh, gihv a try mysehf.

Beth bent down and kissed his cheek. Carol was looking at him, close to tears. Jay was opening a bottle of wine.

łAnyone for a drop of red?

}Yeh. Lahge glahs.

łNo booze with your meds, mate.

}Ohn glahs? It’s Chrihsmus.

Jay looked at Beth.

łOne glass?

She considered it.

_Maybe one, but a small one, and with dinner, don’t slurp it all at once.

}Cohm on, gahging! Lahge glahs eahsier tuh hohd.

Beth rolled her eyes.

_OK, large glass with a small amount in it. On a full stomach only, and a glass of water for your raging thirst. That’s the rule.

}Ohkay nuhrsy.

łAnyone else? Mum?

#Lovely, dear, yes please.

łDec?

‘OK.’

Although I thought I might have to take it slowly, after my reaction to the beer last night.

łCal?

\daddy! I don’t have wine. I’ve got juice, look.

łSorry, my mistake. Jay? Yes please, big glass, don’t mind if I do. Merry Christmas everyone. Here’s to family.

He raised his glass.

}Behth? Yuh fuhgot hehr.

_Oh, no, it’s OK, Matty, I’ll just have water for now. Family.

She raised her glass and we all did the same. Magical moment for me. Laid to rest a lot of ghosts. Beyond my self-absorbed happiness, I became aware of glances going on round the table.

}Spihl, Behth. Wahter foh Chrihsmus dinner? Buhlshih. Oops, sohry.

_Honestly, Matty, I’m going to ban Dec from your room.

‘Why am I getting the blame?’

_Well it’s only since you arrived that the swear count has increased. Last night I had it loud and clear over the monitor thank you very much.

Matt and I exchanged a look, part guilt, part amusement.

}Behside the poihn. Wahter?

Beth rolled her eyes, looked at Jay and took his hand. Carol had a sharp intake of breath and put her hand over her mouth, eyes shining.

}Say ih, befohr Mum blohs a gahsket.

_OK, well, as you seem to have guessed, we’re having another baby. Early days, long way to go, not due until the summer. But yes, that’s why I’m drinking water.

Jay put his arm round her and kissed her on the forehead, then smiled back at us all.

}Greht news.

#Oh Beth, I’m so pleased for you.

Suddenly realised I had to pretend I didn’t already know.

‘Congratulations.’

_We were going to tell you today anyway. Cal found out, and he’s not good with secrets, so sooner rather than later seemed best.

#You must be thrilled, after all this time.

_Pretty thrilled, yeah. Tired though.

#Oh, and you’ve just done all this.

She gestured to the table.

#I wish I’d known.

_Carol, I’m fine, just tired. You know what it’s like. Dec’s been a great help, spending so much time with Cal. Thanks for my lie-in this morning, sweetheart, it was a life-saver.

‘Glad to help.’

}Ahny chahce of eahting behfor next Chrihsmus?

_Sorry, Matty, let’s get stuck in. But it was you who wanted to stop and chat about why I’m drinking water.

The meal was amazing. Everyone was in high spirits. Jay and Carol were fuelled by wine, Cal was fuelled by Christmas, Beth was fuelled by some kind of inner fire, Matt and I were fuelled, for different reasons, just by being there. We all sat for a long time afterwards, telling awful cracker jokes, wearing silly hats, talking. Cal got bored with the grown-up chat, and had disappeared to play some more.

łOK, another toast. Fill your glasses.

Matt pushed his forwards.

łYou’ve had your quota. Water or juice now, mate.

}Fucking spoihlsport.

#Matthew. Really. I’m beginning to think Beth was right.

}Sohry Muhm. Dec’s rehlehsed my ihner swehrer.

#I don’t think it needed much releasing, dear.

łDec?

‘No more for me, I’ll be asleep.’

łHere you go then, Mum, finish it up. Anyway. Now I’m a bit pissed, there’s something I want to say, just so it’s said and everyone knows and there are no more misunderstandings. We had a toast to family before. I just want you all to know that my family includes Declan Summers. And all who sail in her. Forever. Whatever he gets up to, whether I like it or not. Just so it’s official. Right, Dec? Oh bloody hell, pass him the bloody tissues, he’s bloody off again.

I looked at Beth through my tears, and she smiled back at me. This felt very close to the ‘real parents’ thing I’d wanted when I was much younger. When I was in foster care I’d had ridiculous dreams about a ‘forever family’, but Jay had just given me that, almost ceremonially, despite the large quantity of wine he’d drunk, and my heart was bursting.

Matt reached across the table and clasped my hand.

}Wehcom bro, or cuz, or auhnty, or whaever.

Carol didn’t quite know what to do with the information, and just patted me on the shoulder.

}Jay, sohry, thihnk Ih behter go back to bed. Toh much good nehws. Noht enough wihn.

łOK, mate, let’s go.

Jay wheeled Matt out of the kitchen.

Matt

And so I’d made it to Christmas dinner and beyond. In my wheelchair, admittedly, in case Jay needed to whisk me back for some emergency fussing in the middle of pouring the brandy butter, but I was there. I got to see parts of the house I had only previously visited in my wildest dreams, starting with a trek across the hallway, taking in a glimpse of the living room on the way, and then the whole huge family kitchen complete with fuck-off ebloodynormous table laden with enough festive fare to feed a moderately sized army. I even fed myself, although I had to insist on that. I lasted for all of it and more, to the crap cracker jokes, the paper hats slipping forgotten to the floor, the slightly drunken laughter (although that was really just Jay and Mum).

I had been ‘allowed’ one small glass of wine, despite my loud protests and well-reasoned arguments. Dec didn’t seem to be drinking much, and Beth – well Beth was on the water on account of being pregnant.

Whoa. Hadn’t seen that one coming. I’d known they’d wanted another kid from hints dropped by Mum, but Cal was six, and it seemed to be taking long enough that who knew if it was going to happen. Mum nearly burst with happiness, right there at the table. Not only was she going to be a granny again, but her little boy had made it to dinner. I’d like to think it was the latter that made her happiest, but who am I kidding, grandchildren win hands down every time. I could have single-handedly flown to Mars and come back with proof of life up there, and Jay and Beth would still have trumped me with the ‘having a baby’ card. Not bitter. Not really. Just how it was.

Oh, and apparently, as if a baby wasn’t enough, we had another new member of the Scott family to welcome. Jay had made a pissed toast, after Cal had left the table to play with more toys, saying that Dec was now officially part of his family, forever, and although Jay kind of looked defiantly at me and Mum while he said it as if he expected us to argue with him, really it wasn’t a problem. I don’t know why they hadn’t just adopted him when he was young enough, to be honest, but this seemed like the same kind of thing, although less official, and I was cool with it, not that I had any say. I looked at Mum, who had been less than happy at having to share Christmas with ‘that boy’, as she’d called him, just to me, but she was patting his shoulder and smiling, so it looked like he’d won her over as well.

And that was kind of it for Christmas. Dec stayed a couple more days, then he went back to Devon and that was that. What? Oh, you don’t really want to know about all that shit with the ‘leave me alone’ and the bonding do you? Oh for fuck’s sake, alright, if it will shut you up.

Cal

So Mum and Dad told everyone the secret, and it wasn’t that Dec was going to be my brother. They were going to get a baby, but not until the summer, which was ages away, and they didn’t know if it would be a brother or a sister. But everyone was happy and drank wine, and pulled crackers and wore the hats and gave me all the toys out of the crackers, then told each other the jokes from the crackers, and there were some really funny ones, like ‘What’s brown and sticky? A stick.’ That’s funny because you think the answer is going to be something like Marmite, or poo, which are brown and sticky. But it means something that is stick-y, which is what a stick is. It was my favourite joke for ages. My second favourite joke was ‘Why are pirates called pirates? Because they aargh.’ That’s funny because aargh is what pirates say, but it sounds like you’ve said ‘because they are’ only in a pirate way.

I got bored after a while, because everyone was talking about boring things like how to make gravy, and I was allowed to get down to play, although Mum said I couldn’t eat any chocolate until later.

I heard them all still talking and laughing in the kitchen, and I felt happy inside. When Uncle Matty was in hospital and we came to live with Granny, there was a lot of talking but not much laughing, and the talking was all serious and I couldn’t join in. Then Uncle Matty woke up, and Dad smiled like he hadn’t done for ages, and things got brighter, and then Uncle Matty came out of hospital, and there were still serious talks, but it seemed better, apart from not being able to talk about Dec.

Now, things seemed better than back to normal. Dec was here, and Uncle Matty was here, and everyone in the house was happy. It felt like a long time since everyone in the house was happy.

Dec

#Well, what a lovely meal, dear. It all went very well, I think. I’m so pleased Matthew stayed for so long and did so much for himself. He’ll be tired now, I should think.

I had managed to wipe my eyes.

‘Best. Roasties. Ever.’

_Don’t let Rose hear you say that.

‘Oh, she knows!’

_Have you spoken to her today?

‘No, I was going to try my phone out, haven’t had a chance.’

_Don’t leave it too long.

‘I’ll do it this afternoon.’

#Beth, dear, why don’t you go and have a sit down? Declan and I will clear the table and make a start on the washing up, won’t we Declan?

‘Yeah, no worries. Go and put your feet up.’

_Oh you angels, thank you.

And then it was just me and Carol. I didn’t know her that well; although she had visited Jay and Beth plenty of times when I had lived with them, I had tended to keep out of the way, be polite if we came across each other (gaping boxers incident aside) and do my own thing. She stood up and started collecting plates into a pile. I noticed that she struggled to lift more than a couple at a time, and remembered Jay saying she had arthritis.

‘Here, let me do that.’

I piled all the plates on top of each other, then realised that I was going to find it a bit hard to lift them too, with a bruised hand and healing arm. I looked at her.

‘Bitten off more than I can chew, I think. Sorry, trying to be chivalrous.’

#It’s very sweet of you, dear. We’re a couple of old crocks, really, aren’t we. Maybe you should initiate me into your Cripples Corner.

I raised my eyebrows in surprise.

‘I’m not sure you’d appreciate the bad language, it’s a bit of a rule.’

#I don’t really mind the language, dear, I’ve got used to it over the years with Jameson and Matthew. You need to be careful with young Calum though, he idolises his dad and his uncle – and you. He’ll do what you do.

‘I know, I’m trying. Matt and Jay are wicked though.’

#Tell me something I don’t know, dear. Right, how are we going to do this? One plate at a time?

It was slow progress, but we managed to cram most of it into the dishwasher. There were a few pans we optimistically decided to leave for Jay, as I didn’t want to get my dressings wet in the washing up bowl, and Carol thought they’d be too heavy for her. And we thought he deserved it. She may have been disinhibited by quite a large amount of wine, but Carol was OK.

#I think that’s enough for now. I’m going to put my feet up with Beth.

‘Fancy some coffee?’

#That sounds lovely, dear. I’ll leave that with you.

I boiled the kettle, found a cafetière and some fresh coffee and made a pot. Put it all on a tray with cream and sugar and even put some mince pies on a plate. Felt very pleased with myself. I took the tray into the living room, where Beth and Carol were both asleep in front of the TV. I moved on to Matt’s room, where Cal was building a road for his cars out of Lego blocks. Matt was asleep in bed, and Jay was asleep in the chair. Christmas afternoons everywhere always seemed to turn out the same – only the kids awake. A bit deflated, I took the tray back into the living room, poured myself a cup of coffee and took it back into Matt’s room.

‘Need any help, Cal?’

\no, I don’t need help, but you can play with my cars.

‘That’d be great. Which ones can I have?’

I knelt down and engrossed myself in the tiny world Cal had created. He had a huge imagination and was fully absorbed in his game. The room grew dark, and I put the lamp on so we could see what we were doing. Jay woke with a groan and a stretch.

łWhat time is it? Jesus, it’s dark already. How long have I been asleep?

‘Several weeks have passed.’

łHa ha. Have I missed the washing up?

‘You know you have, you planned it that way.’

łVery true, just checking I don’t need to doze off again. Where is everyone?

‘Well four of us are in here. Your mum and Beth were asleep in the living room last time I checked.’

łBetter go and see if there’s anything I need to be doing.

He ran his hands through his hair.

łDamn, I was going to get us out for a walk this afternoon. Bit dark now.

‘We can do it tomorrow. How about a game of football – is there a park?’

łGreat idea. How about it Cal? You and me versus Dec and Granny?

\i don’t think Dec will win if Granny’s on his side.

łI don’t think Granny will win if Dec’s on her side. Especially if she leaves the free kicks to him. I’d better go and see what Beth is up to with Mum, could have all sorts of plans involving me doing stuff I’d rather not do, if I’m not careful.

‘There’s some pans soaking in the kitchen could do with washing up.’

łYeah, right.

Jay shot me a look and padded out of the room, shaking his head.

I carried on playing with Cal and his cars for a while. I became aware of a ringing sound, quite faint.

‘Is that a phone? Can you hear it Cal?’

\it’s from there.

He pointed to the corner of the room where I’d been sitting that morning. There was the box with my new phone in it. It was ringing. I leapt over to the box and tried to open it, unearthing packaging, small plastic bags, earphones, and a charger before the phone finally tumbled into my hand. It had stopped ringing. I looked at the screen: Missed Call. Rose. Fuck. I’d forgotten about calling her.

‘Cal, I need to phone Rose. Back in a minute.’

I went into the kitchen, which seemed to be the only downstairs room not full of sleeping people. I looked at the phone, trying to work out how to dial a number or access the address book. It was different from my last phone and a much more recent model. While I was in the middle of pushing buttons and scrolling through menus, the screen flashed up with Rose’s name, and an option to answer or decline. I pressed answer.

‘Hi Rose! Sorry, I didn’t get to the phone in time just now. Happy Christmas. How are you?’

:Hello, love, oh it’s grand to talk to you. I’m grand. Just thought I’d ring on your new phone. Was it a nice surprise?

‘Yeah. A bit overwhelmed, to tell you the truth.’

:Well, Happy Christmas, love. Have you had a good day?

‘I’ve had the best day. It’s been amazing. Started a bit early, with Cal waking up before three, but it’s been pretty special. Thanks for the present, by the way, it’ll be great in a few days when I get these dressings off.’

:Oh, you’re welcome love, and thank you for the smellies, dead posh they are. I think you might have had a bit of help choosing?

‘Yeah, Lisa did it all really. Otherwise you’d have had an old potato, wrapped in a bit of cling film. I might have washed the potato first – you deserve the best.’

:Oh love, you sound really happy. I don’t think I’ve heard you happy before, not properly. It’s doing you good being there.

‘It really is, I can’t quite believe it still. I feel a bit all over the place. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back.’

:When’s that love?

‘Not sure, Jay’s going to bring me back, don’t know when yet. I’ll let you know.’

:Alright, love. See you soon then. Love to Jay and Beth and little Calum.

‘Cheers Rose, bye.’

I pressed ‘end call’ and put the phone in my pocket as Cal wandered into the kitchen.

\can you help me make a Dalek?

‘I’ll have a go. Have you got instructions, or is this just kind of free-hand?

\it’s in the box.

‘OK, bring it in, we can do it on the table here.

Cal skipped off to get the box as the phone in my pocket pinged. I pulled it out. Text.

Nico: =I just check you still alive. Happy Christmas 🙂 from Nico & Lis x

Me: =Just abt 2 build Dalek. Very much alive. Thanks v much 4 laptop 🙂 talk ltr. Dec.

I did feel back in the land of the living, amazing what a difference a phone made. I had felt completely out of touch for the last couple of weeks. Cal returned with a large box full of complicated small pieces and a very detailed several-page booklet of instructions. We emptied the pieces onto the table and sorted them into piles, then started making the model. Cal lost focus easily, but I needed him to manage the fiddly bits, my fingers still tripping over themselves at times.

‘Why don’t you go and get a book or something so you’ve got something to do while I’m working out what goes where?’

\i want to help you.

‘OK, it’s up to you, but this might take a long time. There might be some boring bits for you.’

Some time later we had finally finished. Cal just about kept his concentration, although he was fidgeting a lot by the time we put the finishing touches to the model. The rest of the house was still quiet, and I could feel myself drooping a bit too.

‘Why don’t we go and show your dad?’

\kay. Then what can we do?

‘Well …’

I looked at the clock in the kitchen. Well past time for people to be awake and helping me entertain Cal.

‘Let’s go and see if Daddy wants to play a game with you.’

I followed Cal into the living room, where Carol, Jay and Beth were all asleep on the sofas. I mean, seriously? I know we’d all been up early, I knew that better than any of them, but this was verging on the ridiculous. I looked on as Cal launched himself onto Jay’s lap.

\daddy, what can I do now? We made a Dalek, look. Can we play my football game?

Jay’s eyes had snapped open as soon as Cal kneed him in the balls, and he tried hard to focus on the model Cal was holding in front of his face.

łAh, Jesus. Sorry, Cal, agh, what? Uh. Great, er, Dalek. Jesus, mind what you’re doing there. Jesus.

Beth stirred beside him.

_Was I asleep? What time is it?

She looked at the clock.

_God, it’s really late. I should get some tea or something.

She got up and headed for the kitchen.

\daddy, what can I do?

Jay was still trying to get his breath back. He caught my eye.

łI don’t suppose ..?

Nope, wasn’t having that, however grateful I was to be part of the family.

‘I’ve been the only one awake with Cal all afternoon.’

łFair enough. OK, Cal, let’s see what we can do. Fancy helping Mummy get some tea?

\no, I want to play a game.

I laughed.

‘Suck it up, Daddy. No getting out of it.’

Jay glanced over at Carol, who was still asleep. No assistance there, either.

łI guess all that wine is taking its toll. OK, Cal, let’s have a look then …

I left the room to avoid being sucked into Cal’s game. Much as I had enjoyed being with him, he was a tiring bundle of energy, I’d got out of the habit of being with him, and I felt drained. I went into the kitchen, where Beth was starting to wash up the pans Carol and I had left.

‘Oh, we left those for Jay.’

_You’d have been waiting a long time, then! It’s OK, there’s not much. Thanks for doing the rest, great help.

‘No worries. Anything else I can do?’

_No, sweetheart, I’m just going to finish this and put some tea on the table, people can help themselves. Won’t take a minute. Thanks for being with Cal this afternoon. You must be exhausted.

‘Yeah, a bit. He kept me busy. Loved it, though.’

_You’ve always been so good with him, the two of you with your heads together, cooking up some mischief or other. He’s missed you. We all have.

‘Same here. Don’t start me off again.’

_Thanks for coming up, Dec, it’s been like old times. Well, not that old I suppose. Feels like a long time ago though. You’ve grown up a lot – I keep forgetting how young you are.

I felt slightly miffed at being considered young. I was in my last few weeks of being a teenager.

‘Twenty next month.’

_Sorry, sweetheart, twenty sounds really young to me! You’ve had a lot to cope with in the past few months, when you add it all up. James told me a lot of what you told him last night. I’m sorry we weren’t there for you.

‘Fuck, Beth, you’ve got nothing to apologise for. You and Jay had your own shit going on. I did some appallingly stupid things and made some bloody mind-blowing decisions, I just made it harder for you. Looking back, I can’t quite understand myself. I made myself a really deep hole, and I’d still be in it if it hadn’t been for Rose. And Nico.’

_Rose is so lovely. She really cares about you.

‘I know.’

_Nico and Lis care about you too. I’m glad you’ve got them all.

‘Yeah, me too.’

_I’m glad you’ve got us as well.

‘Thanks, Beth. I feel very lucky.’

_You’re not the only one. We were all pretty close to losing each other, weren’t we? Come here.

She held her arms open, and hugged me. Predictably, tears were shed on both sides. She patted my back and let go.

_Well I’ve got my hormones as an excuse. What’s yours?

‘Bloody head case, according to Jay.’

_You’re seeing someone though, aren’t you, sweetheart?

‘Got an appointment in the New Year.’

_I think it might help, don’t you? Just sorting through stuff in general, let alone all the recent stuff. You’ve had quite a tough start in life.

‘I’ll give it a go. Don’s orders anyway, so not much choice.’

_He usually knows what he’s doing.

‘Yeah. Anyway, I might go and check on Matt.’

_Is that code for taking a nap? It’s nice and quiet in there, I can keep Cal in the living room.

I grinned at her.

‘I’ll see how it goes.’

Matt’s room was completely dark. I switched on the Christmas tree lights, and looked over at Matt. His eyes were closed and his breathing regular. I sat in the chair by his bed and took the phone out of my pocket, thinking I would try to get to grips with it. The first thing I pressed caused a loud trilling. Matt stirred and opened his eyes.

‘Shit, sorry, mate, didn’t mean to wake you up.’

}Dark.

‘Happens at night.’

}Whas tihm?

‘About six thirty.’

}Bolluhks. Haht bluhdy slehping soh much.

‘No different from everyone else today. Me and Cal have been holding the fort since after lunch, everyone else crashed. Came in here for a bit of peace and quiet. So stop your bloody chatter.’

}Pihs off. How’s yuh phone?

‘I’m just trying it out. It’s different from my old one, trying to work out where everything is.’

}Hahv a lohk?

I handed it to him.

}Had ohn lihk this. Prehty easy. Hehr’s yuh contahts, yuh cahl or text from hehr. This foh intehnet. Sehtings foh Wi-Fi – uhs Jay’s while yuhr hehr, I’ll lohg yuh on. Thehr yuh goh. Easy.

He handed it back.

‘Well I know where to come for a quick tutorial. Thanks.’

}Hahv my uhses.

‘Everyone’s good at something.’

Carol appeared in the doorway.

#I think Beth’s put some tea on the table. Do either of you want anything?

}Noh Ihm stuhfed. Cup of teh tho?

#Right you are, dear. Declan?

‘Cup of tea sounds great. No food just yet, though, thanks. I’m stuffed too.’

Carol left to fill our order.

}Muhm’s wahmed up tuh yuh a bih.

‘Yeah, seems to have. I can understand why she was a bit off to start with, me walking in looking like a I’d lost a cage fight, having caused Jay and Beth no end of grief.’

}Yuh must hahv chahmed her.

‘I think several large glasses of wine helped, then we bonded over the dishwasher.’

}Bluhdy ahrslicker.

‘She’s alright, your mum.’

}I knoh. Juhs jeluhs couhnt hehp wash uhp.

‘Really?’

