There are ten seconds to go. The crowd start counting down, and as the number gets to zero, the ball is kicked into the stand, and they go wild, we go wild, celebrating another Raiders title. Cal is leaping up and down, yelling, then he hugs me, then he remembers himself and lets go, and after a brief shake of his head, what was he thinking, carries on leaping.
We are at Twickenham, and the season has just finished in the best possible way. As the players do their lap of honour with the trophy, they stop in front of the area where friends and family are gathered, and point to us. Dec gives us a thumbs up, and Jay waves.
The celebration afterwards is like nothing I have ever experienced. I am so thrilled to have been asked to join them in their hotel, where it all starts, having dispatched Cal off with Beth and Iz. I used to think I could hold my drink, but these guys are on another level, with the shackles off at the end of a hard season, and they’re pumped up with adrenaline and victory. They leave me behind before even half the night is over, but I have been part of it, I am part of the team that won the League.
I hadn’t gone back to work in the end. There always seemed to be too much to do, and Matt’s job at Raiders paid well enough to support us. We talked about having another baby, and stopped using birth control, but it never happened. I decided not to let it be a big deal; we had our family, and the thought of being that tired again was a bit daunting, so we decided if it happened, it happened, but as time went on, it felt like it wasn’t going to, and that was OK. Or rather, we made it OK.
To Nico, Lis and Bastien
Wishing you all the best as you depart, once again, for Buenos Aires. You will always be welcome at number 47, as long as you don’t mind sharing a room with, well, each other.
We’ve had some great times, haven’t we? Nico, don’t forget to turn up on time on your first day, just to put them off the scent. Lis, make sure you find the nearest Prada, even if it’s in Brazil. Bastien, look after your mamá y papá, and make sure they Skype us all the time because we’ll miss you all loads.
With all our love, kisses and huge big squishy Scott cuddles,
Matt, Lau, Josh and Ella
And then it got complicated. Girls are complicated, aren’t they? You can’t just mess about with them, they take everything so seriously, and they take things seriously that you didn’t even know you’d done. It’s like there’s a code in everything you do. Holding hands means one thing, playing with her hair means something else, kissing means something else, and you have to be really careful or you’ve said something binding to one of them without even opening your mouth, and before you know it, one of them has laid claim to you, and is fighting all the others off whether you like it or not.
That’s what happened. I thought I had it all under control. Or rather, I didn’t think there was anything that needed to be under any sort of control. I was using the Baggo method of girling; go full tilt for what’s in front of you. I was more successful than Baggo by a long way, possibly because I didn’t employ any methods that required singing or throwing shoes, and possibly because I was slightly more respectable on account of my dad being Raiders coach and Baggo’s mum being on the tills at the local supermarket. I’m not saying it was right, I’m just saying school is harsh and you’re judged by things that are out of your power a lot of the time.
So anyway, there I was, post-Chrissie, kind of girl-hating but showing it by hanging round with girls and snogging them. I guess the ‘hating’ part of it was I didn’t really care who I snogged, or where, or when, and it could easily be the best friend of the one I’d just finished snogging five minutes ago, in the kitchen of the same party. I suppose, looking back, I was easy fodder for Katya and her cronies.
If I thought about it at all, I thought I was being mean and moody and uncaring and rather cool about the whole thing. Although it occurred to me that someone could get hurt, I wasn’t particularly bothered, as it would ‘serve her right’, whether her was the girl in question, or some random other girl who just happened to be living hundreds of miles away and had broken my heart. What didn’t occur to me was that the person who could get hurt would be me.
Katya. Katya, Milly and Florence. The Holy Trinity. Even Baggo stayed away from them, and Baggo was attracted to trouble like iron filings to a magnet. But the end of that summer term, I was on the lookout for trouble, the worse the better, and I went looking for Katya. We circled around each other a bit, keeping our distance while making it clear we were both interested. I wasn’t averse to the idea of Milly or Florence either, and signals were made and read between all of us.
There was a pool party, at Florence’s house. Her parents were away, and her older brother was having a party, and had said Florence could invite some friends. Her brother was theoretically responsible, being twenty-one, with a job and a car and everything, but it turned out that once he’d had half a bottle of his dad’s Scotch, he gave a bit less of a shit about what happened at his party, and a bit more of a shit about getting into the pants of the hot girl his mate had brought along. Cue unrestricted alcohol and other substances, half-naked teenagers and a swimming pool. I’m sure I don’t need to fill in the gaps.
Mum went ape-shit afterwards, when she found out, but it was too late by then, and the damage had been done. I mean literal damage – the living room needed a new carpet, the pool had to be drained, cleaned and re-filled and I don’t think the automatic garage door ever worked the same again – but also the lasting effects. A couple of kids ended up in A and E with alcohol poisoning, someone had to have their stomach pumped after overdosing on something they found in the bathroom cabinet, and one guy broke his wrist tripping over Florence’s brother doing it with his mate’s girl on the patio. I got away physically unscathed, apart from the hanger to end all hangers (ha ha, until the next time), but I had lost large chunks of my memory of the party, and Katya used this to her advantage.
