138. PS I love you

In which life goes on, and hidden messages are found.

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Laura

The next week passed, somehow. Arrangements were made, forms were signed, people took me here there and everywhere and asked my opinion about churches and flowers and coffins and songs, and I kept telling them, it’s all written down, Matt knew what he wanted, no church, no sad faces, no black, balloons, silly songs; Darth Vader, Joy Division Oven Gloves. That was what he wanted. It was all written down.

There was a gathering, everyone was there, they said things about Matt, they said things to me, none of it stayed with me because there wasn’t room for any of it in my head. All there was room for was this huge scream, this enormous cry of rage, this whirlwind of loss. Of course, eventually the whirlwind died down, and the cry diminished to a whisper, and the scream became a moan, and then there was room for other things, for other people, and I saw that they’d been holding me all this time. And although the whisper and the moan were always with me, I started to cover them up with the rest of the world.

Cal

Looking back, although things didn’t instantly change for Lau, perhaps they started to. A few days later she started to call a few people, then she’d stay in the room when people visited, and after a while, she was back, Lau again. Not happy, still grieving, but noticeably herself.

Dec took longer. He came out of his silent mode, but didn’t seem able to concentrate on anything. When you talked to him, his eyes would wander all over the place, and you often had to repeat yourself a few times before he got what you were saying. He forgot arrangements, and got things wrong. None of it was good for his business, which needed someone in charge. Tom did a lot of the techy stuff, and also took over the contact part, but there were people who needed to deal with Dec, and if it didn’t start happening soon, it was looking shaky for Linebreak.

Dad, well it was sometimes difficult to see when Dad was withdrawn, because he was never one of life’s socialisers. But he just had this air of, like, an old teddy which had lost some of it’s stuffing. All the plans he and Mum had made to travel had been put on hold, and he spent even more time than usual lying on the sofa flicking through the sports channels. He started to put on weight, because he wasn’t getting any exercise now he wasn’t running around a training ground every day, and it was driving Mum nuts. Dad was so used to her going on that nothing she said made any difference to him.

Gran was amazing. She is so stoic, so practical about everything. I can’t imagine, don’t want to imagine, what it must be like to lose your youngest son, and I’m not saying she wasn’t upset, but she just carried on with things, saying ‘well, dear, life goes on, doesn’t it’ and ‘Matthew would have been annoyed if I’d moped about’. She didn’t get around as well as she used to, and we all made an extra effort to call and see her, keep her in the middle of everything that went on, because we knew without her having to say it that not having Matty around caused her a lot of pain.

Me? I coped. Life went on, because no one really has a choice about that. Uni was hard, for several weeks, especially as I’d really only just started, and I couldn’t concentrate that well and failed an assignment. But none of that really mattered, it was just stuff. As we’d all known would happen, the family all helped each other. Led by Mum, and her ‘open house’ policy with additional gatherings for cake and meals and coffee, we saw a lot of each other, did a lot of crying and a lot of laughing, and a lot of mending. I held my kids extra tight and tried not to imagine what it might be like to lose them.

Lau started coming out a bit, Josh and Ella felt OK about leaving her on her own, although they both lived at the house for the time being. Josh had officially moved out, but he wanted to stay with his mum for a while. Ella hadn’t finished globe-trotting, and was waiting a while to plan her next move. Her next move seemed to very much depend on Basty’s next move.

The two of them had finally come clean about seeing each other – well it had been pretty obvious for weeks, and Chrissie said she’d had a feeling for months – and although a part of me felt like it was a bit weirdly ‘in the family’ kind of thing, well they weren’t actually related, so if they didn’t feel weird what right did I to?

The only problem really was that they lived in different countries. Basty was yet another family rugby pro, but he was currently based in Buenos Aires. These things were always negotiable, and Basty was currently in his off-season, so was staying with Ella while they discussed things.

Laura

Ella and Josh had stayed at the house, and a couple of months after Matt died, a weird message popped up on my phone. It wasn’t a text, more like a reminder.

‘PP laptop L=Gt^2/s^4’

I wasn’t sure where it had come from, and it freaked me out a bit. I called Tom.

‘Hey Lau. How’s things?’

‘Oh, getting there Tom. How about you? Been busy?’

‘Yeah, tons of emails today. Dad’s been busy the last week.’

‘That’s great, I’m glad he’s getting out and about again.’

‘Yeah. Me and Mum had a word with him, told him if the business went under, it wasn’t much of a memorial for Matty. Did the trick, I think.’

‘I’m glad. It’s been tough for all of you.’

‘And you, Lau.’

‘Tom, I’ve had a strange message come on my phone. I thought it was a text at first, but there’s no number; it’s more like from within the phone, like a calendar thing. But I didn’t put it there. I’m a bit worried, I don’t know if someone’s hacked my phone or something.’

‘What does it say?’

I told him what the message said.

‘Hm. Not sure what to make of that. Those letters and numbers are ringing a bell, it’s an equation or a formula or something, I’ve seen it before somewhere. Has anyone else had access to your phone?’

‘No, I always have it with me. I had it at Cal’s the other day and Lily was playing with it, but she wouldn’t have known how to do that, would she?’

‘Doubt it. Doesn’t PP mean someone’s signed something on your behalf?’

‘I think so, but that still makes no sense.’

I’d hoped Tom would be able to put my mind at rest; I hated techy things I didn’t understand, and usually stuck to the things I knew how to do. Without Matt nearby to sigh exaggeratedly, roll his teasing eyes and help me out, blips like this made me feel uneasy, and I worried about some faceless hacker stealing all my money.

‘Have you checked the laptop? Maybe you’ve got an email, some kind of automated delivery note or something? Have you ordered anything online?’

‘No, but I suppose Josh or Ella might have done. But it’s not a message, there’s no ‘to’ or ‘from’. Hang on, I’ll just check my emails … no there’s nothing that fits.’

‘Hmm. Alright then, how about files? Is there a PP file?’

‘Oh, do you think that’s what it is? A file?’

‘It might be. Worth checking.’

‘What if it’s a virus?’

I didn’t really understand how viruses worked, although Matt had explained it enough times (with my eyes glazing over before he’d got more than a minute into it).

‘Ha ha, Lau, it would have to be a more sophisticated virus than I knew had been invented to be able to access your phone and your laptop independently and then link them with a message. But you never know. Do you want me to come over, check it out?’

‘Oh that would be lovely, flower, but don’t rush over, come when you’ve got a moment.’

‘OK, I’ll be there in a bit, I’ll run that equation thing past Rosa, she’ll know what it means.’

Tom came over that evening. Josh had just got in, and was making himself a snack, and Ella was watching TV. I put the laptop on the kitchen table, and Tom sat down and looked through the menus. I heard his sudden intake of breath.

‘Here it is. PP. What’s in it, Lau?’

Josh looked up from his sandwich.

‘What’s this?’

‘Your mum got a weird messagy thing on her phone today, telling her to check a file on the laptop, and some other stuff. A bit freaky. Oh, I asked Rosa about the equation, she said she didn’t recognise it, but she’s on the case, checking the net and that. Here we are then, yep, it’s password protected. I bet those numbers are the password. Have you ever seen it before, Lau?’

‘No, but then I haven’t delved too deeply into the inner workings of the laptop. All I ever needed to know was the web address for the online food shop, and where all the photos were.’

‘What do you want to do? Open it?’

‘Could it be a virus?’

‘I really don’t think so, but it’s up to you. I can run it through the virus checker if you want.’

‘There’s a virus checker?’

Tom tutted and shook his head, much as his uncle would have done.

‘Yeah, Lau. You need to keep it updated. Josh, sort it for your mum.’

‘Or maybe you could show me another time, Tom? I should learn I suppose.’

Josh had been brilliant, I don’t know how I would have coped without him these last few weeks, but it was time I started doing things for myself and took some responsibilities away from him.

A tone on Tom’s phone blared out. He rolled his eyes.

‘Sorry, Rosa made me put that on because I’m always telling her I didn’t hear my phone when she texts me. Oh, she’s found it, she says it’s the equation for love.’

‘What? That makes no sense.’

‘No, wait a minute, Josh. The only people who would have been able to put a reminder on my phone recently are you and Ella, or maybe, when he was feeling up to it …’

‘Dad?’

My heart had started to pound. What had he done? How had he done it?

‘Open it, Tom. Put the password in. Ella!’

‘Yeah?’

‘Come and look.’

Ella appeared at the kitchen door.

‘What?’

‘I’m not sure yet. Tom?’

‘There are some files. This one says ‘Letters to Philpotts’, this one says ‘For You, Lau’. The other one says ‘In the event of my demise’. Oh, it’s a video file.’

‘Whoa. Open it, then.’

‘No. Wait.’

I sat down, suddenly.

‘I don’t know if I can.’

‘Actually, Lau, I think I should go. This is just for you guys. It’s not a virus. Looks like Matty’s left you a message. Double click here if you want to play it.’

I grabbed Tom’s hand and squeezed.

‘Thanks, flower.’

‘Bye, Lau. Let me know how it goes.’

Josh and Ella sat either side of me, and we all looked at the little icon, with the heading ‘In the event of my demise’.

All kinds of feelings were whirling around inside me. I didn’t know if I could cope with a video. I had hardly been able to bear to look at a photo of Matt. But I also couldn’t bear to not see it, to see him moving, alive again, if indeed that was what the video was of. For all I knew it was his favourite YouTube clips, of animals falling over and footballers scoring own goals, to give us a laugh. I looked at Ella and Josh. They looked nervous, but gave no other sign of what they wanted me to do.

‘Well?’

‘Your choice, Mum.’

‘Yeah, like Josh says, totally up to you. When you’re ready, if you ever are.’

I looked at them. They both looked like they were trying hard not to appear too keen in case they influenced me. I took a deep breath.

‘OK, let’s do it.’

I double clicked on the icon. The screen blacked out for a few seconds, then slowly brightened up to reveal Matt sitting up in bed, a smile on his face. I felt Ella’s and Josh’s hands grip mine. It was so, so good to see his lovely face again, to look into his big grey eyes. I’d forgotten what a startling colour they were, how they crinkled at the corners as if remembering all the times he’d ever smiled and laughed. How could I have forgotten? Then he spoke.

‘Heh guys. Sohry if this is a bih frehky, kind of whoo, beyond the gravey type of thing, oh, ha ha, beyond the gravy, sohnds lihk ohn of Beth’s roast dinners. Buh I digress. OK. Well, hehrs the thing. I wahnt suhr I’d geh tuh say goodbye, yuh never know, and chances ahr I’ll beh first tuh peg ih, soh hehr ih is. Bye guys. Yuh hahv behn the most awesohm, fucking amazing fahmly a blohk could have wished fuh.

Josh, Ella, sohry yuhr old dad’s such a fucking crihpl. Yuhr mum signed up fuh ih, she kind of knew wha she was letting herself in fuh, buh yuh guys, I, well, if I could hahv spared yuh seeing meh lihk this, I would hahv. I’m soh proud of yuh both, yuhr the best kids. Hippo, if yuh dohnt play fuh England I’m cohming bahk tuh haunt yuh. Squeaks, if yuh dohnt becohm a pahtner in a top law firm, expec a visit from zombeh dad. I lohv yuh both soh much, yuhv made my lihf complete. OK, kids, if yuh could both jus pretend not tuh listen, I wana talk tuh yuhr mum.

Lau. Heh Lau. Fuck, I lohv yuh soh much. Never, ever stopped lohving yuh. Yuhr in my bluhd. Dohnt think I can say goodbye tuh yuh, maybeh dohnt nehd tuh, we’ll beh hohding hahnds fuhever. I know I’ve been a miserable bastahd a loh of the tihm I’ve been wih yuh, buh I’ve always behn hahpy, inside, soh hahpy because I’ve goh yuh. Dohnt know wha the fuck I’d hahv done wihouh yuh. Yuhr soh sexy, Lau, I only hahv tuh see yuh smile, or bend over an … well depends wha state my bluhdy nether regions are in, buh yuh know wha I mehn. We’ve had sohm greht tihms, hahvn’t weh, sohm awesome sex, sohm awesome lohv, some awesome kids. I wish there’d behn mohr, of all of ih. I fucking hate this bastahd MS foh taking meh away from yuh. Buh I’ve kind of goh tuh lohv ih a bih, cos I migh not hahv met yuh if I hadn’t had ih.

OK kids, yuh can listen again, I’ve finished ghost-flirting wih yuh mum. I bet yuh wehr listening anyway, wehrnt yuh. I know ih’s not cool fuh mums an dads tuh say they lohv each other an hahv sex, buh weh duh, when conditions allow, an ih’s greht. Yuh know, I was a bih of a lad in my day, lohs of ladies befohr yuhr mum, not tha I’m proud of ih or anything, buh I thoht one day I migh shahr my experiences, kind of a learning thing. No chance now, too late. Ask yuhr mum, tho. An maybeh Rach. Oh, an fuh further insights intuh wha I thoht when I was younger, read the Philpotts letters. Lau, duh yuh remember? How fucking frehked I was? Sehms lihk centuries agoh.

OK, guys, I’m gona stop wittering now, befohr yuh fall aslehp. Jus nehded tuh say, I lohv yuh all, an I’m gona miss yuh, if I’m sohmwehr missing’s an option.’

Matt blew a kiss towards the screen and it faded to black.

I sat back in the chair, unable to name all the emotions that were assaulting me. I breathed out, only then realising I’d been holding my breath in for the almost the entire duration of the video. Josh and Ella were still holding my hands; I risked a look at their faces. Ella had a few tears on her cheeks. Josh looked a bit dazed.

‘When the fuck did he do that, Mum?’

I shook my head. ‘I don’t know, Josh. It looks like a little while ago.’

‘It must have been after I got back from Sri Lanka. He’s wearing that t-shirt I brought him.’

‘That was awesome. Are you OK, Mum?’

I thought about it. It had felt very strange seeing Matt, but in a way it had released something. I hadn’t talked about him, or wanted to see pictures of him; I had found it hard to say his name, and had often left the room if people were talking about him. But seeing him there, on a screen, made me miss him so much, I wanted more. I wanted to see all the photos, hear all the stories.

‘Yeah. It was just a bit strange, seeing him.’

‘I know what you mean. He did say ‘whoo beyond the gravy’. You OK, Ella?’

Ella nodded. ‘Do you think there’s any more hidden anywhere?’

‘I don’t know, my love. If anyone could have hidden them, your dad could, but I wouldn’t have a clue where to look. We’ll just have to see if any more messages pop up. But I don’t think it’s likely. That was goodbye, wasn’t it.’

‘Maybe Tom can look?’

Ella looked hungry for more.

‘Well we can ask, but I don’t want you to be disappointed.’

I had an idea, something that might satisfy all of our hunger for more of Matt.

‘What about this other thing, the thing that’s for you?’

I had a feeling that Matt didn’t want the children seeing whatever it was, so I took Ella’s hand and brushed her hair back from her face.

‘I’ll look later, my love. I should think it’s just some silly poem or something. I’ll let you see once I’ve looked.’

Ella looked so disappointed that I told her what I was thinking.

‘How about we get all the old photos out? Your dad used to make albums of special occasions, and there are loads on the computer and the iPad. We can have a good old reminisce. There must some other old bits of video around as well.’

Ella nodded, and Josh said ‘Awesome.’

I left Josh to find the photos on the laptop, while Ella searched through the iPad. I delved in the back of the wardrobe, where the old albums were kept. There weren’t any recent ones, but there were several large books, each labelled with Matt’s curly handwriting, showing the date and events held in the books. The bottom one was our wedding album. I carried them all downstairs, to find Josh and Ella laughing at some of the pictures they’d found.

‘I can’t believe you used to wear this, Mum.’

‘Hey, that was my best dress. Your dad used to say it showed off … well, certain assets.’

‘Yeah, it certainly does. You tart!’

‘Ella Elizabeth Scott, that’s no way to speak to your mother. I can still just about fit in that dress.’

‘What? You’ve still got it? Oh you so have to let me have it, I’ve got a party in a few weeks, I’d be the talk of the town. Or call-girl of the week – oh, is that your wedding album? I haven’t seen that for years.’

I put the folders on the table and opened the first one, my heart contracting as Matt and I smiled out of the pages, more than twenty years younger, many hairstyles ago in my case, the same dishevelled hairstyle in Matt’s.

‘This isn’t your wedding.’

‘No, it’s before. We got married a few months after we met, so Dad decided to do a, oh what did he call it, before and after or something. This is on top of Gap Hill. I was nearly dead, that’s why I look so red faced. Your dad had marched me up the top, wouldn’t listen to me telling him I needed to rest, and practically had to carry me back down. I let him go hiking on his own, or at least with people who didn’t need a full resus kit with them, after that.’

‘Where’s this one?’

‘That’s your dad’s swanky flat in Avondale. I think this was the day I moved my stuff in, that’s me under a heap of cushions. He didn’t really approve of girly touches, and he piled them all on me as a protest. I managed to scatter a few here and there, despite him, though.’

‘Is that … Rach? Didn’t Dad say something about Rach in his vid? Mum? Spill.’

‘Oh, yeah, I’d almost forgotten. Before I met your dad, I knew him a bit by reputation. He was a bit of a … hm, how can I put it politely … womaniser. That’s not polite, but that was his reputation. I used to see him at parties and clubs, at a distance, making the moves on the hot ones; he left with a different girl every time.’

‘No way. Dad? No, no way.’

‘Yes way, Ella. Anyway, a couple of years before I met him properly, he’d, er, oh it feels strange telling you this. It was a very long time ago, long before he met me, he was different, he’d changed by the time we got together. But he’d had a one night stand with Rach, and –’

‘Mum! Rach? Rach of Jed and Rach? Fat Rach?’

‘Ella! That’s a horrible thing to say. Rach is larger than she used to be, but most of us are. But yes, Rach of Jed and Rach. At the time I first knew him, there weren’t many women I knew who hadn’t had a one night stand with him, or that’s how it felt sometimes.’

‘Dad, you dog!’

‘Thank you, Josh. Anyway, I think that’s what your dad meant, that there were witnesses to how he used to be. It’s not how he was when he was with me, though.’

‘Is this your first Christmas?’

‘Yes. We were at Jay and Beth’s for most of the day, but this was first thing in the morning. It snowed, and, look, you can see the view behind us from the window over the moors, it was so beautiful.’

‘Were we on our way by now?’

‘Yes, I suppose you must have been, just about, but neither of us knew about it, I didn’t find out until a few weeks after Christmas. Then we got married a week later. It was completely mad.’

I smiled to myself as I remembered the whirlwind.

‘Things didn’t really calm down – well ever I suppose, there’s always been something going on.’

‘Oh! This is Dad in his kilt. Have you still got it? He looks awesome, so does Jay. God, doesn’t Jay look young. Dad doesn’t look much different. He’s a bit heavier here, isn’t he, but he never lost his hair. Few more wrinkles I suppose.’

‘Yeah, I’ve still got the kilt. It was his own father’s.’

‘Oh for fuck’s sake. Ella, look at this, Dad displaying all. Put it away, Dad.’

‘You’ve seen these before, haven’t you?’

‘I think I must have blotted these ones from my memory. He wasn’t shy, was he.’

‘Not specially. He was quite proud of the fact he went commando under the kilt, while Jay opted for boxers.’

‘Aw, is this your first dance?’

‘No, that’s later. The first dance was the one where he’s displaying all, it was a fast folky thing with lots of twirling.’

‘You look so into each other.’

‘Yeah, we were. Always.’

‘Aw, Mum.’

Ella took my hand and squeezed.

‘Ooh, gay Paree.’

‘Yep, that’s the view from our hotel balcony. Jay paid for our honeymoon, it was a beautiful hotel.’

‘Is this us?’

Josh pointed to the ultrasound picture. I looked at it, and everything flooded back like it was yesterday.

‘Oh bloody hell, Mum, you’ve gone all sloppy.’

‘Yeah, your first baby picture. I’ve got the DVD somewhere.’

‘Have a look for it later, that’d be awesome. Which one’s me, and which one’s Josh?’

‘We couldn’t tell, you were too cosy with each other.

‘Can you imagine being all snuggled up so close to me, Hippo?’

‘No thanks, Ella. You dig me in the ribs enough as it is. I bet I was black and blue when I came out. I was first, I should think I was trying to escape.’

‘More like I pushed you out to get some peace for a bit.’

‘Well you both made enough noise when you were reunited. Look at this one, you’re both yelling your heads off.’

‘Aw, doesn’t Dad look proud.’

‘He was, he always was, but he was so happy the day you were born. Although he nearly missed it, being out on the lash.’

‘What?’

‘He was at a stag do, you came a few weeks early, he had to do an emergency dash back home. I’ve told you this loads of times before.’

‘Yeah, but I like hearing it. Didn’t Dec have to break in or something?’

‘No, he didn’t break in, he was yelling to me through the letter box, then he had to help get me down the stairs, and drove Matt’s car to the hospital because your dad was a bit the worse for wear. We were lucky you weren’t born in the back of the car. Your dad would never have forgiven me if I’d got afterbirth on his seats.’

‘Who’s this with Lis? Oh, that’s never bloody Nico! He’s got hair! Lis looks exactly the same. Is that Basty? Get him to text me, Ella, we were going to play that new online battle thing together.’

‘Oh, Mum, who are all these babies? There’s tons. Oh, that’s me and Josh, isn’t it? And this is – is it Cal? He looks so grumpy.’

‘Yeah, he would have been about twelve. He was pretty much grumpy from when I first knew him, until he was about fifteen, and from then he was pretty much how he is now, laid back and gentle. He really didn’t like being the oldest, as you can see. There’s you and Hippo, you’re about six months – I think this was the only Christmas Beth didn’t do it at her house. We had it here and up the road – look, there’s the corner of the Christmas tree. Charlie was nearly two, Tom was nearly one, Iz would have been about five and Basty was about eighteen months. You were all so cute, it was chaos. Oh, and here are the grown ups.’

‘Oh, is that Rose? God I miss Rose. We had the best chats.’

‘She loved seeing you, my love. I know Dec always appreciated you going to see her.’

‘You make it sound like it was a favour. I just really liked her.’

‘I know, Squeaks, that’s what’s so lovely.’

‘We’ve got a crazy family, haven’t we?’

‘Absolutely bonkers.’

‘Oh, here’s Granny Carol and Nana April. Looking sprightly.’

‘I promised Nana April I’d go and sort out her tax thingy.’

‘Good girl. Thank you. Josh, have you been to do Carol’s garden recently?’

‘Yeah, I went with Tom on Tuesday. She’s bloody amazing, Mum, I know her hands are all gnarled up and shit, but she’s still living there on her own. Tom said Cal and Jay were trying to persuade her to go and live with Jay and Beth, but she wouldn’t hear of it.’

‘Carol’s got the Scott stubborn streak.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, like Ella.’

‘Hey. I’m not stubborn. I just know my own mind and don’t take any shit from people.’

‘Oh, silly me, I thought that was what stubborn meant.’

‘No, Josh, stubborn is when you carry on doing something even though you know it’s wrong, or don’t do something when you know you should, just because someone’s told you what you ought to do. Like, for example, asking a certain girl out.’

‘Piss off, Ella.’

‘Hey, stop that, you two. A certain girl, Josh?’

‘Nothing, Mum. Just Ella sticking her beak in. Oh look, Dec and Amy’s wedding. Ha ha, Cal looks grumpy again – ooh, hang on, here’s another one of him with a girl. Go Cal.’

‘Aw, Iz and Charlie are so cute.’

‘They managed cute for about five minutes, then they were at each other’s throats all night.’

‘No change there, then. Oh my God, Dec looks so hot. He was the buffest when he was playing, wasn’t he. Lucky Amy. Aw, look at this one, Dec holding Charlie, and Amy holding Tom, all dancing together. Oh, is Gracie there as well, kind of, in Amy?’

‘Yes, she was on her way, she was kind of the reason for the wedding. Did you know Dec used to ask Amy to marry him all the time, for years? She always said yes, but they never made any plans, then Gracie was on her way, and suddenly it was all systems go.’

‘He still asks her.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah. Not all the time, but every so often.’

‘Ooh, spiffy beard Dad. What possessed him to grow that? It’s horrible.’

‘He was trying to see how long I would last before I made him shave it off. He got fed up with it itching before I did. I told him I was more stubborn than him, but I don’t think he believed me until then.’

‘Oh, this is that holiday in – oh, where did we go? Was it France or Spain? Huge villa thing, hundreds of us, complete anarchy.’

‘We had a couple like that, one in France, one in Spain, where everyone came. Then Dec went to Australia and we just never did it again when he came back. Maybe we should try again before everyone scatters.’

‘Oh, is that what all the cork hats are? When Dec went to Australia? I remember Facetiming Tom and there was this bloody enormous spider on the wall behind him, and I couldn’t say anything because I didn’t want to freak him out, but I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying, and I couldn’t stop looking at it.’

‘Oh, this is the party when they came back. Look at the smile on Dad’s face, he missed Dec, didn’t he.’

‘Yeah. I think Dec misses your dad now, too.’

‘Yeah. Well, we all do.’

‘Your dad had a special place in everyone’s heart. I wish he’d believed that a bit more.’

‘Oh, is this another Beth special?’

‘Yes, it’s Dec’s party when he retired from Raiders. And here’s one of him and your dad celebrating their first client in their new business.’

‘I remember this Christmas, going into the hospital to see him, the whole lot of us. We must have made such a racket.’

‘Ooh, you look cosy here, Mum, are you sure this one shouldn’t be censored?’

‘Ha ha, no, that’s our tenth anniversary. We spent the day in bed – don’t look at me like that, Ella, he wasn’t well enough to get up. But we went all over the world on the iPad.’

‘Oh, one of Dad’s virtual tours. I used to love when he did that, getting all sidetracked and going off to look at weird animals and star charts and old videos on YouTube and stuff.’

‘Here’s you, look, Josh, playing for mini-Raiders. Looks a bit cold.’

‘It was usually bloody freezing up there. This must have been before I broke my nose, look. Oh my God, Ella, however many different clashing colours could you be wearing? That is gross.’

‘It was a rainbow party.’

‘That’s not a rainbow, it looks like someone’s puked up a paint shop on you.’

‘Oh look, Cal’s wedding. Have we missed a load, Mum?’

‘No, I don’t think so. I don’t think we always took pictures, and your dad wasn’t always so finicky about putting them in albums in the last few years. There must be a lot on the computers that need sorting. I think that’s the last of them.’

‘Do you want me to take them back upstairs for you?’

‘No, my love, leave them here for a bit. I’ll have a bit of a wander down memory lane, I think. I’ll have a rummage on here as well. Thank you both, I think that was just what I needed.’

‘It’s always awesome to remember Dad with you, Mum.’

‘Yeah, Mum. We should get some of these blown up and framed. I’d like to have a couple, so I can take them with me wherever I am.’

Josh and Ella continued sorting through the pictures, deciding which ones they wanted copies of, which ones they thought should be framed, while I held the memories inside me.

This evening of looking back, beginning with the startling video, had unlocked something in me. I’d begun to lose that sense of ‘holding hands forever’, not feeling like I had anything to hold on to. Now I knew I had these memories, these pictures, all the time I’d spent with Matt, and I had our children. I could hold them all in my heart, and was never going to let go.

Much later, when Josh and Ella had both gone to bed, I was sitting on the sofa, laptop open, finger hovering over the mouse button, cursor poised over the ‘For you, Lau’ file.

Seeing the video earlier had been a bit of a roller-coaster, and I wasn’t sure that I had the strength for much more tonight, but looking at all the photographs with the children had made me miss Matt, and I wanted more of him. I would play the video again and again in the days to come, until I knew the words off by heart. For now, this was something unknown and a bit scary. I stared at the screen for a long time, until almost of its own volition, my finger double-clicked the file.

There were three folders. The top one was entitled ‘Read this first’. The next was ‘Really, Lau, only read this if you want to’. The last one was ‘Take a deep breath, it’s a long one’. I clicked on the first file. It was a document.

‘Hey Lau. I feel very secretive, hiding all this shit on the laptop for you to find. And I feel bad, because there’s something I’ve kept from you, something I’ve been doing that I should have told you about, but I thought I was going to finish it and then I could tell you, but I don’t think I am, now, at least not in the way I wanted to. Right then, before you worry any more about what I’ve been deceiving you about, it’s not really deceit, not technically, not unless your definition of deceit is not telling you about something. Oh, right, that is the definition. Bugger. Oh well, sorry. So what I’ve been doing is writing my story, from beginning to end, although it all got a bit rushed with recent events, and well, you might have to do the actual ending yourself, as I doubt I’ll be in a fit state. I’m no writer, and I’ve rambled on a lot, and you’re probably wondering why I’ve seen fit to take up laptop kilobytes – oh that’s right, you don’t know one end of a kilobyte from the other, but anyway, you’re probably wondering why I feel the need to unburden. It’s because of you, Lau. I want you to know just how awesome you are, how much you have changed my life for the better, what a truly fucking awesome time I have had with you and how much I owe you for the life I’ve had. I think, if I’m realistic (which you have taught me to be), I haven’t got long now, but I don’t have one single regret about the time I’ve spent with you and married to you – oh, except maybe letting you paint flowers on the garage door. But that’s it. So my story, although it starts off about other people, it ends up about you. You and me. And maybe you’re wondering why I decided to waste my time doing such a bloody stupid thing. This is the main thing I’ve kept from you. It’s not really that huge, it was a letter I got, that GreenScreen forwarded on to me, years ago. From Jules. I hadn’t even thought about her for years, and then suddenly there was this letter, with a note saying ‘I wrote this, and it’s about you. I thought you had a right to see it. Julia.’ Nothing else, as if she just sent me shit every day, and was likely to reply or as if I wasn’t likely to have moved on from GreenScreen bloody years ago. But she was a bit like that. Anyway. So I didn’t know what to do with it, and I never read it, I just shoved it in a box with all my other GreenScreen stuff, forgot about it. But about a year ago I was going through it all, chucking old shit away, and I came across it. And I started reading it. It was kind of her story, from when we got together until when we broke up, and I should have told you, I know I should, I’m sorry, I’ve never kept anything from you in my life before, but as I was reading it, it gave me an idea, that I wanted to tell you my story. I know, I’m a bit of a big-head, but if my middle name wasn’t Robert it would be Egotistical Prick. Oh, that’s two middle names, as befits an egotistical prick. But anyway, if I told you about the letter from Jules, I’d tell you about doing my story, they both seemed to go together, so I just got on with it, and I really thought I’d finish it and then I could tell you, and we could have a laugh, but now there’s no time, and I’ve done as much as I can, but I don’t have the energy to tell you now, and go over it all, analyse it all, I just want to finish this and stop. I hope you can forgive me.