}Fuck noh. Only rehson Ihm in behd, tuh avoid the dishes.

‘Ha ha, seems to be working. Keep it up.’

Carol came back in with two mugs of tea, one in Matt’s spouted cup.

#Are you alright with this dear? Do you want me or Declan to help you?

}Yuh, Muhm. Sohry Dec, mahn poihts.

‘Understood. I’ll leave you to it.’

I stood up.

‘Oh, by the way, your mum’s the newest member of Cripple’s Corner. She’s up for the dirty songs and the swearing.’

Matt spluttered into his tea as I left the room.

The rest of the evening passed in a lazy, dozy haze. Cal, who had effectively been awake since three o’clock that morning, went to bed at seven with hardly any protest. I read him a really short story and Beth tucked him in, still wearing his Arsenal shirt, which he refused to take off. He apparently fell asleep while Beth was still talking to him.

The TV was on, taking away the need for conversation, and my mind drifted contentedly. Carol was still sitting in with Matt, Jay and Beth were cosied up on one sofa, I was stretched out on the other. The phone rang, shattering the peace. Jay had a brief conversation with Beth’s mum, then handed the phone over to Beth, mouthing ‘tell her’. Beth rolled her eyes and nodded, taking the phone into the kitchen.

Jay picked up the TV remote and managed to find a repeat of a rugby international on a sports channel. We watched it for a while, occasionally commenting on some aspect of the play, or a refereeing decision. Jay suddenly sat up and looked at me.

łI’ve just had a bloody brilliant idea.

‘OK.’

łAren’t Raiders at home on Sunday?

I thought about it, a bit surprised that Raiders had been so far from my mind. If these people were my family, then Raiders were my home, and I’d just recently been granted access back there too. Before my mind could go wandering down too many guilty paths, I answered Jay.

‘Yeah. Against Warriors.’

łWhy don’t we go? I can take you home – we could bring Cal, that’d give Beth a break, he’d love it. Three birds with one stone.

I hadn’t thought about going back. I had settled back into life with Jay and Beth so quickly that, for the moment, it hadn’t occurred to me it wasn’t going to last. I felt like someone had poured cold water on me.

‘Isn’t it a sell out?’

łI reckon I could swing some tickets. I’ll talk to Don, I need to ring him anyway. What do you think?

‘Yeah, great.’

He looked so excited by his plan that I joined in, even though I felt rather churned up about it.

łI’ll talk to Beth once she’s off the phone. I can get Matty up in the morning, she should be alright for a day, I can come back after so I’m not away overnight. I’ll ring Don first thing.

‘It’s Boxing Day.’

łIt’s the Friday before a Sunday game, they’ll be training. It’s only ex-players like me and injured nancies like you that get Boxing Day off.

‘Oh yeah.’

łAre you OK? You’re a bit quiet. Is it a bad idea?

‘No, it’s a great idea. I’d love to watch Raiders with you and Cal. Just hadn’t given going home much thought. Been in a bit of a bubble since I got here, and I think it just popped.’

łJesus, sorry, mate. Maybe it was a bit insensitive of me. We can leave it if you want. Stay a bit longer?

I thought about it, but in the end, whether I went back in a few days or a few weeks, it was going to feel the same.

‘No, it sounds good if you can swing it. I haven’t seen a home game for a long time. Should get back to Rose, I guess, or even go back to my flat.’

I wasn’t relishing that one, but it would have to happen eventually – I couldn’t impose on Rose for much longer, now I was getting fitter.

łOK, if you’re sure. You know you can stay as long as you like, come back whenever you like, don’t you?

‘Thanks.’

Jay settled back down to watch the game, a satisfied look on his face, although I could no longer concentrate on the TV now as thoughts from pre-Christmas crept in.

I wondered if I would see DivDav or Big at the game. Needed to think about how I would handle that. I had no idea if the police had approached either of them about my allegations. Fuck, fuck, fuck, all the complications I had managed to forget over the last forty-eight hours came crashing back and I started to feel really gloomy.

The game finished and Beth came back in to say she was going to bed.

łIs your Mum excited?

_You bet. I talked to both my sisters too. Rachel’s already planning what to knit. Lou wants to visit for New Year. I tried to put her off, don’t know if it worked.

łBugger. Oh well, can’t be helped. You’d like to see her, wouldn’t you.

_Course.

łI’ll manage then. If I get pissed enough she might not annoy me at all. I’ll be up after I’ve sorted Matty – me and Dec have had an idea about Sunday …

They waved goodnight, then I heard Beth go upstairs while Jay went in to Matt to check he was alright for the night. I stayed on the sofa, still feeling sorry for myself. The sports channel was now showing football, previewing the Boxing Day games. I turned the sound down and let it drift over me.

I tried to be positive. I’d had a great couple of days, and I was here for another two. Jay, Beth and Cal had welcomed me back into their family with open arms, permanently and unreservedly. Despite everything I’d done, the mess I’d made of everything over the last few months, I hadn’t lost them. It was more than I deserved. And yet, it wasn’t ever going to be the same as it had been. It was going to be visits and weekends, and once I was playing again, I would hardly see them during the season.

This seemed like another loss on top of everything. It welled up in me, starting somewhere below my ribs and then spreading up into my throat. I curled on the sofa and cried, trying to be as quiet as possible. I didn’t want anyone to hear me, but couldn’t stop the tears, giving myself over to a good dose of self-pity.

24. Bruised but not broken

In which Dec gets used to a life where he needs help.

Dec

I woke up to the sound of a phone ringing. I couldn’t work out where I was for a moment, and the flying sensation from my dream lingered. It was not completely dark in the room, but still felt pretty early. Then the ringing stopped and Rose’s voice filtered through the remainder of my dream, as I remembered I was in Rose’s spare room.

:Hello? … speaking … who is this? … yes, we did … I’m sorry, I can’t say where he is at the moment. Would you like to leave a message, I’ll make sure he gets it.

Rose, my bouncer. I smiled, started to stretch, forgetting exactly what I was stretching until needles of pain ran up my arms, down my back and gathered in my collar bone. I yelped. Rose rushed in.

:What is it, love?

‘I’m OK. Forgot I had broken bones. Aah. Fuck. Sorry. Someone for me on the phone?’

:Your boss, that Mr Barker. As far as I could tell. He wants you to call him this morning. I’ve got to go to work now. I’ll ring you later. Don’t forget to ring him, and ring that policeman too. Promise me, love.

‘Promise.’

:I thought I’d let you sleep this morning – do you want some breakfast before I go?

‘No, thanks, I’ll be fine.

:Anything else you need?

I was finding it hard to ask, but swallowed my pride.

‘Could you get me some of my pills? Everything’s bloody hurting.’

:Alright, love.

Rose fetched the pills and a glass of water and waited while I took them.

:Anything else you need?

‘No thanks. Go to work. See you later.’

I settled back in the bed as she left the room, and heard the door shut behind her. I wasn’t an early morning person, but felt rested, despite having flown round the world in my dreams. Thought about getting up and facing the day. Fell asleep immediately.

Woken up by the intercom. Opened my eyes groggily. Fuck it, needed to get up to answer the door. Arms and legs wouldn’t coordinate, got tangled in the duvet. Nearly fell trying to stand up. All my aches and pains woke up together and held me up even more. The buzzer sounded again, more insistently. Deep breaths. They’d have to wait while I sorted myself out. Slowed down. Got organised. Stood up carefully. Made my way out of the room to the intercom, which was buzzing again.

‘Hello.’

~Dec, it’s Lis. The password is ‘underpants’.

‘What?’

~Sorry, just joking. You sound really sleepy. Have you just woken up?

‘Yeah.’

~Sorry to get you out of bed. It is quite late, though. Can I come in?

‘Yeah, course.’

I pushed the button to open the outside door, and went to open the front door. After some juggling between the fingers poking out of the plaster on my right hand, and my swollen left hand, I managed to get it open. Lis came in, carrying several shopping bags. She looked at my dishevelled appearance.

~I’m guessing you haven’t phoned any of the people you were supposed to phone this morning? Didn’t Nico ring to remind you? Honestly, he’s so brainless.

I tried to drag my own brain into some form of activity. Who was I supposed to phone?

‘Er …’

Lis tutted and rolled her eyes.

~I’ve been given strict instructions, from Rose, so you know I have to do as I’m told, that you should have phoned DI Johnson before eleven. Also, you’re supposed to ring Don this morning.

She looked at her watch.

~It is now eleven twelve.

I groaned.

‘Shit. I just went back to sleep. Shit.’

I stood in a stupor, not knowing which way to go first.

~OK, don’t panic, first thing to do is sit down before you collapse. Living room, yeah?

I followed her in.

~Right, now, you might have missed the police guy, or he might still be around. Are you up to trying right now? You still seem half asleep to me. I can ring and explain if you like? See if there’s another time later, yeah?

That sounded like a good plan, one that involved me doing no talking to any policeman, and got me off the hook for a short while.

‘Kay.’

Lis made the call. She spoke for a few minutes, then hung up.

~OK, you missed DI Johnson, he’s in a meeting till later, but his secretary said he wants to visit you this afternoon. OK?

‘Kay.’

~Right, next job on Rose’s list, make sure you’ve had some breakfast. Unless you ate in your sleep, I’m assuming that’s currently a no. Let’s go and see what’s in the kitchen, yeah?

I followed her out.

~Well let’s see if you know where things are. What are you having?

‘Toast, tea.’

~Off you go then, I’m sure you’re more than capable of boiling a kettle and burning some bread. Anything you can’t manage, let me know. Don’t get butter on your cast, yeah? I won’t stand here and watch, I’ll sort out the clothes I got, show them to you while you’re eating. I’m quite pleased with myself, I have to say. Nico’s pretty set in his ways as far as clothes are concerned, I enjoyed having a free hand.

From the amount of bags she’d brought in with her, Lisa had bought up the city centre. I tried not to think about what she might have bought, or how much she might have spent, and focussed on trying to get my faulty arms to make my breakfast.

I boiled the kettle with no problem – there was already enough water in it and I didn’t need to run the tap or lift the lid, or do anything else I would struggle with. Tea bag – easy. Pouring the kettle, however, took some coordination, and I slopped water over the counter.

‘Fuck.’

Teaspoon was a little more fiddly. Four pint cartons of milk also proved to be hard to handle with a damaged left hand, and a fair amount of milk joined the water on the counter and dripped down onto the floor.

‘Fuck.’

Squashed the bread a bit getting it into the toaster, and failed to butter it in any recognisable way.

‘Fuck it.’

I couldn’t hold the knife properly in my left hand, and my right arm being encased in plaster meant I couldn’t move it properly. It dawned on me that I was going to have to get used, for the time being, to asking for help. It also dawned on me that there were easier things to have for breakfast. Tomorrow I would try cereal.

‘Fuck it. Lis?’

~Yep.

‘Can you help me?’

She came into the kitchen, saw the mess I’d made of the counter and the toast, took the knife out of my hand and sorted it out.

~Hm, so that’s what all the ‘fuck‘s were about. Being on your own’s not going to be so easy, is it, as long as you’re plastered up. Not so annoyed to have visitors calling in now, yeah?

She rubbed my shoulder and smiled.

‘Yeah, yeah.’

I smiled back.

~Okay, eat your breakfast, I’ll talk you through the Declan Summers winter collection. Ooh, I like that, the Summers Winter Collection. Maybe you should take up modelling – um, once your face is a bit more presentable.

I sat at the kitchen table, dropping bits of toast and spilling my tea with my left hand, while Lis wiped up my spills and then brought my clothes in.

She had gone completely over the top. I could have done with one pair of jeans, a couple of t-shirts, one hoody, a few pairs of pants and socks. That’s what washing machines were for. Lisa had bought jeans, chinos, cargo pants, T-shirts, shirts, hoodies, sweatshirts, sweaters, a coat, countless pairs of pants and socks and a pair of trainers, although I didn’t remember telling her my size. She’d even got some pyjama bottoms.

‘What have you done? This is way too much.’

~Don’t worry, I wanted to give you a choice, I can take things back if they don’t fit. Do you like it?

‘It looks great, I can’t try it all on though.’

I gestured to my plaster cast.

~Hm, hadn’t thought of that. Don’t want to rip anything. Tell you what, keep it all, try it on whenever, if it’s not right then, we’ll try to take it back, yeah?

‘It must have cost you a fortune.’

~Oh, don’t worry, I got it on Nico’s credit card. He won’t mind.

‘You already lent me all that money, I haven’t even started to pay it back yet. It’s way too much.’

Lis sighed and rolled her eyes.

~You know what, Dec, it actually isn’t. You have no clothes. You sold almost everything you own to pay back the charities, you owed your soul to your friends and the rest of the world, and then some bastards came and took everything else you had in the most offensive way I can imagine. You actually deserve to have some nice things. We can afford it. Let us do this, yeah?

I sat looking at the table. Humbled, undeserving. Worthless piece of shit. A few tears welled up, spilled over, plopped on my plate. I really needed to stop doing this. Lis knelt beside me and put her hand over mine.

~Look, Dec, it’s all very well you being this big independent I-don’t-need-help kind of guy. Very macho. Man points galore. Extra testosterone and everything. But you actually do need help, just at the moment. It’s OK to ask. It’s OK to take it when it’s offered. It’s … just OK, yeah? We help because we care about you. I hope you care enough about us to let us.

She ruffled my hair and stood up.

~OK, lecture over. Right, what else did Rose tell me I had to do? Oh yes, make sure you call Don. This morning. Well, you’ve got about five minutes left before it’s officially afternoon, yeah? You’d better get on it. Can I leave you to it? You won’t go back to bed?

I sniffed and wiped my eyes on my sleeve.

‘No, I’m OK. I’ll get the phone – oh bollocks, I haven’t got any numbers.’

~Rose said the number is by the phone, she left you a note, and there’s also a list of other numbers – me, Nico, her, Jay and Beth, Don, DI Johnson.

‘Thanks.’

Lis brought the phone and the note into the kitchen.

~Off you go, then, before you get into trouble. Are you OK for something for lunch? I think Rose might have left you a sandwich – oh yeah, in the fridge here. Looks tasty. Nico’s going to call in after training, whenever that may be, once he first remembers and, second, stops chatting for thirty seconds. Later this afternoon I would guess. Call me if you need me, yeah? Anything else you need before I go?

‘No, thanks. Really, thanks, Lis.’

~No trouble, see you soon. Don’t get that plaster wet – no washing up.

‘Not likely.’

~No showers.

‘Sadly, also not likely.’

She walked out, closing the front door behind her.

I looked at the phone and the list of numbers. Dialled Don. He wanted me to go in to see the club medics that afternoon, but I didn’t know what time the police were coming so he asked me to go in first thing in the morning. I’d have to swallow a bit more of my pride and ask Rose or Nico for a lift. Another thing occurred to me, and I filled him in briefly – apart from what I was wearing on Saturday, my spare training kit had been in my flat, along with my studs, club hoodies, everything I was supposed to wear to official events, all ruined. Don was silent for quite a while.

-I’m sorry to hear that, son. That really is out of order. Are you alright? Is there anything I can do?

‘I’m fine. Thanks for asking. Just haven’t got any official gear.’

-Well that’s easily sorted. Come tomorrow in your civvies and we’ll get you another load to take away. The basics at least … Declan, you do know I’m here for anything you need, to talk, any kind of help. I’m starting to realise just how tough a time you’ve had lately. Please let me know if you’re finding things difficult. I’d like to help if I can – it’s not just about rugby.

I didn’t know who Don had been talking to – Nico, Jay, even Rose for all I knew, but someone must have been filling in the blanks about my recent history. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it; I liked my privacy and my independence. Yeah, and look where they’d got me.

‘Thanks very much. See you tomorrow?’

-Sure. Oh, one more thing, I tried to contact you on your mobile, but there was some problem with it. Have you got it turned on?

‘Er, no, it’s with the police. It was trashed on Saturday. Don’t think it’ll be working anytime soon. Ever again, actually, looking at it.

-Oh, I didn’t realise. You’ve been through a lot one way and another, haven’t you. OK, is it alright to contact you on this number then?

‘Yeah, sure.’

-Great. Tomorrow, then.

I was feeling drained, and contemplated going back to bed, but knew that would be frowned on by several people. I also didn’t want to have to rush for the door when DI Johnson arrived, so on balance decided to stay awake.

I looked at the clothes Lisa had bought. It was all really good stuff, she had been very good at choosing. Clean clothes appealed just then, and I wanted to put some on, although without having a shower I wasn’t going to do them justice. How long would it be until I could get clean? Decided that was a thought for another time. I’d have to stink for now, and hope none of the clothes needed returning. I chose a baggy t-shirt and zip-up hoody, some tie-waist cargo pants and some necessary underwear, took them into the bedroom and struggled into it all.

The right sleeve of the hoody was rather tight over the cast, and getting the cargos on was difficult – pulling trousers up one-handed with hardly any working fingers was really tricky. But each time I did it, it got easier. That was something I wasn’t about to ask for help with, however many lectures I got.

Despite only just having had my breakfast, I was hungry by the time I got dressed. I took the sandwich from the fridge, not egg thankfully, but a very satisfying beef and salad on a half-baguette. Rose obviously knew me better now, and it was just what I wanted.

Now I was dressed and had some underpants on, for the first time in what felt like ages, I started to feel a bit more normal. I went into the living room and flicked the TV on. There really wasn’t much on in the middle of the day, and Rose only had basic channels. I settled for a quiz show and let it wash over me.

Being there was going to take a bit of getting used to. My flat upstairs wasn’t the most homely of places, but I had got used to its bareness and its smell. This place was very definitely Rose’s, with her ornaments, cushions, slightly twee pictures and penchant for pine air freshener. I didn’t feel uncomfortable, but I didn’t feel I belonged either. I was almost tempted to go upstairs, just to have a look at exactly what kind of a state it was all in, but knew I wouldn’t handle it very well. Best wait until it was all cleaned up; I’d go up then.

The quiz show became a chat show became an antiques show. I got bored and turned it off. I made another attempt at a cup of tea – more difficult this time, as I had to put water in the kettle. I couldn’t hold it under the tap at all, and was very pleased with myself for finding a bottle of water in the fridge which I managed to pour into the kettle using both hands. I’d have to make sure I asked someone to fill the bottle up for tomorrow, and get some milk put in a smaller jug. Or stick to glasses of water.

I heard some footsteps, voices and banging from overhead, and remembered the cleaners were there dealing with my flat. I hadn’t realised how much could be heard from down here, some of the noises seemed to be in the same room. What had Rose heard from down here? I hadn’t had a music system or a TV up there, and I’d pretty much kept to myself, but I’d been miserable a lot of the time, spent more than a few nights crying myself to sleep when I was really low. She’d never said anything, but maybe I was beginning to understand why Rose was looking out for me.

To take my mind off it all, I tried to work out what the cleaners were doing: hoovering was easy, but some of the other noises sounded like full on DIY rather than any cleaning I’d ever done.

Once the noises from overhead had stopped, I found myself sitting staring into space. I finally had room in my head to drift – there were no demands on me, nobody talking to me, and nothing I had to think about.

The intercom shattered the quiet that had settled on the flat. My heart rate rose slightly – I had downgraded my personal security alert status a little, but I was still half-expecting ‘someone’ to have found out where I was staying. I picked up the handset, slightly nervous.

‘Hello.’

>Declan, let me in. Is Nico.

Unless it was a really good impersonator, I recognised Nico’s voice, so I pressed the button, and went to open the front door. Still tricky turning the lock, but managed it after some fiddling.

‘Hey.’

>Ha, you have been dressed by Lis. Very nice. She try to dress me, but I say no. She tell me she buy many clothes on my card. Is OK. She enjoy shopping always. You are OK today?

‘Getting there.’

>Ha, you say this to us all. How you really feel?

I sighed. People were starting to get to know me too well, and my usual strategies were failing.

‘Hurting everywhere, fed up with not being able to use my hands, fed up with people telling me what to do, tired, pissed off, a bit scared. Satisfied?’

>Much better. I want that you say this, is not good to not say. I am sorry you feel this. I am happy I am here to help.

Nico waved a DVD in the air.

>We watch me! I find more DVDs – Rose has DVD player?

‘I guess so, it might be a bit ancient, is that it there?’

Nico bent down to the TV stand and put the disc in a slot while I turned the TV back on. It took some time to find the DVD channel, but we got there in the end, and the game started playing.

>We need beer. Rose she has beer?

‘Er, no, and I’m on strong pain meds, so no go, and also Don said not, plus it’s the middle of the afternoon. We’ll have to do without.’

>Ha, but Rose has tea, I know this. I make tea. I am not English, but I learn things about tea. You will like.

Nico was lifting my spirits – I guess this was on his list from Rose. He was very good at it. While he was in the kitchen, the intercom buzzed again. I answered it.

‘Hello.’

ϙMr Summers?

I didn’t recognise the voice, and my heart lurched. Had he found me?

‘Who is this?’

ϙDI Johnson, are you expecting me?

‘Oh, yeah, OK.’

Trying to get myself under control, I pressed the button and struggled with the lock again.

>I make tea for the policeman. They always drink tea.

DI Johnson stepped inside, looking slightly ill-at-ease. I showed him into the living room, where he perched on the edge of Rose’s comfy armchair. Nico came in and handed us a mug of tea each, and turned off the DVD.

ϙOh, ah, thank you. I’m DI Johnson, and you are?

>Nico Tiago.

ϙAh, yes, good, good, I was hoping to speak to you anyway, are you able to stay?

>Yes, I stay with Declan.

He sat at the other end of the sofa.

ϙGood, thank you. OK, Declan, firstly I wanted to verify some information we received from Mr Tiago yesterday regarding a wallet and a name he gave us.

‘OK. I’m pretty sure my wallet was in my bag at the club with the keys to my flat. I obviously wasn’t the one who looked through my bag, Nico did that. He didn’t find my wallet.’

ϙCan you confirm that Mr Tiago?

>Yes, I look in Declan’s bag, I look in his pockets, take everything out. Is all covered in piss and shit. His keys and his wallet are not in there. I look well.

It hadn’t occurred to me that Nico had had to trawl through filth to search for my keys. Another debt of gratitude owed.

ϙWhat happened to the bag?

>I throw it away.

ϙHm that’s unfortunate. There could have been fingerprints.

>Huh, I don’t think of this. It smelled bad, I wanted it to be gone.