She told me we’d had sex, and that she might be pregnant, and I didn’t know what to do. My memories were fractured, and I could recall being with her, hands roaming, tongue delving, underwear and more (or less) on display, but I couldn’t remember anything else. Katya kept calling me, saying she was going to tell her mum, and I had to tell her what to do. Then she came round to my house, but I got Mum to say I wasn’t in, although I then had to fend off questions about who she was and why I was asking Mum to lie for me.
Florence and Milly got involved, and suggested I’d been with them at the party as well, and I was well on the road to full-blown panic. There was no one else who had been there who could help fill in the gaps – everyone who was there had been as out of their skulls as me, and could barely remember what they had been doing, let alone keeping tabs on my actions.
Mum took to listening outside my door when I was on the phone. She had asked me directly several times what was going on, but I was evasive and just blew up at her if she asked too much, and so she was trying to find out in her own way.
Now I’ve got kids of my own, I can completely understand how worried she was about me – I’d broken up with Chrissie, I’d started hanging around with all these different girls, I’d been to some out-of-control booze and pills party that had resulted in five people being hospitalised, and now I was having secret conversations with people at all hours of the night and day. I can understand it now. Not then. Then, finding Mum hanging around outside my door with all sorts of invented excuses made me madder and madder.
I even called Matty about it. I knew he’d had escapades in the past, he’d brought enough different women round to Sunday lunch before he met Lau that I knew he’d been around a bit, and although I wasn’t going to tell him exactly what kind of a situation I found myself in, I hoped he might be cool enough to understand and just have a chat.
When I heard a noise outside my door as I was talking to Katya one afternoon, telling her for the millionth time that I didn’t know what to do, I was sure it was Mum. I pulled the door open and was not surprised to find her standing there with a pile of my underpants. I was enraged.
‘Mum, will you just fuck off. I’m having a private conversation.’
‘There’s no need for language like that, Cal, I’m just bringing your clean washing.’
I snatched the underwear from her and threw it on my bed.
‘Just leave me the fuck alone.’
‘Don’t speak to me like that.’
‘Stop spying on me then.’
I pushed past her and ran downstairs, aware that she was following me. I still had my phone in my hand, and I put it to my ear.
‘Katya, I’ll call you back.’
I turned round to face Mum, and she was so close behind me that she ran into me.
‘Mum, just f … go away.’
‘Cal, I’m not spying, I was just –’
‘Save it, you never give me a bloody moment’s peace, I can see why everyone calls you a meddling bitch.’
I hadn’t meant to be so harsh, and I knew from her expression I’d hurt her. It was Mum’s thing, to be caring and to let our teasing and our insults about it roll off her, and just carry on caring anyway, and to throw it in her face wasn’t the most loving thing her son could do. In my defence, I was in the middle of a crisis, and needed some space. I hope none of my children ever makes me feel like I made my mum look at that moment.
Mum backed away, holding her hands palm up as if to fend me off, and I turned round and stalked out to the toilet in the utility room. I sat down, breathing hard, trying to ignore the voice in my head that told me I’d just gone too far with Mum. I looked at my phone, thought about calling Katya back, or answering one of the several texts from her, Florence or Milly that had popped up since I’d last looked. They really were undertaking a concerted campaign to give me as little peace as my mum seemed to want to give me.
I decided to ignore them all and FaceTime Matty. I couldn’t tell him everything, in case it got back to Mum. If I’d called Dec, Mum would have found out everything before I’d finished talking, but Matty liked not telling Mum things, so as long as I was careful not to say too much, maybe I could get things off my chest, and do a bit of arsing about with him, and just forget about things for a few minutes. I called him up, but the tone rang for ages, and I thought he might be out, or driving or something.
I barely made it to my iPad in time to stop the FaceTime alert and catch Cal. We’d only just got in from taking the children to a birthday party, Lau had confiscated my phone, and I’d heard the tone as we came through the door, arms laden with goody bags and balloons.
‘Hey Cal – whoa, are you in the loo?’
Matty used to FaceTime me from the loo all the time when I was younger, me being eight and Matty mostly acting like an eight year old. He had been known to show me the, er, products of his time in there too. But that was a while ago, and we’d both matured a bit since then.
‘Yeah. Sorry, but Mum was doing my fucking nut and it’s the only place I can talk.’
‘Careful, mate, Ella and Josh are around, and so is Lau.’
I hated telling Cal off for saying ‘fuck’, but he’d get an ear-bashing from Lau if I didn’t at least get him to tone it down.
Matty was pretty cool about me swearing; it would be hard for him to be anything else, as he’d taught me most of the words I knew, and helped me practice them when I was younger. Lau was not cool about it, and he wouldn’t be on my side if I got him in the shit with Lau.
‘What’s your mum been up to, then?’
‘She’s been, like, listening at my door to my, like, private conversations.’
I said it extra loud, just in case Mum had followed me and was standing outside the door with more pairs of pants.
