62. Beautiful surprise

In which Matt’s mind is blown, Dec is featured in a magazine and a surprise gift is not a spider.

Advertisements

Julia

I had been asleep for a while when my phone bleeped with a text. It was Matt’s tone, and I was instantly awake, reaching for the phone on the bedside table. I glanced at the time; it was after two. It was a while since Matt had texted me at odd hours of the night, having presumably not seen the need to mess about quite so much now he had more ready access to me and could do it face to face.

‘Hi Jules. Sorry for being an arse. And sorry for being an arse by waking you up to apologise for being an arse. M x’

‘Both apologies accepted. Are you alright?’

‘Wasn’t. Bit better now. 2 complicated 2 txt. Feel like a FaceTime? Haven’t had one 4 ages.’

‘OK.’

I waited for my phone to announce Matt’s FaceTime request, pressed the button as it did so, and Matt’s face appeared.

‘Hey you.’

‘Hello.’

‘I forgot how gorgeous you look when you’re all tousled in my phone.’

‘More gorgeous than tousled right next to you?’

‘Differently gorgeous. I’m sorry.’

‘No need.’

‘Yes need. I was bloody rude to you earlier. I just forgot you were going to be there when I got home. It’s been a bit of a day to be honest, and I thought I was going to be on my own. You probably got that.’

‘There was a bit of a vibe, I have to admit.’

‘Yeah, well, I’m an ignorant bastard. Sorry.’

‘Alright, no more apologising. Do you want to tell me about it?’

‘Well … I guess I don’t really, but I’ve just got off the phone with Dec, and fuck, that boy talks a lot of sense for a bloody teenager –’

‘He’s a teenager?’

‘No! Silly lady. I was alluding to the fact that he’s loads younger than me. Thank you for making me point that out.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Anyway, with the wisdom of the young, he suggested that maybe I should talk things over with you when I’m bothered, instead of keeping them to myself. Or rather that you might be one of the people I could talk to. So if you’re up for it, I’d like to unburden. Otherwise I can try Jay, but he’s a lot less hot in an old tshit than you.’

‘What’s bothering you?’

‘Dec had a major … I don’t know what you’d call it. Breakdown? On the beach, after all the serious stuff. He’d done his speech and everyone had done theirs, and we were just watching his letter in a bottle go floating out to sea, and I had to go and light the blue touch paper by pointing something out to him that just … shit, Jules, he just fucking lost it. Fell over like he’d been shot, crying, shouting, chucking sand all over the place, screaming, trying to pull his hair out, it went on and on, as if there was something, some kind of grief or whatever, just pouring out of him. I thought he might stop breathing or have a heart attack or something, it was terrifying.’

‘It sounds awful. What did you do?’

‘Well I didn’t know what the fuck to do, but Rose knows Dec and has seen him a bit like it before, and she just told us to hold him, so we all put our arms round him, I was feeling like a right dick, but I suppose that doesn’t matter, and eventually he calmed down, stopped making the godawful noise he’d been making, and just knelt on the sand, trying to get his breath back. We all kind of breathed a sigh of relief, but I started thinking, it was such a little thing I said to start it all off, I … well I can’t really remember exactly what it was, something about him looking in the wrong place for his mum and dad when they were in his heart all the time. Don’t know what the fuck I was thinking, sounds a bit bloody sentimental for me, but anyway, it was just a comment, and it opened the floodgates. And I started thinking, what if I’ve got similar amounts of shit inside me somewhere, and one day someone makes an equally innocent comment, trying to be helpful, and I end up a gibbering wreck like that? I couldn’t cope with that. I don’t do emotion, not in public.’

‘Is Dec alright now?’

‘Yeah, I’ve just been talking to him, he’s back to normal, or as normal as he gets.’

‘You’re not the same as Dec, though.’