ϙWell not to worry, maybe we can retrieve it. Declan, can you think of anywhere else you may have left your keys or wallet?

‘Sorry, it’s all still really difficult to remember, Saturday afternoon is all jumbled up. I can remember getting changed in the office, but I can’t specifically remember putting my keys and wallet in the bag. But I would have done, because that’s what I always do, in my jeans pocket.’

ϙOK. Thank you. Now, the name that you have given, David Allsop, where does this come from?

>It come from him being the one who do this to Declan.

DI Johnson looked at me, ignoring Nico.

‘It … seems … possible’

ϙDeclan, you seem less sure than Mr Tiago?

‘He’s a mate. I can’t quite believe it.’

>He do it before. Declan, be honest about this, or I will say.

‘OK, alright.’

I looked down at my hands. Thought about what he had taken away from me, how he had made me feel.

‘Several weeks ago, he was part of a group of players who gave me a hard time in training. Really hard, physical stuff. He also pissed on my clothes twice, in the changing room. But we made it up, shook hands. We were going for a drink after the Chieftains game –’

ϙWait, you had arranged to meet Mr Allsop on Saturday evening?

I had to rewind what I’d said in my head, it had just come out of my mouth without me thinking about it.

‘… yeah … I’d forgotten till just now. He texted me on Saturday afternoon.’

ϙWhere were you going to meet?

‘In the car park … shit.’

I started to shake. It suddenly seemed so obvious.

‘He wanted to meet by his car. He always parks over the other side, out of the way. Fuck, I was so stupid. I just totally believed him. He even came to see me in hospital – yesterday morning. He apologised for how he’d been, it was – I just – believed him.’

I thought about it all, how he’d fooled me, even coming to the hospital to – what? – check out what I remembered? Had I missed something important when we’d talked earlier? I looked at Nico. He was looking back at me with some concern.

>Declan, you look not well. You are temblando.

He looked at the policeman.

>We must do this now? Declan he only come from hospital yesterday.

ϙI can see it’s upsetting to you. You’re being very helpful. If you feel we could continue, I won’t be much longer.

I felt sick, a bit light-headed. But this needed doing. I nodded.

ϙIn fact, we have managed to piece together some of the data from your phone. It’s not complete, as the phone was pretty well destroyed, but there are some records we could retrieve. You did receive texts from Mr Allsop on Saturday afternoon, but the content was irretrievable. We were able to retrieve more messages from longer ago, and will be able to get more, with your permission, from your service provider. We were particularly interested in a couple which were anonymous, and seemed a little threatening.

That didn’t surprise me. I hadn’t read everything that had been sent my way in the last few months, but a lot of it had been from people who weren’t my biggest admirers.

‘I’ve had a lot of texts from people who don’t like me much. Pissed off nearly everybody over the past few months.’

ϙI understand that. These two were ‘caller withheld’, and seemed more directly threatening than the others – we have been through them in some detail. One said ‘Payback’, and the other began ‘Watch your back …’ The first one was sent on the same day that, I believe, your suspension by your club made the news. The second was sent on the day of the points hearing, after the announcement. We have software that might be able to decrypt the senders’ numbers, but we are having some trouble with it. Do you remember either of these messages, or have any idea who they were from?

‘No, sorry. I’ve had hundreds of texts that I deleted before I even read them. Not happy reading.’

ϙWell, no problem, we’ll keep going with the software. You understand that while we will investigate your allegations about Mr Allsop, there were no witnesses to your assault, the alleged theft of the keys and wallet or the events perpetrated in your flat. If you remember anything else that could help, please contact me. I think I’ll leave it there. I’ll be in touch.

He stood up, held his hand out, realised I couldn’t shake it properly and patted me on the shoulder instead. Nico showed him out, then came back into the living room.

>Well done. Very well done. Is not easy to say about a friend. You still look horrible. You don’t drink your tea. Neither does the policeman. I make some more.

‘I can’t believe I forgot he texted me. It’s so clear now.’

>You remember more things?

‘No, not really. I’ve been trying so hard to, but that just popped in when he asked me about it.’

>Huh. Maybe this is the answer, not to try.

‘Yeah, maybe. Bloody hell, Nico, you went through my bag!’

>Sorry, my friend. Rose, she want your keys. I try to help.

‘No, I mean … that must have been … I can’t believe you would do that for me.’

>Ha, is not problem. I wash hands good. Now, we think of something other. Tea and DVD? Maybe you remember again how great I play?

Nico was great at changing the mood, taking the stress out of it all, and I gladly took his bait.

‘Maybe I’ll remember again how modest you are.’

>This also.

We spent the rest of the afternoon watching Nico’s DVD, eating Rose’s biscuits and messing about. He managed to completely take my mind off everything that was worrying me, and I felt a small part of myself start to relax. The afternoon wore on, and Nico looked at his watch.

>Huh. I must go home to my beautiful wife. She miss me. Rose will be home soon. Is there something you need?

I remembered my conversation with Don about getting to the stadium early tomorrow morning, and my lecture from Lisa this morning about asking for help.

‘Actually, a favour?’

>Ha! I think this never happen before. Please ask, my friend.

‘Well, how early are you going to be at the club tomorrow?’

>I am there to train at eight thirty.

‘Could you pick me up? Don wants me to get there early to see the docs.’

>Is not too early for you? You are very late today – Lis, she tell me, no secrets!

‘I’ll make sure I’m ready. Rose will make sure I’m ready.’

>Then I am here. Eight sharp. Ha, you know I am late.

‘Can I ask something else? Another favour.’

>Ha, two in one day, increible! You have big bang on the head.

‘Cal’s asked for an Optimus Prime for Christmas. No way I can get one.’

>What is Opti – what is this?

‘It’s a toy, a Transformer. Long story, I promised it a long time ago.’

>Huh, OK, I write it, Lis, she help. Is done.

I spelt the words, and Nico wrote them down.

‘Thanks Nico.’

>Is pleasure. Be careful of yourself, my friend. See you tomorrow. No, don’t come to door, I let myself out.

He waved and walked out. As the front door opened, I heard Rose’s voice.

:Oh hello, love. Just off are you? Not staying for a cuppa?

>Oh, Rose, I am sad to miss your wonderful tea, but I must go home to kiss my wife. I am here tomorrow morning to fetch Declan – he need to wake early, you can help?

:Of course, love. What time?

>I am here eight sharp. I never late. Right, Declan?

‘Hardly ever.’

:I’ll make sure he’s ready. Bye then, love, see you tomorrow.

I heard the front door close, and Rose came into the living room.

:How are you, love?

‘Getting there.’

Rose gave me a look, and I knew I was going to have to change my stock phrase, as it had definitely been rumbled.

:I know that, love, but how’s your day been? Did you manage to phone everyone?

I told Rose about the visit from DI Johnson, my phone call with Don, and Lisa and Nico’s visits. It had been a pretty busy day, once I’d got out of bed.

‘And I think the cleaners have been upstairs, I could hear them moving around. You can hear pretty much everything that goes on up there, can’t you?’

:You can, love. Just remember that, next time you have a wild party.

‘Doubt that’ll be for a while.’

:And of course you’d invite me anyway. Right, what shall we have for tea?

The rest of the evening passed pleasantly with eating, TV, showing Rose my new clothes and a phone call from Beth, asking how I was and discussing dates and times for my visit. Tony the landlord also called round to say the cleaners had finished, and that my flat was clean once again, although there were no carpets. These would be replaced in the next few weeks.

:You’ll just have to stay here till they’re done, love.

I could have gone straight up to have a look, but I decided not to right away, feeling weird about seeing the flat again. However, I didn’t have a toothbrush or any washing stuff, and didn’t know what had been kept and what had been thrown away.

:You should have said, love. I forgot you can’t shower with your cast. Washing’s going to be a bit tricky too, isn’t it. Have you managed to wipe your bum alright?

‘Fuck, Rose! Yes I have thanks, just about. Not that it’s any of your bloody business.’

:Sorry, love, but if you don’t ask you don’t know. If you want a wash, I’ve got a flannel and soap you can use, you’ll just have to try your best with that. I might have a new toothbrush somewhere too, let’s have a look.

She managed to find everything in a cupboard in the bathroom. I’d need to be up fairly early tomorrow to make myself even slightly presentable.

‘What time do you get up?’

:Usually about seven, love. Do you want me to wake you up?

‘Yeah. Thanks. Might need a few goes.’

:Hm, you don’t like waking up much do you? Don’t worry, I won’t let you sleep in. Off to bed now are you?

‘Yeah.’

:Need some of your pills, do you?

‘Yeah, thanks.’

Rose helped me with my painkillers, before I went into my room and struggled out of my clothes. I couldn’t be bothered to struggle into pyjama bottoms, so just wore my boxers. Easier all round, less to struggle out of all over again tomorrow. Reaching for the bedside lamp was difficult, so I turned it off before I got into bed, and climbed under the duvet in the dark. I slept almost immediately.

Dreaming. I am being chased by faceless men in brown boots. I find a safe place on a hill, but they surround me and are closing in. I can’t fly, something is stopping me, but everyone who loves me can, and they swoop down from the sky to stand around me, holding hands in a circle, making sure the men in brown boots can’t reach me.

23. Dream a little dream

In which boundaries are established, an invitation is made and considered, and dreams of brown boots begin in earnest.

Dec

:Feels good to be outside, eh, love?

‘Great. Where’s your car?’

:I had to park quite a way away, but you wait here and I’ll come and pick you up. Here’s a bench, look. I won’t be long.

I thought about insisting on going with her, but I was flagging and my legs had begun to ache. The constant jogging of my collar bone wasn’t helping either. Decided for once not to be needlessly stubborn. I sat on the bench, closed my eyes and waited.

Footsteps and voices all around me. The sound of the entrance doors swishing open and closed. Cars pulling up and pulling away. The occasional ringtone. Sun on my face and breeze in my hair. Relative freedom. Let my mind drift while I waited. Started to relax. Felt my shoulders untense, hadn’t realised how tight I’d been holding myself, since Rose told me about first my bag and then my flat. Concentrated on unwinding everything, mind and body. It felt like I needed several weeks rather than a few minutes, but it was a start. Had only scratched the surface when I felt a hand on my arm, and heard Rose’s voice.

:Declan, love, you asleep?

I opened my eyes.

‘Relaxing.’

:Oh is that what you call it. Come on love, here’s the car. You sure you’ll be able to get in alright? I’m a bit worried about that plaster cast –

‘Give it a try.’

I stood up, wandered over to Rose’s car and slowly got in. It was quite a tight squeeze, even though the seat was all the way back. My right arm, in its unbending cast, threatened to get in the way of the handbrake and Rose’s gear changes.

:Don’t worry, I’ll work round you.

She was trying to sound cheerful, but Rose wasn’t a confident driver and I could see she was a bit worried. I shifted as far to the left in my seat as I could and tried to hold my arm on my lap. Rose had to put my seat belt on for me.

:It’s not really that far, won’t take long.

Sounding like she was trying to convince herself, she started the engine and we set off. She drove very slowly, taking great care with all the gear changes. The flats were over on the other side of the city, but the traffic was fairly light. Rose didn’t say a word to me, she was concentrating so hard on driving, hands gripping the steering wheel so hard her knuckles were white, teeth chewing on her bottom lip.

I looked around me as she drove, noticing all the lights and sparkle. Was it nearly Christmas? I thought back to the weekend and counted forwards to what the date must be today. Hadn’t really been paying attention. Must only be ten days or so to go. Hadn’t given it a thought, I’d been so preoccupied with everything else that had been going on. Christmas seemed largely irrelevant just at the moment, but the rest of the world obviously didn’t share my opinion.

We finally pulled up outside Rose’s garage. She breathed a deep sigh of relief, got out of the car, and came round to open my door.

:Alright, love, here we are then. Let’s go in and have a cuppa and a bit of cake.

‘Thanks a lot, Rose.’

:Get on with you, always got tea and cake on the go.

‘I mean for everything. Really, thanks.’

:Well, remember our deal, as long as you want it, I’ll stick my oar in. Still a deal?

‘Deal.’

As we reached Rose’s front door, I glanced up the staircase, and of course it was noticed.

:I’ll go and check on how things are going in a minute, get you settled first. Don’t go up yourself, love. Try not to think about it.

Rose led me inside and into the lounge, where she made me sit in her comfy armchair. Bringing me a cup of tea and a large piece of fruit cake, she headed off to check on my flat, as I sipped carefully and ate slowly.

Rose came back, accompanied by Tony, the landlord. He told me the police had finished in my flat, had taken some samples and photos, but they wanted to talk to me. He didn’t paint a pretty picture of the inside of my flat, it seemed like virtually everything I had up there had been ruined, and I was doubly glad I had already agreed to stay with Rose.

Tony had arranged a cleaning firm for the next day, and started to talk about costs and insurance, before Rose gave him a stern look, but I couldn’t blame him for bringing up the subject.

‘Kay, thanks, let me know.’

*It’s all locked up again now, I’ve had the locks changed – here’s your new keys, for both of you. The cleaning firm will get the keys off me, I’ll let you know when it’s all done.

‘Thanks.’

:Thanks, Tony, thanks for sorting it all out for Declan – he’s not really in a fit state to do it himself.

*No problem, let me know if there’s any hassle tomorrow.

Rose showed him to the door, then came back, looked at me and sat down on her sofa.

:Right, love, I think we need a list of things to do.

‘Really? What things?’

:Well, getting you some new clothes for a start. We also need to let people know where you are, organise some people to sit with you while I’m at work –

‘What? No, don’t need that.’

:I can’t go off to work tomorrow and leave you here on your own.

‘You bloody can, I’m OK.’

:I’m out all day, love. I took today off so I could be around, but I can’t get tomorrow off.

‘I’m fine. physios said.’

:They said you can walk. Don’t see you doing much else for yourself for a while. Come on, love, humour me, I won’t relax if I’m worrying about you.

‘Don’t need babysitting.’

:No, alright, fair enough, how about someone popping in just to check? Have a chat? I know Nico wants to, he’s asked me to ring him.

I sighed, I wasn’t going to completely win; I could foresee lots of compromising in my future.

‘OK, visits is fine. No sitters.’

Rose sat back, satisfied, and I had a sense that she had haggled me down to where she had wanted me in the first place.

Cal

Then, before tea, Mum got the phone and let me press the button to call Rose. I gave the phone to Mum, because she wanted to talk to Rose first.

Mum talked to Rose about how Dec was, and said a lot of ‘oh no, that’s terrible’ and ‘oh poor love, how is he’, and I was worried for a little while that Dec was too hurt or too sad to talk to us, but soon Mum stopped saying ‘oh no’, and looked at me.

Dec

I couldn’t hear much of what Rose said, as her phone was in the hallway, but from her lowered voice I assumed she was talking to someone about me. I realised this was something else I would get lots of in the near future. After a while Rose came back into the room holding the handset.

:Want to talk to Beth?

I smiled broadly and put my hand out for the phone. It still felt incredible that she wanted to talk to me.

‘Hi Beth.’

_Dec, lovely to hear your voice. You sound much better. How are you, sweetheart?

‘Getting there.’

_Rose tells me you’ve had some more trouble. Are you OK?

‘Getting there.’

_Alright, then, I’ll stop fussing. There’s someone here would like to ask you something. Are you OK to talk to Cal?

‘Great.’

Cal

Mum held the phone out to me.

‘Come on Cal, Dec’s ready now.’

She whispered in my ear: ‘Don’t forget what we said,’

I whispered back: ‘I know, Mummy.’

Then I took the phone and forgot everything we’d practised.

‘Dec, can you talk now?’

Dec

‘I can talk better, yeah. Thanks for helping me out when I was in hospital.’

\can you come and live with us on Christmas?

‘Oh … er … ‘

I was completely thrown. Was Cal asking me to spend Christmas with them? I had not thought beyond this afternoon. Planning for a major event in – what? – a week or so was far out of my reach. Had assumed I would be here at Rose’s for, hmm, a couple of weeks? Did that include Christmas? But if they were asking me to go there to stay, if they wanted me there, in their home … what if they were asking me to live with them again …

Cal

I’d expected Dec to be really pleased and excited, but he stopped talking altogether. He could talk again, and although his voice still sounded a bit funny, everyone would be able to know what he was saying, so I wasn’t sure why he wasn’t talking.

‘Mummy he’s being quiet.’

‘Er, yeah, sorry Cal, just thinking. Don’t know if I can answer you just yet. Can I talk to Mummy?’

‘Mummy – talk to Dec.’

I handed the phone to Mum, hoping that I hadn’t somehow messed things up. What I’d said wasn’t what we practised, and maybe I’d done it so wrong that Dec would say no. I hadn’t considered Dec saying no until now, and I clung on to Mum while she talked, feeling worried.

Dec

_Hi Dec, sorry, sweetheart, that was a bit different than we rehearsed. I shouldn’t think you’ve had a chance to think about Christmas yet.

‘Not really. Is it next week?’

_A week on Thursday. You are a bit out of it, aren’t you? I just had a quick chat with Rose. We really want to see you, but we’re not going to be able to make it down there for a while. But if you think you’ll be fit enough, and if you’d like to come up, we’d love to have you here for Christmas. Cal would absolutely love it. He’s talked about you non-stop since we left you yesterday.

Cal

This was true. I’d asked all sorts of questions about where Dec had been, what he’d been doing, why he’d been gone, but none of them had really been answered. The only things Mum and Dad would talk about were how long it was going to take Dec to get better, and all the things I wanted to know about his cuts and bruises, and things at the hospital, like the wee bag and the water bag. Still, it was a lot better than not being allowed to talk about Dec at all.

Dec

‘James and I would love it too. James really wants a good talk. We’ve all missed you, sweetheart.’

So it was just for Christmas. I was immediately overwhelmed with conflicting feelings – disappointment that it was just for Christmas, and not forever; relief that I wasn’t going to have to think about whether I stayed here or moved to where they were; joy that they wanted me to spend time with them. Tears welled up and spilled down my face, taking me by surprise. I had the phone in one hand and couldn’t bend my other arm, so couldn’t wipe my eyes. I sniffed.

‘I … er … don’t know what to say.’

What I wanted to say was ‘yes, yes, fuck yes’, but I looked over at Rose, who was turning the pages of a magazine, pretending she wasn’t listening intently. I really didn’t want to upset her, didn’t know what plans she’d made, after she’d been good enough to give me a room in her home. Bloody hell, being looked after was hard work.

_Well there’s plenty of time, have a think and let us know, OK?’

Cal

I suddenly remembered my Transformer dilemma and tugged on Mum’s arm.

‘Yes, alright Cal. Dec, are you OK for another word with Cal?’

She handed the phone over again.

‘Dec, I haven’t got a Optimus Prime yet.’

‘Really? Did you put it in your letter to Santa?’

‘No, because you were going to get it on my birthday, and then you didn’t get it on my birthday, and I didn’t put it in Santa’s letter because I don’t want two Optimus Primes.’

‘Oh, OK … well … sorry for the confusion. Me and Santa will sort it out. OK?’

‘Kay. Bye.’

Dec

I laughed at his abruptness. Beth came back on the line; she was laughing too.

_I don’t know what he likes more – your promises of Transformers or your cool scars. I’m a bit worried he’s going to get into a fight so he can look more like you.

‘Shit, Beth, don’t say that.’

_As long as he doesn’t start swearing like you, he’ll be OK.

‘Sorry.’

_Honestly, you and James are as bad as each other. Maybe you’re a bit worse than James. I suppose it’s up to me to keep Cal on the straight and narrow.

‘You are good at it.’

_No help from you! Anyway, let us know what you think about Christmas, sweetheart. No rush, short notice is fine. Want a quick word with James?

‘Yeah.’

The more I talked to them, the more real it felt. It was filtering into my brain that I might not have lost them forever after all.

łHey mate.

‘Hey.’

łHow’s it going?

‘Getting there.’

łYeah, and really, how’s it going.

I paused. This was an opportunity to put right some of the things that had caused this mess in the first place. Not bottling things up, saying how I was really feeling, being honest, asking for help. Not easy. Deep breath.

‘Still pretty shit. I’m a bit of a wreck. And my flat was broken into, everything trashed.’

łJesus, Dec, I didn’t know. That’s all you need. You’re staying with Rose, though?

‘Yeah, she’s been bloody great.’

I looked over at Rose and grinned at her. ‘Bit bossy, but I can take it.’

łShe’s more than a match for you, mate. How’s all your aches and pains?

‘Getting there. Honest. Better than yesterday.’

łYou sound much better – well I can understand you for a start. Nico said you fell out of bed?

‘Bloody hell, can’t do anything round here. Yeah, but no damage. Pulled a few stitches. Big bruise on my arse. Fucking hurt. Felt a bit of a twat. No more.’

łOK, glad to hear it. Be strong, mate, stay positive. See you soon.

There was a catch in Jay’s voice that I really didn’t want to investigate.

‘Hope so. Bye.’

I put the phone down and rested my head back against the chair, blowing my cheeks out. Looked over at Rose, who put down the magazine she hadn’t been reading and looked at me.

‘They want me to go up for Christmas.’

I couldn’t read Rose’s expression.

:What do you want to do?

Well that was the question. I hadn’t given Christmas a thought, but now I was remembering the last three Christmases, which I had spent with Jay, Beth and Cal. They had put to rest the ghosts of several miserable festive seasons in various foster homes, and to be part of their Christmas now would mean a lot – to be with them at all, but especially for Christmas. It was just the thing to help me get over the seemingly constant stream of bad things that had happened to me in the last few days.

On the other hand, I couldn’t bear to let Rose down. I didn’t know what she was expecting or wanted. Before yesterday, she hadn’t been planning a house-guest, and would have been organising something else, somewhere else, for weeks.

‘Kind of depends on you.’

:Don’t be daft, love. Don’t worry about me. The only thing I will say is, it’s a long way to Stafford, are you up to the journey?

I ignored the last part, apart from briefly wondering just how far away Stafford was.

‘What were you planning, before me?’

:That’s not important, love. Just do what makes you happy.

‘For fuck’s sake, Rose … sorry … what I mean is, if I wasn’t here, what would you be doing for Christmas? Please tell me.’

:Well, as you asked so nicely, in the end, I was going to go to my sister’s, same as every year.

‘Looking forward to it or not?’

Rose hesitated, as if trying to decide whether her answer would sway my decision.