I was sure the emphasis was for the benefit of any ears flapping outside the bathroom.
‘Oh, bummer. With whom?’
Cal gave me a look that may as well have used words to say ‘none of your business’. It was his own teenagery version of shorthand.
Yeah right, Matty, like I’m going to tell you so you can just pass it on up the chain of command. I gave Matty a look that I hoped said just that without me having to bother.
‘It’s like she thinks she owns me, just because she paid for my bloody phone, she thinks she owns the bloody words I say on it and who I bloody say them to.’
Some of the bloodying filtered through to Lau, and she called out from the kitchen.
‘Is that Calum Scott using all sorts of inappropriate language within earshot of the children?’
Matty winced at me, and I rolled my eyes back at him as if worrying about swearing was just so tiresome. But I did try to control myself.
‘So, OK then, let’s think about this. Your mum isn’t usually a snoop, is she?’
‘You’re always calling her an interfering cow.’
Oh how your words come back to bite you.
‘Yeah, but kind of in a messing about way.’
Mostly. Except when she was being an interfering cow.
‘So what makes you think she’s been listening to you on the phone?’
‘Well I heard something outside my door while I was talking to Kat – er, my friend, and so I went and opened it, and she was just, like, standing there, with my pants and stuff in her, like, hand.’
‘Hmm, OK, so the circumstantial evidence is pretty damning. How about we delve deeper and postulate other possibilities?’
That was typical Matty. He always ponced about using long words instead of just getting to the point, he thought he was being clever, but I sometimes had no clue what he was going on about. And sometimes, like now, I knew what he was going on about, but I didn’t feel like doing word games with him.
‘Just play along, Cal.’
‘You’re, like, well weird, Matty.’
‘I know. It makes me who I am. So, your mum had your pants in her hand.’
‘Yeah. It was just an excuse.’
‘Hmm. Or, maybe, had she been doing some laundry earlier?’
‘I don’t bloody know, do I?’
By the sounds of it, Matty was getting ready to defend Mum, or at least come up with an excuse for her, and I was starting to regret calling him. Maybe Dec would have been a better bet?
Cal was getting frustrated with my interrogation methods, and was regretting calling me as it seemed I might be siding with his mother.
‘OK, then, here’s my hypothesis, not that yours isn’t perfectly valid, but we need to cover all the angles, wouldn’t you agree? Good. How about, your mum had finished doing the washing, your clothes were dry and she was bringing them up to you. She was about to, I don’t know, knock on the door, or maybe open it without knocking as has been known, but heard you talking and realised you were on the phone, possibly having a private conversation. She wasn’t quite sure what to do, and while she was deciding, you opened the door. Now, I’m not saying that’s what happened, maybe your scenario is the truth of it, but you’ll never know unless you talk to her.’
I should have known. Adults always stick together, like even if they’re totally in the wrong, just because they’re both adults they’ll take each other’s side against me, and they’ll always suggest talking. It was almost as if Matty had never tried talking to Mum about anything and been steamrollered by her. I wasn’t having it.
‘I’m not fucking talking to …’
I suddenly realised I’d said ‘fuck’, and tried to back-pedal.
‘Oh, sorry, Matty. I’m not talking to her. She always has to be right.’
Yeah, didn’t I know it. Holy shit this was hard, trying not to back Cal against Beth, but knowing how infuriating she could be.
Matty nodded like he knew what I meant, but before he could answer, Lau’s face appeared next to his, and I knew I was sunk. Lau was great, you could talk to her about anything, but in some ways she was worse than Mum, because she was always right. I mean, Mum liked to think she was always right, and let you know how right she thought she was, but Lau went about things a bit differently, probably all those years of practice sneaking her rightness up on Matty, and before you knew it, there was no other way of looking at things other than how Lau had just said it. I didn’t want that to happen to me, not now.
‘Alright, Lau. I’m gonna go, Matty, she’ll find me in here soon.’
‘Before you go, flower –’
Lau looked like she was about to spout some words of wisdom, and I sat back and awaited enlightenment.
Oh bollocks, I wasn’t going to escape.
‘– your mum doesn’t want to know the ins and outs of your love life –’
‘What? What’s she said?’
My anger started to swell again, as I thought about Mum gossiping about what she thought she knew about what she thought she’d heard.
‘Nothing, Cal, but I remember when I was your age, I was always talking to boys in my room, and it drove my mum wild, not because she wanted to know whether I was talking to one boy or another, but because she was worried I was taking drugs. Parents are always worried their children are taking drugs. Now, I’m not saying you have to do this, it’s totally up to you, but if you are maybe a bit more open about things, if you’ve got a girlfriend, or friends who are girls, and maybe you sometimes want some uninterrupted time to talk to them, then if you tell her that, she’s not going to worry so much that you’re on your phone to your drug dealer.’
‘Unless you are on the phone to your drug dealer. Then you’d best not say anything, right Lau?’