I hope you find this, otherwise I’ve spent a large part of the last year or so getting up in the middle of the night for nothing, so I’ve cobbled together this devious system. I wasn’t going to tell you how I did it, but I’m so chuffed with myself I’m almost rubbing my hands together in glee and going ‘hee hee’ to myself like the oversized infant I am, and I can’t resist. OK, here’s what I’ve done. Now, I know that I might have to stop writing at any time, and not really have much control over what happens after that, so I wanted to make sure there was some kind of automatic message set up to point you in the right direction. I toyed with it saying ‘I love you Lau’, but didn’t want to freak you out totally, and I’ve said that lots, in many different ways, all over the bloody place anyway. So I hid these files on the laptop, in a folder where I was pretty sure no one would look, and wouldn’t have the password anyway, and set up that reminder on your phone, to go off three months after I set it, with a reminder for me a few weeks before, so that if I was still around, I could postpone it for another few weeks. If I wasn’t in a fit state to fuck about with your phone, then I wasn’t going to need to cancel it anyway, get my drift? Did you like the password, by the way? Have you worked it out? Oh, I’m pretty bloody sure you won’t have done, but Tom or Rosa will have it sussed by now.

I’ve mainly done this for you, but if you want to share it with the others, well there are bits in there that are just for them anyway, so that’s fine. You might want to censor some of my more graphic descriptions, or you may not. I know you’re pretty bloody open about sex and all that shit, so who knows. I’m not proud. Or rather, I bloody am proud of what we’ve had, but maybe the kids … oh fuck it, it would be bloody great if they knew the awesome lovin’ me and you have had. Whatever, it’s fine with me.

The thing from Jules really wasn’t a big deal – it really wasn’t, Lau, but I know how you used to get about Jules – however, I’ve saved it in the next file. If it makes you feel weird to read it, don’t. There’s some quite juicy stuff in there too, Jules would have made a good porno writer and I admit to cribbing some of her best stuff. But like I say, don’t worry if you don’t want to read it, it won’t make any difference. Delete it if you want to. The last file, though, I’ve spent the last year or so writing it, and if you could at least give it a little peek, that would be bloody awesome. You’re in there, more than half of it’s about you, and the rest of it is the build up to you.

Lau, you have been my anchor, my rock, my place of safety. I love you so much, I don’t know how I’m going to be able to leave you, but I don’t think I’m going to have any choice. I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you (repeat to fade).

Matt x’

I sat for a long time, reading and re-reading his words. I was feeling lots of things, some of which was anger that he’d kept all this from me in our last year. Matt always had his head buried in a computer, and I had never questioned what he might have been doing on it. I did feel deceived, and there was a part of me that was angry that I couldn’t yell at him about it or discuss it with him. But overwhelmingly what I felt was love. He might have left me, but he had left me with something; something solid.

It was nearly midnight, but I sat staring at the files, cursor hovering over them. I almost clicked the one that said ‘only read this if you want to’, but my courage deserted me just then, and I clicked the last one, the one that Matt had written for me. I started to read.

I was still reading when I heard footsteps down the stairs, and looked at the time. It was seven o’clock, and this would be Josh, coming down for breakfast, on his way to training. I shook my head, trying to come back to the real world. I’d been living in the past all night, it seemed. As Josh passed the living room, he saw me on the sofa.

‘Oh, hey Mum. You’re up early.’

‘Not quite.’

‘Huh?’

‘Haven’t been to bed.’

‘What?’

I gestured at the laptop.

‘Your dad left me a story. I’ve been reading it.’

Josh came in and sat next to me, peering at the screen.

‘You’ve been reading all night? What the fuck sort of story is it then?’

I frowned at Josh’s language but didn’t comment on it; it made as little difference when I did as when I’d commented on his father’s.

‘His story, his life.’

‘What? Let’s have a look.’

I suddenly felt protective of it. I hadn’t finished reading yet, and I hadn’t thought about whether I was going to share it all with the children. I lowered the lid of the computer.

‘I haven’t finished it yet. I might do some editing before I hand it round.’

Josh frowned. ‘What sort of editing? Family skeletons?’

‘Ha ha, no, but your dad’s been quite, shall we say, explicit about some things, and I need to think about who needs to see some of those bits.’

‘What, smut? Oh! You and Dad smut? Ew. Yeah, get your point. But whoa, what’s it like, reading it? Is it, like, Dad’s whole life? Every single day?’

I thought about it, what it had been like, immersing myself in Matt. I understood him better, I knew him better, I loved him more.

‘It was a bit overwhelming, but it’s just … him. No, it’s not a diary, it’s important things to him, some longer stories, some snippets. Some of it’s funny, some of it’s dark, and some of it’s from before I knew him, so knowing the full story about some things has been weird, especially now I can’t ask him about it. When I’ve finished, I’ll let you read it, if you want to, but I need to think about it first.’

‘Cool. I think I’d like to.’

‘What’s going on down here? People trying to have a lie-in upstairs, you know.’

Ella was standing in the doorway, bed-hair tangling over her shoulders.

‘Ella, Dad’s written a story for Mum, his life story.’

Ella was still half asleep, and a grumpy frown creased her face as she tried to work out what Josh meant.

‘What? When?’

‘Sometime in the last year or two, apparently, my love.’

‘Oh, so is that what was in those files?’

‘Yeah. Mum’s been up all night reading Dad-porn.’

‘Dad-porn? What do you mean? Oh! Oh God. Is it, like, really gross?’

‘Well, I don’t think so, but I think before you and Hippo get to read it, I might decide what’s staying in and what’s being cut out.’

‘Ha ha, Dad’s life the director’s cut. Appropriate, Mum. Right, I need brekkie before I go out. Want a cuppa, Ella?’

‘I’ll do it. Mum?’

‘Yes please.’

I listened to them chatting in the kitchen as I thought about Matt’s story. Their father’s death had hit them hard, as it had hit all of us, and I was pretty sure this would help them, for them to know Matt in a different way. In fact, it would help the whole family, and I decided that I was just going to send an unedited version to everyone, maybe with a warning, and just let them make of it what they would.

I opened the lid of the laptop and started reading again, hardly noticing when Ella put a cup of tea by the sofa.

Several days later, I had read it all, Matt’s story, Julia’s version, I’d watched the video over and over again, and I’d emailed Matt’s story to everyone. I didn’t expect people to have read it for a while – it had taken me all night and into the next morning reading non-stop, and people had busy lives.

Josh had changed his mind, and wasn’t now sure if he wanted to read it at all, and I knew Ella wanted to squirrel herself away somewhere she could read uninterrupted, so I put it to the back of my mind. I didn’t want to become obsessed, although it would be easy to read it over and over again, to try and cling on to that feeling that he was still around in some way.

137. I will remember you

In which final goodbyes are said.

Cal

We had hardly agreed about anything before it was time for lunch, and soon after that, Iz arrived. They’d had a nightmare journey with roadworks littering the motorways, so that had to be discussed, they all had to have food and drink thrust on them, and then we realised the kitchen was getting rather crowded, so we moved into the living room.

Dec was still sitting staring at nothing. He didn’t seem to have moved since I’d talked to him earlier, and I saw glances pass between Mum and Amy, and between Rosa, Tom and Charlie.

‘Dec, sweetheart, sorry but we’re going to have to disturb your peace. There’s not enough room for us all in the kitchen. Do you want anything to eat? Or drink? Dec. Please look at me.’

Mum was using her ‘no arguing’ voice. She didn’t bring it out very often these days, but it seemed to have some kind of residual effect on Dec, who slowly raised his eyes to Mum, although I wouldn’t like to swear that he actually saw her.

‘Do you want anything to eat?’

There was a small shake of the head. Iz was looking at Dec with a worried expression, and I saw her talk in a low voice to Amy, who nodded and spoke back to her in the same whisper.

Iz, never one to shirk a fight, even when she’s only just arrived on the scene, mentally rolled her sleeves up.

‘Right, then, Dec. I think it’s time for some plain speaking. Apparently you’ve been moping about like some teenage girl since last night. Get over yourself and either have a good cry or say something supportive to your family, or help Mum with the washing up. Something. This sitting here staring into space isn’t doing any of us any good.’

We all stared at her. OK, once I’d seen the look on her face, I knew she was just trying to get a reaction, but to start with I couldn’t believe how insensitive she was being. Dec looked at her and did another little shake of his head, but it wasn’t a ‘no’ shake like when I’d tried talking to him; it was a ‘shake myself out of it’ kind of shake. Then he spoke.

‘But … Matt …’

‘Yeah, Dec, we all know. Matty’s dead.’

Jesus but it sounded harsh. It was what Dec needed, though. He shuddered as she said the words, then looked at Amy pleadingly, as if she was going to jump in and save him from my cruel sister. My cruel sister had other ideas though, and she kept on.

‘We’re all feeling it, but there are things to be doing, and the first thing is to all look after each other. We can’t do that if you’re not even with us. We all miss him, we all feel like nothing’s ever going to be the same, but there are things we need to do, for him and for Lau.’

Dec looked at her, really looked, like he was seeing her, and realising where he was for the first time. His eyes were wide, and he nodded.

‘OK. Sorry.’

‘Don’t be sorry, Dec, just come here and give me a hug.’

And to my amazement, he stood up and walked over to Iz, folding her up in his arms. I expected both of them to cry, but they didn’t, and after a while Dec let go and stood in the middle of the room looking lost.

Iz was still on the warpath.

‘Right then, Dad’s next. He’s not going to be escaping everything in his pit.’

She turned to walk out of the room, but Dec put his hand on her arm.

‘I’ll go.’

Iz turned back, surprised.

‘Really? You’re sure?’

Dec nodded and walked past us all. We could hear his footsteps as he climbed the stairs, and then his and Dad’s low voices. Then we all stopped being astonished and looked first at Iz and then at each other.

‘Well done, sweetheart. That was some speech.’

‘I just couldn’t bear to see him like that. Was I a bit over the top?’

‘No, you were just right. And you didn’t even swear.’

‘Yeah, well, with Dec swearing’s like water off a duck’s back. He probably took more notice because I didn’t.’

Iz shrugged and sat down and we all regrouped to eat lunch.

Mum was insistent on sorting out as much of Matty’s list as was possible. She’d called undertakers and venues, but there was still a lot of detail that needed arranging. We eventually realised that, list or no list, we were going to need Lau to give the final say on things. We couldn’t do that today, because it was too soon, and she’d asked to be left alone. Josh and Ella were with her, and maybe they could help tomorrow.

Chrissie arrived with the children mid-afternoon, not long after Dec and Dad appeared in the living room. They were both red-eyed and quiet, but looked more with-it that they had been earlier. My family has always worked best when people are talking to each other, rather than isolating themselves, and maybe Dec and Dad were feeling similar enough things that they could help each other.

Neither of them were going to stop being devastated for quite some time, but I wasn’t as worried as I had been earlier.

Eventually, after we’d talked about arrangements as much as we could, and Mum had fed us more cake and tea, we felt we’d done all that could be done for the day, and we just talked about Matty. We’d been doing this anyway, as part of the arrangements, but now it was full-on reminiscence.

‘Oh, do you remember when he started wearing that stupid hat? It was some kind of trilby thing, and he thought he looked so cool.’

‘Nah, he knew he didn’t look cool, he just liked seeing who would say something and having a discussion about it.’

‘It wasn’t as bad as his shorts phase – remember when he would only wear his cargo shorts, even if it was below zero outside? Some bollocks about lower temperatures being good for circulation in your calf muscles.’

‘Yeah, he loved a crackpot theory.’

‘What, like his ‘cats are really aliens’ thing?’

‘I think he might have had something there. I mean, we just let them wander into our houses, eat food we’ve bought for them and then wander out again to who knows where. We’ve been brainwashed.’

‘I see he brainwashed you too. You do know practically everything he ever said was so we’d all argue with him?’

‘Well not everything. Some things were specifically to wind Mum up.’

‘Oh, you mean his fruity language, Cal? I didn’t mind that.’

‘What? You never stopped complaining about it.’

‘I know, it kept him occupied, kept his brain ticking over. I loved the way he used words, he couldn’t just call someone a twat, they had to be, oh I don’t know, a giant thundertwatted pissarse of a fuckninny.’

Mum!

‘What?’

‘Just … Jesus.’

‘Well someone needs to keep it up, it’s not the same without the slightly blue tinge to the air round here. I miss it.’

And so it went on. There was a lot to talk about and remember, because Matty was a man who had never sat still, literally or metaphorically. And we all wanted to remember lots of things, because for a short time it made it feel like he was still there, still with us in the room.

But children need feeding and putting to bed, and I’d left Chrissie on her own with them all day, so eventually we went home. I wasn’t sure what to do about Uni. I wasn’t due in for lectures tomorrow, but didn’t know how understanding they’d be if I took any more time off. In the grand scheme of things, uncles don’t rate that highly in the compassionate leave stakes, but Matty wasn’t ‘just’ an uncle. He was the life and soul of our family, and I was going to need a while to get used to him not being there.

I decided the best thing to do would be to call my tutor tomorrow, and at least try to get an extension on my essay.

At home that evening, the children in bed, lying on the sofa with Chrissie, sadness just washed over me. Our family had lost another member, and it felt smaller. Not just because there was one less of us, but because Matty was such a big personality. He filled a room with his laughter, his chat, his way of including everyone in what was going on, and I knew we were going to feel his absence every time we all got together.

We had respected Lau’s wish not to have anyone contact her, but I texted Josh, to check there was nothing I could do. I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

Hey Joshy, just wanted to say hope ur OK. Anything u need, u know where I am.

Yeah, thanks cuz. OK for tonight, but might need something tomoro, if u can call round?

Sure thing.

Chrissie and I went to bed early, having got little sleep the previous night. Lily was no respecter of grief, or lack of sleep, and she screamed the place down in the early hours. Chrissie got up, even though she was working the next day, and left me to try my best to get back into the fitful doze I’d been having beforehand.

I may have slept a bit during the night, but I spent a lot of it remembering Matty, thinking about things he’d done, things he’d said. He always had something to say in any situation, and would often choose his words so that people laughed instead of crying or getting angry. I remembered him really pissing off Amy’s parents once.

It was not long after Amy was expecting Charlie, so I must have been about nine or ten. Amy and Dec’s news hadn’t been very well received by Amy’s mum and dad, and she’d hardly spoken to them since telling them and then walking out when they gave her a hard time. My mum, of course, was unable to resist trying to mend things, and invited them over for Sunday lunch, imagining that what everyone needed in their lives was a good feed and several million family members making a bloody racket while spilling drinks and dropping gravy on each other.

Amy’s parents were very straight-laced. They only had Amy, no other kids, and they weren’t used to a lot of noise and chaos, and they looked really uncomfortable, both sitting on the sofa waiting for lunch, and then sitting at the table eating it. Mr Wright asked several times for someone to pass the salt before anyone heard him, and then just as it was heading down to his end of the table, Iz tried to climb on his lap to show him her latest soft toy, and knocked the salt cellar over. He took several deep breaths and decided to do without salt.

Neither Mr Wright or his wife said much, except to respond to the occasional question about their garden or the weather. None of us really knew what to say to them; even Rose was a bit non-plussed, and they didn’t give much back in the way of conversation.

I think Mum had been holding back on baby talk, maybe thinking that if they talked about it too soon it would leave nothing to talk about at the dinner table, but she could finally wait no longer, and waded in.

‘So are you excited about the baby, Diane?’

Amy’s mum looked down at her plate and didn’t answer, and I saw Mum frown, as a look passed between Dec and Amy. Amy’s dad took a deep breath and did his own bit of wading in.

‘I don’t see how we can be excited at the prospect of our daughter being an unmarried mother. We warned Amy of the dangers of irresponsible behaviour, but she didn’t listen, and now this is the result. Single parents are a scourge on society, and for our daughter to be one, well it’s unacceptable. Your ward has a responsibility to Amy.’

I was puzzled by the word ‘ward’, although he seemed to mean Dec, if the direction his fork was pointing in was anything to go by.

‘It is his duty to marry my daughter, and I can’t see why you aren’t insisting it happens before this child is born. It’s a disgrace.’

He managed to silence everyone. Even Iz stopped talking to her peas and looked up at us all, every one of us staring at Amy’s dad, wondering if we’d actually heard what we’d heard. Dec looked like he was going to punch him, Amy looked like she was about to cry, Rose’s eyebrows had nearly disappeared into her hair, Mum was actually lost for words.

Matty recovered first. He picked up his wine glass and held it up, so we all looked at him.

‘I would like to propose a toast to disgrace and the disgraced. If behaving disgracefully can bring the same smile to a face that Amy and Dec have been unremittingly wearing of late, then long may it continue. I personally plan to be a disgrace for the rest of my life. To disgrace.’

And he lifted the glass to his mouth and downed his wine in one swallow. He might have wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. His eyes did not leave Mr Wright’s the whole time.

It silenced the tirade, although Amy’s dad muttered ‘well’ under his breath, which wasn’t really much of a comeback to be honest.

They made their excuses and left pretty soon after that, and Mum gave Matty a big hug.

Matty always seemed to be able to talk in public like that – off the cuff, saying the right thing, remembering everything he needed to say, getting things in the right order. His wedding was a case in point, where he remembered his vows to Lau without a single scrap of paper or any words written on his hand. There were one or two teary eyes that day, too, although not because anyone had insulted anyone.

I was too cool to say at the time, but Matty and Lau’s wedding was awesome. Mum organised it with about five days’ notice. Matty and Lau announced they were having a baby, and getting married the next Friday, on the Sunday before, and they planned to have a quick, quiet do, but Mum was never going to let that happen. She would have managed something spectacular with less than a day, I reckon. But she pulled out all the stops and called in a lot of favours so that Matty and Lau had a really special day.

The registry office in the city centre was the venue for the ceremony, and Matty had asked me to be in charge of the CD player. He had planned loads of little surprises for Lau, to make it seem like less of a rush and more like he wanted it to be special. The first surprise was when we arrived.

Gran and Rose had picked me up from school with Iz. I’d been allowed out early to get ready for the wedding, and had been promised it didn’t mean getting dressed up in anything uncool. Mum had even bought me new trainers and a Hollister sweatshirt, and the new clothes were waiting for me to change into at Gran’s.

Rose drove us to the nearest car park, and we walked up the street to where we could see a few people gathered. As we approached, a taxi pulled up, and Dad got out, and he was wearing a skirt! OK, he was wearing a kilt, but seriously, what’s the diff? I was embarrassed, I mean, it was my dad, running round the streets wearing women’s clothes. And then Matty got out of the taxi, and he was wearing exactly the same. Dad ran into the building, holding his skirt down front and back, looking suitably ashamed of himself, but Matty took his time, waving at people, chatting, as if he wasn’t wearing something completely ridiculous. I heard Rose and Gran talking.

‘Oh love, don’t they look handsome. I bet you’re that proud.’

‘They do look lovely, dear.’

What? Oh well, they were women, they were bound to think that. I looked around, worried that by some misfortune, anyone I knew had seen, but my luck was in, and I didn’t see anyone I knew, from school or rugby or anywhere else.

When we got inside, Matty was talking to loads of people, while Dad stood in a corner and looked like he didn’t want anyone to notice him. The waiting room was starting to fill up, and Matty wanted a practice run of our ‘turn the CD player on’ routine.

‘Soh, Cal, when I wink like this –’

He did a wink with both eyes, twice.

‘– yuh turn ih on, yeah? Give ih a goh.’

He did the winking thing, and I pretended to press play. It’s not like it was hard. Why he couldn’t just say ‘now’, I had no idea, but Matty liked to make things complicated if he could.

‘Awesome. Keep an eye on meh, they’ll be here soon.’

And sure enough, Lau came up the stairs, looking very pretty, and Matty did the double wink thing, and I pressed play, and bagpipe music blared out. Bagpipes. I had been responsible for bagpipes. I thought it might be some embarrassing slushy love song, that would have been bad enough, but bagpipes. Ugh. However, everyone else seemed to love it, including Lau, and not long after that the ceremony got going.

As I said, Matty remembered his words, although if it wasn’t written down anywhere, who’s to say that’s what he was always going to say, and he and Lau snogged with tongues, twice. Which was ultra embarrassing, although, again, no one else seemed that bothered.

Then we all got in our cars and drove to the barn at Thursley, which Mum had hired from my friend Archie’s mum. I’d been there before, because we’d used the barn for Archie’s party when he did paintballing. It was huge, and Mum had spent most of the week decorating it, or telling other people how to decorate it. It looked really different from when we did paintballing, and there was loads of food.

I suppose I did get bossed about a lot at the party, but mostly it was Lis doing the bossing, because she’d helped Mum with the party. Lis was much better at bossing than Mum, because she made it seem like you were doing her a favour, not like you should just do what she says and like it like Mum did. I ran about taking messages to people, and some of it was cool because I got to go backstage, where not many people knew there was anything going on, and talk to the band and the choir, and tell them important messages, and bring them drinks and food, and I even plugged in a microphone.

Best of all, even though there was a lot of dancing, I didn’t have to do any of it, because I managed to look busy enough that I escaped. I know Mum nearly caught me, but I told her I’d be back in a minute after I’d taken Gran a glass of wine, and she looked kind of proud and let me go, and oh dear, I just never found my way back to her after that.

I suppose, given Matty’s past, it was a wonder he ever settled down with a family. I didn’t know him very well before we moved up to Stafford, but after we all came back to the city, and Matty was better, well let’s just say he wasn’t a shining example of monogamy. That’s not to say he flaunted women, or maybe not that much anyway, but they were just never around long enough for me to take much notice of them. He did bring women round, sometimes for Sunday lunch, sometimes just to say hi, but we hardly ever saw them more than once, and they weren’t usually that interested in me or Iz, so we learned to ignore any woman Matty had with him. There were one or two who stood out, though, like the really tall, thin one with bright orange hair, and piercings pretty much everywhere. I couldn’t stop staring, and neither could Iz, despite Mum’s not so gentle reminders to be polite. The woman, whose name I can’t even begin to guess at, just stared back at us, with a kind of ‘what?’ look on her face. I think she was there to give Mum something to go on at Matty about, because she wasn’t his usual type, who was typically blonde, a fair bit younger than him, short skirts, high heels, lots of perfume. One of these ones threw up in Mum’s rosebush, before she even got inside, and Matty got a mouthful that time for not ensuring his ‘friends’ were recovered enough from their night of partying to come to lunch.

And of course there was Julia. Julia was not Matty’s usual type at all, either to look at, or in personality. She was fairly quiet, small and dark-haired, and dressed mostly in grey or browny colours. ‘Sludge tones’ as I heard Mum whisper to Lis once. We didn’t see that much of her, because Matty often came over without her, but he was with her for a long time, and everyone started to assume they were a couple, even though they didn’t live together, or even seem to do that much together. She was good to talk to, though. She never treated me like a kid, didn’t just ask about school, but asked me about X-box games, remembered my friends’ names, that kind of thing. She came round less and less, though, and so did Matty, and it seemed like she was taking him away from us, so I didn’t mind too much when I found out he’d broken up with her.

Then Lau came, and it was like someone had plugged Matty in and switched him on. He was so different. Maybe it was just because he’d been ill, and was sad about being ill, and about breaking up with Julia, but he seemed like a different person. Just the way he looked at Lau, it was like in films, all soppy, and he touched her and kissed her all the time (ugh sooo embarrassing), and you could tell by the way that she looked at him that she felt the same. From then, it was no more women, you could see there wasn’t going to be anyone else for him but Lau. Maybe the children came earlier than planned, if there had ever been a plan, but that was right too.

Seeing Matty with his children gave me something to want to emulate. He adored the pants off those little tykes when they were young, and loved them with all his heart when they were growing. Twins can’t have been easy, although I don’t really have more than a faint memory of those early days – I didn’t do any babysitting until they were well past the screaming and pooping stage. But I will always remember the look on Matty’s face as he walked up the path to Mum and Dad’s house, one or other of the twins in his arms, looking like he’d found the thing he’d been searching for all his life. Like he finally fitted, and it was in the place he’d least expected.

So it was those thoughts and memories that kept me awake that night, the night after Matty died. They were bittersweet, because Matty was great, but he’d gone, and every remembering reminded me of that. I dozed and drifted on the tide of recollection, and then finally fell under into sleep.

The next day, Chrissie let me sleep while she got the kids up and dressed, and only woke me up when she was about to leave. Did I mention my wife is bloody awesome? I’d managed maybe three hours tops, but the extras under the duvet was much appreciated.

Having kids to take care of tends to help take your mind off your troubles; a three-year-old and an eighteen-month-old together are more than enough to occupy your mind and body. I wanted to call my tutor, but I couldn’t until the afternoon, when I rather hopefully tried to get them to nap together again. Lily went down with little fuss, but Conor wouldn’t stay in bed, and in the end I relented. I called Uni anyway, and they were really understanding, telling me to keep in touch, and let them know how much time I needed.

I texted Lau, but didn’t get a reply. I spoke to Mum and Iz, neither of whom had managed to contact Lau either, but we decided there was nothing to worry about, and Amy and Dec were just down the road if a drop-in was required.

I remembered Josh saying there might be something I could do, but he hadn’t said what, and on a whim, once Lily had woken up, I bundled them both in the car and drove over there.

I wasn’t looking forward to seeing Lau, not really. I’d just begun the very first steps towards accepting Matty was gone, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to find or how I was going to react. But I did know that Lau, Josh and Ella were part of our family, and it didn’t feel right for this huge thing to have happened to them, and us not know how they were dealing with it, or be helping them however we could.

I got Conor and Lil out of the car, and we walked up the path to the front door together.

I thought no one was going to answer the door at first, but after a while, I heard the latch, and Ella stood there, pale-faced with red-rimmed eyes.

‘Cal! Oh, you know what, it’s great to see you. Come in.’

She opened the door wider, and we walked into the hall, where I gave her a big hug and mumbled ‘I’m so sorry’ into her ear. She nodded against me, then stood back.

‘I didn’t think I wanted to see anyone, but I just realised I want to see everyone. Thanks for coming over.’

‘Hasn’t anyone else been?’

‘No, we’ve been putting people off, Mum’s not really up to it.’

‘Should we go, then?’

‘No, don’t, I don’t know if she’ll want to see you, but you can have a drink in the kitchen if not. She’s in the living room. Hey, Conor, do you want to see the cool game I’ve got on my laptop?’

Conor, as much of a gamer as his old man, nodded and followed Ella into the kitchen, as Josh came down the stairs.

‘Oh, hey Cal. I thought I heard you. I didn’t miss your call, did I?’

‘No, I just thought I’d come over.’

‘Thanks.’

There was a brief pause while I tried to decide whether to hug him, and what to say, but he made that decision for me by moving towards the living room door.

‘Did you want to see Mum?’

‘Yeah, just a quick hi.’

I opened the door to the living room and went in, Lily still in my arms. Josh was hovering behind me, as if he wasn’t sure I wasn’t going to say or do something stupid. He had a point, this was all way out of my comfort zone, and anything could come out of my mouth if I wasn’t careful.

Lau was sitting on the sofa, legs tucked under her, watching the TV. Or rather, with her face pointing in the direction of the TV. Her face had the same expression I’d seen on Dec’s the day before, and she didn’t look up. I stood between Lau and the screen, and she slowly lifted her eyes to me. It scared me to see how little of Lau there was in her face – she looked like she hadn’t slept, which was likely, and she looked so pale, so sad, almost haunted.

‘Hi Lau. Me and Lily just wanted to come and give you a kiss, see how you are.’ I wanted to say ‘I’m so sorry’ but it didn’t seem right, she didn’t look like she’d cope with me saying it, and I hoped she’d know without me saying.

I put Lil down on the floor, and she toddled over to Lau and held her arms out to be picked up. Lau usually gave the best smooshes, and Lil loved her to bits, but Lau didn’t react. I scooped Lily up again and held her close so she could kiss Lau, which she did, but Lau still didn’t seem to notice there was anyone else in the room.

I looked around at Josh, who shrugged and tilted his head to beckon me out. We joined Ella and Conor in the kitchen.

‘How’s it been for you guys? Lau looks pretty terrible.’

Josh nodded. ‘She didn’t sleep, as far as I can gather. She spent the night like that, on the sofa. I think it’s because of the bed.’

‘Shit, I never thought.’

For Lau to have gone to bed, she’d have had to sleep in the room with Matty’s empty hospital bed. There was no way it could happen.

‘I wondered if you’d help me move her bed upstairs? I mean, eventually she’ll need a bigger one, maybe, but for now, I think we should just move her back upstairs to their old room.’

‘Yeah, sure thing. I should have thought. Are you sure you’re up to it?’

‘I’d rather do it now, it’s been on my mind all day.’

Ella seemed absorbed in the computer with Conor, but her eyes kept sliding my way as if she wanted to say something.

‘OK, let’s do it then. Ella, are you OK with Lil as well?’

‘Yeah, as long as I don’t have to do any nappies.’

‘Shouldn’t do. I haven’t brought one anyway. I could do with a cuppa when we’re done, yeah?’

Ella nodded, seemingly satisfied that whatever she wanted to say could be postponed until after moving the bed.

It wasn’t hard to do, physically. What was hard was going into that room and seeing that empty bed, and trying to ignore it while we packed up the single divan and carried it bit by bit up into the upstairs room that used to be Lau and Matty’s room but had been turned into a lounge for Josh and Ella when Matty got too frail to do the stairs. Even now, using a word like ‘frail’ to describe Matty just seems wrong; he was so full of life, until just a few weeks beforehand, that we never thought of him as weak, really.

But anyway, Josh and I managed to move the bed and re-make it upstairs, not to Lau’s hospital corners standards, but well enough that she would be able to sleep in it.

Josh went to tell Lau what we’d done, and I went to collect my reward in the shape of a cup of tea.

‘Kettle on, then, Ella?’

She gestured to a steaming mug on the counter, which I picked up with a grin.

‘Good timing.’

‘Yeah, it’s not like you weren’t stomping around like a herd of bison so I could tell exactly when you were coming back down.’

‘I suppose. Good guess work then. How’ve you been?’

I bent down and scooped Lily up from Ella’s lap and held her up towards the ceiling, as I noticed Ella’s face crumple.

