125. I’m not the only one

In which an old flame is encountered, and lies and secrecy begin.

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Laura

‘Hey Lau, is Josh there? I just wanted to wish him luck for his game.’

‘He’s getting ready. I’ll go and chivvy. Have a word with Matt for a bit.’

I handed the iPad over to Matt, who put it on its stand. I could hear the conversation as I went up the stairs.

‘Heh Iz.’

‘Hi Matty. I can’t believe I’m missing Josh’s first game for the under fourteens.’

‘Noh, meh neither.’

‘What, you’re not going?’

‘Not up tuh ih. Legs arsing abouh.’

‘But haven’t you got a like wheelchair?’

‘I’ve goh an ahtual whelchair, buh I’hm not gona goh an see Josh play wrapped up lihk an old man.’

‘Oh. So you’re going to miss your son’s only ever first game for the under fourteens because you’re too proud. What does Josh think?’

‘Hahvnt told him yet.’

I missed the next part of the conversation, as I opened the door to Josh’s bedroom and was confronted with a blizzard of clothes that seemed to settle around me.

‘Josh, what on earth are you doing? We’ve got to go soon. Iz is on Facetime, she wants to wish you luck.’

‘I can’t find my shorts.’

‘I’m not surprised, I doubt you’ll be able to find anything else. Have you emptied every single drawer onto the floor?’

‘Mum, I need my bloody shorts.’

‘Joshua James Scott, there is no need for language like that. Your shorts are in the airing cupboard. Go and find Dad, he’s talking to Iz.’

Josh stomped out and I heard him go down the stairs. He must have inherited his stomping ability from me, as he was great at it. I looked at the clothes scattered around the room and sighed; I’d tidy it up while Josh was out. I spotted his rugby shirt buried under a coat and a jumper, and fished it out, then walked down the hall to the airing cupboard where I picked out the shorts. I could hear voices from downstairs, and laughter. I hoped Iz had managed to talk Matt into coming with us, but wasn’t holding my breath.

This was a new chapter in Matt’s MS. He’d had a wheelchair before, when he was so ill the first time, before I knew him, but he’d got rid of it when his symptoms all but disappeared for several years. In the last month, his walking had deteriorated to the point where he couldn’t walk more than a few steps on his own, and after a lot of badgering on my part, he had agreed to buy a wheelchair. He had yet to use it – it had sat accusingly under the stairs, gathering coats and shopping bags, and he stayed in rather than going out and having to use it.

I really understood how he felt; when he could get about, after a fashion, by just leaning on my arm, he could feel that people might not notice. If he was in a wheelchair, it made him conspicuous, and people would make sympathetic noises and ask what was wrong, and every time he had to explain it would feel like a tiny knife in his heart. I’d hoped the thought of missing Josh’s important rugby game would override his pride, but had been unable to persuade him.

I walked down the stairs and into the kitchen, where Josh and Matt were sitting at the table talking to Iz. I handed Josh his shirt and shorts.

‘Ooh, Joshy, is that your new kit?’

He nodded at Iz’s face in the iPad.

‘Yeah. It’s new this year, it’s got stripes down the side, it’s really cool.’

‘Let’s have a look, then, hold it up.’

Josh unfolded the shirt and held it up against himself.

‘Whoa, that’s totally awesome. You’ll have to take some pictures, Matty, or a vid or something. I need to see all Joshy’s tries.’

‘Yeh, all tehn.’

‘Daad, I’m not going to score ten tries.’

‘Wha kind of defehtist attituhd is tha? I wan at lehst tehn tries, an yuh should kick the conversions too.’

‘Gareth Jenkins does the kicking.’

‘See, thehr yuh goh again.’

‘Just do your best, flower. Dad will be proud of you whatever you do.’

‘You know tha, dohnt yuh Hippo. Nihn tries will beh fine.’

‘Anyway, guys, I’ve got to go, lunch date.’

‘Really, Iz? Does Harry know?’

Iz rolled her eyes. ‘Yes, Lau. It’s a study date. We’ve got a test and some of the guys are getting together to like swot.’

‘That’s alright then. I’ll stop being a boring old fart now and leave you to your date.’

‘OK. Good luck, then, Joshy, wish I was there.’

‘When are you coming back?’

‘Don’t know if I’ll make it this term, but defo for Christmas.’

‘But that’s ages.’

‘It’ll fly by. Facetime me whenever you want. If I don’t answer I’m snogging someone. Bye Matty, enjoy the game, bye Lau.’

We all said goodbye and waved, and the connection was broken.

I looked at Matt, who looked back defiantly, daring me to say anything. Josh hadn’t known his dad wasn’t planning on being there, so rather than spoil things, I raised an eyebrow and blew him a kiss.

‘Right Josh, go and pack your kit. Your boots are in the cupboard, socks – oh they’ll be somewhere on your bedroom floor. Put everything else in your bag before you look for them, otherwise you’ll lose it all again.’

‘Yes Mum.’

He turned and ran out of the room before I could boss him about any more. I turned to Matt.

‘I’m glad you’re coming.’

‘Yeh. Well. Iz is even mohr of a bossy cow than yuh sometimes.’

‘Surely not.’

‘Tahks after Beth. Never shuhs the fuck up. Geh the bluhdy machine in the car then, befohr I change my mihnd. Thehrs a bluhdy tartan blahnket sohmwehr, jus tuh finish the look.’

‘No there isn’t. I could find you a My Little Pony one, if you really want wrapping up.’

‘Pihs ohf.’

I walked over to where Matt was sitting, stood behind him and wrapped my arms round him.

‘I love you.’

‘I should thihk soh too.’

He bent his head and kissed my arm.

‘Come on, yuh nehd tuh geh Josh moving or he’ll beh distracted by something on the floor.’

‘What’s on the floor is his entire wardrobe. He was looking for his shorts. Now he’s looking for his socks. Hmm, maybe I’d better go and help him.’

*

‘Goh Josh, goh on, goh goh goh YEAAAH! WHOOO! Whatta try. Did yuh see tha Lau?’

Matt was on his feet, arms in the air, huge smile crinkling his eyes and mouth.

‘I saw it. Is that like a goal?’

‘Yuhr bluhdy useless, Lau. Yeh, lihk a goal, only not becohs a goal’s in footbahl. Oh shih, gona hahv tuh sit down again.’

Matt had gone pale, and sat down hard in his wheelchair, but it didn’t wipe the grin off his face.

*

‘Glad Matty went 2 watch. He wld hv missed Joshy’s first try.’