‘Well, sometimes I think there is a lot the same about us. When I was ill and he was fucked up, we’d both been through a lot in different ways, lost a lot, one way and another, both hated needing help and we’d both go all ‘leave me the fuck alone’ if people tried. He’s worked really hard at getting sorted, and I’ve just got on with pretending it never happened.’

‘But however similar your general experiences are, you’re different people. Just because he reacts in one way doesn’t mean you will too.’

‘I know it might not mean that, but what if it does?’

‘Then you’ll have to deal with it if it happens. You’ll send yourself mad just thinking about the possibilities otherwise.’

‘But some of the possibilities are terrifying. Like … what if the bastard MS comes back?’

It was the first time Matt had mentioned MS since he told me he had it all those months ago. I had waited for him to mention it again, but when he hadn’t, I had realised that it was something he didn’t want to discuss. I had thought about it, though, read about it, knew it was a possibility, knew what I could offer.

Matt

I’d just mentioned my fears about the bastard MS coming back; it must have been late, and I must have had one too many beers, because I hadn’t mentioned it since that first night, and had never intended to.

‘I mean, I can’t go back to living with Jay and Beth, having my arse wiped.’

‘You really know how to catastrophise, don’t you. If your MS comes back, we do it together. You won’t have to live with Jay and Beth. You’ll have me.’

‘What?’

I was sure I hadn’t heard right. Jules was strictly unsentimental, I wouldn’t say she didn’t care about people, but she didn’t help out for the sake of it.

‘I think you heard me.’

I was silent, looking at her in my iPad for a long time, searching her face. She looked back at me, seeming for all the world like she really meant it. I felt tears fill my eyes, and found it hard to breathe. This was way, way beyond anything I would have ever asked or expected from anyone. I wouldn’t even expect my family to go through all that again for me.

Julia

He looked at me for a long time without speaking, a frown creasing his forehead. I saw his eyes fill with tears, but didn’t comment.

‘Fucking hell, Jules –’

It was almost a whisper.

‘– you can’t mean it.’

Matt

It felt like too huge a thing to hear, like it might break if I spoke loudly.

‘I mean it.’

‘Fucking hell.’

I felt a tear spill out of my eye and run down my cheek. It seemed I still had trouble controlling the salty bastards in times of high emotion. I sniffed and wiped my eyes. No, she must have just said it on the spur of the moment, it was late, she was tired.

‘You don’t know what you’re saying.’

‘I do know. I’ve found out. All the possibilities, likelihoods, options. Full risk analysis.’

Well, yeah, that did sound like Jules, thinking everything through.

‘Fucking hell.’

‘And anyway, it hasn’t come back, has it? You’re fit and healthy and there’s no reason to believe you’re not going to stay that way.’

‘Fucking hell, Jules, I don’t deserve you.’

‘So true, but I’m stuck with you at the moment, as half my clothes are in your wardrobe. I was going to ask you – do you mind me having so much of my stuff at your place?’

As a change of subject, it took the pressure off nicely. I had noticed that a lot of her stuff was at mine, but it made me feel like she was here when she wasn’t, and I didn’t mind in the slightest.

‘No, I like it. I can sniff your knickers when you’re not here, stops me missing you.’

‘You’re a perv.’

‘Never said I wasn’t.’

Julia

I had given Matt an out from the intensity of the conversation, and he took it. I knew he didn’t like talking about big emotional stuff, and would think about what we’d said in his own time and come to his own conclusions. It sounded like he may have had a similarly intense talk with Dec, so he would have a lot to mull over.

‘How are you feeling now.’

Matt

‘Bit fragile.’

Or more like I was about to break into a million pieces, ready to be scooped up by her and held in her hands.

‘Thanks, Jules. You’re so fucking great.’

‘Do you want me to come over?’

Oh my God, more than she would ever know. No one had ever said anything to me that meant more to me, and I wanted to touch her, hold her, say thank you thank you thank you.

‘Want? Fuck, yeah. But no, don’t, it’s too late, and you were shit-faced earlier.’

