115. Find another fool

In which a scam is deployed, but help is at hand.

Advertisements

Matt

There are ten seconds to go. The crowd start counting down, and as the number gets to zero, the ball is kicked into the stand, and they go wild, we go wild, celebrating another Raiders title. Cal is leaping up and down, yelling, then he hugs me, then he remembers himself and lets go, and after a brief shake of his head, what was he thinking, carries on leaping.

We are at Twickenham, and the season has just finished in the best possible way. As the players do their lap of honour with the trophy, they stop in front of the area where friends and family are gathered, and point to us. Dec gives us a thumbs up, and Jay waves.

The celebration afterwards is like nothing I have ever experienced. I am so thrilled to have been asked to join them in their hotel, where it all starts, having dispatched Cal off with Beth and Iz. I used to think I could hold my drink, but these guys are on another level, with the shackles off at the end of a hard season, and they’re pumped up with adrenaline and victory. They leave me behind before even half the night is over, but I have been part of it, I am part of the team that won the League.

Laura

I hadn’t gone back to work in the end. There always seemed to be too much to do, and Matt’s job at Raiders paid well enough to support us. We talked about having another baby, and stopped using birth control, but it never happened. I decided not to let it be a big deal; we had our family, and the thought of being that tired again was a bit daunting, so we decided if it happened, it happened, but as time went on, it felt like it wasn’t going to, and that was OK. Or rather, we made it OK.

Matt

To Nico, Lis and Bastien

Wishing you all the best as you depart, once again, for Buenos Aires. You will always be welcome at number 47, as long as you don’t mind sharing a room with, well, each other.

We’ve had some great times, haven’t we? Nico, don’t forget to turn up on time on your first day, just to put them off the scent. Lis, make sure you find the nearest Prada, even if it’s in Brazil. Bastien, look after your mamá y papá, and make sure they Skype us all the time because we’ll miss you all loads.

With all our love, kisses and huge big squishy Scott cuddles,

Matt, Lau, Josh and Ella

xxxx

Cal

And then it got complicated. Girls are complicated, aren’t they? You can’t just mess about with them, they take everything so seriously, and they take things seriously that you didn’t even know you’d done. It’s like there’s a code in everything you do. Holding hands means one thing, playing with her hair means something else, kissing means something else, and you have to be really careful or you’ve said something binding to one of them without even opening your mouth, and before you know it, one of them has laid claim to you, and is fighting all the others off whether you like it or not.

That’s what happened. I thought I had it all under control. Or rather, I didn’t think there was anything that needed to be under any sort of control. I was using the Baggo method of girling; go full tilt for what’s in front of you. I was more successful than Baggo by a long way, possibly because I didn’t employ any methods that required singing or throwing shoes, and possibly because I was slightly more respectable on account of my dad being Raiders coach and Baggo’s mum being on the tills at the local supermarket. I’m not saying it was right, I’m just saying school is harsh and you’re judged by things that are out of your power a lot of the time.

So anyway, there I was, post-Chrissie, kind of girl-hating but showing it by hanging round with girls and snogging them. I guess the ‘hating’ part of it was I didn’t really care who I snogged, or where, or when, and it could easily be the best friend of the one I’d just finished snogging five minutes ago, in the kitchen of the same party. I suppose, looking back, I was easy fodder for Katya and her cronies.

If I thought about it at all, I thought I was being mean and moody and uncaring and rather cool about the whole thing. Although it occurred to me that someone could get hurt, I wasn’t particularly bothered, as it would ‘serve her right’, whether her was the girl in question, or some random other girl who just happened to be living hundreds of miles away and had broken my heart. What didn’t occur to me was that the person who could get hurt would be me.

Katya. Katya, Milly and Florence. The Holy Trinity. Even Baggo stayed away from them, and Baggo was attracted to trouble like iron filings to a magnet. But the end of that summer term, I was on the lookout for trouble, the worse the better, and I went looking for Katya. We circled around each other a bit, keeping our distance while making it clear we were both interested. I wasn’t averse to the idea of Milly or Florence either, and signals were made and read between all of us.

There was a pool party, at Florence’s house. Her parents were away, and her older brother was having a party, and had said Florence could invite some friends. Her brother was theoretically responsible, being twenty-one, with a job and a car and everything, but it turned out that once he’d had half a bottle of his dad’s Scotch, he gave a bit less of a shit about what happened at his party, and a bit more of a shit about getting into the pants of the hot girl his mate had brought along. Cue unrestricted alcohol and other substances, half-naked teenagers and a swimming pool. I’m sure I don’t need to fill in the gaps.

Mum went ape-shit afterwards, when she found out, but it was too late by then, and the damage had been done. I mean literal damage – the living room needed a new carpet, the pool had to be drained, cleaned and re-filled and I don’t think the automatic garage door ever worked the same again – but also the lasting effects. A couple of kids ended up in A and E with alcohol poisoning, someone had to have their stomach pumped after overdosing on something they found in the bathroom cabinet, and one guy broke his wrist tripping over Florence’s brother doing it with his mate’s girl on the patio. I got away physically unscathed, apart from the hanger to end all hangers (ha ha, until the next time), but I had lost large chunks of my memory of the party, and Katya used this to her advantage.

She told me we’d had sex, and that she might be pregnant, and I didn’t know what to do. My memories were fractured, and I could recall being with her, hands roaming, tongue delving, underwear and more (or less) on display, but I couldn’t remember anything else. Katya kept calling me, saying she was going to tell her mum, and I had to tell her what to do. Then she came round to my house, but I got Mum to say I wasn’t in, although I then had to fend off questions about who she was and why I was asking Mum to lie for me.

Florence and Milly got involved, and suggested I’d been with them at the party as well, and I was well on the road to full-blown panic. There was no one else who had been there who could help fill in the gaps – everyone who was there had been as out of their skulls as me, and could barely remember what they had been doing, let alone keeping tabs on my actions.

Mum took to listening outside my door when I was on the phone. She had asked me directly several times what was going on, but I was evasive and just blew up at her if she asked too much, and so she was trying to find out in her own way.

Now I’ve got kids of my own, I can completely understand how worried she was about me – I’d broken up with Chrissie, I’d started hanging around with all these different girls, I’d been to some out-of-control booze and pills party that had resulted in five people being hospitalised, and now I was having secret conversations with people at all hours of the night and day. I can understand it now. Not then. Then, finding Mum hanging around outside my door with all sorts of invented excuses made me madder and madder.

I even called Matty about it. I knew he’d had escapades in the past, he’d brought enough different women round to Sunday lunch before he met Lau that I knew he’d been around a bit, and although I wasn’t going to tell him exactly what kind of a situation I found myself in, I hoped he might be cool enough to understand and just have a chat.

When I heard a noise outside my door as I was talking to Katya one afternoon, telling her for the millionth time that I didn’t know what to do, I was sure it was Mum. I pulled the door open and was not surprised to find her standing there with a pile of my underpants. I was enraged.

‘Mum, will you just fuck off. I’m having a private conversation.’

‘There’s no need for language like that, Cal, I’m just bringing your clean washing.’

‘Yeah right.’

I snatched the underwear from her and threw it on my bed.

‘Just leave me the fuck alone.’

‘Don’t speak to me like that.’

‘Stop spying on me then.’

I pushed past her and ran downstairs, aware that she was following me. I still had my phone in my hand, and I put it to my ear.

‘Katya, I’ll call you back.’

I turned round to face Mum, and she was so close behind me that she ran into me.

‘Mum, just f … go away.’

‘Cal, I’m not spying, I was just –’

‘Save it, you never give me a bloody moment’s peace, I can see why everyone calls you a meddling bitch.’

I hadn’t meant to be so harsh, and I knew from her expression I’d hurt her. It was Mum’s thing, to be caring and to let our teasing and our insults about it roll off her, and just carry on caring anyway, and to throw it in her face wasn’t the most loving thing her son could do. In my defence, I was in the middle of a crisis, and needed some space. I hope none of my children ever makes me feel like I made my mum look at that moment.

Mum backed away, holding her hands palm up as if to fend me off, and I turned round and stalked out to the toilet in the utility room. I sat down, breathing hard, trying to ignore the voice in my head that told me I’d just gone too far with Mum. I looked at my phone, thought about calling Katya back, or answering one of the several texts from her, Florence or Milly that had popped up since I’d last looked. They really were undertaking a concerted campaign to give me as little peace as my mum seemed to want to give me.

I decided to ignore them all and FaceTime Matty. I couldn’t tell him everything, in case it got back to Mum. If I’d called Dec, Mum would have found out everything before I’d finished talking, but Matty liked not telling Mum things, so as long as I was careful not to say too much, maybe I could get things off my chest, and do a bit of arsing about with him, and just forget about things for a few minutes. I called him up, but the tone rang for ages, and I thought he might be out, or driving or something.

Matt

I barely made it to my iPad in time to stop the FaceTime alert and catch Cal. We’d only just got in from taking the children to a birthday party, Lau had confiscated my phone, and I’d heard the tone as we came through the door, arms laden with goody bags and balloons.

‘Hey Cal – whoa, are you in the loo?’

Cal

Matty used to FaceTime me from the loo all the time when I was younger, me being eight and Matty mostly acting like an eight year old. He had been known to show me the, er, products of his time in there too. But that was a while ago, and we’d both matured a bit since then.

‘Yeah. Sorry, but Mum was doing my fucking nut and it’s the only place I can talk.’

Matt

‘Careful, mate, Ella and Josh are around, and so is Lau.’

I hated telling Cal off for saying ‘fuck’, but he’d get an ear-bashing from Lau if I didn’t at least get him to tone it down.

Cal

Matty was pretty cool about me swearing; it would be hard for him to be anything else, as he’d taught me most of the words I knew, and helped me practice them when I was younger. Lau was not cool about it, and he wouldn’t be on my side if I got him in the shit with Lau.

‘What’s your mum been up to, then?’

‘She’s been, like, listening at my door to my, like, private conversations.’

I said it extra loud, just in case Mum had followed me and was standing outside the door with more pairs of pants.

Matt

I was sure the emphasis was for the benefit of any ears flapping outside the bathroom.

‘Oh, bummer. With whom?’

Cal gave me a look that may as well have used words to say ‘none of your business’. It was his own teenagery version of shorthand.

Cal

Yeah right, Matty, like I’m going to tell you so you can just pass it on up the chain of command. I gave Matty a look that I hoped said just that without me having to bother.

‘It’s like she thinks she owns me, just because she paid for my bloody phone, she thinks she owns the bloody words I say on it and who I bloody say them to.’

Matt

Some of the bloodying filtered through to Lau, and she called out from the kitchen.

‘Is that Calum Scott using all sorts of inappropriate language within earshot of the children?’

Cal

Matty winced at me, and I rolled my eyes back at him as if worrying about swearing was just so tiresome. But I did try to control myself.

‘So, OK then, let’s think about this. Your mum isn’t usually a snoop, is she?’

‘You’re always calling her an interfering cow.’

Matt

Oh how your words come back to bite you.

‘Yeah, but kind of in a messing about way.’

Mostly. Except when she was being an interfering cow.

‘So what makes you think she’s been listening to you on the phone?’

Cal

‘Well I heard something outside my door while I was talking to Kat – er, my friend, and so I went and opened it, and she was just, like, standing there, with my pants and stuff in her, like, hand.’

‘Hmm, OK, so the circumstantial evidence is pretty damning. How about we delve deeper and postulate other possibilities?’

That was typical Matty. He always ponced about using long words instead of just getting to the point, he thought he was being clever, but I sometimes had no clue what he was going on about. And sometimes, like now, I knew what he was going on about, but I didn’t feel like doing word games with him.

‘What?’

‘Just play along, Cal.’

‘You’re, like, well weird, Matty.’

‘I know. It makes me who I am. So, your mum had your pants in her hand.’

‘Yeah. It was just an excuse.’

‘Hmm. Or, maybe, had she been doing some laundry earlier?’

‘I don’t bloody know, do I?’

By the sounds of it, Matty was getting ready to defend Mum, or at least come up with an excuse for her, and I was starting to regret calling him. Maybe Dec would have been a better bet?

Matt

Cal was getting frustrated with my interrogation methods, and was regretting calling me as it seemed I might be siding with his mother.

‘OK, then, here’s my hypothesis, not that yours isn’t perfectly valid, but we need to cover all the angles, wouldn’t you agree? Good. How about, your mum had finished doing the washing, your clothes were dry and she was bringing them up to you. She was about to, I don’t know, knock on the door, or maybe open it without knocking as has been known, but heard you talking and realised you were on the phone, possibly having a private conversation. She wasn’t quite sure what to do, and while she was deciding, you opened the door. Now, I’m not saying that’s what happened, maybe your scenario is the truth of it, but you’ll never know unless you talk to her.’

Cal

I should have known. Adults always stick together, like even if they’re totally in the wrong, just because they’re both adults they’ll take each other’s side against me, and they’ll always suggest talking. It was almost as if Matty had never tried talking to Mum about anything and been steamrollered by her. I wasn’t having it.

‘I’m not fucking talking to …’

I suddenly realised I’d said ‘fuck’, and tried to back-pedal.

‘Oh, sorry, Matty. I’m not talking to her. She always has to be right.’

Matt

Yeah, didn’t I know it. Holy shit this was hard, trying not to back Cal against Beth, but knowing how infuriating she could be.

Cal


Matty nodded like he knew what I meant, but before he could answer, Lau’s face appeared next to his, and I knew I was sunk. Lau was great, you could talk to her about anything, but in some ways she was worse than Mum, because she was always right. I mean, Mum liked to think she was always right, and let you know how right she thought she was, but Lau went about things a bit differently, probably all those years of practice sneaking her rightness up on Matty, and before you knew it, there was no other way of looking at things other than how Lau had just said it. I didn’t want that to happen to me, not now.

‘Hey Cal.’

‘Alright, Lau. I’m gonna go, Matty, she’ll find me in here soon.’

‘Before you go, flower –’

Matt

Lau looked like she was about to spout some words of wisdom, and I sat back and awaited enlightenment.

Cal

Oh bollocks, I wasn’t going to escape.

‘– your mum doesn’t want to know the ins and outs of your love life –’

‘What? What’s she said?’

My anger started to swell again, as I thought about Mum gossiping about what she thought she knew about what she thought she’d heard.

‘Nothing, Cal, but I remember when I was your age, I was always talking to boys in my room, and it drove my mum wild, not because she wanted to know whether I was talking to one boy or another, but because she was worried I was taking drugs. Parents are always worried their children are taking drugs. Now, I’m not saying you have to do this, it’s totally up to you, but if you are maybe a bit more open about things, if you’ve got a girlfriend, or friends who are girls, and maybe you sometimes want some uninterrupted time to talk to them, then if you tell her that, she’s not going to worry so much that you’re on your phone to your drug dealer.’

‘Unless you are on the phone to your drug dealer. Then you’d best not say anything, right Lau?’

Matt

Cal smirked, and Lau gave me a look that should have made me burst into flames. Luckily I was almost Lau-proof and got away with merely a mild singeing.

Cal

Ha ha Matty, thanks for that, it gave me an out, and with a sigh of relief, I realised that Mum had got it completely wrong. Maybe she thought there was girl stuff in there somewhere, but mainly, probably due to some of the illegal substances that had been on offer at the party, she thought I was doing drugs. I wasn’t. I was just starting to get seriously into playing rugby, and anything like that would have put paid to it before I even started. Girl or no girl, there was no way I was going down that road.

I smirked at Matty’s comment, and Lau turned her full ‘you’re toast’ look on him. It was time to beat a hasty retreat and go ‘talk to Mum’.

‘Mm. OK Lau. Gotta go now.’

I disconnected and opened the door, unsurprised to find Mum fiddling with more laundry at the other end of the utility room.

‘Hey Mum.’

‘Hello sweetheart.’

‘Sorry for what I said.’

‘It wasn’t very nice.’

‘I know. Sorry. You were stressing me out.’

‘Cal, I know you’ve had a hard time the last few months, if you’d just –’

‘I’m not on drugs.’

‘What?’

‘I’m not doing drugs, not any sort. Lau said that’s what you think.’

The look on her face was priceless. Firstly, she couldn’t believe I’d volunteered information without her prising it out of me with a crowbar. Secondly, I’d talked to Lau about it rather than her. Thirdly, Lau’s techniques had worked better than hers. She quickly got a grip on herself, though.

‘Oh sweetheart. I have been worried. You know what your dad would do, don’t you?’

Yeah, I’d seen Dad in full ‘Just Say No’ mode. He’d kicked kids out of the under sixteens for smoking pot, and out of the under eighteens for worse. He was Mr Zero Tolerance. It would have been a good way to rebel and teach him a lesson, but I cared a lot about playing rugby, and even I realised that it would be the height of stupidity to ruin something I cared about just to prove a point. Plus, you know, my body was a temple and all that.

‘Yeah, I know. I’m not.’

‘What is it then, sweetheart? You’re so secretive, I just worry.’

‘I’ve got a right to private conversations.’

‘I know sweetheart, but you will tell me if there’s anything wrong, won’t you?’

‘Yeah, Mum. Back off now.’

‘OK, Cal.’

She stroked my cheek and turned back to her laundry, and I could see the worry still written on her face.

Matt

Cal disconnected and I leaned back into the sofa.

‘That could have gone better.’

‘Lau, really, drugs?’

‘Most kids come into contact with them at an early age don’t they? Weren’t they all round your school at his age? I know Beth is worried about it, not specifically with Cal, but in general. And he went to a dodgy party not long ago, where some kids ended up having their stomachs pumped.’

‘Bloody hell.’

‘You know Cal’s got three girls on the go, don’t you?’

‘What? No way! Go Cal.’

‘Yeah, I’m sure that’s why he called you, for your helpful advice in all things girl related. From what Beth says, two of them are trouble and the other one is a nightmare, and Cal is being twisted round three little fingers.’

‘How does she know that?’

‘Oh, she listens at his door.’

Cal

So I hadn’t really solved anything. The Holy Trinity still weren’t giving me a second’s peace; there were calls, texts and emails all day and night, telling me what Florence’s brother was going to do to me, asking what I was going to do, how I was going to help Katya. I couldn’t cope with it, I didn’t know what she expected me to do. It’s not like either of us were old enough to get married, I didn’t know a thing about babies, apart from the ones in the family, and they spent most of their time eating and shitting. I just wanted to be able to avoid it, so I avoided Katya as much as I could, which meant not going out of the house except to go to school, and staying in the study rooms when I was there.

Baggo saved me. I hadn’t seen much of him since the party, which he hadn’t been invited to, and had been too busy trying not to get caught up in Katya since then to contact him much.

He came round one evening, with a new X-box game.

‘Hey Cal. Fancy giving this a go?’

Well it was better than fending off texts and calls all evening. I put my phone under my pillow and we started playing.

After a while, there had been a ridiculous number of bleeps and pings from my phone, and even the usually unobservant Baggo noticed.

‘What’s with your phone? Is it broken?’

‘No, it’s just texts and shit.’

‘Don’t you need to look at them?’

‘Nah, it’s not important.’

‘How do you know unless you look?’

Baggo got up and retrieved my phone from under the pillow, even as I tried to wrestle it out of his hand. He managed to keep it away from me as he looked at the screen.

‘Katya’s texted you ten times? Four from Florence and six from Milly. Holy shit, Cal, are you doing all of them? The entire Holy Trinity?’

‘Don’t be a twat.’

‘No? Looks like it from here. What does the lovely Katya have to say for herself?’

‘Piss off, Bags, give it here.’

I made another grab for my phone before he could see some of the texts, which would tell him for sure what was going on, but Baggo was taller than me, and held it above his head while he scrolled through the messages, his eyes growing wider and wider.

‘You’ve got her pregnant? Holy fucking shit, Cal. What are you going to do?’

I slumped down on the bed, relieved that someone else knew, but not sure Baggo was the ideal candidate for helping me out of the mess of eternal childcare and paternity payments that was all I could see of my future if I allowed myself to think about it.

‘I don’t know. She’s not giving me any time to sort it out, she’s got Florence’s brother on my case, and her mum’s going to get the CPA round here, and –’

‘Wait, wait wait wait, you’re sure she defo is, aren’t you. You’ve like, seen the test, the stick with the pee, and her mum’s called your mum and it’s all being sorted out? Isn’t it?’

I looked back at him, dumbfounded.

‘Well, no, I, she just texted me a few days after the party, and said we’d done it, and, well, what was up, and what was I going to do, and I haven’t had a minute since then to – why, do you think she might not be?’

A huge bubble of hope was swelling inside me, and I was trying to be so careful not to pop it.

‘I’m not saying that, all I’m saying is, let’s just think about it, right? Bit of perspective, yeah?’

Another five texts had pinged away while we’d been talking. Baggo looked at the screen.

‘Are they all like this? Like, what are you going to do, you’re in so much trouble, my brother’s gonna have your guts?’

‘Mostly.’

‘As often as this? All day and night?’

I nodded.

‘I think you’re being played, my son. But let’s think about it. Did you actually, like, do it with Katya?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘You don’t know? Cal, with Katya Marenski there is no room for doubt. I’ve heard she’s, er, quite obvious about it.’

‘I was pissed. Really fucking wasted, we’d been doing shots all night. I can remember bits, I had my hand in her knickers, I might not have had my jeans on, it’s all just a jumble.’

‘Shit. OK, but on the positive side, if you were that pissed, it’s unlikely isn’t it?’

‘I don’t know, Bags. Matty says he used to get stinking rat-arsed but could still get it up at the end of the night.’

‘Your bloody uncle was a legend in his own lunchtime, but that’s not helping us at the moment. OK, let’s think some more. I think that if you were going to do it with Katya Marenski, and you remembered having your hand in her knickers, you’d remember something more, er, memorable, like putting something else in something else, if you get my drift?’

‘I don’t remember fucking her, if that’s what you’re being all shy about saying.’

‘Yeah. That’s my point, really. That if the fumbles were memorable enough to make it through the vodka shots, then the big one would defo stay in there.’

‘Maybe. It was a wild night, though, there’s a lot I can’t remember, like how I got home.’

‘Oh that’s easy, me and Wheels took you.’

‘What?’

‘Yeah, you texted me. Don’t you remember?’

‘No. Really?’

Baggo hadn’t mentioned this in the two weeks since the party. It was typical of him to be someone’s rescuer and not expect any thanks or even a mention of it afterwards.

‘Yeah. I’ve still got the text here, look.’

He scrolled down his phone and showed me the screen. The time-stamp was 3:04am.

Bsgsssss cn u cpmr nwwde hel00op thers mblunce god ifellbad

As texts go, I had sent easier ones to understand.

‘Jesus, that doesn’t even mean anything to me. How the fuck did you work out what it meant?’

‘Well I didn’t, but Wheels was staying at ours, and I was a bit worried, so I woke him up, and –’

‘You woke him up? I bet he was chuffed at three in the morning.’

‘Yeah, well, he’d only just got in himself, he hadn’t been in bed long, anyway, I knew where you were, and I talked him into it.’

Baggo could talk nearly anyone into nearly anything, except girls into his pants. He had the confidence to say anything and the cheek to sound like he meant it, and the air of expectation that had people agreeing to things before they even realised they’d said yes. He was the only person who had ever been able to handle my mum in full flow, even though part of that was because she felt sorry for him, and I expect that years of dealing with his brothers had seen him honing his skills on them.

‘So you brought me home?’

‘We took you back to ours first, didn’t want to have you waking up your mum and dad in the state you were in. Then when you were a bit less vommy and singy we took you home, snuck you in up the stairs and everything. It was like an SAS operation.’

I was a bit taken aback. It was as if I’d lived a bit of life without actually being present in it, and it felt weird.

‘Yeah, so you were pretty shit-faced. I’m surprised you could even text as well as you did. But I’d be more surprised if you could have got it up with Katya. She wasn’t anywhere around when we found you, anyway, none of them were. And her methods are interesting now.’

‘Methods?’

‘Yeah, like, not giving you a moment to yourself to actually like THINK FOR FUCK’S SAKE CAL!’

He yelled at me, and made me jump, then sat there shaking his head as if something was completely obvious.

‘So, for the last, what, two weeks, she’s had you tied up in knots, wondering what to do, and she hasn’t even shown you a test, or had her dad down here, like, banging your front door down, and Florence’s brother hasn’t actually, like, showed up?’

‘Well, no.’

‘Of course he hasn’t. He’s too busy paying his parents back for the damage he caused and answering awkward questions about how three kids ended up in A and E off their faces on coke to worry about his sister’s annoying mate whining about being knocked up. You. Fucking. Idiot. Apart from anything else, Katya’s practically got a repeat prescription for the morning after pill. It’s not like she doesn’t know how to look after herself. They’ve been playing games with you. You need to call her bluff.’

‘What?’

‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’

And that was one of the times when I was bloody grateful for Baggo’s ability to hatch a mad scheme. The more I thought about it, the more I ignored the never-ending texts and calls, the more I considered the content of all of the communications, the more I realised Baggo’s theory could well be correct. And maybe what we were planning might cause unnecessary stress to Katya, but they’d made my life a misery for nearly two weeks, and I wanted it to stop.

First there was the text:

OK, what do you want? I’ll do anything.

This produced the desired effect of a list of demands, which I immediately agreed to. They were ludicrous demands, but my contract was not legally binding.

Then there was the email, which was sent to Katya, Florence, Milly and a handful of their girl gang who I was sure would be in on it too, as well as real-looking but actually fake email adresses for Mum, Dad, her mum and her dad. We hoped they put the wind up Katya enough that she wouldn’t check too closely. The email said:

Dear Katya and Everyone

By now you will all know that I am the father of Katya’s baby. I have been shirking my responsibility for nearly two weeks, but have now faced up to it and am going to do my duty by Katya. Once we are both sixteen, I will marry her and we can live at my mum and dad’s until we leave school and can afford our own place.

I would like to invite you all to a meeting to discuss how Katya and I are going to support our baby. [I named a time and a place.]

I know you will all be happy for us, and look forward as much as I do to this new addition.

Cal Scott”

It was a risk, because if Katya showed it to anyone like my mum, or her mum, it would get blown sky high and I would be up shit creek, but our hope was that it wouldn’t get that far.

I hit send on the email, and Baggo and I sat and played on the X-box while we listened to the silence on my phone as the texts stopped. After about fifteen minutes my phone rang. Katya.

‘Hello Katya.’

‘What the fuck have you done, you dickhead? You’ve told my mum, and your mum.’

‘But I thought that was what you wanted. You wanted all those things, the dress and the watch, I thought it was for our new life together, so our baby has nice things around it –’

‘You spaz, there is no baby. But now our parents think there is and they are going to to ape-shit. My dad might actually kill me, and then he’ll come and kill you.’

I high-fived Baggo as I spoke. It had worked.