‘Yeh, me 2. Did u get pics? M sent a while a ago.’

‘Yeh, gr8! So proud of Joshy.’

‘Us 2. Thx 4 talking M round.’

‘He needed kick up the Rs. Glad 2 deliver. Gota go, clubbing beckons. Iz xx’

‘Who yuh texting?’

‘Iz. Catching up about the game.’

‘Did she geh the pics?’

‘Yeah, she’s a proud cousin.’

‘Thahks, Lau.’

‘What for?’

‘Not sayin I tol yuh soh or some such shih.’

‘Daft sod. I’m glad you were there to see it.’

Cal

There was no baby news from Cal and Ayesh, so we just went on as normal. We did the necessary things, but didn’t get stressed at the lack of results, because it was still early days and we were still getting used to the idea of even trying. No one knew we were trying, because we weren’t ‘trying’, we were just not not trying, so no one asked us about it; it was like a secret, which was exciting but also meant the pressure was off.

Laura

‘Oh but Mum, everyone’s going, and they’re all sleeping over. I’ll be the only one being picked up by, like, my parents. Charlie’s staying.’

‘Charlie’s older than you.’

‘Tom’s staying.’

I sighed with exasperation – Ella planned her confrontations, she always had an answer which was several steps ahead of my response, she knew what I would say and what she needed to reply in order to back me into a corner. It was impressive and infuriating.

‘Ella, who’re Chahlie an Tom’s mum an dad?’

I sat back and let Matt take over the argument. He was much better at it than me – he thought quicker, and his answers were less predictable.

‘Amy and Dec, but –’

‘An who’re yuhr mum and dad?’

‘Well dur, Mum and you, but –’

‘So what Chahlie an Tom are allowed tuh do, not really the point, would yuh agree?’

Ella was silent, not knowing whether agreeing or disagreeing was the best option, or whether it was time to wail ‘it’s not fair‘; Matt did this so much better than I did.

‘Hm. Soh, there ahr gona beh boys at this party?’

‘Dad, it’s a party. Tom’s going, like I said. Some other boys in his class. And girls too.’

‘An Maisie’s parents ahr gona be whehr?’

‘They’re like totally cool, they’re going out.’

‘An so yuhr asking us if yuh can be in a house full of rampaging teenagers, one of who is Charlie Summers, withouh adult supervision, overnigh?’

‘Yeah, but Dad –’

‘Why isn’t yuhr brother going?’

‘Oh he’s not interested, he’s so boring, all he like thinks about is rugby.’

‘Hm. An soh when I asked him earlier, did he a) say he wasn’t interested or b) say he didn’t want to be in a house full of rampaging teenagers withouh adult supervision becohs the very thought terrifies him?’

‘Actually, Dad, he said c) not my thing. I heard you ask him.’

‘Which is the same as b).’

‘Or the same as a).’

‘Ooh, yuhr good, buh yuhr not gona win this, Squeaks, I was school debating champ.’

‘Yeah, when you were young. You’re old now, and crippled.’

‘Ella!’

‘Ih’s OK, Lau, Ihv got this.’

Matt sounded calm, but Ella’s comment had stung him, as it was designed to.

‘Ella, first rule of debating, an listen carefully as yuhv got yuhr first debate in, wha, thirty minutes. When the other tehm resorts tuh insults, yuh know they’ve lost, an yuh know they know ih. Second rule of debating, know when yuhr having a debate an when yuhr not. This isn’t a debate, this is meh an yuhr mum saying yuh can goh tuh the party, buh we’re coming tuh fetch yuh at – when did weh say, Lau?’

‘Eleven.’

‘We’re coming tuh fetch yuh at eleven, an tha’s the end of ih.’

The silence from the back of the car bored holes into the back of our heads. We were on our way to Ella’s first debating team meet. She had just been picked, the youngest one in the team, and we were so proud of her. It was typical of Ella to bring up a contentious issue just as she was about to do something important; she almost seemed to thrive on having added stress.

Matt’s phone pinged.

‘Beth says gohd luhck.’

Ella decided to launch another attack.

‘If I had my own phone, she could text me herself.’

‘Ha ha, Squeaks, yuh rehly wana start this just as we’re parking, yuhr hilarious. Yuhv lost two phones since the summer, yuhr getting a smartphone fuh yuhr birthday, an soh noh more phones until July.’

‘It’s so unfair.’

Apparently it was now time to wail.

‘I know. The whole world hates yuh, starting with meh an yuhr mum, an yuh can’t do anything right, an yuh never get anything yuh rehly rehly want, an yuhr gona run away tuh China an tha’ll jus show us all. Glad weh sorted tha. Got yuhr folder?’

‘Yes.’

Ella could not have sounded more grumpy. Matt let it wash over him.

‘Right then, leh’s geh going an watch a new generation of Scotts ignite the debating wohld.’

*

Matt got to his feet to applaud Ella, pulling me up too so I could support him as he stood. His mobility had improved enough that he could walk from the car to the hall by leaning on me, but he did still need someone to lean on. His applause lasted longer than was strictly necessary, but he managed not to cheer or whoop, as promised.

Ella’s rebuttal to the main topic, that ‘Parents should not purchase war toys for their children’, had been well thought out and well argued, and she had shown no sign of nerves. A long time ago I’d given presentations on topics I knew a lot about, but this kind of speed argument was new to me, and I would have been terrified. Matt and I sat down, and he turned to me.

‘Tha was bluhdy outstahding.’

‘She was really good, but I can’t believe she thinks guns for boys are a good idea.’

‘Ha ha, Lau, ih’s a debate. She doesn’t hahv tuh believe wha she’s arguing, ih’s about how convincing she is an how she uses wha she knows.’

‘Oh. It’s very confusing, almost as bad as rugby. Do you think either of my children are ever going to take up activities I actually understand?’

*

‘Soh, Ella, yuhr mum thinks yuhr a bloodthirsty warmonger. Discuss.’

‘Oh Muum, we had to say that, that’s what debating is all about, trying to convince the judges you’ve got a better argument.’

‘Yes, so your father explained. I’m not really going to stand much of a chance at home, am I, especially when you both gang up on me.’

‘Not a hohp, Lau.’

‘Except … I’m the mum, and what I say goes, whether I understand the arguments or not.’

‘Damn, she’s got us, Squeaks. She found the loophole. Wehr toast.’

*

‘Come hehr.’

I snuggled up to Matt, who put his arms round me and held me tight. I felt a tension in him.

‘Everything OK, flower?’

He sighed. ‘Our babies are growing up. Scahred.’