‘I was not shit-faced, I’d had too much to safely drive. I’m fine now, I could be there in fifteen minutes. I’d be wearing my old tshit and random pants.’

You know about the tshit and random pants, right? Oh go and read Jules’ version, it’s all in there, hilarious drunken text. Oh no, you misunderstand. It’s not my drunken text.

‘Ohh fuuck. Now look what you’ve done. Instant hard-on. I’m never going to get to sleep now.’

‘I might as well come over then. See you in a bit.’

And she disconnected. I knew it would take her a while to drive over to me, but I stood waiting by the door, full of emotion, feeling humbled. I hadn’t felt like this since I found out Jay had given up his job to come and look after me when I was ill before, but this was different.

Jules wasn’t my family, we’d only known each other a few months. Looking back, that was the moment I loved her. And I would like to suggest that she loved me; you don’t tell someone you’re going to face some fucking bastard disease with them if you don’t love them. Caught you out, Jules. Sorry it was too late.

Julia

Without giving him the chance to respond, I disconnected, pulled on some pants and jogging bottoms, grabbed my overnight bag and drove over to Matt’s.

Matt

I waited by the door for her, and when she opened it I pulled her to me, needing to show her what it meant, what she’d said. I kissed her with fierceness and passion, my hands finding their way under her t-shirt before the door had closed behind her. This was my way of showing her what she meant to me.

‘God you’re fucking amazing. I want you so much.’

I will leave the rest to your imagination … maybe it was me being so ardent, maybe it was because we’d made up after being a bit off with each other, maybe it was just late at night and felt right, but we were both so up for it, we were naked and noisy on the sofa before you could say ‘pants off’. It was loud and primal and urgent, but afterwards I looked down at her and something in me melted.

I picked her up and carried her to the bedroom – ha, I make it sound like it was nothing, I did stagger a bit, but Jules was small and slight, and it felt like nothing, although I was glad the bedroom wasn’t far away. I put her on the bed and covered her up with the duvet, then went to fetch her night clothes, which had been abandoned on the floor of the living room.

‘Aren’t you getting in too?’

‘Yeah, just a minute, won’t be long.’

I came back in and handed her the t-shirt, putting her jogging bottoms in a drawer.

‘What about my random pants?’

‘You wear no fuking pants in your bed.’

For an explanation, see aforementioned hilarious drunken text.

‘But this isn’t –’

‘Yeah, it is. For as long as you want it, this bed is your bed. No fuking pants from now on.’

It wasn’t much, but it was the best I could do to say how much what she’d said meant to me. And, naturally, it meant that I got to curl up next to her when she wasn’t wearing knickers. Everyone’s a winner.

She smiled at me as I climbed under the duvet, then I gathered her up in my arms, and we fell asleep tangled together, neither of us having a clue how much we loved each other. Or rather, being disinclined to pay any attention to said clues.

Julia

As the months went by, we saw each other more and more. We went to Matt’s after work more often than not as it was close, but we still had our own interests and our own friends, and I had my own flat I could retreat to when I needed to. Matt also had no compunction about kicking me out when he needed time to himself, either, and it felt very easy between us.

Dec

PSYCHOLOGIES

Issue No. 23.

Continuing our series of articles looking into the psychology of sport, this month we look at Rugby Union.

What the Ruck?

Declan Summers plays at inside centre for Premiership outfit Raiders, who are currently in the hunt for a treble of Premiership, European Cup and Domestic Cup. Declan’s career has taken off in the last couple of years, seeing him become a regular starter in the Raiders team, and tipped for international honours in the near future. But it could all have been very different. Sara Aston delves into the psyche of the young rugby player.

I meet Declan Summers in a plush hospitality suite at Raiders Stadium. He is a tall, muscular, softly spoken young man with a level gaze and serious expression, who considers my words and weighs his responses before answering – not guarded, exactly, but deliberate. I get the sense that he is thinking carefully about what information I can have access to. His conversation is peppered with the expletives you might expect from a rugby player, or indeed a man of his age; he says ‘fuck’ almost as often as he takes a breath. It is not intended to offend, it is just something that seems to occur naturally in his speech.