‘It’s been terrible. I feel so bad. I wasn’t here, was I, and Josh has been so brilliant, phoning everyone, talking to Beth about arrangements, I’ve just been bloody useless …’

Her voice tailed off as tears began to run down her face.

‘But I thought – Mum said you got here in time.’

‘He never woke up, I never said goodbye.’

‘Last time you spoke to him, though, you know, like, on the phone or whatever, you said goodbye then, didn’t you?’

‘Yeah, of course.’

‘Then that’s all that matters. Knowing Matty, he knew every time could be the last time, and that’s how he would have taken it. It really isn’t that important to actually say the words, is it? You were here for your mum, and that would have mattered more to Matty than saying a word.’

‘Maybe.’

‘And the same goes for feeling useless. People do things in different ways. Josh has done what he’s been able to; if he couldn’t then one of us would have done it. Ella, it’s not a competition. Being here is enough. And we’re all here for you too, you don’t have to stay here day in day out if it’s too much. Go and see Mum, or pop up and see Amy.’

‘Isn’t it too soon?’

‘Who for? You should do what you feel.’

‘It’s bloody shit being here, but I don’t think I should leave Mum. Not that I’ve been any use. As soon as I look at her, I just start crying.’

‘You definitely need to get out then. Go and see Mum; we were just saying yesterday no-one’s seen you for weeks.’

‘But what about Josh?’

‘What about him?’

‘I shouldn’t leave him here, should I?’

‘I think Josh is big enough to cope. And he knows how to use a phone, funnily enough, so he can call one of his eight million family members should he require assistance with making a sandwich.’

‘Yeah, alright, piss off. I just feel guilty that I spent so much of last year away from here, and now I want to go again.’

‘OK then, how’s this. Go and sit with your mum, take her a cup of tea and a biscuit, either chat to her or sit and watch the TV with her, do it for a good hour, so she knows you’re there for her, and then go out for a bit. Then come back and sit with her again. Does that feel doable?’

Ella nodded, a little uncertainly.

‘You can tell her to go and get some sleep now her bed’s been moved.’

‘Yeah, see, I couldn’t even help with that, Josh said I wouldn’t be able to lift it.’

‘Well, he’s got a point. Hey, there’s lots you can help with, though. We’ve got a whole list going on at Mum and Dad’s. You know your dad has still got us twisted round his little finger with his ridiculous arrangements?’

‘Really? Like what?’

I reeled off some of the things Matty had requested for his funeral, and Ella laughed, then immediately looked guilty for laughing, then smiled again as I rolled my eyes at her.

‘Maybe that doesn’t sound so bad. I might go and see Beth, but I’ll make a drink for Mum first.’

Ella sighed and stood up to put the kettle on as Josh came in.

‘Ella tells me you’ve been awesome.’

Josh shrugged.

‘Have you got much time off?’

‘Only today and tomorrow, so I can be with Mum. I’m playing on Sunday, so I’ve got to train. I’m going to be playing for Dad. If I score, it’s his.’

‘Aren’t all your tries for him?’

‘Yeah, not that I ever let him know they were all for him, he was big-headed enough anyway, but the next one is, well, special.’

Josh was always so chilled. I had no idea how I would have reacted, when I was playing, to losing one of my parents, but I knew how I was when I left Ayesh, and it knocked me back for weeks. If Josh really felt up to playing in a few days, just so he could score a try for his dad, it showed a depth of determination and mental strength I wish I’d had at his age.

Ella finished making the tea, and took two cups in to the living room. Josh watched her go.

‘Has she just gone in with Mum?’

I nodded, and Josh let out a big breath.

‘Good. I thought I was going to have to wrestle her in there. She’s been sat in here every waking moment, like she can’t bear to talk to her, in case she breaks.’

‘Josh, I’ve just had a bit of a chat with Ella, and I’ll say the same to you. Maybe you need to get out a bit, see people, just to stop you going nuts? I know this is difficult, a fucking awful time for you all, but as long as you or Ella are here with Lau, there’s no reason not to leave the house.’

‘Yeah, I know that, but I couldn’t go out if Ells couldn’t be in the same room. Mum shouldn’t be on her own. Hopefully it’ll be OK now. I’m going back to training in a couple of days, so things will have to be sorted by then anyway.’

‘Make sure you have time for yourself, mate. Don’t just sort things for everyone else. You need time to feel … what you need to feel.’

‘Yeah, I know. I have. Do you mean blarting?’

Matty had a special ‘Stafford’ word for crying, and it seemed Josh had adopted it.

‘Yeah, if that’s what you need to do.’

‘Well I have done, but only on my own. I don’t really do that shit in front of people.’

‘Fair enough.’

We heard the living room door open, and footsteps went up the stairs, as Ella came back into the kitchen.

‘Mum’s going to have a lie down. I think she’s really pleased you moved the bed, she’s knackered.’

‘Did she say anything?’

‘No, just nodded when I said it might be good for her to have a rest, then went up there.’

‘Well done, Ells. That’s pretty major. Maybe she’ll feel like saying something, or eating something, when she’s had a sleep.’

This seemed like something that Mum might be able to help with, although I wasn’t sure Lau was ready for the full-on Beth Scott rescue package.

‘I think Mum would like to come and see you all. I know she’s got things she wants to talk about for the funeral and afterwards.’

Josh and Ella both nodded. They, obviously, weren’t identical twins, but they often used the same gestures – small head movements and glances – which showed how close they were.

‘Maybe she can get Mum to talk. If anyone can, Beth can.’

‘Give her a call. She’s been holding back to give you some space.’

‘Really? This is Beth holding back? She’s texted me, like, every five minutes today, asking about songs and cakes and halls.’

‘You know what she’s like. She’d love to come over.’

‘Yeah, I’ll call her.’

I thought about what Ella had said about Josh calling everyone.

‘I’ll tell her. I’m on my way over there now.’

Josh looked at me gratefully and nodded.

‘Thanks for coming, Cal, you’ve been great.’

‘Sure thing, family and all that. You both know where I am if you need anything, any time. This little one makes sure I’m awake at all kind of interesting times.’

I scooped Lily up and kissed the top of her head, smiling as she threw her arms round me.

‘Actually, Ella, why don’t you come over to Mum’s with me? I know she’d love to see you.’

Ella looked furtively at Josh, as if it was wrong to want to go out. Josh smiled at her and stroked her arm.

‘Yeah, go Squeaks. You must be going stir crazy.’

Ella smiled gratefully at her brother and went into the hall to pick up her bag. Conor was still absorbed in the computer game Ella had shown him, but I prised him away and we all left for Mum and Dad’s.

Ella was quiet as I drove, and the kids were occupied with their car toys, so I worried about Lau. She was a coper, I’d never seen her down, or at a loss, and it was so weird to see her not make a fuss of the kids. She loved Conor and Lily, and would always play with them, getting down on the floor to inspect a Lego house or a teddy den, chattering nonsense with them about dollies and chocolate biscuits.

Lau and Matty had been a unit for so long, married for over twenty years, that Lau had truly looked like she’d lost half of herself. I was pretty sure Mum would know what to do, how much to push her, and when to leave her alone, which was one of the reasons I was going over there now, as well as to save Josh another call and get Ella out of the house.

Josh had impressed me with the way he’d stepped up and sorted things. I knew there were lots of people who needed to know about Matty, and although Mum had called some of them, Josh had a list and had gone through it until everyone on it had been contacted. That can’t have been easy; it had been bad enough calling Iz and using a code word. And he was being really supportive of his mum and sister. I wasn’t sure I would have coped as well at his age.

As I pulled up outside the house, and started to unbuckle Conor and Lily, Mum opened the front door and came to help, her smile widening as she saw Ella get out of the car. Mum could never resist a cuddle with her grandchildren, and always wanted to get going as soon as possible, so she took Lily straight out of the car seat and gave her a big squeeze.

‘This is a nice surprise.’

‘We’re doing the rounds. We’ve just been to number forty-seven.’

Mum looked at me, eyebrows raised.

‘I can see that. I would have come over, Ella, but Josh said not to go yet.’

‘I know, Beth. We didn’t think Mum would cope, but it was fine with Cal. She’s gone to bed, first time she’s slept I think.’

‘And I didn’t call first, I just went over. We texted yesterday, and he said there was something I could do, so I just got us all in the car and popped over.’

In your face, Mum, is something I would have never said, but she didn’t have dibs on getting things accomplished. At least not always.

‘Oh. What did he want help with?’

‘Lau wouldn’t sleep in her bed, so we moved it upstairs. She went and had a lie-down straight away.’

Mum started walking towards the door again, talking over her shoulder.

‘I never thought! That empty bed just sitting there. We’ll have to arrange to get it taken away.’

‘I think Josh has got a handle on things, Mum, you don’t have to do everything. Although, Josh did ask if you’d go over sometime, chat with Lau.’

We got inside and headed for the kitchen, because Mum could never have a visitor without feeding them, and she always had something wicked to spoil Conor and Lily with. Sure enough, once she had given Ella a big hug and installed her in the living room with Dad, she managed to rummage in a cupboard with the hand that wasn’t holding Lil, and pulled out some chocolate fingers.

She had looked a tiny bit pleased when I passed on Josh’s message, and spoke quietly to me.

‘How are they all doing?’

‘Josh is great. He’s just getting on with things. Ella needed to be told to get out, have a break, but Lau is … not herself. I mean, not that it’s not completely understandable, but it’s like she’s shut down.’

‘It’s been tough on her, especially the last few weeks. Even when you’re expecting it, it’s a shock.’

‘Yeah, I know. And she’s been half of this ‘Matty and Lau’ team, and now there’s just her. And with Josh just moving out, that house is going to feel enormous.’

‘We’ll just have to look after her. I’m glad I can go over.’

‘How’s Dad?’

‘Well he got up today, so that’s a plus. He’s not said much, though. Dec’s not answering his calls, either. I talked to Amy, and she said he’s quiet, too. It’ll just take time, sweetheart. Everyone does things their own way. I heard from that catering place – they need to know rough numbers. I wonder if Ella knows?’

‘I don’t think Ella has been … that involved with the arrangements. Josh seems to have been doing it all himself.’

‘Hmm. I’ll definitely pop over tomorrow then. Maybe I can ask him then.’

And that was how Mum did things. She organised, she planned, she lost herself in arrangements. While Conor and Lily were occupied with chocolate biscuits, I gave her a big hug. With Dad incommunicado, I wondered where she was getting her support from. It would be me right now. Mum clung on tighter than normal, and when we let go, there were tears on her cheeks.

‘Thank you sweetheart. I needed that. It’s all so sad, I don’t know what we’ll do without Matty.’

‘We’ll never forget him.’

‘No. He’d never forgive us. Oh, Lily darling, mind where you’re putting your fingers – oh too late. Don’t worry sweetheart, I’ll get a cloth. Cal, keep an eye on her, I’ve just had those chairs cleaned.’

I herded the children away from Mum’s impractical cream upholstery, and once fingers had been wiped and mouths cleared of chocolate, we moved to the living room, where Ella was sitting on one of the sofas and Dad was stretched out on the other one, watching TV. To all intents and purposes, he didn’t look much different from usual, but there was a heavy sadness about him, maybe it was the set of his jaw, maybe a slump to his shoulders. He was hurting.

We didn’t stay much longer, having filled the kids up on chocolate biscuits just before tea time, and headed home to Chrissie, leaving Mum to take Ella home later.

Arrangements were made, and a date set for Matty’s funeral. Mum and Josh did most of the planning between them, as every time anyone asked Lau anything, she’d just say ‘it’s all written down’. We stopped asking in the end, as it was obviously too much for her to think about.

There was no church service, as Matty had made it clear he didn’t want any type of religion ‘impeding his passage to the afterlife’, as he put it. But the largest chapel in the crematorium couldn’t hold all the people who wanted to give him a send off. There were people stood at the back, and out of the doors. I knew a lot of them; there were former colleagues from Raiders and from his GreenScreen days; business contacts; friends and family from all over the city; Nico and Lis came, with Basty, and it became apparent that Basty and Ella were finding each other’s company particularly consoling; Matty’s old mate Andrew came, with a couple of people they both used to work with in Stafford; the place was full to bursting.

The notice in The Herald had been written by Matty, but edited by Beth, who had wanted people to at least know where to come to remember him.

Please note that

WITH IMMEDIATE EFFECT

the artist formerly known as

Matthew Robert Scott

should henceforth be known as

The Late Matthew Robert Scott

Work it out for yourselves, people!

Memorial Service – City Crematorium 1st November 1pm

and afterwards at Hilton Hotel

No flowers, donations to a charity of your choice

One of the many things Matty had specified was that he didn’t want anyone to have to deal with ‘heaps of dying blooms from my heartbroken followers’, and he had instead requested that everyone attending should be given a balloon. He even said what he wanted printed on them:

‘Matt Scott Road Trip

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day

it’s a new life for me

and I’m feeling good

which was a quote from one of his favourite songs (Muse or Ella Fitzgerald, he loved them both). I guess it was better than ‘I told you I was ill’, which Josh told us was what he wanted to have before Lau persuaded him otherwise.

So the whole place was filled with bobbing helium-filled balloons, all colours, and it was almost enough to give it a party atmosphere, rather than a funereal one. Almost.

Lau sat ramrod straight, between Josh and Ella. Ella was crying before the coffin even came in, and Basty, who was sitting behind her, put a hand on her shoulder more than once. Josh remained dry-eyed, and I remembered him saying that he didn’t cry in front of people. Lau – well, she was there in body, but her mind and her heart were elsewhere that day, as if she’d hidden herself away so as not to be able to feel it. I couldn’t blame her; it was what I felt like doing.

Matty had suggested that, rather than a eulogy, people be invited to write down one word that summed him up as they came in, to be put in a hat (a top hat, naturally) and ten of the words pulled out and read at random. Josh had volunteered to do this, and the rule was, apparently, no repeats but no censorship. The words were:

Loving

Dedicated

Brilliant

Inappropriate

Hot for an old guy (which is officially five words, but was allowed through)

Mate

Lovely

Old Bastard (again over the word count but allowed through due to truthfulness)

Literally

Heart

Josh then went on to read a message Matt had written for everyone. Trust Matty to write his own eulogy:

‘Hello Everyone. Thanks for coming, sorry to interrupt your day, I’m sure you will be amply compensated with food and drink in a short while. I hope you’re enjoying the balloons.

Now, I trust none of you are moping or wearing black or some such shit, because I very specifically asked that you didn’t. There’s a reason. This get together, well, it shouldn’t be about dying and sadness, although I’m going to miss all you guys and I’d like to think you might miss me a little bit, even if it’s just because you can now have control of the TV remote.

Anyway, the reason I didn’t want black and moping is because I had a great life. I had a wonderful, gorgeous wife and two fantastic children, and if I could have traded it all for a longer, healthier life without them, I wouldn’t have. I had the best life I could have imagined. Fuck the fact I had the bastard MS. Fuck my bastard lungs. My family are the best, and I want you all to look after each other. My life has been a great success because out of it came Me and Lau, and Josh and Ella. And if that isn’t a reason to celebrate and wear neon pink, then I don’t know what is.

Take care of each other.’

Josh looked up after he had finished reading, and took a deep breath.

‘My dad was the best. I can’t believe he’s gone. I’m going to miss him so much.’

And with that, he broke down, blarting like the rest of us, and Beth had to go and help him back to his seat.

I expected Lau to comfort him, but she didn’t seem to have heard any of it, and just sat staring at the coffin.

To be honest, after that, we were all in tears. Balloons or not, we were saying goodbye to a good man, one of the best, and it was heartbreaking. Chrissie and I held each other’s hands tightly, and most people there were comforting the people near to them.

There weren’t any hymns; Matty had stated he didn’t want anything religious. There was a sing-along version of Time of Your Life (Good Riddance) by GreenDay, and a montage of photos of Matty through the ages projected onto a screen and accompanied by Another One Bites the Dust. The coffin had been brought in to Darth Vader’s theme (people who knew Matty well had smiled at this, score Matty), and disappeared to Joy Division Oven Gloves. And when it was all over, Goodbyee Don’t Cryee made us all smile again, and we filed out of the chapel and into cars for the final leg, leaving Matty there.

Conor and Lily were at the childminder’s for the day. We didn’t need to use childminders very often, as both of us were around enough, and we had Beth, Lau and Amy as willing victims – er, volunteers – most of the time. But today, we all wanted to be there, and the funeral would be too much for the little ones. After the official gathering, we would collect them and go round to Mum and Dad’s for the family get-together.

It’s odd how weddings and funerals are the places to see people you really wish you kept in touch with, but never do. Cousins, aunts and uncles appear that you hardly ever think about, but when you meet up again and chat, you realise are pretty ace people. Of course, sometimes there are people you wish had stayed in whichever dark corner of the country they came from, but on the whole, the extended Scott family, and lots of Matty’s friends, were excellent people, and I made a lot of new Facebook friends that day, if nothing else.

We’d all hoped that the funeral would be a closure for the people who were feeling it the most – Lau, Dec and Dad – but it didn’t seem to have worked out like that for any of them. They all had the same blank expression, that made you wonder where they’d gone. Dec excused himself not long after the service; Dad only stayed because he was practically stapled to Mum, who didn’t let go of him all day; Lau was only there in body. She said ‘hello’ and ‘thank you for coming’ to everyone, and said ‘fine’ when anyone asked how she was, but she was on automatic. Josh and Ella were never far from her side, and did most of the talking.

136. Someone great

In which a dreaded event comes to pass.

Laura

In the October of that last year, Matt was home from his latest visit to hospital, but not making a lot of progress. He’d been in bed for weeks, needing constant nursing, pressure sores blooming on his skinny rump. He was hardly ever awake, and his rasping breathing rattled through the house day and night. Our double bed had been replaced by a hospital profiling bed for Matt and a single one for me.

Josh had just moved into a shared house with some mates from Raiders; he’d been meaning to move out for weeks, but had felt bad about going when his dad was so ill. I had to persuade him to go, although I missed him terribly and felt like we finally did have an empty nest. He’d been in touch every day, either visiting or on the phone, and the family were still as constant a presence in our lives as they had ever been, but now the children were gone, it felt different.

Matt needed so much care at the moment, I did as much as I could myself. We had the works – hoist, special bed, oxygen mask, drip stand, even, to Matt’s shame and something I swore to him I would never tell anyone, incontinence pads for when neither of us could get him to the loo.

Since he’d been out of hospital, Matt had needed constant nursing. I did as much as I could, and promised Beth I’d tell her when I needed help. Very occasionally I’d ask her to come over if I needed to go out, but I wanted to be there as much as I could. It felt like our time was running out, and I didn’t want to miss any of the times when he was awake. He could still make me laugh, or make my heart melt with a look.

Eventually, Matt started refusing his medication. I thought long and hard about fighting him, but couldn’t bring myself to force him. He was still getting the anti-biotics via the drip, although they didn’t seem to be doing much good, but nothing else was going into his system, including food. He would drink a little bit every now and then, as his mouth got dry and sore, but he was wasting away before my eyes and it was destroying me. He was being visited regularly by his GP and his MS nurse, but we all knew there was little we could do to make him either eat or take his meds. I’d been there before so many times with my patients, and I knew how it was going to end.

Matt was just getting his breath back after a huge eruption of coughing had shaken him for several minutes. I picked up the oxygen mask and put it over his mouth and nose. Matt raised his hand to the mask and pushed it away; I could see the effort it had taken, and could easily have pushed it back on, but I allowed my hand to drop away, still holding the mask. Matt was looking at me, his grey gaze burning into me.

‘Hahd … enuhf … Lau.’

‘What do you mean?’

Although I knew exactly what he meant, and he knew that I knew. I could see it in his eyes, how tired he was, exhausted of the battle. He could do it, another monumental fight to get better, one more time, but we’d soon be back here again, and then again. He had the right to stop. I knew what was going to happen, and it wouldn’t be long now.

‘Soh … ry.’

It was barely a whisper, and I struggled to hear him over the rattle of his breathing.

‘It’s OK.’

I tried to keep my voice light as I stroked his cheek, although inside I was screaming ‘no, don’t go, it’s too soon, I’m not ready, I’ll never be ready’.’

We’d talked about it, several months ago, how one day he would need to be in control, no arguments, and I’d agreed, but now it was here, and it was hard; the hardest promise I’d ever had to keep.

‘You have a rest. You’ve earned it. Lazy sod.’

He moved his hand toward mine and I dropped the oxygen mask, gripping his icy fingers with one hand and stroking his clammy forehead with the other. His eyes held mine, full of sorry, full of love, full of pain and full of goodbye.

‘Hohd … hahnds … fuh … eh … ver.’

We looked at each other and acknowledged what was going to happen. He started to speak and I bent my head closer to hear him.

‘Luhv … yuh … Lau … ra … Lou … ise … Scoht.’

It took so much effort to say that he went even paler, closed his eyes and swallowed hard as sweat ran down his face. Or it may have been tears. Each breath tore through him painfully.

‘I love you, Matthew Robert Scott.’

‘Niht … thehn.’

‘Night, beach boy. Sleep well.’

I leaned over as he opened his eyes, then I held his gaze for a long time, until finally I kissed him, and felt his mouth smiling under mine. His eyes closed, his face relaxed and his fingers stopped gripping mine as he let go and slept.

I sat up, still holding his hand, watching his face for a while, his long lashes resting softly on his cheeks. He was deeply asleep, almost unconscious, by the time I picked my phone up from the small table by the bed, and with shaking hands made a call to Josh.

‘Hey Mum.’

‘Josh … Dad’s, er … sorry my love, I think it’s time for the chain.’

‘No …’

Some time ago, we’d come up with the idea of a chain of phone calls for when the family needed to know things were at a certain point with Matt. I knew I wouldn’t be able to call everyone, so we decided that I would ring one person, who would ring another one, or two, and the message would get round that way. Josh was going to call Beth, and Ella, who was staying with friends up north.

‘I’m sorry, Josh.’

‘Do you want me to come home?’

‘Yes …’

I couldn’t speak any more.

‘I’ll be right there.’

As I disconnected, my phone rang. The screen announced Dec. That was impossible – Josh wouldn’t have had time to call anyone, let alone any messages getting through to Dec. I answered.

‘Dec.’

‘Hey Lau. I just picked up a text from Matt. He said Plan B.’

‘Plan B’ was Matt’s code word for when Dec needed to hand over the IT part of the business solely to Tom, when he knew he wasn’t going to be around for much longer. Dec sounded close to tears, if not actually crying. I nearly hung up, I was finding the whole situation unreal and upsetting.

‘Sorry, flower, I think it is.’

‘No. I’ll come round, talk to him, we’ll get him back on his feet.’

‘Not this time, Dec.’

‘But I can’t, I can’t fucking do it without him, I just can’t.’

He sounded distraught.

‘None of us know how we’re going to do anything without him. We don’t have a choice now. I’m sorry, Dec, I can’t … I just can’t right now.’

Cal

One lunchtime at the end of September, I got a call from Dec. His kookaburra ringtone sounding like some kind of manic laughter and the picture from my retirement party of him with a pair of Australia underpants on his head (these ones were the red, white and blue flag with ‘100% Aussie’ across the front, even though that was a downright lie) always made me smile and shake my head, so I was grinning as I answered.

‘Hey old man.’

I expected some kind of come back, but there was silence for a while, some breathing sounds, and then one word. It was really quiet, and I hardly heard it.

‘Tottenham.’

Then the line went dead.

It took me a little while to figure it out; it had been over a year since the ‘Chain’ meeting, and I’d almost forgotten. Then it slammed into me and nearly brought me to my knees. Back then, Dec had reluctantly agreed to call Amy and me, to tell us with that one word that Matty was nearly gone, to expect the worst.

My first reaction, after sitting down, breathing hard and saying ‘fuck no, fuck no, fuck no’ to myself, was to call Lau and check how she was. But the whole point of The Chain was that she knew she wouldn’t want to talk to a load of people, and I needed to get going on my part of the calling.

The original idea had been that one person would call one person each, but in reality it hadn’t worked like that. Dad had point blank refused to call anyone; Dec had wanted to refuse but been persuaded with the one-word message idea; Mum had taken responsibility for Dad and Gran (who everyone agreed shouldn’t have to call anyone), and I was down to call Chrissie (well obviously) and Iz. I needed to get started, because people needed to know quickly.

Chrissie was working, and wouldn’t have her mobile on in the classroom, so I left a voicemail message, just the one word as agreed, and then tried the office at school to see if I could get a message to her. Then I texted her with the same word, then felt bad, even though we’d agreed that’s what we’d do, and sent her a longer text.

Shit Chrissie, I can’t believe it. This can’t be happening. Call me when you get a moment Cal xx

And that left Iz. Iz kept weird hours; she was an interpreter, having aced languages at school and Uni, and that meant she often worked evenings when people were having functions, or were doing something in different time zones. I had no idea where she would be when I called, or if it would be convenient for me to call her, or whether I should text. But if she was around, I really wanted to talk to her. I pressed her name.

‘Hey Cal. Got bored waiting for your beans to boil dry?’

Iz was fairly scornful of my attempts to make myself a meal, quite rightly as I remained as crap at cooking as I had always been. I couldn’t banter though, I had a job to do. It was the hardest word I’d ever had to say.

‘Tottenham.’

‘What?’

I didn’t say anything, just let it sink in.

‘Cal? Did you just say Tottenham? Oh. Oh no. Oh fuck no. Have you talked to anyone?’

‘No. Dec just rang me, but he just said the word and hung up. Chrissie’s phone’s off.’

‘Oh my God, Cal, I can’t believe it. I thought he’d get better. He always gets better. I want to talk to Lau, but that’s what this is all about, isn’t it, so she doesn’t have to deal with all of us. Shit. Maybe I’ll call Mum.’

‘Haven’t you got someone else you should call?’

‘Oh shit, of course. I’ve got to tell Gracie. Oh bollocks to it, Cal, this is so hard. You know what, now I’m glad it’s only one stupid word, so I don’t have to actually say it.’

‘The next time’s going to be harder.’

‘Don’t. I can’t think about it. I’m going to call Gracie, she’s in a class – oh, maybe I’ll catch her having her lunch. Text me later, yeah? We’ll talk soon.’

We disconnected, and I thought we’d be talking again pretty soon anyway, with The Chain part two.

I tried to call Mum, but her line was busy, so left a message for her to call me. I was starting to feel emotional, and although Conor and Lily were at home with me, I felt lonely and a bit scared. This was a big thing to be facing, and I wanted to share it with someone.

To try and distract myself, I turned back to the essay I’d been trying to write, but the words were just swimming around on the screen. I couldn’t settle, not knowing anything, not knowing how anyone was doing, thinking about how upset everyone was going to be, but not wanting to tie up my phone in case Chrissie called.

I knew Dec was going to be in a bad way, not only from his call, but from how he’d reacted with Rose. I sent him a text, but with no expectation that he would reply. I texted Mum, Dad, Tom, Josh and Ella, but none of them replied either, and I imagined them all talking to each other, a little whirl of family support, and felt even more on my own.

The children were both having afternoon naps, miraculously unconscious together for once, but I felt like waking them up so I could hold them. I needed to hold someone.

And then, as I was about to start my next round of texting, and to have another try at contacting Chrissie, I heard a car pull onto the drive and a key turn in the front door, and she was home. Chrissie was back, and I was so glad to see her I practically fell into her arms.

Laura

I disconnected, knowing that this was going to devastate Dec, but he had Amy to look after him and I just needed to be here with Matt, holding his hand.

I barely registered when Josh came in. He put his arm round me and gave me a kiss on the cheek, then bent down and kissed Matt too, and stroked his forehead lightly. Josh spoke to him, but I didn’t take in what he said. It was a while later, Josh had pulled up a chair and was sitting reading a book, when I thought about Ella.

‘Did you call your sister?’

Josh looked up and nodded. ‘Yeah. She’s coming straight down. Might take her a while.’

‘Thanks, my love.’

‘How’re you doing, Mum? You’ve not said a word, I don’t think you heard me earlier.’

‘Sorry. This is … weird.’

‘Yeah.’

We sat and listened to Matt’s rasping, laboured breathing for a while.

‘No one’s called. I thought someone might.’

‘Wasn’t that the point of the chain, so everyone knows what to expect, but not to bother you?’

‘Yeah, I suppose.’

‘Do you want to talk to someone?’

‘No, not really.’

Not except the one person I was never going to talk to again, or who at least was never going to talk to me.

Josh carried on with his book, and we sat through the night, watching Matt slip away, his breaths becoming more erratic. Eventually, Josh’s head kept dropping forwards as he dozed, and I shook him and told him to go to bed.

‘I’ll shout if I need you.’

He nodded and went off to his room.

Cal

We held each other for a long time, and Chrissie whispered how sorry she was, stroked my hair and stopped me from falling. I realised my legs were shaking, as what was really, actually happening started to hit home. Chrissie pulled me over to the sofa and made me sit down.

‘Oh Cal. It’s been such a long time coming. How awful.’

‘I know. I thought, though, the chain thing was going to make it easier, but this, waiting for the next call, I think I might go mad. I’ve texted people but no one’s answering.’

‘Did you call Iz?’

‘Yeah. I did the word, but we talked a bit too, then she had to tell Gracie, so we didn’t say much.’

‘What about your Mum?’

‘I left a message. I guess they’re all talking to each other.’

‘Or not talking to each other. It might be hard, they’re not all going to want to talk, are they. That’s kind of the point of all this.’

‘I know.’

My phone rang with Mum’s tone.

‘Hey Mum.’

‘Hi sweetheart. Sorry, I was talking to your gran.’

‘Oh, how is she?’

‘Well, you know what she’s like, she’s not saying a lot, but she’s obviously upset. How are you?’

‘Freaking. This is horrible, Mum. I’m going to jump every time the phone rings. Do we have any idea what’s going on?’

‘Not at the moment. Josh said he’d text if he can, he’s gone over to … wait I suppose. We’re just going to have to wait too, we can’t disturb Laura.’

‘No, I know, shit Mum, whatever it’s like for us, it must be a thousand times worse for Lau. I’m glad Josh is there. Is Ella coming home?’

‘Yes, she should be on her way.’

‘Will she make it … in time?’

‘I don’t know, sweetheart. I think … well I don’t really want to guess at timescales, but not long. I hope she gets here.’

Shit. Fucking hell. That meant hours, rather than … anything longer. I really couldn’t get my head round it. The Chain had been a theoretical thing, something we talked about and felt weird about back then, and I’d half-forgotten it, what had driven it, what it had meant. I’d been fooling myself about how ill Matty was for the last few months, and now it was rushing up at me at great speed.