‘Of what?’

‘Of not being able tuh control them, keep them safe. Being too old an crihpled.’

I knew Ella’s comment had hurt him; I pulled him tighter.

‘The older they get, the less able we’ll be to control them. And the more they’ll use anything they can to get a reaction. Ella’s smart mouth is going to get her in trouble one day soon. Takes after her dad. You might have to get used to fending off hurtful remarks from your own daughter.’

‘I don’t say hurtful things.’

‘No, but you and Dec have both bandied the word ‘cripple’ about, and I don’t think she really meant to hurt you, just score points. You do a fair amount of that, too.’

‘I s’pohs. Was a bih of a knife through the heart, tho.’

‘I know. It’s like when she told me I was too old to wear my purple dress.’

‘Wha, the short one that shows off yuhr tits?’

‘Er, it’s a bit low cut, maybe.’

‘Yeh. Never too old fuh tha one, Lau.’

‘Well, it still hurts when Ella says it. And she knows it, so she says it more.’

‘Yeh. Oh fuck ih, Lau, I wish I was a prohper dad.’

‘What on earth do you mean? You are a proper dad, you’re a great dad.’

‘I cahnt duh ih all. Wha other dads duh. They cahnt rely on meh, tuh take them places, fetch them if they nehd ih, tuh, I dunno, goh in the loft an fetch the Christmas decs, tuh goh on bike rides …’

He tailed off, a long list of the things he couldn’t always do clogging up his thoughts.

‘Whose dad can do everything? You’re great, and I mean awesomely great, at the things you can do. You’ve taught Ella about debating – she uses words like, oh, like they’re tools or something, ties me up in knots. You watch Josh playing rugby, he tries extra hard when you’re there, he’s so proud. You earn money for all of us so we can live here and eat and go on holiday. You do all that, and so much more, even though you sometimes send me in the loft for the tinsel. Come on, my love, stop this nonsense. Ella and Josh wouldn’t swap you for any other dad.’

‘Except maybe Dec, then Ella could goh tuh her party.’

‘Can you imagine Dec being Ella’s dad? He wouldn’t last five minutes. She’d have his credit card, survive on a diet of Doritos and Coke, and still charge him for babysitting, which she’d subcontract to Tom for less and make a huge profit. You know exactly how to handle her, when to encourage her to think for herself and when to impose limits. She’s just like you, you know that, don’t you?’

Matt considered for a moment.

‘Never thoht abou ih like tha. Who’s Josh like, then? He’s not bluhdy bossy like yuh.’

‘No, but he’s more single-minded than Ella. He focusses on one thing at a time, but Ella is all over the place, flitting from one interesting thing to the next, fingers in all the pies. Josh has to finish one thing, and think about it, and decide if he likes it, before he moves on to the next thing. Once he’s made his mind up, you can’t change it. Ella has about fifteen different opinions at once, I can’t keep up with them.’

Matt was looking at me wide-eyed.

‘Shih, Lau, how duh yuh know them soh well? Yuhr righ, buh I never stopped an thoht abou ih. Should pay mohr attention.’

‘Well I guess it doesn’t always pay to overanalyse things, and it isn’t as black and white as that, they’re their own people too – Ella has my, well let’s call it desire to organise people –’

‘She’s a bohsy cow.’

‘– and Josh would rather go it alone than ask for help, which I could say comes from you. But, Matt, never say you’re not a proper dad. They love you, none of us could do without you.’

Cal

It was after a Raiders home game. I was in the bar afterwards, as the players always were, meeting the supporters, chatting, being sociable. I was checking my watch to see if it was time to get off yet, when a voice in my ear took me back nearly ten years and froze me to my seat.

‘What’s a girl have to do to get a Fanta round here?’

I didn’t recognise the voice straight away, but something about it rocketed straight to my soul and started an explosion in my heart. I looked round to see who had spoken, but some deep down, long ago part of me knew before my eyes met hers who it would be. Chrissie.

I sat dumbly for what felt like hours, just looking at her. Then she smiled that rock star smile, and I smiled back, and she threw her arms round my neck and kissed my ear.

I could not believe my eyes. She looked just the same, but completely different. Obviously. The last time I saw her we were fifteen, now we were getting on for twenty five. Her hair was different (although mine was the same buzz cut it would always be), her face had got more … adult, as I suppose mine had, and her body was incredible. So sue me for noticing.

‘Chrissie. I can’t believe it. What the fuck are you doing here?’

‘I’ve just moved back. I’ve noticed you’ve become some kind of tosspot local celebrity, so I thought I’d come and see what all the fuss was about. You’re quite good, aren’t you.’

I shrugged semi-modestly. I’d scored two tries that afternoon, and was feeling pretty pleased with myself, if I’m honest.

‘You’ve moved back? With your family?’

‘No, on my own. God, it’s so good to see you.’

‘Yeah.’

All of the broken-hearted fifteen-year-old misery raised its head at that point. It was good to see her too, but it wasn’t like we’d parted on good terms. She’d torn me apart, and she must have known. I felt my smile fade.

‘Cal, I know it was a long time ago, but I’m sorry about how things ended with us.’

‘Yeah, me too.’

‘If it helps, I was really cut up.’

‘No, it doesn’t, not really. So was I.’

‘I had to see a therapist.’

Oh. That trumped my Cob-on Kid holiday somewhat.

‘I’m sorry.’

‘Look, I don’t know if this is the right place to do this, but I’d love to catch up with you, what you’ve been up to in the last ten years or so, apart from becoming a rugby superstar. Can I buy you a drink?’

‘I hear Fanta is the in drink with girls these days.’

Chrissie laughed, and it was a sound that I remembered so well, a sound that set off memories and feelings I thought I’d got rid of when she left. Her laugh, God what I wouldn’t do to make her laugh back then. It always made me feel happy.

‘OK then.’

And she turned to the bartender and ordered two Fantas. With straws.

We sat on the bar stools and sipped our orange drinks, as I stole glances at Chrissie. Chrissie, who was beautiful and just the same but oh so different. Chrissie, who seemed to have reached inside me and woken something up that not only had I not realised was sleeping, but that I would have sworn I’d thrown out with the rubbish years ago.