Cal smirked, and Lau gave me a look that should have made me burst into flames. Luckily I was almost Lau-proof and got away with merely a mild singeing.
Ha ha Matty, thanks for that, it gave me an out, and with a sigh of relief, I realised that Mum had got it completely wrong. Maybe she thought there was girl stuff in there somewhere, but mainly, probably due to some of the illegal substances that had been on offer at the party, she thought I was doing drugs. I wasn’t. I was just starting to get seriously into playing rugby, and anything like that would have put paid to it before I even started. Girl or no girl, there was no way I was going down that road.
I smirked at Matty’s comment, and Lau turned her full ‘you’re toast’ look on him. It was time to beat a hasty retreat and go ‘talk to Mum’.
‘Mm. OK Lau. Gotta go now.’
I disconnected and opened the door, unsurprised to find Mum fiddling with more laundry at the other end of the utility room.
‘Sorry for what I said.’
‘It wasn’t very nice.’
‘I know. Sorry. You were stressing me out.’
‘Cal, I know you’ve had a hard time the last few months, if you’d just –’
‘I’m not on drugs.’
‘I’m not doing drugs, not any sort. Lau said that’s what you think.’
The look on her face was priceless. Firstly, she couldn’t believe I’d volunteered information without her prising it out of me with a crowbar. Secondly, I’d talked to Lau about it rather than her. Thirdly, Lau’s techniques had worked better than hers. She quickly got a grip on herself, though.
‘Oh sweetheart. I have been worried. You know what your dad would do, don’t you?’
Yeah, I’d seen Dad in full ‘Just Say No’ mode. He’d kicked kids out of the under sixteens for smoking pot, and out of the under eighteens for worse. He was Mr Zero Tolerance. It would have been a good way to rebel and teach him a lesson, but I cared a lot about playing rugby, and even I realised that it would be the height of stupidity to ruin something I cared about just to prove a point. Plus, you know, my body was a temple and all that.
‘Yeah, I know. I’m not.’
‘What is it then, sweetheart? You’re so secretive, I just worry.’
‘I’ve got a right to private conversations.’
‘I know sweetheart, but you will tell me if there’s anything wrong, won’t you?’
‘Yeah, Mum. Back off now.’
She stroked my cheek and turned back to her laundry, and I could see the worry still written on her face.
Cal disconnected and I leaned back into the sofa.
‘That could have gone better.’
‘Lau, really, drugs?’
‘Most kids come into contact with them at an early age don’t they? Weren’t they all round your school at his age? I know Beth is worried about it, not specifically with Cal, but in general. And he went to a dodgy party not long ago, where some kids ended up having their stomachs pumped.’
‘You know Cal’s got three girls on the go, don’t you?’
‘What? No way! Go Cal.’
‘Yeah, I’m sure that’s why he called you, for your helpful advice in all things girl related. From what Beth says, two of them are trouble and the other one is a nightmare, and Cal is being twisted round three little fingers.’
‘How does she know that?’
‘Oh, she listens at his door.’
So I hadn’t really solved anything. The Holy Trinity still weren’t giving me a second’s peace; there were calls, texts and emails all day and night, telling me what Florence’s brother was going to do to me, asking what I was going to do, how I was going to help Katya. I couldn’t cope with it, I didn’t know what she expected me to do. It’s not like either of us were old enough to get married, I didn’t know a thing about babies, apart from the ones in the family, and they spent most of their time eating and shitting. I just wanted to be able to avoid it, so I avoided Katya as much as I could, which meant not going out of the house except to go to school, and staying in the study rooms when I was there.
Baggo saved me. I hadn’t seen much of him since the party, which he hadn’t been invited to, and had been too busy trying not to get caught up in Katya since then to contact him much.
He came round one evening, with a new X-box game.
‘Hey Cal. Fancy giving this a go?’
Well it was better than fending off texts and calls all evening. I put my phone under my pillow and we started playing.
After a while, there had been a ridiculous number of bleeps and pings from my phone, and even the usually unobservant Baggo noticed.
‘What’s with your phone? Is it broken?’
‘No, it’s just texts and shit.’
‘Don’t you need to look at them?’
‘Nah, it’s not important.’
‘How do you know unless you look?’
Baggo got up and retrieved my phone from under the pillow, even as I tried to wrestle it out of his hand. He managed to keep it away from me as he looked at the screen.
‘Katya’s texted you ten times? Four from Florence and six from Milly. Holy shit, Cal, are you doing all of them? The entire Holy Trinity?’
‘Don’t be a twat.’
‘No? Looks like it from here. What does the lovely Katya have to say for herself?’
‘Piss off, Bags, give it here.’
I made another grab for my phone before he could see some of the texts, which would tell him for sure what was going on, but Baggo was taller than me, and held it above his head while he scrolled through the messages, his eyes growing wider and wider.
‘You’ve got her pregnant? Holy fucking shit, Cal. What are you going to do?’
I slumped down on the bed, relieved that someone else knew, but not sure Baggo was the ideal candidate for helping me out of the mess of eternal childcare and paternity payments that was all I could see of my future if I allowed myself to think about it.