‘Fuck. Mum, you’ll let me know if you hear anything won’t you?’

‘Of course, sweetheart.’

‘How’s Dad?’

‘Not good.’

‘Shit. This is fucking horrendous.’

‘I know. Is Chrissie there with you?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Take care of each other, then. Bye, sweetheart.’

We disconnected and I turned into Chrissie’s arms again.

‘Where are the kids?’

‘Sleeping.’

‘What both of them? Did you feed them knockout drops or something?’

‘No, just lunch, then I had a stiff word with them, told them I needed to write my two thousand words on the origins and insertions of the muscles in the upper limbs, and they said ‘Righto Daddy’ and put themselves to bed.’

‘You arse. How long have they been down?’

‘About an hour. Anytime now –’

‘MUMMY.’

‘Right on cue. Let’s go and get them. We can have a lovely play together, it’ll take our minds off things for a bit.’

And having the children awake was a distraction. I closed my computer down, knowing my essay was going to have to take a back seat for quite a while, then Chrissie and I played games with Conor and Lily.

Slowly, people replied to my texts, but no one else called, and there was a heavy atmosphere of dread. Each time my phone made a sound, I jumped, until I realised it wasn’t Dec’s kookaburra. I wondered if Dec would even be the one to make that next call; he’d found it hard enough to do the first one.

There weren’t many texts, and Mum was the only one who called me. Eventually I realised that everyone was just waiting, and no one wanted to make people think that it had happened, this dreaded ‘it’ that was going to happen soon. So we just waited, where we were, everything suspended in some kind of emotional limbo until the next part of the the chain began.

Chrissie and I gave the kids their tea, gave them a bath, put them to bed, we did all the family stuff, trying hard not to let them feel how we felt. Then, once it was all quiet, we put some music on, curled up together on the sofa and waited.

Waiting is shit. Waiting for anything is shit, but waiting to be told that someone you love has died is about the shittest thing I’ve ever had to wait for. My nerves were shot; I was on edge; I was in a constant state of recognising the inevitability of it while at the same time trying to convince myself that someone must have got it wrong. Maybe Lau had made a mistake, and Matty was going to pull through. But Lau was realistic, and she wouldn’t have put us all through this unless she was absolutely sure.

And so it went on, until I wore myself out with trying not to think about it. We went to bed, but neither of us slept, and neither did Lily.

Laura

A while later, in the early hours, I heard Ella come through the front door.

‘Mum?’

She sounded like a small scared child.

‘In here, my love.’

She came into the bedroom, eyes reaching for Matt’s face, scanning him to see if he was still breathing. She let out a big sigh.

‘He’s still here. Oh Mum, I was so scared, I thought it would take me too long to get here, I should never have been so far away.’

‘Have you had anything to eat?’

‘No. I’m not hungry. I can get myself something later. Can I … I was thinking all the way here of all the things I’ve never told him. I suppose it’s too late now.’

‘He might still be able to hear you, Squeaks. No one really knows. Let me go and make you a cup of tea. You have a chat with your dad.’

I dragged myself away from Matt, not really wanting to break my connection with him, but recognising that Ella needed some time alone with him. As I walked into the kitchen I heard her voice.

‘Hey Dad, it’s me. Well I guess you know that if you can hear me. I just … well I suppose it’s a bit late to beat around the bush. I love you, alright? I don’t think I ever told you. You told me lots, but it’s just not cool to say it to your dad, is it …’

I smiled to myself as she chattered on, thinking for the millionth time how different she was to Josh, who would sit with me and Matt, not feeling the need to say anything, but communicating all he needed to by his presence. If I didn’t have their shared date of birth branded on my heart, I would never guess they were twins.

I stayed in the kitchen for a while, to give Ella some time, then made her drink. As I carried the cup of tea back into the room, she was still talking.

‘… and then there was that time when I told you I was at Nicci’s sleepover, but really I was drinking cider with Jonny Gatzenberg – oh, Mum. Thanks.’

‘You know he knows about Jonny Gatzenberg.’

‘What?’

‘If you were just confessing all your past crimes, Ella, you’d be surprised how many of them he knows about. And forgives you for. We both remember what it was like to be young. And he loves you, never forget that. But you don’t have to tell him everything, keep some secrets, my love. No one tells their dad everything, dads can’t cope with all the sordid details.’

‘But I feel so guilty now, I wish I’d never lied to him, or screamed at him or all the other horrible things I did.’

‘Didn’t I just hear you tell him you love him?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Then that makes everything alright. Everything. He loves you so much and he’s so proud of you. We’re both so proud of you. Drink your tea and go to bed.’

She nodded, took a couple of mouthfuls of tea then stood up, and looked at Matt for a long time. Finally, she bent down, kissed his forehead and stroked his cheek.

‘Is Josh here?’

‘He’s in bed.’

‘I might go and sleep on his floor.’

Since they were little, whenever either of them had felt out of sorts or upset, they had slept in the same room. It had persisted through their teens until Ella went away to university. This was the first time she’d done it since. I smiled at her, and took Matt’s hand again, listening to him struggle for breath and watching small twitches wrinkle his face from time to time.

Eventually I felt my eyes start to droop. I leaned forwards, resting my head close to his, feeling his staccato breath on my hair, still holding his hand, telling him everything I needed him to know through my grip on his fingers.

Cal

Lily often woke in the middle of the night, and was hard to get back to sleep. Luckily her brother slept like a log, and she never woke him up, but Chrissie and I always took it in turns to get up with Lil. If I didn’t have to be up for Uni, I’d get up, and Chrissie did it when she wasn’t working.

That night was no different, and the cries started about two thirty, which was pretty standard. To be honest, I was relieved to have a distraction, and I got out of bed more willingly than usual. Chrissie reached for me.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yeah, babe. Can’t sleep anyway. Want me to bring you some tea when I come back?’

‘That would be nice. I doubt I’ll be asleep either.’

‘I’ll be back in a bit.’

I crossed the landing to Lil’s room and found her standing up in her cot, red-faced and screaming. She reached her arms up when she saw me, and despite the noise she was making, the gesture of trust tugged at my heart as I picked her up and held her to me.

Lily’s screams could be used as a four-minute warning for a nuclear attack, they are so piercing. I have often apologised to our neighbours, being convinced that she must wake the whole street. They kindly say they never hear a thing, but that girl has a seriously powerful set of lungs.

As I held her to me, Lily’s cries gradually quietened, but I knew from experience that she would only start up again if I put her back down in her cot. We took a little walk downstairs, did a tour of the living room and kitchen, wandered into the dining room, peeked into the conservatory, checked all the coats and shoes were where we left them in the porch, and then she started to get sleepy. I could feel the change in her little body, as she started to relax against my shoulder.

I went into the kitchen and put the kettle on for Chrissie’s tea, then wandered around a bit more, to be sure Lil really was asleep. Something was stopping me from taking her back to her room, something was making me hold her extra tight and kiss her head where it rested on my shoulder.

It was the thought of losing someone, it made me want to cling on to the people I loved the most. I wondered how Lau was doing, how Josh and Ella were doing, how Matty was doing, how everyone was doing. I think it was the only time I can remember when there was some sort of family crisis that we didn’t all meet up and face it together. It felt weird, disjointed, cracked.

Lily was fast asleep by now, and I went up to her room and laid her back in her cot, looking down at her as she slept, her cherubic cheeks and rosebud mouth hiding the decibel monster she could be. I brushed her hair away from her forehead, then went downstairs to make some tea.

Chrissie was asleep when I got back to bed, so I put her mug by the bed and sat up drinking mine. I checked my phone, just in case anyone had texted or rung me. I should have had it with me, I suppose, but Chrissie would have heard it if it had gone off.

Sitting there with my phone in my hand, I really wanted to talk to someone, just to contact them so I wasn’t alone with all of this swirling round my head.

I’d told Iz I’d text her later, but if I contacted her now, she’d think it was part two of the chain, and that wouldn’t be fair. I didn’t want to disturb anyone else, and I sat looking at my contacts list, undecided, when a picture flashed up and a tone jangled out. I nearly dropped the phone, my heart racing, but it wasn’t Dec, or Amy, or Mum. It was Iz. Iz wouldn’t be texting me with news; I was the one who was going to call her. I calmed down a little and read the text.

Sorry if I woke u up. Can’t sleep. Wanna talk?

Wasn’t asleep. Wld LOVE 2 talk.

I checked Chrissie. She had stirred when the text tone went off, but seemed to have drifted off to sleep again. I got out of bed, turning the volume down on the phone as I went, grabbed a hoody and walked down the stairs. I plopped onto the sofa as Iz’s tone started ringing.

‘Hey.’

‘Hey. So. This is about the least fun I’ve ever had.’

‘I know. We all thought it was such a good idea, didn’t we? Now, it’s like ‘here’s some really bad news that’s almost happened, but why don’t you all just sit there waiting for it all night’. It really sucks, Iz.’

‘I feel so far away.’

‘You are far away. Manchester is far.’

‘You know what I mean. If I was there, we’d all be together, helping each other.’

‘We’re not though, that’s the weird thing, no one’s rung, Mum hasn’t said all come round, as far as I know everyone’s at home doing their own thing. Which is probably the same as we’re doing – not getting any sleep. I wanted to call someone, but I think we’re all deliberately not calling or texting, because we’ll all think ‘this is it’ when the phone goes.’

‘But you’ll all get together … after, won’t you. I can see how it all feels weird now, but, you know, I think I’m going to come down. I mean, whatever, it’s not going to be long, is it. I just want to be there.’

‘Can you get time off work?’

‘I’ll take it, and worry about it later. Maybe Gracie will want to come, I’ll suggest it.’

‘How was she, when you told her?’

‘Oh you know Gracie. She was with her friends, she just said thanks for letting her know, didn’t chat or anything. When she came home, though, we had a little cry. She is the most perfect crier I’ve ever seen. I go all blobby and snotty, my face swells up and my eyes puff into pigginess, but Gracie, no redness, just beautiful tears falling symmetrically from her eyes.’

‘The cow. I expect she just does it to annoy you.’

‘Yeah, I bet. Ha ha, no, that’s the other bloody annoying thing about Gracie, well apart from her being gorgeous and having the body of a dancer and yet being able to put away half a chocolate cake with no ill effects, no, the other bloody annoying thing is she’s so bloody lovely, really thoughtful. She gives me and Ben space, goes out, stays in her room, but when she is with us she’s such good company. I’m so glad she’s staying with us this year.’

This felt better, talking to Iz, general chatter as well as acknowledging what was happening in a house half way across the city to someone we both loved.

‘Yeah, you lucked out there. Just think, you could have had Charlie if things had been different.’

‘What, you mean if she’d actually given Uni a proper go, or gone to a Uni that was less than two hundred miles away from where I live?’

‘Yeah, well, apart from that. God, can you imagine, student Charlie living with you?’

‘You mean things like the door banging at three in the morning, the sulks when we asked her to turn her music down, the ‘borrowing’ of my clothes and make-up, the ‘can I just take your car’, the unwashed dishes. Ben would have left me.’

‘Yep, you definitely dodged a bullet. Be thankful Dec managed to produce one or two normal children.’

‘They’re all lovely. Charlie’s lovely, just a bit …’

‘Overwhelming.’

‘Yeah. Can you remember who was calling her?’

I hadn’t given much thought to who was where in the chain; I just knew who was calling me and who I had to pass it on to. I tried to remember the discussion from that night over a year ago.

‘No, but I think it would have been Amy – wasn’t there some argument about age order, didn’t it go Charlie, Tom, Rosa? With you getting Gracie because she’s up there with you?’

‘Yeah, I think you’re right. God help Tom, then. He might never get the call.’

‘I expect Amy will have it under control.’

Talking about it made me shudder with anticipation. It wouldn’t be long before Dec was calling me again.

‘Know what, Iz, we shouldn’t be tying up our phones, in case they’re trying to get through.’

Iz was silent for a moment.

‘No, you’re right. I was hoping for a bit of a distraction, but we’re just going to have to wait it out, aren’t we. Thanks for chatting, Cal. I’ll talk to you later. Let you know about coming down.’

‘Take care of yourself. Is Ben awake?’

‘No, but he said to wake him up when there’s some news. I’m glad he’s here.’

‘I’m glad he’s there for you. Talk to you later.’

‘Bye Cal.’

I disconnected, noticing that my phone didn’t have much charge left. I plugged the charger in by the TV, and turned it on so I could watch some late night drivel while I waited for it to charge up a bit.

Laura

I woke with a start. At first I didn’t know what had woken me, then I heard it. The silence. It was quiet. Completely quiet and still. I was clasping his hand, but Matt had gone. I sat up with a whimper. Shouted out in panic.

‘Josh! Josh!’

It only took a couple of seconds before I heard stirring from his room, but it felt like a hour as I sat and looked at Matt’s face, his perfectly motionless face. He was never motionless; even when he was asleep he fidgeted. Josh burst into the room, Ella at his shoulder. I looked at them, stricken.

‘I think …’

I gestured at Matt, who was no longer there, not really.

‘Oh Mum.’

Josh moved quickly to the side of the bed and felt Matt’s forehead.

‘He’s not breathing is he. Oh Mum.’

He turned to me, face full of sorrow, and leaned down and hugged me. I sobbed onto his shoulder. I felt Ella’s arm round my neck, as her hot tears splashed onto my arm. They both knelt by my chair and we put our arms round each other and wept. We stayed like that for a while, then I looked up at Matt’s still face, his head turned towards me, mouth slightly open, and I didn’t want to be there any more, in that room, where he wasn’t.

I stood up, Josh and Ella making way for me as I walked into the hall. I stopped there, dazed, not knowing where I’d intended to go.

‘Come on, Mum.’

Josh took my arm and led me to the living room, where he gently pushed me down onto a sofa.

‘Sit there for a bit. Ella, stay with her, yeah?’

‘Why, where are you going?’

‘Just upstairs. Gonna call Beth.’

It was chain of calls phase two. Josh had agreed to be the first in the chain, but looking at his face it was going to be one of the hardest things he’d ever have to do.

Matt

OK, that’s your lot with the sloppy love notes, folks. It’s getting harder to type this shit, and the voice rec software can’t understand my unintelligible bollocks any more, so I think I’m going to

It ends here; I don’t know if he got interrupted, or was just too tired and ill to carry on and thought he’d finish later. Tom tells me that the last date this file was modified was about three weeks before Matt died, and he was hardly awake much after that, let alone capable of writing anything. So this is the end of the story of Matthew Robert Scott. I’m going to write my version, although I’ll probably steal a lot of his words, as I don’t think my memory is as good as his, and I don’t have his way of putting things into writing. But I’ll take it to the end, because there’s a lot he didn’t get to tell you about. I would have loved to have read Matt’s version of his fiftieth birthday, of Dec and Amy coming home, of Josh and Ella’s twenty-first, of Ella’s graduation, of Josh’s debut for Raiders, of Cal’s wedding and Conor’s christening, of so many things he didn’t get the chance to write down. I hope you might think about doing the same, or if you don’t think you can do the whole thing, maybe write something, it doesn’t matter how short, and send it to me. Please remember him, he was a special man.

Laura

Cal

Before I knew it, my eyes had closed, and I woke up to the jarring sound of two bits of music playing at the same time. It was some kind of poppy advert jingle, conflicting with a power ballad and it jangled me awake, disoriented for a bit until I realised what it was. My phone was ringing, Amy’s ringtone.

Amy. Oh God.

‘Hey Amy … er …’

‘Hi Cal. I’m so sorry, but …’

She paused. There was no point waiting for her to get herself together enough to say it, so I did it for her.

‘Hotspur?’

‘Yeah.’

At the time, when we were making plans for The Chain, it had seemed like ‘Tottenham’ and ‘Hotspur’ would be so appropriate for this, it made us smile to think of telling each other this awful news in this way, as if somehow it would make it seem better, lighter maybe. It didn’t. It made it seem more unreal, almost as if it was taking the piss.

‘Thanks Amy. How are you?’

‘Oh, you know.’

I did, because I was the same. Matty was gone. So much I was going to miss, so much I was never going to tell him, so much he was never going to see. I never said goodbye – although that was his choice.

Matty had spent a lot of time with Lau making plans for what he referred to as ‘My Demise’. He wanted people to come and see him, but not to be ‘morose wankers’, he didn’t want any goodbyes, he had a whole theme park event planned, what he called ‘putting the ‘fun’ back into funeral’, and had even written his own notice for the Herald. Maybe it was going to help in the days to come, but for now, we were all just going to be hurting.

‘Yeah, I know.’

‘Dec couldn’t do it, call you. He’s completely just in bits. I’ll have to go, Cal, I’ve got to call everyone else.’

‘Everyone?’

‘No, just Charlie really, but she’ll probably want me to call Tom. And I want to call Beth, see how she and Jay are.’

And I had my own call to make, too.

‘OK then. We’ll talk later, though, yeah? Maybe all get together?’

‘Yeah, that’d be good. It’s been awful, this last night, I didn’t know what to do.’

‘Yeah, we were the same. See you later then.’

‘Bye Cal.’

We disconnected and I called Iz.

‘Hi Cal, don’t say it please, I’ve been dreading you saying it, so don’t say it OK?’

‘OK. I won’t. But that’s what I was calling to say.’

‘I know. Fuck. Why does this feel worse than before? We knew it was coming, but now it’s happened. And although I know everything I need to know, I don’t know any details. I shouldn’t want to know details, should I? That’s, like, so none of my business, but maybe I’m just trying to cling on to him … oh Cal. He’s gone. Matty’s gone …’

Her voice trailed away and I could hear her crying, then Ben’s voice as he talked to her, then as he talked to me.

‘Hey Cal, it’s Ben. Iz and I are coming down today, we’re bringing Gracie. Sorry about Matty, it’s just shit, isn’t it.’

‘Yeah, mate, it is. We’ll see you later, then.’

We disconnected, and I sat on the sofa and felt misery welling up in me. It was what I’d been feeling, lodged inside, since Dec called yesterday, but I’d been holding it back, waiting, it seemed, until everything had finally happened. My throat constricted, my eyes pricked and stang, and finally, with a loud sob, it all came out. Tears, snot, loud noises. I was lost in sorrow for Matty, and for myself and how much I was going to miss him.

After a while I felt arms go round me – small arms and larger arms – and Chrissie and Conor were giving me a cuddle. I pulled myself together, mainly for Conor, who was looking at me with concern creasing his little forehead.

‘Sorry mate, I’m just sad.’

‘Why you sad, Daddy?’

‘Well, Unca Matty, you know he’s been very poorly, he just got too poorly and too tired, and he’s died.’

Chrissie and I had talked about how to tell the kids. Lily was too young to grasp any of it, but Conor loved his Unca Matty, and it was going to be hard for him to understand it all.

‘Conor, you remember Confucius?’

Confucius was Rosa’s pet rat. He had lived a long and happy life in an enormous rat playground in Rosa’s room, until one day he conked out. Conor had seen the stiff little body and been to the ratty funeral in the back garden.

‘Yes, Mummy.’

‘Well, Confucius got very old and his body stopped working, and the same has happened to Unca Matty. He got too poorly and his body stopped working. And we’re going to miss him, which is why Daddy’s sad.’

‘Will he go in the garden?’

‘No, sweetie, there’s not enough room for Unca Matty in the garden. He’ll go … somewhere else.’

‘Where?’

This was going to be the tricky one. Matty wanted to be cremated, but Conor was too young to understand everything. I couldn’t deal with this, was finding it too hard to think about, and I ran my hands through my hair. I felt Chrissie’s hand on my arm and looked up to see her looking at me. She mouthed ‘I’ve got this’ at me, and I gratefully disappeared upstairs, as she started to explain difficult concepts to our son.

I thought about going back to bed, wrapping myself in the duvet, shutting everything out, but I heard Lily moving around in her room, and decided instead to head another screaming session off at the pass. I picked her up and held her close, hearing her snuffles and then her babble, as she talked to me without needing to know the answers to serious questions. I felt so lucky to have my family.

Not long after, it was morning proper, and although Chrissie and I weren’t going to be doing our normal everyday things, the kids still needed to be up and about. My phone started ringing soon after eight, Mum first, then Iz, who was on her way, Ayesh, and a couple of mates from Raiders who had heard somehow (Mum I expect). I realised there were people I needed to check on too, and I called Gran, Josh and Amy.

It felt better, reconnecting with everyone, knowing how everyone was. Mum was coping by organising us all. We were going there for lunch, then getting started on plans for Matty’s funeral (like, wait a day Mum? Unlikely). Even though I didn’t really want to think about it, it did need doing. She was going to try to get Lau to come over too, but Lau wasn’t answering calls or messages, and Josh said she didn’t want to see anyone.

Dad and Dec seemed to have been hit the hardest out of the rest of us. Neither of them were answering calls or texts, and Mum said Dad wouldn’t get out of bed. Apparently Dec had spent the night staring into space while sitting on the sofa, and was not speaking to anyone.

Gran was with Mum, and both of them were cooking – at least, Gran would be sat at the table looking at recipe books while Mum made cakes. Gran’s gnarly old hands made it difficult for her to bake much these days.

It was going to be a while before Iz arrived, but I needed to be with the others, and before long Chrissie looked at me, hand on a hip.

‘Just go, Cal.’

‘What?’

‘Go to your mum’s. I’ll bring the kids after lunch. Iz won’t be here till later anyway. Just go.’

I looked at her gratefully. She always got me, knew what I wanted to do, without me even having to say it half the time. Not that she didn’t make me say it, because it was good for me to ‘be in tune with my feelings’ or something, but we had a lot of shorthand, particularly with young ears around, that meant we didn’t actually have to say things with words.

‘Thanks, babe. You’re awesome. Ring me if it gets hairy, though.’

‘Yeah, like they can throw anything at me I can’t handle.’

‘Hmm. Remember Sunday of the Shits?’

‘Oh God. Thanks for reminding me. But there isn’t any sign of runny poo so far – go while the going’s good. If I start to drown I’ll text.’

‘Deal.’

I drove off to Mum and Dad’s feeling more purposeful, which was weird because I was going to be doing just as much sitting around there, and less actually being useful, but it felt good to be going to see people, even if we were just going to be sad.

Amy’s car was already parked outside, and when I went in, they were all congregated in the kitchen, except for Dec, who was sitting on the sofa on his own, staring at the TV, which wasn’t on. There was a lot of talking going on in the kitchen, and I didn’t think they’d heard me come in, so I started with Dec, a little freaked out by the expression on his face.

‘Hey old man.’

He didn’t even look up, just shook his head slightly. I went and sat next to him, and he let out a huge, ragged sigh.

‘So, this is shit, eh?’

His eyes slid sideways, but didn’t quite meet mine. I’d only seen him like this once before, when Rose died. I fleetingly wondered just how he’d coped when he was a young boy and his parents were killed in a crash – had he gone all silent like this, or did anything that felt like that time bring it all back so much that it just shut him down? He never talked to us about it, so it was hard to know, and that made it hard to help him now.

‘Come on, Dec, I think there might be cake to be eaten in there.’

I nodded my head at the kitchen, from where baking smells were drifting. Dec only shook his head again and carried on staring at the blank TV.

‘Alright then, I’ll go and get you a coffee or something.’

I stood up and followed the sound of voices into the kitchen.

‘Cal! When did you get here, sweetheart?’

‘A few minutes ago. I was trying to talk to Dec.’

Mum gave me a big hug. She looked like she’d been crying, as did Gran, Amy, Charlie and Rosa. Tom was sat in front of a laptop and looked his usual chilled self.

‘He’s not really up to talking.’

‘I noticed.’

‘We’re giving him a bit of time and space.’

‘Yeah, it seems to be what he wants. Where’s Dad?’

‘He won’t get out of bed.’

Mum huffed a sigh and shook her head at this. Mum could never understand anyone who met a crisis with inaction; she always had a plan and it always involved doing something.

‘I’ll go and say hi.’

‘If you like, sweetheart.’

I quickly hugged everyone else, then went upstairs. Mum and Dad’s bedroom door was open, but the curtains were shut. I went slowly into the darkened room, letting my eyes adjust to the light, and perched precariously on the edge of the bed.

‘Hey Dad. Mum says you’re not getting up.’

‘No.’

Well at least he was talking, that was one up on Silent Boy downstairs.

‘Want to talk about it?’

‘Not really. What good would that do?’

‘Might make you feel better. Might make me feel better.’

‘Really Cal? Is it going to change anything?’

‘No, well, it won’t change that Matty’s gone –’

Dad hissed a sharp breath in.

‘– but it might change what you do about it, which might change how you’re feeling.’

‘I want to feel like this.’

‘OK, fair enough. We all feel like shit, to be honest. Dec’s downstairs staring at nothing like he’s lost the ability to speak. I don’t know what it’s like to lose your brother, but I do know what it’s like to lose your uncle, I know what it’s like to lose Matty.’

‘Jesus, Cal, stop saying that. Stop fucking saying it.’

‘Is that why you’re not getting up? So you don’t have to hear us all talking about it? So it feels less real?’

This was quite a major talk for me and Dad. We’d had our moments over the years, but usually it was him giving me advice because Mum told him to, or stuff about Raiders. I suddenly felt like I knew him, like for those moments I got where he was coming from.

Dad didn’t reply, just squeezed his eyes shut to try and stop tears leaking out of them. He opened his mouth and breathed in, his breath shuddering. I reached out and put my hand on his shoulder.

‘I’m not saying it’s not a good strategy, short term, but it’ll all be here when you get up in the end, unless you’re planning on staying in bed forever. And I have to say that is a plan I can understand, but the downside of it is you’ll have Mum going on at you until the end of time, so it won’t be as peaceful as you might imagine.’

There was the ghost, the tiniest hint, of a smile.

‘Piss off downstairs Cal. I’ll get up when I’m ready.’

‘Sure thing. No rush. Mum’s making lemon drizzle, but I’m not bringing you any.’

‘Bastard.’

‘Yup.’

I got up and left the room, pulling the door to behind me. It wasn’t going to do any good to make Dad face things just yet; he’d do it in his own time, if Mum left him alone long enough. Dec was more concerning right now, but I didn’t know what to do about him.

I went downstairs and sat next to Tom, looking over at what he was doing on the laptop. There was a document open, headed ‘Matt’s Wishes’, and under it was a list of what seemed to be the things he wanted for his funeral. I looked away from it, recognising an echo in myself of Dad’s desire to avoid the whole thing.

The trouble with looking away from something in a room full of people is that you have to look at something or, more likely, someone else. I caught Mum’s eye; she clocked what I’d been looking at.

‘We were just talking about all that, Cal. Matty made a list of what he wants to happen now, he did it with Laura some time ago. Laura wants us to organise everything, but some of his requests are a bit, well, you know what Matty was like, he never did anything traditionally. He might ruffle a few feathers.’

‘But you’ve got to do it if it’s what he wanted.’

‘There are just a few things – the songs, the notice in the Herald, we weren’t sure if people would be offended.’

‘That’s probably what he wanted. He liked ruffling feathers. This is his last chance.’

Mum nodded. She knew that better than anyone, having had most of her plumage well and truly trampled by Matty over the years. She looked over at Gran, but didn’t say anything, and I realised what she meant. That she didn’t want Gran to be upset, any more than she already was.

‘I’m sure Matt took all that into account when he was planning this, Beth.’

Amy always saw everyone’s side, tried to smooth over disputes. She’d had enough practice with her large family, and usually managed to say the one thing that made everyone see sense.

‘Maybe, maybe not. He’s always liked the thought of making people do things differently than they think they should be done.’

‘But they’re his last wishes, aren’t they?’

Charlie had looked up from her phone.

‘You have to, like, obey them, don’t you?’

‘Usually, Charlie, but you also have to bear in mind other people and how it might affect them.’

‘But it’s not like he wants to have a Nazi flag on his coffin, or make people recite the Satanic Verses or something. What’s the worst thing he wants?’

I risked a look at the list Tom had up on his computer, and glanced down it. Some of the things on it made me smile, some of them made me wince.

‘He wants the Darth Vader death march when they bring the coffin in.’

Rosa laughed. ‘That’s brilliant. I mean, inappropriate much, but brilliant. Do you think they’d do it?’

‘That’s not the point, sweetheart. We can’t offend people like that.’

‘Seriously Mum? Who’s going to be offended? Anyone who knows what it is will think it’s funny, and Mattyish, and anyone who doesn’t know what it is will just think it’s a bit of a weird tune, a bit kind of doomy. Do you even know what it sounds like?’

Mum was looking daggers at me, but I pulled up the tune on YouTube and played it to her. It didn’t seem to help matters.

We talked around in circles about this and plenty of the other things Matty had expressly said he wanted, for ages. I suspected he never thought in a million years we’d do most of them, it was just a way to make us talk about things and get together, but it was difficult not to be on the side of letting Matty have his way.

135. Loose ends

In which a friend works things out, and goodbyes of a sort are said.

Cal

Just before Christmas, I got a phone call from Baggo.

‘Hey Callywally.’

‘Bags. How’s it going?’

‘It’s going great. Fucking great. You around on February fourteenth?’

‘Don’t know offhand. What day of the week is it?’

‘Thursday.’

‘Oh, then yeah, probably. Depends on games and stuff, but more than likely it’s my day off.’

‘Great. Glad to hear it, mate.’

There was a silence. I could almost hear him bursting to tell me something.

‘Baggo, please just spit it out. I haven’t got time to fuck about, I’m supposed to be picking Conor up from Mum’s.’

‘You always spoil my fun Callywally. So on February fourteenth, which is Valentine’s Day in case your cold hard unromantic heart has forgotten, me and Jen are getting married.’

Now it was my turn for silence. I needed a moment to compute what he’d told me. I knew it was going well, that he and Jen had sorted out some of the things that happened when he went off to Europe, but I had not expected this.

‘Holy shit Baggo. Seriously?’

‘Seriously, my friend. And I have a very serious favour to ask you.’

Naturally, he was going to want me to be his best man. Fair was only fair.

‘Yeah, anything, mate. Just ask.’

‘I thought that’s what you’d say. You’re my best mate, after all. OK then. What we need is some sparkly tablecloths, like those ones your mum used at your thirtieth. Could you ask her where she got them? Or even better, if she could give us a lend?’

‘Er … tablecloths?’

‘Yeah, mate. Jen’s dead set on them, with some little heart shaped candle holders. It’s gonna look really cute.’

‘Yeah. Sure. I’ll ask her.’

‘Oh, and something else you could do?’

OK, this was it now. He’d just been stringing me along. His little joke.