We laughed, a lot, something I seemed to have forgotten how to do. Not that Ayesh and I didn’t laugh, but well, it wasn’t like this. Chrissie and I chatted for ages, just about daft things, some of it what we used to do back then, some of it about our lives now. I told her about Ayesh, and she remembered her from school. She said she’d broken up with someone she nearly got engaged to, and the way she described it was so similar to what happened to me when I didn’t propose at Christmas that I felt more connections. Then we wandered off onto the subject of Arsenal, who we both still loved and I could do the big star thing about, because I’d actually met Theo Walcott, even though I could hardly talk to him for being starstruck, but Chrissie went one better because in her job, which was a buyer for some big corporate thing, she’d been invited to a VIP box at the Emirates, and afterwards she’d met the whole team, so ner.

When I noticed that she was wearing the ring I gave her for her birthday a long time ago, it was inevitable, or it felt so, that we would go back to her new place, just for a look, and a drink of something stronger than Fanta, and once we were there, and alone, it was hard to deny the feelings that were fizzing between us, and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t think about Ayesh once while I was there, because it all just seemed to fall into place. We hugged first, and then the rest just … happened – the same familiar movements, smells and sounds bringing the same responses from both of us, as if we were doing a dance we’d learned a long time ago. People say ‘one thing led to another’, don’t they, and it’s such a cliché, but it really happens, it happened to us, that doing the one thing triggered the next thing, and the next and the next.

So I didn’t think about Ayesh when I hugged Chrissie, and I didn’t think about Ayesh when I kissed Chrissie, and I didn’t think about Ayesh when I slept with Chrissie. I didn’t think about Ayesh until I had to go home to her, and it all rushed up to me, what I’d done, what I’d become, because with Chrissie, it was inevitable, and it was incredible. As if we’d never left each other, but not as if we were fifteen. No, not like that at all.

I slipped home in the early hours of Sunday morning, knowing Ayesh would be asleep. She was used to me coming home late after a game, because I’d often be out with the lads, celebrating if we’d won or commiserating if we’d lost. She didn’t come to many games, and more often than not she’d go and see Mum when I was playing, so they could jointly take each other’s mind off the fact that I was doing something that could potentially result in serious injury.

I couldn’t get into the same bed as her knowing what I’d just done, so I crawled into the spare bed and lay awake all night thinking about what a skanky bastard I was and cursing my cowardliness.

I didn’t sleep at all, and got up as soon as it started to get light to sit in the kitchen with a cup of tea. I hadn’t resolved anything in the night, but a few things had occurred to me. Ayesh and I were trying to have a baby. She might already be pregnant, and if she was, what did that mean for our future? Before today, I would have said that as soon as we found out, I would ask her to marry me, and that would be the rest of our lives. Now, I felt like I’d found a part of me that had been lost a long time ago. Chrissie made me feel like the real me. But I’d only just met her again, after all these years, and I loved Ayesh. God I was a mess. This whole thing was a mess. My life had gone from ordinary to spectacularly complicated in one short sentence breathed into my ear by someone I hadn’t seen for over a decade.

Before Ayesh got up, I went out for a run, taking my phone with me. I’d had it on silent in the night, but Chrissie had texted.

God Cal I’m so sorry I feel like an utter homewrecker.

I shouldn’t have answered, I know I shouldn’t, but Chrissie wasn’t the one in the wrong, she wasn’t the one in the relationship, and she didn’t deserve the blame.

Don’t beat yourself up. Took 2.

Thx, but feel bad.

And again, I should have left it, but again I didn’t.

Was gr8 2 cu, just went 2 far.

It was gr8. Seeing u I mean. Forgot what it was like.

It was like it always was.

Which I hoped she could take any way she chose, and hopefully might think I thought it was a bit juvenile, and not like it was something I’d been hankering after.

I missed you. All this time.

Oh shit. So now I really had to stop it, before she wanted to meet up again. I had to just cut her off.

Me too.

No Cal, you big fat loser, what the fuck are you doing? You need to just say it straight. Think of Ayesh.

Want to meet up?

Come on, this is your chance. Just say no and be done with it.

Yeah.

Oh fuck.

What did I say, a while back? I’d do anything in my power not to make that girl sad. That’s what I said. What a lying fucking scumbag. The only possible outcome of any of this was making Ayesh sad, but I couldn’t stop myself. I literally could not stop. I’m sure Matty would have had something to say about that if I’d said those words to him, because he always went off on one about misuse of the word ‘literally’, but where Chrissie was concerned, I did not seem to have control either of my mind or my actions.

Maybe, to justify it, I told myself I was just getting Chrissie out of my system, seeing her again to purge all the heartache from long ago, that as soon as I felt it had run its course I’d stop seeing her and go back to how I was. I’m sure I spouted all sorts of fucking lies to myself, to justify it.

I saw Chrissie again, and then again, and again. She was like a drug; the more I had the more I wanted. She was like she was before, only more – more beautiful, more funny, more sexy, more grown up, and it, what we had together was more as well – more intense, more overwhelming, more adult.

We didn’t sleep together again; but everything else we did – talking, laughing, listening to music, driving around in my car visiting some of our old haunts – it was as much of a betrayal. Oh and we kissed. A fair bit.

I hardly saw Ayesh, I couldn’t risk sleeping with her, and I needed to know whether or not she was pregnant. She usually took a test once a month, but not always, and it was around the time she would, but I couldn’t mention it to her without her thinking I was more bothered than I should have been. I’d always been laid back about it, because there was no rush, right? No pressure, babe. But now the pressure was on, and it was on me, because it meant something, but something terrible, if Ayesh was having our baby.

And just to make it worse, Lau found out. I mean, it could have been truly worse and Ayesh, or even Mum could have been the one to spot me, but Lau was bad enough.

Laura

‘Yeah, we’ll completely have to start Pilates again, now that Josie’s back from maternity leave. I’ve really noticed a difference since I stopped going.’

Amy and I were in a coffee shop in the city centre, our usual Wednesday morning haunt since we’d stopped going to our classes. It wasn’t strengthening our core, but we decided it was good for our souls and that was nearly as worthy.

‘As long as we can still come here for a chat afterwards.’

‘Yeah, course Lau. No pain, no gain. No painful stretching, no calorific drinks. Unless the trainer’s on maternity leave, then it completely doesn’t count.’

Amy grinned impishly at me.

‘Too right. Or we could do something more worthwhile with our time. I’ve been thinking about doing some voluntary work, maybe get a part time job or something.’

‘Really?’

I sighed. ‘No, not really. I can’t tie myself to anything in case Matt needs me. But sometimes I miss being useful to other people.’

‘Yeah, it would be nice to be someone else other than ‘Mum’ I suppose. But I don’t think I could even summon up the energy to apply for a job, let alone actually do one.’

‘You’ve got four full-time jobs, flower. You deserve a medal just for not murdering them all in their beds.’