‘I don’t know. She’s not giving me any time to sort it out, she’s got Florence’s brother on my case, and her mum’s going to get the CPA round here, and –’
‘Wait, wait wait wait, you’re sure she defo is, aren’t you. You’ve like, seen the test, the stick with the pee, and her mum’s called your mum and it’s all being sorted out? Isn’t it?’
I looked back at him, dumbfounded.
‘Well, no, I, she just texted me a few days after the party, and said we’d done it, and, well, what was up, and what was I going to do, and I haven’t had a minute since then to – why, do you think she might not be?’
A huge bubble of hope was swelling inside me, and I was trying to be so careful not to pop it.
‘I’m not saying that, all I’m saying is, let’s just think about it, right? Bit of perspective, yeah?’
Another five texts had pinged away while we’d been talking. Baggo looked at the screen.
‘Are they all like this? Like, what are you going to do, you’re in so much trouble, my brother’s gonna have your guts?’
‘As often as this? All day and night?’
‘I think you’re being played, my son. But let’s think about it. Did you actually, like, do it with Katya?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You don’t know? Cal, with Katya Marenski there is no room for doubt. I’ve heard she’s, er, quite obvious about it.’
‘I was pissed. Really fucking wasted, we’d been doing shots all night. I can remember bits, I had my hand in her knickers, I might not have had my jeans on, it’s all just a jumble.’
‘Shit. OK, but on the positive side, if you were that pissed, it’s unlikely isn’t it?’
‘I don’t know, Bags. Matty says he used to get stinking rat-arsed but could still get it up at the end of the night.’
‘Your bloody uncle was a legend in his own lunchtime, but that’s not helping us at the moment. OK, let’s think some more. I think that if you were going to do it with Katya Marenski, and you remembered having your hand in her knickers, you’d remember something more, er, memorable, like putting something else in something else, if you get my drift?’
‘I don’t remember fucking her, if that’s what you’re being all shy about saying.’
‘Yeah. That’s my point, really. That if the fumbles were memorable enough to make it through the vodka shots, then the big one would defo stay in there.’
‘Maybe. It was a wild night, though, there’s a lot I can’t remember, like how I got home.’
‘Oh that’s easy, me and Wheels took you.’
‘Yeah, you texted me. Don’t you remember?’
Baggo hadn’t mentioned this in the two weeks since the party. It was typical of him to be someone’s rescuer and not expect any thanks or even a mention of it afterwards.
‘Yeah. I’ve still got the text here, look.’
He scrolled down his phone and showed me the screen. The time-stamp was 3:04am.
‘Bsgsssss cn u cpmr nwwde hel00op thers mblunce god ifellbad‘
As texts go, I had sent easier ones to understand.
‘Jesus, that doesn’t even mean anything to me. How the fuck did you work out what it meant?’
‘Well I didn’t, but Wheels was staying at ours, and I was a bit worried, so I woke him up, and –’
‘You woke him up? I bet he was chuffed at three in the morning.’
‘Yeah, well, he’d only just got in himself, he hadn’t been in bed long, anyway, I knew where you were, and I talked him into it.’
Baggo could talk nearly anyone into nearly anything, except girls into his pants. He had the confidence to say anything and the cheek to sound like he meant it, and the air of expectation that had people agreeing to things before they even realised they’d said yes. He was the only person who had ever been able to handle my mum in full flow, even though part of that was because she felt sorry for him, and I expect that years of dealing with his brothers had seen him honing his skills on them.
‘So you brought me home?’
‘We took you back to ours first, didn’t want to have you waking up your mum and dad in the state you were in. Then when you were a bit less vommy and singy we took you home, snuck you in up the stairs and everything. It was like an SAS operation.’
I was a bit taken aback. It was as if I’d lived a bit of life without actually being present in it, and it felt weird.
‘Yeah, so you were pretty shit-faced. I’m surprised you could even text as well as you did. But I’d be more surprised if you could have got it up with Katya. She wasn’t anywhere around when we found you, anyway, none of them were. And her methods are interesting now.’
‘Yeah, like, not giving you a moment to yourself to actually like THINK FOR FUCK’S SAKE CAL!’
He yelled at me, and made me jump, then sat there shaking his head as if something was completely obvious.
‘So, for the last, what, two weeks, she’s had you tied up in knots, wondering what to do, and she hasn’t even shown you a test, or had her dad down here, like, banging your front door down, and Florence’s brother hasn’t actually, like, showed up?’
‘Of course he hasn’t. He’s too busy paying his parents back for the damage he caused and answering awkward questions about how three kids ended up in A and E off their faces on coke to worry about his sister’s annoying mate whining about being knocked up. You. Fucking. Idiot. Apart from anything else, Katya’s practically got a repeat prescription for the morning after pill. It’s not like she doesn’t know how to look after herself. They’ve been playing games with you. You need to call her bluff.’
‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’
And that was one of the times when I was bloody grateful for Baggo’s ability to hatch a mad scheme. The more I thought about it, the more I ignored the never-ending texts and calls, the more I considered the content of all of the communications, the more I realised Baggo’s theory could well be correct. And maybe what we were planning might cause unnecessary stress to Katya, but they’d made my life a misery for nearly two weeks, and I wanted it to stop.
First there was the text:
‘OK, what do you want? I’ll do anything.‘
This produced the desired effect of a list of demands, which I immediately agreed to. They were ludicrous demands, but my contract was not legally binding.
Then there was the email, which was sent to Katya, Florence, Milly and a handful of their girl gang who I was sure would be in on it too, as well as real-looking but actually fake email adresses for Mum, Dad, her mum and her dad. We hoped they put the wind up Katya enough that she wouldn’t check too closely. The email said:
“Dear Katya and Everyone
By now you will all know that I am the father of Katya’s baby. I have been shirking my responsibility for nearly two weeks, but have now faced up to it and am going to do my duty by Katya. Once we are both sixteen, I will marry her and we can live at my mum and dad’s until we leave school and can afford our own place.
I would like to invite you all to a meeting to discuss how Katya and I are going to support our baby. [I named a time and a place.]
I know you will all be happy for us, and look forward as much as I do to this new addition.
It was a risk, because if Katya showed it to anyone like my mum, or her mum, it would get blown sky high and I would be up shit creek, but our hope was that it wouldn’t get that far.
I hit send on the email, and Baggo and I sat and played on the X-box while we listened to the silence on my phone as the texts stopped. After about fifteen minutes my phone rang. Katya.
‘What the fuck have you done, you dickhead? You’ve told my mum, and your mum.’
‘But I thought that was what you wanted. You wanted all those things, the dress and the watch, I thought it was for our new life together, so our baby has nice things around it –’
‘You spaz, there is no baby. But now our parents think there is and they are going to to ape-shit. My dad might actually kill me, and then he’ll come and kill you.’
I high-fived Baggo as I spoke. It had worked.
‘What? There’s no baby?’
I tried to put a suitable amount of hurt confusion into my voice.
‘No, you dick, there never was.’
‘Katya, are you telling me you lied about us doing it, just so you could get stuff like a dress and a watch?’
‘So? Your dad’s rich, he can well afford it.’
‘That … that’s really cruel. And now I’ve told everyone. There’s going to be a lot of explaining to do.’
‘Everyone will think I’m, like, a total slag.’
‘Oh that’s terrible. Maybe I’d feel worse about it if it wasn’t so true. Bye Katya. Check the email addresses.’
I’d recorded the whole thing so she couldn’t go back on it and use my email against me, but I didn’t actually want her telling her mum, who would be bound to tell my mum and things might come to light that would be best remaining in the dark.
I felt a huge weight slip from my shoulders, and knew that I had more to be grateful to Baggo for than just coming to get me when I texted him from a party he hadn’t been invited to.
‘You, Jacob Bagwell, are a sodding genius.’
‘Aw shucks. She had it bloody coming. She throws her weight around way too much.’
‘Pleasure. Are you done now?’
‘Taking out your angst on girlkind?’
‘Don’t know what you mean.’
‘Yeah you do. Since Chrissie left, you’ve been this, like, moody git; you go from one girl to another, spreading the hate. This was an accident waiting to happen. It’s like you don’t care. You’ve always cared, it’s one of your least appealing traits, that you’ve never just been one for copping a quick feel when you could make them a hot chocolate or do their, like, bloody ironing or something. I blame your bloody family, bunch of caring tosser blokes like your uncle and your whatever you call him, Dec, always running about making sure their women are warm or comfortable or whatever. It sets a bad example, and you’ve always been like that, but since Chrissie, you’re more like … you’re more like me. You don’t wanna be like me.’
‘What are you on? I’m nothing like you. I have way more success.’
‘You’re much more popular with the ladies than I am. You should treat them better. Don’t let this kind of Katya thing happen again. Forget her, she’s trouble.’
‘Leave her to you, you mean?’
‘If you like. I’ll take her off your hands, make her forget all about you.’
It was just posturing and banter now, and I appreciated what Baggo was doing for me. I heard what he said, too. He was right, I’d got a bit lost in my sadness and anger over Chrissie, and I knew deep down that the way I’d been wasn’t really how I wanted to be.
The next day at school was interesting, as Katya, Florence and Milly all pretended they didn’t know me and didn’t care who I was, while I got on with my school work without having to check my phone every two minutes. Baggo seemed determined to be my guardian angel, or maybe he’d suddenly decided he had a thing for the Holy Trinity after all, as he went all out to bag one of them for himself. He nearly succeeded, managing to secure a date with Milly who then stood him up.
It was the end of Callous Cal, and to be honest, I was glad to see the back of him. I didn’t really have the heart for it; Baggo was right, I was much better at making hot chocolate than breaking hearts, although I will not admit to ever doing anyone’s ironing, least of all my own. Trouble was, I didn’t have anyone to make hot chocolate for except my mum. I supposed she would have to do for now.