As we talk, the view from the suite is of the pitch at Raiders’ impressive stadium. A player out on the grass is kicking a rugby ball over the posts, again and again. I ask how long Declan has been with Raiders. He appears to consider this, as if he can’t quite remember.

‘I came here when I was sixteen, so seven years ago. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been here all my life. This place gets inside you, becomes part of you in a way.’

Sixteen sounds young to leave home and begin a rugby career, but it is well known that Declan’s parents died when he was thirteen, leaving him without family and in foster care, on the other side of the world from his childhood home in Australia. When he was signed from school by Raiders on a scholarship, he was taken in by Jay Scott [who is currently assistant coach at Raiders, and was then backs coach] and his family. I wonder how the death of his parents affected him at such a young age.

‘I had to change completely. I was this normal thirteen year old, doing normal thirteen year old stuff, parents to tell me right and wrong, help me out when I needed it, show me how to grow up. Suddenly I had to do it all on my own, fight my own battles. I changed the people I hung out with, changed the way I responded to things, just to survive. It was harsh. I was pretty wild, none of my foster families could cope with me, I had a major attitude, wouldn’t do what I was told. I had five placements in three years. None of them could wait for me to leave.’

So what changed when he was fostered by Jay Scott?

‘They didn’t foster me! They gave me a room for a few weeks when I first came here, and I liked it so I stayed. They turned me round; Jay and his wife, Beth, just accepted me with all my shit, made me part of their family. There was never anything official. What changed for me was they didn’t judge me, they told me the rules and expected me to stick to them, and they wanted me there. That was the most important thing. Nobody had wanted me for a long time.’

Declan still has close ties to Jay Scott’s family, but it is not something he will be drawn on, stating that he values his family’s privacy. People have misconstrued their relationship and accused Scott of favouritism, a charge Declan fervently denies.

‘If anything I have to work harder to prove myself here. He gives me no special favours, I certainly don’t get a place in the side because of it. We keep the rugby strictly professional, it doesn’t get discussed between us outside of the club, except in the same way as with any other player. Everyone here knows the score, anyone has a problem they can talk to me about it, and they would, but no one has, not for a long time.’

There is a challenge in his tone, and I reflect on his playing style – he is aggressive in tackles, defends recklessly and attacks with abandon. Is he overcompensating for something? He laughs – it doesn’t happen often, and it changes him, chases the shadows from his face.

‘Well, I put it all out there, I suppose, I’ve never done it any other way. You can’t play rugby half-heartedly. I never really thought about whether I use it as a release, or compensating or whatever. Maybe, yeah. I’d rather leave it on the pitch than take it home and fuck up the people I love.’

Could it be that there is something – maybe anger or aggression – that drew him to rugby as an activity where such emotions are acceptable, even encouraged?

‘I suppose it could be that, but it’s not a conscious motive. I loved rugby from an early age, loved watching it and playing it. I grew up in Australia, where it’s a more mainstream sport than it is here, and I played at school from when I was really young. I never really wanted to do anything else, it was my dream. I guess you could say that has driven me, if you’re looking for motivation, rather than a need to find an arena to be aggressive.’

It is well documented that Summers’ career at Raiders nearly ended a few years ago when it came to light that he had provided the club with an invalid passport when he arrived. He was suspended for almost the entire season, and admits that there were times when he feared he would eventually be dismissed.

‘To be honest, I couldn’t have complained if they’d terminated my contract; I wasn’t even a first team player at the time, and I cost them a place in the play-offs. The club were extremely generous in their support and guidance. I made several very bad choices, they all added up and I was having a really hard time.’

One of the things that must have made it harder was Jay Scott’s seemingly related decision to resign as Raiders’ backs coach and relocate to the Midlands with his family. Was this difficult for Declan at a time when, by his own admission, he was finding life pretty tough and needed a lot of support?