‘Name it, mate.’

‘Could you pop round the flat and have a look in the cupboard under the stairs for me? I think I’ve left my posh black shoes there.’

‘Oh. Shoes. Right. Sure thing.’

‘And while you’re there, check the answer machine and pick up the post?’

‘OK. Anything else?’

‘No, can’t think of anything. I’ll let you know.’

Oh who was I kidding? Baggo had two older brothers; he was kind of obliged to ask them, wasn’t he. I swallowed my disappointment and told myself I was happy for Bags, the important thing was he and Jen were happy.

‘You’ll be my best man though, right?’

Oh the bastard. He’d got me, right between the eyes.

‘Baggo, you complete arse. Of course I will. I thought you’d ask Michael or Wheels.’

‘What? And cause a fight because I asked one and not the other? No fucking way.’

‘So I’m just a fight avoider?’

‘No, not just a fight avoider. You’re probably better at stag dos than either of them.’

‘You’re never going to say I’m your first choice, are you.’

‘Nope.’

‘Fair enough. Fourteenth of February, you say?’

*

Baggo and Jen’s wedding was quick, intimate and romantic. There were only a few guests – Jen’s mum and sister, Baggo’s mum and brothers, Chrissie and me, Ayesh and Sam, a couple of Jen’s friends, and Daisy, who was a pretty cute bridesmaid.

We went back to Angus’s flat afterwards for a takeaway, which we ate at a table covered in sparkly tablecloths donated by Mum.

The full story was that Baggo had managed to get a job, with prospects no less, in a music shop, part of a chain. He was going to do some training, which would mean a promotion, and kept him in some small way in touch with the music world. He and Jen were trying hard to make things work between them, and she liked being in London, so they were staying. Daisy had started school at the beginning of January, and they were about to move into their own rented flat near Jen’s sister. Jen had got some evening work as a care assistant, and planned to study for a degree in the daytime at Open University, which she hoped would lead to a better paid job.

I was sad that Baggo was moving away permanently. He’d been around, part of the scenery, part of my life, since I was five, and although keeping in touch by phone, text, email, was easy, it wasn’t the same as having him text me at ten in the evening for ‘a quick half before closing‘ or being able to pop round there with Conor and Lily at the weekend.

But it was a good outcome of what could have been a tragedy for him, and I was glad for them all.

Laura

That last year, Matt and I had been to Ella’s graduation. It had taken a lot of organisation, as these things tended to have lots of rules attached, and pre-planning was required for any kind of disability. Matt was determined not to miss it, whatever it took, and in the end he was having a rare good day, and it wasn’t physically too difficult for us. His face as Ella received her certificate, the look of pride and love on it, was something that will stay with me the rest of my life, and he managed to charm all of Ella’s friends with his ever-present wit.

Josh was playing regularly for Raiders, and loving every minute of his rugby-filled life, and Matt and I went to watch him when we could, although I still didn’t ever really know what I was cheering.

Cal and Jay had retired at the end of the same season, Jay ending up being the longest serving coach in the league, and Cal being one of the longest serving players Raiders had ever had.

When I think about it, the rugby-playing side of our family is very lucky not to have had any life-changing injuries (although Josh and Basty are still playing, so fingers crossed and let’s not think about it more than we have to). Jay has a bit of an ongoing hobble because of his knee, Dec has the facial scars and nose expected of a rugby player but which had actually been caused by a vindictive madman many years ago, and Cal and Nico and got away relatively unscathed. So celebrating retirement seemed the right thing to do, although Jay and Cal were both going to miss their respective roles in the sport they loved.

Huge parties were had by all, it also being Beth’s swan song as a party planner. She had sold her business and she and Jay were planning a big trip, taking in America, where Beth’s mum was, Argentina to visit Nico and Lis, and Australia and New Zealand.

It felt like the family had scattered; even Dec and Amy had talked about moving over to Australia for a while, Dec wondering if there was a market over there for some of the IT stuff he did with Matt.

Cal

That year started off so well, with Baggo’s wedding. It was my last year of playing professional rugby, and although a couple of years ago I would have mourned this, I had come to terms with it and, thanks to my awesome wife, had planned to start training to be a Physiotherapist in the September afterwards. I say thanks to Chrissie, but there are more people who deserve thanks.

Chrissie was the one who chivvied me, supported me, calmed my nerves, talked me into it, gave me confidence I could do it, showed me how we could organise our family and her job so I could do it and we could afford it. Chrissie was just amazing.

Gracie helped me see it was what I wanted to do; I visited her up in Manchester and spent time in a couple of her lectures, talking to her a lot about how the course worked and how she decided it was what she wanted to do.

Iz, who had Gracie as a lodger in the house she shared with Ben, got drunk with me and told me how proud she was of me (she could only do this drunk, and I could only let her drunk), not for being a successful rugby player, but for finally choosing to do something with my life, rather than just going along with what was in front of me.

Dad, who was retiring with me at the end of same season, also seemed to come alive with ambition, and he and Mum were full of plans for what they were going to do with their free time. I saw in them what I wanted for myself – a sense of having worked hard for a long time, with personal achievements that led to a reward of having enough money to stop and take in some of the world. I still had that ahead of me – I hadn’t made enough money playing rugby to stop yet, and I had my family to support.

Dec and Amy – well if it hadn’t been for them plying me with cups of tea and beer when I went round there and bored them to tears with my should-I-shouldn’t-I, rather than booting me out on my arse and telling me the truth, that I needed a good kick … well I’m just very grateful.

Matty and Lau – they’ve always been there, for all of us, and at the start of the year Matty was in pretty good shape for a while. After his little talk a while back, he hadn’t felt the need to try to interfere in my life plan, such as it was, but when I told him what I wanted to do, he looked as much of a smug git as he usually did when things went his way. Matty and Lau were the ones I could call at stupid times of the night when I was worrying about how Chrissie was going be able to do all the things she assured me she was going to do; they were the ones who said we could leave the kids with them anytime we needed to; they were the ones who would call for a chat at just the right moment, when I was pulling my hair out with how to make everything work.

Mum was equally awesome. She organised the retirement party to end all retirement parties for me and Dad. It felt like everyone who had ever played in or even been to a rugby match was there. But even though Mum was up to her eyes in organising all that, she was round at ours practically every day giving Conor and Lily cuddles, offering to babysit, telling us all the news about everyone.

How she kept up with it all I have no idea, but Mum was gossip central, as well as meddling central. It was never enough for her to know something about someone; she had to do something about it too. I know some people (ahem Matty) found it a bit much, but she cared so much about people, and she was a fixer. Yeah, of course she stuck her oar in with me, she’d been trying for years to get me to sort my after-rugby life out, and she had her opinions about the best places to go to train, the best exams to do to get in, and the best ways to study. And of course I ignored her and did things my way. It gave us something to talk about.

So my new attempt at a career was underway – I managed to pass two A levels and a GCSE in the years leading up to my retirement from playing, and I got on to the only course I applied for, forty minutes drive away from home. Well I’d always lived here, it’s not like I was looking to move.

Ella graduated from Uni with a first in Law, the bloody know-all, and to everyone’s amazement Matty made it up to her graduation, all the way up to bloody Durham. There was just no way he was going to miss it – Lau’s got a picture in the front room of Matty looking at Ella, in her cap and gown, and I swear it should be captioned ‘Proud’, because that’s all you can see on his face.

Matty was equally proud of Josh, who was starting regularly for Raiders. He’d made it to as many games as he could, which wasn’t many, but he got the tech bods at Raiders to stream him footage when he couldn’t make it. That season, my and Dad’s last for Raiders, saw us win the European Cup and come second in the League, and when Josh gave Matty his Cup winner’s medal, Matty hung it over his bed and told everyone he kissed it every night. He was a lying bastard, he never did any such thing, but it meant a lot to him.

Charlie managed to bag a full-time job. She’d tried Uni, but couldn’t be doing with the organisation and, let’s face it, hard work she needed to do to make it. She’d come back at the end of her second term and been through bar job after waitressing job after shop job, but had finally found, for now, her niche. Beauty therapy. Massage, pedicures, hair, make-up, all that. And she was studying for qualifications. She still lived at home, but it was possible to be a hundred metres from Dec and Amy’s house and not hear her screeching in anger about something.

Tom was helping Dec and Matty with their business, in fact he covered for both of them more than either of them knew. He was even more of a genius with computers than Matty, and now Matty wasn’t as able to keep up with new developments, Tom would shyly suggest that the new ‘insert something techy here’ programme might be as good a fix for the ‘insert some techy problem’ that someone was having, and should he let Matty have the details or just email direct; and he’d often pick up emails and phone calls that Dec should have answered days or weeks ago, and smooth things over and promise to have things sorted as soon as. To be honest, he could have run the business on his own, but that would have left Dec and Matty with far too much time on their hands to play computer games, when really they should be doing something useful.

So until the end of the summer, that year was going well. Chrissie and I took the kids on our first going abroad family holiday. We went to the South of France and played on the beach all day, soaking up the sun, loving watching our children make sandcastles, loving being together and relaxing. It gave me a chance to feel like things had really finished at Raiders. We went when everyone was going back to pre-season, and although part of me missed all the coming back together banter and bonding that had always gone on, most of me really didn’t miss the back-breaking conditioning work that we had to do to make sure we were fit after the six-week lay-off. Being away while pre-season was going on made sure my mind and body knew all that was over.

When we came back, it was to the news that Matty was ill again. He hadn’t been ill since the winter, not like this, but Lau had all the kit, and he rarely had to go into hospital these days.

We went straight round to visit him, and he did look worse than I’d ever seen him, even those days in Stafford when he was so close to … whatever.

He managed a smile, but had no energy to talk, and he drifted in and out of sleep while we were there. Lau didn’t want us to stay in his room for long, so we went and sat in the living room with her for a bit.

‘You should have texted us, Lau.’

‘No, flower, there was no point worrying you. I didn’t want you to rush back.’

‘He looks worse than usual.’

‘Yeah, he’s not good. But tell me about France. You look like you all caught the sun.’

And that was as much as Lau was prepared to say about it. She would talk to Mum and to Amy when things got too much for her, but mostly she just coped on her own, as Josh had just moved out with some mates, although he still called round most days. She didn’t want to keep going over things with people, and we respected that. She and Matty still supported each other, and I wondered fleetingly what she was going to do without him. Then I banished that thought, because Matty always got better. It took a lot out of him, but he always made a huge effort, and with Lau and medication and all of us, he’d turn the corner and be back to his old self.

It was taking a while, though, and there were the inevitable family discussions.

Matty and Lau hadn’t been to Sunday lunch for a while; in fact, Mum hadn’t done Sunday lunch for a while, because now there were fewer of us around (like, only twelve on a good day), it apparently felt ‘too empty’.

Mum and Dad were getting ready to go on a huge round the world trip. They were going to start with the States and stay with Nana Jane, then branch out to South America, Australia and New Zealand and then take it from there. They spent a lot of time looking at different destinations, or rather I suspect that Mum looked and Dad nodded, and I think they were waiting for Matty to get better so they could firm things up and start making some reservations. Dad even got excited when he talked about it, and I wondered why he hadn’t done something like it sooner.

So, because it had been so long since the last one, when Mum asked us all round for Sunday lunch, everyone who was about made the effort. Chrissie and I picked up Gran, Josh brought April, Dec and Amy came with Tom and Rosa, and apologies from Charlie who had her usual Sunday hangover, which was huge enough to last most of the day. Matty wasn’t up to it, and Lau had stayed with him, but Josh had orders to bring roast potatoes and lemon tart back with him ‘to tempt Matt’, although it was more likely Lau would scoff most of it.

There were enough of us to make a bit of noise, enough kids that the older children (Dec and me) had plenty of fun, enough food that we were all stuffed before dessert but still managed to cram it all in and go back for seconds, but enough room for us all on the sofas without having to spill out onto the floor or split into two groups, one in the living room, one staying in the dining room.

Conor fell asleep on Gran’s knee, and Lily seemed happy enough to be distracted by various aunts while we chatted, and the topic inevitably got round to Matty. He and Lau were never really far from any of our thoughts.

‘Anyone seen Matty this week?’

Mum was angling for making a list of who wasn’t pulling their weight, but it turned out we’d all been round one way or another. So now she used the opportunity to compare notes.

‘He seems a bit brighter, don’t you think?’

‘Not when I was there, Mum. He was asleep most of the time, and when he was awake, he wasn’t really with it.’

‘Yeah, he was a bit like that when Ames and me went yesterday, he dozed off about three times, and we were only in there five minutes, but Lau said he’s been fairly good in the mornings. I think the day wipes him out and by the time it gets to Cash in the Attic, he’s had enough.’

‘So should we be trying to go round in the mornings more?’

‘Then he’ll just get more tired more quickly, Beth. Maybe we should go round less? They’re never going to turn us away, are they.’

‘No, James, but they need to know they’re not alone. It must be awful lying in that bed all day –’

‘– watching TV and being waited on hand and foot. Yeah, it’s a bit shit.’

‘Dec, you know he wouldn’t be in bed if he could choose. Matty’s always liked being out and about. I was wondering though … I had an idea.’

We all waited to find out what Mum was going to make us do now. More timetables and scheduled visits was my guess, but I was way off the mark.

‘It’s such a shame that Matty can’t go hiking any more; even if he was up and about, most of his favourite walks are too steep for his wheelchair.’

‘And too down sheer cliffs.’

‘Which was my point, Cal. I know most of us have been walking with him at one time or another, and I wondered about everyone filming his favourite rambles so he can watch them from his bed. It might make him feel more like he’s outside.’

We all sat, a little stunned, for a few moments. It was the best idea I’d ever heard.

‘Mum, that is brilliant. How did you come up with that?’

‘Well I can’t claim total credit, I did steal it slightly. I was in the dentist waiting room the other day, and they had a screen showing clips of walking trails around the area, and it just got me to thinking. Shall we do it then?’

Mum liked nothing better than everyone agreeing she’d had a great idea, so she could boss us about and get it done. We had a long discussion about Matty’s favourite walks, who was going to do them, and how we were going to film it. Matty was a legendary hiker, and some of his most favourite trails were too long for us – it wasn’t unusual for him in his prime to be gone all day and cover twenty miles or more.

I remembered going with him to the top of the big hill overlooking the sea, down the other side and then back round it. It was easily ten miles, and I had been wiped well before we got back, but Matty had still been fresh as a daisy. I volunteered to do that one.

Josh remembered doing some shorter walks with Matty when he was younger, and he and Rosa decided to do a couple together. Mum and Dad said they’d do a couple of walks on the moors that they knew Matty had enjoyed, and Dec and Amy said they’d walk along the beach near where they’d got married, because ‘there should be footage of the sea’ (and because old man Summers had let himself go a bit, and anything with a slight incline would have him puffing like a steam train).

Mum and Dad had a video camera, which had hardly been taken out of its box but seemed the ideal place to record the walks; Tom was the obvious person to ask to put all the footage together so Matty would be able to watch it.

It made us feel useful, almost excited, like we were doing something positive to help, rather than just calling round and never knowing if we should be there or not.

Doing the walks was good fun too. Chrissie came part of the way on mine, circling back after a while and meeting me at the end with the car. It almost felt like I was doing it with Matty; I was seeing things through his eyes, pointing the camera at birds I was seeing, standing with the lens capturing the view from the top of the hill, slowly panning round to see back to the woods, trying to make it as much of an experience through the camera as if he was actually there.

It was all a surprise for him, and we would have loved to have all been there to see his face when he watched them for the first time, but he really wasn’t able to cope with all of us crammed in his room, or even all being in the house at the same time, so we had to hear about it second hand from Mum who, as the one who’d thought of it, got to drop round the DVDs to Lau.

Matty apparently cried, although he would be quick to deny it and when questioned about it said he’d got chilli on his fingers. After that, I’d often find one of the walks on the TV screen when I went round, and as well as doing what Mum wanted, which was to mentally take him outside of the four walls of his room, it meant we didn’t have to sit and watch crap on TV or make conversation which tired him out.

The walk videos had always been intended as a two-fold thing – to bring the outside in to Matty, and to give him some motivation to get better. And his spirits did seem to lift afterwards.

But Matty didn’t get much better, and it started to occur to us that he’d been ill for much longer than ever before. Mum made one of her rotas to give Lau time off – we’d take it in turns to spend an evening or an afternoon with Matty once or twice a week so she could go and get her hair done, or have coffee with a friend, or go to a yoga class – but more often than not she’d just sit with us instead. It was like she couldn’t bear to leave him even for an hour or two, and often when I turned up she’d be sitting by Matty’s bed holding his hand, just looking at him.

Their old dining room was their bedroom now, and Matty had a special bed that went up and down and could be tilted up to let his chest drain, a bit like the bed he used to have in Stafford only swankier. I still had an urge to mess about with the controls, but I managed to contain myself.

Sometimes I took Conor with me, and would have a weird sense of deja vu when he’d play with his cars on the floor while Matty drifted in and out of sleep. It took me right back to Stafford, and I think Matty recognised it too, although we never mentioned it. Once, he woke up with a start, looked really disoriented and said ‘Tehl Beth … do ih mysehf … dohnt wana mihs Chrihsmus dihner’ and I was sure he thought he was back there too.

Lau slept in a single bed in the same room, so she could respond immediately if Matty needed anything in the night. In the day, when she wasn’t in the room, there was a monitor so she could hear if his breathing changed. It really was full circle back to the time he was first ill, and it wasn’t lost on me that we’d nearly lost him that time. I tried not to think about it. Matty would fight back, he always did. If there was ever a stubborn bastard who got his own way, it was Matty.

Summer turned to Autumn, and still Matty languished in his bed. He hardly ate, he wasn’t awake much, but he still had his sense of humour. Sometimes he felt a bit brighter, and I’d get a text from him.

Fancy an arm-wrestle? Now ur retired, cld beat u no sweat.

or

Tottenham Tottenham no one can stop em they’re gonna do it like they did last year

And he’d make me smile, and it would feel as if he was just texting me from his desk, rather than laboured letter by laboured letter in his sick-person’s bed surrounded by drips and oxygen masks. That was Matty, he always wanted us to think of him as Matty the dude, rather than Matty the pity case, and we tried, but it was hard watching him, it was hard to go there and just kid about with him, pretending like he hadn’t fallen asleep while we were telling him about the kids or bantering with him about the footy. It was hard, but we did it because he was Matty, and he deserved it.

Matt

Before I go, as I said, I want to tell you all what you’ve meant to me.

I’m going to start with Lau, because, my only and forever love, you have meant the most. Without you, none of this would have happened. I would have been gone, offed myself probably, at least be sunk in a sea of anti-depressants in a mental hospital somewhere. I don’t know if you fully appreciate how much you turned me around, how different I am now from who I was, and who I was becoming. You are my world, my shining star, my sun, my moon. I could not exist without you. I would not be Matthew Robert Scott without you, and I thank the universe for the day you swapped your day off with Anna and ended up doing your sex talk in that church hall. I only have one regret, which is that our time together has been marred by the fucking bastard, that you’ve had to do so much more for me than a wife should have to do for a husband.

Lau, I still love you, so fucking much. You made my life complete the day you walked into it, and to have had our bloody brilliant family together has bested anything else I may think I have achieved.

If I were going to choose one moment to put in a memory box and take with me, it would be – oh fuck it, I can’t choose one. So many things have come flooding into my mind: you, looking like you’d been lit up by a sunbeam on that day in the church hall; tousled and naked after some awesome lovin’; looking as beautiful, although fully clothed, on our wedding day; looking less beautiful, although only slightly, and employing somewhat juicier language, while giving birth to the twins; laughing with the family; making the most of the wettest camping holiday in history with an impromptu game of hide the spatula; mind-blowing sex; paint on your nose when we did Mum’s living room; crying after taking Josh and Ella to school for the first time; playing Jenga with me when you were so fat (pregnantly of course) that we couldn’t go out, and laughing so much you made the tower fall over – five times; getting rat-arsed on your fortieth birthday; mind-blowing sex; spending our tenth anniversary in bed and making me feel like it was because you wanted to be there with me, not because I couldn’t actually get out on my own; crying at sad films and happy films; mind-blowing sex; singing boy band shit; looking happy; oh, just tons and bloody tons of things, including some bloody mind-blowing sex. It’s all crowding in now, and I couldn’t possibly choose just one. I’m not going to get all maudlin, I’m going to say thank you. I will hold your hand forever with the last of my strength. I love you.

OK kids, your turn. How the fuck did I manage to father both a future England rugby international and a future top international lawyer? Left to their own devices, my genes would have produced two skinny, short-sighted nerds with no ball skills and a penchant for computer code, so I think you must have your mum to thank for any rippling muscles or off-the-scale IQs.

Josh, the day you made your first start for Raiders was the proudest I have ever been of you. I have no doubt you will play for your country. But sport aside, I am proud of you for the man you have become. I remember when you were little, you used to follow your sister round like a little sheep (yeah, I know, ‘little sheep are actually called lambs, Dad’. Don’t get clever with me, alright?), and you’d let her make all your decisions for you. Then, about the time puberty hit in an explosion of body hair, pustules and growth spurts, you worked out that she’d been using this to her advantage, and took control of your own destiny. I saw you change from a follower to a leader, and I love the quietly assertive Josh who stops your mum from fussing about whether you’re eating right with a look and a ‘chill, Mum’, who sits on the edge of my bed and says ‘about time you got out of your pit old man’, who picks up a screaming Conor and quiets him with a cuddle without making Chrissie or Cal feel bad.

Ella, you seem to have spent your whole life trying to make up for being the youngest. Baby girl, it’s only fifteen minutes, get over it. You’ve taken the world by the horns and shaken it to let it know you’re here, and it can’t help but take notice of you. Your brother’s a home bird, but you’ve flown, and although it’s been so quiet when you’ve been off on your travels, and when you were at Uni, it’s been OK too, because it’s like you’re out there doing what you want to do, spreading Ella-ness around the globe. I don’t think a dad has ever been prouder of a daughter than I was of you when you graduated. I’m so glad I was here for that.

Hippo and Squeaks, you are both fucking awesome. I have loved being a dad, best thing I ever did, but above all I am privileged to have been your Dad and to have been able to watch you grow up. I love you both so much.

Who next? Mum. Mum, I’m so sorry. Oh fuck, I really didn’t want this to be a big mope, but it’s not right, is it? I’ve been thinking a lot recently, about things in general and you in particular, and about kids and parents and what’s right and what’s wrong. And it’s a cliché but nonetheless true that you shouldn’t outlive your kids. So I’m sorry for bringing that wrongness to your doorstep. Just think of it as Matthew’s way of bucking the trend, two fingers up to convention as per.

Mum, I don’t think I’ve ever said this to your face, but I love you. I hope you know that. You’ve saved me from myself more times than I care to remember, and although there are quite a few people who know me pretty well, no one knows me like you.

Sometimes I can tell what you’re thinking without even having to look at you, can feel your look as I’m arsing about, taking things too far, and then I’ll glance up, and there it is, that expression, and I’ll know.

You’ve always given me everything I needed, whether it was a cuddle when I fell over and banged my knee, the last portion of shepherd’s pie when Jay wanted it, a kick up the arse when I was being a pain, whatever it was. It was always delivered with gentleness and compassion.

You are a clever lady; you hide it well, don’t want to blow your own trumpet, but I bet if you took an IQ test you’d be up there with the top lot. But you’re not only intellectually smart, you’re savvy too. You know when to make a fuss and when to leave things, and it draws people to you rather than pushing them away. I’m glad I could give you Josh and Ella, they adore you, and I think they’ll help you when you need it.

Oh alright, then. Jay. Bloody hell, have I got to think of some nice things to say about you, you bastard? Hope I don’t get struck by a thunderbolt for talking out of my arse, or some such shit. OK, here goes then. I bloody hated you when we were kids. There, that’s nice enough, isn’t it? Oh, I should perhaps add that I bloody loved you too, even though I’d really rather not. See, the thing is brother mine, it’s hard to have a superstar for an older brother, it’s a lot to live up to. You have this kind of conflict going on, wanting so much to be like him, but wanting to be completely different and your own person at the same time. It’s a bloody good job I don’t have a sporting bone in my body, as I seriously could not have stood the competition. But that was then, and I guess now, well now I can look at your pot belly and compare it to my much slenderer frame; I can be a bit smug, because I know which one of us is the finer figure of a man.

I never got a chance to speechify to you like you did to me at my wedding, but if I had, I would have arsed around and made light of the things you’ve done for me, and what we’ve become to each other. Oh, I just got a bit serious – did that take you by surprise? It did me. Oh well, now I’m on this track, I guess I should add that although we maybe didn’t start out as the best of brothers, and went our own ways for quite a while, I’m glad that for whatever reason (I’m not going to wax lyrical about your noble sacrifice, I’ve said it before, you know how I feel) we are where we are, comfortable with our differences and in each other’s company. I love you, Jay.

Beth. What can I say to you, Beth? I’ve made your life a bloody misery at times, I’m quite sure, often on purpose, but you never bloody well give up. You have superhuman levels of persistence in the face of overwhelming odds of lack of success, and I salute you. I won’t say I have always, or even often, appreciated your – oh how many ways have I categorised it? Interfering, fussing, do-goodering, mithering, wittering, get the thesaurus out, they’ll all be in there. But I do appreciate that behind it is genuine caring. You didn’t have to take on Jay’s recalcitrant younger sibling and try to make him do things differently, you could have left me to it and thought ‘sod him, why do I bother?’. You bothered, because you’re kind and good and I know, in my heart, you only want what you think is best for people. We’ve had our differences, but we’ve also had our sames, and the bottom line is that you’ve always been there when I’ve needed you, even though I would not have blamed you in the slightest for giving up on my ungrateful arse. Sorry I’ve said ‘fuck’ so much. I don’t think you actually mind it that much, it just gives you something to bang on about. Beth, I like you a lot, although I don’t often show it, and I love you.

Declan Charles Summers. Oh my fucking God, if ever a man had love for another man who wasn’t related to him and who he wasn’t even a teensy bit romantically attached to, then it would be mine for you. I sometimes wish you were my brother, just so I could say this is Dec, he’s my brother, rather than he’s my mate. But the truth is, you are my brother, and my mate, and I thank the universe on a fairly regular basis for the circumstances that brought you up to Stafford that Christmas when we realised we were the same. I guess we’re not really the same any more, you’ve sorted a lot of your crap out, while I’ve gone on having lots of crap and never really sorted it, but your nineteeny self and my thirty onety self were pretty fucking similar.

I would say I’ve watched you grow up, but you were fairly growed already back then, telling me a few home truths and showing me how it was going to be. I like to think I’ve never grown up, a bit like Peter Pan, or Michael J Fox, but you were always streets ahead of me in the maturity stakes.

Mate, I have so enjoyed working with you. That day we had the idea for our business, I can’t tell you how excited I was. When I got the job at Raiders, that was Level 10 excited. When I realised we could work together, and how it might all pan out … Level 692, at least. It has been a blast, the last few years, making a go of it, seeing it work, knowing Tom will be there when I’m not.

You have been the most awesome dude, almost Beth-like scary in knowing what I’m thinking, but not as bloody pushy about it. I love you, mate. I love your bloody awesome family. I’m privileged to have shared so much of my life with yours.

Amy, I love you. Ha, I just wanted to put it there to make Dec look twice. It’s true, though. Remember the first time we met, and you told me to fuck off? Awesome. I’ve hardly heard you curse since, but I knew Dec had found a keeper. You were so young then, and, I don’t know, demure and contained. On the outside, at least. You were a right little goer according to Dec. Yeah, I’m just trying to embarrass you; you’re cute when you blush. I bet you’re blushing now, aren’t you? Knew it. Dec loves it when you go red, does all sorts of man-things to him, so consider this my gift to you both.

Amy, you have been so, so fucking awesome. I’m sure having me just up the road, constantly on the look out for an opportunity to arse about with your husband, has been sorely trying at times, but you’ve always made me feel like nothing is too much trouble, like whatever I get up to, you just accept it. I know when you ask if I’m alright, I’d better bloody well behave myself, because you just don’t do that fussing thing that every other bugger in the family seems to.

I think you kind of keep the rest of us sane – you let us get on with the insanity, the idiocy, the bickering, the posturing, and then you just go ‘but don’t you think that …’ and say the one thing that makes us all look at each other, embarrassed at what we were just doing, and stop to remember that we love each other. Look after him, Amy, he’ll need you.

Spawn of Summers – I have already sung your praises elsewhere, you’re not getting a second go, but suffice it to say the whole bleeding lot of you are more trouble than you’re worth, a bunch of noisy ne’er-do-wells who should learn to pipe down and have a bit of respect for your ageing crippled uncle. I love the whole bloody annoying rabble of you, alright?

Nico, Lis and Bastien. Sorry, I’ve lumped you all together as the South American branch of Scott Global Incorporated. We miss you guys, you really should come over more often.

Basty – are you ever going to make an honest woman out of Ella? (Ha, I bet neither of you thought I knew, but I know everything. There’s not much for a fucking cripple to do all day in bed except listen, cogitate, ruminate and hypothesise. I’m right, aren’t I?)

Nico – Argentina isn’t that great. Come and live in England again. The country is suffering from a shortage of flirting, and you could save the day.

Lis – I understand Linebreak is recruiting to a senior sales position, if you’re interested. A day off a week solely for networking in Costa purposes, and a personal Jimmy Choo budget.

Tiago Tribe, I love you all.

April, April, April. God I was so fucking scared of you. You may notice that I have both sworn and blasphemed in the same sentence, which I usually avoid when communicating with you, but now I’m no longer around, I feel like not giving a shit, and I hope you won’t either.

Thanks for Lau. I know she wouldn’t be who she was without you; she has your steely determination, your compassion and your eyes, and I’m nearly as scared of her. Actually, I’m not scared of you any more, I know you’re not as much of a dragon as you liked to make out early on, in an attempt to scare off any of Lau’s boyfriends who weren’t that serious about her. You’re a warm-hearted person, and I know Ella and Josh love you to bits. I love you too.

Andrew fucking Distock, you old bastard. You are the person who has known me the longest, apart from my mum and Jay. You knew me when we were nerdy science geeks together, and all these years later, here we are, still throwing bits of code and random physics facts at each other and loving the Mighty Spurs with all our hearts. You’re one of those rare people who I can have a chat with after months, or years, and it feels like it’s only been a few days (that time when you fucked off to Africa with Jesus notwithstanding); you’ve been a rock, someone outside of the madness of being here, being me, who I can cling to and call up when I need it. I hope you’ve felt the same about me, but you never know, maybe you’ve been trying to get rid of me all these years. Andrew, you have been a great mate, and I love you.