‘Ha ha. Did you hear about Charlie’s latest?’

Cal

I’d been sneaking around for about two weeks, snatching time in the evening here, a lunch there, trying not to be gone from Ayesh so long that she wondered where I was spending all my time, but not to be at home for long enough that a night of passion was on the cards. I’ve never been a liar, don’t have the stomach for it, and every lie I told Ayesh made me feel physically sick, but I was still telling myself I was just working through it with Chrissie, and once I was done, it would stop and Ayesh really didn’t need to be hurt by knowing. Dickhead.

The usual pattern was that I’d say goodbye to Chrissie and not make plans to see her again, part of me hoping that would be the last time, telling myself I couldn’t do it again, that I wouldn’t answer her texts, and I definitely wouldn’t be sending her any messages. Then before even twenty-four hours had passed, one or other of us would text to say ‘thanks for today‘ and we’d arrange to meet another time. Soon.

So when Chrissie texted just as I was finishing training for the day and asked if we could meet in the city centre, right now, it was a bit unusual, but I was available, Ayesh was at work, and an afternoon fix of Chrissie sounded great.

Meeting in a coffee shop could be considered a bit risky for someone cheating on their girlfriend, but in my fucked up head I wasn’t cheating, I was purging, and the thought didn’t cross my mind. All that crossed my mind was seeing Chrissie again.

The coffee shop was busy, and Chrissie was waiting for me when I got there. She looked so beautiful that my heart swelled and I walked over to her and kissed her, so passionately it took both of us by surprise.

Laura

As Amy launched into an account of her oldest daughter’s most recent escapade, I caught sight of a familiar figure walking in through the door. It was Cal, and I was just about to raise my hand and wave, when he stopped by a table where a young blonde woman was sitting. He bent down and kissed the woman, pretty passionately, on the mouth before sitting down opposite her.

‘Lau?’

‘What?’

‘Is there something exciting happening behind me? You’ve been staring over my shoulder. Your mouth’s open.’

I closed my mouth and dragged my attention back to Amy.

‘Sorry, flower. I just saw Cal.’

‘Oh, where?’

Amy turned round.

‘I can’t see him.’

‘He’s got his back to us; he’s with that blonde woman. Stop staring. He just snogged her.’

‘What? No. He must just know her, it must have been a hello kiss.’

‘Yeah, a ‘hello tonsils, may I introduce you to my tongue’ kiss. It was a snog. He hasn’t broken up with Ayesha, has he?’

Amy frowned. ‘No. We were only there at the weekend, it all seemed good, although you never really know do you. Who is she then?’

Amy risked another quick look behind her.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Does he know we’re here?’

‘I don’t think so, it’s a bit dark all the way back here, and I didn’t catch his eye.’

‘You don’t think he’s … I can hardly say it … messing about? It doesn’t seem like Cal. I thought he was completely crazy about Ayesha. I’m sure he told Dec he was going to propose at Christmas, but then nothing happened and I forgot. What are we going to do? I’ve got to go in a minute, I’ve got the dentist.’

‘What do you mean what are we going to do?’

‘Well we can’t just walk past them.’

‘Why on earth not, Amy? He’s meeting her in a public place, whatever he’s doing, it must be public.’

‘But what if he sees us?’

‘We’ll just say hi. It’s up to him what he says or does after that. It’s none of our business really.’

Cal

I held Chrissie’s gaze as I sat down opposite her.

‘Well hello to you too.’

‘Yeah, must have missed you or something.’

‘Mm. Cal, thanks for coming. I need to talk to you.’

That didn’t sound good. Things that sounded good never started with ‘I need to talk to you’. I reached for Chrissie’s hand, needing something to steady myself. Her fingers were soft and cool, and I couldn’t help stroking her knuckles with my thumb.

‘OK.’

‘I don’t think we should be doing this … whatever it is we’re doing. I feel dreadful about your girlfriend. I think this should be the last time we see each other.’

I was horrified. Chrissie was doing the thing I should have had the balls to do nearly two weeks ago, after I slept with her – no, before I slept with her – and here she was being the one thinking about Ayesh. I was the worst kind of arsehole, wasn’t I. But still I wasn’t going to let her go. At the moment, it seemed like I never knew how I was going to feel, or what I was going to say until it came out of my mouth.

‘Chrissie, no. I can’t stop seeing you. I want to carry on.’

‘Are you going to leave Ayesha?’

‘It’s complicated.’

Oh what a bloody cliché. Chrissie didn’t know about the potential baby, and I wasn’t about to tell her, because that would make her run away at supersonic speed. Still, she raised an eyebrow at the tired old excuse I’d just trotted out.

‘Cal, I can’t be this person. I feel … so amazing when I’m with you, but when you’re not with me, I think about you being with her, and I feel angry because you’re not with me, but then I feel guilty because I shouldn’t feel like this about someone else’s boyfriend.’

‘How do you feel?’

‘Oh come on Cal, we’ve both said it, it’s like the last ten years never happened, like I never moved away, like we’ve picked up where we left off. Do you want me to say it? OK then. I love you.’

Shit. Shit. Double and triple shit. She wasn’t supposed to say she loved me, now I was going to have to think seriously about what my feelings for her were, and how they were different to what I felt for Ayesh. Shit shit shit with an added bit of oh holy fuck for good measure.

Laura

Despite saying it was none of my business, I’d always been a nosy cow, and I risked another look at Cal and the mystery woman. They were now holding hands across the table, and looked to be having an intense conversation.

‘They’re holding hands.’

‘Oh no. Do you think we should say something? Not now, but later, let him know we saw him?’

‘No, we should go, so you don’t miss your dentist appointment. We’ll just walk by and he’ll know we’ve seen, and if he wants to say anything that’s up to him, but otherwise we should butt out. I just can’t help looking though. I wonder who she is.’

I shook my head, trying to maintain an open mind. Cal was an adult, and entitled to his privacy. Yeah right, Laura Scott, you so wanted to know the juicy details.

‘Are you ready?’

Amy and I picked up our bags and made our way to the door, passing by the table where Cal was sitting, still clasping the hand of the blonde woman. He looked up as we walked past his table.

Cal

I was just about to attempt some kind of an answer, when I felt the people walking past our table staring at me. Thinking it might be a Raiders fan after a selfie or an autograph, I looked up to give them the ‘can’t you see I’m busy, I deserve a private life’ brush off, straight into the eyes of Laura Scott and Amy Summers. Oh holy fucking shit no. I let go of Chrissie’s hand as if it had burnt me.