‘Hey gorgeous woman. I’ve got some free cuddles, if you’re interested.’
‘Hi flower. Yeah, always interested in free stuff.’
‘Come here then, you’re going to have to work for your freebies.’
I wrapped Lau up in my arms and kissed her. I had news.
‘Oh for pity’s sake, Lau, I didn’t even get half way through the door.’
‘Stop moaning about how well I know you, and just tell me.’
I sighed, she was no fun at all, oh except when she was being very fun indeed, but right now, when I wanted to string it out a bit, tease her, nope, no enjoyment to be had there in any way.
‘OK then, you clever cow, but I might charge you for the cuddle now.’
‘Hm. What’s your price?’
‘A snog with tongues, an arse grope and a nipple pinch.’
‘Blimey, your cuddles don’t come cheap.’
She got going on the arse groping, and I hoped the rest would shortly follow. The kids were having an afternoon out with Mum and April, and we had a good hour before they came back.
‘No, the whole Matt Scott package comes in pretty expensive these days. With a ten per cent price hike as of today.’
Lau looked at me, confused.
‘What do you mean? Ten per cent of snog with tongues would be …’
‘No you daft bat. Bloody hell, I thought I just called you a clever cow. I said the ‘whole Matt Scott package’, as in my net worth, as in Raiders just gave me a ten per cent pay rise. Although, obviously, ten per cent of snog with tongues is nibbled earlobes.’
Lau’s eyes widened in surprise and delight, and not just about the prospect of nibbling my earlobes. Raiders already paid me pretty well, and there were bonuses attached which helped, as I worked hard and met my targets, and now Raiders had won the League again, they were able to dish out pay rises. We had been managing before, but Lau had been thinking about going back to work to make things easier. Now she wouldn’t have to. She did a little dance, and hugged me tightly.
‘Oh, flower, that’s great. Have you got to work longer hours, though?’
‘No, same hours. Lau, this means you can stay put, not go back, if you don’t want to.’
‘Well it does, but I’m still not sure. The kids will be going to school in a couple of years, and I don’t know what I’d do with myself. Maybe we should be earning a bit of a cushion.’
‘Do you want to go back to work?’
I knew the answer. She’d thought she’d miss it when she left to have the babies, but her maternity leave had been stretched as thin as she could stretch it, and then she took unpaid leave, and now she admitted she didn’t really want to return. I also knew she felt guilty about not earning money, but I had the answer to that one all ready.
‘I feel like I should.’
‘And who would look after Josh and Ella?’
‘Well, Mum would, maybe one day a week. Beth has offered. And there’s this really good nursery near the airport.’
‘So you’d go to work so we could pay someone to look after them while you’re at work?’
‘It’s crazy Lau, if you don’t really want to. Look, we’ve always said in it together, haven’t’ we? Doesn’t that mean we share everything? Like, we take it in turns to empty the dishwasher, or you use my razor to shave your legs and I don’t complain when it shreds my face the next day, or you spend all day looking after our kids and we share the money I earn.’
‘Yeah, I know, flower. It just … something doesn’t feel right about actually saying ‘I’m giving up working’. Like I’m a scrounger or something.’
I understood where she was coming from. Lau had a strong work ethic, and didn’t like doing nothing, or feeling like she was doing nothing when she was actually running around like a blue arsed fly keeping us all together. I was about to play my trump card.
‘But how about if there was something to keep you busy once Ella and Josh go to school?’
She looked at me, a slight frown on her face as she wondered what the fuck I was going to suggest.
‘Like, oh I don’t know –’
I bent down and kissed her, gently, pushing her hair away from her face and running my hand down her side to her fine arse.
‘– how about another baby?’
She pushed away from me slightly, so she could look in my eyes and see if I meant it. I so meant it.
I was still nursing my own broken heart, and once the summer holidays came round, I just wanted to shut myself away and forget everything, but we were going on one of our enormous family holidays. It was part two of something similar we’d done a few years previously, and maybe a continuation of something that had begun before that, a few years after we moved back down to the city. That first time, there hadn’t been so many of us. We’d gone to France: Mum and Dad, me and Iz, Dec and Amy, Gran, Rose, Nico and Lis, and Matty. Which made eleven of us. Then, years later, Matty and Dad fell out about something, and when they made it up, they decided to go to France again, only this time ‘everyone’ was Mum and Dad, me and Iz, Matty and Lau with Josh and Ella, Dec and Amy with Charlie, Tom and Gracie on the way, Nico, Lis and Basty, Granny, Rose, Diane and April. Nineteen and a half people. It’s hard to believe our family had almost doubled in just a few years.
By the time we did it again, though, that summer when we went to Spain and I was trying to forget Chrissie, a few had dropped off. Diane and April had decided that much as they loved cuddling grandchildren, the rest of us were too raucous to be around for too long. Nico, Lis and Basty couldn’t make it either, so it was just Mum and Dad, me and Iz, Matty and Lau with Josh and Ella, Dec and Amy with Charlie, Tom, Gracie and Rosa, Gran and Rose. ‘Only’ sixteen of us.