‘What? There’s no baby?’

I tried to put a suitable amount of hurt confusion into my voice.

‘No, you dick, there never was.’

‘Katya, are you telling me you lied about us doing it, just so you could get stuff like a dress and a watch?’

‘So? Your dad’s rich, he can well afford it.’

‘That … that’s really cruel. And now I’ve told everyone. There’s going to be a lot of explaining to do.’

‘Everyone will think I’m, like, a total slag.’

‘Oh that’s terrible. Maybe I’d feel worse about it if it wasn’t so true. Bye Katya. Check the email addresses.’

I’d recorded the whole thing so she couldn’t go back on it and use my email against me, but I didn’t actually want her telling her mum, who would be bound to tell my mum and things might come to light that would be best remaining in the dark.

I felt a huge weight slip from my shoulders, and knew that I had more to be grateful to Baggo for than just coming to get me when I texted him from a party he hadn’t been invited to.

‘You, Jacob Bagwell, are a sodding genius.’

‘Aw shucks. She had it bloody coming. She throws her weight around way too much.’

‘Thanks, though.’

‘Pleasure. Are you done now?’

‘Done what?’

‘Taking out your angst on girlkind?’

‘Don’t know what you mean.’

‘Yeah you do. Since Chrissie left, you’ve been this, like, moody git; you go from one girl to another, spreading the hate. This was an accident waiting to happen. It’s like you don’t care. You’ve always cared, it’s one of your least appealing traits, that you’ve never just been one for copping a quick feel when you could make them a hot chocolate or do their, like, bloody ironing or something. I blame your bloody family, bunch of caring tosser blokes like your uncle and your whatever you call him, Dec, always running about making sure their women are warm or comfortable or whatever. It sets a bad example, and you’ve always been like that, but since Chrissie, you’re more like … you’re more like me. You don’t wanna be like me.’

‘What are you on? I’m nothing like you. I have way more success.’

‘Exactly.’

‘Huh?’

‘You’re much more popular with the ladies than I am. You should treat them better. Don’t let this kind of Katya thing happen again. Forget her, she’s trouble.’

‘Leave her to you, you mean?’

‘If you like. I’ll take her off your hands, make her forget all about you.’

It was just posturing and banter now, and I appreciated what Baggo was doing for me. I heard what he said, too. He was right, I’d got a bit lost in my sadness and anger over Chrissie, and I knew deep down that the way I’d been wasn’t really how I wanted to be.

The next day at school was interesting, as Katya, Florence and Milly all pretended they didn’t know me and didn’t care who I was, while I got on with my school work without having to check my phone every two minutes. Baggo seemed determined to be my guardian angel, or maybe he’d suddenly decided he had a thing for the Holy Trinity after all, as he went all out to bag one of them for himself. He nearly succeeded, managing to secure a date with Milly who then stood him up.

It was the end of Callous Cal, and to be honest, I was glad to see the back of him. I didn’t really have the heart for it; Baggo was right, I was much better at making hot chocolate than breaking hearts, although I will not admit to ever doing anyone’s ironing, least of all my own. Trouble was, I didn’t have anyone to make hot chocolate for except my mum. I supposed she would have to do for now.

Matt

‘Hey gorgeous woman. I’ve got some free cuddles, if you’re interested.’

‘Hi flower. Yeah, always interested in free stuff.’

‘Come here then, you’re going to have to work for your freebies.’

I wrapped Lau up in my arms and kissed her. I had news.

‘What?’

‘Oh for pity’s sake, Lau, I didn’t even get half way through the door.’

‘Stop moaning about how well I know you, and just tell me.’

I sighed, she was no fun at all, oh except when she was being very fun indeed, but right now, when I wanted to string it out a bit, tease her, nope, no enjoyment to be had there in any way.

‘OK then, you clever cow, but I might charge you for the cuddle now.’

‘Hm. What’s your price?’

‘A snog with tongues, an arse grope and a nipple pinch.’

‘Blimey, your cuddles don’t come cheap.’

She got going on the arse groping, and I hoped the rest would shortly follow. The kids were having an afternoon out with Mum and April, and we had a good hour before they came back.

‘No, the whole Matt Scott package comes in pretty expensive these days. With a ten per cent price hike as of today.’

Lau looked at me, confused.

‘What do you mean? Ten per cent of snog with tongues would be …’

‘No you daft bat. Bloody hell, I thought I just called you a clever cow. I said the ‘whole Matt Scott package’, as in my net worth, as in Raiders just gave me a ten per cent pay rise. Although, obviously, ten per cent of snog with tongues is nibbled earlobes.’

Lau’s eyes widened in surprise and delight, and not just about the prospect of nibbling my earlobes. Raiders already paid me pretty well, and there were bonuses attached which helped, as I worked hard and met my targets, and now Raiders had won the League again, they were able to dish out pay rises. We had been managing before, but Lau had been thinking about going back to work to make things easier. Now she wouldn’t have to. She did a little dance, and hugged me tightly.

‘Oh, flower, that’s great. Have you got to work longer hours, though?’

‘No, same hours. Lau, this means you can stay put, not go back, if you don’t want to.’

‘Well it does, but I’m still not sure. The kids will be going to school in a couple of years, and I don’t know what I’d do with myself. Maybe we should be earning a bit of a cushion.’

‘Do you want to go back to work?’

I knew the answer. She’d thought she’d miss it when she left to have the babies, but her maternity leave had been stretched as thin as she could stretch it, and then she took unpaid leave, and now she admitted she didn’t really want to return. I also knew she felt guilty about not earning money, but I had the answer to that one all ready.

‘I feel like I should.’

‘And who would look after Josh and Ella?’

‘Well, Mum would, maybe one day a week. Beth has offered. And there’s this really good nursery near the airport.’

‘So you’d go to work so we could pay someone to look after them while you’re at work?’

She shrugged.

‘It’s crazy Lau, if you don’t really want to. Look, we’ve always said in it together, haven’t’ we? Doesn’t that mean we share everything? Like, we take it in turns to empty the dishwasher, or you use my razor to shave your legs and I don’t complain when it shreds my face the next day, or you spend all day looking after our kids and we share the money I earn.’

‘Yeah, I know, flower. It just … something doesn’t feel right about actually saying ‘I’m giving up working’. Like I’m a scrounger or something.’

I understood where she was coming from. Lau had a strong work ethic, and didn’t like doing nothing, or feeling like she was doing nothing when she was actually running around like a blue arsed fly keeping us all together. I was about to play my trump card.

‘But how about if there was something to keep you busy once Ella and Josh go to school?’

She looked at me, a slight frown on her face as she wondered what the fuck I was going to suggest.

‘Like?’

‘Like, oh I don’t know –’

I bent down and kissed her, gently, pushing her hair away from her face and running my hand down her side to her fine arse.

‘– how about another baby?’

She pushed away from me slightly, so she could look in my eyes and see if I meant it. I so meant it.

‘Oh Matt.’

Cal

I was still nursing my own broken heart, and once the summer holidays came round, I just wanted to shut myself away and forget everything, but we were going on one of our enormous family holidays. It was part two of something similar we’d done a few years previously, and maybe a continuation of something that had begun before that, a few years after we moved back down to the city. That first time, there hadn’t been so many of us. We’d gone to France: Mum and Dad, me and Iz, Dec and Amy, Gran, Rose, Nico and Lis, and Matty. Which made eleven of us. Then, years later, Matty and Dad fell out about something, and when they made it up, they decided to go to France again, only this time ‘everyone’ was Mum and Dad, me and Iz, Matty and Lau with Josh and Ella, Dec and Amy with Charlie, Tom and Gracie on the way, Nico, Lis and Basty, Granny, Rose, Diane and April. Nineteen and a half people. It’s hard to believe our family had almost doubled in just a few years.

By the time we did it again, though, that summer when we went to Spain and I was trying to forget Chrissie, a few had dropped off. Diane and April had decided that much as they loved cuddling grandchildren, the rest of us were too raucous to be around for too long. Nico, Lis and Basty couldn’t make it either, so it was just Mum and Dad, me and Iz, Matty and Lau with Josh and Ella, Dec and Amy with Charlie, Tom, Gracie and Rosa, Gran and Rose. ‘Only’ sixteen of us.

I would like to say I tried my hardest to get in the holiday mood, that I joined in with games and trips and helped with the little kids, but in truth I shut myself away in my room with my phone and my Nintendo and my ‘doom and gloom music’, as Rose used to call it, and gave everyone a hard time. Not that I was allowed to dwell in any way, not with the self-styled comedy duo that was Matt Scott and Declan Summers to tease and cajole me into coming out of my room (they pretended to be filming a documentary about an elusive animal, they did a whole circus act in my room, they sat and told ‘knock knock’ jokes, until I gave in and left the room for dinner, just to make them stop). But I was in pain, and I didn’t know what to do about it, and no one seemed to notice.

I hadn’t heard from Chrissie in all this time, but I’d been hanging on to the belief that she’d cave and text or call in the summer, maybe come down to see me, and things could go back to how they were. The longer the summer went on and she didn’t contact me, the more I had to face it, that she wasn’t going to, that we really were over. I missed her more than ever.

Slowly, though, once I’d accepted it, I started to get over it. I had a bit of a reputation, inside the family, of being a grumpy little git, not only at that time, but beforehand. I suppose I did whinge quite a lot, but I really, really hated being the oldest of a whole bunch of little kids. Not only the oldest by a year or two, like Iz was, but oldest by six or seven years. Just as I was getting to be what I thought was ‘grown up’, I was lumbered at any family get together with all these little dweebs who just wanted to ruin all my stuff. I was always being made to let them go on my X-box, or play with my iPod, or worse, play their games.

Perhaps, if I’m absolutely honest, I was envious of them as a group. They all got on so well together, and even though I was hurting from Chrissie that time in Spain, I couldn’t hack the thought of being used as a free childminder, expected to build sandcastles and give piggy backs while the ‘real’ grown ups sat on the beach and read books.

Matt

‘Hey Unca Matty. Newsflash from the Summers house.’

‘Well don’t keep me in suspenders, man.’

‘Baby no. 4 on the way.’

‘No shit! Congrats, I think! U moving to a mansion?’

‘LOL no but extension on the cards. Come over ltr 2 cele?’

‘Def. BBQ?’

‘No, A’s puking @ cooking meat.’

‘Bugger. Celery?’

‘LOL. Pizza. No pepperoni tho.’

‘We’ll b there. ❤ 2 Amy x’

Cal

Some of it got better as I got over Chrissie. Some of it got better as I got older, and realised my family, all of it, was pretty great. A lot of it was helped by a few well-chosen words from Dec, one evening when he asked me over for pizza.

Amy had gone out, and he called up and invited me over for a ‘boys night in’, which also included Matty and Nico. I was really chuffed, feeling part of the gang for once. There was a bit of teasing, mostly about me not being old enough to drink beer, although Matty had been giving me beer since I was really young, but as they all teased each other about other stuff, I didn’t mind. You didn’t stand a chance in our family if you minded being teased, although I didn’t always let on how little I really minded.

We’d been there a while, watching a DVD, eating pizza, drinking coke. The DVD finished, Matty and Nico took some pizza boxes and beer bottles out to the kitchen, and Dec turned to me.

‘It’s great having you here, mate, thanks for coming.’

I looked at him, surprised.

‘Sure thing. Good pizza.’

‘Great to see you smile, mate.’

‘What do you mean? I smile all the time.’

‘Not all the time, eh? Maybe you feel a bit grumpy, more often than not.’

I shrugged, the teenager’s stock response to being confronted.

‘All I’m saying, Cal, is look like you’re fucking enjoying things a bit more, and maybe we can do things like this more often, just the boys.’

It resonated with advice Rose had given me in Spain, but I really didn’t like being told how to feel, especially when it felt like I was being offered a bribe.

‘What, you mean grin for my pizza?’

‘No, I didn’t mean that. I just meant you’re great to be around, a good mate, and I’ve had a laugh this evening. We can do it again sometime, if you like.’

‘As long as I’m a cheery bastard?’

‘Well, it wouldn’t hurt, would it? I know it’s not easy with all the kids, you being the oldest. Just wondered if you fancied being the youngest every now and then, with us old tossers?’

I gave him an honest smile then, not one that had been bought. He’d got it. Fuck knows how, but Dec, who had never had any brothers or sisters, younger or older, got how it was for me, and knew how to make at least some of it better. Somehow, just knowing that was another part of the jigsaw slotting into place

Another piece was that I went on rugby camps when I got back from Spain, started doing more training in the week, as well as my schoolwork, immersed myself in brain work and muscle work, and decided that there was more to life than girls. More to life than one particular girl, at any rate. I was still a bloke, and girls still turned my head to some degree, but they were low on my priority list. I think that’s how Ayesha got in under my radar. I didn’t notice she was a girl, not at first.

That sounds terrible. Sorry, Ayesh. You are the womanliest of women, and were the girliest of girls, I just wasn’t in that place where I wanted to notice. That’s what I think I meant.

The Philpotts Letters – 7

I’ve found a reason for me to change who I used to be (Hoobastank)

I’ve found a reason for me to change who I used to be (Hoobastank)

Ella and Josh. It’s your dad here, your shamefaced dad, who is finding all his pigeons coming home to roost and not knowing what the fuck to do about it. Oh, ha, it’s probably a little ironic to put it like that, under the circumstances. See, I’ve got this thing, maybe I’ve got some kind of Tourette’s or something, but I like a good swear. ‘Fuck’ this, ‘bollocks’ that, ‘shit’ the other, it’s great at relieving tension, and it really winds your aunty Beth up so, you know, has to be done kind of thing.

Before you were around, I didn’t much think about the effect all of the expletives might have on the younger members of the family, even though I was reminded ad nauseam at every opportunity, and it never seemed to do anyone any real harm, although Cal let rip with some choice expressions at a fairly early age, I suppose. But that wasn’t just me; his dad and Dec are just as bad, and – oh who am I kidding, it’s at least partly down to me.

Anyway, the pigeons home to roost thing. Yeah. I have just heard my four year old daughter say bollocks. That is so not something you ever want to hear your daughter say, but four years old? And Ella, you just came out with it, as you are apt to do, while we were on our way back from a great day out at the country park, we were chatting about ducks, and I was kidding you both about baby ducks being called duckittens, and you just said, ‘That’s bollocks, Daddy’, and I nearly crashed the car, and your mum’s eyes went the size of saucers, but neither of us said anything straight away, me because I couldn’t think of a single bloody thing to say, and neither could your mum because she was too busy trying to laser blast me with her eyes.

Oh, the times I’ve promised no more swearing when I’m with you, I’ve even promised no more ever a few times. I like to think I’m a man of my word, but this tends to prove otherwise. Well, maybe there’s no point in making any more shallow promises; me and your mum have had some words tonight, as I’m sure you can imagine, and I totally accept responsibility for it.

It’s not like I ever intentionally swore while you were around just so you’d learn the words and say them yourselves, it’s like it just comes out, something’s stupid so it’s bollocks, someone winds me up so they can just piss off, and fuck – fuck is such an awesomely versatile word; it covers so many situations. You can compose entire sentences consisting almost wholly of variations of fuck (fuck me, that fucking fuckwit fucked the fuck out of the fucker and fucked off so I’m fucked, fuck him); it can have different meanings depending on what other words you put with it (fucked about = had a bit of a laugh; fucked around = was rather promiscuous). It can be a verb (go fuck yourself), an adjective (it was fucking awesome), an exclamation (holy fuck!), a noun (you fucker), and many more – if you are at a loose end, try searching the internet, that depository of all knowledge, for more grammatical fuck lessons. Oh, don’t Google ‘fuck’ though, the parental controls will probably notice.

However, that isn’t really the point, and it’s easy to sidetrack myself when I’m trying to avoid the fact that having heard Ella say ‘bollocks’, I never ever want to hear either of you say another bad word, and especially not ‘fuck’. I concede, though, that it is probably too late and four years of being unable to tone my language down has probably sown more seeds that I would like.

I’m so sorry guys. It’s not like I can even tell you off when (I can’t say if) it happens again, because I’ll just get ‘but you say it Daddy’ thrown back in my face, and then I’ll get a look from your mum, and I’ll just have to hang my head and take it. If only it wasn’t so natural to say ‘for fuck’s sake’ when something or someone pisses me off, if only it wasn’t so cathartic, more so than, oh I don’t know, ‘for goodness’ sake’. Maybe I should just practise, start saying ‘whoops’ instead of ‘fuck it’, or ‘oh bother’ instead of ‘oh bugger’, ‘that’s a load of old tosh’ instead of ‘what a load of bollocks’.

I’ll give it a try, kids. Only time will tell if I manage it. While we’re waiting for the outcome, maybe Ella you could just not repeat anything I say? I’m usually spouting bollocks anyway, so just ignore me. You can call it practise for when you’re a teenager.

Yours in profanity

Dad xxx

114. My girl

In which we hear about a significant ending, and about first love and first loss.

Laura

Weeks, months and then years began to pass. We were settled together, and I never stopped loving being part of my family – both the life I had with Matt and the children, and the wider family I was part of. Dec and Amy still lived down the road, Dec having resisted all offers from other clubs to sign for them. They had four children now. Gracie was born six months after their wedding and they added Rosa a couple of years later. They’d had to extend their house and put a bedroom in the loft.

Matt

I’m getting desperate now, as I’m trying to avoid the next big item on the Matt Scott timeline, so I am going to chuck everything I can think of at you in an attempt to forestall it. Just snippets of things, maybe little conversations I remember, snatches of events, good times, bad times, it’s all coming your way, in a great big jumble. Pay attention, now.

Laura

Jay took over as Raiders’ head coach when Dom Barker was offered a job in the England set-up, and his future looked set. Nico had retired from playing and he, Lis and Basty moved back to Argentina where he took up a coaching position with the Argentina national side. He still had connections with Raiders, and visited England often to run training camps for the youth team, and when Argentina visited the UK for the autumn internationals.

Matt

‘Matt, I can’t possibly walk all the way up there carrying Josh.’

Lau was looking in consternation at the summit of the hill, all of a mile away, up a fairly gentle incline.

‘You won’t be carrying him, you’ll be wearing him, in the baby harness. He’ll love it. Have Ella, then, she doesn’t weigh as much.’

I was desperate to get out walking, because a) I’d really missed a bloody good hike, b) I was feeling so much better, I wanted to stretch my legs and stretch myself and see how far I could go, and c) I really wanted the babies to appreciate getting out for a bloody good hike from an early age.

‘I don’t think a pound or two is going to make much difference. Seriously, Matt, I know I won’t make it.’

Lau was looking determined. She really didn’t do a lot of physical exercise, rushing around looking after two small people all day notwithstanding, and walking up Devon’s finest hills was not something that floated her boat.

I sighed, realising fairly early on that I wasn’t going to persuade her, and it was best to cash in my chips while I still had some left. Then I had a relatively crazy idea.

‘OK, then, I’ll take them both.’

‘What? You can’t, the … it … you can’t carry them both.’

‘Not both at once, you daft bat, I’m not a complete lunatic. One at a time. You can sit here on the bench and natter to the other one.’

I really, really wanted to go up the hill. And maybe I’d enjoy it enough that I’d want to do it again straight afterwards. Lau looked at me like I actually was a complete lunatic.

‘You’re mad Matt Scott.’

‘Yeah, mad about you. Alright, then, which one of you lucky babies is coming up the hill with your old dad first?’

Dec

ɸ … like to reflect on how far you’ve come. When you first came to see me, you had difficulty recognising when you needed help. Now I’m asking you to recognise when you don’t need it. Declan, our last few sessions have really been a social catch up. Now, much as I enjoy hearing about your life, your rugby, your family and everything else that’s going on with you, I’m no longer providing any therapy. I can’t in all conscience continue to take your money. I think this should be our last session.

A pause.

‘Fucking hell, Adam, are you breaking up with me?’

ɸIs that what it feels like?

‘Ha ha, very therapisty of you. Yeah, I suppose it does a bit. You really want to stop?’

ɸOK then, let me be a bit more ‘therapisty’. What do you feel you still need to work on with me?

‘… Well, I guess, there’s always a lot going on, it’s about coping with it all.

ɸHow do you cope at the moment?

‘I come and talk to you.’

ɸYou see me two or three times a year and tell me how great your life is. In-between, what do you do?

‘Well, I talk to Amy. Or Matt. Or Rose. Or Beth. Or Jay. Depends what it is, who’s around.’

ɸDeclan, you have an incredibly comprehensive support network. I can’t compete with it. You have developed robust coping strategies. You don’t need me. In fact, I think it would be detrimental for you to continue these sessions.

A long pause.

ɸWhat are you thinking?

‘I’m thinking you’re bloody right, you bastard.’

ɸAnd what are you feeling?

‘Kind of sad. Kind of scared. But kind of … free.’

Matt

‘… I don’t know, mate, women, they’re just unfathomable. Maybe it’s something to pick over with Adam next time you’re booked in. Another beer?’

Dec and I were having a boys night, in the guise of a baby sleepover. Tom and Charlie were both ensconced in our spare room, while Lau and Amy went on a hen night for one of the Raiders player’s wives. Dec had just been bemoaning getting told off for doing something he’d previously been told off for not doing, and I was sharing my relationship wisdom, which, as you can see, was vast.

‘Yeah, cheers. Actually … last time I saw Adam, he said I didn’t need to go back.’

‘Whoa! When was this? Bloody hell, Dec, you’ve been seeing him for, like, five hundred years.’

Dec nodded. ‘Yeah, I know. I asked if he was breaking up with me, and he said ‘is that what it feels like?’, the bastard.’

‘Ha ha, yeah that sounds like Adam.’

Oh shit. I’d never told anyone except Lau that I saw the same counsellor as Dec, on a semi-regular basis. Maybe Dec would think I meant that it sounded like the version of Adam that Dec portrayed …

‘Er, how would you know?’

… or maybe he’d jump straight to the truth.

‘Matt?’

I sighed. Dec knew nearly everything there was to know about me, I suppose this wouldn’t really matter, but there was a slight chance I could evade him with some of the truth.

‘I saw him once, after Jules.’

Dec narrowed his eyes, not about to let me get away with that.

‘Once. After Julia. Yeah, and …’

He raised his eyebrows, inviting me to elucidate further, or he would have if he’d known what elucidate meant.

‘Oh alright, I saw him once, after Jules, you know that, you practically tied me up and dragged me there. Then I didn’t go again. Then, when I met Lau, there was … shit that went on, and I realised I needed to talk to someone, try to unfuck my head.’

‘What shit?’

‘It’s not important.’

Dec looked at me for a long time, trying to decide if this was true. There wasn’t a lot of shit that had gone on with me that Dec didn’t know about, but since Lau I hadn’t needed to trouble him so frequently. Maybe he felt left out. Even so, I wasn’t about to start spilling the potential shit that could have gone on that night when Lau drove across the city in the wee small hours to save me from myself

‘So is your head unfucked now?’

I snorted. ‘Dec, my head is so far from being unfucked it’s practically on its back in the local knocking shop, but it did the trick at the time and it continues to do the trick at regular intervals.’

‘Shit, Matt. I had no idea. You are bloody good at keeping secrets.’

He looked both awestruck, and a bit hurt.

‘I know. Maybe I should have said something, but …’

‘Yeah, it’s just for you. I get it. Sometimes I wished there were a few people in the world who didn’t know I was having therapy.’

He bloody understood, like he always did.

‘Only Lau knows. Well, and Adam, obviously.’

‘Don’t worry, mate, I won’t say anything. Beth won’t find out from me.’

‘Ha ha, you cut right to the chase, don’t you.’

‘To be honest, I had missed your little late night text messages, your code for ‘call me I need to talk’. I thought it was because of Lau.’

‘Well, a lot of it is. I can talk to her about nearly everything. But I suppose there are some things that fuck with your head that you just can’t say to your wife without it fucking with her head as well, by which I mean past relationships, and Adam is bloody good. Hey, if you miss me that much, I can always set my phone to text you in the middle of the night. Don’t call me though, you’ll wake up Lau and the kids.’

‘Ha ha, you’ve changed Matt. I’m not sure I like this sorted, responsible you.’

‘How dare you. The last person to call me responsible got a wedgie and a Chinese burn.’

Cal

Chrissie. Chrissie Coulson. New girl. Sat next to me in English on her first day, and we just hit it off. I mean, I wasn’t great at girls. I never knew what to say, but somehow we just clicked. She had come from London, saw my Arsenal pencil case, and told me she used to live really close to the Emirates Stadium, and had a season ticket last year. Well you just can’t go wrong with a girl who likes your team, can you? And she smiled like a rock star, with a wide mouth full of straight white teeth. Right from the start, Chrissie’s smile made me feel shiny inside. After that we discovered common ground in music, films and TV, and life got pretty bright.

I suppose Baggo took a bit of a back seat, because Chrissie and I spent loads of time together. As friends. Just friends. I mean, Baggo was with us some of the time as well, because we were just friends. He and Chrissie seemed to like each other well enough, we’d do stuff (by which I mean hang around the shopping centre) together, sometimes we’d all get together with some of Chrissie’s friends (hang around the chip shop), but quite often we’d hang out at her place, where we were allowed to watch TV in the playroom without her parents being there. Sometimes, her little brother wasn’t even in the room. But we were just friends, so it was all fine.

It was Dec who first called me on it. Yeah like old man Declan Summers knew anything about girls (was how I saw it at the time), but everyone was round at ours for Sunday lunch, Dec was avoiding peeling potatoes by being thrashed by me at BattleStations, and he just decided to stick his oar in.

‘So, Cal. Chrissie seems nice, mate.’

‘Yeah.’

‘What’s the deal?’

‘There’s no deal. She’s a mate.’

‘OK.’

We went back to playing for a bit.

‘What sort of mate?’

‘Eh? A mate mate. Like a friend.’

‘Uh huh. So not, like, a mate you might, I don’t know, kiss and stuff?’

We were having this conversation without looking at each other, because it’s easier not to look when you’re talking about this kind of shit. Of course, it’s easier not to talk about it at all, but with my family that is hardly ever allowed to happen.

‘What? Piss off.’

I got away with swearing in front of Dec, because he did it so much he couldn’t say anything to me.

‘So, if Chrissie were to, say, want to hold your hand, or slow dance, or something, you’d – what – say don’t be stupid, we’re mates? If she tried to kiss you, you’d push her away?’

Suddenly, Chrissie holding my hand or trying to kiss me was all I could think of, and it made me go bright red. I concentrated on hitting the buttons on the controller and blowing up the enemy.

‘All I’m saying, mate, is I’ve been there. I don’t know if you remember when Amy and me got together?’