‘Oh, hey Lau. Hey Amy. Er …’

I glanced at Chrissie, who was looking up at Amy and Lau as well. She probably remembered both of them from before, but neither of them seemed to know who Chrissie was, and she didn’t say a word to them. Her expression was neutral as she waited for me make the next move, but it was Lau who spoke first.

Laura

His glance flickered to the woman sitting opposite him, who was looking up at us as well. She looked slightly familiar, but I couldn’t place her.

‘Hi Cal. You caught us. We were just having hot chocolate with caramel syrup. Don’t tell Matt, he still thinks we go to Pilates on a Wednesday.’

Cal

‘Oh, ha ha, no, your secret’s safe with me.’

Lau looked at Chrissie, and I knew she hadn’t missed the irony of my stupid comment. As if Lau and Amy sneaking a drink in Starbucks was in any way the same as me being with someone who wasn’t Ayesh.

Laura

I looked pointedly at his companion – if we were going to be talking about secrets, he had a pretty big one sat across the table from him.

‘Likewise.’

Cal

Then they walked out, leaving me with burning red cheeks and a head full of ‘oh shit’.

‘Was that Lau and Amy?’

I nodded, still struck dumb with panic.

‘They didn’t recognise me, I guess. Probably just as well.’

I found my voice.

‘Shit, Chrissie. This is terrible.’

‘No, Cal, maybe it’s for the best. Maybe we should just finish it now, stop all this before it goes too far, you can tell them it’s nothing and mean it, and get on with your life.’

I hung my head. She was right, in that ending it was what we should do. But she wasn’t right about anything else.

‘I can’t, Chrissie. I can’t finish it. It’s already too late for me to just get on with my life, now you’re here.’

‘What does that mean?’

I sighed. ‘I’m not sure I know. Fuck it, I know this is really unfair on you. It’s unfair on Ayesh, but I’m trying to get my head around a lot of shit. Maybe we should … not stop seeing each other, but give each other a rest, for a few days, is that fair? No, it’s not, of course it’s not, but can I ask that? I’ll sort my head out and text you, next week?’

Chrissie looked unsure, but nodded.

‘Don’t leave it too long.’

‘I won’t.’

I stood up to go, Chrissie staying in her seat, but looking up at me with her green eyes. I ran a finger down her cheek and held her gaze, hoping she could see something in my face apart from what a two-timing cheating bastard I was, then I left.

I drove home on autopilot, unable to get the encounter with Lau and Amy out of my head. What if they told Ayesh? What if they told Mum? Mum was more scary, because she would truly kill me. Ayesh was already part of the family, it would be like I’d cheated on Mum as well.

As soon as I got home, I got my phone out and made a call.

‘Lau, it’s not what you think.’

Which was true, as long as what she thought was that it was just a perfectly innocent skinny latte with an old friend.

Laura

I considered pretending I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I’d been thinking about him all the way home, and I’d always thought being up front was better than playing games.

‘Well, what I think is you’ve spent time in a coffee shop with a woman who you kissed pretty thoroughly and then spent some time holding hands and having a deep conversation with.’

‘Oh. Fuck.’

‘Yeah. Cal, it really isn’t any of my business, I was surprised to see you … like that, I suppose. I thought you and Ayesha were happy.’

Cal

I sighed. ‘Yeah. It’s bloody complicated.’

Why were the only words I could use to describe this pitiful situation ones that were trotted out in the worst chick flicks?

Laura

‘It usually is, flower. Do you want to talk about it?’

Another sigh. ‘Not really. Trying to get my head round some shit.’

‘Up to you, you know where I am.’

‘I know. You won’t tell Ayesh? I know it’s not fair to ask.’

‘OK, here’s the deal, it’s the same deal I have with any of you,’

Here, I was including Iz, Charlie, and Gracie, all of who had used Matt and me for parent-free confessionals, about topics ranging from boys to bras to bullying.

‘I won’t tell her anything unless she asks me a direct question, or unless someone is going to get hurt by me not telling her. Sometimes it’s a fine line, I will use my judgement, and I’m not prepared to argue with anyone about that.’

Cal

Lau and Matty were unofficial agony aunt and uncle to most of the family, usually Dec’s kids, with a bit of Iz thrown in for good behaviour. They never promised not to tell secrets, but to my knowledge they never had, and Lau had strict rules about what she was prepared to keep to herself, which may have stopped a few confession sessions, but not many, because Lau’s advice was always top drawer.

‘OK. Fair enough. I nearly talked to Matty last week, but I didn’t know where to start, and I don’t always like to bother him.’

I’d picked up the phone several times to call or Facetime Matty, but he got tired too much these days, and the times I wanted to talk were usually the middle of the night.

Laura

‘What? Matt would be horrified to hear you say that. You’re never a bother, Cal. You know Matt’s got all the time in the world for you. Give him a call. Or pop and see him, us, whenever. Anytime. Kettle’s always on; disapproval’s always off.’

‘Thanks, Lau. Might take you up on it.’

‘Take care, Cal.’

Cal

Lau always made people feel better. I disconnected and sat stewing over what the fuck I was going to do. Not coming to any conclusions, and it being close to the time Ayesh would be home, I went out. There weren’t many places I could go where my preoccupation wouldn’t be noticeable and commented on, so I took the car and sat in a dark corner of the empty car park at Raiders Stadium, until it was late.

Laura

‘Soh he didn’t tell you what’s going on?’

‘No, he just said it was complicated. Poor Cal. I hate to think of him having problems with Ayesh, they’re so good together.’

‘Yeah, but they’ve been together foh a long time, starting when they were both still pretty young. Sometimes you just change too much when you get older.’

‘Unless you’re Dec and Amy.’

‘Yeah, except then. Maybe tha’s why he hasn’t gone tuh Dec, tho.’

‘Do you think he’ll talk to us?’

‘I don’t know, Lau, depends wha ih is. Hope so, ih’s shit trying to keep stuff tuh yourself.’

‘You should know.’

‘Yeh.’

Cal

Ayesh was in bed when I got home. She’d left me a note hoping I was OK, and saying she’d left some chilli in the microwave if I was hungry. I hadn’t even checked my phone while I was out, but she had texted several times, the last two sounding worried. God I was a nasty piece of fucking shit, sitting on my own thinking only about myself, when Ayesh was worried about me.

I got undressed and slid into bed, next to Ayesh, who stirred when I got in.

‘Are you OK, huns?’

‘Yeah babe. Sorry, my phone ran out of charge while I was at Baggo’s. I didn’t realise till I got home just now.’