I would like to say I tried my hardest to get in the holiday mood, that I joined in with games and trips and helped with the little kids, but in truth I shut myself away in my room with my phone and my Nintendo and my ‘doom and gloom music’, as Rose used to call it, and gave everyone a hard time. Not that I was allowed to dwell in any way, not with the self-styled comedy duo that was Matt Scott and Declan Summers to tease and cajole me into coming out of my room (they pretended to be filming a documentary about an elusive animal, they did a whole circus act in my room, they sat and told ‘knock knock’ jokes, until I gave in and left the room for dinner, just to make them stop). But I was in pain, and I didn’t know what to do about it, and no one seemed to notice.
I hadn’t heard from Chrissie in all this time, but I’d been hanging on to the belief that she’d cave and text or call in the summer, maybe come down to see me, and things could go back to how they were. The longer the summer went on and she didn’t contact me, the more I had to face it, that she wasn’t going to, that we really were over. I missed her more than ever.
Slowly, though, once I’d accepted it, I started to get over it. I had a bit of a reputation, inside the family, of being a grumpy little git, not only at that time, but beforehand. I suppose I did whinge quite a lot, but I really, really hated being the oldest of a whole bunch of little kids. Not only the oldest by a year or two, like Iz was, but oldest by six or seven years. Just as I was getting to be what I thought was ‘grown up’, I was lumbered at any family get together with all these little dweebs who just wanted to ruin all my stuff. I was always being made to let them go on my X-box, or play with my iPod, or worse, play their games.
Perhaps, if I’m absolutely honest, I was envious of them as a group. They all got on so well together, and even though I was hurting from Chrissie that time in Spain, I couldn’t hack the thought of being used as a free childminder, expected to build sandcastles and give piggy backs while the ‘real’ grown ups sat on the beach and read books.
‘Hey Unca Matty. Newsflash from the Summers house.’
‘Well don’t keep me in suspenders, man.’
‘Baby no. 4 on the way.’
‘No shit! Congrats, I think! U moving to a mansion?’
‘LOL no but extension on the cards. Come over ltr 2 cele?’
‘No, A’s puking @ cooking meat.’
‘LOL. Pizza. No pepperoni tho.’
‘We’ll b there. ❤ 2 Amy x’
Some of it got better as I got over Chrissie. Some of it got better as I got older, and realised my family, all of it, was pretty great. A lot of it was helped by a few well-chosen words from Dec, one evening when he asked me over for pizza.
Amy had gone out, and he called up and invited me over for a ‘boys night in’, which also included Matty and Nico. I was really chuffed, feeling part of the gang for once. There was a bit of teasing, mostly about me not being old enough to drink beer, although Matty had been giving me beer since I was really young, but as they all teased each other about other stuff, I didn’t mind. You didn’t stand a chance in our family if you minded being teased, although I didn’t always let on how little I really minded.
We’d been there a while, watching a DVD, eating pizza, drinking coke. The DVD finished, Matty and Nico took some pizza boxes and beer bottles out to the kitchen, and Dec turned to me.
‘It’s great having you here, mate, thanks for coming.’
I looked at him, surprised.
‘Sure thing. Good pizza.’
‘Great to see you smile, mate.’
‘What do you mean? I smile all the time.’
‘Not all the time, eh? Maybe you feel a bit grumpy, more often than not.’
I shrugged, the teenager’s stock response to being confronted.
‘All I’m saying, Cal, is look like you’re fucking enjoying things a bit more, and maybe we can do things like this more often, just the boys.’
It resonated with advice Rose had given me in Spain, but I really didn’t like being told how to feel, especially when it felt like I was being offered a bribe.
‘What, you mean grin for my pizza?’
‘No, I didn’t mean that. I just meant you’re great to be around, a good mate, and I’ve had a laugh this evening. We can do it again sometime, if you like.’
‘As long as I’m a cheery bastard?’
‘Well, it wouldn’t hurt, would it? I know it’s not easy with all the kids, you being the oldest. Just wondered if you fancied being the youngest every now and then, with us old tossers?’
I gave him an honest smile then, not one that had been bought. He’d got it. Fuck knows how, but Dec, who had never had any brothers or sisters, younger or older, got how it was for me, and knew how to make at least some of it better. Somehow, just knowing that was another part of the jigsaw slotting into place
Another piece was that I went on rugby camps when I got back from Spain, started doing more training in the week, as well as my schoolwork, immersed myself in brain work and muscle work, and decided that there was more to life than girls. More to life than one particular girl, at any rate. I was still a bloke, and girls still turned my head to some degree, but they were low on my priority list. I think that’s how Ayesha got in under my radar. I didn’t notice she was a girl, not at first.
That sounds terrible. Sorry, Ayesh. You are the womanliest of women, and were the girliest of girls, I just wasn’t in that place where I wanted to notice. That’s what I think I meant.