‘It was an added factor. There was a lot of stuff going on for me that most people don’t know about. I was in a dark place. I got some incredible help from some unexpected people. Plus, the club put me in touch with a psychologist, Adam, who has helped me see things differently. There was stuff I hadn’t dealt with around my parents, it had built up over time, and I was having some kind of post-traumatic reaction. With Adam’s help I’ve managed to sort out why I was being the way I was and tried to change things, react differently, accept help, be less stubborn about things. When I started seeing him, I was also recovering from the physical effects of some fairly major injuries. Being able to recover mentally from that, and work out how I got to that point in the first place, has helped me get back the inner strength I need to carry on playing, as much as the physical recovery process has.’

I realise my question has been expertly sidestepped and ask again, more directly, about the reported rift at that time between Summers and Scott.

‘It’s not something I talk about. It was a shit chapter in a bad story. End of.’

I ask about a new chapter in the Declan Summers story – he is to become a father in a few months time. He becomes animated as he talks about this obviously happily anticipated event.

‘I can’t wait, it’s so exciting. I’m just so into everything, I’ve read the books, been to the classes with Amy, she gets a bit fed up with me being so geeky about it. I just want to be part of it all.’

It is apparent that Declan is looking forward to parenthood. Is it, perhaps, an opportunity to put right some of the things he missed out on from his own childhood?

‘No, I don’t see it that way at all. You can’t let the past influence you like that, it puts too much pressure on you. You have to deal with what’s in front of you now.’

But doesn’t he feel he deserves some happy times after all the hard times?

‘It’s taken me a long while to realise that life’s not about deserving or not deserving it. You can seriously fuck yourself up thinking that way. Shit just happens to you. What’s important is how you react to it, that’s what makes the difference. I’ve reacted badly in the past. I really believe that you’re made of how you respond to what life throws at you – if it’s shit you fetch a shovel, if it’s sugar you fetch a spoon.’

I wonder if that’s something Declan has learned through therapy.

‘Yeah, that’s part of it, but most of the things I’ve learnt have come from the people around me. Therapy has helped me to listen to the lessons, not teach me new ones necessarily. I know some awesome people, who talk a lot of sense, and I hope I’ve learnt to react better now, talk to people, ask for help, be a bit less self-absorbed.’

Is introspection something he considers a character flaw?

‘It certainly didn’t help me. If you over analyse everything, go into yourself, don’t talk about it, it all just sits there in your head and never gets sorted. I think I’m better now at being more open, saying how I feel, admitting if I’ve fucked up or if I need help with something, talking about what’s making me sad, or happy. I’m sure not everyone appreciates it, but I hope people know where they are with me, and I know where I am with myself.’

Declan’s words display an emotional maturity that belies his youth, and I find I am frequently having to remind myself that he is only twenty-three years old. Could this be another consequence of having to become self-sufficient in his early teens?

‘Well I definitely had to fend for myself, teach myself what I needed to know. I guess I had to grow up fast in some ways, but I got stuck in others. I think it wasn’t until I started therapy that I began to untangle all that, and work out how it was all affecting me.’

It sounds like therapy was the turning point?

‘It was definitely a turning point. There have been lots of those, lots of second chances. Therapy has helped me to make sense of everything, but without the generosity and love of people around me, it would have been much harder. I can’t point to one thing and say ‘with or without this, it would have all been different’, because there are so many of those things – they could be events, or people, or something random like something someone says to you. I can look back now and see how things kind of weave together and affect each other, but there’s not usually just one thing. I guess every day you come across lots of turning points, you could go one way or the other. You don’t see it until later.’

Was there a particular event, something that influenced how things wove together at that time, one way or another? He is silent, looking out of the window. I get the impression he is trying to decide whether to reveal something or not.