He left a gap for me to answer but I just shrugged. The truth was I could remember a time before Amy was Dec’s girlfriend, and I could obviously remember her being his girlfriend because she still was, or rather was his wife. But I was a bit hazy on the details of how it had happened. Didn’t think I was ever going to have to answer a quiz on it.

‘Well, I wasn’t that much older than you, I suppose, not when I first met her, and we were friends for ages, she was going out with someone else to start with, then she wasn’t – oh fuck, sorry mate.’

Dec had stopped focussing on the game, and had just let us both get shot by a sniper. It didn’t stop him from talking, though.

‘Anyway, once she stopped going out with Dav, that should have been my chance, but I was too scared of blowing what we had, which was pretty awesome. It was bloody months before we both told each other how we felt, and we both wished we’d done it loads sooner, all that time we wasted. But just think, you could have what you’ve got with Chrissie, great mates and everything, and you could be kissing her. All I’m saying is, don’t miss your chance to have something amazing. Mates is great, I know that, but –’

‘OK, I get it, stop going on.’

‘No worries. Sorry, Cal. I just had to say something.’

‘OK. Just watch what you’re doing here, I don’t want to get shot again.’

And although I was short with Dec, I thought about what he’d said, although obviously later, after we’d finished exploding things. It was only him and Matty who would talk about girls with me. Mum always told me I was too young, Dad got embarrassed and changed the subject, and I was grateful to Dec for bringing the subject up. The truth was, I was scared of what I felt for Chrissie, and didn’t know if she felt the same. I wanted to still see her every day, and if I made a move I might mess all that up, the easy way we were together. But increasingly, if I didn’t do something soon, I was going to start feeling awkward with her anyway.

For a while I remained torn between keeping things the same and feeling increasingly that I wanted more, and trying for more with the risk of ruining everything.

Inevitably, it was a bit of Baggo recklessness that ignited the spark.

The three of us had been out to see a film. It was Chrissie’s birthday, and we went to Pizza Express for something to eat afterwards, where I was going to give her the present I’d bought her.

We ordered, and sipped our Cokes as we waited for the pizzas to arrive, and that was the ideal time to give her the gift I’d had in my pocket all evening.

‘Happy Birthday Chrissie.’

‘Oh wow, Cal. Thanks. Can I open it now?’

‘Unless you want to play table tennis with it.’

That was Baggo’s cue for some arsing about.

‘Great plan. It’s just the right size.’

He took the small parcel from Chrissie and used his hand as a bat to bounce it across the table. I tried to grab it back, but Baggo was quicker, and he snatched it away before Chrissie or I could. He held it up to his ear, shook it, prodded it, pretended to peel the sellotape off a bit, then started really peeling the sellotape off. It was a step too far.

‘Just stop pissing about Baggo, and give it back to Chrissie.’

Something in my tone must have sunk in, because he did as he was told for once, and Chrissie opened the parcel. It was a ring box, but no, not what you’re thinking, because we were only fourteen for Christ’s sake. I’d got her a friendship ring, one of those things with clasped hands and a crown thing on the top, I think it’s Irish or something. It was gold, and I’d saved up for ages to be able to afford it.

So Chrissie opened the box, and her face told me I’d got it just right. I was pretty confident I had, because she’d talked about a friend of hers who had something similar, which she thought was cute.

‘Oh Cal, it’s beautiful. I love it. Thank you so much.’

She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. Baggo watched, but didn’t say anything. In hindsight, he felt left out of our friendship, even though I still hung out with him. Chrissie and I just had so much in common, though, had so many in-jokes about things Baggo wasn’t interested in. We didn’t do it on purpose, and we didn’t want to exclude him, but we were young, and maybe it just kind of happened that way.

So later, after the pizza, we were walking to the bus stop, when Baggo asked to look at the ring. Chrissie held her hand out so he could see.

‘Can I try it on?’

‘It won’t fit your bloody sausage fingers, Bags.’

‘It might fit my pinky. Come on, Chrissie, give us a go. Cal’s never bought me a friendship ring. I want to show him what it would look like so he can put it on my Christmas list.’

Rolling her eyes, Chrissie took the ring off and handed it over. Baggo squeezed the ring onto his little finger and held it out for us to admire.

‘Yeah you’re a babe, Bags, let’s get you to the nearest nail bar. Give it back now.’

‘I like it. Can I wear it till the bus comes?’

‘No, give it back now. You’re bending it.’

‘Is he?’

‘No I’m not.’

‘Please can I have it back, Jake?’

‘Oh alright.’

He started to pull the ring off his finger, but it wouldn’t go past his knuckle. Who would have predicted it would get stuck?

‘Shit, I can’t get it off.’

‘Pull harder.’

‘I can’t, it bloody hurts. I need some butter.’

‘Butter?’

‘Yeah, it makes it all slippery then it’ll come off.’

‘Haven’t got any butter on me, Bags. Have you?’

‘No. Shit.’

‘I’ve got some hand cream.’

‘Oh, yeah, same diff, that should do it.’

Chrissie fished out the lotion from her bag and Baggo smeared it around the ring. I was getting more wound up by the minute, as it felt like he was ruining my birthday present, first by pushing it onto his fat clammy fingers, and then by smearing oily shit all over it.

‘Give it a try now, Baggo.’

He pulled at the ring; I could see the effort in his face. At first I didn’t think it was going to shift, and was imagining him going to school with it on Monday, and telling everyone I’d bought him a ring. I wouldn’t have put it past him. Then, with one last effort, he pulled really hard on his finger, and the ring came free – then sailed through the air, and bounced on the pavement twice, before rolling off the curb. As if in slow motion as we all watched, it fell onto a drain cover before rolling through the bars and into the dark drain.

‘Oh fuck.’

‘Baggo, you moron. I knew something like this would happen.’

‘Sorry, sorry. We can get it back, all we need is –’

‘Just piss off. Your bus is coming, look.’

‘But we need to –’

‘Get on the bus. Piss off.’

I was really, really narked. Not just because it was an expensive ring, but because he’d ruined it all. Chrissie had had my ring on her finger for a maximum of an hour, and now it was down a drain. I didn’t want to be anywhere near Baggo right then.

As the bus approached, Baggo waited indecisively, but must have seen something in my face that told him he’d be better off scarpering. He got on the bus, and I turned away, towards the problem of rescuing the ring.

First, I needed to see exactly what I was dealing with. I got my phone out, turned the torch on, and shone it down the drain. I had no idea what was in drains. Was it water? Was it stuff from toilets? I had no clue. Now, having had the full lecture from Mum, I know that drains are to drain excess water, dur, hence the name, and so the fact that I could see the ring shining on top of some manky looking black sludgy stuff was very lucky, as if it had been raining, the ring would have been washed away. But then, I didn’t know that the sludgy stuff was mostly leaves, with maybe a hint of dog piss, but not the full sewage horror I was imagining.

Chrissie was hovering behind me, trying to see what I could see.

‘Is it there?’

‘Yeah, but it’s quite far down. I don’t know if I can reach. I’ll have to get this cover off.’

The drain cover looked pretty grimed in, but I gave it a tug and scraped some of the dirt off with my fingers. It began to loosen, and Chrissie joined in as I pulled the grating as hard as I could. It suddenly came free with a sucking noise, and I fell over backwards with the force.

‘Chrissie, can you look out for cars? I don’t really want anyone running over my head while I’m doing this.’

Chrissie looked worried, but nodded. I lay down on the pavement and dropped my arm down into the drain, stretching my fingers as far as they would go, but I couldn’t reach the bottom. I was going to need something to extend my fingers. I shone the torch down onto my hand, and it was frustratingly close, it would only need a centimetre or two more.

‘I need a hook or something.’

‘Oh.’

We both looked around us, but there were no handy hook-selling shops in visual range. Chrissie rummaged in her bag, and found a pen and a hair tie, but we couldn’t think of a way to use them. Then Chrissie gasped.

‘I know!’

She pulled her t-shirt up and to my astonishment started fiddling with her bra. It was white with pink flowers on it. Focus Cal. Not on that. Before long, all became clear, sadly. Chrissie had removed a bit of wire about ten centimetres long from somewhere in the bra. Bras had wire in them? Jesus.

‘Perfect.’

I decided to play it cool, as if I had expected one of us to be able to dismantle our underwear to solve an inconvenient difficulty, and held my hand out for the wire. I made a hook at one end and bent the other end round my forefinger, then gave Chrissie my phone so she could shine the light down the hole.

The first attempt saw me pick the ring up, only to have it fall off as I tried to snatch it up too fast because a car was coming. It was further away now, so I had to adjust the wire and the hook and lie with my face practically down the drain. Not much light could get in from the torch, and I was working almost blind. I managed to get the ring on the hook again, but I had had to sacrifice some of the wire holding it onto my finger, and to my immense frustration, I felt the whole thing slip off just as I got the hook under the ring. That meant Chrissie had to find some more wire, which meant another glimpse of her bra, but no more chances. This wire had to stay on my finger. I thought about the hair tie.

‘I think we should tie this to my finger so it doesn’t drop off again. Can we use your hair thing?’

We stood, close together, while Chrissie tied the hook to my finger. I was very conscious of her breath ruffling over my hands, and wisps of hair being blown into my face, but I forced myself to concentrate on the job in hand – oh, ha ha. I wish I’d meant to put that.

With the hook secured as tightly as possible, I went in for another fishing session. I really didn’t want to drop the ring again, or push it further away, because I stood no chance of getting it then. Slowly, so slowly, I slipped the hook under the ring, being careful not to dislodge it. When the hook was in place, as perfectly as I could judge it, I started to pull back, agonisingly slowly, but having learned my lessons from rushing the previous two attempts. The gold ring dangled from the makeshift hook, glimmering in the light from my phone. I inched myself back from the edge of the drain, holding my breath and trying not to jog my arm, until, with an exhalation of relief, the hook and the ring were over the side of the drain, and on the ground.

Chrissie scooped up the ring in a tissue, cleaned it and put it back on her finger, and we sat and looked at each other. She held her hand out to me so I could see the ring.

‘There. Back where it belongs.’

I took her hand, to hold it still, and with a jolt realised it was the first time I’d ever touched her hand. Actually, the first time I’d ever intentionally touched her at all. It made me go all prickly, and I didn’t know where to look. Then I realised my hands were all shitty from the inside of the drain, and I dropped her fingers.

‘No, don’t.’

Chrissie took hold of my hand again and I looked at her. Her eyes were sparkling, as much as I could see of them in the orange light from the street lamps, and her mouth was making half smiling shapes, as if she was happy but unsure how to show it.

‘But I’m minging.’

‘You’re lovely.’

We looked at each other for the longest time, and then Chrissie moved her head towards me very slightly, and it was all the encouragement I needed. I closed the distance between us, and our lips touched.

Now, I won’t say I’d never kissed a girl before, because that would be a downright lie. There had been girls, in the spirit of being a boy, and it being the done thing to have a bit of a snog here and there, just to see how it felt and all that, but there had been nothing serious, just a bit kind of experimental, a bit kind of mushy, a bit kind of wondering what all the fuss was about.

But the moment my lips touched Chrissie’s mouth, my whole being exploded. It was like the spark that set the haystack on fire, it whooshed right through me and lit me up. I couldn’t get enough of her, I delved into her mouth, suddenly realising what my lips and my tongue were made for, and feeling her come to the same conclusion, as her tongue probed me too. She wrapped her arms round my waist, and I put my arms round her, somewhat awkwardly, as I didn’t want to get drain-crap on her top. We fitted together just right. We came up for air and sat looking at each other, by the side of the road, almost in a state of shock.

‘Wow, Chrissie.’

‘Yeah.’

‘So, er, that was cool.’

‘Yeah.’

‘So, er, we’re, are we, er …’

‘Yeah. We are.’

‘Cool.’

And that was the beginning of Chrissie and Cal. In some ways, nothing really changed with us, because we already hung out together all the time. But, oh yeah, everything changed. We were hyper-aware of each other, all the time. The slightest brush of her arm against mine set off a chain reaction that would end in a snog-fest. To start with it was just kissing, and the odd feeling up of bits and pieces, but we were teenagers, and hormones were rampaging, and eventually the inevitable happened. I won’t go into details, come on people, there might be kids reading this, what kind of an example would I be setting? But we were careful, we used a condom, and I can almost hear Mum squawking, but yes, we were both underage. Chrissie was my first, and I was hers, and it meant a lot. At the time, and later. So that made it all much, much harder.

It lasted a blissful year, and then she broke my heart.

*

Chrissie’s ringtone sounded on my phone early one Saturday morning, waking me up. I groaned. Chrissie was always up and about way earlier than me, and she liked to get going and doing things, rather than lazing about, but even so, seven on a Saturday morning was pushing it.

‘It’s seven o’clock.’

I knew it was stating the bleeding obvious, but I was tired and grumpy. Usually Chrissie would bounce back with a ‘come on, it’s sunny, let’s go to the beach’ or something, but for a second or two I didn’t hear anything. Then I heard a sniff, and a half word, and then there was crying.

‘Shit, babe. Chrissie, what is it, where are you?’

I’d jumped out of bed and pulled my jeans on with one hand, and was rummaging around for a cleanish t-shirt when she finally spoke.

‘Can you meet me?’

‘Where?’

‘Park.’

‘I’m on my way. Are you hurt?’

‘No. I just need to see you.’

‘Tell me what’s wrong.’

‘When I see you.’

I pulled on yesterday’s t-shirt and ran out of the house, sprinting all the way to the park. Chrissie was sitting on a swing, facing away from me, her shoulders hunched. I ran over to her, relieved that she didn’t appear to be injured or dead, but worried about what I was going to find when I could actually see her face.

When I say she didn’t appear to be injured, that was before I saw the wounded expression in her eyes. As I ran into her field of vision, she looked up, and there was some kind of pain there that I could almost feel. I pulled her up from the swing and hugged her close.

‘What? What is it?’

‘We’re leaving.’

‘What?’

‘Dad’s got a job in Carlisle. We’re moving away. In two weeks.’

It was as if I’d been shot through the heart.

‘No. What? No.’

‘They’ve known for weeks. For weeks. And they only just told me, this morning. Over breakfast, like it’s something interesting in the paper.’

‘Fuck. You can’t go, Chrissie. Stay here. Stay with us. You can’t go.’

Chrissie shook her head.

‘I tried all that. I’ve got to go.’

‘But … you can’t.’

‘I haven’t got any choice.’

‘They can’t make you.’

‘They can.’

‘Aren’t you even going to fight it?’

‘What do you think I was doing before I called you? I’ve spent the last, like, hour screaming and yelling at them. If you want to have a go, be my guest, good luck. This always happens. My bloody dad’s bloody job, this is the longest we’ve stayed anywhere, and I thought we might, like, stay this time, and now I’ve got you and … it’s NOT FAIR!’

Chrissie broke down, sobbing, in my arms. I didn’t know what to do. I was as upset as she was, felt as powerless as she did, but I just held her while she cried, trying hard not to cry myself. Chrissie was my world. We did everything together. How could her parents just move away like it was nothing, like their daughter didn’t matter, like we didn’t matter?

‘We’ll think of something.’

‘There isn’t anything, Cal. We’re going and that’s that.’

‘Come back to mine. Mum will think of something. She always thinks of something.’

Chrissie looked up at me, dubiously but hopefully.

‘Really?’

‘Yeah. Come on. We might even get a bacon roll.’

Chrissie half laughed and cuffed my arm.

‘Do you ever stop thinking about having a feed?’

When we got back home, Mum was predictably in the middle of making breakfast.

‘Cal – have you been out already? Hi Chrissie.’

‘Yeah, early morning walk.’

‘Really, sweetheart? It’s only eight o’clock – oh Chrissie, whatever’s the matter?’

It never took Mum long to cotton on to how someone was feeling.

‘Her dad’s got a new job and they’re making her move away.’

Mum’s eyes widened and she turned away from the cooker, turning the gas off from under the frying pan.

‘Oh. Oh you poor things. Sit down, I’ll make you a bacon roll.’

I looked at Chrissie and saw the ghost of a smile as my prediction came true, but it was swiftly replaced by the misery she was full of.

‘Thing is, Mum, we were wondering what we can do about it.’

‘How do you mean, sweetheart?’

‘Well, Chrissie could stay here, couldn’t she?’

If the suggestion came from Mum, surely Chrissie’s parents would see reason. Then Chrissie wouldn’t have to change schools in the middle of GCSEs or anything, it made perfect sense. Mum was frowning, though. Frowns weren’t a good sign.

‘Oh Cal. Where would we put her? Sorry, Chrissie, but we haven’t got any room, and I’m sure your parents want you to be with them.’

I wasn’t about to be fobbed off. There were other options.

‘She can have my bed. I’ll sleep on the sofa. Or in the conservatory.’

‘You can’t do that long term, sweetheart. And I don’t think Heather and Vince would be that happy about the two of you living in the same house.’

‘What about Matty and Lau, then? They’ve got a spare room.’

‘Cal, you can’t ask them to take on a teenager they hardly know. The twins are hard work.’

‘They do know Chrissie, they met her when – .’

‘No Cal. Sweetheart, I know this is hard, and you haven’t had much time to get used to it, but –’

I couldn’t believe it. Mum wasn’t going to help us. For the first time I could remember, Mum wasn’t going to try to fix things. Why did she choose now not to interfere in something? I looked at Chrissie, and saw the hopelessness on her face.

‘Thanks for nothing, then. Maybe I’ll just move to Carlisle with Chrissie.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Cal.’

‘I’m not the one being fucking ridiculous.’

Mum sucked a sharp breath in as I swore. I tried really hard not to at home, I knew Mum hated it, but I was angry, hurt and out of my mind with not knowing what to do. I thought she’d help us, I’d told Chrissie she’d help us, practically promised it, and now she’d made me look like an idiot, and I also didn’t know how I was going to stop this thing from happening.

‘Cal!’

‘Fuck you, then. We’ll sort something out. Come on, Chrissie, we’re obviously not going to get anywhere here.’

I took Chrissie’s hand and pulled her with me towards the front door. Dad was just coming downstairs, rubbing his head and yawning.

‘What’s all the yelling about?’

‘Go to hell.’

‘What?’

I opened the front door, dragged Chrissie through it and slammed it behind us. I nearly cried, but I never cried, and I didn’t want Chrissie to see me anyway. So I swore instead, loudly and within earshot of anyone both indoors and outdoors.

‘Fuck. I can’t fucking believe it. Who the fuck does she think she is? Fuck her, fuck the fucking lot of them.’

‘Cal –’

‘I mean, shit, it’s like, she thinks I’m just gonna take this, just roll over, fucking screw her.’

‘Cal –’

‘Know what? Fuck all of them. I’m gonna fucking well –’

Cal!’

Chrissie took my face in her hands and made me look at her.

‘What?’

‘Stop saying ‘fuck’ for five seconds and listen.’

‘Sorry babe, I’m just so fucking pissed off –’

‘I know. You need to listen. I don’t, I really don’t, think there’s anything either of us can do.’

‘No, there must be, there’ll be something.’

‘I can’t think of a single thing. Even if your mum had said yes, she’s right, my mum and dad would never let me live here.’

‘But Matty –’

‘I don’t want to live with your uncle. I mean, they’re great, but I don’t know them. I think …’

She hunched her shoulders and sighed out a long, deep breath. Then she looked away from me.

‘… we’ve just got to accept it.’

‘But … that means … you’ll leave.’

I couldn’t understand what she was saying. I hadn’t considered the future, being a teenager, but if I had, it would have had Chrissie in it, both of us just doing what we were doing, kissing, talking, cheering on Arsenal. If she left, all I could see in my future was a Chrissie-shaped hole where she should have been.

Chrissie looked back at me, her eyes filled with tears.

‘I know. But maybe instead of the next two weeks fighting with our parents, we should spend the next two weeks together, make it the best two weeks ever, do everything, go everywhere, give each other something to remember us by.’

‘Yeah, like I’m going to forget you.’

Chrissie looked down.

‘Maybe we’ll just have to.’

‘No! Never. We can text, and Facetime, I can come and see you at weekends, you can come here.’

‘Cal, do you even know where Carlisle is?’

I shook my head. I had a vague idea it was in Wales somewhere, maybe near Cardiff? That didn’t seem too bad.

‘It’s right up north, further than Liverpool, practically in Scotland. It would take you all weekend just to get there and back.’

The reality took a little while to get through, and then I realised just how far away she was going to be. I felt myself slump in defeat.

‘So is that it, then? We just finish?’

I was seriously confused. I was still angry and upset, and about a zillion other emotions I couldn’t identify, but I didn’t understand why Chrissie seemed so resigned. I forgot, then, that she’d moved from place to place all her life with her dad’s job (which was something to do with the MoD), and was used to it. All I knew was that I was going to lose her.

‘I don’t think we have any choice. Oh fuck my dad’s job.’

And then she started crying again, and so I hugged her and stroked her hair and thought about what was going to happen to us. Then I realised how little say I had in any of it, how little say either of us had in any of it, and maybe I should have raged and got people to take notice of how angry I was about the whole thing, but I turned that inside, and decided that, yeah, Chrissie was right. If we only had two weeks left, they were going to be the best two weeks we’d ever had.

And they were. It was the Easter holidays, so no school, and we spent every minute together. That meant sleepovers, which had previously not been allowed but now suddenly were (although I had to endure ‘the chat’ from Dad, which was excruciatingly embarrassing for both of us), going to the cinema and snogging through the film, sitting in the park snogging, standing in the bus shelter snogging, a bit of snogging outside the chip shop … I’m sure you get the picture. Part of me hoped that with the increased closeness we both felt, Chrissie would find it impossible to leave. I couldn’t imagine her leaving, not being there, here with me. But I was trying not to imagine it, and so just concentrated on Chrissie. I hardly noticed anyone else for that fortnight, and then it was suddenly the night before, and the next day she’d be gone.

I was in her room, and she was putting all her stuff in boxes and all her clothes in suitcases. It was finally here, our last night, and although I didn’t want reminding, here she was packing, while I watched. As her room stopped being her room and started being an empty bedroom, it became real. She was going. Tomorrow. I thought my heart might stop beating, it felt so heavy.

I spent the night there, cuddled up with her in her single bed, although officially I was sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag. Neither of us slept, we just kissed and touched all night, neither of us saying anything about what tomorrow would mean, because we didn’t need to.

And then, at eight o’clock the next day, the lorry came and everything was loaded into it, and Chrissie’s mum and dad and little brother got into their car, and it was time to say goodbye. I didn’t know how. How do you do something that all of you is crying out for you not to do? We looked at each other for a long moment before I put my arms round her and held her tight. She cried, but I remained dry-eyed, and we didn’t let go of each other until Chrissie’s dad got out of the car and put his hand on her shoulder.

‘Come on, love, it’s time to go.’

I tried to hold her tighter, but she pulled away and looked up at me, tears overflowing from her eyes, and running down red and puffy cheeks. She let her dad lead her to the car, where he opened the back door for her. She sat on the back seat, staring out of the window, but I don’t know if she could see me through her tears as the car pulled away.

I didn’t wave, or mouth ‘I love you’, or give her a comforting smile, I just watched, unable to feel anything, as Chrissie Coulson disappeared out of my life. Then I went home and went to bed.

Three days later, I was still in bed. A blackness had settled over me like a heavy blanket, and I couldn’t move. Not that I was allowed to lie in the dark in peace; if you know my mum at all you’ll know that leaving anyone in peace is never part of her plan. Every five minutes she was in my room bringing cups of tea or biscuits (which I didn’t touch), or opening the curtains (I shut them again as soon as she left the room), or sitting on the edge of my bed and telling me it would stop hurting one day and I’d feel better (I pulled the duvet over my head, which muffled her voice but didn’t completely block it).

I was so used to Mum going on that I had built up an immunity. There are some who find her fussing a bit much to cope with, but if you’ve had it all your life you learn how to tune it out. Eventually Mum realised she wasn’t getting through, and she called Dec.

Dec had this thing he did, particularly with Matty from when they were younger and both a bit the worse for wear from various physical and emotional stuff they were going through, where he’d say ‘you shouldn’t be alone when you’re feeling this shit’. And he’d bug Matty all day long, or Matty would get on his case all night, until whoever was being bugged would crack, and they’d sort it all out. So he thought he’d try it with me.

On day three of me being in bed with the curtains drawn, Dec came and sat on the floor by my bed, with his phone for company and some magazines, and proceeded to annoy the crap out of me.

‘So is this your life now, Cal? Lying in bed competing for the biggest teenage sulk of the year?’

‘Piss off.’

‘No. I know it feels like the end of the world, mate, but you need to get up and do things to try and forget about it.’

How on earth was I going to forget about it? Chrissie not being there was throbbing in my blood. She hadn’t even texted, or called, or emailed. She’d promised she would, as soon as she got there. We were going to Facetime, but it had been three days, three whole days of waiting for her, and there was nothing. I’d even given in and texted her yesterday (RU OK? Did u get there OK?) but still nothing. Part of me was scared there had been an accident on the way up, the whole family wiped out, no one to ever tell me what had happened, but most of me was full of fury and darkness.

I turned away from Dec and buried my face under my duvet, taking my phone with me so I could keep on checking it every three seconds. It didn’t stop him.

‘Just so you know, I’m going to be here talking your arse off until you stop this. I don’t have anywhere to be, and I can keep going for a very long time.’

‘It’s all your fault.’

‘How do you work that out?’

‘You told me to go for it, stop just being friends.’

‘Yeah, and wasn’t it great, wasn’t it worth it?’

Not right now it wasn’t. Nothing was worth having your insides pulled out and run over by a juggernaut. Dec always saw the positive in everything, nothing ever seemed to get him down, and sometimes, especially now, it was unbelievably irritating. Just as I was about to launch a verbal grenade at him, the sound I had wanted to hear most in the world for the last seventy-two hours trilled in front of my face, as my phone lit up with Chrissie’s picture and a text popped up.

I can’t do this. It’s 2 hard. Need 2 say goodbye. Sorry.

What? What did she mean? We’d said, we’d promised, we’d be texting and Facetiming and calling all the time, it would be like we were only down the road, like always, and in the summer we were going to visit for holidays, but now … goodbye? What was that about?

Where have u been? Was worried.

Needed 2 think. Sorry, am not going 2 reply to txts or calls. Too hard. Miss u 2 much. Need 2 start again. Sorry.

No. Need 2 talk 2 u. Miss u 2.

She couldn’t mean it. We’d agreed, made all our plans so it wouldn’t be so hard, and it could still work. Her parents must have something to do with it, maybe they’d taken her phone off her and it was them texting … yeah I was pretty desperately trying to think of reasons for it not to be true, that Chrissie was dumping me from hundreds of miles away, by text. Of course, I tried calling again, but her phone went straight to voicemail, and I sent hundreds of texts.

Pls talk 2 me.

Don’t do this, please. I need 2 talk 2 you.