:We get on really well, you know that, and I love seeing Gethin, he’s about the same age as you, did I tell you?

‘Might have mentioned it.’ A few zillion times.

:But if you need me here, I’ll stay. I can see them any time.

Finally, I knew what I needed to.

‘No, I think I’ll go. Sort something out to get there, get the train or something. Where exactly is Stafford?’

:I can take you, drop you off on the way.

‘Rose, you get nervous driving out of the garage. No fucking way you’re taking me. I doubt it’s ‘on the way’ to Pontypool.

:Cheek, I’m a good driver, very careful.

‘Whatever you say. But you’re not taking me. End of.’

Rose gave me a look that suggested I hadn’t heard the last of this conversation, but stood up and said she was going to start some dinner. I felt exhausted at the thought of all the battles I was going to have with Rose over the next few days. I closed my eyes, and must have dozed off, as I suddenly felt a shake on my shoulder.

:Come on love, tea’s ready.

‘What, already?’

:You’ve been asleep. Not as tough as you thought, eh? Want it here on your lap, or at the table in the kitchen?

‘Table.’

Cal

I heard Dad talk to Dec for a little while, and then Mum and Dad were talking to each other. I thought about listening outside the room again, but I just wanted to know if Dec was coming for Christmas, so I went straight in.

‘When is Dec coming?’

‘He hasn’t decided yet, sweetheart. I think we surprised him. He might not be able to come.’

‘Oh, but, I want him to.’

‘I know, Cal, but Dec’s got to make his own mind up. He’ll let us know, when he’s thought about it.’

‘When will he?’

‘I don’t know. Try not to think about it, until we hear from him.’

I tried really hard not to think about it, but it’s difficult not to think about something you’re trying really hard not to think about, especially if it’s something you’re excited about, and something to do with Christmas, which isn’t far away. I really wanted to be with Dec again, so we could play, and tell jokes, and watch Arsenal, and read stories, and do mouth and bottom burps, like we always did.

Dec

Half way through the meal, the phone rang again. Rose answered, and took the call in the lounge. I was getting a bit annoyed at her tendency to discuss me first out of earshot – nothing had happened to me that I didn’t know about, and I knew she thought she was considering my feelings, but nonetheless it was irritating. Decided to wander into the lounge, with my plate balanced precariously in my left hand, to have a listen.

: … talk to the police, they’ve taken samples – oh hello love. Everything alright?

‘Apart from being talked about behind my back, yeah.’

Rose gave me a steely look.

:It’s Nico. Perhaps you’d like to talk to him?

‘Thanks.’

I put my plate down and took the handset from her.

‘Hey.’

>Declan, you are not nice to Rose. She worry about you, and we talk last night while you are not here. She tell me about your flat just now. I worry. The one who take your key, and piss in your bag, he is the same, I know it. You know who do it before.

I was silent. I had my suspicions, but naming DivDav out loud was not something I could do easily. He was a mate, and if he wasn’t, he had made a fool of me.

>Declan, you are there?

‘Yeah. I … I’m not sure. We don’t know for definite. I don’t think he would –’

>He do it before, you know this.

‘I just saw him this morning, we made up, shook hands, we were OK.’

>You must tell the police. They will find out.

‘Maybe. Not tonight.’

>Huh. OK. Soon though.

‘Kay.’

>And be nice to Rose, she try hard for you.

‘I know.’

>Lis want to see you, she like a man with stitches. We come tonight?

‘I guess, if you can get past Rose.’

>Rose love to see me. Lis love to see Rose. You love to see us both. Good. We are there soon.

Having been thoroughly Nicoed, I finished my plateful and took it back into the kitchen, where Rose was clearing away the tea table.

‘Sorry, Rose, just getting a bit fed up of being talked about when I’m out of the room. I don’t mind if you talk to people about me, just like to know what you’re saying, that’s all.’

:I know, love, sorry too, just trying to spare your feelings with going over it all again. I should have remembered from before how you are with being talked about.

‘Nico and Lis are coming over.’

Rose’s face lit up.

:Oh, that’s grand. When are they coming?

‘I think they’re on their way.’

Her face fell.

:Better do some tidying up, then.

I looked around at the spotless kitchen.

‘Why?’

:Got to look nice for visitors.

‘OK, give me a duster.’

:Cheeky, doesn’t need dusting.

‘Hoover then.’

:Or hoovering.

I looked at her. She looked back. I think I won that one.

:Alright then. You go back and sit down, I’ll get a nice packet of biscuits and put the kettle on.

I let her get on with fussing in the kitchen, went back to the living room, flicked the TV on for some early evening meaninglessness. Sat with my eyes closed, letting it wash over me until I suddenly heard my name.

*… Summers. Police are investigating an assault at the Raiders stadium on Saturday night. It is understood that the young player, who is at the centre of Raiders’ points deduction scandal, was attacked after Saturday’s victory over Chieftains, and has spent the weekend in hospital. His injuries are reported to be serious but not life-threatening. No further details are known at this time.

They showed an old photo of me, from the haircut I was about seventeen. It brought it all home. I still had no memory of Saturday evening, apart from the little flashes that presented themselves at odd times when I stretched my stitches or moved too quickly and set off a twinge.

I had actually been beaten up. Someone had wanted to physically hurt me and had done me some pretty major damage. And then, as if that message wasn’t enough someone had come to my home and trashed that too. I shied away from the thought that ‘someone’ might be a person or people I knew, as it was terrifying. It suddenly occurred to me that Rose could be at risk if ‘someone’ knew I was staying with her.

‘Rose!’

She came hurrying into the room.

:What’s the matter, love?

‘Don’t let anyone in, be really careful. Lock your doors, front and back.’

:What are you talking about, love?

‘It’s not safe. I don’t know if they know I’m here.’

:Are you feeling alright, love? You’re not making any sense.

I knew I wasn’t, I was trying to explain but feeling a sense of urgency, and it was all getting jumbled up. Deep breaths.

‘OK. Sorry. Whoever did this –’

I gestured at myself

‘– and my flat, it could be the same person. They must know me, know where I live, and if they know I’m staying here who knows what else they might try. I don’t want you to let anyone in, even if they say they’re a friend.’

:Oh, love, you’re safe here, no one gets past my front door. I assume Nico is on the guest list?

I conceded that point.

‘But no one else. Not until I know who did it. And don’t just buzz people in until you know who they are. And don’t tell them I’m here, even if they sound like they know. And you need to sort out your back door, it’s too easy to get over the wall. Keep it locked, and you need a bolt or something.’

:Alright, then.’

Rose looked amused, then frowned.

‘But do you think someone you know might have done all this? You should tell the police if you’ve remembered anything.

‘Not sure, don’t want to be wrong.’

:Oh love, you’ve got to say something.

‘I know. Tomorrow?’

She sat down beside me and patted my hand.

:It’s a funny old time for you, isn’t it love? I think you’re coping really well with everything. You’ve had quite a few ups and downs over the last few days, you need time just to sort through it. I think some peace and quiet here, then some time with your family at Christmas is just what you need.

The door entry buzzer went.

:Well, I don’t think we’ll be starting the peace and quiet until after Nico has been …’

‘Check it’s him, don’t let him in till you’re sure.’

:Alright, love …

I could hear her on the intercom in the hallway.

:Who is this? … What are you here for? … No, just checking … Alright, love, come in.

She went to open her front door. I wasn’t sure Rose’s security measures would be up to much, and it continued to gnaw away at me. Voices from the hallway.

>What happens, Rose, why these questions?

:Sorry, love, Declan is having some kind of panic about safety. Wants to make sure nobody gets in who might … oh I don’t know, you’d better ask him yourself.

She showed Nico and Lisa into the living room. I shuffled up on the sofa to make room. Lisa bent down and kissed me on the cheek.

~You’re looking lots better.

I smiled at her.

‘Thanks. Getting there.’

~Sounding it too. Just as well, seeing as Cal’s not here to translate.

>What is this security nonsense?

‘Not nonsense, don’t want Rose to get hurt. Just need to check people before letting them in.’

>There is only one person you need to check. You know this.

:No, Nico. I can’t be sure. I’m not talking about this now. OK?

~OK Dec.

Lisa sat next to me and took my hand. She reached up to Nico and pulled him down next to her.

~Let’s not get stressed, yeah? We’ve come to see Dec and help him feel better, not start going on at him. Rose, did you say the kettle was on?

:Yes, love, there’s some chocolate biscuits too.

~I’ll come and give you a hand. Nico, behave yourself.

>Ha, always, baby.

He gave her a cheeky grin. Rose and Lisa left the room. I turned the TV off, and I could hear their voices in the kitchen as they got to know each other.

>Sorry, man. You know I worry. We promise Jaime we look after you. I forget you don’t like to be looked after. You are problem.

‘I worry too, about Rose.’

>I know this. She is strong, I think. Very clever. Cares very much. She – oh, she bring tea and biscuits. Tremendo!

We sat and chatted, or rather Rose, Nico and Lis chatted while I mostly listened. Even though my speech was back to normal, talking was still painful, my mouth was bruised and the stitches pulled. I was feeling tired, and there was something emotional there too. When I’d been battered and bruised as a result of playing, it was like battle scars. But this, these marks that had been deliberately put there by someone, well there was nothing glorious about it at all. I had felt similar things when I’d been battered in the training sessions after my suspension – the bruises themselves were physically insignificant, but psychologically they were hard to overcome. This was worse – someone had meant to do me a serious injury. I couldn’t think about it, but I couldn’t ignore it either, and it put me on edge.

Rose was still conscious of my earlier tantrum about being talked about, and checked with me with her eyes before saying anything. I gave her a nod, and she told Nico and Lis about my lack of anything to wear.

~So you haven’t got any other clothes than what you’ve got on?

I shook my head.

~Well I think we need to get onto that first thing tomorrow. I’m not working, I’ll go and get you some stuff, yeah? Tell me your sizes, which shops you like, maybe we can have a look on the internet – Rose have you got a computer?

:Sorry, love, not up with all this technology. All I can do to work my mobile phone.

Lis got her phone out, but couldn’t get a signal.

~Oh, OK, know what, I’ll just pop home and get my laptop. Then make a list. Soon have you sorted.

Lisa stood up, put her hand out to Nico for the car keys, and left. As the door closed behind her, I had a sudden thought.

‘Wallet.’

:What, love?

‘Never got my wallet back. Would have been in my bag with the keys. Shit.’

>OK, Declan, now you must tell police. You must report stolen money. If they have your cards, you must do something.

‘Can’t pay for clothes.’

Nico let out an exasperated sigh.

>We pay. You don’t worry about clothes. But you must do this. Rose, you have a number for police?

Rose looked from me to Nico, battling with herself about what to do.

:Wasn’t it DI Johnson, love? He gave you his card, I put it in my bag somewhere …

She started rifling through her cavernous handbag, sorting through various pockets and bits of paper. Finally, she held a business card up. I found myself with my own battle – angry at the powerlessness that I was feeling, but relief that it might be sorted, and I might regain control over this part of the whole situation. At the moment everything felt out of my grasp and I hated it. I put my head back on the sofa and closed my eyes. Rose patted my shoulder.

:Alright, love, it’s for the best. Get it over with, if we can.

‘Mm.’

I had no more fight left; they could do what they wanted to. Rose handed the card to Nico.

:Here it is. Try this one, love. He’s the one who spoke to Declan yesterday.

>OK, I call now?

Nico looked at me, eyebrows raised. I looked at him and shrugged.

>Ha, is a Declan ‘yes’, I think. OK …

He dialled the number. Waited.

>Hello, my name is Nicolàs Tiago … yes … is me … I call about Declan Summers. I have information you should know … about both … I think we know who do this to Declan … we also think he take Declan’s wallet and keys … his name is David Allsop, he is player with Raiders.

I found it hard to listen to, tried to drift away, but Nico’s voice pulled me back.

>He do this before, not the beating, but the piss on the clothes. He in trouble at Raiders for treating Declan bad … what? … yes, he is here, he is not well, he is just from hospital. I phone for him … OK, I ask, I don’t think he talk tonight.

Nico looked at me.

>This policeman he want to talk to you, OK?

I looked back at him. I supposed I was going to have to do it sometime, but I was exhausted, my brain felt fuzzy, and all I could do was look at Nico and shake my head.

:Maybe tomorrow, love. I’ll get Declan to ring.

Rose, my guardian angel. Nico spoke into the phone again.

>I think not tonight, but he call you tomorrow … OK … yes … before eleven … OK … what you do now? We worry about him finding Declan again … OK … yes … OK … thank you.

He hung up. Breathed out.

>They talk to you tomorrow, can do nothing until then. He say if we worry, we call them again.

:Alright love, well you got that off your chest. I think we need to cancel Declan’s bank cards too – can you remember which ones you had in your wallet, love?

‘Only got one now. Not much in it.’

:Still, better safe than sorry. Which bank are you with?

I told her, and let her ring them for me. I was starting to feel sorry for myself again, very tired, a bit out of control, sad and confused about DivDav. The bank wouldn’t talk to Rose, hard as she tried to make them, so I sighed, took the phone. Gave them what details I could remember. They cancelled everything. I put the phone down on the arm of the sofa and flopped backwards.

‘Fucking knackered now.’

:I bet you are love. Banks always tire me out. Such a palaver.

>You do well. Now is less worry.

The intercom buzzer sounded, making me jump. Rose got up to answer it, as panic stabbed through me.

‘Don’t let them in if you don’t know them.’

:Relax, love, it’ll only be Lisa.

I was incredibly jumpy, and energy reserves on empty weren’t helping. Lis ran the gauntlet of Rose’s questioning, exaggerated for my benefit, then plonked herself down next to me and opened her laptop.

~I guess you haven’t got broadband, Rose, so I brought my dongle.

:If you say so, love, haven’t got a clue what that means, I’ll let you get on with it. More tea for anyone?

No one had much of a choice. Constant tea was the price you paid for visiting Rose. I wasn’t really up for online shopping, but I needed clothing pretty urgently. Especially pants and socks. Not that sure I wanted to discuss my underwear requirements with Lis, but didn’t have much choice – it was her or Rose.

‘Don’t have any money.’

>Declan just find out his wallet is gone from Saturday. We call the police and his bank, but I say we buy his clothes.

~Oh Dec, of course – oh my God, do you think it was the same –

>I know it is the same one. I tell the policeman.

~Sorry, Dec. He was a friend of yours, wasn’t he? Must be tough.

‘Mm.’

A look passed between Lis and Nico.

~Well, anyway, let’s not worry about that just now. We’ll have a look at a few bits, I’ll go and get them tomorrow and you can be best dressed of the year again. What’s first on the list?

‘Pants.’

~Oh Lord! OK, well I guess we don’t need to look at those, just tell me what you prefer and what size. I’ll believe you.

She winked at me. I gave her the information.

‘Socks. Size 11.’

~OK, another easy one.

‘T shirt, hoody, jeans. That’s it.’

~Alright, where do you usually shop?

‘Anywhere. Not fussy. Nothing fancy.’

>Ha, I think Declan shop in Primark for cheap but don’t want to say.

‘Primark is fine.’

~I think we can do a bit better than that for you. Don’t worry about it, we’ll call it an early Christmas present, yeah? Ah – no arguing. It’s not cool to argue about Christmas presents.

Lis carried on talking about sizes and colours, showing me different pictures, I lost interest, becoming rapidly exhausted. Rose reappeared with more tea and biscuits.

:Did you know Declan’s going to Jay and Beth’s for Christmas?

~No! I knew they were going to ask. Oh Dec, that’s great news. What did Beth say?

‘Er, haven’t told them yet.’

~Well what are you bloody waiting for?

‘Need to sort transport, might not be possible.’

:I told you I’d take you.

‘And I told you it’s too fucking far.’

I couldn’t help snapping at Rose; I was tired of arguing about everything. As Rose and I stared each other down, this particular one felt like it could rumble on for some time; however, Lisa rolled her eyes at us and got involved.

~I’ll take you. I really want to see their new place, it’s a great excuse.

Rose and I looked at Lis, both trying to hide our relief.

>Ha, I laugh at you, Declan and Rose. So stubborn. You want to say yes, but you don’t say. I say for you. Yes, Lis will take Declan to Jaime‘s. Now, Declan, you phone to Beth and make her happy.

‘Are you sure, Lis?’

~Very sure. I can take you any time after Tuesday lunchtime. Let me know, yeah?

I gave her a huge smile, grateful and relieved.

‘Thank you. Very much.’

She smiled back. I reached for the phone again, but I didn’t know any numbers without my mobile.

‘Does anyone know their number?’

~It’s here, look.

Lisa showed me from her phone’s address book. I dialled, clumsily. Using my left hand to do everything was getting to be really annoying.

Cal

We had tea, and I played with my fire engine for a while, in Uncle Matty’s room. I heard the phone ringing, but no one picked it up to stop it ringing.

‘Yuh gona geh tha?’

I looked up at Uncle Matty. I loved answering the phone, but I wasn’t supposed to unless Mum or Dad were there. But if Uncle Matty had told me to, that was bound to be OK. So I ran into the living room, picked up the handset and pressed the button.

‘Hello who is it?’

‘Hi Cal, it’s Dec.’

He must be phoning to say if he was coming for Christmas. I was suddenly scared he would say no, and I didn’t want him to say no to me, so I said the first thing that came into my head.

‘Dec, I ate three fish fingers.’

‘That’s great. Well done, mate. Fish is good for you. Is your mum there?’

I put the phone on the table and went to get Mum, who was in the kitchen.

‘Mummy, Dec wants to talk to you.’

‘Is he on the phone? Did you answer it again? Cal, what did we say about that?’

She walked and told me off at the same time, until she reached the phone.

‘Hello? Dec? … everything alright sweetheart? …’

I was hanging around, trying to see if I could work out what Dec was saying by what Mum was saying.

‘Ohh, great. That’s great. Really great.’

Well it sounded like it was good, but Mum looked like she might be crying, so I was really confused.

‘Sorry, Dec. I’m really pleased. I thought you were going to say no. I’m so pleased. Oh, sweetheart, I’m so glad you’re coming. It’ll be great to put an end to this crappy year in a good way … ‘

As I stared at Mum, who had said an almost bad word, which she never did, and watched her wipe her eyes, Dad came in and put his arm round her, asking her about it without using words, but using his eyes and his eyebrows. Mum put her hand over the phone so Dec couldn’t hear what she was saying, but I could.

‘No, I’m okay, James, it’s Dec. He said yes, he’s coming for Christmas.’

I put my arms in the air like footballers do when they score a goal, as Dad took the phone from Mum. He was smiling, but his voice was wobbly too.

What have you been saying to make my wife cry? … I’m yanking your chain, mate. We’re really pleased. Talk later, yeah?’

Dad pressed the off button, and looked at Mum, and they both smiled at each other, and smiled at me.

‘Dec’s coming to stay with us for Christmas.’

I put both arms in the air again, as if I was Theo Walcott.

‘Yessss!’

‘I think you might need to tidy your room before Dec gets here, or we might never find any of your things again.’

I suppose there’s a downside to everything. Having to tidy my room was the downside to Dec coming for Christmas. But he was coming, we were going to be able to do all the things we hadn’t done for ages, and it was all going to be alright.

Dec

I hung up. Wiped my eyes.

‘That went well. Everybody cried.’

:Oh, love, tears are good sometimes.

Rose appeared to be wiping her eyes too, in fact Nico was the only one who wasn’t. He was smiling his enormous smile.

>You do good thing. You mend it with you and Jaime. This is big. Very good. Baby, I think we go now. Declan, he look very tired. He has big day today, and more tomorrow.

~Yeah, of course. Dec, is it OK if I pop in tomorrow morning to drop off your clothes, check you’ve eaten breakfast and generally fuss about annoyingly?

‘I suppose.’

>I come also, after training.

‘No need.’

>I know this. I want to steal Rose’s biscuits when she not here.

They stood up, Lis kissed me on the cheek, Nico gave Rose a hug, then Rose saw them to the front door.

>I call to remind him to talk to the policeman. Call us if you worry, or the police if you really worry. OK?

:Thanks you two.

~You’re welcome. We’re all in it together. He’s a toughie, but he needs us more than he’ll admit. Right, Dec? I’m sure you’re listening.

They said their goodbyes, and Rose shut the door behind them, making a big thing of putting the chain on, for my benefit. She came into the living room, picked up cups and plates, tidied up in the kitchen, plumped some cushions.

:You look done in, love. I know it’s early but why don’t you go to bed? You know where your room is. Get some sleep, recharge your batteries.

It sounded like the best idea anyone had had for a long time. I could hardly pull myself off the sofa, as moving made all my aches and pains protest together. I remembered the medication I had brought home from the hospital. Now was a good time to take some, get some solid sleep.

I padded into the kitchen, got the bottle of pills. Asked Rose to open the bottle, took some with a slurp of cold tea, said goodnight and went to bed. Rose had put my pyjamas from the hospital in the wash, and I had no underwear, so got into bed in my clothes. Slept.

Dreaming. Chased by faceless men in brown boots. Can’t fly, can only run, looking over my shoulder. They nearly catch up with me, then I trip –

– woke with a start, in a sweat, in darkness, heart racing, panting. The details of the dream faded, but the panic stayed for a long time. Eventually my pulse calmed, my breathing slowed, and I drifted off again.

Dreaming. This time I can fly. I fly around the world looking for a man in brown boots. There are too many. None of them are the one I am looking for. After a long time flying, I see him. He is a long way away. He isn’t looking. Doesn’t see me coming until I am almost there. He turns round, but just before I see his face, he disappears.

6. Waiting for a girl like you

In which Matty reconnects in different ways with varying outcomes.

Matt

I didn’t get home until the next morning, Mum and me having shared a bottle of wine with the fish and chips, and both of us having opted for an early night. We’d watched the talent show, I’d taken the piss out of it mercilessly, and then I’d shown Mum some of the photos from Devon. I hadn’t needed to tell her much, she’d seen it.

‘You like her a lot, don’t you, I can see it in your face.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Is she in some kind of trouble?’

‘Did Jay tell you that as well?’

‘No, dear, but you said it was a literal escape. What were you running away from?’

Not much got past Mum, even though she dressed up her scouting for information in vagueness and seeming misunderstandings.

‘Her fucking evil bastard boyfriend.’

‘Language, Matthew.’

‘He deserves it, I’m not going to apologise. He deserves worse than that, he deserves worse than any words that exist to describe him.’