134. I’m on my way

In which facing a difficult truth results in a plan, and help is at hand for a friend in need.

Cal

The weeks and months to come saw more of us coming to the same conclusion about Matty; that he was getting worse, and he wasn’t strong enough to fight off many more bouts of pneumonia. His MS never seemed to relent these days, and it took away more and more of his coordination and strength. He found it harder to use his computers, and even things like lifting a cup to drink coffee were hard sometimes.

There were lots of discussions about it, some including Matty, but most not, because he got so mad at us. So we talked to each other, none of us wanting to say the thing we were all dreading, that one day soon we were going to be without Matty. Then we all got a text from Lau.

Please be at Beth and Jay’s for six. Lau x

All of us who could be there, were, and Tom had set up Facetime for Iz, Gracie, Ella and Nico. I had no doubt I was one of the few who didn’t know what it was about, but I’d had to come straight from training, and hadn’t had a chance to ask anyone. I was the last to arrive, and everyone was sitting in Mum and Dad’s living room, looking like they weren’t having a fun time.

‘Hi Cal. Thanks for coming flower. Josh, budge up and let Cal sit down.’

‘It’s OK, Lau, I’m not a geriatric yet, I’ll go on the floor.’

I plopped down next to Chrissie, lifting Conor off her knee and giving him a big cuddle. Mum was holding Lily, who was asleep. Typical that the child who never slept was now sleeping like an angel.

‘That’s everyone, then, Laura. Tom, can everyone see everyone on the screen?’

‘Yeah, it’s all good. Whenever you’re ready, Lau.’

‘Thanks for doing that, flower. OK, well thanks all for coming. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and because of some of the things I’ve talked to some of you about, we’ve had this idea. Oh, it’s about Matt. It’s going to be hard for me to say, and I’ve left him on his own, so I’m just going to say it fast, and then I’m going to go home and let you all sort it out, I hope that’s OK.’

I didn’t have a clue what she was going to say, but it didn’t sound like anything good. I’d never seen Lau nervous; she was trembling, and Josh put a steadying hand on her arm as she spoke.

‘OK, here’s the thing. Matt’s slowly getting worse, and it’s getting to the point where we need to think about what we do, how we tell each other, when things get really bad. I don’t think I’m going to be able to call all of you and say it, I just don’t think I’ll be able to get the words out, when the time comes.’

‘Laura, you say as if Matty he is soon to be not with us?’

This was Nico, who hadn’t seen Matty face to face for a while, and who was Facetiming from Argentina. Lau turned and looked at the computer screen, which was split into three and showed Nico, Iz with Gracie, and Ella.

I glanced at Ella, who was looking scared, and at Iz, who had her arm round Gracie. Fuck, this was a hard conversation to be having. I looked around at everyone else. Dec looked like he wanted to be anywhere else, and Amy was holding his hand really tightly. Gran looked so, so sad. Mum was looking at Lau and I could almost feel the mental strength she was sending her. Dad was looking at his knees. Josh still had his hand on his mum’s arm and was nodding slightly. Charlie had actually put her phone away, and looked more thoughtful than was usual. Tom was fiddling with a computer lead, and Rosa looked like she might cry any minute. Chrissie put her hand on my shoulder and gripped it hard. Lau swallowed, and then answered Nico.

‘Well, I think it’s something we all need to think about. Every time he gets a cold, it’s really bad, and he gets weaker, and although we try really hard to keep him germ-free, we just never know. I’m sorry, Nico, we just don’t know how long he’s got. The stubborn git could go on for years, just to annoy me, but I think we need to be prepared.’

‘Laura, to hear this I am sorry.’

‘Thanks, flower, but I just need to get through this. We’ll talk later.’

Lau took a deep breath and carried on.

‘So anyway, this is hard enough, saying it now, but I want you all to know, to give you some warning, and Matt wants that too. He knows I’m here doing this, it was kind of his idea, well, ours. He’s called it The Chain. What it means is that when it’s obvious that he hasn’t … got much longer, only one person has to make one call to one person, who then calls another person, so none of us have to keep saying it. That’s part one, and then part two, when … it’s all over, the same thing. Oh God …’

Lau stopped and held her hand to her mouth, squeezing her eyes shut and breathing hard through her nose. Josh on one side of her and Dad on the other put their arms round her.

‘I’m OK. I’m just going to finish this then I’m going. I’m nearly done. So that’s it, two chains, two bits of information. I’d suggest the fewer words the better, I know some of you are going to find it hard to say anything at all.’

Lau looked at Dec as she said this.

‘So please, work out who calls who and what you say, so we all know where we are. Thanks for coming, you are all so good.’

She stood up, picked up her bag and left the room. Mum stood up, giving Lily back to Chrissie, and went to the door with her, but she came back after a moment and sat down. We all looked at her.

‘Why are you all looking at me?’

‘Because you’re usually the one who organises who does what, Mum. You’ve been text-bossing us all about when we go to see Matty, this is just a step up from that.’

‘Maybe one day, Iz, I’ll just stop organising you all and you’ll have to do it for yourselves.’

‘Maybe one day, Mum. But you’re so gonna do this.’

Mum sighed. ‘Oh I suppose so.’

While Iz and Mum were distracting themselves with their bickering, the rest of us were looking at each other, different expressions of discomfort reflected on our faces.

For Lau to have done this, got us all together and said what she did, things with Matty must be really serious. It was time to unbury our heads from the sand and take a good look at what we needed to do. It was so like both of them to do this, give us time to face it, make a plan, spell it out for us, rather than it being a shock at the last minute. However, it was still a shock. I could see it most on Dec’s face; his eyes were wide, he had gone pale and his chest was moving fast as his breathing became shallower. I held Conor tightly to me and waited for Mum.

Mum closed her eyes briefly, took a deep breath and then looked around at us all, including the four people on the computer screen.

‘Well. I suppose it’s down to me, then. James, can you get me some paper and a pen?’

Dad looked up, as if he’d been in another world.

‘What?’

‘Paper and pen, please, so I can write down what we decide, and then send it out to everyone.’

‘Oh. Where’s the paper?’

Dad wasn’t just being his usual unhelpful self. He wasn’t as obvious about his emotions as Dec, but he looked like someone had just hit him with a hard object, and he was having trouble focussing.

‘Try your office? The printer?’

‘Oh. Yeah. OK.’

Dad hauled himself to his feet and walked out of the room. We could hear him cross the hall and open the door to his office, then the door closed. We all sat in silence, waiting. This was eerie. We were never quiet, there was always noise and fighting and kidding about, but usually Matty was at the centre of it. Now he was at the centre of this weird silence.

Mum waited impatiently, jiggling a foot and tutting every few seconds. Eventually she lost the ability to wait any longer.

‘Cal, can you go and see what he’s doing in there? I only want a sheet of paper.’

I didn’t see why I had to go, she was as capable of going as me, but Mum always liked to be the one dishing out the orders, and this didn’t seem like the time to be arguing. I stood up, deposited Conor on the closest unoccupied knee, which happened to be Josh’s, and went to fetch Dad.

I could hear him from the hall. He was crying. Shit. I hadn’t seen my dad cry for years, and then it was because of Matty, when he was so ill back in Stafford. I hesitated for a few moments, unsure whether I should go in, but if I didn’t, Mum would send someone else, or worse, come herself, and Dad didn’t need that.

I opened the door to the office and walked over to the printer, doing my best not to notice Dad, who had startled when I entered and tried to wipe his eyes. I grabbed a few sheets of paper, and a pen from the desk, put my hand briefly on Dad’s shoulder as I passed, then shut the door behind me as I left the room.

It shook me up, knowing Dad wasn’t handling it. Dad handled everything the same way – without any drama. He hardly seemed to take in a lot of what went on, and did as Mum told him with varying levels of irritability and bewilderment.

I needed a few deep breaths before I went back into the living room and handed the pen and paper to Mum.

‘Where’s your dad?’

‘Give him a moment. He’ll be back in a bit.’

I hoped Mum would be able to read between the lines and give Dad space without making a big deal of it. She didn’t look pleased, but didn’t say anything else, just took the things I gave her.

‘Right then, so we just need to decide who’s going to tell who, and what we’re going to say. Obviously Laura will be the first, so who is going to be the one she calls?’

None of us wanted to be that person, so we all looked at our shoes, until Josh spoke.

‘Me. If she calls anyone, it should be me, shouldn’t it.’

Josh was only twenty-one. He was handling this with a dignity I would have expected from a much older person. To be honest, I would have expected Mum to volunteer to be the first, the one who got it all going, but she hadn’t. Maybe she had her own thoughts on the matter and was just waiting for the right people to come to the right conclusions. She looked at Josh tenderly.

‘Josh, sweetheart, this is hard, I know, but yes, I think your mum would like you to be the one she tells.’

Josh nodded and squared his shoulders. Maybe his chin quivered a little, but no one mentioned it. I saw him look at Ella, who was looking back from the computer screen. Ella was always off somewhere – this country, other countries, frequently not contactable – so if Lau wanted one of her children to be top of the list of people who she told when Matty was in trouble, then Josh was right, it was going to have to be him.

‘And I’ll tell Ells, if she’s somewhere with a signal.’

‘I’m not leaving the country now, Joshy. You’ll be able to get hold of me.’

Josh nodded.

‘Maybe one of you would call me, or text me?’

Mum looked from Josh to Ella. This was obviously where she felt she fitted in.

‘I will, Beth. But Ells, you can call Nana April, yeah?’

April wasn’t there, I didn’t know why.

As Ella nodded at Josh, Dad walked back in and took his seat on the sofa. His eyes were red and the hair around his face was wet, as if he’d splashed his face. He locked eyes with Mum, and they had a momentary silent conversation which ended with him shaking his head very slightly.

‘James, we’ve just sorted the first bit out. Josh is going to call Ella and me. I’ll call you, you can call –’

‘No one.’

‘But you’ve got to –’

‘No, Beth. I can’t.’

‘James –’

‘No. I won’t physically be able to do it.’

They had a brief stare-off, which to my astonishment ended with Mum dropping her eyes and nodding at the sheet of paper in her lap.

‘Alright, then. I’ll call Dec. Dec, you can –’

‘I can’t either, Beth. Shit, do you have any idea how fucking hard it’s going to be to make that call? I won’t be able to get a single fucking word out.’

Mum’s lips went thin and tight, like they always did when she wasn’t getting her own way.

‘Yes, Dec, I do have an idea how hard it’s going to be. That’s why we’re doing this, so Laura doesn’t have to be the one to call everyone, so Josh doesn’t have to be the one to call everyone. We’re doing it for them, and to make it just a little easier for everyone.’

‘Hon, just call me. Or text me. We’ll think of one word. You’ll probably be with me anyway, then you won’t have to call anyone.’

Ever the peacekeeper, Amy was stroking the back of Dec’s neck and holding his hand tightly. Her softly spoken words seemed to soothe him, and he swallowed a couple of times, then nodded once.

The rest of the chain was decided, along with our code word, which was Tottenham. It made us smile to think of Matty having the last word in that way, and it was also a word that would be extremely unlikely to be said or texted, on its own, by mistake.

Usually when we all got together, there was food and laughter, but as soon as we’d sorted everything out, including the second chain, which included more people to tell and how to do it, we couldn’t stay there feeling miserable about Matty and we went home.

Chrissie put Lily to bed as soon as we got in, and I got Conor into his PJs and read him a story, waiting for Chrissie to come down so she could say goodnight to him.

‘Hey little man, you’re lovely and ready for bed tonight. Daddy’s done a great job with you.’

Conor lifted his arms to Chrissie and she hoisted him up, holding him close and looking at me over his shoulder.

‘Are you OK, Cal?’

I shrugged. It had been an emotional evening, and it was going to take a while to sort through it all.

‘Not sure. I’m not ready for Matty to be this close.’

‘We don’t really know how close he is.’

‘Pretty close, if Lau’s making arrangements.’

‘They’re just being organised.’

‘Yeah, maybe. I can’t imagine it, though … you know, after.’

‘We’ll all help each other. Wasn’t Josh amazing?’

‘Yeah, he’s pretty grown up. Must take after Lau, because Matty’s still seven years old at heart. That’s why he finds all this so hard, his body letting him down, not getting his own way any more’

‘Lau’s got a young soul too. You know what she told me? It must have only been a few months ago, Matt was having a good day, they locked the doors, turned off their phones –’

‘Let me stop you before you scar me for life – again – with the goings on at number forty seven. Jesus, ill or not, Matty’s fifty-six for fuck’s sake.’

‘So? That doesn’t mean anything. I hope we’re still going strong when we’re that age, and older. It was in the garden, by the way. On the swing chair. All the neighbours were out.’

‘Chrissie! Stop! Put Conor to bed or something.’

I put both my hands over my ears and started to ‘la la la’ loudly. Conor, who had been drowsing on Chrissie’s shoulder, roused briefly and looked at me with those solemn two-year-old eyes, as if to say ‘I’ll never understand grown ups’. Then he closed his eyes again, as Chrissie carried him up the stairs. I could hear her chuckling and humming to Conor as she put him into bed.

Later that night, although Chrissie had kidded me out of feeling low about Matty, I hadn’t been able to get Lau out of my mind. What she and Matty had done for us was pretty amazing, when I thought about it; to make sure we all knew exactly what to do when we needed to, no dithering, just all follow the plan, and to make us think about it, face what was going to happen sooner or later. It had taken a lot of courage.

I looked at the time. Late-ish, but Lau would still be up. No idea about Matty – he seemed to spend half his life asleep these days, but that often meant he kept weird hours.

Hi Lau. U OK?

So-so flower. Weird evening. Thx 4 asking.

Need 2 talk?

Not right now. Might call u tmrw. Matt says hi.

From that, I gathered that Lau could do with offloading to someone, but Matt was awake and in the vicinity. They talked to each other about pretty much anything, but I knew that Lau tried to be as upbeat and optimistic with Matty as she could. Matty still tended towards blaming himself for everything, and if Lau got upset, he’d feel guilty.

U no where I am.

Thx flower x

Laura

Matt had several run-ins with pneumonia. Each one weakened him, sapped his energy, took longer to recover from, stole a part of his soul. He lost so much weight, he was barely skin and bone, but he stayed with me, his humour and his love shining out of his big grey eyes. He had bad days, when it was too much and he could only cry and rage about it, but dark Matt never came back to stay.

It tore at me to see it eating away at him, reducing his physical being to a shell, so dependent, and so hating it. But he put up with it for me. When he was bad I sat and held his hand, and when he wasn’t quite so bad we’d do as much as we could together, whether it was a crossword or watching a TV show or sitting and commenting on the Sunday papers, or if it was a really good day, going out to the park and watching the dogs and making up stories about the people walking by and laughing, always laughing.

Cal

It wasn’t long after that horrible awkward evening where we all had to confront an approaching sadness we’d been trying to avoid thinking about, that I heard from Baggo. He’d been out of the country for a few months, of all things on a tour of Europe with his band. They’d had some minor success locally and picked up some interest from a management company, who had arranged a recording studio for an EP, and a twelve week tour of the less discerning clubs in Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Lichtenstein. I’d seen Baggo for a bit of a send-off before he went; he’d been full of it all, but underneath I could see he was torn about leaving Jen and Daisy. He’d taken unpaid leave from his job, and was keen to tell me it was worth it, because …

‘What if we hit the big time? What if I didn’t go, and they got another singer, and they hit the big time, and here am I, left behind, dead end job, while they get all the glory?’

‘Are you likely to hit the big time in Belgium?’

‘Who the fuck knows, Cal? Some people do. You know I’ve always wanted to sing.’

Well I knew he’d always sung. It wasn’t until the last few years, when he’d made a few quid here and there at gigs, that it had become a career ambition. Not that I was belittling it; I’d followed my dream and it had become a reality. Just because it took Baggo a bit longer to realise what he wanted to do with his life, well, fair enough. The trouble with having ambitions when you’ve got responsibilities is that they don’t always go hand in hand.

‘You’ve always had a great voice, Bags. What’s Jen going to do while you’re away?’

‘Do? Same as usual I suppose.’

‘What, look after Daisy on her own while you’re out gigging? Without having to put up with you coming home in the small hours and waking her up to tell her all about it, I suppose. I can see why she’d be supportive.’

‘Fuck off, you arse. I do my share. That’s why I do nights, so I can help with school runs and shit while she’s working. Her mum’s going to help out. Jesus Christ, Cal, it’s only for a few weeks, it’s not like I’m fucking off to the other side of the world for years.’

The fact that Baggo was getting so defensive told me I might have got closer to the truth than I’d intended, and I decided not to push it.

‘Fair enough. She can always call me or Chrissie if she needs anything while you’re gone. I bet Ayesh and Sam would help out too.’

Me, Chrissie, Ayesh, Sam, Baggo and Jen had formed a group of friends that I would never have predicted a few years ago. Chrissie had always got on with Baggo when we were at school, but admitted her surprise at finding him essentially unchanged when she came back to the city. She’d missed out on the drinking and womening years, and so when Bags calmed down after he met Jen, to all intents and purposes he became the Baggo she’d known back then. Ayesh had never really got Bags, because she had known the drinking and the women, more than she’d known the ‘before’, so when he calmed down after he met Jen, he became a lot more palatable. We met up together a few times, with our kids, and we all got on together, so we did it a few more times, until we were kind of a group.

‘Well I’ll mention it. Don’t want Ayesh getting a stick up her arse about me leaving them alone, though, so don’t say anything till I’ve gone.’

‘Ayesh wouldn’t have a stick up her arse. She’s cool.’

‘About being mates with her ex, maybe. I know it’s taken me a while to get in her good books though.’

‘Once you’re in her good books, it takes quite a lot to get you out again.’

‘What, like shagging another woman?’

‘Thanks for that, Bags.’

He never changed. If he thought it, he said it, whether it was appropriate or not. Usually it was not. Usually it was in front of someone who also thought it was not. I’d got used to it, and was never shocked by his lack of discretion, but he still made people gasp with his directness.

‘No, but I suppose you’re right. She’s still your mate, isn’t she. Not many exes you can say that about.’

‘No. But if you wouldn’t mind not being so … blunt about it when Chrissie and Ayesh are in the same room I’d appreciate it.’

Baggo frowned as if he didn’t know what I meant.

‘Ach, they’re both fine with it. Jen told me they were all talking about you the other day, comparing what you’re like now with Chrissie and what you were like with Ayesh. I have to say, mate, you are totally whipped these days.’

Baggo did an exaggerated whipping motion with added ‘ker chh’ sound effects.

‘I am not. You have to be more organised with kids. It’s teamwork.’

‘See what I mean? Fucking whipped.’

‘So Jen never gets you to do anything?’

‘Nothing I don’t want to do.’

‘You just said you do nights so you can help with the school run.’

‘Yeah, I want to do that.’

‘And you’d never, oh I don’t know, put all the money from your gigs into a savings account for Daisy, rather than going out on the piss?’

‘Yeah, I want to do that too.’

‘Hmm. And cleaning the bathroom every Saturday so Jen can have a lie-in, that would be –’

‘How the fuck do you know – I’ll fucking kill her. She’s destroying my street cred.’

Anyway, so Baggo had gone on his tour of the backwaters of Europe, and by way of keeping in touch, I’d got the odd fairly incomprehensible text:

They fucking love us gona b beruhmt.

Post gig parties rock n roll woohoo.

Shmsl u rnt hr not gd fr bak soon.

Lichtenstein is shit.

11.30 hotel ibis rm 214.

I’m pretty sure the last one wasn’t meant for me. Who knows, maybe none of them were, but anyway, apart from the texts, I didn’t hear from him while he was away, and Jen didn’t ask for help from us, or to my knowledge from Ayesh and Sam. Chrissie and I tried to contact Jen, but she didn’t reply to any of our calls or texts, and her phone always went to voicemail. We even went round once or twice, on the off-chance, with the kids, but she never answered the doorbell.

In the middle of one afternoon my phone rang with Baggo’s tone – a short clip of one of his band’s songs he’d insisted on putting on my phone as his ringtone. Most of my ringtones were put on by other people; I couldn’t be arsed to change the default.

‘Bags! Where are you?’

There was silence for a while, then some sounds I couldn’t decipher, then Baggo’s voice, coming as if from a long way away. Which it quite possibly was.

‘Cal?’

He sounded so … unsure. Baggo was big on self-confidence, and this small, tremulous voice, well I only recognised it because it was his ringtone and his picture on my screen.

‘Yeah. What’s up, mate?’

‘I’ve fucked up. Big time.’

I sighed, to myself. This felt like a conversation from a long time ago, even though I had no idea, as yet, in what way Bags might have fucked up.

‘How?’

‘Jen. She’s gone. Taken Daisy.’

‘Shit. Bags, where exactly are you?’

‘I’ve just got home. All their stuff, it’s gone. I didn’t think she meant it, I thought she was just trying to get me to change my mind, I can’t believe she’s really done it …’

Baggo’s voice trailed off. I knew what I had to do.

‘I’m coming over.’

‘No, mate, you don’t have –’

‘See you in fifteen.’

Baggo and Jen’s flat was across the city, on an ex-council estate. The neighbourhood was friendly, but rough and ready. I was conscious of people openly watching as I got out of my BMW four wheel drive; I convinced myself they were being neighbourly, and that I wouldn’t come back to find my wheels removed. It had never happened before, no reason apart from prejudice to think it might happen this time.

I rang Baggo’s doorbell, and waited for a long time. I rang it again, then again, then leaned on it for a long time, until I heard footsteps coming down the stairs. The lock went and the door opened, revealing a pale-faced, red-eyed Baggo who wouldn’t look at me.

‘Ah mate, I’ve brought beer.’

I lifted the six-pack I’d grabbed from the fridge so he could see it. Worryingly, this didn’t seem to perk Baggo up in the slightest; he just turned and walked up the stairs, leaving me to shut the door behind me.

I followed Baggo into the living room. Their flat was never tidy; having a young child in a small flat meant too much stuff and not enough space. But all the toys and piles of laundry had gone; there were no photos of Daisy, only squares of unfaded wall where they had been; the only coats on the hooks by the door were Baggo’s duffle coat (winter) and denim jacket (summer). It was like a different place, like some kind of personality had left it.

‘Baggo, what’s happened?’

‘They’ve gone.’

‘I can kind of see that. Shit. Here, have one of these.’

I held out the bottles to Bags, but he shook his head.

‘Mate, you’re fucking freaking me out. What’s happened? When did you get back?’

Judging by the huge rucksack and pile of various mic stands and leads, he hadn’t been back long.

‘About an hour ago. Here.’

He handed me a note, in Jen’s handwriting.

Jake

In case you haven’t noticed, and I wonder if you will, Daisy and I have gone. I don’t know if you will have any idea why, because you haven’t been listening to me for the last I don’t know how long, so I will say it clearly.

I begged you not to go to Europe. You ignored me. You said it would be good for us to do our own thing. What that meant was it would be good for you to do your own thing, and that you didn’t really care what I might think about being left on my own with our daughter to arrange childcare while I went out to work to make sure neither of us starved.

Well I hope you’ve had a wonderful time, and to show how much I think you should carry on doing your own thing, Daisy and me have gone. We’re going to be doing our own thing somewhere else, somewhere that isn’t this shit-hole where we have to stare at four crappy walls all day wondering when you’re going to remember us and care enough about us to ditch band practice, or pre-practice drinks, or post-practice drinks, or fucking tours of fucking European cities no-one has ever fucking heard of.

I told you I would leave if you went, I suppose you thought I was calling your bluff. Well it took me a couple of weeks, I wondered if I’d been unreasonable, but you hardly called us. Daisy asks where you are every day, wanting to know when you’re going to talk to her. You promised her, Jake. So, no, I don’t think I’m being unreasonable. I told you what would happen, and it’s happening.

Oh, and next time you’re lining up a post-gig shag, make sure you send the text to the right slut, and not your girlfriend.

I loved you, you tosser, and you’ve broken me. I want to spend the rest of my life a very, very long way away from you.

Jen

‘Oh Bags.’

I sat down on the sofa and re-read the letter. It didn’t get any better with a second look.

‘When did she go?’

Baggo sat next to me, put his face in his hands and spoke through his fingers.

‘I don’t know. There was a mountain of mail when I got back. Could be weeks.’

‘We’ve been trying to get in touch, she hasn’t answered. Where’s she gone?’

‘I don’t know.’

Baggo sounded distraught. The story in the note seemed like the Baggo of old, not the more responsible Baggo he’d become over the last few years, but I supposed no one ever really knows what goes on between two people.

‘Bags, is this all true?’

I held the note up.

‘Before you went, you said everything was fine, her mum was going to help out, I thought it was sorted.’

‘So did I. Maybe, though … maybe I just wanted to think it was, like, you know, bulldozed my way through it because I so wanted to go.’

‘Did she beg you not to go?’

‘She might have. I didn’t think she was serious.’

‘Did she say she’d leave if you went anyway?’

‘I might have ignored her because I didn’t want to hear it. I can do that sometimes.’

‘Yeah.’

It was actually the way Baggo always did things, but saying that right now wasn’t going to help matters.

‘What about the post-gig shag?’

‘No! That never happened. I didn’t go out there for women, I went for … to …’

His sat, shaking his head, as if he could no longer remember why he’d gone away.

‘Do you know what she’s talking about, though, this text you sent to the wrong person?’

‘Not a fucking clue. I sent thousands of texts while I was out there. I sent a ton to you.’

‘Yeah, and not all of them seemed as if you’d meant to send them to me. Have you checked your phone?’

He reached into a pocket and pulled out his phone, then started scrolling through it.

‘Oh fuck this, there’s fucking thousands, I’ll never find it.’

He threw the phone on the floor and slumped back into the sofa. I picked it up and had a look, finding his conversation with Jen and looking back to the last text she had replied to. The one after that seemed to be the culprit.

Hey babe, wants to meet up afterwards the gig?

and then one that seemed familiar

11.30 hotel ibis rm 214.

I got my phone out and scrolled back through Baggo’s random texts from the last few weeks. I had one exactly the same. Weird.

‘Baggo, what were you doing on the twelfth of September?’

‘How the fuck should I know?’

‘Try. Something seems a bit off. Now, don’t blow your top, but you’re positive you didn’t hook up with anyone after any of your gigs?’

Baggo looked at me for a few seconds, and I could see the anger rising in his face, but he took a few deep breaths and it drained away again. He shook his head.

‘It might be in the calendar, what we did on the twelfth of September. The manager put all our gigs and shit on Google calendar, with reminders, so we didn’t forget anything.’

I scrolled through the list of dates and names of cities and venues until I found the right one.

‘Does Rockhalcafe ring any bells? Luxembourg City?’

Baggo shook his head. I Googled it and found some pictures, which I showed him. Light dawned.

‘Oh yeah. That was a mega night. Really cool place. I mean, yeah, there were girls there, I’m not saying I couldn’t have if I wanted to, but I turned it all down, sat at the bar afterwards, watching the rest of the band chatting them up. You know what, Cal, I actually said no to three women. Me. I said ‘no’. I said ‘I’ve got a girlfriend, I’m texting her now’ and I did, I texted Jen right then and told her I missed her and Daisy. Got a bit pissed, actually, because I missed them. One of them wanted to see a picture, took my phone when I showed her, put her number in – oh fuck!’

The same thing occurred to Baggo that had occurred to me a short time ago. The way the first text was written, it didn’t sound like proper English. I mean, yeah, texting isn’t proper English, and some of Baggo’s texts didn’t even sound like proper human, especially when he was pissed, but this text sounded like someone trying to sound English. Someone had sent the texts to Jen on purpose. Why they’d sent one to me as well I wasn’t sure, but Jen’s last name was Sanderson, so it was pretty close to mine in Baggo’s contact list. I didn’t know enough about phones to understand it; I could ask Tom or Matty another time.

Meanwhile, Baggo’s face had lit up with hope.

‘So all we need to do is find her, find Jen, and tell her. Tell her they hacked my phone, and we can fix it.’

‘Whoa, hang on Bags, I think it might not be as simple as that. I mean, yeah, maybe this was the thing that made her snap, but what about all that stuff at the beginning of her note? How she didn’t want you to go, but you went anyway? I don’t think we’re going to find a quick fix for that, mate.’

Baggo’s face fell, as he thought about it.

‘Yeah, but maybe, maybe she was just so mad thinking I’d gone back to my old ways that it made her more mad than she should have been about the other shit.’

Baggo was never particularly realistic. He saw things one way, and could never quite understand why nobody else saw things the same way, so he just adjusted things in his mind until, to him, it appeared everyone was happy with the way things were.

‘Bags, listen.’

I held up Jen’s note.

‘This is a letter from a seriously pissed off woman who never wants to see you again. Not because someone sent her a text pretending to be you, but because she feels like you’ve abandoned her and your daughter so you can go off and have fun for three months. Maybe it’s possible to fix it, but I think you need to ask yourself, mate, if you’re willing to change the way you do things, if you think you can change. I’m not saying it’s a lost cause, I’m just asking you to be honest with yourself.’

He looked at me as if I’d just stamped on his Christmas presents.

‘But I love her. And Daisy. How can I live without them?’

I rolled my eyes and refrained from saying he should have thought of that before he buggered off to Europe for three months to live without them. Instead I tried to help him.

‘Bags, if you really want to try and find them, I’ll help you, I will, but only if you face facts, and the facts are she’s left because you’ve been a shit and only thought about yourself, and she might not want you back even if you apologise and offer her the moon to say sorry.’

It sounds harsh, I know, but with Baggo you had to be very, very clear about things, otherwise he just saw the tiniest loophole that meant he could do things his way.

‘Did she talk to Chrissie? Or Ayesh?’

‘No, well definitely not to Chrissie, and Ayesh hasn’t said anything. Could you try Jen’s mum?’

‘Great plan. Or, even better plan, you could. Say you’ve been worried about her because you haven’t heard from her. It’s the truth isn’t it?’

‘And how do I explain where I got her number from?’

‘Oh she won’t ask, will she. Go on, mate. If I ring her I won’t get anywhere. And no one knows I’m back yet. As soon as word gets round it’ll be too late. Please, mate?’

And so I did it. I called Jen’s mum and lied through my teeth for my mate and felt like a creep for doing it, but got the information Baggo was looking for. She’d gone to London to stay with her sister while she decided what to do.