I can’t live without u.

The texts were getting increasingly dramatic as I ramped up my attempts to get Chrissie to talk to me, but the longer it went on, the more I understood that she was serious and I’d seen her for the last time. For all I knew – and as I thought about it, it seemed more and more likely – she never meant us to stay together, had always meant to finish it like this, but had just played along to avoid the arguments and the begging. And all the time, while my already pulverised heart was being thoroughly stomped on once more, Dec was sitting on my bedroom floor, droning on. I don’t know why he and Matty thought it was such a foolproof way of dragging someone out of a pit of despair – all I wanted to do was strangle him with the bedsheets.

In an attempt to shut him up and get him to see what I was dealing with, I scrolled my text conversation back to the few texts sent by Chrissie and then shoved the phone under Dec’s nose so he could see exactly what she had said. Let’s see him try to make something positive out of that.

He read what was on the screen, then looked up at me with an expression of sadness.

‘Oh mate, I’m sorry. You must feel like shit.’

‘Yeah, shit enough that I actually do want to be on my own.’

‘Not gonna happen, mate. Am I annoying you?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Good. It’s working, then.’

I huffed and turned back over to face the wall. I was in a bind. If I stayed here I would have Dec going on at me, and if I got up I’d have Mum going on at me, and if I went out, I’d have to face the world. And I’d have to go to school. I don’t know what Mum had told school, but she would have had to have told them something.

Anyhow, the easiest thing was to just stay where I was, trying not to listen to Sunny Summers spreading joy and harmony to all. Mum came in and brought tea and cake, and when she was back again a few minutes later, I nearly blew my top and told her to fuck off, but I couldn’t summon the energy. She didn’t have more cake and tea, though. She had a visitor.

‘Cal, sweetheart, Jake’s here to see you.’

Baggo was the last thing I needed. He would never understand how this felt, he’d never had a serious girlfriend, he just went from crush to crush, largely dependent on the amount of cleavage he could spot on any given day, and they all turned him down anyway. I’d just tell him to piss –

‘Hey mate. Your mum said you’re not feeling so great, so I thought I’d come round and cheer you up.’

I had no answer for him, just stared at him, challenging him to start cheering if that was what he’d come for.

‘I’ll leave you to it for a bit.’

Well hallelujah, at least Dec was going to leave me alone. Maybe Baggo’s visit wasn’t all unwanted.

‘Seriously, Cal. You haven’t been to school because of Chrissie?’

I shrugged.

‘Nice one, how did you pull it? I’d never have thought your mum would go for that.’

He gave me a wicked grin, and I nearly returned it until I remembered I was miserable.

‘Are you going to have to be in Psych Class then?’

Psych Class was the politically incorrect name we gave to the bunch of weirdos and losers (as we thought of them then before we grew up and realised we’d bullied the shit out of some kids who had real problems) who needed extra tutoring.

‘No, I’m not a psycho, you tosser.’

‘Oh. What’s all the curtains closed and in bed being a miserable arse in the middle of the afternoon about then.’

‘Chrissie just fucking left.’

‘I know. I miss her.’

You miss her?’

‘Yeah, she was cool. We were talking about her at lunch today, about both of you, how you’re kind of the Brangelina of our year. We even came up with a name for you: Chril. Not quite the same ring to it, though. Have you heard from her?’

‘Yeah. Just now, actually. Here.’

I showed Baggo the texts. I couldn’t make my mouth say the words.

‘Bugger, mate. Harsh, yeah?’

‘Yeah.’

‘So this is, like, it for you now? Rest of your life in bed in the dark being a moody git?’

‘Sod off, Baggo.’

‘Sure. Shall we make this a regular thing, me coming round after school so you can catch me up on your day of lying in the dark, and I can tell you about Nikki Smithson’s hair catching on fire, and Mr Hurst going ape-shit at 5b.’

‘Mr Hurst’s always going ape-shit at someone.’

‘Yeah, but it won’t be you any more, not if you’re here. You’ll have to live it through me. I expect Hursty’ll be going ape-shit at me a few more times before I’m done, especially when he finds the little present I left in his desk.’

And you know what, whether Baggo meant it or not, and I like to believe he did, he started to cajole me out of the dark funk I’d been in. He made me see there was life beyond what I’d lost, and made me remember that I had other friends and I had a life, and maybe just maybe I should get over myself and get back to that life. Without Chrissie it was going to be hard, and there would be adjustments, but for now, he was making me smile.

I sat up.

‘Fancy a burger?’

‘What, now?’

I nodded.

‘But your mum’s just asked me to stay to tea. She’s doing lasagne. I bloody love her lasagne.’

So did I, actually. Maybe if Baggo was there, Mum wouldn’t go on. I could just go downstairs as if nothing had happened, and it would just be back to normal.

Yeah, right.

I did go downstairs, and Mum pounced on me and cuddled me like I was three years old.

‘Get off, Mum. Baggo said you’re doing lasagne.’

I made it sound like that was what had got me out of bed. No point going over it all, really, was there.

‘Yes, sweetheart. Are you staying, Jake?’

‘Wouldn’t miss it, Mrs S.’

‘Dec?’

‘No thanks, got to get back to Ames and the bubs or she’ll kill me.’

I narrowed my eyes and looked at Dec.

‘I thought you were going to be here as long as it took?’

‘Yeah, mate, but it didn’t take that long in the end, did it?’

And with that bit of logic, he slapped me on the back and left.

And I’d like to say that was the end of it, that after that day I got over it and got over myself and life went back to normal, but it didn’t. I mean, yeah, I went back to school, and me and Baggo arsed around much as we used to, and GCSE coursework was done (by me, not so much by Baggo). But it took a long time for my heart to get back to normal, and I’m not sure it did, not completely. Chrissie was my first love, my first kiss, my first everything, and now, suddenly, unfairly, she wasn’t there.

I dealt with it by being a bit of a lad with the girls. I’d snog anything in a skirt, and there was no more ‘just friends’ with Cal Scott. If he talked to you, there was going to be lip action, and maybe more. I had a few on the go at once, not that they didn’t know about each other, because we all saw each other at school all the time, but I wasn’t going to be a one-girl boy any more I was going to play around, see what I could get. I’d show them, I’d show her.

113. Cake by the ocean

In which there is another wedding.

Matt

So, the wedding. Yeah, it was bloody spectacular. Beth had hired a marquee, on the beach, the same as for Amy’s twenty first birthday. It was a bigger marquee, and it was the middle of April rather than the beginning of August, so it was slightly different, with the added frisson of not being sure what the weather was going to do, hence the bloody enormous marquee in case it was pissing down.

I’d started on my best man duties as soon as I got home that night, or rather, as soon as we’d sorted Josh and Ella out and eaten microwaved takeaway. I Googled everything I could find about what I was expected to do, so Beth couldn’t start bossing me with no basis in fact. I was determined to do things my way, or, no, maybe not quite that, I wasn’t quite such a self-involved twat; I was determined to do things either the right way, or how Dec wanted them, just to thwart Beth. OK, so maybe a bit of a self-involved twat. I even flirted briefly with the possibility of bringing the kilt out of retirement, but conceded to myself that it was never really a goer on account of a) I was only considering it because it would piss Jay off and b) that was the only reason. I graciously decided to let Beth tell me what I was going to wear, and sort it all out for me.

Of all the things I had to do, the most terrifying was remembering the rings. I woke up several times in the night, the week before the wedding, having dreamed I’d left them in my other jacket, or on the coffee table, or in the park, or on the moon, or some such shit. I don’t know why it scared me so much; I was usually pretty organised, and good at remembering things, and even if I’d left them behind somewhere, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world, everyone would have laughed at the idiot of a best man, as you were supposed to anyway, and someone somewhere would have lent a couple of knuckle dusters (I suspected Beth of having embarrassingly gaudy spares in her handbag just in case) and it would have been OK. Still, I got Lau to remind me as often as she could bear to without me getting irritated about it (I’m not saying any of this was logical, alright?), set reminders on my phone, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

The stag do to end all stag dos, involving no strippers and there being strict Raiders guidelines on alcohol consumption and general behaviour, was the Sunday before, to enable everyone to recover from their non-hangover after all the beer that wasn’t drunk. Jay tried really hard to get me to tell him what we were going to get up to, but I wouldn’t, and he wouldn’t come to see for himself, as he didn’t want to dampen the atmosphere. Suffice it to say that a few guidelines were ignored, and Dec had an appropriately rugby send off into married life. He didn’t quite get tied to a lamp post, naked, but, well, let’s just say I’m glad I had the keys to the handcuffs in my pocket.

As it turned out, I remembered the rings. I suppose I hadn’t really had any choice. What I’d forgotten was my speech. I hadn’t forgotten to write it, oh no, I’d spent bloody ages on it, running it past Lau, getting her to tell me honestly what she thought then disagreeing with her opinions about what I should leave out (some of the best stories will never be told to the world because of you, Lau, I hope you can handle the responsibility). I worked really hard on it, even though I wasn’t usually one for reading things out, but there was a lot to remember, including stuff Dec wanted me to put in about thanking people. And then I went and left it on the kitchen table because I’d been making some last minute hilarious additions.

I didn’t realise until we were all sat down eating, after the ceremony (more of which later), and I thought I’d just have a quick re-read, see if there was anywhere I could squeeze in the tale about Dec getting his finger stuck in the battery compartment of a vibrator without scandalising all and sundry, when I realised it wasn’t in the pocket I thought it was in. I searched all my pockets, but there was nothing in any of them, apart from breath mints, and unfortunately I hadn’t had the foresight to write my speech out on Polos.

Lau, who should have been more than occupied looking after Ella and Josh, noticed me scrabbling around in my clothing.

‘What are you doing?’

‘I’ve lost my bloody speech.’

‘What? Are you sure?’

I bit back a sharp retort.

‘Do you want to come and look for it, then?’

I held my arms out, inviting a frisking, which would have made me feel momentarily better but wouldn’t have solved anything in the longer term.

‘What have you done with it?’

‘I don’t fucking well know, Lau, I just told you, I’ve bloody lost it.’

All of this was conducted in whispers, as I didn’t want to panic Dec or Amy. Lau must have been a bit freaked as well, because she didn’t have a go at me for saying ‘fuck’ or ‘bloody’.

‘When do you last remember having it?’

Why do people always ask this? If I could remember that, I’d know – oh. I’d been in the kitchen, scribbling, and then Lau had called from upstairs, asked me to bring a nappy, and then I’d had a cuddle with her and the babies and then the car had come. Shit. That’s where I’d left it.

Lau saw the change from panic to hopelessness.

‘What? Where is it?’

‘In the kitchen. Shit.’

In a way, now I knew I didn’t have it, I stopped panicking. There was nothing I could do this close to speech time. I was going to have to do without it. It was liberating, exciting and terrifying all rolled in to one.

‘What are you going to do, flower?’

‘Wing it.’

Lau’s eyes widened.

‘Really?’

‘Yep. It’s not like I don’t know everything that’s in it, I’ll maybe change the order, add a few little surprises …’

‘Oh Matt, you will behave, won’t you.’

‘Course, Lau.’

I didn’t say if I would be behaving well or badly though.

Prior to the speech-losing incident, things had been going extremely well. Beth had pulled out all the stops for Dec, including some stops which she had invented especially for the occasion. With Lis’s help, they had organised the marquee on the beach, set up a team of volunteers to decorate it the day before, got all the food sorted (the mums didn’t do it all; with a guest list of nearly two hundred people it would have been impossible), drawn and re-drawn seating plans, hired a band, sorted the PA and electricity supply, hired tables and chairs, arranged transport up and down the beach for people who couldn’t walk that far (OK, the transport was mainly Jay, and to be honest I think I’d have rather walked on broken legs than listen to him whining about sand on his seats all the way).

The marquee had been set up with an aisle down the middle and chairs either side for the ceremony. The sun was shining, and the sides of the marquee were pulled back, so the sea was visible and audible throughout. Dec and Amy loved the sea, and it seemed so ‘them’ to be there, listening to the waves and the seagulls, while they told us and each other how much they loved each other and promised to be together for the foreseeable. Both of them shed tears, but both of them had the biggest smiles. Dec was a smiler anyway; Amy often looked serious, but on that day, her face was lit up from the inside and I’ve never seen her look happier.

As I sat with Dec waiting for Amy to arrive, I remembered waiting for Lau at our wedding, and how I’d never had any doubt that she would turn up, not realising she was freaking in the car just before coming up the stairs. I wondered whether Dec was having any last minute freaks of his own.

‘Alright, mate?’

He looked at me, eyes shining, expectant, a hint of fear.

‘Yeah, no worries. Bit nervous.’

‘She’ll be here.’

Amy was slightly late, but it was expected. Dec looked at me like it hadn’t previously occurred to him that she might not be here.

‘Fuck, I bloody hope so. Why wouldn’t she be here?’

Now I felt bad that I had introduced doubt to his laid back vague nerves.

‘Course she will. Event of the year, she’s not gona miss it, is she. She’d never get to see Rose’s mysterious outfit.’

‘Ha, yeah. Have you seen it?’

I nodded. Rose was dressed up to the nines, tens and elevens in a brightly coloured dress with a dazzling pattern, a pink hat with a large feather and matching shoes and handbag. Dec had made her sit in ‘mother of the groom’ spot, next to Beth, and she was sitting across the aisle from us looking at Dec with unconcealed pride.

‘She’s not going to go unnoticed today.’

‘You’re sure Amy’s coming?’

‘Yeah, mate. Jay texted to say they’re on their way.’

This wasn’t true, but if Jay had thought about texting, he would have done, so it was theoretically true, maybe was actually true in a parallel universe where parallel-Jay wasn’t a thoughtless git.

Dec’s features relaxed at my fib, and we continued to wait, as five minutes stretched out like five hours, and everybody chattered amongst themselves.

Just as Dec’s jiggling leg threatened to send me over the edge into homicidal madness, we heard the strident tones of Jay’s car horn, then the car pulled up, and the doors opened and shut. Dec turned round, as did everyone else, craning their necks for a glimpse of Amy.

She appeared in the entrance to the marquee, breeze blowing her hair, and I heard Dec gasp as he saw her. She did look beautiful, and when it’s the woman you love and she’s looking that beautiful just for you, it takes you unawares. I looked at Dec, and saw tears in his eyes for the first time but by no means the last time that day.

Jay held out his arm to Amy, and they walked up the short aisle together, Iz and Charlie following them, with Iz holding tightly onto Charlie’s hand as instructed. Charlie was almost at the point of rebelling, but was a bit overwhelmed by all the people, and suffered being bossed by Iz until they reached the front, where she pulled out of Iz’s vice-like grip and began to wander away. Fortunately Beth and Lis were at the front to herd wayward bridesmaids, and chocolate bribes were in place.

Dec and Amy did the traditional vow thing, better or worse, richer or poorer, all that bollocks. Not that it was bollocks, not that they didn’t mean it, I know they did. Dec was doing his own speech later, and Amy was too shy to consider saying anything personal in front of so many people. The looks on their faces said more than any words anyway.

Once the ceremony was over, it was the bit I know Beth had fretted over, as the chairs and tables needed sorting, but in order to do that, everyone needed to be outside. This was not a problem if it wasn’t raining, but it was the one thing Beth couldn’t pre-plan, although I bet she had a good go. There had been talk of a second marquee for everyone to adjourn to, but this seemed like a huge expense for half an hour, and in the end it was agreed that this hiatus in proceedings would be when the official photos would be taken, there would be a large gazebo in case of inclement weather, and the ushers would be issued with huge umbrellas to hold over guests to protect them from the worst.

Amy and Dec were fine with photos in the rain, if it rained, but it didn’t. It stayed sunny and springlike all of that April day, and the photo session allowed for both formal and informal shots. Dec had the obligatory one of him with Australia underpants on his head, there were group shots with his Raiders team mates, ones with the family, ones with all the children, ones of people paddling in the sea, Rose surrounded by all the babies looking like her life was complete, Lau with me, Josh and Ella, indeed all of the combinations you could think of. Only Beth was hardly in any of them, and had to be dragged out of the marquee and into the path of the camera.

The tables were set up inside and outside, the feast was prepared, the hordes tucked into the food, and we were off and running again. There were kids everywhere, Beth having ensured there was plenty to keep them entertained and fed while the grown ups played and got quietly, and then more noisily, plastered. Lau had kindly agreed to be our family designated driver, so I was able to tuck into the beers with abandon, although I held back before the speeches.

The food was just incredible. The combination of Mum’s, Rose’s and Diane’s best recipes, along with various succulent offerings from the catering company Beth had sourced was mouthwatering. There was also a barbecue to satisfy the hunger for red meat that Dec’s Raiders mates always displayed, and a continual flow of champagne to keep everyone merry.

Once the food was on its way to being demolished, a microphone was plugged in to the PA, and it was time for speeching. I felt a flutter of nerves, but quelled them with a mouthful of champagne, as I listened to Jay’s short but heartfelt offering. It was even funny. He had somehow managed to find out some of Amy’s most embarrassing moments, and put them together with a warm official welcome to the family she’d been part of for many years.

Dec

Jay’s speech

Firstly, I would like to say how honoured I feel to be asked by Amy to give her away and make the accompanying speech. I know she is very sad that her own father is no longer with us, and I have tried my best to fill his shoes. Actually, my weird and wonderful family being what it is, I’m not sure I’ve technically given Amy away, as the way things work round here, I’ve got her straight back. I would also like to point out that I am only just barely old enough to be her father, so please don’t consider this a traditional ‘Father of the Bride’ thing – I feel positively ancient enough already. In fact, to help me feel a bit younger, please remember I am actually Father of the Bridesmaid; she’s only five. I have to admit to almost shedding a tear watching our daughters follow Amy down the aisle. Bloody hell, Dec, ‘our daughters’, there’s a phrase I wouldn’t have imagined myself saying a few years ago!

Amy, you thought I was a safe bet for a speech, as I wasn’t around for your childhood traumas, embarrassments and dodgy boyfriends. However, I have had some long and searching conversations with your lovely mother, and I now know all your secrets. Some of them are safe with me, but I feel compelled to mention tripping and falling head first into a cow-pat aged seven, getting your knickers caught on the seat at the top of a playground slide and sliding down without them, aged eight, and getting your braces stuck on Daniel Copley’s glasses aged fourteen (there were no details about how this event occurred, but I’d love you to fill me in later). Childhood and teenage troubles aside, your mum was full of nothing but pride and love for you, and your beautiful children. Honestly, I had to bribe her with vast amounts of cake to get her to tell me anything juicy. It took a dollop of clotted cream to persuade her to reveal all about getting caught in a rain shower wearing a dress that became see-through when wet (aged sixteen), and a sprinkle of chocolate chips to find out about getting your skirt trapped in a car door as it pulled away, leaving you blushing and bare-legged (aged seventeen). Seriously, Amy, you seem to have spent a lot of your earlier years with your clothing in a state of disarray, and from what your mother tells me things didn’t improve much when Dec came on the scene … I may have to reassess my image of you!

Since you arrived in my family, though, courtesy of young Mr Summers, you have conducted yourself irreproachably. You have coped remarkably well with the insanity that often ensues when we’re all together, even holding your own when Dec and Matty are in full flow – no mean feat. Your patience and imagination with my children showed me what an amazing mother you were going to be – and you are. We knew you were good with kids, as you’d had Dec for several years – but Charlie and Tom are truly something to be proud of. I know your mum thinks so.

Beth and I are so pleased and proud that you are part of our family. We know how happy you make Dec, and that is really important to us. You make us happy too, and we are so glad to be a part of this wonderful day. Dec, I know you don’t need me to remind you, but Amy is special. You need to hold on to her, treat her well and make sure you’re always there for her. I’m reliably informed that breakfasts in beds at least twice a week would do the trick. Doesn’t seem much to ask.

Ladies and Gentlemen, please raise your glasses to Amy and Dec.

Matt

Then it was my turn, and I think, even if I’d had my speech with me, I would have torn it up and lobbed it over my shoulder. I didn’t want to be saying this to a series of index cards, I wanted to be looking at Dec and Amy. I breathed deeply, flashed my best smile to the room, took the microphone and began. I even remembered most of it, although I said ‘fuck’ a few times more than I’d intended to.

I claimed responsibility for getting them together in the first place, I dredged up some of Dec’s more awkward moments, said all the thanks he wanted me to say, chucked in a few teasers about things I could be bribed to reveal later. I said a heartfelt ‘this man is my best mate and I don’t know where I’d be without him’, and I announced that they were expecting another baby to the accompanying oohs and applause that the announcement merited. I rounded it off with toasts, because multiple toasts is the Scott way. First, I saluted Dec’s parents, who always seemed to be with him, and this earned me a grateful smile. Then I proposed the traditional toast to the bride and groom.

It all took a lot longer to say than that, and the full transcript is probably still saved on the laptop somewhere, or in Dec’s wedding DVD if it hasn’t been painted on or eaten by one of his children.

I got a reasonable round of applause, and a few laughs along the way, which is all I wanted alongside saying something sincere to my mate that I would be unlikely to ever say again.

Dec

Best Man Speech – Matthew Scott aged 37¼

When I first got to know Dec properly, more than seven years ago, we were both pretty messed up. I was a physical wreck, and Dec was a basket case, and we bonded over: a) a mutual disinclination to admit we needed help; b) our penchant for dysfunctional tear ducts; and c) a shared inability to control when we fucking swear. Oops. Sorry Lau.

I’ve known Amy for almost as long; in fact, I lay claim to being responsible for the two of them getting together in the first place. Yes Amy, I hold my hands up – we can discuss my punishment later. I wasn’t around when they first met, and was still in Stafford when most of the sighing, longing looks and ‘will-they-won’t-they’ shenanigans were going on, for which I am eternally grateful. However, Dec has me to thank for noticing his intense scrutiny of a rather lovely young lady at a barbecue in my brother’s garden. He told me she was ‘just a mate’, this apparently being code with the youth of today for ‘the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with’. Yes, Declan Summers, it was that obvious even then. Maybe someone should have warned Amy, but she wouldn’t have listened because she was, actually, just as bad, and neither of them seemed able to just bloody well say it. I took it upon myself to point out to Dec what was plain to everyone else except the pair of them; I may have mentioned the ‘L’ word. He took the hint. There was subsequently a lot of snogging. A lot. Dear God, there was a lot of snogging. I suspect there were other exchanges of bodily fluids, but maybe we shouldn’t delve too deeply in mixed company.

Dec actually proposed to Amy about a year after they started going out. I would love to report that it was a full on hearts and flower romantic moment, but I believe that Amy was cleaning the bathroom when Mr Summers suddenly realised he could not live without the lovely Miss Wright as his bride, and he dropped to one knee onto the wet floor. History has not recorded whether Amy took her Marigolds off before replying, but her answer was obviously yes.

Perhaps Amy had not anticipated waiting so long to become Mrs Summers, but if she wasn’t already aware of Dec’s inability to make plans at that time, she will be very familiar with it by now. It’s a minor miracle that it’s only taken them another five years to get around to doing the decent thing, as my money was on another ten, but I think Jay won the sweepstake, being the nearest with the year after next. So as usual with Dec and Amy, they took us by surprise by getting in early. Well, earlyish. Dec really does take a bloody long time to make his mind up about anything, so I suspect something may have nudged him along this time. Maybe the thought of another new addition with a hyphenated surname? Congratulations, by the way, guys. Oh, for those not in the know, Dec and Amy have given me permission to announce they are expecting again, (pause for delighted applause) so obviously the snogging is still going well. The phrase ‘like rabbits’ popped unbidden into my head just then, can’t think why …

I have been privileged to be involved with Dec and Amy’s growing family, and was very proud to be asked to be Dec’s best man, when he could have had the pick of a bunch of burly rugby players, who I hope won’t take it out on me afterwards – please, guys, I’m quite fragile. And I scream like a girl.

It is traditional on these occasions to mention certain incidents from the groom’s history to titillate and amuse the wedding guests. I’ve decided to deviate from this a little and embarrass Dec in a different way. I don’t often get serious, particularly in public, but Declan Summers has been the best friend anyone could have. Apart from being (ahem) several years younger than me, and thus constantly reminding me of my advanced age, he has pretty much been there for me, whether I liked it or not, for the past seven years. He’s sat up with me all night when I was feeling down, he’s taken me on the train in my wheelchair to see my beloved Spurs, he’s given me a bed – or sometimes a bloody uncomfortable sofa – for the night in times of need, he’s driven me and Lau to the hospital because I’d had a beer or five when the twins came early. He’s never said no when I’ve needed help – in fact, he often knows I need help before I do, and is annoyingly persistent in making sure I accept it. He’s the most sorted man I know. He’s one of the main reasons I’m sane enough to be happily married with two fine children, rather than a sad and bitter lonely old fart. I sometimes forget who’s the oldest – he’s always good for saying it how it is, or for a bit of pertinent advice. Except about DIY or computers. He knows less than fuck all about DIY or computers. Don’t ever trust him with a screwdriver, especially if he’s going to use it on your laptop.

Well OK, this is all getting a bit serious and sentimental – it’s not really me. It would be much more fun to regale you with tales of drunken teenage happenings and terrible girlfriends. Unfortunately for you all, I was only on the scene for about a month of young Declan’s teenage years, from the age of nineteen and eleven months, and so have no first hand stories – ah, Dec, I see a look of relief on your face. You forget that Jay and Beth have known you since you were sixteen, and have quite a little treasure trove of indiscretions, faux pas and guilty secrets. Shall we begin?

Jay tells me that on the first occasion he met Dec, when he collected him from the station to begin life in the House of Scott, Dec was picking a fight with a taxi driver about standing in the taxi rank. Apparently he was a feisty youngster back then, and all the more determined to stay where he was because he had been told to move. I personally can’t believe Dec’s ever had a stubborn streak, but I’m assured it’s true. Jay went over to, so he thought, rescue him, and received for his trouble a mouthful of verbals from both the taxi driver and young Declan who, I’m reliably informed, told his new coach, landlord and benefactor to go fuck himself while throwing his overstuffed backpack in Jay’s direction and stomping off to the car. The backpack burst open, spilling all manner of items over the taxi rank, including a bright pink lacy peep-hole bra, several cans of strong cider, a box of flavoured condoms, some large illegal fireworks and a magazine entitled ‘Busty Blondes’. Dec had, meanwhile, installed himself in Jay’s car and showed no sign of intending to get out again, so Jay picked up all the dodgy stuff, crammed it back in the backpack, apologised to the taxi driver and drove home. History has failed to record the conversation on the journey, but I suspect Jay was giving it some welly, and Dec was scowling adolescently, giving it the silent treatment.