I gave Mum the edited highlights, playing down the threats, playing up the great time we’d had, how much Beth and Jay had helped us out. I’m not sure I got away with all of it; a worried crease appeared between her eyebrows that didn’t go away despite my best bullshitting.

‘So where is she now?’

‘In a safe house. She didn’t have anywhere else to go, and it really wasn’t a good idea for her to stay with me. I can’t see her, or even talk to her until she’s got somewhere to live.’

‘You don’t even know where she is?’

I shook my head.

‘Oh Matthew, that’s terribly sad. I’m sorry for you dear, you must miss her very much.’

‘Yeah I do. I can hardly believe it, I’m not the one who goes around pining after women. But Carrie’s just got to me. Hey ho, though, it won’t be forever, hopefully just a few weeks and I’ll see her again. Oh, and you’ll never guess who came round while I was away …’

I silently thanked Andrew for giving me the perfect diversion from maternal sympathy overload, and launched into an account of my afternoon trying to track him down.

The next morning, the obligatory fried breakfast out of the way (hey, I cooked it, alright? I do an awesome fry-up), cups of tea consumed, Sunday papers partially read, and the full horror of the Scott Suite divulged, I went home.

Nothing immediately alerted me to the carnage I was going to find when I rounded the corner of the stairs, but the missing front door and splintered door frame, cordoned off with strips of ‘police crime scene’ tape, alerted me pretty quickly and heart-stoppingly.

Mrs Harding must have installed a spy camera in the ceiling or something, as she came out and watched as I stood there open-mouthed, gazing through the tape to the wrecked room beyond.

‘Hello Mark.’

‘Matt. Hi Mrs H. Er …’

Words failed me, and I gestured helplessly towards where my door used to be. The actual door was lying in two pieces in the middle of the floor of the living room, surrounded by smashed up bits of TV, computer, phone and pictures. Books were flung about, ripped and broken.

‘I had to call the police, some thug up here was making such a racket, I was terrified.’

She sounded like it was my fault, and looked like she was expecting me to apologise.

‘Did you see who did it?’

‘No, I was cowering in my bedroom ready to jump in the wardrobe if they tried it on my door.’

Yeah, this would have to be the first time you didn’t stick your beak out for a good nose, wouldn’t it. It was an unworthily selfish thought, but I didn’t feel remotely charitable.

‘Well I’m sorry if it disturbed you.’

I tried to put as much sarcasm in my voice as possible, and I can layer on the sarcasm when I need to. I felt bad about it for a second, as it must have been scary for an old lady to listen to a door being broken down only a wall’s thickness away from where you were, but the tone of voice rolled right off her.

‘I should think so too. Don’t know what kind of company you’re keeping, but you need to change your friends if that’s the sort you’re bringing round here.’

I wheeled round to her, angry at the injustice of being told off for having my flat trashed.

‘Hey, none of my friends did this. Someone’s broken in and wrecked the place.’

‘Yes. Well. I told the police your name, they said they were going to try to find you. Been out all night, have you?’

‘At my mum’s.’

Not that it was any of her business if I’d been visiting all the strip joints and pole-dancing clubs in town.

‘Hm.’

Which she obviously thought I had.

‘Hold on – what name did you give the police?’

‘Your name. Mark Short.’

‘It’s Matt, Mrs Harding. Matt Scott. My name has never been Mark, I don’t know why you insist that it is, so it’s hardly surprising the police didn’t manage to find me to tell me about my flat. Now if you’ll excuse me, it looks like I have some clearing up to do.’

She glared at me coldly as I ripped the police tape and stepped into my living room.

‘I don’t think you should be doing that.’

I swung round, the last day of sadness, confusion and now anger bubbling out of my mouth.

‘Just piss off and leave me the fuck alone. If you can’t even get my name right, just don’t even fucking talk to me.’

I stomped through the broken glass and bits of plastic to my bedroom. I don’t know what I had been expecting, maybe a haven from the destruction, but there was more of the same in there.

My duvet had been ripped in half, spilling the filling like snow across the bed and floor, and my bookshelves had been pulled over, scattering the contents everywhere. A glass of water that had been on my bedside table had been smashed over the books, and several of them now sported wrinkled pages.

As I surveyed the devastation, I started to tremble, my lips started to quiver. I was not going to cry because of something that arsehole had done. But being here was overwhelming and I needed to get out.

Patting my pockets to make sure I had my keys and my mobile, I rushed out of the flat, down the stairs and to my car. I was shaking too much to put the key in the ignition. I took several deep breaths, realising as I did so that driving at this moment wasn’t a good idea.

I felt very alone. I had lots of mates here in Stafford, but when I thought about it, they were all footy mates, or work mates, or chess mates – nobody close enough to call on in an emergency like this. Andrew had disappeared into thin air. Carrie was in a secret hideaway, and this wasn’t something I would have dumped on her anyway, given the circumstances. That left Jay or Mum. I needed my Mum.

‘Hey Mum.’

‘Matthew. Is everything alright, dear?’

‘No. Can I stay at yours tonight?’

‘Of course, whatever’s happened?’

‘Someone’s broken into my flat, trashed it.’

She gasped. ‘No! How terrible! Are the police there?’

‘It happened last night. The police have been and gone. I suppose I need to call them, tell them it’s my flat. My neighbour gave them the wrong name.’

‘Oh come back over, Matthew, stay as long as you need to, you know that.’

‘Thanks Mum. It’ll take me a bit longer than usual, I’m too shaky to drive, I’m going to get a taxi.’

‘Oh Matthew, be careful.’

Mum was awesome. She always came across as slightly vague and laissez-faire about things, but her mind was as sharp as a tack, and before I even got there she’d written a list of things I needed to do – police, insurance, carpenter, landlord, and more. All the things that would have occurred to me eventually, but would have needed me to be in a calmer state than I currently was. She sat with me while I made the calls, offering words when mine failed me, patting my shoulder or touching my hand when I choked up, grimacing with me through the stupid questions the insurance company asked me.

Only when I’d finished, when I’d managed to pay a carpenter to fix the door at treble the normal rate because it was a Sunday and the bloody landlord wouldn’t agree to pick up the bill, when the police had finished asking me questions about Martin and why he might have wanted to harm my property, which I hadn’t answered fully because I didn’t want them bothering Carrie on her first day of being safe, when the insurance company had emailed me a claim form, only then did she look at me, concern in her eyes.

‘Are you sure this girl of yours is worth it?’

My shoulders sagged, all the pent up tears came flooding out, and she gathered me up in a hug that only a mum can give, full of unconditional love, empty of judgement. It didn’t last long, and as I sniffed to a halt, pushed away from her and smiled weakly at her, I answered her.

‘Yeah, she bloody well is. Because that could have been her, but it wasn’t, because of me.’

‘Well, alright dear, fair enough. But I’m worried for you. What if he comes back and breaks the new door?’

‘What if he does? It’s still a mess in there, he can’t trash it anymore than it already is.’

‘But after it’s all cleared up, after you go back.’

I was silent for a moment, an idea I’d had forming since the middle of last week taking on an urgency and a focus.

‘I don’t think I’m going back. I mean, yeah, to get any of my stuff that’s salvageable, but he broke the big stuff, and it’ll just be books and clothes and kitchen stuff. The insurance can sort out the mess, that’s what I pay my premiums for, and I’ll give in my notice tomorrow. Oh, er, can I stay here while I look for somewhere else?’

‘You know I’d be delighted to have you to myself for a while. I don’t see you enough these days.’

And if I’d still been an excellent no-strings lay, there’s no way I’d be trying to bum a bed off my mum for a few weeks, but without Carrie I was going to be without need of a bachelor pad, and the relative monastery of Carol Scott’s spare bedroom, aka my old bedroom complete with Airfix model of the Saturn 5 rocket I made when I was eleven, would suit me just fine.

‘Thanks, Mum, you’re awesome. I’ll enjoy it too.’

So Project Capture Carrie 1.2.1 began the next day. I regretfully informed my cheapskate landlord that I wouldn’t be returning to my flat; I called in to work to let them know I needed a couple of days of personal time due to a traumatic break-in; I went back with boxes and bin bags, collected everything that was collectable, itemised and photographed everything that was damaged beyond repair, including some collectables, wrote it all on my insurance claim form, left the mess for the landlord and the insurance company to fight over, and started looking for a new place to live.

It only took a day. I found a two bedroom flat (ever hopeful, but a spare room would be handy anyway) about as far away as you could get in Stafford from either my flat or Carrie’s old flat. It was a nice area, and the kitchen looked out, eventually if you looked far enough, to hills beyond. It was close to a little shopping street, which had a café and a small food store amongst the charity shops; it all felt good.

I agreed to move in at the end of the month, signed the tenancy, and spent the rest of the afternoon buying furniture for it online. The previous flat had been furnished, and somehow the thought of all those unknown people who might have sat on my sofa or slept in my bed always made me uneasy. Having my own stuff was way better, especially if it was new. My bank account was taking a bit of a battering, but I was enjoying it in a strange way. It almost felt like a new episode of life was opening up, one where I took charge of things for a change instead of going with the flow.

I still kept a close look out for Martin, all the time. I hadn’t seen him for more than six months, but I was sure I’d recognise him, as sure as I was that he’d recognise me. I didn’t know if the police had contacted him about my flat, or been able to pin anything on him, but he was unlikely to have warmed to me for giving his name to them. Who knows, maybe it wasn’t him who broke down the door. Yeah, maybe the pope doesn’t wear a funny hat. So I was still on my guard, every day.

Once back at work, I was thrown right into a morass of business. While I’d been away, Eyeti had put some expansion plans into force, and new work was rolling in without, as yet, the staff to cope with it all. I picked up as much slack as I could, and was grateful for the distraction. On my second day back, I answered my phone without checking the screen.

‘Matt Scott.’

‘Well aren’t you the brisk business man. Hello Matty.’

‘Beth?’

‘How are you? Carol’s just this minute told me about all your troubles. Why didn’t you call us, sweetheart?’

My brain did a strange loop-the-loop thing, as I’d been thinking hard about how to solve a work problem, and had successfully pushed every single other thing in my life out of my head while I wrestled with it.

‘Matty?’

‘Yeah, sorry, I was just in the middle of something. You threw me. It’s OK. I mean I’m OK, it’s all sorted now. There’s nothing you could have done. Mum was great, I’m staying with her until I move into my new place.’

‘And when were you going to tell us about your new place?’

‘Oh, when I moved in I expect. Why would you need to know? You never visit me.’

‘Only because you never ask. And you only have one bedroom.’

‘Had. Two now. Fancy a visit?’

‘Well we’d love to. Will you be in before the start of the season?’

Ah, so it was still down to the rugby.

‘When is that?’

‘Well pre-season has already started, but weekends are still fine. Pre-season friendlies start in August, so no weekends then, and the season starts in September.’

‘How do you do it, Beth?’

‘What?’

‘Let your whole life be ruled by a bloody sport? Only seeing people in the summer?’

‘I suppose if you’re with someone who’s worth it, it’s easy.’

And ain’t that the truth.

‘Yeah. So, it’s not sounding like a visit from you is likely before next year, then. Although you could always come up with Cal, leave Jay to fend for himself.’

‘You know, I might do that one day. Be careful what you wish for.’

‘I always am.’

‘But you’re sure you’re alright? Nothing else to report? Have you heard from Carrie?’

‘No, but I’m assuming that the old saying is true about no news being good news. It’ll be at least a couple of weeks yet, I’m sure. I’d kind of like to be in my new place when I next see her, could be a bit of an embarrassing reunion if we have to do it at Mum’s.’

‘Ha ha. I’m sure Carol wouldn’t mind staying in the kitchen while you two go at it on the coffee table.’

‘Beth!’

‘What?’

‘Such unladylike talk from you, of all people.’

‘Well, you’ve made it nearly the entire way through a conversation without swearing, it needed one of us to lower the tone.’

‘True. Piss off then, I’ve got work to do.’

‘Bye Matty.’

‘Bye Beth.’

For a couple of weeks, work hardly stopped. I barely had time to eat or sleep, let alone think, and that helped me more than anything. Although I was living at Mum’s, I didn’t see much of her, as I’d get home late, eat dinner, and then collapse into bed before getting up ridiculously early to do it all over again. There was no respite at weekends, as the work needed doing. The light at the end of the tunnel was that Eyeti had recruited new staff, who would be starting in a week, so help was at hand.

At the end of the third week of work hell, as I fell exhausted on the sofa on the Friday, looking forward to my first Saturday off since I’d got back from Devon, Mum handed me a stack of post.

I’d had my mail redirected from my old flat, and the Post Office seemed to save it all up in one huge bundle to deliver on a Friday. I flicked through it absently, one eye on the TV, most of the post being bills or advertising; however, there was a handwritten envelope that caught my eye. The writing was familiar. I looked at the franking mark, but it was smudged and I couldn’t read it. As I opened the envelope and saw the header at the top of the paper – ‘African Technology Ministry’ with smiling pictures of African children in schoolrooms – I nearly binned it with the other charity advertising, but something made me look down at the bottom of the page for the signature. I had recognised the writing on the envelope, after all. And there it was. Not a signature, a single name. Andrew. It was a letter, from Andrew. I hadn’t had a letter, an actual letter, for years. I sat up straighter, interested now, and began to read.

Dear Matt

I’m so sorry I haven’t been able to contact you to tell you our news before now. I tried to see you a few weeks ago when we were in Stafford, but you must have been away. Please apologise to your neighbour for causing her any disturbance.

Karen, Rebecca and I have moved to Kenya, to work for the ATM. It was a bit of a sudden move. A few months ago, we found Jesus

Oh, Jesus, no.

and I realised that there was a reason I was so interested in computers and technology.

Yeah, because you’re a geek, Andrew.

I found a job with ATM, whose aim is to provide every person in Africa with usable technology that will improve their lives in the name of the Lord. While we are working for ATM, we will not own any personal technology, as this will deprive another African person of something we could have given to them.

Except for some kind of Iron Age typewriter, obviously. Which, who knows, an African person might find more useful than the Angry Birds app.

I’m sorry I was unable to contact you to tell you this, or explain why I have not contacted you before.

I am permitted a certain amount of emails per month to contact friends and family who may otherwise not hear of the wonderful work of the ATM, or the love that Jesus has for them.

Well yippee, we’ll all look forward to hearing from you, in that case.

You can contact me on adistock@afrtechmin.org. I’d love to hear from you, but I might not be able to read your email for some months. Please be patient with me, as you have always been.

Until now you stupid, stupid arse.

Please be mindful that any emails might not be read only by me, as we use them for teaching purposes, and that your particular style of humour may not be appreciated by a seven year old African child.

Your friend

Andrew

‘Fuck me backwards with a stick of rhubarb.’

‘Language, Matthew. And, er, inappropriately rude suggestions. What’s the matter?’

‘Do you remember I told you about Andrew coming to see me while I was away?’

‘Yes dear. Didn’t you go to his wedding a few years ago? Haven’t they got a little girl now? Rebecca isn’t it?’

How did they do this, women, remember every tiny detail of every bloody person in the world’s sodding life, when I can’t even remember my best friends’ daughter’s name?

‘Yes, yes and yes. Well he’s only gone and got religion and flown off to Africa and eschewed technology until everyone in Africa has some of their own. Or the apocalypse lets him off, presumably.’

‘Oh dear. He might be some time without a laptop then, in either case.’

My mum’s sense of humour took me by surprise sometimes. It was just the right thing to say, and it made me laugh, a lot.

‘Know what else? I’m allowed to email him, but I must curb my wit because it might not be appreciated by any seven year old child who might stumble across it in some bizarre teaching accident. But that’s my natural level! A seven year old child would be my ideal audience! Right, I’m cooking up the best seven year old wit email I can muster, and sending it tomorrow.’

‘Really dear?’

Mum had that look in her eyes, the one I usually tried to ignore but inevitably had to pay attention to in the end.

‘What?’

‘Well, whatever you think of Andrew’s new life, he’s been your friend for a long time, and he’s asked you for something specific, or in this case specifically not for something. I expect he’d be happy to hear from you, he’ll be in a strange country, amongst strangers, and letters from friends are always welcome, but if you just write something wicked, firstly you might get him into trouble, and secondly he might think you don’t care about him, or that his new circumstances have upset you in some way.’

‘Well they bloody have. Who gets religion these days? We used to laugh our arses off at the Christian Union lot at Uni.’

‘It’s still his life, Matthew. All I’m suggesting, is be a bit kind, especially while this is new to him.’

‘Bloody hell, Mum. OK, I’ll be sensible. Won’t stop me composing a doozy of an email for later on, when he needs an out and I can get him the sack. Or maybe I could smuggle him an iPad, or –’

My phone rang, interrupting my stream of ideas for rescuing Andrew from the clutches of the African Technology Ministry. I glanced at the screen. Number withheld. Could be a cold caller, but these days, I was never sure.

‘Matt Scott.’

‘Hi Matt. It’s Carrie.’

I gasped. I had been hoping, but not expecting, to hear from her for a while.

‘Hey you. Oh C, it’s so good to hear your voice. Where are you?’

‘I can’t tell you that, I just wanted to say, things are good, great, it’s all going according to plan. I’m going to have a job and somewhere to live pretty soon, and I’ll be in touch.’

‘That’s brilliant, C. How are you?’

‘I’m really good. I’ve met some amazing people. I so want to see you, can you wait just a bit longer?’

‘You know I can. I miss you so much.’

‘Yeah, same here. I can’t say any more, I’ve got to go, but take care of yourself.’

‘You too.’

‘Bye.’

‘Bye.’

I continued to hold the phone to my ear after she had disconnected, hoping maybe she was still there and I’d hear her breathing. Eventually I realised how ridiculous I was being, and disconnected too, and looked at Mum, unable to rein in the big soppy grin splitting my face.

‘Well that just tells me everything I need to know about how you feel about her, dear. The look on your face is priceless.’

‘I’m bloody hopeless, aren’t I?’

‘I’d say so. Do you want some shepherd’s pie? I’ve kept it warm.’

‘Love some.’

I sighed happily as Mum went into the kitchen to fetch my dinner. PCC 1.2.2 seemed to be underway.

Life went on. Work had quietened down with the new intake of staff, and a further round of recruitment was going to ease things more. I could finally count on my weekends and evenings again, and the day quickly came when I got the keys to my new flat. I even had time for a day off to move in, and enjoyed putting things where I wanted them, taking delivery of furniture, putting some of it together but leaving the rest for the weekend.

I bought Mum a huge bunch of flowers to say thanks, and told her she was welcome to use my spare room anytime she had her front door kicked in. She countered that she’d rather use it because her son wanted his mother to stay over, maybe when she’d had one too many glasses of red wine, so we agreed that was an acceptable compromise, as long as I wasn’t entertaining a lady-friend. We also agreed that either of us would hang a sock on the door if we got lucky, which would curtail any embarrassment felt at unexpected early morning semi-clothed meetings, and I told her where to find the supply of condoms in the bathroom. She was a bit of an old dear sometimes, but mostly my mum was alright.

I’d been in my flat for about a week. I’d just got in from work, with laptop, iPad, keys and bag of shopping falling from my hands as I tried to open the door to the flat without putting any of it down, when I heard my phone ringing in my pocket. I dropped it all to fish the phone out, wincing at the sound of smashed eggs and broken glass. It was another number withheld. There had been several of these, each time raising my hopes, only to dash them when some bastard announced that he was sorry to hear about my recent accident, but …

I opened my door on autopilot and started to nudge everything across the floor with my feet as I answered, fully expecting to be commiserated with about my recent imaginary fender bender.

‘Matt Scott.’

‘It’s Carrie.’

My day lit up.

‘Hey C.’

‘I’m out.’

‘Holy fuck. Really? Where are you?’

‘Still can’t say. Can we meet?’

‘Fuck yeah. Name the time and place.’

‘Pizza Place. Thirty minutes?’

‘Pizza Place? Really? OK, whatever you say. Which one, retail park or town centre?’

‘Town centre.’

‘I’ll be there. Woohoo.’

‘I haven’t got long, I just want to explain things to you.’

‘What things?’

‘Not over the phone, Matt. I want to do it in person.’

‘OK. Thirty minutes. I’m there.’

Pushing misgivings aside, I shoved food into the fridge, dumped broken eggs and jam jars in the bin, put my laptop and iPad on the counter, quickly changed my shirt, vainly checked my face in the mirror and ruffled my hair rakishly, grabbed my keys and set off for PCC 1.2.3.

I saw her as soon as I walked in, sitting with her back to the door, but they made me wait in the queue to be seated, which I nearly got arsey about, but didn’t want Carrie’s first sight of me in over a month to be while I was getting shirty with a sixteen year old waiter. Eventually I convinced them I was with someone who was already sitting at a table, and I walked over, trying for maybe a slight hint of insouciance, but unable to stop myself rushing over at the last minute and skidding to a halt in front of her.

The look on her face when she looked up at me was almost worth the last few weeks. It spoke to me without words of feeling the same longing, the same missing you, the same ache that I’d felt. I wanted to pull her into my arms and hold her all night, but I sensed some hesitation, realised I needed to play by rules I may not be fully aware of yet, and sat down opposite her.

‘Hey.’

‘Hey.’

‘You’re even more gorgeous than I remember.’

I put my hands on the table, wanting to take hers in mine, but her hands remained on her lap.

‘So are you.’

‘Really? Shucks.’

‘I missed you.’

‘I missed you too. Can I hold your hand?’

‘Well … I was hoping to get to the food before I did this, but let’s see how far we get before they ask us what we want and we say large deep pan meat feast with two salads and a beer for you and a water for me, yeah?’

I raised an eyebrow. ‘I see you’re taking control of the situation.’

‘Yeah, well, that’s part of what all this is about. You know I said I want to explain things?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I bet you worried all the way over what I’m going to say, didn’t you.’

‘No.’

‘Really?’

‘Alright then, yeah.’

‘You’ve no need to worry, it’s nothing bad.’

‘You haven’t got religion, have you? Because I’ve already had one friend turn to the dark side this month, I couldn’t cope if you did too.’

‘Ha ha. No. Isn’t religion officially the light side, though? Anyway, not important right now. I want to explain what’s going to happen, with us.’

‘Oookaay.’

She was sounding very composed, very sure, and very clear. It was a little bit scary.