And so the lies continued. Every time, it broke a piece of me off and crushed it.

Ayesh pulled me into her and draped her arm over me, then fell asleep again, while I lay there staring into the darkness, hating myself for what I was doing to this wonderful woman.

After several hours of beating myself up, I couldn’t take it any more I was close to losing it, so I got up and into my car, and drove across the city, tears filling my eyes as I drove. When I got there, I lost my nerve. It was late, really late, the house was in darkness, and no one would be awake. It was too much, having come all this way only to realise I was going to have to go home again, and I couldn’t stop the sobs that welled up in me, the end result of several hours of giving myself grief and being unable to think of a way out of this, or at least a way that had a satisfactory outcome for everyone (i.e. me, I suppose, if I’m honest). Then I remembered ‘Anytime. Kettle’s always on; disapproval’s always off’ and I pressed the name on my phone.

11. Pieces of the night

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

Dec

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

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

:Alright, love?

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

‘What the fuck.

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

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

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

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

Anger welled up, rage from a thousand places.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wept.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

:Rose.

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

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

:I did.

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

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

:You weren’t very pleasant.

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

:Yes I could see that

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

‘I need to get some food.’

:I left you a sandwich.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Or unlucky.’

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

:What’s that, love?

Shook my head and looked away.

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

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

I waggled my hand at the door again.

:Look, why don’t I do you some soup?

‘What?’

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

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

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

:Oh come on with you.

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

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

I realised I might not have to do much talking.

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

:So, how old are you love?

‘Nineteen.’

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

‘No.’

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

‘S’ok.’

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

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

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

‘Thanks, er, Rose.’

:Hit the spot did it?

‘Yeah, very good.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I think they got what they wanted.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Haven’t got one.’

:No microwave?

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

‘Sold it.’

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

Automatic: ‘I can’t have butter.’

:Oh, you allergic?

‘No, I’m not allowed –’

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

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

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

She steered me through her front door to the stairs.

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

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

Matt

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

Dec

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

Fuck. Off.’

Letterbox pushed open.

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

Shit. I owed her money.

‘Wait’.

And I’d told her to fuck off. Again.

‘Sorry.’

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

‘Wait!’

Footsteps returned upwards and then she appeared round the corner.

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

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

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

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

The gratitude was wearing me out.

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

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

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

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

:Hold on, is that you?

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

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

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

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

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

:Alright now, love. It’s alright.

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

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

A shrug. A deep breath. A nod.

:Is your mam nearby?

Shook my head.

:Can you ring her?

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

‘No … she’s dead.’

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

‘Same.’

Her eyes filled up again.

:Isn’t there anyone you can talk to?

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

‘No.’

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

‘Sold it.’

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

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

‘Doubt it.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘No, no, no, fuck no.’

:Everything alright love?

‘Today’s Thursday, right?’

:All day, love.

‘Shit. Fuck.’

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

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

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

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

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

She had a point.

‘Have you moved my phone?

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

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

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

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

:See that hole?

‘Yeah.’

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah, what time?’

*Four o’clock would suit him.

‘I’ll be there.’

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

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

‘They were polite.’

:Well that’s good, isn’t it?

‘We used to have a laugh.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He revved the engine and the car roared away.

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

>Please I need to get to my car.

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

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

Nodded. He waited.

‘Appointment with Don.’

>Huh. OK. Good luck.

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

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

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

-Yep.

Opened the door.

-Declan. Come on in. Take a seat.

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

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

Forced myself back to now.

‘I know. Sorry. I’ve been, er, ill.’

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

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

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

‘My land-line’s broken.’

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

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

‘OK. Sorry.’

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

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

‘That’s … I … thank you.’

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

‘Whoa – what?’

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

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

My brain was rapidly scrambling.

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

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

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

Fucking, fucking idiot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don nodded.

-There is just one other thing.

He leaned back and steepled his hands under his chin.

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

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

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

He took a deep breath and sat up.

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

He stood up and indicated the door.

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

>Hey, Declan.

It was Nico Tiago. I stopped, surprised.

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

‘I’m OK.’

>You look horrible still.

‘Hangover.’

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

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

>You want a lift home?

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

>I am quicker. Get in.

‘But –’

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

‘OK, thanks’.

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

>How was the meeting?

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

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

>You stay here?

‘Suspended. On some kind of probation.’

>Probation?

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

>Huh. There is hope for you then.

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

>Don send you away?

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

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

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

‘I think it’s sorted.’

>Good. Where you live?

I gave him directions.

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

‘No. But I … guess I might have to.’

I told him about the fitness conditions of my suspension.

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

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

‘Thanks’ was all I could manage.

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

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

>See you soon.

As I opened the passenger door:

>Hey Declan, be careful of yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

The doorbell went. Through the letterbox:

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

‘Do you want to come in?’

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

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

:Cuppa wouldn’t go amiss, mind.

‘Yeah, sure, coming up.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘All my own fault really.’

:Was there nobody who could help you?

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

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

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

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

‘Not really, not now.’

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

:What is it love?

I wiped my eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I thought about it. Found a way.

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

:Alright love, no nosy questions, I promise.

‘OK … I had a car accident. A man died. There was an inquest. Couldn’t tell anyone. Used the wrong passport as ID, which will affect Raiders, and could have got me kicked out of the country. Stole money to help the son – no – the person I thought was the son of the man who died. Couldn’t tell anyone. Moved out so I didn’t have to face telling Jay and Beth. Avoided everyone I know by telling them I’m doing a college course that keeps me busy. Told so many lies to so many people. I saw Jay today. He told me to fuck off and die. He’s leaving Raiders because of me, I don’t know where he’s going. I’ll probably never see them again.’

I pushed it down far enough that I managed to say it without getting emotional, but it still hurt pretty badly.

:Oh, love.

A silence. Rose had promised not to ask questions, but was likely to have hundreds.

:You know, I don’t even know your real name. The paper said you’re Declan, but also Charlie. Which one are you?

‘Well, I’ve been Declan for a while now. I was Charlie before. It’s what my parents called me. That’s why the passport stuff is so bloody complicated. Don’t really know who the fuck I am now.

:What does everyone call you?

‘Bloody troublemaker probably. Declan is fine.’

:Alright, then, love. So, Declan, I want to know how your meeting with your boss went today.

‘Oh … so-so. Not lost my job yet, but likely will in a few weeks. Suspended, got to work hard on trying to get them to trust me again to have a chance.’

:Well, to me that says it’s not all doom and gloom then, if they didn’t give you your marching orders this afternoon.