Things could only have got better from that moment on, or so you’d think, but Dec’s early experiences with schooling down here were patchy to say the least. Beth tells me he often bunked off in the afternoons and brought his latest bunch of undesirable acquaintances home to raid the fridge and drink cheap cider in his room. One of these acquaintances, a gentleman of the Goth persuasion called – what was it Dec? – ah yes, Timbo. How delightfully unbefitting. Anyway, Timbo was a little the worse for wear for the cheap cider, and fell over in the bathroom while trying to vomit in the sink, cutting his head on the tap. He bled profusely everywhere. Dec and his chums tried to patch him up, using, I believe, kitchen roll and sellotape, but the bleeding wouldn’t stop and it was decided that everyone needed to take Timbo to the hospital. With a flash of uncharacteristic insight, Dec realised that a bloodstained bathroom might not be a completely welcome sight when Beth returned home, so he tried a quick wipe round with the remainder of the kitchen roll. He wanted to get rid of the bloodstains on the carpet, had some vague memory of a housewives’ remedy involving lemon juice, but couldn’t find any lemons. So he poured a bottle of lemon squash over the lot and left it, to accompany his friends to A and E. Beth came back with Cal a short while later, to find a bathroom smeared with half wiped up blood, and the carpet soaked with a rather fetching bloodstain and lemon squash dye. She admits she did entertain the idea that there may have been a cordial related murder, and she nearly committed one herself when Dec came back later in the day – apparently, when confronted with the bathroom (which Beth had left untouched in case CSI forensics needed a look later), he shrugged and said ‘It’s not my fault you’ve run out of fucking plasters’. It didn’t go down well, and I believe punitive sanctions were imposed. For those of you for whom details are important, Timbo suffered no lasting damage and the carpet was replaced with stain resistant laminate flooring. When the wind is in the right direction, there is still a faint hint of lemons from the bathroom …

These are just two examples of life with the young Declan Summers. I believe he was quite a handful. Under Beth’s unwavering influence, he gradually calmed down, but still continued to entertain with incidents like encountering my mother on the stairs one morning, clad in nothing but a pair of gaping boxer shorts. My mother has never truly recovered. There was also the time he tried to show Cal how to perform a bend-it-like-Beckham free kick. It didn’t so much bend as blast, straight through the kitchen window. Leave the footballing to Tottenham, Dec. He once caused a flood by cramming a duvet in the washing machine – this was to hide the evidence of a spillage of a forbidden substance, which I have on good authority was alcoholic and bright green, so showing his poor taste in drink as well as his woeful lack of understanding of the correct way to load a washing machine. Although his taste in alcohol has improved somewhat, he still hasn’t got a clue how to do the laundry.

Amy, you could not have picked a less practically minded husband if you’d tried. I hope for your sake Dec is able to compensate with some other useful talent – maybe he has a beautiful singing voice? Maybe not, if the sound coming from his direction during today’s ceremony is anything to go by. Or maybe he can do complicated maths in his head? Hmm. Having watched him try to calculate his share of the bill at a restaurant, I know how unlikely that is. Perhaps he has some hidden artistic ability and is secretly creating masterpieces? Well, if you’ve ever tried to decipher a map he’s drawn of a straight line between A and B, you’ll know this is also has to be a ‘no’. Oh well, we’ll just have to hope that his talents for flinging a funny shaped ball about and running fast come in handy some day.

Ahh, that’s better. I’ve been storing up these little nuggets for you for so long, I hope you’ve appreciated them, and believe me, there are more juicy morsels that I wasn’t permitted to share with you. I am easily bought, though, and for the exceptionally reasonable price of a pint of Otter, you can have the inside information from a choice of a) embarrassing places to be seen taking a leak, b) phone sex and how not to do it, and c) caught in flagrante delicto by the mother-in-law.

OK, back to the serious business now, thanking some of the people who have made today such a success for Dec and Amy. Firstly, thanks to you all for coming. It’s been a great party so far, and there’s more to come this evening.

Dec and Amy particularly wanted me to thank Beth and Lis for arranging and decorating this amazing venue at such short notice, and special thanks to Rose, Carol, and Diane for sorting the catering and making the stunning cake. I hope you’ll all agree it has been rather splendid. Amy would like to thank Beth, Lis, Lau, Cara, Jude, Sarah and Katie for the many shopping trips required to purchase the one, admittedly sensational, dress. From what I can gather, it was really an excuse to drink coffee and eat cake, but hey, it left my Saturday afternoons free to watch Sky Sports – oh, er, sorry Lau, I mean provide excellent fatherly care for my two children – so I’m not complaining. And I think you’ll agree the end result was well worth it. Dec didn’t give me anyone specific to thank, not that I’m taking it personally, because I know deep down you meant to, mate, and you’re welcome, it was a pleasure to create your personal playlist.

Actually, to be serious again for just a moment, sorry, normal service will be resumed as soon as possible, there are two people I’m pretty sure Dec would like to thank. Just over twenty six years ago, Tom and Lucy Collier adopted baby Declan Charles Summers. Tom and Lucy are no longer with us. We all wish they were here, but have often wondered how different our lives would be if they were. Over the last couple of years, I’ve come to believe that the universe knows what it’s doing, and that maybe things wouldn’t have been all that different, and we’d still all be here today, doing this. Dec, I’d like to remember your mum and dad, and to thank Tom and Lucy for giving you to us. Tom and Lucy, everyone.

Alright then, I think it’s time to drink more champagne. Any excuse! Raise your glasses and toast Dec and Amy.

Matt

Then I handed Dec the mic. He’d been a bit cagey about what he was going to say, and I knew he didn’t like doing speeches of any kind, even interviews on local TV filled him with dread, so I was expecting him to pull out a sheet of paper, but he didn’t.

He turned to Amy and spoke just to her, somehow managing to block out everyone else in the room, and told her how beautiful she was, how much he loved her, how he knew they were meant to be together forever. He thanked all the people he was supposed to thank, and then told the world how fucking clever I am. OK, not just that, but that I’d seen what he felt for Amy back then, and I was right. Well it really hadn’t taken a genius, but I was prepared to take credit where it was offered. Then he asked her to marry him again, for about the twelve thousandth time, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Dec

DEC – GROOM’S SPEECH

HELLO. I’M REALLY NERVOUS, AND I DON’T USUALLY DO SPEECHES, BUT AMY SAYS I’VE GOT TO, AND I PRETTY MUCH ALWAYS DO AS I’M TOLD WHERE AMY’S CONCERNED, SO I’M GOING TO PRETEND NONE OF YOU ARE HERE, IF THAT’S OK WITH YOU. SOMEONE ADVISED ME TO IMAGINE YOU ALL IN YOUR UNDERWEAR, BUT THAT FREAKED ME OUT QUITE A LOT, SO, NONE OF YOU ARE HERE, RIGHT, AND I’M JUST GOING TO HAVE A CHAT WITH AMY.

AMES, HI, DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT YOU’VE DONE? I’M THE HAPPIEST MAN ALIVE BECAUSE OF YOU. I ALWAYS KNEW WE WERE GOING TO BE TOGETHER FOREVER, WELL MAYBE NOT ALWAYS SINCE I WAS BORN ALWAYS, BUT SINCE YOU KISSED ME BACK, IN JAY’S KITCHEN, ON THAT FIRST DAY. MAYBE THAT’S WHY IT’S TAKEN SO LONG TO DO THIS PROPERLY – BECAUSE I ALWAYS KNEW IT WAS GOING TO BE FOREVER, THERE DIDN’T SEEM TO BE ANY RUSH. BUT THIS, TODAY, JUST FEELS RIGHT. SO RIGHT. I DIDN’T THINK IT WAS POSSIBLE TO LOVE YOU ANY MORE THAN I DID YESTERDAY, BUT YOU LOOK SO BEAUTIFUL TODAY, YOU’RE SO AMAZING, I THINK I’VE FOUND A LITTLE EXTRA BIT. IF I BURST LATER, YOU’LL KNOW WHY.

I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’D HAVE DONE WITHOUT YOU ALL THESE YEARS. YOU’VE PUT UP WITH RUGBY TAKING OVER OUR LIVES, NOT HAVING A WEEKEND TO SPEAK OF FOR YEARS, GRUMPINESS GETTING UP FOR EARLY TRAINING SESSIONS, GRUMPINESS GETTING UP FOR THE CHILDREN, MAD SLEEP NOISES, TOTAL DISINTEREST IN HOUSEWORK OF ANY SORT, MY COMPLETELY CRAZY FAMILY – YOU’RE EITHER A SAINT OR AN ANGEL. MAYBE A BIT OF BOTH.

YOU’VE ALWAYS ACCEPTED ME FOR WHAT I AM, SUPPORTED ME, BEEN THERE FOR ME, LOVED ME. YOU’VE GIVEN ME CHARLIE AND TOM, OUR AMAZING CHILDREN, MADE ME SO HAPPY, AND EVEN HAPPIER NOW WE’VE GOT THE NEW BUBSTER TO LOOK FORWARD TO.

MY ONLY REGRET IS THAT MUM AND DAD NEVER KNEW YOU. I WOULD HAVE LOVED YOU ALL TO HAVE KNOWN EACH OTHER. SOMETIMES I DREAM ABOUT IT, THAT’S AS CLOSE AS IT’LL EVER GET.

OK, I KNOW NONE OF YOU ARE HERE, YOU’RE ALL SITTING SOMEWHERE ELSE IN YOUR UNDERWEAR, BUT I DO HAVE SOME THANK YOUS. SO COME BACK FOR A MINUTE. MAYBE PUT SOME BLOODY CLOTHES ON FIRST, THOUGH, YEAH?

IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING THAT WE HAVE TWO OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BRIDESMAIDS EVER IN IZ AND CHARLIE, ALTHOUGH IT’S POSSIBLE I MAY BE A LITTLE BIASED.

DIANE, THANK YOU FOR AMY, I’M SO SORRY JACK ISN’T HERE, HE WOULD HAVE BEEN VERY PROUD OF HER – YOU HAVE THE MOST AMAZING DAUGHTER.

BETH, THANK YOU FOR ALL OF THIS, FOR ALL OF YOUR HELP, FOR FIELDING ALL THOSE LATE NIGHT PANIC CALLS, FOR ALL THE BEHIND THE SCENES ORGANISING STUFF YOU DID, AND TO YOU AND LIS FOR HERDING TWO LOVELY LITTLE LADIES UP THE AISLE. WE COULDN’T HAVE DONE ANY OF THIS WITHOUT YOU. YOU ARE – MAYBE THOSE WITH SMALL CHILDREN HAD BETTER BLOCK THEIR EARS – BETH, YOU ARE FUCKING AMAZING.

JAY, FOR REMAINING STEADFASTLY GRUMPY IN THE FACE OF ALL THE LATE NIGHT PANIC CALLS, THANK YOU. YOUR CONSISTENCY IS REASSURING. WE ALSO APPRECIATE YOU RUINING THE CARPETS IN YOUR CAR FERRYING FOOD AND DRINK AND PEOPLE UP AND DOWN THE BEACH.

MATT, THANK YOU FOR THAT INCREDIBLY LONG AND EDIFYING SPEECH, AND REMEMBERING THE RINGS.

LAU, THANK YOU FOR CONSTANTLY REMINDING MATT NOT TO FORGET THE RINGS, AND FOR PERSUADING HIM TO CUT SOME OF THE MORE FRUITY STORIES OUT OF HIS SPEECH. OH, AND ANYONE SEEN BUYING MATT A PINT IS LIKELY TO BE INSTANTLY REMOVED FROM THE PREMISES.

ROSE, THANKS FOR YOUR PATIENCE IN THE FACE OF SUCH A LONG WAIT FOR OUR WEDDING. DID YOU REALLY BUY YOUR HAT WHEN I FIRST PROPOSED? SORRY. IT LOOKS AMAZING, THOUGH.

CAL, THANKS FOR HELPING NICO LOOK AFTER TOM AND BASTIEN TODAY – I THINK YOU MIGHT BOTH BE WANTED IN GOAL LATER.

I CAN’T THINK OF ANYONE ELSE, BUT IF I’VE MISSED YOU OUT AND YOU FEEL YOU HAVE MADE A SIGNIFICANT BUT UNRECOGNISED CONTRIBUTION TO TODAY, PLEASE WRITE YOUR NAME AND PHONE NUMBER ON THE BACK OF A NAPKIN AND LEAVE IT WITH A WAITER. YOU NEVER KNOW, YOU MAY GET YOUR REWARD.

OK, IF YOU COULD ALL JUST BUGGER OFF AGAIN A MINUTE, THERE’S JUST ONE MORE THING. AMES, JUST BEFORE WE GOT TOGETHER AT JAY AND BETH’S BARBECUE, LITERALLY MINUTES BEFORE, MATT WAS BEING A SMART-ARSE – I KNOW, IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE – AND I CHALLENGED HIM TO TELL ME HOW HE THOUGHT I FELT ABOUT YOU, IF HE WAS SO FUCKING CLEVER. I KNOW, I SWORE, EVEN HARDER TO BELIEVE. HE SAID SOMETHING LIKE ‘SHE’S PART OF YOU, YOUR REASON TO LIVE, LIGHTS UP YOUR WORLD’. NOW, I HATE TO ADMIT IT, I’LL NEVER HEAR THE LAST OF IT, BUT HE WAS PRETTY FUCKING CLEVER. HE SAW IT THEN, AND I’VE SEEN IT EVER SINCE. I COULDN’T LIVE WITHOUT YOU, BABE, YOU’RE MY WORLD. YOU PROBABLY THOUGHT I’D STOP ASKING NOW, BUT I’LL NEVER STOP CHECKING BECAUSE I CAN HARDLY BELIEVE MY LUCK. AMY, WILL YOU MARRY ME?

Matt

After that, things get a little hazy for me, covered as they are in a beery champagney cloud. I do remember Dec yelling across the room to me about a bobble hat, and expecting me to know what in the United States of Fucktardery he was on about, but it was something to do with Cal, who emerged from somewhere with his arm round a girl, and Dec was making pointed kissy faces in his direction, so I assumed Cal had been caught with his tongue down the young lady’s throat, and about bloody time young Calum James Scott, he was all of twelve and a half. I inwardly applauded him for embarking on his romantic career so soon, knowing what it was like to be out in the wilderness waiting for it all to start.

Dec

‘Cal, there you are, could you just – oh shit – sorry –

\dec …

‘Sorry, mate, didn’t mean to interrupt. Er, I’ll piss off in just a second, but just need to ask if you, and I guess maybe your friend, er ..?

\ … Molly. Dec …

Shooing gestures.

‘Molly, hi, well, we’re just about to cut the cake, so could you keep Charlie and Tom entertained while we do that?’

\kay.

‘Thanks, Cal, appreciate it. Then, obviously, feel free to get right back to whatever you were doing. Whatever it was. Hardly noticed any tongues at all.’

\dec …

More shooing.

‘Couple of minutes time, yeah? OK, pissing off now, but don’t make me have to come and find you. Matt!’

}Declan Charles Summers!

‘Have you still got your second best hat? The one with the red bobble?’

}I have never had a hat with a fucking red bobble – sorry Lau, too much bubbly, stimulating my swear glands – I have never had a hat with a red bobble. Or, indeed, a bobble of any colour.

‘Well I don’t need it any more.’

}What the f … on earth are you talking about?

‘Turns out we didn’t have to wait a hundred years for Cal to find out how great snogging is, he’s managed it in much less.’

Matt

I think there were a few Iz and Charlie face-offs. In theory, making them both bridesmaids defused some of the potential for screams and hair-pulling, but in reality it just increased the rivalry. As the oldest, Iz claimed chief bridesmaid status for herself from an early juncture, but as daughter of the bride, Charlie held a privileged position that Iz couldn’t better. After their trip down the aisle together, attempts were made to keep them as far apart from each other as possible until it was all over, or one of them fell asleep.

Dec

‘Hey Iz. Still running about like a crazy person, then. Come and sit on my knee for a bit. Or, you know, stand there jiggling like a mad thing, totally up to you.’

/dec, you know the dolls on the top of your cake.

‘Yeah, sweetie, the ones that look like Amy and me?’

/yes. Cal said I can’t have them, he said I’m not portant enough.

‘Well, maybe Cal shouldn’t have been mean to you, you are definitely portant enough, but we kind of promised them to Charlie.’

/but I’m your bridesmaid too, and I’m the oldest one, I’m more portant, it’s not fair.

‘You’re right, Iz, you are the oldest, although you and Charlie are as portant as each other. That’s why we got you some dolls exactly the same that you can have – ask Rose later, she knows where they are – oh you’re going now, are you –’

_World War Three nicely averted, sweetheart. That was a brilliant plan, if I say so myself.

‘Yeah, until Charlie finds out there are more when Iz waves them in front of her nose, then she’ll want those too. I’ll listen out for the screeching.’

Matt

I’d like to say our children, as in mine and Lau’s, were perfectly behaved, as it’s always pleasing to be able to boast about your kids when other people’s are monsters, and I’m sure they were angels, but I just can’t remember. Lau had them most of the time, while I dashed about doing my best man duties, making sure old ladies had seats and dancing partners, making sure rugby players knew where the beer was, making sure everyone knew it was time to cut the cake, basically being Beth’s slave, as were most of us that day.

The band were awesome, I do remember that. There was a playlist that I had put together for before, after and between the band, but it was a poor show compared to these guys. They did covers of ancient and modern songs, in their own style, ones that got nearly everyone up and dancing, as well as a fair amount of smoochers for the old romantics among us. Yeah, one of which was me. I grabbed Lau and tugged her onto the dance floor, which was the beach, ignoring her protests that she had to stay with Josh and Ella, because I’d caught Rose’s eye and she had it covered.

‘Come on, Lau. Need a smooch. The babies are fine, look.’

She looked, and gave in, not unwillingly.

‘We haven’t had a smooch for ages.’

‘I know. About to be rectified. I’ve hardly seen you today, either.’

‘Yeah. Every time I’ve looked up you’ve been busy getting a chair or fetching a drink for someone.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Daft sod. Best man’s lot in life, do all the hard work so people don’t keep bothering the bride and groom. Remember Jay at our wedding?’

‘Er, no, not especially.’

‘Exactly.’

‘Huh?’

Before I could call her on her illogical statement, she pulled me close and wrapped her arms round my neck, and we smooched away happily for a couple of numbers, then Beth called again and it was busy busy busy.

My lasting image of that day, and of the evening to follow, is Dec and Amy, holding a sleeping child each over a shoulder, wrapped up in each other as they swayed to a slow song, foreheads pressed together, looking into each other’s eyes. They looked so perfect together, all four of them, with the next chapter nestling somewhere in Amy’s abdomen, that most of the guests who were still there, were watching them. There weren’t many of us left, as it was quite late, and Dec and Amy seemed determined to stay till the end, contrary to tradition.

Dec

_Oh Dec, Amy, I hate to break this up, you all look so lovely dancing there together, but shall we take these lovely little sleeping people now? Rose is just putting the car seats in. I would have come and got them sooner, but you looked so perfect, the four of you, I couldn’t bear to separate you. Looks like these little ones are well past ready for bed, though.

)Thanks, Beth. Yeah, I think all the excitement has finally worn them out. I’m still not sure about them staying away for the night, though …

_You need your wedding night, sweetheart. Even if it’s just to get a really good night’s sleep.

łIt might be the last chance for a full eight hours for many years. Make the most of it.

)Actually that does sound appealing. I’ve had such a completely amazing day, but it has been exhausting. Thanks for all your help with everything, Beth, we couldn’t have done it without you.

‘Yeah, thanks Beth, have we told you lately you’re fucking amazing?’

_Quite a few times, Dec, mostly within earshot of various small children. If Charlie and Tom weren’t deaf to the world I might have words with you about it again now. Oh you’re so welcome, sweetheart. I’ve enjoyed myself so much. Being able to boss Rose about has been a bit of a highlight.

‘Ha ha, one time only deal, I think.’

_I’ve made the most of it. Right, goodnight kisses, then we’ll get them out to Rose. Shall I take Charlie, Dec?

‘Night night lovely girl.’

)Oh Dec, look, she’s still holding the ‘us’ from the cake.

‘I don’t think she’s going to be putting those down any time soon, in case Iz swoops in.’

)Night night gorgeous. Sweet dreams. Night big man. Here you go, Jay.

‘See you tomorrow, little ones.’

)Dec, I think you need to hold me to stop me running after them.

‘I think you need to hold me for the same reason. And because you’re fucking gorgeous and I fancy copping a feel off my sexy wife.’

)Ha ha, cop away, hon. I’m too tired to even pretend to be outraged. What a day.

‘The most amazing one. Not over yet. Here we are, child-free, the night is youngish, we have a room in the poshest hotel in town – all I want to do is go to bed with you. One last dance before we go?’

)Mm, make it a slow, hold-me-tight one.

Matt

Eventually, Beth prised their sleeping children away from them, and Jay ferried them off to a nearby swanky hotel for their wedding night.

Dec

łCome on you two, it’s about time you went and started your wedding night, before you fall asleep standing up in the middle of the floor here. Stop all this smooching now, it’s getting embarrassing.

‘How can it be embarrassing? It’s our wedding – if we can’t have a bloody good smooch now, when the fuck can we?’

łFair point, mate. It’s still time to go, though.

)Oh, I’ve had such a completely lovely time I can hardly bear to leave.

‘Fuck me, are we the only ones left?’

łJust about, now that can’t be right. Come on, I’ll take you now, so I can go home and get some sleep myself and avoid having to do any clearing up into the bargain.

)Thanks for everything today, Jay, you’ve been completely amazing.

łAmy, it’s been my absolute pleasure.

‘Yeah, thanks for everything, Jay. Not just today, but, well, everything. Forever. I don’t say it enough. I don’t know where, or what, I’d be without you and Beth.’

łJesus, Dec … just when I thought I’d managed to get through the whole day without blubbing … thanks for that. But, as I just said to Amy, it’s been my absolute pleasure. Now, before Matty spots me and I lose any more man points, let’s get you to your fancy hotel so you can start … er …

‘Snoring our heads off probably.’

Matt

I’d like to say the night ended there, but Beth had a clearing up schedule prepared, and although Lau had buggered off to put Josh and Ella to bed, and Jay didn’t reappear after playing chauffeur to Mr and Mrs Summers, I stayed to the bitter end, helping to stack chairs, fold tables, put vast amounts of rubbish in bin bags, find lost handbags, dismantle various electrical cables and fold them up tidily, and anything else that needed doing that Beth didn’t already have a willing drudge to do.

Dec

‘So, Mrs Summers, here we are, alone at last, giant four poster bed, wedding night, bottle of complimentary champagne you can’t drink, any thoughts?’

)Lots of thoughts about the four poster bed, hon. They might not be quite the same as yours, though.

‘Don’t you be so sure. Let’s just get in and see where the night takes us.’

)Honestly, hon, I’m completely wiped, and I’m going to be up puking in an hour or two.

‘Me too babe, with the wiped, not the puking. All I want to do is curl up with you and enjoy knowing we’re not going to be woken up by someone who’s had a bad dream, or needs a nappy change, or wants a cuddle. Just for one night.’

)Oh Dec, I love you. Help me with my zip?

‘Fuck yeah, I love this bit, it’s like unwrapping you … here we go … wow, Ames, you’re so gorgeous. Happy Wedding Day to me.’

)You’re pretty hot yourself, hon, even with your tie all wonky and your shirt untucked.

‘I’m starting a new trend. I’ll be in all the wedding magazines. You get in, babe, tell me if the mattress is comfortable, I’ll just take this lot off, and be right with you.’

)Oh wow, it’s amazingly comfortable.

‘Budge over then, don’t hog it. Mm, come here, you fucking amazing woman. I love you so much, Ames, you make me so happy.’

)I love you too, Dec. The last couple of years have been completely full on, haven’t they, but I’m so glad I’ve had them with you. It’s so great to have some time with you tonight. I really miss Charlie and Tom, but to have you all to myself again, I’d forgotten how lovely it is … you know what, hon, maybe I’m not quite as tired as I thought I was … Dec?

‘Mm.’

)Are you still awake?

‘ … no …’

)What?

‘ … mm … mm … no … yeah … mm … ‘

Matt

The sun was coming up by the time we’d finished and the marquee people came to take it down and collect the chairs and tables, as Beth and I trundled backwards and forwards to her car with full bin bags.

‘Thank you, Matty.’

‘Pleasure.’

Beth looked at me, wondering if I was being sarcastic, because a) I usually was, and b) I often tried to avoid doing what she told me. I obviously convinced her I was genuine.

‘You’ve worked really hard. It was a lovely wedding, though, wasn’t it.’

It sounded like she was looking for a compliment, so I generously gave one, alcohol having loosened my grip.

‘You did a fucking amazing job, Beth.’

‘Well, thanks, Matty, but I didn’t mean that. I think it would have been lovely even without all of this, without all of us. They could have done it on their own, and it would have felt the same for them.’

‘Not quite, Beth.’

She looked at me quizzically.

‘They needed us here, oh maybe not all hundred and eighty three of us, but the family. That’s why they did this, at least part of it.’

Beth looked at me, considering.

‘I think you could be right. I sometimes forget where Dec came from, how he came to be here, I forget how important his family is to him.’

‘He never forgets how much you’ve done for him, I think it’s why he’s so bloody cheerful all the time.’

‘Maybe. It’s not just us, though, he thinks the world of you.’

Well I kind of got that, with the asking me to be best man, but it seemed like it was a mutual exchange of good feeling, so again I let the sarcasm slide. I was going to have to hit some serious irony tomorrow to make up for it.

‘Yeah, well, there’s not much I wouldn’t do for him, either.’

‘How did it all happen, Matty, this family? How did it get so … big?’

I looked at her puzzled. Surely she knew?

‘You, Beth. You and Jay. None of us would be here in Scottsville without the two of you.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Oh come on, Beth. First, you rescue Dec from his young fucked up teenage self, then you rescue me from the jaws of death, then you go back and rescue Dec again from his fucked up older teenage self, then you invite all of our hangers on to join the party, treating us all as if we belong there with you, as if you love us all equally, and you take all the shit any of us dish out, OK that’s mainly me, and then we all start breeding, and you’re never getting rid of us now.’

Beth stared at me, open mouthed.

‘I never thought about it like that.’

‘Really?’

‘No. It just kind of happened, sometimes you don’t sit down and analyse why or how.’

‘Beth, you and Jay, now I’m only saying this because I’m pissed, and if you try to get me to say it when I’m sober, I’ll deny it, but you and Jay are pretty fucking special. You’re generous with your time, and your love, and maybe a bit too free with your advice sometimes, but I certainly wouldn’t be the man I am today without you both.’

‘Is that supposed to be a compliment?’

She looked at me sideways as she threw another bag into the back of the car, trying not to smile.

‘Oh ha ha. See if I ever say anything nice to you ever again.’

I chucked the last bag in and shut the boot.