‘It doesn’t sound like I have much of a say.’

‘Let me explain first, then you’ll see why it feels like that.’

‘You’re not trying to get me to join the Moonies?’

‘The what?’

‘A cult.’

‘No. Focus, Matt, it’s nothing to do with religion, OK?’

‘Alright. Talk then. Oh, here comes the waiter so we can tell him what you decided we want.’

The words came out sounding a bit more petulant than I had intended.

‘Don’t be like that, just – oh, large deep pan meat feast, two salads, a beer and a water please. Thanks. Hear me out, please? I don’t want to screw up this first time by arguing with you.’

‘I don’t want to argue with you, either. I’ve missed you so much, C, I’ve thought about you every minute of the day, imagined you, how you smell, what your voice is like, how it feels when you touch me.’

‘Matt, stop it. I’ve missed you too, just as much, done all those things. I can’t do all that right now.’

‘Oh. Have we at least got time to eat the pizza I’m going to be picking all the meat off while I’m listening to you tell me how things are going to be?’

Petulant Matt was back, feeling a little hard done by. Carrie didn’t reply, and as I looked at her, I noticed with horror that her eyes were filling with tears.

‘No! C, I’m sorry, I’m a fucking idiot. Tell me. Say anything. I’ll stop being a whiny kid. I was just expecting things to be one way, and you’ve thrown me a curve ball and I’m sulking. Please. Here.’

I handed her a serviette from the dispenser.

‘You seem to make a habit of mopping me up in eating places.’

‘I’m a git, what can I say. Please. Tell me. I’m listening.’

‘Alright then. But just so you know, saying it is harder than hearing it.’

‘Try me.’

I attempted my best relaxed posture, but under the table I couldn’t stop my leg jiggling with anxiety. It didn’t feel like good news, and I suppose I’d been trying to put off the actual moment when she told me she couldn’t have a relationship with me other than ‘friends’ or else her women chums would shave off all her hair and tattoo ‘harlot’ on her forehead.

‘OK.’ She took a deep breath. ‘I’ve talked to a lot of people the last few weeks. Counsellors, psychologists, social workers, volunteers, other women like me, you name it. People I would have never thought in a million years I’d be talking to. It took a lot of sorting out, a long time to get there, but I realised that I’ve had no control over my life for the last four years, since Martin took it away from me. I need to take the control back, and if I just jump into something full on with you, I’ll lose it again. You’re the best, Matt, you’re so caring, you always think about me, but you’d want to do it for me, or help me with money, or something, even live with you, I don’t know, and I need to do it on my own, for a bit, to prove to myself that I can. So my plan is we do this, us, in stages. The end goal is us, together, like we were in Devon. But not yet, not until I know I have some control. So there are steps, and much as they’re going to frustrate the hell out of both of us, I need to prove to myself that I can do it, that I can control it, before we go to the next step. So, the first step, tonight, is going out for a meal, somewhere there are lots of people, no touching, no kissing, no hugging, however much we want to. If that works, and I feel like I have control, then whatever we do next will still be busy and crowded, I don’t know, cinema or something, but we can hold hands. If that isn’t disastrous –’

I put my hand up, in the manner of schoolboy asking to be excused.

‘What?’

‘Can I ask questions? I’ve got a zillion.’

‘Can it wait till I’ve finished? I’ve kind of been psyching myself up to this.’

‘OK.’

But I had tons of questions already, I was impatient, and I hoped I remembered half of them before she got to the end. I was relieved by the thought of us getting back to how we were in Devon, but terrified by imagining all the different ways I could fuck it all up between now and then if I wasn’t really, really careful.

‘OK, so after holding hands, we can do hugging, but not groping, and all still in public. Then kissing. Then we can go somewhere more private if we want to, I don’t know, a club or something, and if all that goes well, then it’s my place or yours and we’re back to where we were.’

She spread her arms wide and smiled, a weight seemingly gone from her shoulders as if she’d just explained the simplest thing in the world to a small child, and managed it well.

‘Can I ask questions now?’

She nodded.

‘What happens if I fuck it all up?’

‘You won’t.’

‘Believe me there is a lot of potential for it. I’ve been waiting for you for weeks. Did I mention the thinking about you all the bloody time? What if I get ahead of myself, ahead of the schedule? Do I just get sent to the naughty step, or is it three strikes and I’m out, or zero tolerance? What? It feels like I’m being put under the microscope here, to see how well I do, what score I get. It’s a lot of pressure.’

‘You do have a choice.’

‘Do I? What, like it or lump it?’

Carrie looked defiantly back at me. I’d nailed it.

‘Seriously? After all this time, you come back, lay down the law as dictated by some man-hating bearded ladies, and say, yeah I’ve missed you like fuck too, Matt, but if you don’t like it, well, adios?’

Our pizza chose that moment to be delivered. It nearly ended up on the floor, disgusting processed meat and greasy cheese covered thing that it was, interrupting my time with Carrie. As the waiter placed our drinks and salad bowls on the table and exhorted us to ‘enjoy our meals, guys’, I suspected he could have cut the silence into slices and distributed them as a taster platter to the other tables.

‘You do remember why I’ve been away, don’t you?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Do you? Really? Because it sounds like you think I’ve been having a lovely time by the pool with my friends, instead of curled up in a ball hating myself most days, trying to work up the courage to talk to the next bloody know-all fuss-pot who thinks she knows about me and my problems, but turns out that, yeah, she actually does know, in the end, and after a while, I stopped crying all the time, and only cried after the sessions, not before them, and eventually they were bloody great, and they’ve saved my bloody life, and if you can’t see that, and see beyond the oh-so-witty things you call them, to the work they do with train wrecks like me, then you’re not the man I thought you were, and we’re done here.’

I sat, chastened, staring at the table. I had been a selfish git, there was no denying it. I’d been in the real world while Carrie confronted some ugly demons in some kind of purgatory, and it hadn’t occurred to me that keeping her safe would involve more than a few arts and crafts sessions and maybe a weekly talk by a lesbian, while everyone fended off the menfolk at the door with pitchforks. I didn’t share this vision with Carrie; instead, I gave myself a mental slap.

‘So, this plan of yours, no touching today, then?’

‘Not today.’

‘But next time, I can hold your hand?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Can I call you, or text you?’

‘Yeah. I’ve changed my number, I’ll give it to you now.’

She held her hand out for my phone.

‘But nothing rude or flirty, not yet.’

She held my gaze, imploring me to understand. I wasn’t sure I did, not right now, but I nodded as she tapped her number in and gave me back my phone, because even if I didn’t get it, I could do it.

‘And no badgering me. If I need peace and quiet, leave me alone.’

‘OK.’

‘You said you had lots of questions.’

‘Don’t seem important now. You’ve got somewhere to live?’

‘Yeah. I’ll take you sometime.’

‘Where is it?’

‘In Stafford.’

‘OK, fair enough. That’s good. What if Martin finds it?’

‘He won’t. Er, didn’t you know he’d been arrested? I thought you must have, it was because of you.’

‘What?’

‘The police came to see me, the second day I was there, Martin told them about me, and they found me somehow. They told me about your flat, asked me about Martin. I told them all about him, but not all about us.’

‘Shit, I specifically didn’t say much to them about you, I didn’t want them barging in with their size elevens all over your safe house.’

‘Aw thanks, that’s sweet, but it did the trick. Got him arrested, and he resisted arrest, so he might have a jail term. Maybe it’ll sort him out.’

‘Or make him more dangerous.’

‘Yeah, let’s not go there. But anyway, you don’t need to worry about me where I am, it’s secure. And I’ve got a restraining order against Martin. Maybe you should think about it, too.’

‘What?’

‘Seriously, Matt. He trashed your flat. I’m so sorry about that. I’d hate … you should think about it.’

I noticed it, the shift, from her feeling guilty about it, to the onus on me to protect myself. It was impressive, and I felt proud of her.

‘I’ve moved, he won’t find me.’

‘Up to you. Where to?’

‘In Stafford. I’ll take you sometime.’

‘Very funny. Fair do’s, I suppose, if we’re going to be on an equal footing.’

‘Can you tell me about your job?’

Carrie’s eyes lit up, and lifted my heart. This was something she could tell me, something she was excited about.

‘Yeah, as well as the yoga classes at the school, which start in a month or so, and a couple of other things I had from before, I’m going to be doing classes at two of the safe houses, and massage and aromatherapy at the drop-in centre off the High Street twice a week. WO is paying me, not loads, but it will all help.’

‘Go C. That’s so great. But won’t – oh I’m going to shut up. It’s occurring to me that this isn’t some shambles of a giddy women’s club, it’s more like a secret society run with military precision, by ex-members of MI5 or something.’

‘Ha ha, not quite, but they do know their shit. Are you going to have any of this pizza or not?’

‘Not.’

‘Really? Not a meat lover?’

‘Not a compressed leftover brains and rat droppings lover, and not a Pizza Place lover, so’s you’d notice. But that’s OK. I can sit and gaze at you while you eat it. You’re beautiful with mozzarella strings on your chin.’

I wanted to reach over and rub them off with my thumb, then run my thumb along her bottom lip, while she gently licked it with the tip of her tongue …

‘Go and get a salad then.’

‘Again with the rat droppings.’

‘Sorry, I didn’t realise you were such a snobby eater.’

‘Only the best goes into this finely tuned set of tubes.’

I patted my abdomen.

‘Well, how about you choose where we go next time, then? It doesn’t have to be a meal, it can be anything.’

What I really wanted to do was get her to my place, cook her the lightest filet mignon with a couple of crispy potato fries and a mustard sauce, feed it to her while kissing the juices from her mouth, and then lead her to the bedroom for the second course. But that seemed to be step three thousand and ninety four, and felt like a lifetime away.

‘There’s a French film on at the Arts Cinema.’

‘Yeah?’

‘There? Tomorrow?’

‘Can’t tomorrow, not in the evening, anyway, I’ve got a class. Friday?’

‘Plan. Meet you there 6.30.’

‘Will I need to learn French before then?’

‘Mais non, ma petite fleur, le film a des sous-titres.’

‘Do I need to learn it now? You seem to have turned into Eric Cantona.’

‘Ha ha, I’d prefer David Ginola. It will have subtitles. And you’ll be too busy holding my hand to watch it anyway.’

‘You could be right. God Matt, it’s so hard not to touch you.’

I could have said ‘why don’t you then’, but I was starting to get it, why she needed to do this, what it meant to her, and I just wagged an admonishing finger at her while stealing a bit of rat-shit pepperoni off her pizza.

And so we chatted, about this and that, she told me a tiny bit of what it had been like for her since I last saw her, but mostly we kept it light, and it felt like we could almost grasp hold of a bit of how it had been with us, and how it would be again. She was still Carrie, she was still beautiful, she was still the woman I desired above all others. But she had changed, was still changing, and both of us needed to get used to that, while we were getting used to seeing each other again. I won’t say all of this occurred to me while I was sitting there talking nonsense with her, as mostly what occurred to me was ‘holy fuck you’re gorgeous’ and ‘I want you so much’ and other variations on a theme. But enough of it filtered through that by the time we’d eaten as much as we were going to – which in my case was limited to a couple of stolen pieces of pepperoni because she thought it was cute when I did it – and she said she was going to have to go, I didn’t pin her to her seat to stop her from leaving me again. Although I felt like doing it. Instead, I took a deep breath.

‘I’m sorry if I was a dick earlier.’

‘It’s OK. I guess … I didn’t look at it from your point of view. I’ve been thinking about me, how I’m going to do things, all this time, I’ve had to. I suppose I can see that you haven’t been through that process with me, and it was a bit of a surprise.’

‘I just felt like, I can see it’s important for you to have control, but it felt, feels, like I don’t have any, and I don’t like it, and that’s a big lesson for me, but at first it didn’t seem fair, I’ve wanted something so different for the first time I saw you again. But I understand, you’re not saying never, you’re just saying ‘slowly’, I get it. You’re right, I was going to ask you to move in, I’ve got a flat with two bedrooms, but to be honest my mum’s bagged the spare for when she’s shit-faced on cheap plonk after we’ve ripped Britain’s Got Very Little Talent to shreds, so you can’t come now, anyway.’

‘Ha ha. I’ll have to meet your mum sometime, she sounds great. Bet my mum could drink her under the table, though.’

I’d forgotten the vague hints Carrie had given me that her mum had a drink problem, and winced at my insensitivity.

‘Well, meeting the mother, that’s a long way down the line, not been there yet, with anyone.’

‘Really? You always talk about her like you get on with her really well.’

‘Yeah, I do, but it says something, doesn’t it, taking a girl to meet your mum?’

‘What does it say? This is my mum?’

‘Yeah, don’t pretend you girls don’t all have your secret signals you use to confuse us poor blokes. Meeting the mother is like, ‘buy the hat, Mum’. No roses on Valentines Day is ‘pack your bags’, can I buy you a drink is ‘toast or cereal or me for breakfast’ –’

‘I can see you’ve made a full and detailed study of women. Maybe you need to try some of it out on a real one.’

‘Love to. Hoping to.’

Carrie looked at me, a half-smile on her face.

‘I’ve had a great time tonight, seeing you again is awesome.’

‘Me too. Like I said, sorry for earlier. I’m with you, I’m going to do this with you.’

Her half-smile became a whole one and my heart skipped.

‘Thank you. I’ve had a thought, what you said about not having control, well that’s not right, is it? I’m not going to change the rules, but you get to choose the places. All of them. No more Pizza Place.’

It actually made a hell of a difference.

‘Whoa, C, that’s awesome. Thank you. I want to hug you.’

‘You can’t.’

‘I know.’

‘Stop it then.’

‘Sorry. I’ll put myself on the naughty step when I get home, give myself a stern lecture on the benefits of self-control, discipline, will-power and resolve, and hope it prevents a repeat performance.’

‘You’ve still got the gift of the gab, haven’t you.’

‘Not quite sure why I would lose my super-power.’

‘Come on, it’s time for me to go.’

‘You’re breaking my heart. Coffee?’

‘No thanks. Anyway, isn’t it made from rat droppings here?’

‘I expect so.’

Carrie stood up, and I stood too, feeling awkward, not knowing if I should leave with her, or stay while she went. In the end I stayed, watching her walk away from me, turning to wave at the door and disappear into the night.

I was awash with a churning mass of emotions. I’d seen her again after all this time, and that was better than great. After a shaky start, the chemistry between us had still been there, and that was even better than better than great. But this new thing, these rules, made my heart heavy and that was much worse than great. I let the waiter bring me a cup of rat-shit coffee, and I stared into its murky depths, lost in thoughts.

My phone pinged, and I picked it up. A text from Carrie. Already. This was good.

‘Gr8 2 c u looking 4ward 2 film wots it called?’

‘Micmacs. Loved being w u 2nite. Missed u.’

‘Missed u 2. c u soon tho xxx.’

‘Thinking abt u xxx’

‘u 2 🙂 nite nite xxx’

‘xxx’

As I sat there reading and re-reading and re-re-reading the texts, slightly nauseated by the smell of the coffee, it crossed my mind how things might be, how I could make my peace with this whole ‘take it slower than a snail on Valium’ deal.

It wasn’t that Carrie was changing the goalposts for us, saying we couldn’t be what I wanted us to be. Despite what I’d said to her, I hadn’t really got that, hadn’t been able to look beyond my upset at not getting what I’d been expecting. No, Carrie wanted it as much as I did, the closeness we’d had, but she was putting other things first so that when we had it, it was right for her, for both of us. The goalposts were still in the same place, we’d just moved further away from them and needed a few fancy moves to get us within striking distance again. Now I had a footballing analogy, I felt much better, bloke that I was. I left my coffee, paid the bill and went home.

4. Come away with me

In which Matty and Carrie escape a problem only to run into a whole new set of complications.

Matt

I pulled up outside Dave’s Café, a delightfully unmodern greasy spoon with no parking outside. As it had taken me eighteen minutes to get there, I didn’t worry too much about parking on the double yellow lines, ditched the car and ran into the café.

Carrie was nowhere to be seen. Shit, I’d taken too long and she’d lost her nerve and gone back to him. I was such a pillock, why hadn’t I just given myself five more minutes? She’d still be here and – the door to the toilets opened and Carrie looked out warily. The relief that crossed her face when she saw me was probably mirrored on my own, and I crossed the floor to her quickly. When I reached her, I had to stop myself sweeping her into my arms; I hadn’t realised just how much I’d missed her, how unbelievably good it was to see her again, but she’d called me as a friend, she was in trouble, and she didn’t need me complicating matters just now. I stopped in front her, a completely inappropriate soppy grin on my face.

‘I thought you’d gone.’

‘Sorry. I thought I saw Martin through the window. I was hiding out. Thank you for coming.’

I hadn’t really got any further than meeting her in the café, in my mind, events having happened in a bit of rush, and now it occurred to me that I didn’t have a plan. I’d told her to pack some things, but didn’t know if she’d want to stay with me or not. Maybe the most important thing was to get out of the neighbourhood where she lived, thus diminishing the chances of running into muscle boy Martin.

‘Shall we go back to my place, decide what to do?’

Carrie nodded, seeming happy for me to make decisions for her at this point.

‘Come on then.’

I led the way to my car, pulling my phone out and sending a quick text to Mercy.

‘So sorry, Merce. Let me have the bill for the taxi. Mx’

I could try to rectify at least some of the disaster. Before I’d got home, I had her reply.

‘Have own friends 2 rescue me. Fuck u.’

So much for rectifying anything. Another one to chalk up to experience. Carrie had been silent for the journey until then, but must have seen the look on my face.

‘Problems?’

‘Er, not any more. Nothing for you to worry about. Here we are then. It’s a bit small, but it’s home.’

I picked up Carrie’s small bag and led her up the stairs to the small flat where I lived. I saw her expression when she realised there was only one bedroom, and I knew that staying with me wasn’t going to be an option for her.

‘Right, first things first, kettle on, cup of tea. Milk and sugar?’

‘Have you got anything herbal?’

‘Here.’

I handed her a tin full of fruit and herbal teas and she picked one out.

‘You’re very tidy.’

‘Am I? Blame my mum. She drilled it into me when I was little. Did a good job, can’t bear mess.’

‘I don’t really know what I’m doing here.’

Carrie was still standing just inside the door, which to be fair wasn’t that far from the rest of the flat, but she looked ill at ease, and I was suddenly worried that one wrong word would chase her away.

‘Come and sit down. Tell me about it?’

I beckoned her over to the sofa, which was a two-seater, nice and cosy for two people who knew each other well, but uncomfortable for two people who didn’t, one of who fancied the pants off the other, the other of who was aware of that but had just been through some sort of traumatic event.

I sat on the floor, just so there were no mixed messages or crossed wires, or mistaken nudges with a thigh. Carrie crossed the room slowly and sat down gingerly, perching on the edge of the seat, looking for all the world as if she wanted to run away. I got up again, made the tea, took the mugs over, and resumed my place on the floor.

‘Just talk to me, Carrie.’

‘I don’t know what to say. It all feels so stupid now.’

‘Well, why don’t you tell me about it, and we can decide after that if it’s stupid or not, and if it is, I can take you home, and if it isn’t, then we can think about what to do.’

The look of sheer panic that gripped her face when I mentioned taking her home told me it wasn’t stupid.

I decided to let her tell me about it in her own time, to try not to rush things. I was completely out of my comfort zone, never having met anyone before who had left someone they were scared of and asked me for help, and as well as giving Carrie time, I felt like I needed time to absorb it too. She kept her eyes fixed on the floor for a while, then looked up at me and held my gaze.

‘He’s just so jealous, it happens every term, every time there’s a new class, he comes afterwards to check everyone out, then scares off anyone he thinks is a threat. This time, with you, he just wouldn’t let it go, even when you left, even when he came every week afterwards just to make sure, he just kept going on and on. He was convinced I was still seeing you, that something was going on behind his back, and today, he just … he was worse than I’ve ever seen him. I think he’s got some real problems. He thought he’d seen you out of the window, and he went downstairs to fight you or something, but when you weren’t there he convinced himself you’d seen him coming, and run away. You weren’t there were you?’

‘No! I didn’t even know where you lived until you called me. And I was on top of Potter Hill, nowhere near you. He sounds seriously deranged.’

‘He came back up to the flat, with a right cob on, then started throwing his weight around.’

‘He hurt you?’

‘No, not really, just telling me what I was and wasn’t allowed to do. I tried to leave, to walk out, just get a bit of distance, and he grabbed the door out of my hand and slammed it shut. It wrenched my arm a bit. He told me I wasn’t allowed to leave the flat unless it’s with him.’

‘What? You didn’t stand for that, surely.’

‘Well no, obviously, but he was really laying down the law, all kind of ‘you’re my woman and what I say goes’, worse than he’s been before. He didn’t hurt me, but he did say I should do as I was told or it wouldn’t be pretty.’

‘Fucking bastard.’

‘Yeah, well, he meant it. It was the look on his face when he said it, it really scared me. I just imagined being locked up there in the flat forever, not able to go out on my own. He’s capable of doing it – you’ve seen how he uses his muscle. I think he’s on steroids or something, they’re messing with his head.’

‘Holy shit.’

‘Yeah. Anyway, he went out again, to the gym, it’s always to the gym, and I was so relieved to have some peace from all the intensity, but then he said I’d better be there when he came back, if I knew what was good for me.’

Oh yeah, I’d been on the end of that ‘if you know what’s good for you’ speech too.

‘And that’s when I called you. It just seemed to have got out of hand. He’ll be back by now, he’ll know I’ve gone.’

‘Have you? Gone, I mean.’

‘I don’t think I can go back.’

I inwardly fist-pumped, but kept my expression neutral.

‘Does he know where I live?’

‘I suppose it’s a possibility. All the details from my classes, addresses and stuff, are on my computer. He could find out if he wanted to.’

Shit, so we weren’t safe here, either. Was I building this up out of proportion? It didn’t feel like it. Martin had threatened me, and now he’d threatened Carrie, and he seemed like the sort of bloke who thought with his abs and pecs rather than his brain. If he found out where I lived, I didn’t fancy either of our chances if he got here and found us together, however innocently.

‘It would be bad if he turns up here and finds you here too, especially if he’s been making up fantasies about us.’

‘Well I suppose it wasn’t all fantasy on his part.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well I know you were attracted to me.’ Oh, that, OK. ‘It … wasn’t all one way.’