‘I crashed my car, a few years ago. A man died. It set off the whole chain of events that led to me being suspended. It also set off something in my head, some kind of mental trauma. It was like –’ he pauses, and for the first time, his composure slips and I see the pain on his face ‘– like I’d done to someone else what someone did to me when my parents died. It triggered everything that happened. I can trace everything that went on at that time to that event, in some way. I suppose another thing was being attacked and beaten up. It started things turning the other way, started mending things.’

Can he explain? He smiles enigmatically.

‘Not really. Just, sometimes the most surprising things turn out for the best.’

Like being beaten up?

‘Exactly.’

He refuses to elaborate.

The sun shines through the window of the executive suite and illuminates the faint linear scars running down each side of Declan’s face. It is a physical reminder of that attack shortly after Raiders were deducted ten points from their Premiership total following the previously mentioned passport misdemeanour. The perpetrators of the assault were a team mate and an ex-coach, who both served time in prison for the ferocious attack that left Declan unconscious, with deep lacerations and several broken bones. That must have been difficult to come to terms with. Declan is quiet for a moment, considering.

‘The hardest part of that whole thing was thinking someone is your mate, and finding out they hate you and want to hurt you. It made me re-evaluate my friendships, I questioned people’s motives for a while, found it hard to let people in. You can’t function in a team sport like rugby if you don’t trust the people you’re with every day, and I had to let go of that mistrust. The guys at Raiders are a really close knit group. We all help each other, support each other, yeah, take the piss out of each other, but at the end of the day we’re a unit. There’s no room for someone who’s holding back from that. So that’s something I had to really work on. The squad here is amazing, everyone’s fighting for a place on the team, but we’re all rooting for each other at the same time. It’s an awesome place to work.’

It strikes me that what he is describing is another kind of family. ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. We put our bodies on the line for each other every week, no questions. We know each other inside out.’ Declan seems to have surrounded himself with families. Is this a way of replacing something he’s missed out on at a crucial stage in his early life? There is another long, considering pause.

‘It’s not something I’ve done consciously, but family is very important to me. Not necessarily the traditional mum, dad, kids, although I’m made up that I’ll have that soon, too. What’s important to me is to be surrounded by people who love you enough to tell you when you’re being a dick, as well as when you’re being fucking amazing. I guess you can call it family; I can’t think of another name for it. When it works, it’s fucking awesome.’

From the window of the executive suite, we can see the sun beginning to set over the huge grandstand. The kicker has long since gone, a few seagulls drift in the sky, the empty seats await the next home game. I get the feeling Declan Summers, supported by his various families, will be a force to be reckoned with, both in rugby and in his personal life, for some time to come.

o0o

The Independent Sport.

Rugby Shorts

Previously uncapped Raiders centre Declan Summers has been called up to the Wallabies’ Autumn International squad to ease their back line injury woes. With Davison, Hendricks, Smythe and Marsh all injured, Summers is likely to be on the bench for Saturday’s match with Scotland.

o0o

The Raiding Party‘ unofficial supporters forum.

TOPIC: Summers in Wallabies squad

RadarRaider: Great news for Summers, he’s been on fire this season. Bit of a bu***r he won’t be playing against TomCats, could do with his intensity against Peterson.

CityRaider: Well done, Declan. Hope it’s the first of many. Can’t quite understand why he’s not been targetted by England under residency, but this is great news for him, he’s having a fantastic season so far.

Raiderette: Yay for Summs, boo for us, he’s my first pick on the team sheet at the moment.

WestStandRaider: I heard he was offered England but turned it down. Not quite sure how he qualifies for Aus, I’m pretty sure he was born in England, but looks like it was what he wanted. Congratulations, Declan.

RadarRaider: WSR, he’s got an Australian passport. You MUST remember all that grief a few seasons ago when he cost us top four with the points deduction. Isn’t he adopted or something? Australian parents?

RudolphtherednosedRaider: Reckon we should all stay out of his business. Pleased for the lad, it’s not easy to get in the Wallabies when you don’t play in Oz. Hope he’s picked, he could do some damage against the Scots. He’ll learn a lot from international rugby, come back to Raiders stronger and better.