‘Thank you, Matty.’

‘Pleasure.’

‘Not just for today, but for what you just said.’

I looked at her and saw her eyes had teared up. Oh bloody hell. I took hold of her and hugged her.

‘As I said, pleasure. Right, lets get going, we might get an hour or two’s kip before various children wake us up if we’re lucky.’

‘My children won’t be waking me up, Iz has gone to Rose’s with Charlie and Tom, and Cal will be sleeping until lunch if recent times are anything to go by.’

‘You cow, how did you wangle that one? Why was I not aware of Rose’s crèche facility?’

‘Ah, well, you have to know the right way to ask …’

We carried on chatting as she drove me home, the serious moment over but not forgotten.

112. Life goes on

In which we see life in tableaux.

Matt

And then, God, those babies started growing too fast, and I could hardly believe it when I looked up one day and they were at school. How could my babies possibly be at school? There had been many highlights in the intervening years.

In no particular order of date or importance, just as things occur to me:

Rescuing a Bee from the Outdoor Swimming Pool

I took both of them swimming most Saturday mornings, using the pool at the gym while Lau did an early class. In the summer there was an outdoor pool that we used.

It was a sunny day, but a bit chilly, and early, so we were the only ones in the pool. I was helping Josh put his armbands on while Ella busied herself being independent.

‘Daddy.’

Ella’s voice barely penetrated my consciousness, I was so fixated on persuading an unusually reluctant Josh to put his armbands on.

‘Daddy!’

This time I noticed, but Ella was always demanding my attention when I could least give it, and I’d got used to ignoring the first couple of Daddies. I nodded but didn’t look up.

‘Daddy! Daddeeeee!

Panicked by the sudden scream, I looked up to see her pointing frantically. Leaving Josh with one armband on, I hurried over, followed Ella’s wide-eyed stare and saw it, a bee, on its back, struggling in the water. Ella was terrified of flying insects, and wouldn’t touch it, but couldn’t bear to see it die.

As I approached, the wash from my movements swamped it and it sunk under the water. Ella’s screams intensified, so I scooped up the bee in both hands, and carried it over to the side of the pool, where I dumped the water out, not holding out much hope for the poor bedraggled creature.

Instead of being tipped out with the water, the tenacious thing clung on to my thumb, still miraculously alive. It sat on my thumb for a while, doing the bee equivalent of looking dazed and thanking its lucky stars. Ella watched it, enthralled, and Josh pottered over for a nose too. As we stared, willing it to be OK, it started to push the sodden pollen from its back legs, the yellow substance running stickily down my thumb. I was a bit worried about being stung, but the bee resisted all attempts by me to gently shake it off, and just sat there, divesting itself of its load, whirring its wings every now and then but not taking off.

‘Is he better now, Daddy?’

I wasn’t sure, and didn’t want to give Ella false hope.

‘I’m not sure, Squeaks. He needs to dry off a bit. Actually, he’s probably a she. It’s the mummies who do all the flying around in the honey bee world.’

‘A daddy bee should come and make her better.’

‘Yeah, I agree. She might have to find her own way home, though.’

‘Daddy, can we swim now?’

Josh had got bored of my rescue attempt.

‘Just wait a minute, Josh, I just want to make sure the bee is OK.’

‘What’s the yellow?’

‘Pollen. They get it from flowers and carry it on their legs, and take it back to their hives.’

‘Why?’

‘They make honey with it.’

I had no idea if this was how it happened, I was going on information I vaguely remembered from primary school.

‘How?’

‘Er …’

Damn primary school for not imbuing me with more permanent bee knowledge. Fortunately, the bee moved again, sparing me.

‘Why does she buzz her wings?’

‘She’s trying to dry them so she can fly away.’

I sincerely hoped she would be able to do so, and wasn’t going to be condemned to a life of crawling along the side of the pool. It would be a short life, ended by the gel-shoed tread of a small child.

As I spoke, the bee whirred its wings again and then flew off. Ella watched it until it was a small speck, which didn’t take long, then turned back to the pool and got on with her swimming. I thought she’d forgotten about it until we got home, whereupon she rushed in to Lau declaring ‘Daddy stopped a bee to drown’ and excitedly told Lau all about it in great detail, making me out to be some kind of bee-saving superhero, earning me at least a cape, and black and yellow stripy underpants to wear over my trousers. When your kid thinks you’re brilliant, it’s the best thing.

I saved many more insects from the clutches of the outdoor swimming pool, alerted to their peril by Ella’s shouts. If ever I facing impending doom by drowning, I fully expect a small flying platoon of bees, beetles, crane-flies and ladybirds to dash to my rescue in repayment. Of course, there might also be a much larger squadron representing smaller flying creatures which I ignored because Ella didn’t see them, or who just met a watery end because stupid humans put a swimming pool where their grassy habitat used to be, who would probably hold me under. Maybe best not find out.

Josh’s Big Break

When Josh was about three and a half, he broke his arm trying to copy Charlie by jumping off Dec’s sofa. None of the grown-ups were in the room at the time, being preoccupied with looking at something on my iPad – photos or some such shit.

Chaos always reigned at Dec’s, and Charlie usually led it by the nose to wherever she was. She was going to start school when the next term started, and never has a child been more ready for some kind of, oh I don’t know, structure, someone telling her no for once. She got no discipline from her doting parents, and her doting uncle wasn’t much better, so she was pretty much used to doing what the fuck she wanted.

On this day, what she wanted to do was teach Josh, who was a full year and a half younger than her, to jump from the sofa to the armchair. Josh was used to doing what he was told, as Ella usually took the lead when they were together, and before we had even wondered to ourselves what the children were up to there was a screech from the pits of hell that froze us all.

Lau was first off the mark, rushing into the living room to find Josh wedged between the sofa and the chair, arm all bent out of shape, Charlie looking defiant and saying ‘it wasn’t me, I didn’t make him’. I’d like to think she was dealt with later, both for making him, and for lying about it, but I don’t have any great hopes that this happened. It came back to bite Dec and Amy when they finally tried to exert some control over their wilful daughter in her teens, as it was way too late by then. I guess sometimes you can love your kids too much.

So there it was. Josh. Arm broken. Lau saw it immediately, and picked him up, her face pale, telling me to get Ella and the car keys so we could drive to the hospital. Dec and Amy were trying to apologise, but neither of us could hear them above Josh’s screaming and our worries. We didn’t know if he’d banged his head, or really what had happened. It was only later, when Rose had a word with Charlie, that the truth came out.

Rose was the only one Charlie would listen to, take any notice of. She had a way with children, something calming and stabilising; they always knew where they were with her, and it gave her some kind of authority.

But anyway. Josh. So the emergency dash to A and E was fun, with the poor little chap screaming as Lau held him on the back seat with Ella strapped in next to them, tears running down all of their faces. I was hard pushed to drive carefully, I just wanted to put my foot down and get us there, but involving us all in an accident wasn’t going to noticeably improve things, and I had to take it easy.

Once we got there, the hospital were brilliant, although there were the obligatory questions about how it had happened, and some askance looks when we didn’t quite know, and some attempts on our part to try to make sure they knew we hadn’t done it to him which sounded fishy even to us, and we wondered if we were going to have a visit from Social Services.

Once Josh had been patched up, with a jaunty lime green cast, and he had stopped screaming, we all went home, exhausted and emotionally drained. Dec brought Charlie round to say sorry, which she did begrudgingly, but was eyeing up Josh’s cast enviously, and none of us were that surprised when she fell off the swings a few weeks later, necessitating her own trip to A and E, and a bright pink cast which she showed off endlessly.

Josh’s arm healed well, but it was a reminder of how fragile and precious our children’s lives were.

What else? Oh yeah.

The Holiday

Well there were two, actually. The first one was the one Jay and I had initiated that day when he came round to make it all better. We went to France, to a bloody enormous gite, with absolutely bloody everyone. Jay, Beth and their two, me, Lau and our two, Dec, Amy and their two, Nico, Lis and Bastien, and Mum, Rose, Carol and Diane, Amy’s mum. How many is that? 12 grown ups and seven kids. Holy fuckmobs, how did we not get kicked out of France? Probably because there were more of us than there were of them.

It was mayhem. Gloriously anarchic pandemonium. The gite was close to a beach, the weather was hot and sunny, and we spent all day playing, talking, swimming, drinking wine, eating bread and cheese and having the time of our bloody lives. For two whole weeks. It was the only time we all managed to go away together, and we all had such a good time, even Cal, who as the oldest of the children often felt duty bound to try to be above messing about and getting sand in his shorts.

A couple of years later, we had another big holiday, although Nico and Lis didn’t come, and neither did Diane or April – much as they loved their own grandchildren, I think looking after the whole lot of them, expanded by now to Dec and Amy’s three with the arrival of Gracie, had proven a bit too much of a challenge to two women who had only had one child each.

This time, in Spain, Cal was even more of a grouch than had become the norm for him, and he pretty much stayed in his room, refusing to be cajoled into the great outdoors. We called him the Cob-on Kid, and teased him pretty relentlessly at mealtimes (when Beth insisted he join us). We might have gone a bit easier on him if we’d realised he was nursing a broken heart. Or we might not have.

Dec

TOM’S FIRST BIRTHDAY

‘I’m fucking knackered, babe. Who’d have thought a room full of small children would be so tiring?’

)Anyone who’s ever been a parent, I would imagine. I’m completely wiped. Shall we leave the clearing up till tomorrow?

‘What? Seriously? That would be awesome. Are you feeling OK?

) … well …

‘What, Ames? Are you OK?

)Well, I’m not a hundred per cent sure, and maybe we should get a test tomorrow, but I’ve been throwing up the last few nights …

‘Whoa, fuck, Amy! We seriously need to get some family planning advice.’

)I think it might be a bit late for that, they’d use us as an example of how not to do it in their training videos.

‘Are you OK about it? I think it’s fucking awesome, but another one … fuck … I’ve hardly got used to two. You’re going to be shattered.’

)Well, I actually don’t think it’s possible to be any more tired than I feel at the moment, so yeah, it’s great, hon. But maybe we need to stop now?

‘You could be right. You know what, there’s something else we need to do, I think. I know I’ve asked you, like, a zillion times, and it’s almost a joke now, but this isn’t a joke, and I think we should do it very soon. Amy, will you marry me?’

)Oh, Dec, I’d love to. Yes.

Dec: =Are u n Jay around l8r?

Beth:=Yes, u coming over?

Dec: =Put the champagne on ice.

Beth:=Why????????

Dec: =Wait n see.

Dec: =Can u make it 2 Jay n Beth later?

Rose:=yes what time

Dec: =5ish.

‘Hi Carol, it’s Declan, hope you pick this up in time. Is there any chance you could get to Jay and Beth’s for five? Rose is going, she could give you a lift, give her a ring. Hope to see you later. Bye.’

Dec: =Can u n Lis make it 2 Jay’s @5?

Nico: =No is not possible. Why you ask?

Dec: =Bugger. Have 2 tell u ltr.

Nico: =Tell me now.

Dec: =No. You’ll have to wait.

Nico: =Lis will be cross with you.

Dec: =I’ll take my chances.

Matt

Oh, and I nearly forgot another huge family event.

Finally, Summers

About a month after Christmas, a couple of days after Tom’s first birthday, I got a text from Dec. It was my day off, and Lau and I were feeding the babies. Lau still hadn’t gone back to work, and sometimes it was nice to just spend the day together as a family, doing normal everyday shit, being with each other.

My phone pinged as I was trying to spoon puréed vegetables into Ella.

‘Can u n Lau make it 2 Jay n Beth for 5?’

‘Oh what? Dec wants to know if we can get to Jay and Beth’s for five o’clock.’

‘Did he say why?’

‘No. I’ll ask.’

‘Poss, why?’

‘Wait n see.’

‘Oh, useful, Summers. He says wait and see. It’s gona take us ages to get these two cleaned up and ready, it’d better be worth it.’

‘Ask him what it’s about.’

I sent another text, juggling my phone and the spoon, Ella giggling when pea and carrot purée ended up on her nose.

‘Need more b4 tog the twins up. Spill.’

‘Can’t. Big announcement tho.’

‘Oh. He says ‘big announcement’. What the … why do we have to go all the way over there, why can’t he just tell us? Or at least do it at theirs. Oh –’

A little trickle of apprehension slipped down my spine. A few years ago, before either of us had families, Dec had considered leaving Raiders and moving to one of the big London clubs. Then Charlie was discovered to be on her way, and everything changed, but what if …

‘– I bet he’s signing for some other team.’

It just seemed like the only thing, the logical thing to get us all together to tell us.

‘Really? Has he said something?’

‘No, but you know what they’re like, all these rugby players, close to their chests.’

Laura

‘Amy hasn’t said anything.’

I hadn’t seen Amy for a day or two, but we chatted about most things, and she knew I’d be discreet if she told me something like that. Maybe something had come up since we last saw each other.

Matt

‘No, well, I guess we’ll just have to go and find out. I can go on my own if you want.’

I sent off another text one handed, a small part of me impressed at my ambidextrous multi-tasking.

‘Cld def come on my own, but Lau will b disap to miss out.’

Lau raised her eyebrows.

‘Don’t you dare, I want to know at the same time as you. And I bet Beth’s made a cake.’

‘Ha ha, so much for all your time in the gym, Lau.’

‘My time in the gym makes it OK to have cake.’

‘Yeah, whatever excuse you need, gorgeous. What shall I tell him?’

My phone pinged again.

‘So wld we. Pls try?’

‘Oh, he says they defo want you there too.’

‘We’ll do our best, see how long it takes to get the rest of this down them.’

‘Do our best.’

We managed, somehow, to get the twins fed, changed and dressed in record time. We must have hidden our haste from them better than usual, as they could sniff out and bugger up a deadline with uncanny accuracy. Today they were angelically cooperative as we cajoled them into hurrying, and we loaded them into the car at just gone five o’clock.

Laura

As we loaded them into the car in their car seats, I looked at Matt, who was biting his lip and hunching his shoulders.

‘What’s the matter?’

Matt

Lau was looking at me, frowning.

‘What?’

‘What are you worried about?’

How the fuck did she know? I’d hardly been aware of it myself, the thought that Dec might be on his way somewhere else, that he might not be four doors down for much longer.

I sighed. ‘One of these days you are so going to have to tell me how you do that. I can’t even have a little freak to myself.’

Laura

‘Sorry, but I can just read you. Stop being so obvious. Or stop worrying.’

We got into the car, Matt turned on the engine and reversed onto the road. He still looked tense and preoccupied.

‘You didn’t answer the question.’

Matt

I sighed again. ‘OK, Lau, you win. I’m freaking about Dec. I’m sure he’s gona say he’s signed for Warriors, or TomCats. He nearly did a couple of years ago, but then they had Charlie and wanted to stay down here, even though it would have been shed-loads of money. I’ve … I’d … if he moves away, I’ll … oh, you know what I mean. He’s my best mate, and now we live so close, I’ve just got used to it.’

There was more to it than that; Dec had been my anchor, the one person I knew I could turn to when things were really shit, the one person who had got how I was feeling when I was at the bottom of the pit, the one person who knew how to pull me out. Even though I wasn’t in the pit any longer, there was still that indefinable connection, the thing that nobody else had, even Lau. But of course, I couldn’t say all that.

‘I know you’d really miss him, but we don’t know that’s what the big announcement is.’

I couldn’t think of any other reason. Anything else and Beth would have got wind of it and broadcast it on Scott News Central.

‘I bet it is. Why else would they go over to Jay and Beth’s?’

‘Er … because that’s where all the big announcements happen?’

‘Mm.’

Laura

Matt fell silent, and I left him to his anxieties, which I didn’t think I would be able to do anything about in the short time it took to drive across the city.

Matt

That’s as maybe, but I remained convinced I was right, and began steeling myself against it, fretting all the way across the city.

We pulled up outside the house, unloaded a baby each from the car seats. As I walked up the path with Ella held close to me, I took deep breaths, and realised I was going to have to stop being so freaked. If they were going away, they needed good wishes, not miserable faces; I muttered to myself to talk myself into a more positive frame of mind. Something like ‘have a word with yourself’. Ella heard me, looked up, reached out and touched my mouth, a huge toothless grin on her face. I melted, and kissed her forehead, telling myself sternly that this was what was important – my family – and whatever Dec was going to tell us, he was doing it for his family too.

I was still smiling at Ella as we got to the front door, which opened before I even rang the bell. Iz stood there, all blonde curls and pink frills.

‘Hey, blondie. You beat us to the bell.’

Iz nodded. ‘Daddy saw you coming. You’re the last.’

‘Are we? Isn’t Nico last?’

‘Nico’s not coming, he’s teaching rugby, and Basty is poorly sick so Lis isn’t coming too.’

Bugger, Nico could always be relied on to bring up the rear.

‘Oh no. That means we’re in last place, Lau. Not good. So, Iz, what’s the big secret? You can tell me, I won’t say a word.’

‘Jamie Carter hid a pencil in Grace Bishop’s bag and she took it home.’

I blinked, absorbing the information.

‘What? Oh. Oh, well, boy will she be surprised later. That is quite a big secret, Iz, but I meant Dec and Amy’s secret.’

Iz looked blankly at me, as if she had already told me the biggest secret she knew, and anything Dec or Amy might be about to reveal couldn’t begin to match it.

‘So no inside info then?’

Iz solemnly shook her head as we went through into the living room, where Jay couldn’t let our lateness slide.

‘Impressive, Matty, only half an hour late.’

It was as if he’d never had children of his own. Although, thinking about it, he was married to Beth, who organised feeding and changing with military precision, and as long as Jay did what he was told, everything went according to plan. Much like the present day, really.

‘Hey, we didn’t get much notice, and we were in the middle of dinner; you’re lucky we’re not all covered in puréed carrot.’

‘We managed it, though, Matt.’

Dec was trying for some kind of baby one-upmanship.

‘Yeah, Dec, but you are the instigators of this impromptu, short notice gathering, thus having the advantage of knowing your own plans and being able to arrange your own schedule.’

Lau and I sat down, the babies on our laps as we divested them of winter garments. They were still pretty happy, but Lau had a bag of interesting diversions for when they’d had enough.

‘Get on with it, then, Summers, we haven’t got long before the baby-fidgets kick in, and we’ll miss whatever your big news is.’

Laura

Dec looked at Amy and breathed in. My heart did a little flip, as I wondered if they were actually going to tell us they were moving away. Whatever it was, the look that passed between them told me it really was something big.

Matt

‘OK, so, thanks for all coming at such short notice, er, right, announcement … ‘

I just wanted it to be over with, and Dec was prevaricating like he was never going to get to the point.

‘Come on Dec, spit it out, it’ll soon be past my bed time.’

‘I didn’t think it was ever past your bed time, Matt.’

‘That was before fatherhood struck. I take every opportunity for sleep these days.’

‘Join the club. Actually – no, I’m getting ahead of myself. Help me out, Ames, I’m forgetting what order we were going to do things in.’

And there it was. He’d stopped himself in the middle of saying ‘join the club’. He was definitely moving away. My heart sank.

‘OK hon. Well, firstly, we’d like to ask for your help.’

‘Oh yeah. Help. Right. Well I’ve finally asked Amy to marry me –’

Laura

I hadn’t realised how tightly I’d been holding myself, some of Matt’s anxiety rubbing off on me, until I sagged with relief, and then smiled at this great news. Jay laughed and interrupted.

‘Wasn’t that over a thousand years ago, mate?’

Matt

What? What the fuck was this? It occurred to me that maybe, just possibly, I might have got it wrong. Possibly. I felt some of the tension I hadn’t realised I was holding leave my body.

‘And don’t you ask her, like, every bloody Thursday or something?’

‘Yeah, OK Jay, the first time was a long time ago, and I asked in a kind of general way and, OK, piss off Matt, I do check a lot that the answer’s still ‘yes’. But I asked her again a couple of days ago, and gave her a date, and she said ‘yes’ again, phew, and so in ten weeks’ time, we want to get married.’

Oh my God, I was so relieved I nearly cried. God, man up Matt, blokes don’t do that, don’t feel that way about each other, certainly don’t show it. And regardless of your bloody feelings one way or another about what you thought was going to happen, your best mate has just announced something big. Something happy.

There was a swell of voices as everyone spoke at once.

‘Oh! Sweetheart!’

Beth looked genuinely surprised. She was usually really good at guessing secrets, but this one had slipped past her. I wondered how it had got by her spy network, and silently applauded Dec and Amy for managing this previously unattainable feat, although it did cross my mind that she might have been worried about the same thing I was worried about, which could have interfered with the signals.

‘Holy fuck.’

I spoke at the same time as everyone else, and with everything being processed in my head, had not had a chance to filter it.

Laura

Matt’s reaction was predictable. He had got a lot better at not swearing, but it still popped out when he wasn’t concentrating. I couldn’t let it go, and he had given me permission to nag.

‘Matt, really.’

Matt

‘Sorry, Lau.’

Lau took me up on my ill advised New Year’s Pissedolution every time, never gave me a bloody break. Ever.

‘Oh, love.’

Rose looked like she was fit to bust. She had picked out her wedding outfit when Dec and Amy first got engaged, getting on for five years ago, but had long since despaired of ever getting to wear it.

‘That’s not long, dear.’

Mum looked worried, but surely she knew it was possible to do a wedding in less than ten weeks? Compared to mine and Lau’s, it was a lifetime.

‘Jesus, I think I’m starting to see why you need our help.’

Jay ran a hand through his hair.

‘Why so soon, sweetheart? It’s not like you haven’t had a few years to think about it.’

Dec nodded, and it seemed that he hadn’t stopped with the surprises just yet.

‘Well, OK, that’s the next bit. I love my awesome family so much, I just don’t seem to be able to help making it bigger and better … ‘

Beth was back firing on all cylinders, and worked it out with lightning speed, looking triumphantly at Amy.

‘Amy! I knew it, I only said to James the other day –’

‘Beth, how could you possibly have known? We only did the test yesterday.’

It wasn’t until Amy talked about a test that I finally caught up with events. Bloody hell, Dec and Amy were seriously fast workers in the baby-making business.

‘Oh, sorry, sweetheart, it’s just, I don’t know, something in your face, just like with Charlie and Tom. Ohh, another one. That’s just so lovely.’

‘So is that why you want to get married now, love?’

Rose could hardly sit still, she was so excited.

Dec shrugged and put his arm round Amy.

‘Yeah, kind of. I know we’ve missed the boat with Charlie and Tom, but it feels like we want to do it right, finally, get things sorted out in the right order. In ten weeks’ time, there’s no Raiders game, we’ll have had the first scan, and we can announce it at the wedding.’

Beth looked at Dec and Amy with a dreamy expression, I could almost see the planning part of her brain working.

‘Oh, that’s perfect. Have you thought about where you’re going to have the wedding?’

‘Well, no, we were kind of hoping you’d help us – Amy’s twenty first was awesome, so was mine, and Matt and Lau’s wedding was mind-blowing. We were hoping for some kind of family assistance – Rose, Carol, I know it’s not long, but any help you could give us with food, and Beth, maybe if there’s a marquee and a beach available, do you fancy being a wedding planner?’

Beth nodded enthusiastically; it was obvious to all of us that she already had ideas, and was going to love every minute of it.

Amy looked at Beth.

‘Mum couldn’t come tonight, but she’s happy to do anything – she’s pretty good at cooking, she can phone people, she’s good at organising people and is completely excellent at getting shirty to get things done.’

This was certainly true of Diane who, although she had mellowed a lot since her husband died, could still be prickly.

Dec nodded wryly at Amy, having been on the wrong end of the shirtiness of the mother-in-law on many occasions.

‘And obviously I’d be more than happy to do a playlist, that’s a really difficult job that would take all my time and mean I couldn’t do anything else.’

Oh no, I wasn’t having that. Anything techy was my province, not technoshitwit Summers.

‘Sounds more like a job for an IT expert, or at least someone who knows how to connect an iPod to a computer.’

‘Actually, Matt, I’ve got a more responsible job lined up for you. Would you be my best man?’

I gasped, unable to properly take it in.

‘Fuck. Really?’

Laura

‘Matt …’

My contribution so far seemed to have been telling Matt off.

Matt

Lau was using her nagging permission to the letter of the law, but surely this constituted extenuating circumstances.

‘I know, Lau, I’m trying, but Dec is really not helping matters. Oh mate, I don’t know what to say. Thanks, mate. Of course I will.’

I felt my eyes misting up, mainly with relief, but also pride. Bollocks, I hated blarting in front of everyone. Bloody bastard eyes.

Laura

I saw his eyes brimming with tears. Matt’s emotions were always so close the surface, something he’d never been able to shake, and more particularly when he was with his family and felt safe expressing it.

‘Oh fuck it, look what you’ve made me do now. Where are the tissues?’

‘We’d like Iz to be a bridesmaid, we wondered if she’d hold Charlie’s hand while they walk up the aisle, or whatever we have wherever we have it.’

I looked around to see how Iz reacted to this, but she wasn’t in the room. She must have disappeared before Dec and Amy made their announcement. Cal wasn’t around either, but he was usually in his bedroom, and would only venture out to socialise in extreme circumstances.

‘Oh, Amy, she’d love it. That would be so lovely. We can talk about dresses and everything – oh I’m so excited. We’ll need to meet up for lots of coffee and shopping and planning.’

‘Well, that’s kind of what I was hoping … Lau, I need you to be my fashion advisor. Lots of shopping trips, the boys are going to have to look after the babies.’

I smiled, glad to have been given a task, but not one that required me to do lots of cooking or organising.

‘Right up my street.’

‘I suppose you’re going to want me to get half the beach in my car again lugging everything backwards and forwards?’

Jay tried his hardest to look grumpy, but couldn’t really pull it off.

‘That would be great, Jay, but actually, you’ve got another job too. Amy?’

‘Jay, you and Beth have been like a second family since I met Dec, and now Dad’s gone, I haven’t got anyone to give me away or walk me up the aisle. Would you do it?’

Jay was speechless for a moment. I’d wondered whether he might have been upset not to have been asked to be Dec’s best man, but now understood how this would more than make up for it. It was perfect.

‘Amy … Jesus, I don’t know what to say. What an … I’d be …’

Then the tears welled up in his eyes too. This was more unusual for Jay, who hardly seemed to notice an emotional moment at times, let alone respond to it, but there was the occasional glimpse of the depth of his feelings.

‘Shit, Matty, pass those over. Thank you. Of course I will, Amy. Love to.’

Beth reached over and gave Jay’s hand a squeeze.

‘There’s a lot to sort out, we’ve made a bit of a list –’

‘Really? Summers gets organised. First time for everything I suppose.’

Now Matt knew for sure the news was good, and Dec wasn’t going to be moving away, he became more excitable.