‘Holy shit, Carrie. Did you tell him that?’

‘No, of course not, I’m not stupid. But neither is he. Maybe I talked about you too much, maybe I shouldn’t have told him about you calling yourself Cute Arse that time after my interview. Oh bloody hellfire, this is such a mess.’

‘Do you love him?’

Carrie was silent for a minute, looking down at her hands and fiddling with a ring.

‘I did, in the beginning. I don’t know, now. Can you love someone you’re scared of?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘But you’re right, I shouldn’t stay here, he’ll go mental if he does come round and I’m here. I should go.’

‘Where will you go?’

The fact that she had called me, rather than a close girl friend, told me that she didn’t have anyone else. She hung her head.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Have you got any family nearby?’

Carrie laughed bitterly. ‘Just my mum, but unless I’m delivering money to buy the next bottle of booze, she’s not interested.’

‘So you couldn’t stay with her, then?’

‘Couldn’t, wouldn’t.’

‘Friends?’

Again, she wouldn’t meet my eyes as she answered.

‘He’s chased them all away, called them interfering do-gooders, scared them off with his bullying. Eventually they all got fed up trying to convince me he’s no good for me, and there’s no one left I can call on now. Except you.’

She looked up, a plea in her eyes, and my heart melted. No way was I going to turf her out, but no way were we just going to stay here, waiting for Martin to come along and kick the door down. Desperate times, desperate measures.

‘Have you ever been to Devon?’

‘What?’

‘Have you?’

‘Not since I was little, on holiday.’

‘Well maybe it’s time for a jaunt.’

‘What?’

‘My brother lives down there, I’m not sure they’ve got room for us, but I’m overdue a visit, and Beth, his wife, would be great at helping you sort all this out. We can get a B and B, separate rooms, just so you can have a break, without having to worry about bumping into Martin, or him coming round here, sort yourself out a bit. What do you say?’

She looked at me again, hopefully, as if I was offering her the winning ticket in the Lottery.

‘It would be good to escape for a bit.’

‘Sorted then.’

‘But I haven’t got much stuff with me, I didn’t have time. I’ve only got a change of underwear and a toothbrush.’

I waved that away as inconsequential.

‘You can either borrow stuff off Beth, or we can buy you stuff. We’ll sort it when we get there. Seriously? You’re up for it?’

‘Yeah. Why not.’

‘Great. I’ll just call them.’

‘Can I use your loo?’

‘Sure – that door.’

I got my phone out and pressed Jay’s name.

‘Jay Scott.’

‘Hey, it’s me.’

‘Matty! What have we done to deserve such an honour?’

‘Er, I need a favour.’

‘Oh, not just calling to find out how we all are, then?’

‘Obviously, would love to chat for hours, know how much you love a good gossip, but a bit short on time. I don’t suppose you’ve got room to put me and a friend up for a few days?’

‘Ah, no mate, sorry, not unless you’re happy on the sofa. Now Dec’s here we’ve got no spare room.’

Bugger, I’d forgotten about their lodger, the teenage rugby protégé. I would have been happy on the sofa with Carrie in the spare room, but it looked like it was going to be a B and B.

‘OK, no problem. We’re coming down today, you don’t know any good B and Bs do you?’

‘Does it have to be B and B? I could get you discount on a room in the big hotel near Raiders Stadium.’

‘Two rooms.’

‘Really? I thought when you said ‘friend’, you meant “friend”, as in –’

‘Yeah, very funny. Friends, as in separate rooms. That’d be great, though, the discount. Can you book for us? A week, from tonight?’

‘Sure. Impulse holiday is it?’

‘Kind of. I’ll explain when we get there. Are you in tonight?’

‘Mate, we’ve got a three year old. We’re always in.’

Three year old Cal, my nephew, was a great kid and I really didn’t see as much of him as a doting uncle should. Mum was always going down there to visit, coming back with pictures and stories about what he’d got up to. Maybe visiting Jay and Beth would help redress the balance a little.

‘Good, we’ll see you later then.’

‘Name?’

‘What?’

‘Your friend’s name? I’ll get in trouble if I haven’t asked, you know what Beth’s like.’

‘Oh. Carrie.’

‘Woman, then.’

‘Well spotted.’

‘Potential?’

‘Piss off, Jay. See you later.’

I disconnected, to the sound of Jay laughing, as Carrie came out of the loo.

‘All sorted. My brother hasn’t got room, I forgot they’ve taken in some teenage stray, but he can get us discount at a hotel nearby, Raiders privileges.’

‘What privileges?’

‘Raiders. They’re a rugby team. My brother is a coach.’

‘Oh. I didn’t realise. That’s great. Thank you.’

‘Are you ready, then?’

‘Yes, as I’ll ever be. This is weird.’

‘Yeah. But let’s just go with it. If it’s too weird, we can always come back, but maybe being away from here will be good. I said a week – can you get time off work?’

‘I don’t work in the summer holidays. That’s another thing Martin has over me – I can only pay my way when I’m working. How about you, though?’

‘It’ll be fine, I’m due some leave. I’m pretty up to date with things. I can always do stuff when I’m down there, if I take my iPad.’

And so we left, me locking up as securely as I could, worrying a little bit about old Mrs Harding next door, and what might happen if she came out for a nose while Martin was trying to find me, but there wasn’t much I could do about it without calling to see her and further delaying us with long explanations and repetitions for her deafness. I didn’t pack much beyond a few pairs of boxers and some toiletries. Carrie was going to need to go shopping, no reason I shouldn’t too, my pathological dislike of city centres notwithstanding.

Carrie was quiet for the first part of the journey. I thought it best to let her talk when she wanted to, but not to press her too much. She was going to be subjected to enough of an interrogation when she met Beth, and I thought I’d better prepare her.

‘My sister-in-law, Beth, she’s pretty bossy, but I think she’ll be able to help us figure out what to do.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah, when my mum got arthritis, she was great, sorted out stuff for her, got things moving.’

‘I haven’t got arthritis.’

‘No, of course not, but it’s a different type of … trauma … I suppose, isn’t it.’

‘I suppose. Have they been married long?’

‘About four years. They’ve got a little boy, oh, and a big boy now as well.’

I launched into a detailed account of Cal and Dec, how great Cal was, with his blond ringlets, serious grey eyes and how he couldn’t say Uncle when he was younger, so I was Unca Matty. And how, about a year ago now, Jay and Beth had taken in a young lad who was newly signed by Raiders, who had no parents and needed temporary accommodation, and how he’d stayed, and looked like staying for the foreseeable.

I’d only met Dec a couple times; he was a typical teenager, in that people over the age of twenty were old age pensioners to him and not worthy of his notice. The first time I met him, shortly after he’d arrived, he’d been sullen, rude and done his best to annoy me. It had worked. But apparently Beth had worked her magic on him, and when I visited again later in the year, although I didn’t see much of him, he seemed to have less of a bad attitude.

Carrie seemed to relax as I burbled on, more comfortable with chatter than with serious talk. I looked over about an hour into the journey, and she was asleep. Or at least had her eyes closed and her head was leaning against the headrest.

As I drove I reflected on what a mad situation I had got myself into. Running away to Devon wasn’t going to solve anything in the long run. We were going to have to go back to Stafford in a few days, Martin would still be there, still need dealing with, Carrie would still need somewhere to live. All I had done was postpone it all in a fit of protective ardour. And possibly with less virtuous motives behind it too.

It hadn’t escaped me that spending time with Carrie would help us to get to know each other. She had as good as admitted that she was attracted to me, and some exclusive time together might help things along a little. I hoped I could strike the right balance between friend and something more without freaking her out and scaring her off. I would just have to ensure that my baser urges remained well hidden, and I that made no moves on her without being expressly invited. Looking at the beautiful woman sleeping beside me, a slight frown dimpling her forehead, that wasn’t going to be easy.

I pulled the car up outside Jay’s big house at the end of the cul-de-sac at about six o’clock. The front door opened and I saw Beth framed in the doorway, as an excited Cal ran down the path towards me. I got out of the car and scooped him up as he squealed, wriggling as I held him over my head, making him squeal even louder. He’d grown quite a bit since the last time I saw him and I couldn’t hold him like that for long, so tucked him onto my hip.

‘Unca Matty sausage for tea.’

‘That’s great mate. Let’s take you to Mummy for a minute, I need to get something out of the car.’

Beth took Cal from me, while giving me a quizzical raise of her eyebrows and looking pointedly at Carrie, who was still in the car. Ignoring Beth, I went round to the passenger door and opened it.

‘OK?’

‘Bit nervous. I don’t know these people.’

‘Not yet. Won’t take long. Beth’s a nosy cow, Jay’s a lazy sod, Cal’s three and a half and Dec’s a teenager. But I doubt you’ll see much of him anyway.’

‘I don’t know what I’m doing here.’

‘We’re escaping. Together. Think of it as like … an adventure. We’ll explore Devon, go to the seaside, eat ice-cream, get charged exorbitant amounts to see touristy shit. The price we pay is having to spend a bit of time with my family. At least we’re not staying with them. We can leave whenever you like, go to the hotel Jay’s arranged. Five minutes, if that’s all you can stand. At least come and say hello? It’ll save me a long phone call from the chronically curious Beth Scott.’

‘Really? Five minutes?’

‘Give it a shot. Stage one of the adventure?’

She gave me a weak smile and nodded. I held out my hand and helped her out of the car. When I looked up, Jay was standing at the front door with Beth and Cal, looking for all the world like the family unit they were.

I thought, as I walked up the path with Carrie, how different Jay’s life was from mine, how different his goals, his priorities were. It was almost as if we were from different families. But I also recognised how much easier I was with those differences now, how much less it irritated me that he was bigger and stronger, spent a lot of his life in the spotlight, that he was a family man. I’d chosen my own way, and it wasn’t the same as his, and that was OK.

‘This is Carrie. Carrie, you’ll probably have worked out by now that this is Beth, Jay and Cal.’

‘Otherwise known as nosy cow, lazy sod and three and a half?’

There was a short, stunned silence as Carrie’s forthrightness sunk in, then Beth laughed.

‘I see Matty’s given you the lowdown on our personality traits. Come on in, Carrie. Tea’s almost ready.’

She turned and went in, heading towards the kitchen. Jay waved us through into the lounge and pointed at the sofa.

‘I can’t believe you told your friend I’m a lazy sod.’

‘Can’t you? Really? Search your soul, Jay, the truth will out.’

‘Daddy, what lacy sold?’

‘Now look what you’ve done, I’ll be in the doghouse for that. Nothing, Cal, just grown up words.’

‘Lacy sold lacy sold’

‘Yep, lacy sold, your Daddy’s a big old lacy sold. Drink, you two?’

‘Beer please.’

‘Goes without saying, Matty. Carrie – wine, something stronger, something softer, what can I get you?’

‘Water would be great.’

‘Oh, OK. Not sure we’ve got any, have to check with Beth.’

He gave Carrie a wink and went off to sort the drinks.

I leaned over to Carrie, who was hugging the end of the sofa nearest to the door as if she thought someone was going to try to chain her to it and she’d need to make a swift exit.

‘See, they’re not so bad. And thanks for telling them what I called them. Big help.’

‘It seemed to break the ice.’

‘It certainly did that. You’ll probably have a few chunks in your water, if Jay can locate the tap. He’s not great at navigating the kitchen.’

Cal, who had been standing by me, leaning on my knee, looking solemnly at Carrie without speaking, climbed on the sofa and deposited himself in my lap.

‘Hey mate. How’s life?’

‘What you mean?’

‘Er … is everything good in the world of Cal?’

‘What you mean?’

‘I think what your Unca Matty is trying to say is, have you done anything good today?’

‘Hey, you speak kid. Impressive.’

Cal nodded, seeming to be thinking.

‘I do a poo. In the big boys’ toilet.’

‘Whoa, Cal. Clever you. Is there no end to your talents?’

‘What you mean?’

‘Oh boy, I’m going to have to take whatever class you took in kid, aren’t I?

‘Yeah. Stop using fancy words, he won’t understand them. That’s the class.’

‘Oh. Thank you for passing on your wisdom so succinctly.’

‘You like it, don’t you, words and stuff.’

‘I suppose I do. Is it annoying?’

‘Not to me, I quite like it, but a three year old might find it a bit much.’

Jay came in with our drinks, we had tea at the table – sausages, as predicted by Cal – then Beth put Cal to bed. Dec, the teenage lodger, poked his head round the door, saw me, nodded and said ‘Alright’, although I wasn’t sure if it was a question or a statement, then disappeared back from whence he came.

I noted that Carrie had lasted longer than five minutes, and still hadn’t asked to leave. She was looking more comfortable, although none of us had yet broached the reason for our unexpected visit. Chat over tea had been general catching up; family stuff (how Cal was getting on at pre-school), rugby stuff (how Jay was getting on at not playing and being a coach instead), my job (how I was getting on at not doing a spectacular job in a part of the world more exotic than Stafford), carefully keeping away from asking Carrie anything about herself. Beth came downstairs after a while, sighed and plonked herself down on one of the enormous sofas.

‘So, what’s all this about, then?’

‘What? Can’t a bloke just visit his brother and favourite sister-in-law when he feels like it?’

‘You know you’re welcome anytime Matty. You also know what I mean. Come on, give.’

I looked at Carrie, who had gone pale and was looking down at her hands and fiddling with a ring.

‘Do you want me to say?’

She nodded, still looking down at her hands.

‘OK, but you’ll have to chip in if I get anything wrong.’

Another small nod.

‘Carrie’s boyfriend has been threatening her, she was scared, she left. I picked her up and brought her to mine, but we were worried he’d find us, so we’ve come down here to think about what to do. Is that it in a nutshell, Carrie?’

Another nod.

‘Oh Carrie. Has he done anything? Hurt you?’

‘No. Not really. Maybe small things, pinches, pulling my hair.’

This was news to me, but I kept my expression bland and stopped myself from rushing out to the car, driving back to Stafford and beating the shit out of him.

‘That’s not small, sweetheart. It’s the repertoire of a bully. Small jabs, little hurts, to let you know who’s in charge. What else has he done?’

‘I, er, he …’

Carrie looked at me imploringly. I took over.

‘I don’t know the whole story, but he seems to have reduced her life to just him, alienated her friends, controlling who goes to her bloody yoga classes even; he gave me the gangster treatment to stop me going. He’s paranoid about Carrie seeing other people, and he’d just announced that she wasn’t allowed to leave their flat without him. That’s when you rang me, wasn’t it?’

Carrie nodded, but didn’t say anything.

‘Oh sweetheart. It sounds like you got out just in time, it must have been very stressful.’

‘Wait, Matty, you’ve been doing yoga?’

‘Yeah, focus Jay. Not important right now.’

‘No, I grant you that, OK, but we’ll explore it later, for definite.’

‘Matty, you’ve obviously met this man. What’s he like?’

I glanced at Carrie. I didn’t hold a very high opinion of Martin, but he was her boyfriend, had been until earlier today, she’d loved him, I thought carefully about how I was going to give a balanced view of the bastard.

‘Big, strong bloke. Serious muscle. Carrie thinks he’s taking steroids. Nice line in intimidation.’

I left out the bit about him being the scum of the earth, the worst type of cowardly fucking bastard for what he’d done to her. It wouldn’t have been helpful.

‘He’s been good to me.’

Carrie’s voice was small and uncertain.

‘He’s helped me out, with money, with my mum. He’s always been there.’

‘Of course, Carrie.’

Beth’s voice was soothing.

‘If he hadn’t been good to you, you wouldn’t have stayed, would you? These things creep up on you, he changes bit by bit, you accept things you wouldn’t normally stand for because he’s been good to you. No one’s saying there haven’t been good times. Is it over between you, or do you want to go back to him?’

Carrie looked up, eyes wide and startled, and then a hint of indecision.

‘I … don’t know.’

‘What? You are joking, Carrie, there’s no way you can go back to him, he’s an arse-wipe, not fit to clean your fucking shoes.’

‘Matty. Stop it. Carrie has to consider it, what she wants, what the consequences are. She has to make her own decision. You two aren’t … together are you?’

‘What? No!’

My denial must have been more vehement than it needed to be as it elicited a raised eyebrow from both Beth and Jay.

‘I’m her friend. Just friends. Martin had this twisted idea there was something going on, but we hadn’t seen each other since I left the yoga class.’

I ignored Jay’s snigger.

‘He was seriously delusional.’

‘Well, maybe it needs to stay that way, Matty. Carrie, you need a clear head, time to think, consider your options. I think Matty did the right thing bringing you down here, it’s ideal, away from everything, everyone, space, time. If you need to talk, we’re here.’

Carrie nodded. ‘Thank you. Actually, Matt, I’m really tired. Can we go soon?’

‘Yeah, course. Jay, did you manage to book us a couple of rooms at the hotel?’

A smug grin crossed Jay’s face.

‘Yeah. Best rooms in the place.’

‘What have you done?’

‘Nothing! You’re so suspicious, little bro. Just followed your instructions.’

I gave him a scowl, to let him know how annoyed I’d be if he’d done anything stupid, like the bridal suite.

‘OK, thanks then.’

I stood up and turned to Carrie.

‘Shall we?’

It wasn’t a long journey; the hotel was really close to Jay’s house. Carrie turned to me as I got in and shut the driver’s door.

‘You’re right, she is a nosy cow.’

‘Did warn you.’

‘I like her, though, she says what she thinks. Your brother doesn’t say much, does he.’

‘Not noticeably.’

‘I expect you make up for it in the chat department.’

‘A distinct possibility.’

‘And your little nephew, with all that curly blonde hair, and his eyes are just like yours.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah, big and grey. He’s a cutie.’

I tried to work out what she was saying, and decided things were already complicated enough without me finding backhanded compliments in simple statements. Beth had clearly warned me that getting involved with Carrie wouldn’t be a good idea at the moment, and I regretfully concurred.

‘He’s certainly a little heart-breaker. He’s been married twice and looking for wife number three.’

‘What?’

‘Nursery school. Hotbed of lunchtime weddings. And divorces by the sounds of it. You can’t say kids don’t get an early grounding in the intricacies of the adult world.’

‘Ha ha, no I guess not. Can we go to the beach tomorrow?’

‘Great idea. Although, I think I’m going to need to go shopping first, I didn’t bring much with me.’

‘Hm, me too. OK, shops, beach. Plan.’

I settled comfortably into the car seat, looking forward to spending time with Carrie, having her to myself for a whole week, with no pressure, getting to know her, her getting to know me.

‘Plan indeed. Oh, look, that’s it there, with the big blue sign shining into space.’

‘Swanky. Are you sure it’s not going to be really expensive? I haven’t got much money.’

‘Jay said discount. I’m hoping my tight-arse brother will know that should mean barely costing anything at all.’

We parked, grabbed our stuff from the boot and walked into reception, trying not to goggle at the opulence.

‘Hello, can I help you?’

‘Yeah, we’ve got two rooms booked in the name of Scott.’

‘Ah, yes sir. You’re in the Scott Suite. Here is your key, Sebastian will take your bags.’

‘Oh, that’s OK, our bags aren’t very heavy. Save Sebastian for someone with serious luggage.’

The lurking Sebastian looked seriously grumpy at missing out on a tip for carrying my boxers and Carrie’s toothbrush up in the lift.

‘Did you say the … er … Scott Suite? I asked my brother to book two rooms.’

‘Yes, sir, there are two bedrooms in the suite. We are always honoured to have members of Mr Scott’s family staying with us. Mr Scott wished me to tell you that the room is complimentary.’

‘What … free? Or just going to be really really nice about us?’

The woman behind the reception desk kept a stony face.

‘There will be no charge, sir.’

‘Whoa. Way to go Jay. Cheers then.’

‘Will sir and madam be requiring breakfast in the suite tomorrow?’

‘Is that free too?’

I was aware I was pushing the boundaries of polite behaviour when it came to such a posh hotel. It really didn’t ‘do’ to be so open about not wanting to pay for stuff.

‘All meals, beverages, snacks and services are included, sir.’

‘Seriously? Holy shit. In that case, yes, breakfast, full English, thank you very much.’

‘Enjoy your stay, sir, madam.’

‘Oh, you have no idea how much.’

I walked off to the lift, a big smile on my face. Jay’s idea of a discount was incredible.

‘You look pleased with yourself.’

‘Did you hear that? Free room and board. Anything from the mini-bar. Meals included. Here! Here is serious dosh.’

‘Did Jay pay for it, do you think?’

Bugger, hadn’t thought of that. Didn’t want to be beholden to the older brother because he thought I couldn’t pay my way. I’d have to check with him tomorrow.

‘No idea. Top floor please.’

We got out on the top floor, walking past the outstretched hand of the lift boy with innocent smiles on our faces. I wasn’t intending to get stung for tips just because we were staying for free. We walked to the room, opened the door, and –

‘Holy shit. You bastard, Jay.’

The walls of the main living area were plastered with framed, poster sized signed photos of Jay from all eras of his rugby career. Some from his Royals days, via his time with TomCats, some in an England shirt, then Raiders, and one in his coaching regalia. A quick look in the bedrooms uncovered more of the same in both.

‘I’m not going to get any sleep in here.’

‘Your brother’s quite famous, isn’t he.’

‘Yeah, whatever.’

‘This one, here, did he play for England, then?’

‘Might have.’

‘He was quite cute in his time, wasn’t he.’

‘Some may say so.’

‘Aw, are you jealous?’

‘No, got over it a long time ago. Just don’t particularly want his ugly mug gurning down at me all day and night. No wonder it was free, I doubt you’d get anyone to pay to stay in here.’

‘So you didn’t know he had a suite named after him in the local nobby hotel?’

‘He must have neglected to mention it.’

‘Modesty, I admire that in a man.’

‘Yeah, that’s why he didn’t tell me, too modest.’

My phone pinged with a text. Jay. What a surprise.

‘How do u like the room?’

‘It’ll b gr8 once housekeeping have removed all the offensive pictures some1 left behind.’

‘LOL enjoy yr stay. Think of me.’

‘Bit hard 2 think about any1 else.’

‘Job done, then.’

Well, just for that, Jay could pay, if indeed he had, and I was going to charge his credit card to the hilt with mini-bar, room service, laundry – if it was a performable service, I was going to get it performed. I looked around at the pictures. They were screwed to the wall, so I couldn’t even turn them round. Sighing, I turned to Carrie.