BillX: Hopefully it’ll give Sam Wallis a bit of a run, I really rate him. He’s been great off the bench on several occasions this season.

o0o

The Independent Sport

Rugby International

Scotland 6 v 20 Australia

Tries:

Robinson

Summers

Cons:

Byron (2)

Pens:

McIntosh (2) Byron (2)

o0o

Matt followed me out into the kitchen, pulled open a drawer and handed me a packet wrapped in brown paper.

‘What’s this?’

}Just something I found, thought you might like it. I didn’t want to give it to you in front of everyone, for the sake of your dignity, but I wanted to make sure Rose was on hand just in case.

‘In case of what?’

}Oh just bloody well open it, Summers. It’s Christmas, it’s a present. Just don’t go all bat-shit if you can possibly help it.

‘You’re worrying me now. What is it?’

}For the sake of fuck. If you don’t bloody well tear the paper off, I’ll take it back and –

Matt made to grab the parcel, but I held it away from him.

‘Alright, I’ll open it. Trying not to go bat-shit. But if it’s a spider, so help me I will kill you. With my bare hands.’

}It’s not a fucking spider. How many flat rectangular spiders do you know?

‘I try to know as little as possible about any spiders. OK, here goes then.’

I turned the package over and started to peel the tape off, going slowly because Matt was making me nervous. I was worried about what the present was going to be, and how I might react to it – it didn’t seem like something I was going to be overjoyed to get. Matt was jiggling with frustration, and I could see his fingers twitching as if he was having to stop himself from tearing the wrapping off himself.

I unfolded the paper to reveal the back of a wooden photo frame, and before I turned it over, I briefly wondered if it was a picture of me scoring my try for Australia. That would be OK, maybe a bit emotional, but it wasn’t like I didn’t have tons of photos of it from every conceivable angle on my computer. I didn’t do the big rugby shrine thing that Jay had going on in his living room, but then I hadn’t had such a star-studded career as him, not yet anyway.

I turned the frame over, and had to look at the two people smiling up at me for a few seconds before I truly recognised them. I hadn’t seen their faces for over ten years, had started to forget what they really looked like. But this was my mum and dad. Mum and Dad, who I’d lost and thought I’d never see again. I was speechless, motionless, breathless, as I stared and stared at the photo, while memories and feelings flooded into me.

}Say something, mate. Do I need to call the men in white coats?

I looked up at Matt, tearing my eyes away from my parents. I couldn’t speak, could only shake my head.

}It is them isn’t it?

I nodded.

}Thank fuck for that. I’d hate to have given you a framed picture of two random people for Christmas. Nothing says ‘you don’t know me at all’ like the wrong – whoa steady on there, man points at stake.

I had put the frame down on the counter and pulled Matt to me in a fierce hug. This was overwhelming. I had done a fair amount of searching for pictures on the internet in the years since my parents died, but had never come up with anything. It hadn’t occurred to me to ask Matt, computer genius, to help, and now he’d found a picture, a good one too, without me even asking.

‘You’re fucking amazing, Matt. Fucking amazing. How the fuck did you find it?’

I let him go, and picked up the picture, hungry to see it again. I ran my finger over their faces, feeling the frustration of not being able to actually touch the two people under the glass, but overjoyed at being able to look at them. They looked younger than I remembered, though more dated, and subtly different from the pictures I had in my memory. Time had begun eroding the clarity of their faces in my mind, and this reminder could not have been more welcome.

}I did a bit of detective work. I went online, found an old newspaper report, no pictures, but it said where your dad worked, I contacted the company, and there were a few people who were still there from back then. Sent a letter asking if anyone had any photos of Tom and Lucy Collier. People were great, so helpful – I’ve got loads more, mate, you can have them all, but this was the best one.

‘You’ve got more?’

}Yeah, I put them all on a flash-drive – here.