‘– but we’ve probably forgotten loads of things. I know it’s a lot to ask, but anything any of you can do to help, or think about, or interfere with, we’ll take it all.’

Beth jumped to her feet.

‘I’ve still got the number of that marquee company, I’ll go and find it. Hopefully that guy from the Council will remember me as well. Have you told Lis and Nico?’

Dec shook his head.

‘I’ll text Lis. You’d better ring them now, I’m not going to be able to keep this one to myself, and I’ll need Lis to help me.’

Matt thought of something else he could help with.

‘I can do some invitations, if you let me have a guest list.’

‘Oh Matt, that would be completely amazing.’

‘How many are you thinking of inviting, dear?’

Carol was probably calculating the industrial amounts of flour and sugar she was going to have to buy to make a dent in the catering.

‘Well we had a bit of a rough numbers head count, and …’

Matt

More jobs were dished out, Lau got to help Amy choose a dress, and Jay joined me blarting when Amy asked him to give her away. Now I knew they weren’t moving away, I was excited, and volunteered to do invitations on the computer. I was also going to be able to get cracking on a monster stag night. Holy fuck, it was going to have rugby players and everything, it was going to be unforgettable.

Before long the beers came out and the chat became banter as we relaxed and enjoyed ourselves.

Laura

The talk went on, we all got excited about the plans, Beth had loads of ideas, Rose and Carol talked about food, Amy and I talked about dresses, and Matt, Jay and Dec drank beers and got silly. Iz came in from the conservatory, where she had been playing with Charlie. They had been dressing up, and wanted to show us.

‘Oh sweetheart, you look perfect.’

Iz had put on a long dress and Beth’s wedding veil, and was clip-clopping along in high heeled shoes. Charlie had been dressed in a pink tutu and was toddling along holding on to the back of Iz’s long dress.

‘We played weddings.’

‘I brymade.’

‘We can see that, sweetheart, you look beautiful. Did you hear us talking, Iz?’

‘No Mummy.’

Matt

Iz was informed of the impending nuptials, and her part in it as a bridesmaid, and immediately put in her orders for accoutrements, i.e. a pink dress, a handbag, a necklace and a teddy. Amy was a bit taken aback by the long list, but agreed to most of it.

Just as they were talking about pageboys and the advisability or otherwise of asking Cal, the young man himself put his head round the door.

‘Mum, are there any crisps?’

‘Yes, sweetheart, but dinner’s on, so wait until afterwards and you can have some if you’re still hungry. Come and say hello to everyone.’

Cal scowled, but sidled into the room.

‘Hello everyone. Can I go now?’

‘Don’t you want to know what Dec and Amy’s news is?’

Cal sighed. ‘OK.’

Dec looked hurt. Even though Cal was a little grouch, he and Dec still got on together like brothers. Normal brothers, that is, not ones who still communicated using grunts and other caveman noises like Jay and me.

‘Wow, Cal, thanks for sounding so interested.’

Cal had his head down and his voice was barely above a murmur.

‘I suppose you’re joining TomCats.’

Ah, so Cal had been harbouring the same misapprehension as me.

‘What? No! Why the fu … er … on earth do you think that?’

‘You nearly did before.’

‘Oh, mate.’

I saw understanding wash over Dec, and his expression grew soft, as he realised what Cal had been thinking, and how it might have affected him.

‘No. Me and Amy are getting married and having a baby. Actually in that order. Fancy helping us out at the wedding?’

Cal took a few seconds to process the information, various emotions chasing each other across his face. Then, in one of his mercurial changes, his scowl was replaced by a huge smile.

‘So you’re not leaving, then?’

‘No, mate, I’m staying until I beat you at BattleStations.’

‘You’ll be here until you’re, like, ninety, then.’

Oh he was good with the witty comebacks already. I was teaching him well.

‘If that’s what it takes. Although you’ll be pretty ancient by then too, and BattleStations will be like the Space Invaders of our time.’

Laura

Amy had told me that Dec had stayed before in part because Cal was upset at Nico moving to Argentina. Dec and Cal had grown up together in a way; Dec was so attached to his family, I wondered if he’d ever leave, whatever the financial benefits.

Matt

Cal surprised everyone by sitting down on the sofa, immediately starting some play-shoving with Dec. His relief was obvious, and I saw Lau watching me watching him. I raised my eyebrows at her and nodded, acknowledging that we had been feeling the same fear and were now experiencing the same relief.

Laura

Dec called Lis, who was doubly disappointed not to have been able to make it now she knew what the news was, but said she was going to get together with Beth to sort a venue as soon as possible. As well as her friend with the barn we used for our wedding, she knew people who had all sorts of weird and wonderful possible options, although looking at Dec and Amy’s extensive guest list, it was going to need to be something pretty special. I offered my mum’s services, as I knew she’d want to be part of it, especially the cooking with Rose and Carol.

And then we were home, having grabbed a takeaway which was sitting on the table going cold while we put the twins to bed. I heard Matt chatting to Josh as I changed Ella.

Matt

‘So is your old man a bit of a freak monster, then, Josh? I bet your mum will have a few words to say to him later about thinking the worst. What’s that? Your mum always has a few words to say on any subject? Well that’s just scandalous, Joshua James Scott, and I don’t want to hear you bad-mouthing your mother in that way. I’m the only one allowed to do that. But you’re right, it’s good news that your Uncle Dec and Aunty Amy are going to be around for a while longer.’

Lau followed my lead.

‘What’s your Daddy like, Ella? Worries himself silly over nothing.’

Ella gurgled on her back, smiling and kicking her legs.

‘Don’t know what your mum thinks she knows about it, she’s never freaked in her life; Mrs Chilled-knickers always leaves it to me to do the freaking. Don’t let her boss you, Joshy, you have a good freak whenever you want.’

I finished doing up Josh’s nappy with a flick of the wrist, then picked him up, holding him close against me, softly kissing the side of his head.

‘Well, Ella, maybe Mummy would like to remind Daddy that there have been plenty of times when she has freaked and he hasn’t, but they’ve usually been over scary things that are actually happening, like, oh I don’t know, one baby becoming two, or getting married. Not things that aren’t even real. I think, Ella my love, if you want to freak that’s fine, but maybe the advice from Mrs Chilled-knickers is to take a deep breath and find out what’s what before you do. You’ll save yourself a lot of worrying that way.’

I looked at Lau as I cuddled our son.

‘Your mum’s a bit of a wise old bird, Josh. You should listen to her.’

Lau walked over to us and held her face up to me with her lips pursed. I took the hint and kissed her. As I put my free arm round Lau’s shoulder, both babies grabbed her hair, and we were all snuggled together, happy and safe.

The Philpotts Letters – 6

I will always protect you (Muse)

I will always protect you (Muse)

Joshy, Joshy, Joshy. So here I am, your dad, freaking again. How the fuck did that happen, how did we let you out of our sight for long enough for you to break your arm? Yeah we can blame Charlie, or her lackadaisical parents, until the bloody cows come home, but at the end of the day it was me and your mum who were otherwise engaged when we should have been watching you every second.

It’s so bloody easy to get distracted, forget we’re responsible for a tiny person who’s still learning about the world, who’s still learning that you don’t have to do every sodding thing Charlie Summers tells you to do. We should have been there to see it, stop it, and now you’re walking around with a fucking plaster cast on your arm as a constant reminder of how negligent we were. Fuck. I’ve never felt so terrible and guilty in my life before. I mean, you seem OK, you’re running around like nothing happened now, but that scream, when we were in the kitchen and you were in the living room, I never want to hear anything like that again. God, the two of you are so small, and so precious, and so fragile. It could have been your fucking neck, or your skull, or something else awful; I can hardly think about it. I am shying away from imagining all the terrible things that could potentially happen to you, because it will seriously screw me up if I go down that path.

I feel like going back to the baby monitor days, like following you everywhere you go, like making you wear bubble wrap, like putting you on a lead, both of you, for the rest of your lives, so you never get the chance to hurt yourselves again. But I suppose that’s just a different sort of hurt, isn’t it, and I know we have to let you grow up and find things out for yourself. But holy shit, Josh. You’re only three and a half. It’s too young to be learning how much life can hurt. I’m your dad, I want to be able to protect you, stop anything bad happening to you.

I guess what I’m freaking about is knowing how to keep you safe while at the same time letting you take the risks that make life worth living. Maybe it’s part of being a parent, but it’s possibly the hardest part. Right now, while you and Ella are still little, it’s easier, because you can’t argue as much (although I have to say that your sister gives it a good go), but when you’re older and we have less control over what you can do, and you want to do more things that are potentially dangerous, that’s what’s freaking me out. If we can’t even stop you jumping off the couch when Charlie tells you to, how are we going to make you listen to us when we warn you of the perils of, oh I don’t know, not telling us where you’re going, doing drugs, getting shit-faced, unprotected sex, cyber-bullying – oh God, the list goes on and just freaks me out even more.

Your mum always tells me to stop worrying about the future, that I’ll know what to do when I get there, but to be totally honest, Joshy, I don’t know if I will. She will know, I’m quite sure, but what if I fuck it up again, like today? Have another lapse in judgement, or concentration? I never again want to see you all crying like you were in the back of the car on the way to the hospital. It tore at me, in a major way. OK, I know this won’t be the last time you get hurt, and Ella, you’ll probably have your share, but will you please promise me that for the rest of your lives, you’ll be careful? Can you just promise me that? I would ask you to promise never to go out without me, or to do anything that those crazy Summers kids tell you to, without first checking with me or your mother, but I suppose that’s a bit unreasonable. So just that – be careful, for the rest of your lives, OK? Cheers, much appreciated.

Yours in guilt and freakingness,

Dad xxx

111. Do you realize?

In which things are laid to rest, and there is another Christmas.

Matt

And so I started work at Raiders, and I bloody loved it. Officially I did three days a week and match days when Raiders were at home, but I often went in on my days off, just to tinker with things. I didn’t have much to do with Jay, except when the technology was something that involved the players in some way, but although it was weird at first, and I had to stop myself grinning when he was being all ‘settle down and listen to the nice computer man’, we worked out a way of almost pretending we didn’t know each other.

That’s not to say I didn’t love being ‘part of the team’ – I’d watched Raiders with Cal enough times that I truly supported them, and rubbing shoulders with the guys I cheered on from the stands would never grow old. I loved the banter as well. Rugby players are renowned for the stick they give each other, and it wasn’t surprising that I came in for some of it, sometimes at Jay’s expense. I was more than capable of bandying words and insults about, though, and I think Jay was surprised at how well I could a) look after myself and b) not drag him into it.

If seeing Jay at work showed me a different side to him, seeing Dec at work did exactly the opposite. He was the same in any environment – laid back, cheerful, chatting easily with everyone from the tea lady to the managing director, permanent bloody annoying grin on his face. The only time he was different was when he was on the pitch. Then he was all focus, all aggression, all ‘don’t get in my way’.

And the money helped. Not that I became an overnight rich kid, but Raiders paid me more than GreenScreen, and I got some good performance related bonuses, so things were easier, and it meant Lau could stay at home for longer before having to decide when to go back to work herself.

o0o

And then it was Christmas, and Lau and I had been married for nearly a year, and I just didn’t know where the time had gone. The babies were five months old, and seemed to do another mind-blowingly clever thing every day. My top five favourite things about them were:

  1. Making them laugh by pulling silly faces. I could keep all three of us amused for hours by sticking my tongue out and crossing my eyes. Josh particularly nearly peed his pants laughing at me – or maybe literally did, who knows; he peed his pants all the time anyway.

  2. When they lifted their arms to be picked up and cuddled. It melted my heart that they wanted me so much, although they would both do it at the same time, the little tykes, as if they knew I’d be torn as to which one to pick up. Sometimes, before they got too enormous, I could pick both of them up, but luckily Lau was nearly always around to share.

  3. Playing hide and seek. I loved hiding their toys with just a bit poking out from under the sofa, and seeing if they could spot it. They often had to point it out to Lau, who was woefully unobservant.

  4. Chatting with them as they talked their unintelligible baby bollocks. I told them all sorts of shit, based on one or two syllables. Lau was so chuffed when Ella said ‘mama’, even when I explained that it was just random chuntering whereas Josh’s ‘dada’ was clearly a request for me to tell him all about Spurs’ chances in the League that year. And we mooed and baaed and woofed and meowed for all we were worth. Oh, and they had special twin names for each other. The nearest we could get to it was ‘Squeaks’ for Ella, and ‘Hippo’ for Josh, so we adopted them as their own special names.

  5. The best thing, the absolute best thing, was their first Christmas. I know they were too young to know what it was, but Lau and I were like kids ourselves, and went the whole hog. It was at ours, for the first and only time that Beth ever relinquished the festive reins, and it was magical, the stuff dreams were made of.

Dec

TO THE PEOPLE WHO CREATED ME. I WILL NOT CALL YOU PARENTS, BECAUSE YOU NEVER WERE.

THIS LETTER WILL NEVER GET SENT BECAUSE I DON’T EVER WANT TO CONTACT YOU. BUT THINGS HAPPEN AND PEOPLE KEEP ASKING ME ABOUT YOU, AND ALTHOUGH I DON’T OWE ANYONE ELSE AN EXPLANATION, I THINK I NEED TO GET IT CLEAR IN MY OWN HEAD, WHY I DON’T WANT TO FIND YOU. I NEVER HAVE, I NEVER WILL, BUT THE LAST FEW YEARS, NOW MY NAME IS OUT THERE, THERE HAVE BEEN PEOPLE, OFFICIALLY AND UNOFFICIALLY, WHO WANT ME TO BELONG TO THEM. THEY SAY THEY’RE SISTERS, BROTHERS, UNCLES, WHATEVER.

IF THEY’D FOUND ME TEN YEARS OR SO AGO, WHEN I NEEDED SO DESPERATELY TO BELONG, IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN DIFFERENT, BUT NOT BEFORE THAT, NOT WHEN MY MUM AND DAD WERE STILL ALIVE. THEY WERE ENOUGH FOR ME. THEY WANTED ME, THEY CHOSE ME. AND EVEN THOUGH I LOST THEM, I HAVE FOUND THIS AMAZING FAMILY WHO WOULD SUPPORT AND HELP ME IF I WANTED TO FIND YOU, BUT THEY ARE ALSO ENOUGH FOR ME, AND I DON’T NEED YOU.

ALL I KNOW ABOUT YOU ARE SOME BARE FACTS (NAMES, AGES, PLACE ON MY BIRTH CERTIFICATE, A COUPLE OF GENERAL THINGS). I ALWAYS KNEW I WAS ADOPTED, MY MUM USED TO SAY I WAS A LATE CHRISTMAS PRESENT, BECAUSE THEY TOOK ME HOME A FEW DAYS AFTER I WAS BORN, AND IT MADE ME FEEL SPECIAL, WANTED.

I THINK THEY KNEW WHO YOU WERE, BUT I NEVER ASKED ABOUT IT, ALWAYS REFUSED WHEN MUM AND DAD ASKED IF I WANTED TO KNOW, BECAUSE IT WAS ENOUGH THAT THEY WANTED ME WHEN YOU DIDN’T. I KNEW YOU DIDN’T DIE, OR HAVE AN ILLNESS, SO WHAT YOU DID WAS YOU GAVE ME AWAY. TO ME THAT’S UNACCEPTABLE, UNFORGIVEABLE, FOR ANY REASON, EVEN THOUGH IT MEANT I GOT TOM AND LUCY COLLIER AS MY PARENTS FOR 13 YEARS, WHICH JUST ABOUT MAKES UP FOR IT BECAUSE THEY WERE THE BEST PARENTS A KID COULD HAVE HOPED FOR.

ESPECIALLY NOW I’VE GOT MY OWN CHILDREN, I JUST DON’T GET IT, HOW YOU COULD GIVE ONE AWAY WHEN CHILDREN MAKE YOUR LIFE SO MUCH BETTER? I COULD HAVE DONE THAT, I COULD HAVE MADE YOUR LIFE BETTER, BUT YOU DIDN’T WANT ME SO YOUR LOSS.

I’VE BEEN ASKED A LOT IF I WANT TO FIND YOU, HAVE THE REUNION, FILL IN THE GAPS, AND THE ANSWER IS A BIG FAT DEFINITE NO. NO THANKS, COMPLETELY HAPPY WITH MY LIFE WITHOUT YOU, OR KNOWING ANY MORE ABOUT YOU THAN I DO NOW.

THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE CONTACTED ME IN VARIOUS WAYS TO CLAIM ME AS THEIRS WERE THEREFORE ALSO ON A HIDING TO NOTHING, BECAUSE I DIDN’T CARE IF THEY WERE GENUINE OR COMPLETE CON MERCHANTS, STILL DIDN’T WANT TO HEAR ANYTHING THEY HAD TO SAY. EVEN IF YOU REALLY ARE A TRUE RELATIVE, I’M NOT INTERESTED IN KNOWING SOMEONE WHO ONLY LOOKED FOR ME WHEN THEY SAW MY NAME ON TV.

I’D FORGOTTEN THAT MY NAME MIGHT MEAN SOMETHING TO SOMEONE SOMEDAY, AND IF I’D REALISED AT THE TIME, IF I’D THOUGHT ABOUT WHO MIGHT COME CALLING BECAUSE OF MY FUCKING NAME … WELL YOU CAN’T CHANGE THE PAST, CAN YOU. THIS NAME HAS ALREADY CAUSED A LOT OF UPSET IN MY LIFE, BUT I’VE OWNED IT NOW, IT’S MINE, AND IT’S NOT ANYONE ELSE’S PROPERTY, OR A TICKET TO ME.

SO WHAT BOTH MY HEART AND MY HEAD SAY IS THAT I BELONG WITH PEOPLE WHO CHOSE ME, WHEN I NEEDED CHOOSING AND BARELY DESERVED IT. ANYONE ELSE WHO WANTS A PIECE OF ME FOR ANY OTHER REASON CAN GO FUCK THEMSELVES, BECAUSE I CHOSE MY OWN FAMILY, AND THEY CHOSE ME BACK, AND I REALISE HOW LUCKY I AM TO HAVE HAD THAT PRIVILEGE.

THE SMALL PART OF MY PAST THAT WAS YOU IS GONE, IT’S A BLANK, AND I’M AT PEACE WITH THAT, BECAUSE MY PRESENT AND MY FUTURE ARE FULL OF ALL THE LOVE AND FAMILY I’LL EVER NEED. I FEEL NO RESPONSIBILITY OR YEARNING TOWARDS YOU, AND DON’T REGRET NEVER KNOWING YOU. I AM HAPPY WITHOUT YOU.

DECLAN CHARLES SUMMERS

Laura

And then it was nearly Christmas, and everywhere was full of sparkle and glitter, and we’d gone completely bananas with presents for Ella and Josh, and had somehow agreed to have Christmas dinner at our house for everyone.

Beth had managed to persuade us that as Dec and Amy lived just down the road, we could share the day between the two houses, and claimed she needed a year off from her usual mammoth cookathon. In reality, she found it impossible to leave us to it, and kept offering Amy and me recipes and tips, which we tried to offload in the direction of Dec and Matt, but were skilfully batted back our way.

Beth made a Christmas cake, Rose made a Christmas pudding, Mum ordered the meat, and all that was left for Amy and me was the vegetables. Even then, we only had to order them to be delivered, as Carol, Rose and Mum set up camp in our kitchen on Christmas Eve so they could peel and chop and compare saucepan sizes. Matt was a little put out that he wasn’t wanted in his own kitchen, having recently rediscovered a love for fiddling about and creating mouthwatering meals when we weren’t busy, but we distracted him by making him responsible for all things drink related, and on the whole, being taken over for the bulk of the hard work made it easy on us.

Beth commandeered Amy’s kitchen for some last minute mince pies, sausage rolls and other things without which, apparently, Christmas would be unable to occur. Matt got predictably grumpy about the amount of advice and instructions he was expected to follow.

‘Who says we were going to have a traditional family bloody Christmas anyway? Maybe we wanted to, I don’t know, do it Belgian style or something, just us, instead of invasion of the bloody hordes.’

‘What exactly is a Belgian Christmas like, then?’

‘Oh I don’t know, do I, but it’s like we didn’t get much of a say.’

‘Shall I call Beth and tell her we’re not doing it then? That we’re going to have a Belgian Christmas, just the four of us, and eat waffles and chocolate all day?’

‘Oh ha ha. You know what I mean, though.’

‘I know what you mean, but I don’t think you really mean what you mean.’

‘What?’

‘All this complaining is just lip service, because people expect you to moan about being told what to do. Inside, you’re secretly as chuffed as me that everyone’s coming here. It’s going to be mad, and you’re going to love it.’

There was a brief silence, in which Laura Scott triumphed again.

‘Yeah, very insightful. Think you bloody know me.’

‘I do.’

‘Yeah, well, OK, I’ll give you that. But I’m doing my bloody celeriac and parsnip mash, whether it’s traditional or not.’

‘I’m sure it’s traditional somewhere in the world.’

‘They’re not banning me from my own kitchen, who knows what kind of mess they’ll make.’

‘I’m sure they’ll clear up after themselves. Why don’t we just enjoy them doing it all?’

‘Oh I suppose so. We’ll be tripping over each other as it is. I’ve had another idea about how to sit everyone in the dining room …’

And so plans were made and unmade and rearranged and interfered with by Beth, and eventually Christmas Day came. We both woke up early, not because Josh and Ella were awake, but because we felt like kids ourselves. We’d given the babies stockings, and filled them at midnight, putting presents under the tree for them, as if they were going to know what was going on. As Matt turned to me and stretched sleepily, I put my arms round him and nestled into his embrace.

‘Hey Lau. Happy Christmas.’

‘Happy Christmas. It’s early.’

‘I know, I feel like I’m seven again. I just can’t wait for it all to kick off.’

‘I think I can wait for nineteen people to descend on our dining room and the baby carnage that will follow.’

‘It’ll be great. I can spend all day winding everyone up, just watch.’

‘Is that your special present? Annoying everyone?’

‘Yeah. Just what I always wanted. Talking of special presents …’

Matt turned over and reached into the drawer of his bedside table. He turned back with a small parcel.

‘I know we said not to bother with each other, but I saw this, and so here you are.’

‘Oh Matt … I just haven’t had time …’

‘I know.’

He smiled and stroked my cheek.

‘I don’t want anything. You, Ella and Josh are all I’ll ever want.’

I felt tears prickling my eyes as I looked up at him.

‘Well open it, then, before they wake up and scream the place down, and I revise my previous statement to ‘a bit of bloody peace and quiet is all I’ll ever want’.’

I tore the paper off the parcel. It was a small velvet ring box; I opened the lid. Inside was a gold ring, in the shape of two hands clasping each other.

‘Remember when we first met, we said ‘holding hands wherever we are’?’

I nodded.

‘It just reminded me. We don’t say it any more, I guess we don’t need to, seeing each other every day. But I still feel it. When I’m at work, you’re there, when I’m at Raiders with Cal, you’re there. And I never got you a ring when we got married. I just liked it, and it felt just right.’

‘It is just right, it’s perfect, I love it, thank you.’

I took it out of the box and put it on my finger. It fitted the ring finger on my right hand.

‘How did you know my size?’

‘Ha ha, I didn’t. There was only one, and I had to have a good long look, trying to imagine your hands, before I decided sod it, if it doesn’t fit I’ll just get it altered. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve looked at your hands since, trying to work out if any of your bloody fingers were the right size.’

‘Well it’s a perfect fit.’

I reached up and pulled his face down for a kiss.

‘Sorry I haven’t had time to go to the shops for you.’

‘It’s OK, Lau. Kisses and bum fondles are an acceptable substitute.’

‘Mm. Sure. But I did have time to use the computer.’

‘What?’

I reached over to the drawer on my bedside table and took out an envelope. I’d stuck a bow on the corner in an attempt to make it look more festive.

‘Happy Christmas.’

Matt took the envelope and looked at me with an eyebrow raised.

‘You bloody tease, Lau. I thought I was the online shopper, and I actually went out to a real shop and everything, and you hit the laptop. Nice reversal.’

‘Open it, then.’

He tore the envelope open and took out the contents.

‘Holy fuck, Lau, how the bloody hell did you get hold of these? It’s been sold out for months.’

He looked at the match tickets for Tottenham versus Manchester United with a look of love I recognised as reserved solely for Spurs.

‘I admit I had some help from, er, sources closer to sport than I am.’

‘Who? Did Jay get them?’

‘I’m not divulging my contacts.’

In fact, it was Dec who had helped me, through the Raiders media people and a complicated chain of emails and texts. Covering my tracks on the computer had been tricky.

‘But it’s … I can’t go away and leave you for a whole Saturday.’

‘Oh of course you can you dafty. There are plenty of people here to help out if I need it. There are two tickets, you can take someone else – I wondered about Andrew? Although please don’t ask me.’

‘Whoa, Lau, you’ve blown my mind. You are awesome, so, so awesome.’

And with that he pulled me into his arms and covered my face with kisses. As I kissed him back, I remembered last Christmas, when I was already pregnant but didn’t know, and how different it had been. We’d been in the flat, we’d spent the morning making love and having a lazy breakfast before getting dressed and heading over to Jay and Beth’s for dinner with the family.

It had been a wonderful day, and none of us had had any idea of the mad year we were about to have. Matt had still been affected by the MS flare up to some extent, I was still working and he was just about to go back to work. If I’d thought about the year ahead at all, I would have assumed that Matt and I would carry on as we were, getting to know each other better, settling down, thinking about what the future might hold. Instead, the future had hit us with both barrels and we’d had to do a lot of adjusting in a short space of time. This Christmas was going to be about as different from the one I would have predicted at this time last year as it was possible to be.

As Matt’s kisses became more passionate, and his hands roamed over my body in the same way that mine were roaming over his, we pushed our bodies urgently against each other, aware that Ella and Josh could wake at any time.

Iz

Quick PG rating folks. Honestly, Lau, I expected better from you.

Laura

Sex had become quick and with one ear on the baby monitor, rather than the leisurely activity it had been before the babies, but it was no less exciting for the need for speed. The snatched moments and interruptions had a hint of the forbidden about them, and I treasured them more for that.

I felt Matt reach over to his drawer for a condom, and pause briefly to put it on, then pull at my t-shirt, and I quickly raised my arms so he could pull it over my head. As he lowered his head to my breasts and sucked my nipple into his mouth, his fingers were already travelling downwards, caressing me in readiness. I clasped his bum and squeezed, pulling his hips towards mine and he moaned, rolling me onto my back and pushing my legs apart with a knee. As he entered me, I wrapped my legs round his back and pulled him in further, feeling the length of him inside me as he thrust deep and fast. We kissed again, lips and tongues telling the tale of our need for each other as I matched Matt’s thrusts with the rhythm of my hips against his. His fingers stayed on me, stroking and teasing as he pushed into me, and I felt my climax building. Quieter than we used to be, not wanting to wake the two sleeping children, we murmured our half-words and stifled our cries, but the feeling was the same as we exploded into each other, leaving the world for a moment and coming back together in each other’s arms, looking into each other’s eyes with the same awe as the first time.