‘Well that’s encouraging, she still doesn’t know what she wants to do. Maybe she’s waiting for me to get back so we can sort things out.’

Baggo’s ability to hope reminded me of a puppy that kept trying to eat from the table no matter how many times it got its nose smacked with a newspaper.

‘You’ve got to phone her sister now. The number’s here, look.’

He held his phone out, but I pushed it away.

‘No, Bags, I’m not going to phone her sister. Phoning her mum was bad enough. You know where she is, it’s down to you now.’

‘But she won’t talk to me.’

‘You don’t know that.’

‘I can’t do it. What if she goes off somewhere else? What if she won’t let me see Daisy? Oh God, Cal, what if I never see Daisy again?’

Baggo was looking at me now with genuine fear. It had not occurred to him before that he risked losing his daughter. I tried to give him some hope without sending him sky-rocketing the other way.

‘Bags, you’ll always be Daisy’s dad. Jen knows that. Whatever happens, don’t you think she’ll want you to be a part of her life, in some way?’

‘Fuck it, Cal, I can’t deal with this. Please call her for me. I don’t think I can hear her say the words, I don’t think I can do it.’

I nearly weakened, but it really did seem like it would be best if Baggo called for himself. It was going to be obvious enough where I’d got her mum’s number from; I didn’t want to seem like I was stalking Jen.

‘You can, Bags. I’ll stay if you like, or I’ll give you some space and you can let me know how it goes –’

‘No, stay – oh, but maybe don’t listen. Shit, I don’t know. I’ll go in the bedroom. I don’t think I can fucking stand it if you hear her binning me.’

He stood up and walked to the bedroom, dialling the number as he went. I sat on the sofa, and heard Baggo talking. I couldn’t hear what he said, but the fact that the talking was going on for longer than it took to say ‘fuck off’, I took as an encouraging sign. I got my own phone out and texted Chrissie.

Found out where Jen is. Left him, gone to sister’s with Daisy.

OMG! Why? How do u know?

Later xx

A small evil part of me loved having gossip that I knew and no one else did. I was always the last to know things, largely because I took after my dad with not listening to anything anyone said and assuming that what people were talking about would be of no immediate relevance to me. Still, it felt a little bit good to know something before anyone else, even though it was at the expense of my best mate’s relationship.

Chrissie’s text tone started, and continued, to chirp ‘Arsenal Arsenal’ at me (some couples had romantic ‘our song’ tones – not us, this was much more meaningful), so I silenced it and sat back smugly while my phone vibrated against my hip.

After some time, Baggo emerged from his bedroom, stuffing his phone in his pocket and wiping his eyes. I sat up straighter and waited for him to tell me how it had gone.

He walked over to the small kitchenette and filled the kettle up, then got a mug out and put a teabag in it. When he opened the fridge and got the milk out, without even acknowledging me, I lost patience.

‘Baggo.’

He turned and looked at me, mild surprise on his face, as if he actually had forgotten I was there.

‘Sorry mate. I was in a world of my own.’

‘Hmm. So?’

‘So. I don’t know.’

‘Meaning?’

‘Well she hasn’t binned me, not exactly, not yet.’

‘What did she say?’

‘Not much. I grovelled like I’ve never grovelled before, said I was a dick, had been a dick for a while, how did she put up with me, I missed her and Daisy so much it was too hard to contact them much while I was away, I’m giving up music, gonna work hard, you know, all that shit I just said to you.’

He hadn’t said any of that to me, but sometimes Baggo didn’t realise he hadn’t said the things that were in his head, so I let it pass.

‘Is it just shit, then?’

‘No, I didn’t mean that, it’s not shit, I mean it. But she doesn’t really believe me. I guess I’ve got to prove it. Fucking hell, Cal, how am I going to prove it if she’s living in London?’

I thought about it for a moment.

‘Well, you could go and live in London. Be near them. Be around. Be responsible.’

Baggo stared at me.

‘What, leave here? What about my job? And there’s my mum … and …’

His protests faded away, and I didn’t need to say that his job was nothing special, nothing that couldn’t be replicated somewhere else, and his mum had his two brothers, or the most important thing: if he was serious about getting Jen and Daisy back, he had to show them that they were worth more than any of the rest of it. Bar none. Baggo wasn’t stupid; he was brainless and thoughtless a lot of the time, but when it came to thinking, he was actually very smart, and I could see all this going on while I looked at him.

‘No, you’re right.’

I hadn’t spoken, but it was as if I had. I guess when you’ve been mates all your lives, you know so well what each other is going to say, that it’s easier to assume it’s been said.

‘I am?’

‘Yeah. Bloody hell, though, mate. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get a job in London, and it’s fucking expensive to live there.’

‘I might be able to help you out.’

I saw Baggo about to refuse, as he thought I was going to offer him money. I’d never insult him like that, although it’s true it was always my round in the pub, and we always took my car when we went anywhere, and I always brought a good bottle of scotch when I came over. It’s just the way things were.

‘I’ve got a mate who used to play for Warriors, he’s just moved to Birmingham to play for Chieftains. He doesn’t want to sell his flat, and he doesn’t want to rent it out because of the hassle. I can have a word, see what he thinks about letting you have it if you look after it for a bit? I mean, it would only be temporary, wouldn’t it, while you tried to convince Jen? Couple of months or so?’

Baggo nodded, seemingly unable to speak.

‘I’ll call him, then, give him your number. He’s called Angus.’

‘Good old rugger bugger name there.’

‘Yeah, please don’t say that to him, Bags, he could be saving your life, here.’

‘Yeah, I know. You know it’s what I do. It’s instead of saying thanks. OK then, what I should have said is thanks. Thanks, Cal. Yet again you have come to my fucking rescue when I’ve made a complete and utter dog’s fucking dinner of my fucking life.’

I knew what he wanted me to say; that he hadn’t made a dog’s dinner of anything, that everything would work out now he had this chance, and other such encouraging shit. Thing was, though, it felt like he needed a kick up the arse to stop him firstly taking it for granted that everything would now be alright, and secondly to prevent him doing it again when he forgot what he felt like right now. I seemed to be the only one in a prime arse-kicking position. And I was pretty good at kicking, it being my job and all. No choice then, really.

‘Baggo, you know I’m always here, anytime, same way you’ve been there for me when I’ve needed it. But for fuck’s sake, Bags, you nearly stuffed this up. You might still have stuffed it up. This is Jen and Daisy we’re talking about, not some random one-night-stand whose name you’ve forgotten and who left without giving you her number. You can’t be that old Baggo, you can’t go around thinking about just yourself any more If Jen says don’t do something because it will make things really difficult for us, if she says if you do it I’ll leave, then you have to fucking well listen. People don’t say things like that for the fun of it, just to test you, to see how stubborn you are. They mean it. You really have to decide, once and for all, what’s most important to you. If you had to choose one or the other, would it be Jen and Daisy, or singing in a band? I’m not saying one or other is the right thing, I’m just saying you need to be one hundred per cent certain that if you go after Jen and she’s not the most important thing, you’re going to fuck all of you up. You can’t mess with Daisy. She needs a dad who thinks she’s worth sticking around for. Just give it some thought.’

Baggo nodded. A few times he’d looked like he was about to interrupt, maybe to tell me how important his music was to him, maybe to tell me if he got Jen and Daisy back he’d never do anything to hurt them ever again, but he’d stopped himself, and I began to hope that he would indeed think about things, instead of just rushing headlong into the next Baggo drama.

I stayed for a while, drinking tea and offering variations on my ‘don’t fuck it up’ speech until the vibration in my pocket threatened to wear a hole in my jeans.

‘Sorry Bags, I’m going to have to get back. Chrissie’s on her own with the kids, and she’ll be getting their tea.’

‘What would you do?’

‘How do you mean?’

‘If it was, like, earlier, and you had to choose Chrissie and the kids or rugby?’

‘Jesus, Baggo. Well, I suppose when I was younger, I would have said rugby all the way, but I didn’t have Chrissie and the kids then, and now I do, well, rugby’s nearly over for me, so it’s not the same sort of choice. I honestly don’t know.’

‘I always look at you, you know, when I’m wondering if I’m doing the right thing about anything.’

‘Really? Fuck me, Baggo, I’m no bloody role model.’

‘You are to me. Your life seems just about fucking perfect to me.’

‘Yeah, well, maybe ask Chrissie some time how perfect we are. Don’t ask the day after she’s had to remind me to do the bins for the fiftieth time, or Lily’s been screaming since two in the morning, or we’ve had to turn round at the mini-roundabout for the third day in a row because Chrissie left her phone on the kitchen counter.’

‘You never fuck up, though, Cal. Not like this.’

I looked at Baggo, who truly seemed like he’d lost the spark of what made him Jake Bagwell.

‘Bags, we’re different, you and me. I could never in a million years have gone off to Europe to see if I could make it as a singer; not because of my family, although Chrissie would have had my balls, I admit, but I haven’t got the balls in the first place. I don’t take risks, I stick to what I know. If you want to talk about role models, or heroes, you’re kind of mine. You just go for it, whatever it is. You’re, I don’t know, passionate.’

‘Yeah, I suppose. Plus, you can’t sing for fucking toffee.’

I gave him a light punch on the arm, and then man-hugged him, with lots of back slapping, before heading home to Chrissie and the intense questioning session I deserved.

A few weeks later, having given Angus Baggo’s contact details and vouched for him as honestly as I could, I drove Baggo up to the flat in Shoreditch that was going to be his home for the next few months.

Jen had agreed to give him another chance; they were keeping the flat down here in case it worked out and they wanted to come back; they were giving it until after Christmas, because that’s when Daisy was due to start school, and she needed something settled and permanent, whether that was in London or in Devon.

I could only cross my fingers and hope Baggo knew for definite what he wanted. All the way to London he talked about Daisy, and how much she would have grown since he last saw her, all the new things she was saying to him on the phone, all the friends she told him about that he didn’t know. I saw something of the pride and infatuation I’d seen when she was first born, and I felt hopeful that he was putting her first.

Baggo had left the band. They were on the point of getting more prestigious gigs, being on the road a bit more, and he chose not to do it. I know it was hard for him, because in his heart of hearts he wanted to make a go of it, but he made that choice. He told me it was fine, there were plenty of karaoke bars in London where he could sing, and he had his guitar and Angus’s flat to rattle around in, so he could treat the neighbours to the odd spontaneous performance (he was grinning wickedly while he said this, knowing I would panic about Angus’s neighbours being pissed off with a noisy Baggo keeping them awake with his guitar at all hours). He told me it was enough, just singing for his own enjoyment, and I hoped it was.

The Philpotts Letters -13

Well I guess this is growing up (blink-182)

Well I guess this is growing up (blink-182)

Dear Adults

You are no longer children. You are eighteen. Bloody hell, eighteen years old. You can vote, and fight for your country, and have sex. OK, so officially you’ve been able to do the last two legally for two years, even though you haven’t been able to have any legal say about the arses who make these kind of rules until now. And maybe, let’s call it ‘intuition’ (yeah, yeah, it’s your mum, she bloody knows everything, and she always tells me what she knows, so it looks like I know everything too), I get the feeling that although neither of you have to my knowledge fought for your country (hmm, does playing for England Under 18s count, Josh? Let’s say it does), at least one of you has had sex. I do not want to think about this, alright? Because it makes me very angry, and want to kick whoever it was in the bollocks so he never does it again. Obviously I am talking about you, Ella. Josh seems more than happy not to just yet, unless he’s way better at hiding things than I think he is.

I mean, yeah, eighteen, of course your kids will have had sex. Possibly more than once. And Ella, you are such an explorer, it was probably a while ago. I don’t want to know. Your mum has started to tell me a few times and I had to put my fingers in my ears and sing loudly just so she’d stop.

I’m glad you’ve both had your mum to talk to about all that. I like to think I’m pretty open with you about shit – I’ll talk about anything with you guys, you’re both a joy to natter to, but this one thing, well, I did the sex chat when you were younger, and have just firmly left everything else to your more than capable mother ever since. I seriously could not deal with the thought of either some slimy git touching my baby daughter, or my baby son touching some unsuitably painted harlot. Because, obviously that’s what they’d be, and not just normal kids like my normal kids.

Except, and here we go back to the headline, you’re not kids anymore. You’re now officially adults. You can tell me to fuck off, and there’s not a bloody thing I can do about it. And both of you have told me to fuck off, literally and figuratively, because I’ve never been able to moderate my language, and now it’s the norm in the Scott household to bandy the fucks about with gay abandon (unless you’re your mother), and that’s my fault I guess, but now there’s not a bloody thing I can do about it.

Oh it’s not really about being able to do something about anything, it’s about you both being considered ‘adult’ by the world at large, when you’re both so young. You don’t know shit about shit, even though naturally you’d like to believe you know everything about shit. Ella, you’re going to sodding university in a few months. Fuck, I can remember what I was like at Uni, once I got going. I really, really don’t want you to meet any Matt Scott or his ilk, or worse than his ilk, but I’m not going to have a choice, because that’s what it means, isn’t it. You’re old enough to make your own choices.

And it’s because of those choices, which I no longer have anything other than an advisory role in, that you’ll grow up and become you, I guess. I know I didn’t become me until I went to Uni. Josh, you may have a different path, but being part of a bunch of rugby players is going to bring you along nicely. And maybe you’ll still be living at home, but at least it won’t be both of you going off into the unknown at the same time. I don’t think me or your mum could bear that, to suddenly just be the two of us – oh, not that we won’t enjoy one day being just the two of us, but we’re going to miss Ella and her own smells and noises, so you’re just going to have to fill the gap with your slightly more manly smells and louder more masculine noises.

You know, kids, I still sometimes have to pinch myself that all this is real, that for the last eighteen years I’ve had just what I wanted – a family. There was a time I didn’t think it was what I wanted at all, and then when I realised I did, I thought it was an unachievable dream, and then it happened. I know it’s not over yet, having kids is never ‘over’, is it? I know I’ll be thinking about you and worrying about you for the rest of my life. It’s just that this is the end of the ‘kids’ chapter, and the start of a new one, maybe even part two of some as yet undefined trilogy. It will be an awesome trilogy though, beginning with King Matt in the Land of Denial, who finally meets his Fairy Princess Lau while he is trying to battle the Fuckinio Bastardius monster, who he manages to tame but not to defeat while at the same time bringing into the world and raising the Prince and Princess – well you know the rest so far. Enjoy book two, guys, it’s all about you.

Thanks for being my children, you have been awesome. I am looking forward to getting to know the grown-up you.

Yours faithfully (because it sounds like a grown-up signing off, and also I hope to be always faithful – a bit like a smelly old Golden Labrador)

Dad xxx

133. Plans

In which the dearly departed are remembered, and plans for the future are made.

Knowing Mum was coming made me relax slightly. Mum always knew what to do, always took charge. And I had a job now. I dialled nine nine nine, but the ambulance people wouldn’t just take my word for it. They made me check she wasn’t breathing, they made me check for a pulse, they made me shake her shoulder and say her name, and it was all seriously freaky, and by the time Mum arrived, I was sitting on the hall floor trying to think of anything else but how I’d just been touching her, and …

‘Oh sweetheart. Is the ambulance on its way?’

‘Yeah, but I don’t expect they’ll hurry.’

I stood up and let Mum give me a hug. I clung on a bit tighter than I would normally, and felt tears well up in my eyes.

‘Dad’s in your car with Dec. I didn’t want to leave either of you alone, so I brought him along.’

‘I bet he’s loving that.’

‘He’ll get over it.’

‘Is she in here?’

Mum went into the living room, on her own because I couldn’t go in there again. She came out after a while, wiping her eyes, and looked at me. It was my turn to give the comforting hug; Mum cried more than I’d ever seen her cry before, and I just held her while she sniffed into my sweatshirt. Then she stopped, stood back and wiped her eyes with a tissue.

‘How did you know?’

‘She called me.’

‘You? What did she say?’

‘Nothing, at least nothing I could understand.’

Mum nodded and patted my cheek.

‘Let’s go and check on Dec. There’s nothing we can do here until the ambulance turns up.’

I followed Mum out to my car. Dad had turned the reading light on, and he and Dec were illuminated in the front seats. Dec was staring ahead and Dad looked like he was trying to talk to him, but not having much success in starting a conversation.

Mum tapped on the driver’s side window, and Dad rolled the window down.

‘Hey you two. Hi Dec.’

Dec didn’t answer, just carried on staring ahead.

‘James, has he said anything?’

‘No, he’s been like this since we got here. I’m a bit out of my depth, Beth. Maybe you should try.’

Mum nodded, and she and Dad swapped places. Dad and I stood away from the car a bit while Mum tried to – well I don’t know what she was trying to do, get Dec to talk to her, look at her, something.

I looked at Dad, who seemed about a thousand miles outside his comfort zone. He gave me a weak smile.

‘Sorry to disturb your sleep.’

‘Yeah, well, wouldn’t have been my choice of early morning entertainment, but I guess you haven’t been having much of a laugh, either.’

He nodded in the direction of Rose’s flat.

‘No. Ah shit, Dad, it was fucking awful. She was just sitting there, with this look on her face … you could just tell right away she was … wasn’t there, you know?’

Dad slung an arm round my shoulder, as an ambulance pulled up behind Dec’s car. I took a deep breath and went to meet it, glancing over at my car, where Mum was still talking to Dec. I was going to have to do this on my own, or with Dad, which was just about the same thing.

I led the paramedics into the flat and pointed out the living room. I didn’t go in at first, but they kept asking me questions, and it felt weird just shouting to them from the hall, so in the end I went in, but stood by the door, not looking in the direction of the chair. I was feeling seriously weirded out by the whole thing.

When my phone jangled with Chrissie’s text tone, I jumped a mile, but used it as an excuse to not be in the room where people were doing things to other people that I really didn’t want to see.

Where ru? Thought u were downstairs.

Chrissie had been asleep when I left, and I’d thought I’d be back before long. I hadn’t even thought about letting her know where I was. I had to think hard before knowing how to explain it in a text, then realised I wasn’t going to be able to. I called her instead.

‘Hey babe.’

‘Where are you?’

‘At Rose’s. I thought Dec might need a hand.’

‘What with?’

‘Well I didn’t know, but I just had a feeling.’

‘And you’re still there?’

‘Yeah. It was … er … she’s, er, died.’

‘Oh Cal. Did you find her?’

‘Dec did. He’s really freaked, gone all catatonic or something. Mum’s trying to get him to talk. The ambulance is here, taking Rose away. Shit, Chrissie, it’s fucking horrendous. I’ll be home as soon as I can.’

‘No, don’t worry, I just didn’t know where you were, and I thought if you were up with Conor I’d come and keep you company, then I couldn’t find you, so … but be there, if they need you.’

‘Thanks, babe. I expect Mum’s got it, but I don’t know how much longer things will go on here.’

‘I’ll see you when you get home.’

‘Yeah, I’m going to need a big smushy cuddle with you and Conor.’

‘On it. Cal, I’m really sorry about Rose.’

‘Yeah, me too. See you later. Love you.’

‘Love you.’

As I disconnected, the paramedics emerged from the living room carrying a stretcher with a black body bag on it. Dad, who had retreated to the end of the hallway, was staring at it with wide eyes. I opened the front door for them, and followed them out. Dad came behind, and I shut the door behind him.

As they loaded the stretcher onto the ambulance, I glanced over to my car. Dec had turned his head to look, and Mum had put her hand on his arm. I saw him shake his head, and could see the word ‘no’ form on his mouth. Then the car door opened, and he ran along the pavement to the ambulance, just as they shut the back doors.

‘Let me in, I want to go with her.’

‘And you are?’

‘Her … she’s like my mum.’

Is she your mum?’

‘Not officially.’

‘Sorry, then, mate, you can follow us if you like, but, well, maybe you’d best leave it for now, eh?’

‘She shouldn’t be on her own in there.’

‘She won’t be, we’ll be with her.’

They weren’t kidding or being disrespectful, they were trying to reassure him. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time they’d had to try to placate someone who had freaked out.

‘Dec …’

Mum had followed him out of the car, and now put her arm round his waist, drawing him away, talking quietly to him. I could hear snatches of what she was saying,

‘ … for the best … arrangements … tell Amy … come on sweetheart …’

and eventually Dec nodded and allowed himself to be pulled away, as Mum nodded at the paramedics, and they got in the front of the ambulance and drove away.

Dec stood, looking after the disappearing vehicle, eyes wide and haunted.

‘What am I going to do? Without her?’

‘Dec, we’re all here to help you through it.’

‘No … I can’t do this again … I just can’t …’

And while Mum desperately tried to cling on to him, Dec sank to his knees and started sobbing, the sounds echoing around the empty street. Mum crouched down next to him, and gestured to me and Dad to help her. Neither of us were sure what we were supposed to be doing, but Mum had put her arms round Dec, and I crouched by him and put a hand on his shoulder while Dad hovered behind, looking uncomfortable.

‘For God’s sake, James. He needs us to hold him.’

Dad reluctantly got to his knees and put his hand on a shoulder as well. None of it seemed to make a difference to Dec, who continued wailing.

After a few minutes, when a few lights went on in the nearby flats, and people started to look out of their windows, Mum decided a change of plan was necessary.

‘You two are going to have to get him in one of the cars. Maybe ours, James. Get him in the back, if you can. Dec, stand up for us sweetheart, we’re going to take you home.’

Dec didn’t move. Dad, seizing an opportunity to do something that didn’t involve having to talk or be emotional in any way, stood up, then bent down and hauled Dec to his feet by his armpits. Dec’s legs looked like they might give way, and he was still making the godawful racket, so I pitched in and supported him from one side, Dad going the other. We made our way to Dad’s car like this, dragging Dec with us. He wasn’t resisting, but he wasn’t actively moving either. Mum opened the back door, and Dad and I bundled him in, putting his seat belt on like he was five. Mum sat next to him in the back, and Dad got in the driver’s seat.

‘Cal, can you drive Dec’s car? We’ll bring you back afterwards.’

‘I need the keys.’

Mum patted Dec’s pockets and found the keys in his hoody. She gave them to me, and I followed them across the city to Dec and Amy’s house.

It was starting to get light by the time we got there, the dawn glow making everything seem even more surreal.

The porch light was on at Dec’s house, and I assumed Mum would have called Amy while we were on our way. As soon as we pulled up, the front door opened, and Amy came out, in her dressing gown.

Dec had quieted somewhat, but was still crying, and still shuddering with huge sobs. Amy came down the path as Dad and I were pulling Dec out of the car, and as he saw her, it was as if she was the first thing he’d truly noticed since the ambulance had driven away. He practically fell into her arms, and let her lead him into the house.

I looked at Mum, waiting to be told what to do. There didn’t seem any point going in; Amy was what Dec needed, not us fussing about him. Mum sometimes saw things differently, though, so I wasn’t going to do anything until I was told to.

‘Beth, just let them get on with it.’

‘I know, James. I just … after all this time, I thought he might be over it.’

‘I guess losing your parents isn’t something you get over.’

‘He’s had Rose longer than he ever had his mum and dad.’

‘Yeah, so it’s going to hurt even more. You know he’ll ask if he needs us.’

‘I know. I just want to fix it.’

‘You can’t.’

‘I know. Are you OK Cal?’

‘No, I don’t think so. But I will be when I get home and give Conor a bloody good cuddle.’

‘Come here, sweetheart, give your mum a bloody good cuddle first.’

Mum held me tight and I felt her shudder. She was always this capable person who knew what to do in any crisis, but everyone often forgot that she felt things too, cared about everyone more than was strictly necessary.

‘Thank you, sweetheart. Come on, let’s get you back to your car.’

That night, and the weeks that followed, were hard for all of us. Dec was really cut up. In fact, cut up doesn’t even begin to describe it. He didn’t leave the house at all, until the day of Rose’s funeral. He wouldn’t see anyone, didn’t reply to texts or answer calls. Mum had long conversations with everyone about it, trying to decide the best thing to do. Matty wanted to do the ‘shouldn’t be alone when you’re feeling this shit’ thing, but was talked out of it in the end by Amy, who felt it wasn’t the same, and that Dec needed time to do things his way. There was talk of doctors and mental health teams and psychologists, but Dec refused it all, and just sat staring at the TV all day.

Matty wasn’t up to much at the time, either, having had a serious chest infection and a flare-up of MS that had knocked him off his feet. With Matty out of action and Dec incommunicado, their business was suffering, and it was only because Tom knew about the techy side, and had his dad’s chilled manner with people, that the whole thing didn’t fold.

Rose’s funeral was sad, but it got Dec out of the house, and I think it started him on the road to being normal again. He was like a ghost in the crematorium – pale, lifeless, and he’d lost loads of weight. Amy and his children held him up, emotionally and physically, and the crem was full of people who Rose had meant a lot to. She was a friendly person who made connections and helped out a lot in this city, and Dec seemed surprised and gratified that so many had come to see her off.

Dec didn’t say much, to any of us, but he read a speech he’d written, talking about what she’d meant to him and his family, and how she’d always said she couldn’t replace his mum, but how she’d come to mean something else, something there are no words for, something as irreplaceable. He made it almost all the way through the speech, before just stopping in the middle of a sentence and looking out of the window. Amy had to finish it off for him, while Charlie and Tom helped Dec back to his seat.

I thought that might have sent Dec back to his morose introspection, but it seemed to have had the opposite effect, and at the wake, which Mum had naturally organised, it was good to see him talking to people, even smiling a couple of times, and looking like he was actually taking notice of things again.

After a while, things got better for Dec. I don’t know if he got some help from somewhere, he’d seen a psychologist in the past to help sort his life out, but whatever it was, he slowly got his spark back.

Laura

We had terrible days, like the day Rose died and Dec was inconsolable, and they nearly lost their business because Matt couldn’t get out to meet the clients and Dec was in no fit state to be meeting and greeting people. Tom came to our rescue that time, using his way with technology, his inside knowledge of the rugby world and his easy manner with people to smooth things over and persuade people to wait until Dec had recovered, and handling some of the simpler meetings himself.

All the children were growing up, moving away, or staying close by. Tom had a practical way with computers, and had become part of Dec and Matt’s business. Charlie had been away to Uni, given up her course in History, and come home to look for a career, which hadn’t been forthcoming and had led to lots of waitressing jobs. Gracie was half way through her Physiotherapy training in Manchester, where she shared a tiny flat with Iz, who was working for a language school, and Iz’s boyfriend Ben. Rosa had just left school and was working in a local jewellery shop while she got her own jewellery design business underway.

Amy and I often compared notes on the emptiness or otherwise of our houses; with Ella off on the other side of the world after finishing her Law degree, and Josh still living with us but usually at Raiders either training or attending a players’ function of some sort, I often felt like I had an empty nest. Although when Josh brought his mates back for a noisy session, it felt like the complete opposite.

Cal

We all missed Rose. She had been around almost as long as I could remember, and we all used to tease her about how much she talked, and how she and Mum had this, like, competition going to see who knew Dec the best, and who could feed us the best, almost as if they were trying to be the best mother figure. In truth, I don’t know that Dec really saw either of them as his mum. He often said Rose was like his mum, but I think that was only because he couldn’t find another word for it. He never made the same comparison with Mum, almost as if with his age and her age, he fell in the too-young-to-be-a-brother but too-old-to-be-a-son category, and it was just something else that was never defined.

I know Mum missed Rose, had missed for some time her being there and comparing notes about Dec and his family, having a gossip about the kids, tutting at the state of their house, all of that, because Rose hadn’t really been up to any of that for a good couple of years at least.

Rose had always tried her best to organise Dec, and Amy to some extent, but most of it had gone over his head. So she’d try with the rest of us, sometimes with some success. I remember visiting Gran, and interrupting one of their afternoon tea sessions. Lau’s mum, April, was there too, and I’d rocked up expecting to get going on taking some garden waste to the tip. I got distracted with tea and cake, and let the three witches brew their schemes as I munched and sipped. When I was little, I used to keep quiet in the hope that people would forget I was there and say something juicy. I used the same technique, and it worked for a while.

‘Isobel’s got into Manchester.’

This was Gran. She always used people’s full names.

‘Oh love, that’s so far away. Such a long journey, that is.’

This was Rose. Never really travelled, except to Wales to visit her sister and across the city to see Dec, Mum or Gran.

‘I lived in Manchester when I was younger. It’s a very cultured city.’

April had lived nearly everywhere. At least five different countries, and she knew someone in any city you talked about. I’m not quite sure how she’d crammed it all in, because Lau had always lived in the city and hardly left the county, so April must have travelled a lot before she had Lau.

‘I’ve got a friend who lives near the Arndale Centre. Maybe I could put them in touch.’

I smiled into my teacup at this (Gran always liked people to have proper cups and saucers, even though you didn’t get as much and the handles were fiddly). April was very religious, and her friends mostly seemed to be too. The thought of Iz scandalising April’s church mates with tales of her free-from-home exploits was quite amusing. Not that they wouldn’t get on – Iz got on with most people, of any age, any anything – and she might like knowing someone close to such a major shopping centre.

‘I’ll mention it to her, dear. Now Rose, tell me more about Charlie and her teacher. What exactly did she do to get detention?’

Charlie was the only person Gran called by her shortened name. Probably because although she was Charlotte, she had been Charlie since the minute she was born and the name had slipped under Gran’s radar.

‘Oh Carol, she was so cheeky. It’s been coming for a while with that one. Amy’s been to the school, but I don’t know, it doesn’t seem to do much good …’

Rose launched into a lengthy retelling of Charlie’s misbehaviour, with accompanying tuts from Gran and April. I drifted off a bit, having heard it all before from Mum, having discussed it with Iz (she and I being the oldest and therefore most sensible of the cousins, and also liking a good gossip) and knowing that Charlie Summers was always going to do exactly what she wanted regardless of detentions, tuts or anything anybody told her.

Half way through a second slice of Rose’s delicious ginger cake, I became aware that I was being discussed. Almost as if I wasn’t there.

‘… a good boy, always pops round and wheels the bin out. Although I think Ayesha wishes he’d do it for her a bit more often.’

‘Hey! Ayesh never has to wheel the bin out.’

‘No, love, because you always say you’re going to, and then it’s too late by the time she realises you haven’t and the bin lorry’s arrived, and she has to take the bags to the tip herself.’

I had no idea how Rose knew this. Oh alright, I had a very good idea. Ayesh would have told Mum, and word of this riveting bit of intel had been distributed far and wide. I was really going to have to have a word with Ayesh about what she told people. Or be more thoughtful in my chore-completion.

‘Oh great. Anything else I’m crap at?’