‘You choose which room you want, I’m happy in either. No, scratch that, I’m unhappy in either. Take the master, nice big bed, bit of comfort, yeah?’

‘Are you sure? It does look comfy.’

I don’t think Carrie realised how much I would sacrifice to see her happy and comfortable. Having the smaller of two pretty enormous beds was nothing.

‘I’m sure. Are you tired now? I know it’s still early, but if you want to go to bed that’s fine, you’ve had one hell of a day. If not, let’s fire up the TV and see what delights we can get on pay-per-view.’

‘I’m not ready for bed, not yet. What’s on telly?’

‘Well let’s see, shall we?’

And so we spent a very pleasant evening watching some crappy action film where the hero was in a race against time with a bunch of terrorists who had planted a bomb in a children’s playground. It was a ridiculous plot, and we laughed at the story and the dialogue, which were both trite. I ordered some snacks from room service, and we munched on ‘tortiles a jus’ (chips and dip) and ‘palomitas chocolat’ (chocolate coated popcorn) which would have been ten times cheaper if we’d got them from the local supermarket.

Eventually, I felt tired. I looked across at Carrie, and her eyes were drooping. The film hadn’t finished, but it was obvious the hero was going to save the day and get the girl in the end. If he didn’t, it was the worst action movie ever, and it was already pretty bad.

‘Hey, go to bed before I have to carry you in there and undress you.’

‘Careful, or I might just have to fall asleep now.’

Shit, no, didn’t mean to start flirty banter this close to bedtime.

‘You look tired. Go to bed.’

Carrie looked disappointed for a second, then nodded and stood up, yawning and stretching.

‘I am. Matt, thanks for this. It’s been a well weird day, I haven’t got my head round everything yet. Thanks for doing this for me.’

‘You should know that I’d do a lot to make sure you’re safe and happy.’

‘Can you do one more thing?’

‘If it’s within my power.’

‘Can I have a hug?’

Bollocks. A hug was well within my power, but a no-strings hug? When it was closer than I’d ever been to her? Oh well, in for a penny. Think random unsexy thoughts. Anne Widecombe. There you go.

‘Of course.’

I stood up and folded her up in my arms, feeling every curve of her body fit into every plane of mine. She nestled her head against my chest and sighed, and I was very aware of my body responding to the closeness. Bloody Anne Widecombe, why could the woman never do her job? Without intending to, I began stroking her hair. It was soft and fine and I loved the way it felt under my fingers.

I had my eyes closed, but felt Carrie look up at me. I opened my eyes to look down at her, and saw something in her face that definitely said more than friends. I saw desire, and want and need, and it couldn’t happen, not tonight, not while she was still sorting everything out. Why did being sensible and considerate feel so shitty? Regretfully, so regretfully, I gently pushed away from her, stroking her cheek as I did so and shaking my head.

‘Carrie, you’ll be the death of me.’

‘Don’t you want to?’

‘I think you know I do. I think you also know what a bad idea it would be, just now, with everything how it is. I think friends is how we should keep it, for the moment. I’ll still be here, when it’s all done. I’ll always be here for you. And if, after everything’s sorted, you still want to give us a go, then I’m so in. But not just a one night thing, not just a ‘thank you’, you deserve better than that.’

She looked down for a second, then back up at me, defiantly.

‘Trust me to find a knight in shining armour with a bloody conscience.’

‘Damn right. Off to bed with you milady. Your jousting tournament begins at nine of the morrow and there is a hectic afternoon of tapestry and banquet planning to be conquered.’

‘You really do like your fancy words, don’t you.’

‘Prefer numbers, actually.’

‘God, I hate to think what you do to numbers then.’

‘Tell you tomorrow. I’m off to bed, even if you’re happy to stand here all night insulting me and my beloved numbers.’

‘Matt … thank you. For thinking of me, putting me first. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it, you hardly know me.’

I was backing away from her towards the door to my room as she spoke, as I really really needed to stop talking to her, looking at her, wanting to touch her, so much more than touch her.

‘That’s something I intend to correct over the next week. Night.’

‘Night.’

And with that, I disappeared, gratefully and ruefully, behind the shield of the bedroom door.

I didn’t sleep much. I didn’t even get into bed for ages, putting on the small TV and watching re-runs of twenty year old sitcoms, hoping to feel myself tire, but there was too much on my mind. I was going to find it hard to be Carrie’s friend only, especially if she continued to offer me more, but that was what I needed to be.

Was I being stupidly noble? I didn’t think so. If I took advantage of her vulnerability now, she’d hate me later. If I wanted something more, something – I could barely believe I was thinking this – long term, I needed to seriously curb my libido now, so that when she finally could see the wood for the trees, I was a broad oak for her to shelter under not a bonsai that … oh I tried all the metaphors, some of them even worse than that one.

I lay on the bed, thinking, trying to sort it all out. Finally it occurred to me that if I was having this much trouble thinking about it, Carrie would be having much more, having left her evil boyfriend and escaped to the south west of England with her one-time yoga student, staying in an unfamiliar part of the country, in an unfamiliarly fancy hotel. She needed to decide lots of things, and I needed to help her do it objectively, without my dick getting in the way of both of us.

Right, that decided, I finally felt my eyes start to close, and I stripped down to my boxers and crawled into the annoyingly incredibly comfortable bed.

I slept the sleep of the righteous, which I felt I very nearly merited given my self-denial of the night before, until I vaguely heard movement beyond my door, then a tap.

‘Matt?’

‘Mm.’

‘Breakfast is here.’

‘Wha’s time?’

‘Nearly eight.’

‘Shit, s’middle o’ fucking night. Sunday fo’ fucksake.’

‘Sorry about that, but if you want breakfast warm you’re going to have to get up and have it now.’

Had to stop myself telling her to fuck off. I never, ever got up before ten, at the earliest, on a Sunday. Sundays were sacrosanct, sacred, devoted to St Elijah, patron saint of sleep. But this Sunday, today, I was going to be with Carrie, and I needed to get a civil tongue in my head and start thinking about how I was going to spend the day with her.

That roused me, the thought of spending the whole day with Carrie.

‘Is it under those silver cover things, keeping it warm?’

‘It is.’

‘Great. I’ll just have a shower, then I’ll be there.’

I jumped out of bed, almost energetically, and into the en-suite shower, quick wash down, towel dry, dressed in yesterday’s clothes, and I was there. Carrie was still in her bathrobe, looking sleep-rumpled and sexy, sitting at the table by the window, with the view across the city to the hills and moors beyond. She’d placed the covered platters on the table and was sitting with her chin on her hand, tapping the table, pretending to look bored.

‘About time. I’m starving.’

‘I’m so changing breakfast time to later, tomorrow.’

‘Why? It wastes half the day if you just lie in bed.’

‘I love my sleep.’

‘I love my life, I’d rather be awake to enjoy it.’

She had a point, I suppose. Maybe just for this week I could be flexible.

We shopped and beached that day. I hardly cared that I was doing two of my least favourite activities in the whole wide world, i.e. wandering aimlessly round shops going ‘what do you think’ ‘lovely’ ‘I don’t like it’ ‘well why did you ask’, and lying on a beach doing nothing except attracting melanomas.

I hardly cared, though, because the first meant I saw Carrie in a variety of different more or less revealing clothes, and had some say in her choice of underwear, and the second meant I got to see her in the new bikini she’d just bought. Or rather, I’d just bought, as she had little money and I had a paroxysm of gallantry, totally unselfishly motivated by the thought of lying next to her on the beach wearing nothing except two scraps of fabric. Yeah, the ‘being flexible’ was going well. The ‘helping objectively without my dick coming between us’? Not so much. Must try harder. And stop the double entendres, they’re not helping.

So the first couple of days, we just mooched around, seeing bits of Devon, eating cream teas, oohing at the scenery, aahing at the sunsets. I didn’t mention Martin, Carrie didn’t mention Martin, but I saw him flit across her face sometimes, maybe when she saw a couple with their arms round each other, or other seemingly random moments, I don’t know, maybe there was something on a menu that he really liked, or maybe she saw the brand of muscle vests he wore or some such shit.

We didn’t go and see Jay and Beth until the Tuesday. Beth was best taken in small doses, fairly far apart, or the urge to strangle her could become overpowering. I sometimes didn’t know how Jay did it, but knowing my brother, most of it washed over him. They were undoubtedly made for each other.

But anyway, Tuesday. Carrie and I had done the beach, twice. We’d done the moors, me finding out delightedly that Carrie did hiking, and thus buying us both walking boots in a miraculous BOGOF offer in the local Millets. We’d had more cream teas than you could wave a jam spoon at, and we’d been to Paignton Zoo, where we’d been fleeced at the entrance, and continued to be fleeced by the inside prices, where loads of miserable looking animals were out of their element, bored and cold. At least, that was my take on it. Carrie thought everything was ‘adorable’, especially the penguins, who at least didn’t look cold, but were conversely potentially at risk of heat stroke. And of course, I thought that made her adorable, so everything was alright. And we’d stayed in to dinner in the expensive posh hotel twice, once in the restaurant and once with room service, so we could eat in our bathrobes and spill pasta sauce down our fronts without worrying.

We’d talked about nothing, and everything, or rather everything except the elephant in the room, and got to know each other much better. Carrie was smart, with a dry sense of humour and a sassy outlook on life. This, combined with her general hotness, just made me like her even more. It was no longer just a physical attraction; you may have noticed I was more than a little infatuated before. I think it would be fair to say that, although I had always in the past kept well away from any verb beginning with L applying to any woman I was involved with, I could think of at least three that applied to Carrie. And the first two were ‘Like’ and ‘Lust’. And the third ended in ‘ove’.

So here we were, walking up the path to Jay’s front door, which opened to eject a hurrying Dec just as we were about to ring the bell.

‘Hey. Alright?’

It was definitely a question this time, but one that didn’t require an answer.

‘Yeah, man.’

Who did I think I was? In my head it sounded cool, but out of my mouth, it sounded the lamest of old man lame. I barely caught the smirk as he raced off down the path, but it was there, and it stung a bit.

‘Bloody young whippersnapper.’

‘Yeah, cos that’s a way cooler thing to say.’

I looked appraisingly at Carrie, who seemed to have read it all pretty accurately. Well at least my plan of her getting to know me seemed to be working, even if she was getting to know the bits I’d really rather keep to myself.

The door was still open, swinging in the aftermath of Hurricane Declan, and we walked through, calling out as we did so.

‘Oh, hi you two. Lovely to see you again, this is a treat, Matty, twice in one week. You will come again before you leave, won’t you? Come and sit down, tell me what you’ve been doing with yourselves.’

We sat on one of the sofas and talked to Beth about the last couple of days, laughing as we showed her some of the pictures I’d taken on my phone. She made suggestions for more places to see before we left, and then put her serious nursey face on. I’d seen it before, when she talked to Mum, or talked to me about Mum. I wanted to warn Carrie, but without saying something or gripping her hand, it was impossible.

‘So, Carrie, how is everything? Have you heard from your boyfriend?’

I knew she’d had texts and voicemails, wasn’t sure if she’d replied, or spoken to him directly. I might be about to find out.

‘He’s bombarded me a bit with texts and calls. I didn’t know whether to answer or not, I don’t want him to know where I am, he’ll just come down here and start causing trouble. I called him last night, just to tell him to stop calling.’

‘Uh huh.’ Beth kept her tone of voice neutral, but I wondered if she wanted to yell ‘you stupid girl’ like I did.

‘How did that go?’

‘Oh, he just got upset. All the texts, voicemails, he was saying sorry, he knew he’d gone over the top, he wouldn’t do it again, please come back. He said the same on the phone, but he … actually cried. He’s … I’ve never heard him cry before. He asked if I’d gone for good.’

‘What did you tell him, sweetheart?’

I tried not to stare too fiercely at her, but she glanced in my direction, and shrank away from me, so I probably didn’t succeed.

‘I said I was still thinking. I am still thinking. It’s been great being down here, I’ve had a lot of space and time, Matt’s been great.’

‘You didn’t fucking tell him that did you?’

‘No, silly, I didn’t mention you, I didn’t say where I was. He thinks I’m still in Stafford somewhere, from what he said.’

‘Carrie, it sounds like you’ve done some thinking. I don’t know if you’ve come to any conclusions, but I’ve talked to a friend of mine who’s a social worker, and she gave me some information on domestic violence –’

‘What? No, he hasn’t been violent, never.’

‘Just hear me out, sweetheart. You told me on Saturday that he pinched you and pulled your hair, and Matty said he told you that you weren’t to go out unless it was with him.’

Carrie didn’t answer, but nodded, staring mutinously at Beth.

‘Would it be fair to say he says things to you that don’t make you feel very good about yourself? That he blames you when things go wrong for him? And that being around him scares you sometimes?’

Another nod, the gaze dropped to her knees.

‘Have you ever left him before?’

‘Once, about eighteen months ago.’

‘Why?’

I saw Carrie’s jaw clench, realised a serious nerve had been touched, and although I was in awe of Beth’s way of getting to the heart of the matter within half an hour of us arriving, I hated seeing Carrie upset.

‘Beth, can’t we just leave this for now?’

‘How long for, Matty? Until she goes back to him again? Carrie, I know this is hard, and in the end it’s up to you, of course. I’ve brought you some information.’

Beth stood up and pulled some bits of paper from a drawer, walked over and handed them to Carrie, who took them as if they were an unexploded grenade.

‘Have a look at it, it might help a bit more with deciding what to do. Basically, it says that there are all sorts of abuse, or violence if that’s what you want to call it, and the seemingly little things all add up. The abuser wants control, and will do anything to get it, especially promising to change. He might even mean it at the time, but he’ll definitely say it if it gets you back there, where he can control you again. I’m willing to bet he said he’d change when you left last time.’

‘Martin’s not an abuser.’

Carrie spat the word out like it was poison. Her face closed down, and I don’t think she was listening to anything Beth said after that.

‘OK, well, have a read of that lot and see if you still agree afterwards. I’m happy, perfectly happy, for you to tell me I’m wrong, that he doesn’t tick all or even any of the boxes, but please promise me you’ll look at it.’

Carrie nodded and stuffed the pamphlets and information leaflets in her bag, then leaned back against the sofa, arms folded and legs crossed. It was the end of the matter for her, for now, possibly forever. I wasn’t sure if Beth had pushed things too far; only time would tell.

Seeming unruffled, Beth changed tack.

‘Are you two going to stay for dinner?’

‘Oh, er …’ I looked at Carrie, who shrugged. ‘Maybe, if you promise not to get all heavy on our arses again.’

‘Alright, Matty, no more heavy. Promise. I’ve made a lasagne, with sticky toffee pudding for dessert.’

‘Well I’m sold. Carrie, Beth is a really good cook. Even if her well-intentioned advice is a bit heavy-handed sometimes, her culinary touch is as light as a feather.’

I looked over at Carrie as she tutted and rolled her eyes at me.

‘You really have the gift of the gab, Scotty, don’t you.’

‘Oh, no no, you can’t call me Scotty, that’s what all the rugger buggers call Jay. Can’t have our two worlds colliding, the universe would implode.’

‘Total gab. Alright, thanks Beth, dinner sounds great.’

So we stayed, and chatted, and played with Cal, and Jay came home demanding feeding and beer, and family life went on around us as Beth got dinner ready, then chatted to us while she folded laundry, and Jay turned the TV on to watch a sports channel.

I checked Carrie silently a few times, but she seemed outwardly alright. I hoped I could talk to her later, maybe look at some of the information with her if she’d let me.

Dinner was, as usual with Beth’s cooking, delicious. Dec put in an appearance, shovelling the lasagne in his face faster than I would have thought humanly possible, not speaking as he was using his mouth for more important things. Beth asked him a few questions, but had obviously learned that they had to require yes or no answers, as he only nodded or shook his head to reply. He got up from the table before the sticky toffee pudding, as soon as his last mouthful had been dispatched, before he’d even swallowed it.

‘Er, Mr Summers.’

Jay’s voice had a paternal scolding tone to it I’d never heard before.

‘Mm?’

It was the only answer possible with a half-chewed mouthful of lasagne.

‘Plate please. Beth doesn’t spend all day cooking for you so you can make her clear up after you too.’

The mouthful was swallowed.

‘Sorry, Beth.’

Dec picked his plate, glass and cutlery up and took it into the kitchen. There was the sound of a dishwasher being loaded, then the other door to the kitchen opening and closing, footsteps going upstairs, then some music from above. I looked at Jay.

‘Impressive.’

‘What?’

‘Discipline. Never thought you had it in you.’

‘Piss off, Matty.’

‘James, honestly.’

Beth indicated Cal with her eyes.

‘Sorry.’

‘Ha ha, I see you’re not the only one dishing out the rules. Seriously, though, nice work with the adolescent. When I first met him I thought he was a rude, sullen, ignorant git.’

‘Matty.’

‘What?’

I reviewed the words I’d used.

‘Oh, sorry, ignorant, er, sorry Beth, can’t think of any words that aren’t rude to describe him. But he seems to have really come along. He’s progressed to uncommunicative and unsociable. Nice work.’

‘He has changed a lot. Not sure it’s down to me. More to do with Beth.’

‘He’s had a tough start to life, Matty. You know both his parents died? He just needed some stability, a few house rules.’

‘So how long is he here for, then? It must be more than a year already.’

Beth and Jay looked at each other.

‘There’s no timescale, really, he can be here as long as he wants, or needs to be.’

‘Holy, er, cow. Are you adopting him or something?’

‘No, Matty, nothing like that. He just fits with us, don’t you think?’

‘Er, OK, if you say so.’

‘Well we all like him, don’t we Cal?’

‘What Mummy?’

Cal looked up from his bowl of pudding, where he had been making trails with the sticky toffee sauce.

‘Say ‘pardon’, not ‘what’, sweetheart. We all like Dec, don’t we?’

‘Yes, Mummy.’

‘Tell Unca Matty what happens most nights before you go to bed.’

‘I clean my teeth and do a wee.’

‘Yes, sweetheart, but what does Dec do?’

‘Dec reads me a story.’

‘Seriously, Cal? He can speak more than two words at one time? Whoa.’

‘Stop it, Matty. Don’t belittle things you don’t understand. Dec and Cal get on really well together, they teach each other a lot, and have a lot of fun together too. You know what teenagers are like, unfamiliar people send them into themselves.’

‘OK, point taken.’

Although I thought to myself that if Dec went much more into himself he’d disappear up his own teenage arse, but as had just been pointed out to me, what the fuck did I know about it?

Dinner eaten, dishwasher stacked by Carrie and me (because, you know, Beth didn’t spend all day cooking so we could make her clear up after us too), and coffee on the go, we sat down in the living room again. Carrie started doing exaggerated yawns while we were drinking the coffee, and I got the hint after the third one.

‘Maybe it’s time we were off. We’ve got a lot of pay-per-view movies to catch up with on your credit card, Jay. Thanks for that, by the way. Almost makes up for having you grinning down at me from every angle except the fucking ceiling.’

‘Matty.’

‘What? Cal’s not even in here.’

‘That’s not the point. The rule is, no swearing in the house.’

‘Yeah, that seems to be working well for everyone.’

I rolled my eyes at Beth’s ridiculous rules. Jay said ‘fuck’ all the time and hardly seemed to notice when Beth berated him, and in all likelihood Cal would be swearing before he got to infant school, so she might as well give up now. To prove my point, Jay wasn’t even listening, being too busy laughing at his little prank with the Scott Suite.

‘Ha ha, sorry, mate, just couldn’t resist. It’s not exactly on my credit card, it’s just, when they named the suite after me, they said I could have it for free anytime I liked. I’ve never used it before. Seemed too good to pass up.’

‘Maybe you should have offered it to Mum. She’d love saying goodnight to all your photos, I bet she does every night anyway.’

‘Nah, Mum prefers staying in Dec’s stinking pit where she can see my real handsome face first thing in the morning.’

‘I bet she leaves her glasses off until you’ve been up a couple of hours though, otherwise it’d be a bit of a shock to the system.’

‘You’re hilarious.’

‘Oh, nowhere near as hilarious as you. The Scott Suite. Does Mum even know?’

‘Er, no. I was too embarrassed to tell her. I suppose it’s too much to ask you to keep it to yourself?’

‘Oh way way too much. I’ve taken pictures of the whole caboodle, it’ll make my year to show her when I get back.’

‘How is Carol, Matty? I spoke to her last week, and she sounded a bit down.’

I actually hadn’t seen Mum for a while, having been busy at work, and preoccupied with how I was going to break up with Merce. It all seemed a long time ago. I’d texted her a few times, but Mum never texted back, and would never leave a message to say she wasn’t OK. I felt guilty all of a sudden. When I got back to Stafford, I would need to make amends.

‘Oh, er, to be honest I haven’t seen her for a couple of weeks. Maybe that’s upset her.’

‘A couple of weeks, Matty? That’s not like you.’

‘Yeah, well, I’ve been busy with stuff. I don’t always get over there as much as I’d like.’

‘Stuff like … yoga classes?’

‘Yeah, whatever. Time to go, yeah, Carrie?’

With Jay’s laugh ringing in my ears, I stood up and walked out, making sure I trod on his foot as I walked past, in the best tradition of brothers. Beth shook her head at us and opened the front door to let us out.

‘Thanks for dinner, Beth, remarkable as always.’

‘Come again, won’t you, before you go back. Carrie – I’m sorry if I upset you earlier. Please, just have a look at the leaflets?’

Carrie nodded, but didn’t say anything. I kissed Beth on the cheek, and we drove back to the hotel.

‘Are you really tired, or was all that yawning just code for ‘get me out of here, if Jay belches one more time I’m going to throw up’?’

‘I’m a bit tired, but if you want to watch a film, I’ll stay up with you. I can always doze off in front of Alan Rickman. Steven Seagal might be a bit harder.’

‘I wondered if you wanted to have a look at that stuff Beth gave you.’

Carrie gave me a pained look.

‘Not tonight.’

‘Any night?’

‘I don’t know. Don’t go on. You keep saying it’s my choice, then putting me under pressure.’

This was a little unfair, seeing as this was the first time I’d brought the subject up all week, but I let it go, recognising that she was feeling fragile.

‘Not intentionally. I just want to make sure you’re happy.’

‘Mm. Matt, if I went back to Martin, what would you do?’

My heart felt like it had dropped onto the floor.