‘No. I was expecting them to, really, but they’ve been pretty fair. Amazingly fair. Really helpful with sorting out my passport. I wouldn’t have had a clue where to start.’

:Well I think that’s encouraging. Having a reasonable boss is important – I remember when I worked in Ponty for a solicitors, ooh now there was a boss you wouldn’t want. He had me working all hours …

And she was off again. Rose seemed to have a knack for sensing when I had reached my limits in a conversation, and could immediately launch into a lengthy story behind which I could hide and drift away. She didn’t seem to expect me to contribute to this, just to appear to be listening politely, for which I was very grateful. I hid and drifted.

: … so anyway, eventually I told him where to stick his plastic yucca plant, and walked out. Can you imagine?

‘Yes, Rose, I can imagine.’

:Now, I’ve bent your ear long enough, love. I’ll wash this cup up and be out of your hair.

‘No need, I can wash it up. I’m really feeling a lot better.’

I took the cup from her and took it into the kitchen. She was by the front door when I came out. I needed to say it.

‘Rose, before you go, can I just say, thank you so much. I don’t know what I would have done without you. You’ve been great and I am very grateful. I’m sorry for all the hassle I’ve caused you the last couple of days, how rude I was to you, I don’t know why you’ve helped me, I don’t deserve it.’

:Oh love, don’t ever say that. We should all help each other, it’s not about deserving. But you’re welcome. I like looking after people, I’m good at it. Which reminds me, I’m bringing you a telly tomorrow.

‘What?’

:Well I can’t have you sitting here staring at that big dent in the wall all day. You need something to look at, even if it’s only Countdown. I’ve got a spare in my guest room. You can borrow that.

I laughed – first time I had done that for a while.

‘Go home Rose. You’re fucking amazing.’

I gave her a big kiss on the cheek and shut the door behind her.

As I was closing the door, my phone beeped. It reminded me of all the texts and messages I needed to sort through. Not a prospect I relished. But the longer I left it the worse it would be – that cliff I’d imagined rose up above me, getting taller all the time, and the only way to make it look any less intimidating was to climb up it.

Steeling myself, also realising I couldn’t miss any more calls from Raiders, I unplugged the phone from the charger and took it to the sofa. Started with the texts. I had too many to deal with one by one, so I deleted all the spam and numbers only, then checked the names on the rest. Many from mates from the club. Many of them people I owed money to. Checked a couple. Not complimentary.

Big: =Thanks 4 losing Scotty 4 us. Twat.

Mikey: =Wot u finking? Cheers 4 pts deduction.

DivDav: =Fuck off, wanker. Don’t call me.

Danno: =Where’s my £500? U said this week.

Hurtful. Not unexpected. The younger players at the club were a tight knit group, with girlfriends included. There were messages from some of the girls too, which seemed to be fishing for more information in the guise of sympathy.

Cara: =Hope u ok. Wanna talk?

Sarah: =RUOK? Call me 2 chat.

Katie: =UOK hun? Need my money back soon. Txt me.

After scanning a few and sensing a theme I deleted all of those ones. I had borrowed money from most of my mates, and could understand how they must be feeling. Just didn’t want to read it all.

There were some texts from senior players who had my number, most asking me to get in touch with Don. There had obviously been a concerted effort to contact me. Some of them had added their thoughts on my actions. Not pleasant reading. Read it all anyway. One text from an anonymous number caught my eye before I deleted it.

No number: =Payback.

After the texts, I went through my voice-mails A few from some of my mates on Monday evening, trying to find me, after seeing me having my heart-to-heart in the changing room with Jay earlier in the day. A few from them all again, early on Tuesday morning having found out what had been going on and having a go at me. Easy to delete, but not before their anger and hurt filtered through. Several messages on Tuesday morning from various Admin staff, then more senior office staff and eventually Don sounding extremely angry and telling me to:

-Get your arse to the club right now.

Don rarely (for an ex-rugby player) swore, and even more rarely lost his temper. I realised anew how lucky I had been to keep my job. I went through the messages and texts systematically, trying to distance myself from the anger in them all.

Saved one of them till last. Voicemail from Monday afternoon. From Beth. Hardly dared play it. Finger hovered over the delete button for a long time. She deserved her say. Pressed play.

From long ago and far away:

_Dec, please can you ring me? I can’t get hold of James. He’s left me a message, I can’t understand what he’s saying, he sounds really upset. I’m worried. I think he said something about you, but I couldn’t really hear him. I’m really worried. Please ring me, sweetheart. Do you know where he is? What’s happened? I’m so worried. Please ring me and let me know you’re both alright.

Took a long time to process that one. It was from a time before she knew I’d fucked it all up, when she still cared. Played it again, to hear her voice, talking to me as if I was only across town and not across a chasm. Played it again. And again. And cried. And listened again. So, so wanted to call her, both of them. I missed them, so much. Worthless, worthless piece of shit.

There’s only so long you can huddle in the dark on a couch that stinks of pine, feeling sorry for yourself, before it occurs to you that you’d be better off in bed.

Hauled myself off the sofa and into the bedroom, stripped my clothes off and got under the duvet. Sleep didn’t come. Too many swirls and tangents inhabiting my mind. Things I should and shouldn’t have said or done. Damning myself for every one of the mistakes I had made that had led me here. Imagining, torturing myself with ways it could have been different.

Underneath it all, Beth’s voice from last night:

_Go away Dec. Don’t call us again.

And Jay’s:

łFuck off and die for all I care.

Curled myself into a ball and sobbed my wretchedness into the pillow. Must have fallen asleep eventually.

Dreaming. I am flying. Flying over a beach in Australia. There is a family on a picnic rug. Mum, Dad and me. I wave at my smaller self, who waves back. I circle a few times, then fly off over the sea. Fly and fly, high as the wind. After a long time, another beach, another country. Another picnic rug. Jay, Beth and Cal. I wave at Cal, who waves back. I circle a few times, then fly down onto the beach to join them. We all build sandcastles with Cal, then lie down on the rug, looking up at the sky. The sun gets in my eyes and…

Matt

I am running. Running across fields, running along beaches, running up hills, running through streets. Ahead is a cliff, but I do not stop running, I run towards it, to the edge, where I jump high in the air, and I fall …

Dec

…woke me up. I hadn’t pulled the curtains last night, and the sun was shining on my pillow. Shut my eyes again, hoping to find traces of the dream behind my eyelids. It was long gone, leaving me bare and raw The desolation settled somewhere under my ribcage.