‘Well now you mention it, love, there’s the laundry, the washing up, the –’

‘OK, OK, I admit defeat. Gran, where are the garden bags?’

‘In the shed, dear.’

‘Right, I’d better go, before you think of anything else I should be better at. While I’m doing something nice for my Gran, if I can remind you.’

‘You’re a good boy, Calum.’

‘Yeah, yeah. Get back to your gossiping, ladies.’

Rose did love a good gossip, never seemed happier than when she was recounting something scandalous that a friend or neighbour had done or said, unless it was cuddling one of the children. But although she loved a good drama, she was kind and generous with her time, and often had wise words to say in the midst of her chatter.

When I was about fifteen, when all the stuff with Chrissie had gone on, when I was being the ‘Cob-on Kid’ on holiday, and everyone was taking the piss, she was the only one who didn’t act like it was some hilarious adolescent phase. I don’t know whether she knew exactly what was bothering me, but she stayed behind one day when everyone else had gone to the beach, leaving me to stew in my room.

When I heard everyone leave, and the silence of the villa settled on me like a cool shower in the wake of all the noise, I opened the door of my room and went into the kitchen in search of breakfast. I was starving, but there was no way I was going out there to be ripped to shreds by Matty’s smart mouth, Charlie’s annoying questions or one of Mum’s looks.

I got half way across the lounge when a movement made me jump almost out of my skin. Rose was sitting in a chair, reading a book, and she’d turned a page. No one had ever stayed behind when they all went to the beach, I’d always had the villa to myself at least until lunch time when they all piled back again and filled the place with talking, laughing, clattering plates, music and chaos. I just wanted some head-space to deal with everything, and being away from home was hard enough, let alone being expected to have a jolly time.

Seeing Rose sat there, not even looking at me, but just in my space and my time, really annoyed me. I ignored her, once I’d noticed her, and carried on into the kitchen, where I banged plates and scraped cutlery for all I was worth, to show how pissed off I was.

Rose didn’t look up, not once, didn’t say a word, not even good morning. Well, if she was trying to get me to talk to her by being all quiet and mysterious, she was going to have a long wait.

I filled a bowl with cereal, using up the last of the milk, and poured myself a glass of orange juice, then took it all back to my room, as there was no way I was going to sit at the breakfast bar while Rose watched me eat.

I stomped crossly back to my room, checking out of the corner of my eye for some sign that she’d noticed so I could ignore her more, but she kept her eyes on her book.

Back in my room, furious that I was imprisoned by her and unable to wander round the villa like I’d been used to, I ate my cereal and drank my juice. Then I took out my iPod, put the earphones in and tried to block everything out with some loud music.

It didn’t work. I lay on my bed not thinking of anything, but my empty thoughts kept reminding me that Rose was in the next room, just being there. I couldn’t relax into my sulk, not properly, because the reason I was sulking (sulking more should I say) was because she was out there, and why couldn’t she just leave me alone, why did she have to bug me? Everyone else pissed off and left me to my own devices all day, why did she have to just be sitting there, obviously wanting to disturb me and get in my way.

I was fifteen, I was a growing bag of hormones. Of course everything was about me. I see it now, but I didn’t see it then. Then, nothing was fair, everything was huge and dramatic and black or white. And right then, I just wanted her to go to the beach with everyone else so I could have my space back.

I took my headphones out and stood up, intending to go out and tell her to fuck off out with the rest of them. Then I found myself hesitating, unsure how to start, knowing if I was too rude I’d be in the shit with Mum, and kind of not caring but only in a theoretical way, not in any way that meant I would do it regardless.

As I wavered by my bed, I heard footsteps coming my way, and a tap on the door. I stood, frozen, as if caught in the middle of something I shouldn’t have been doing.

‘I’m just making a cuppa, love. Anything you want?’

Rose drank tea all day. Even in Spain, where sangria was easier to come by, and relaxed you a lot more.

Shit, though. Now she’d acknowledged me, spoken to me, I had to either reply to get her off my back, or not reply, which would make her tap harder on the door, maybe even come in. I didn’t want to talk to her, because then I wouldn’t be ignoring her any more, but I didn’t want her to come in, either, because it would be much harder to ignore her.

‘Calum?’

I thought, seriously, about saying ‘fuck off’ but in the end I just couldn’t do it. I could have said it to almost anyone else who was there, except possibly Gran, and it would have made me feel more powerful, but with Rose, although she was well used to bad language, and said the odd word that raised Mum’s eyebrows from time to time, it just didn’t feel right. Rose was about the same age as Gran, and she was kind of like a gran, and you just didn’t do that to your gran, unless she really really annoyed you. And all she’d done was ask if I wanted a cup of tea. It shouldn’t have tied me in as many knots as it seemed to have done. I tried the best compromise I could think of.

‘No, I’m fine.’

See? No ‘thank you’. That was a bit rude, but not offensive, and curt enough to get my message across, I felt.

‘Are you, though, love?’

Oh now she wanted to talk about whether I was fine or not. Well if she tried anything more than offering tea, she was going to get told to fuck off. Her look out. I didn’t answer, and sat down on the bed, getting my earphones ready to put in.

‘Alright then, I’ll be here if you feel like a chat, or if you want some pancakes.’

Oh the evil old witch. She’d mentioned pancakes. Now I could think of nothing but pancakes, the thick ones with syrup, the ones that Rose made that were de-fucking-licious. But no, I had to be firm. She wasn’t going to win me over.

I was starting to get hungry again, though. A bowl of cereal and a glass of juice doesn’t go far for a growing lad. I usually had half a loaf of toast smothered in marmalade too, but Rose being there had stopped my breakfasting.

I carried on with my music, forcing myself to stop thinking about pancakes, or syrup, or food of any sort. But it was like telling someone not to think about red balloons. I couldn’t help it. And to make it worse, I thought I could smell pancakes cooking. Maybe it was my mind playing tricks, but I could smell the batter as it hit the frying pan, and then I could imagine the batter turning brown, being flipped over, steam and oily smoke rising, a stack of thick pancakes dripping with maple syrup …

I was out of my bedroom before I realised what I was doing. I hadn’t imagined the smell of cooking; Rose was in the kitchen, frying pan in one hand, spatula in the other, a small pile of pancakes on a plate by the side of her. She looked round when she heard me coming out of my room, and smiled, but turned back without saying anything.

I stopped in the doorway of my bedroom, wanting to go back in, unwilling to give up the pancakes. The eternal teenager dilemma: food or funk. Food won. Food always won with me. If Mum had only realised this, she would have won a lot more arguments.

I ambled into the kitchen and opened the fridge, like I was just looking for something to drink. I even got a bottle of water out, and stood looking at it, as if it was hugely interesting.

Rose still didn’t speak, just carried on making more pancakes. The stack was getting taller, and was crying out for something gooey to be oozing down its sides. She had butter and syrup standing by, but there were more pancakes on the go, so she was waiting.

‘I think I might have made too many, love. Fancy giving me a hand?’

Yeah, it was pretty lame, and I didn’t believe her for a minute – Rose hardly ever ate the things she cooked herself. But it did the trick, got me off the hook of having to ask for myself, and enabled me to shrug a reply.

‘Here, then, there’s tidy. Put half of them on a plate. There’s maple syrup, butter, and I think there’s some lemon juice and sugar if you want to be traditional.’

Rose split the pile and put half on the plate that I’d got from the cupboard. I poured maple syrup over my half and stood in the kitchen, eating greedily, stickiness running down my chin while I shovelled hot pancakes in my mouth as fast as I could. Rose watched, but didn’t eat.

As I finished the last mouthful, and wiped my chin on the back of my hand, Rose rolled her eyes at my rudeness and then gestured to her plateful.

‘I’m not as hungry as I thought. Can you eat this lot as well?’

I shrugged again and held my hand out. You know, anything I can do to help, I like to be useful. As I had my mouth full of hot battery sugary goodness, Rose decided this was the time to talk to me.

‘I expect you’re wondering where I got the milk from to make these?’

I had wondered no such thing, not really knowing or caring about ingredients so much as the end result. I frowned a response and offered another shrug.

‘I mean, on account of you using the last of the milk for your cereal and putting the bottle back empty in the fridge.’

Oh she was not serious. Having a go at me when my mouth was too full to defend myself was unfair.

‘None left for my cuppa, was there.’

I had a pang of guilt. I hadn’t thought about how Rose was going to manage her eighty million cups of tea without milk, and I’d have liked to have said I didn’t care, but it turns out I wasn’t quite as hard as I’d have liked to be.

‘Good job I’ve got my own little fridge in my room, for when I need tea in the night.’

Oh well that was alright. What was she complaining about?

‘Except there’s no milk there, now, either.’

Just pile it on, Rose, why don’t you.

‘I reckon you and me should take a little stroll to the shops, get some supplies. What do you think?’

Well I’d been absolutely stuffed, hadn’t I, and not just with pancakes. She must have been planning it since I got up, maybe before. I had managed the whole of this holiday so far by staying in my room, not going out into the bright Spanish sunshine, it was a bit of a thing. This was going to be the holiday Cal didn’t leave his room. And now she’d tricked me. I’d used the last of the milk, and made her use hers to do something nice for me, and now I had no choice but to do what she asked. OK, maybe I did, because if I’d truly been the sulky teen I liked to think I was, I would have said ‘screw you’ and slammed my bedroom door again.

But I suppose I wasn’t that kid, I was the one whose mum had given a huge sense of right and wrong to from an early age, and leaving Rose without tea all day was not something I could do.

My answer was, you’ve probably guessed, a shrug. I’d managed the morning so far by saying three words to Rose, and that was pretty good going. I hoped I would be able to stand as firm on the short walk to the nearest shop.

Turned out I didn’t need to stand firm at all, at least not at first. Rose talked all the way there and all the way back, about all sorts of things, ranging from her nephew, who was about Dec’s age, and his wife and children, to her landlord’s plans to put new carpet in, to Charlie’s first day at school, Rosa’s first tooth, in fact she went through practically every member of the family, talking about her worries and hopes for them all, and then she ended up with me. By the time she got there, I’d forgotten about being uncommunicative, and was craving a chance to say something, anything, to stop the flow of words coming from Rose.

‘I hope this girl’s worth it, love.’

‘What?’

‘I hope she’s worth you missing having the time of your life with your family. You won’t get it back, you know.’

‘What would you know?’

‘I’ve had my fair share of romances gone wrong. I wasn’t always an old bird, you know.’

Why did adults always say that, as if they had any idea what it was like?

‘They all miss you, being with them.’

‘Yeah right.’

‘That’s why they’re being so annoying, Matt and Declan trying everything to cheer you up and get you out of your room. It’s not the same without you there. Your mam misses you the most.’

I knew that, really. I knew deep down I was spoiling things in some way, for everyone, but I just didn’t have it in me right then to be that happy chappy they all wanted me to be.

‘I can’t, Rose, I just can’t.’

‘They worry, you know. We all do, love.’

‘I can’t help it. It’s like …’

I tried to find words to say how big a hole Chrissie had left in my life.

‘… whenever I feel happy, it doesn’t last long, because I think about her, and everything goes a bit dark, because I want to tell her how I’m feeling, but I can’t. I can’t ever. And don’t tell me I’m too young, Mum said I’m too fucking young to feel like this, so that’s why I don’t talk to her, she’ll never understand.’

‘Oh love, I’d never say you’re too young. Love can hit you hard any time, young or old, and I’m sorry you’re feeling like this. Maybe, though, you might need to think about trying to pull yourself out of it. I don’t mean right now, you sound like you do need some time to yourself, but don’t let it go on too long. It can be hard to shake it off.’

I looked at Rose. The way she spoke, it sounded like she did understand how I was feeling, almost as if she’d felt it too. She was looking back at me.

‘Yes, love, I do know how it is. I was fifteen once, too. Same thing, loved a boy, he left, I was heartbroken. Cried my eyes out for weeks, I did. Then I decided I wasn’t going to let a boy, who wasn’t there any more, rule my life, and I stopped crying and started smiling. If you smile enough, you can convince yourself you’re happy sometimes.’

It sounded like a load of bullshit to me, but it was true that Rose did seem happy a lot of the time. It wasn’t going to work for me, though, not yet, although maybe some of what she said made sense.

‘I’m not going to smile, not right now. I need to be on my own.’

‘Fair enough, love. Just promise me you won’t let it rule your life.’

‘OK.’

‘I can have a word, if you like, get them to leave you alone a bit?’

‘No, it’s OK, don’t say anything. There’s only a couple of days before we go home, I don’t want the ten thousand questions.’

‘Alright, love.’

We got back with the milk, and to my knowledge Rose never told anyone about our conversation – to all intents and purposes, nothing had happened that morning. I stayed in my room for the rest of the holiday, dinner aside, and thought about Chrissie and what she’d meant to me and what she meant to me now.

When I got home, I realised that what Rose had said had stuck, and I started smiling more. It did make a difference, even outwardly – the way people reacted to me was different if I was smiling than if I was being a miserable git, and that made me feel different. I didn’t miss Chrissie any less, but I started to do things that made me forget, and in time it stopped hurting so much.

Rose often had wise words to say, and she was often surprisingly discreet. She loved a good gossip, talking about who was moving in with who in her flats, how terrible it was that the postman had run off with the woman who ran the convenience store, but when she had her chats with you, she didn’t tell anyone, she just talked and you generally just listened because you couldn’t get a word in, but she let you make your own mind up if you took her advice. Never came back and said ‘didn’t I tell you to …’ or ‘why didn’t you do what I said’.

When Chrissie came back and there was all the awfulness that went on with Ayesh, and it felt like everyone hated me for breaking up with her, Rose was the first one to say ‘I knew you and Chrissie should be together’, and she gave me a look like she remembered that morning in Spain, when I’d told her things I couldn’t tell anyone else, and I’ll always love her for that.

o0o

It wasn’t long after Rose’s funeral, in fact it was a few days after Conor’s first birthday, that we found out Lily was on the way. Not that we knew it was Lily, obviously, and it was a bit of a deviation from our plan as she was due in February, instead of the summer holidays. Babies – you just can’t trust them to get anything right.

From the start, she caused no end of trouble, and I expect she’ll go on causing it, like all the women in our family seem destined to do. Firstly, she was a bit of an accident – not in any way unwanted, Lily my lovely girl, we always wanted you, so much, still do, even when you’re screaming the place down because you wanted a green lolly and Mummy got you a red one. But anyway, there was a contraception mishap (hey Lau, I said it again), and before we knew it, Chrissie was having morning, noon and night sickness. She vomited at the slightest hint of food, almost literally anything would set her off, and she lost about a stone, instead of gaining weight, in the first couple of months after we knew.

Chrissie and the doctors finally got the puking under control, only for her blood pressure to spike, resulting in her being on bed rest for the last two months of the pregnancy, and the last month actually in hospital, because she just would not do as she was told.

That meant a month of me and Conor fending for ourselves, although to be honest we’d been doing that beforehand anyway, trying to keep Chrissie out of action.

And then when the time came for Lily to arrive, we nearly lost them both when there was some bleeding that wouldn’t stop, and I was shoved unceremoniously out of the room to pace in the corridor, sick with worry and angry at the lack of information.

It was very different from Conor’s birth, and it took us some time to stop feeling traumatised and begin life as a family of four. Chrissie was unwell for quite a while afterwards, and it was only because of a massive rally round by the rest of the family that we didn’t go under.

It was approaching the end of what I didn’t realise at the time was my last full season as a regular Raiders player. I’d felt for a while that I was maybe a metre off the pace, couldn’t get across the pitch as fast as I used to any more, missed a few important tackles. In the summer after that season, Raiders brought in the young TomCats and England winger who was hitting the headlines, and my regular playing days came to an end. I was destined to stay with Raiders until I called it a day – I couldn’t leave now, I wouldn’t know how to start again somewhere else – but it was with a game here and there in less important cup competitions, and a role in coaching, which I really didn’t enjoy.

Having a young family to support helped me to focus my attention on what I was going to actually do to support them once I stopped earning a living by playing rugby. I’d had my head in the sand about it for so long, and then suddenly, it hit me slap in the face.

While Lily was so little and Chrissie was so poorly, I had no choice but to carry on playing, when I was picked, helping out with the corporate and media stuff when asked to, and trying not to mourn my fading fitness or the lack of match appearance or win bonuses which decreased our income somewhat.

I felt it deeply, it affected my sense of who I was. I was a rugby player, had been since I was a teenager. It was a constant in my life, and losing that with possibly two thirds of my life left – well, I found it hard to accept. Until I talked to Matty, that is.

Matty had more bad days than good. He was regularly in hospital with pneumonia; he was more often than not either confined to his bed or his recliner chair; when he was up and about, he usually needed wheeling from place to place. He hated every second that he wasn’t what he considered normal, so he spent a lot of his life hating what he was. He could have become bitter and angry, but somehow he kept his sense of humour and his love of a good natter about nothing.

We could have just left him alone, God knows he told us to often enough, but his and Dec’s ‘you shouldn’t be alone when you feel this shit’ mantra had filtered down to us all, and when he was feeling down, that’s when we stepped up the visits, calls, texts and Facetimes.

Mum was coordinating the current campaign, and she’d text someone every day to suggest they might give Matty a ring, or call in to see if Lau needed anything from the shop. It was my turn, and I stopped off on the way home.

‘Hi Cal. How lovely to see you.’

‘Hey Lau. Just on my way home, wondered if there’s anything you need?’

‘Oh, no, thanks flower. Josh popped to the shop for me this morning. Come and have a coffee, though. I’ve got some chocolate chip cookies just out of the oven, too.’

‘Great. Is Matty about?’

I always asked this, even though Matty had no choice but to be ‘about’. It just continued the illusion, for him and for me, that there was a possibility he could be off on one of his hikes, or out checking the internet connection at Raiders.

‘Yeah, he’s had a snooze, just woken up.’

‘Lazy bastard.’

‘Matt’s always loved his sleep. He’s in the lounge, go through, I’ll be there in a minute.’

Lau headed off to the kitchen, and I walked through to the living room, where Matty was sitting in the large recliner chair they’d bought so he could sleep there in the day if he wanted to, without having the hassle of going back to bed.

These days, Matty was stick thin. He’d never had much body fat, but he was positively gaunt now. As I saw him, I had a sudden flashback to how he looked when he first came home from hospital up in Stafford, all those years ago, when I thought he looked like a ‘skellington’. He wasn’t that far off now, and I saw it with a lurch to my heart, how small his reserve of energy must be, and how exhausting every day must be for him. Before he could see me feeling sorry for him, I gave him a grin and plonked myself in the chair next to him.

‘About time you woke up, old man.’

‘Pihs ohf. I desehv my rehst.’

‘Yeah, I can see how a long day of sitting watching Countdown would tire someone out.’

‘Sihting watchihg Dec ruihn my businehs mohr lihk.’

Matty gestured to the laptop that was on a small table by his chair. He still spent a lot of time doing the IT side of their business, Linebreak, while Dec visited various locations and fed back via email and text.

‘Why, what’s he done now?’

‘Triehd tuh tehl Trohjans’ IT guy hoh tuh fihx thehr dahtabahs.’

‘Bugger. I take it he doesn’t know how to fix Trojans’ database?’

Matty looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

‘Cahl, yuh knoh he’s shih at compuhters. He cahnt evehn sahv a fihl, an now heh’s fucked ih up evehn mohr. Said he wahted tuh sahv meh a johb. Dickhehd. Cauhsed meh mohr wohk.’

‘Well that’s your afternoon sorted, then. I’ll leave you to it, shall I?’

‘Noh, dohnt goh, or Ih’ll hahve tuh sit an look at Lau ahl aftehnohn. Oh, heh Lau.’

Matty managed a cheeky grin as Lau came in with the coffee and cookies she’d promised.

‘Watch it, buster, I’m carrying a tray of hot drinks and it would be really unfortunate if one of them ended up in your lap, wouldn’t it.’

‘Lau, yuh wouhn’t, not my tahkle, wha wouhd yuh do wihout ih?’

‘Hmm maybe. Just watch your step then. Have a cookie and tell me how delicious it is, to make up for it.’

Lau was always trying to tempt Matty to eat, but Matty rarely had an appetite. He’d force enough down to keep him alive, but it was sad to see how little he cared about food any more. He’d always loved to cook, messing about with ingredients, making sauces for pasta, creating weird and wonderful sandwich fillings, doing amazing breakfasts for everyone, but now he hardly seemed to notice he was hungry.

‘I cahn smehl ih’s dehliciohs frohm hehr.’

‘Smelling’s not tasting, Matt. Here, Cal, show him what he’s missing.’

I dutifully ate a cookie. As I’d expected, it was really tasty. Chocolate chip cookies were Lau’s speciality.

‘Yeah, Matty, as good as ever. Possibly the best batch I’ve ever tasted.’

‘There you go, flower. How can you miss the chance to taste possibly my best batch ever?’

‘Goh on thehn, hahf a ohn.’

Lau smiled triumphantly and broke a cookie in half, handing it to Matty on a plate. She watched eagerly as he ate half of it, then put the plate down; Matty looked at her apologetically.

‘Dehd tahsty, Lau. Not huhgry tho.’

‘Never mind, flower. Here’s your coffee.’

She put Matty’s on the table by his laptop, then gave mine to me before picking up a mug of tea that Matty hadn’t drunk, and heading back to the kitchen. Matty’s coffee also remained untouched.

‘Hoh’s Chrihsie?’

‘Much better than she was, thanks. She’s been out a few times this week, taken Lily to appointments, came to the park with us yesterday.’

‘Greht. Lihly doing wehl?’

‘Yeah, growing every day. Conor’s got a cold, so he’s a grumpy little git. I would have brought him round at the weekend, but I didn’t want you to catch it.’

Matty rolled his eyes, as if catching a cold made no difference to him, when in reality it would have had him on a drip within twenty-four hours.

‘I saw Raihders sihgned Joss Tenk.’

Joss Tenk was the whizz-kid England winger who was set to replace me.

‘Yeah, great signing for us.’

‘Yuh OK wih ih?’

I looked at Matty, who knew as well as anyone what it meant for me, in all likelihood, unless I managed to find some previously undiscovered reserve of speed, fitness and (let’s face it) youth over the pre-season. I could have bullshitted him, but he would have seen through me in a second.

‘I haven’t got a choice, Matty. I’m not going to last forever, am I? I’m off my pace, and he’s a great signing. Raiders can’t afford to be sentimental. I’ll just have to try my best over the off season, see if I can’t show them there’s life in the old dog yet.’

‘Wha yuh gona duh?’

‘Well, work hard, train hard –’

‘Noh, wih yuhr lihf.’

It was a while since anyone had been this blunt with me. I’d avoided that question so well and for so long, that people had given up asking. I always hinted at some vague plan without actually expanding on it, and had become expert in avoiding being specific. Even Chrissie, who had begun to seriously question what I was going to do when I stopped playing, had been too poorly since Lily was born to be persistent, and I’d gone back to ignoring it all.

‘Oh I don’t know. Something will turn up.’

‘Yeh, yuhr righ, cos wehl paid johbs jus fahl in yuhr lap wehn yuhv got noh qualificahtions or expehriehce.’

‘I’ve got my coaching badges.’

‘Oh yeh. Weh ahl knoh hoh much yuh lohv cohching.’

‘Back the fuck off, Matty.’

I was getting defensive. I’d called round to see Matty and maybe have a bit of a chat about the weather and the kids, and instead I was getting the third degree about my career prospects.

‘Noh, Cahl, I dohnt thihk I wihl. Thihs fucking bahstrd’s gona geh meh ohn day, an I wana say shih befohr ih does.’

‘Matty …’

I hated it when Matty talked as if it was inevitable he wasn’t going to last much longer. However bad he got, he had so much guts and determination, he loved Lau and his kids so much, he always battled back. This was just another setback, I was sure, and I didn’t want to think about it being anything else.

‘Noh, Cahl. I wana say thihs. If yuhd behn shih at rugby, wha wouhd yuh hahv dohn?’

His question sparked a memory, of lying face down on the physio table at Raiders, talking to Kieran about what he was doing with his life because he knew he wasn’t going to be a professional sportsperson. Being a Physio wasn’t a substitute, it was completely different, and I wouldn’t say it was something that had ever occurred to me, except in a ‘bloody hell that’s too difficult’ kind of way. But I had always been fascinated with how the body healed itself and how it could be helped along. I had a sudden image of me being part of a different sort of team; one that looked at how to get the most out of arms and legs, how to help muscles repair, when to exercise and when to rest. It was just the seed of an ambition, but it took root in my head as I shrugged and answered Matty.

‘Dunno. Something physical, something not academic.’

I hardly had any GCSEs, not because I couldn’t have got some if I’d applied myself, but because I had other priorities at the time. Raiders Academy had always been hot on studying, but my focus had never been on schoolwork, it had always been on the outdoors, running about, throwing a ball, being buried under a pile of blokes, instead of under a pile of books.

‘Yuh couhd, tho. Duh the acadehmic thihg.’

‘Nah, I’m too old.’

‘Fuck ohf wih yuhr ‘tuh ohld’. Cahl, yuhv got a fahmly. They’ll lohv yuh whaever, buh yuhv got the braihs tuh beh amahzing. Duh ih while yuh can. Duh sohmthing tha hehps yuh look ahfter them. Yuhr gona nehd tuh suppoht them. Yuh nehd tuh duh the behst thihg yuh cahn. Migh tahk sohm hahd wohk.’

‘But I …’

My protests died away as Matty ignored me and took a big, noisy slurp of his coffee. He had decided the conversation was over, and when he’d finished swallowing his mouthful, he turned the topic to football, and we argued Tottenham versus Arsenal for a good half an hour before I had to go home.

Later that evening, my head still whirring with the possibilities Matty had made me think about, I pulled Chrissie against me on the sofa, after Conor and Lily were in bed.

‘Matty thinks I should go back to school.’

‘Oh does he? To do what?’

‘Get a career.’

‘Mm hmm. Did he give you any other careers advice?’

‘What, apart from never managing Spurs because they wouldn’t want someone who obviously knows nothing about football as evidenced by my poor taste in teams?’

‘Not that you’d take the job if they offered you a million a year.’

‘Obviously.’

‘Yeah, apart from that, then.’

‘Well, no, he didn’t come up with anything, but … I did have a thought.’

Chrissie twisted in my arms and looked up at my face, an eyebrow raised quizzically at me. She knew I never talked about this, and I wasn’t really sure what I was doing talking about it myself, but something from this afternoon had got under my skin, and I needed to think out loud about it.

‘Well go on, then, share please.’

‘Alright then. I know it’s not the most original thing, but I was wondering about training to be a Physio.’

‘What, like Gracie?’

‘Yeah. Well, maybe more along the lines of Sports Physio than helping old ladies with their hip replacements, but it’s all the same training.’

‘That’s a lot of Uni, Cal.’

I looked down at Chrissie. She wasn’t suggesting I couldn’t do it, I knew she’d support me whatever I did, the same way I’d support her, we’d find a way to do whatever we all needed to do to be a family. She was wondering if I’d thought of all the implications and consequences, and fair enough, thinking things through wasn’t my strong point, and I had only just begun to think about this, I hadn’t thought any of it through at all. She also knew I was a lazy bastard at heart, and training aside, did as little as I could to get by.

‘Yeah, I know, I don’t know if I could do it, I mean, fuck, I’d have to do a shitload of exams just to get on the course. I honestly don’t know if I could actually stand it, but I think I want to find out.’

‘That sounds like a good place to start. Find out what you’d have to do. You should ask Gracie.’

‘I guess I could start with her, but she’s such a brainbox, she had all her exams sorted before she went, knew what grades she needed, passed everything with an A star. And she’s young. You know, old dog, new tricks and all.’

‘Yeah, but Cal, you haven’t really got a choice but to learn new tricks, have you?’

Trust my Chrissie to just say it how it was. She didn’t go on at me, usually said her piece once and then let it stew until I made my mind up, but once we were talking, she just said what she thought. And she was right. I didn’t have long before any decisions about my future were out of my hands, and I would be without a playing contract or, indeed, a job of any sort. It was like a light going on – I had to start doing something about it; should have been doing something about it for a long time.

‘Shit, Chrissie, you’re right. God, I need to do something, don’t I? I’ll call Gracie tomorrow, have a chat. Maybe talk to the guys at Raiders too.’

‘Yeah, sounds like a plan. Hey, who’d have thought, eh? Cal Scott has a plan.’

‘I know. Well weird. I think I need to lie down.’

‘You practically are lying down.’

‘Oh yeah. Well that’s alright then, no need to move at all.’

We sat together in comfortable silence for a bit.

‘How is Matty?’

‘He was out of bed, which is good, but still talking this shit about wanting to say everything while he’s got the chance.’

‘It sounds sensible to me. Do what you need to while you’ve got the energy.’

I didn’t respond immediately. It was too hard to think about Matty wanting to set his affairs in order, because I’d have to think about why he’d need to do that.

‘You know what, though, he’s a bit of an inspiration. He’s never let anything stop him doing what he wanted, or maybe what he needed to do. I mean, he can’t get around without help, and his speech has gone to shit, but he’s still working, still sorting out people’s IT stuff. He made it happen with Dec, and he’s training up Tom so when he –’

I stopped, as it was too hard to say what I’d almost said, that he was training up Tom to take over from him when he wasn’t around any more Matty was making sure everything was in place, that it was all sorted. I knew he’d made Lau some kind of partner in the business so she’d be financially OK, and it seemed he was working his way through the whole family, trying to make things as right as he could. Thinking back, I knew he’d talked to Iz about marrying Ben (fat chance, Matty, but nice try), he’d talked to Mum about ways to manage her business so she could step back a bit (Mum was rather taken aback at being told what to do for a change), he’d told Dad to retire and go travelling before he was too old (that went down well); I couldn’t think of any of us he hadn’t tried to sort out one way and another. He’d made some waves, thinking about it, but it hadn’t stopped him.

‘He is pretty inspiring, Cal. Nothing seems to stop him. He just fights all the time.’

‘Yeah, that’s what I mean. He wants his family to be OK, and he’s just going for it. I should be doing the same, whatever it takes. If I have to do some studying, take some exams, get off my arse a bit, I bloody well should, to make sure you’re all OK and we don’t have to worry.’

‘We’ll be OK, whatever.’

‘Yeah, and I know it’s not just up to me, but I think now playing isn’t so certain any more, I need to man up, be part of Team Scott. Unless you think thirty-one is a bit young to be manning up?’

I looked at Chrissie hopefully, but she just cuffed me on the arm and shook her head.