‘Whoa, Lau, we made it all the way through. Just whoa. I’d trade my Tottenham tickets for that any day.’

‘Are you saying I needn’t have jumped through all those hoops, I could have just flipped the switch on the speaker and shagged you senseless?’

‘Oh yeah. Best Christmas present ever.’

‘Oh. Well maybe I’ll just take these tickets –’

I reached over to the bedside table for the envelope.

‘– and give them to someone more appreciative.’

Matt grabbed my hand and took the envelope out of my fingers.

‘Don’t you bloody dare, woman. These are going to be put somewhere very safe until the day of the match.’

He bent down and kissed me again, wrapping me up in his arms.

‘Oh Lau, I could so do that again. I don’t suppose …’

‘We can always start …’

‘Really?’

‘The longer you hang about, the less likely it is –’

A snuffly cry forced its way out of the small speaker of the baby monitor and Matt dropped his head with a resigned sigh. He looked up again moments later, with a smile on his face.

‘Shouldn’t be greedy, I guess. OK, let’s get up, sort them out, get this crazy Christmas Day started. Hey, do you reckon Dec’ll be up yet?’

‘I doubt it.’

‘Then I think a Christmas text is required. Why should he get a lie-in?’

‘Spread the Christmas cheer?’

‘Exactly. Be with you in a minute.’

So the day was started, early as so many of our days were now, but with love and family at the heart, as it should be. It wasn’t long before the doorbell went, and Mum, Carol and Rose bustled into the kitchen, ready to carry on where they had left off the day before. They’d brought presents, which we stowed under the tree until everyone had had breakfast and was ready for the paper-ripping fest.

Jay and Beth weren’t going to be arriving until later, and Dec and Amy would come along when they had their morning routine under control. Rose reported that nobody four doors down was yet dressed or fed, and to expect them in a couple of hours.

‘I don’t know, love,’ she said to me with a sigh, ‘I used to think Amy was going to get Declan out of his lazy ways, but I think he’s pulled her down to his level. I suppose it’s not easy, two babies to get ready and a man who finds it physically impossible to get out of bed before ten when he’s not working, but if it was me, I’d be having words.’

‘Rose, I don’t think there are enough words. Speaking from experience.’

‘Hey! You’re not comparing me to the slovenly Summers I hope? I get up bloody early all the time.’

‘Well, not all the time, flower, but OK, maybe you are a bit better than Dec.’

Thank you. That’s all I ask for, is to be a bit better than Dec.’

Our Christmas tree was in the living room, in the corner, next to the sofa. It was a real tree; Matt had gone and chosen it a couple of weeks ago, bringing it proudly home on the roof rack of his car, looking chuffed with himself.

‘I’ve always wanted to do that. Never bothered in the flat, the thought of hauling a tree up all those bloody stairs was just too much.’

We hadn’t had much in the way of decorations last year – just cards on strings, some tasteful green leafy arrangements and some of Matt’s arty things. This year, I’d taken my glitz out of storage and we’d gone full on with colour and sparkle. I knew it wasn’t exactly to Matt’s taste, but I persuaded him that Ella and Josh would love the stimulation, and it would be less effort than something creative. There were going to be so many children here later that I wanted everyone to feel comfortable, not like they were going to get told off if they broke something or knocked something out of alignment.

‘So your girly fairy lights are getting an airing then?’

‘Yeah. My way this year. You don’t want your glass candlesticks broken, or fingerprints on your classy festive silk screen prints, do you?’

‘No, I suppose not. I’ll put them away for fifty years or so.’

‘Quite right.’

The mums and Rose had a break from the kitchen when Matt and I had seen to Ella and Josh, and we all went into the living room for some presents. Matt and I had spent ages choosing things that the babies would find stimulating and would encourage their development. I’d recently managed to wean them, finding breastfeeding two just too exhausting, and so a funky new bowl and spoon each with matching bib were top of the pile. We’d also bought new mobiles to go over their cots, that sparkled and made noises; Josh’s had aeroplanes and Ella’s had stars. They’d both recently started picking things up and dropping them, so we’d got them loads of different sized balls, some with bells and rattly things in them, some soft and furry, some with bobbles on. They both had teeth, two tiny ones at the bottom, so toothbrushes were also in there. It had been such fun wrapping things up, and was as much fun opening it all again, with the mums and Rose going all ‘aww’ at the tinyness of everything. They had brought lovely presents for them – clothes and toys, things that they would have grown out of in a few months, if not before, but I loved the impracticality of it all.

We’d asked everyone not to buy us presents – previous Christmases had shown us both that the older we got, the more difficult we were to buy for, and we would be happier if people got things for Ella and Josh. Mum and Carol had found it impossible to agree to this, though, and had teamed up to buy me a pamper day at a local spa, and Matt a new work bag to replace his old satchel, which was almost falling to pieces, much as he loved it. Normally, he wouldn’t have liked people choosing something so personal for him, but between them, they’d managed to find something that ticked all the boxes, something he would have chosen himself, and I thought to myself how well Carol knew her son.

Dec and Amy arrived late morning, Charlie running in looking for Matt, arms held high, wanting to be picked up, Amy’s mum Diane bringing up the rear.

‘Hey beautiful, Merry Christmas.’

Charlie squealed and wriggled in Matt’s arms.

‘Did Santa bring you anything cool?’

‘Santa Daddy Gigi.’

‘Right. OK. Er …’

Matt looked at Amy and Dec for help.

‘You got me, mate, she’s so excited this morning, we’ve had a shit-load of presents and stuff, I think it’s all just spilling out.’

‘OK then, beautiful, Santa Daddy Gigi it is. Where is Gigi?’

Charlie’s toy giraffe was never far from her side, although he was a bit the worse for wear these days.

‘Gigi.’

Charlie held the giraffe up to Matt for inspection.

‘Gigi moo.’

‘OK. Fair enough. Hey, Charlie, want to see if there’s a present under the tree for you?’

‘Prent.’

‘Yeah.’

Matt took Charlie into the living room and we all followed, Amy putting Tom on the floor and holding his hands while he toddled along. I smiled at the sight, and imagined Josh and Ella doing the same in a few months.

‘He’s so nearly walking on his own, Amy.’

‘I know. Then, watch out world. He crawls so fast, I can’t keep up with him. I hope your tree is well secured, he nearly had ours over again this morning.’

‘Hey, Tom, come and see what Santa left for you under our tree.’

Amy handed over control to me, and Tom and I waddled into the living room, where Matt and Charlie were searching under the tree for Charlie’s present.

‘Ooh, look, Charlie, this one’s got Tom’s name on it. Gona take it over to him, beautiful?’

‘Tom.’

‘Yeah, go and give it to him.’

Charlie dashed over to Tom with the box, thrust it at him and raced back to Matt, not wanting to lose a second of the excitement. The box ended up on the floor, Tom looking a bit bewildered.

‘Here, Tom, let’s have a look – oh, maybe Rose could help you open it, I think I need to go and get Ella and Josh. They won’t want to miss out on all this.’

I ran up the stairs, into the babies’ room and found Mum and Carol sitting on the sofa, a baby each.

‘Oh, this is where you got to. Aren’t there potatoes to be roasted or something?’

‘I think everything’s under control for now, dear. Your mother and I thought we’d grab a little bit of a quiet cuddle with these two, it might be our last chance for some peace today.’

‘Ha ha, you’re right, Carol. Madness is about to descend downstairs, I didn’t want them to miss any of it.’

‘Did I hear Dec and Amy arrive, Laura?’

‘Yeah, Mum. Matt’s finding presents with Charlie, excitement is reaching fever pitch. Here, Carol, let me take Josh. Are you OK bringing Ella down, Mum?’

The five of us trooped down the stairs, and I reinstalled Josh in Carol’s arms on the sofa just as the doorbell rang.

‘Merry Christmas, Laura.’

‘Hi Beth. Merry Christmas. Hi Cal, oh, hey Iz. Who have you got there?’

‘Dora.’

‘She’s great, flower. Did Santa bring her?’

‘No, Mummy made her. Santa’s not real.’

‘Oh, really?’

I looked at Beth, wondering how to respond to this.

‘Oh Iz, sweetheart, don’t forget what we said, don’t spoil Santa for the babies. It’s a lovely magical story for Christmas.’

She looked at me apologetically.

‘She’s so practical. She asked me outright if Santa was real, and I couldn’t lie, but we’ve decided it’s OK to still believe if you’re little. Although obviously Iz is a big girl now.’

‘Yeah, so big she still has a stocking.’

Cal was in full grumpy mode. He was in that unenviable slot in the family where he was the oldest child by some way, but at twelve not yet old enough to be part of the adult world. He compensated by teasing Iz endlessly.

‘Hey, mate, don’t be mean to your sister. You’d have had a stocking too if you hadn’t chosen to have your new bike.’

‘Stockings are for kids.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, Cal, tell that to Rose.’

‘Rose did not have a stocking.’

‘Yeah she did, she has one every year, hangs it up at Dec and Amy’s and Santa fills it up. As if by magic.’

‘Rose …’

Cal went in search of verification and Iz followed him, leaving me with Beth and Jay in the hall, me taking coats and bags.

‘This is so lovely, Laura. I can’t remember a year since we got married that Christmas wasn’t at our house. Oh, except for that year when we were in Stafford, which I suppose was still our house, but not.’

‘It’s about time you had a year off, then. Not that you have, really, with all the help you’ve given us.’

‘Is there anything else needs doing?’

‘No, I don’t think so. Mum, Carol and Rose were here at the crack of dawn and have declared everything under control. Now I’m just waiting for the signal, so Matt can whip his seating plan out and then get grumpy when no one goes where they’re supposed to.’

‘Ha ha, the little brother likes a good visual planner. Must make a note to not sit where I’m told.’

Beth cuffed Jay on the arm.

‘Maybe it would be nice if, for once, you two didn’t spend all day winding each other up.’

‘Oh lighten up, Beth, we don’t mean it, it keeps us entertained. Stops us turning to drink. Talking of which, Laura …’

‘You know where the fridge is, Jay, plenty of cold beer stacked in there. You could bring a few in, I expect Dec and Matt wouldn’t say no.’

‘Young Declan had better be watching the beers, he’s got training tomorrow.’

‘So have you, Jay.’

‘Yeah, but I’m no longer a prime sporting specimen needing to be on top of my game, I’m a coach who can afford to put on a few ounces here and there.’

‘Hmm. Maybe a bit more than a few ounces, sweetheart.’

The final visitors to arrive were Nico and Lis, with Bastien, now eighteen months.

‘Hello Laura, you look very beautiful today. Feliz Navidad.’

‘Thanks, Nico. Oh, thank you.’

He handed me a bottle of wine, as Lis hugged me around her bundle of Bastien.

‘Oh this is so exciting, Lau. It sounds like everything’s going with a swing already. Are we last?’

‘Only just. Jay and Beth got here a few minutes ago.’

‘Well it wouldn’t be the same if the Tiagos weren’t late, yeah?’

‘Not late, flower, someone has to be last.’

‘Hey, I like this, I think is Nico’s new words. What you think, Jaime? Laura, she say someone must be last.’

‘Yeah, Nico, she said someone, not always bloody you. Variety is the spice of life, mix it up mate and arrive, ooh be daring, second to last for a change.’

And so Christmas Day carried on. We laughed, we ate, we drank, we played games, we cuddled children, we mopped up tears, we teased each other, we cleared up, and we all trooped down the road to Dec and Amy’s for tea that nobody really wanted but just for the change of scene.

I looked at Matt often, and I didn’t see him without a smile on his face and a child in his arms. If I hadn’t realised before, it cemented in my mind how much he loved his family, and how much they loved him. For a brief second a tiny chill ran through me at the thought that he had almost given it all up because of his fight with Jay, but then I looked around me at all the people who meant so much to me, and felt warm inside.

It was later, and we were still at Amy and Dec’s. Carol and Mum had gone back to our house with Ella and Josh, to put them to bed, pleading a need for peace and quiet but transparently wanting time on their own with the babies. Nico and Lis had gone home to put an overtired and screaming Bastien to bed. The rest of us were in various stages of tiredness; Iz was asleep on Jay, whose eyes were drooping; Beth was yawning and I thought it wouldn’t be long before she tried to prise Cal away from Dec’s PlayStation to go home; Matt was sound asleep, head back, mouth open, and Rose was holding a sleeping Charlie to her like she was never going to let go. Diane, Amy’s mum, looked tired, but was sitting up with Tom on her knee as if determined to stay awake for every minute of Charlie and Tom’s Christmas. I wasn’t tired, or no more tired than normal, and had started to stack some plates to take out into the kitchen, where Amy was making coffee. I picked the pile of crockery up and walked into the kitchen.

‘Oh, thanks, Lau. I think I got away pretty lightly, your place was carnage when we left.’

We started to stack the dishwasher.

‘Yeah, it was, but I suspect the mums will have sorted it by the time we get home. It’s half the reason they went back, I’m sure, neither of them can bear a mess. It will have been niggling them all afternoon.’

‘Good job I’m not like that, I’d be completely more than niggled all the time at the moment.’

‘Yeah, me too. It’s been a great day, hasn’t it.’

‘Oh completely. I so love it when everyone gets together. I never had Christmases like this when I was younger, it was just me, Mum and Dad. Sometimes Aunty Tina. Pretty quiet.’

‘Same for me. Just me and my parents, not even an aunty or uncle to relieve the silence.’

‘Oh, I never thought about it before, we’re both only children. It’s weird, isn’t it, nobody gets it, how full-on this family is if you spent your childhood on your own, with mostly adults to talk to.’

‘Isn’t Dec an only child?’

‘Yeah, but his family stuff is complicated. I don’t think he finds all this overwhelming at all, he throws himself into it, loves it all. I mean, I do too, now, but there have been times I’ve wished it was a bit less in your face.’

‘I can’t believe I just had nineteen people to dinner in my house. I’ve never entertained that many people in my life – I’ve been to parties where there were less. Not very good parties, but still …’

‘Oh it was completely amazing, Lau. We’ll have to do it again. Maybe in several years, when Beth pretends to be bored of doing it at theirs again.’

‘Do you think she was pretending?’

‘Yeah, course. She was giving the newbies a chance, but she couldn’t keep her hands off it. She was in my kitchen all week ‘just making a few mince pies’ or ‘just wondering if you or Laura had thought about gravy’. She’s hopeless.’

‘You’re right, she was round loads. I was so grateful for the help, I didn’t really think about it. I have to admit it’s easier at Beth and Jay’s, they’ve got so much more space. And Beth does most of the work.’

‘And it’s like a home from home, I love their house, we’ve spent so much time there over the years.’

‘How long have you known them?’

‘Jay and Beth? Well, I didn’t get to know them properly until I started going out with Dec, which was, oh, I was eighteen, so six years ago. I knew them a bit before, partly because I used to go out with David, who was another Raiders player, but Dec and me were friends before we got together, and there was a load of us who’d hang out at Jay and Beth’s sometimes. But once you’re part of the family, there’s no escape.’

‘Ha ha, you’re right there, once a Scott, always a Scott, even if your name’s not Scott.’

‘Yeah, there’s a whole bunch of us now, Tiagos, Summerses, but we’re all lumped in the Scotts, aren’t we? Oh Lau, I meant to say, well ask really, has Matt got Raiders privileges to the gym? You know, the one really close to the stadium?’

‘I don’t know, he hasn’t mentioned it, but gyms aren’t really his thing. He’s all ‘why bother walking on a treadmill where all you can see is sweaty blokes, when you can walk up a hill and see the world’. I don’t know what his problem is with sweaty blokes, especially the ones who go to the gym.’

‘Ha ha, you’re right there. Well check about the gym, because I’m a member with Dec’s club membership, and I wondered if you wanted to start going to any of the classes? I went a couple of times before Charlie, but I gave up after. They’ve got a really good café bar, a sauna, spa pool, swimming pool, or we could go just for a coffee and a lounge around and tell everyone we’ve been working out.’

‘Ha ha, sounds great. I could really do with trying to get rid of some of my belly. Have they got a crèche?’

‘No, but I reckon we could have another go at Dec and Matt’s fun-filled afternoons. Which days is Matt at Raiders?’

Although they had started with good intentions, the weekly afternoons that Matt and Dec had promised to devote to childcare had soon dwindled to occasional, then diminished to non-existent, particularly when Matt started his new job.

‘Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturday or Sunday if there’s a home game. And Tuesdays and Wednesdays if they ‘need’ him, or rather, if he fancies going in and tinkering with something, which he usually does.’

‘Oh. So not much free time, then.’

‘No, but I think you’re right. Tuesday or Wednesday afternoons should be our time – I guess we could always ask Mum, or Carol, or Rose, or all three of them, if Dec and Matt wimp out.’

‘Actually, I think it was usually down to Rose, Carol and April before, from something Dec let slip.’

‘Right, well that settles it, then. I’ll join you in getting in shape while we sip lattes and relax in the spa pool. I can feel the pounds being shed already.’

‘Well, I think we’re finished in here, Lau. Let’s see who’s still awake. I bet Jay will be snoring, now Iz has gone to sleep on him, Dec – oh, he was playing some battle thing with Cal, he’ll still be awake, Beth will have nodded off while she’s waiting to go, Mum will have dozed while she’s cuddling Tom, Rose will still be awake, she never wants to miss a second of having Charlie on her knee. Who else, oh, Matt, well he was gone before I got up. So not much point having made the coffee, but maybe if we clink the cups loudly enough we can wake them up.’

We carried the coffee and a plate of mince pies into the living room. Amy was almost spot on with her predictions, apart from Jay, who was asleep, but minus Iz, and Matt, who looked like he had just woken up, and was stretching and looking around blearily.

‘Oh, great, more food, like my intestines aren’t about to explode.’

‘No one’s force-feeding you, Matt.’

‘Never said I wasn’t going to eat another mince pie, isn’t that what Christmas is all about? I mean, yeah, blah blah, family, love, Away in a Manger sung by a small child, all that bollocks. But mainly eating and drinking more in one day than you would otherwise cram down in a bloody week, and having to start bloody jogging or some such shit to feel less guilty.’

‘Funny you should mention jogging, Matt.’

‘What? Amy, you so are not going to start jogging.’

‘No, but Lau and I were just saying, whatever happened to our child-free afternoons? We’d like to go to the gym – you and Dec need to face up to your parental responsibilities a bit more. And you need to check if you get gym membership with your salary.’

‘Oh, I do. Did I not mention that, Lau?’

‘No, I don’t think you did.’

‘Oh, well, I didn’t really think about it. Rather go for a good hike than get all hot and sweaty indoors.’

I looked at Amy out of the corner of my eye, and saw her smirk at Matt’s predictable response.

‘But if you want to, great. Hey, hang on a minute, some of the players go there, isn’t there a coffee lounge or something?’

‘Er, not sure.’

‘There is – oh, I get it, you two are planning on sitting there with your mochaccinos checking out all the muscle-bound gym guys, then coming back and telling me how hard you’ve worked out.’

‘That’s an outrageous thing to say.’

‘It doesn’t stop it being true. Well, I will expect weekly fitness reports, and if you leave me for a bloody teen with a six-pack I will be mightily annoyed. I might even stop your membership.’

‘Don’t worry, a pumped up teenager sounds more trouble than he’s worth. I think I’ll stick with my slightly skinny, unfit thirty-something.’

‘Hey, who are you calling unfit? I ran up the stairs the other day.’

‘Hm, and it took you ten minutes to get your breath back.’

‘Ha ha, true, shut up and give me a mince pie.’

‘Mmph, wha?’

Jay woke up with a start and an intake of breath.

‘Mince pies?’

Jay’s voice seemed to rouse Beth, who opened her eyes and yawned.

‘Oh, I must have dropped off. It’s getting late, James.’

‘Yeah, we should go. Training tomorrow.’

Beth smiled, a little sadly.

‘I thought when you stopped playing we might have some normal Christmases, complete with Boxing Day, but there’s no chance, really, is there?’

‘At least I can eat what I want. The coach is supposed to have a bit of a pot belly.’

‘Written in your contract, is it?’

‘Yes, Matty, that’s the only reason for my expanding waistline – so I don’t make the players look bad. Where are Cal and Iz?’

‘Cal’s playing something violent with Dec – oh, I bet Iz is watching. Go and get them James, she shouldn’t be watching that.’

‘Why do I have to go and get them? You know Cal will moan at me.’

‘Go on, take your pot belly and get your son.’

Jay left the room, grumbling, as Beth stood up too, looking around her for all the things they had brought with them.

After Jay, Beth, Cal and Iz had gone, Amy prised her children from the arms of their snoozy grannies and put them to bed. Rose and Diane decided to make a move too, now deprived of their cuddling partners, and it was just Amy, Dec, Matt and me. Mum and Carol were staying the night at our house, so we didn’t have to hurry back, but Dec was training the next day, so we had one eye on the clock.

‘Don’t you ever get fed up with having to watch what you eat and being away from everyone over Christmas?’ I asked Dec.

‘Yeah, it’s a pain, especially now we’ve got Charlie and Tom, but I guess it won’t be forever. It’ll be weird when I stop playing and I can do Christmas properly. But I’m luckier than some people, my family are all here, I can see them on Christmas day. Most of the players’ families live in other parts of the country, and some in other countries – Nico hasn’t been home for Christmas for ages. Oh, except I think he snuck one in when he went back to Argentina for that one season.’

‘Well I, for one, will be enjoying the fact that the day after our highly bloody entertaining but unbelievably knackering Christmas day, full of festive fare and delightful drink, I can stumble home and go to bed to sleep like the dead until a reasonable hour tomorrow, when I don’t have to be out in the cold and dark, running about like a mad man.’

‘Unless Ella and Josh have other ideas, of course.’

‘Yeah, well, bloody kids can keep their opinions to themselves. That’s why the mums are staying over, isn’t it?’

‘Not so we can laze around while they get run ragged.’

‘Oh? Well no one ever tells me bloody anything. I must have missed the memo. Damn.’

‘Sorry, guys, I really need to go to bed. Like Matt said, early start. Think of me driving to the ground in the dark, icicles hanging off my fucking nose, shivering, lonely, I might even be crying a little bit …’

‘Piss off, you love it. You’re playing bloody TomCats on Saturday, you love that one.’

‘Yeah, I’ve been meaning to ask, can you fiddle with my GPS so it looks like I’ve run further than I have? I could do with taking it a bit easy at the weekend.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, the day you take it easy on a bloody rugby pitch, young Summers, is the day the rugby world as we know it collapses in on itself in an implosion of the improbable.’

‘I wish I knew what the fuck you were on about sometimes. So that’s a no then.’

‘Yes, it’s a no. Go to bed and get your beauty sleep, you need it more than most.’

‘Piss off to you too. Merry Christmas, guys, had a fucking amazing day.’

‘Night Dec.’

Amy stood up as Dec disappeared up the stairs, and it was time for us to go.

As we walked back to our house, Matt put his arm round me and pulled me close against him. We altered our steps so we were in sync, and slowed down as we approached our house. Matt stopped, and pulled me towards him, folding me up in his arms. Our breath streamed out into the cold night air, and we looked at each other. Matt bent down and kissed me, soft, warm lips pulling against mine, tongue flickering into my mouth.

I pressed myself up against him, winding my hands round his neck and into his hair. For a few minutes it felt like when we first met, a bit wild, a bit abandoned. Then reality crept back in. We pulled away, laughing.

‘You’re bloody sexy, Lau. I must be getting old, or I’d be bloody ravishing you against the wall, freezing my balls off or no freezing my balls off.’

‘If you think I’m taking my tights down out here, you’ve got another think coming.’

‘Ha ha, OK, inside with you then, you harlot, I’ll just have to take you on the dining table, under the noses of our mums.’

‘We managed it once today, think yourself lucky.’

‘All that did was give me an appetite.’

‘Yeah, like that ever goes away.’

‘True. Come on then, let’s get warm.’

He put his arm round my shoulder and we went into the house.

After a quick check on the babies and the mums, all of who were asleep – Josh and Ella in their room, with Grandma April on a camp bed beside them and Granny Carol in the spare room – we went to bed ourselves. Maybe it was that last coffee at Dec and Amy’s, but my mind was buzzing and I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned a few times, until

‘You too, Lau?’

The bedside light went on. Matt was lying on his side looking at me.

‘Yeah, can’t sleep.’

‘It’s been a full-on day. Our first family Christmas.’

‘I’ve loved it.’

‘Yeah, me too. When I was all … before I met you, when I’d fucked things up with Jules, this was one of the things, I kept wondering, was it really worth it, making us both so bloody miserable, and then I’d think about it, and I’d imagine what it would be like, you know, having a family, and the first Christmas was one of the things that made me think ‘yeah, it bloody was worth it’. I was right. I’m a happy man. You make me happy, Lau, we’ve got our babies, and we’ve got each other.’

‘You are a sentimental old fool.’

‘But you love me.’

‘But I love you.’

‘I hope you don’t bloody tell Beth and Amy and everyone the slushy shit I spout when I’ve had a few too many beers.’

‘Your secret’s safe with me. Everyone believes you’re an emotionless robot with a heart of stone.’

‘Good, wouldn’t want it any other way.’

‘I’m glad though.’

‘What, that I’m an emotionless robot? Although being a robot would be cool.’

‘No, that you’re happy.’

‘Oh. I could be a happy robot. That would still be pretty cool.’

‘Daft man.’

‘What? Not a daft sod?’

‘I’m trying to watch my language.’

‘Quite right. There are children in this house and everything. Can’t have them learning fucking swear words before they can bloody well talk, and all that bollocks.’

‘Beth told me –’

‘Beth can keep her bloody opinions to herself, not that she ever does. The more she bangs on, the worse it makes me.’

‘I know. But sometimes she talks sense and isn’t just banging on.’

Matt sighed. ‘Yeah, yeah. You know I’m trying, it just comes out. Bloody hell, I sound like Summers, that’s his bloody excuse to Amy ‘sorry babe, it just came out’. OK, that’s it, I’m not going be like Dec. New Year’s resolution. No more ‘fuck’ing. Oh, shit, no, lots more fucking, Lau, ha ha. But no more saying it.’

‘No more at all? Even when the babies aren’t around?’

‘If I can possibly help it. Nag me. Feel free. I might not even get shirty. But I can have up until midnight on the thirty-first.’

‘I can nag you?’

‘About swearing.’

‘Cool.’

Eventually we fell asleep, wrapped up in each other, smiles on our faces, happy.