Matt held out a small plastic drive. I took it like it was a precious jewel, which it was in a way.

‘Thanks. You don’t know how much …’

My voice tailed away as my throat closed up with emotion.

}Yeah I do. You don’t have to say anything, I just wanted you to have a picture of them. It’s not much, I know, but you should at least have that.

‘It’s everything. Oh you bloody bastard, I haven’t done this for ages.’

Tears were streaming down my face and Matt tore off a bit of kitchen roll, handing it to me with a smirk.

}I love turning you into a fucking loony. Makes my Christmas that bit more special.

‘Happy to oblige, then.’

I wiped my eyes, and looked down at Mum and Dad again.

‘Can I show Amy?’

}It’s yours to do with as you wish. I was personally hoping for pride of place on the mantelpiece.

‘Your arse won’t fit on the mantelpiece, you’ll have to make do with hogging the sofa like usual.’

}Oh the wit of Summers knows no beginning.

‘Thanks mate.’

}Pleasure.

I walked into the living room, where everyone was watching ‘Elf’.

‘Ames, there are some people I’d like you to meet.’

Julia

I saw more of Matt’s family and got to really like them, finally understanding the circumstances and emotions that bound them all together. That said, I often didn’t go to their big sprawling gatherings with Matt, but sometimes we both went and would come back laughing about how much more we had learned than we ever wanted to about oestrogen, cervixes and the different colours of baby shit. There was a big focus on Dec and Amy’s impending arrival, and it was another reason I limited my involvement with them. Matt and I had lain in bed making a pros and cons list of parenthood. On the ‘cons’ side, which was long, was included loss of sleep, hormonal surges, crying, pooping and vomiting. The ‘pros’ side consisted only of ‘must have sex to conceive’. Matt loved Cal and Iz, but seemed to share my horror of having children of my own.

‘I’m always totally relieved to give them back, especially when Cal’s being a grouchy complaining little git or Iz is screaming her head off because she’s tired’ seemed to be his philosophy.

And so we became closer and saw more of each other, and one Sunday morning, we were sitting in bed eating croissants after very enjoyable wake-up sex, when I heard an intake of breath from Matt. I looked up at him.

60. Sorrow about to fall

In which the smallest thing causes the biggest reaction.

Dec

That was it. Over. I’d said what I wanted to say, and got through it without stopping, and by not looking at anyone, I’d managed to finish reading the letter without crying myself. I’d had plenty of tears when I was writing it, had cried in Amy’s arms a few times when writing to them had made it feel like they were still alive, but this felt like a closing of sorts, and I was able to keep a grip on myself. I looked up and saw Rose and Beth wiping their eyes. I started to roll the letter and pictures up, to put them in the bottle.

_Wait a minute, Dec. Sweetheart, that was really, really lovely. I’m so proud of you. I hope you don’t mind, we’ve all got some things, a few words we’d like to go in the bottle too.

‘But … how did you know –’

)Sorry, hon. I told them you changed your mind. I wanted to do something, and I thought it might be nice if everyone did. I hope that’s OK.

‘Of course, babe. What have you done, though? There’s not much room in here.’

I held up the wine bottle I’d brought with me.

:It’s just a few words from each of us, love. Not much. We want to tell your mam and dad what you’re like, what we think of you. It won’t take up much room.

My family never ceased to amaze me. It was perfect.

‘Fuck, I can’t believe you guys, that’s a bloody awesome thing to do.’

)Shall I start?

I nodded, put my arm round Amy’s shoulders as she read from her piece of paper.

)Dec is everything to me. He is the most caring man you could wish for. He would walk to the other side of the world and back if I asked him to, he’d do anything for anyone. He’s going to be the father of your grandchild, and he’s going to be amazing. He gets up every morning to hold my hair when I’m being sick, and he sometimes doesn’t even grumble when I ask him for breakfast in bed. Dec isn’t the most practical person, and if we need anything doing we usually have to get a man in. Or Matt. But he has so much love, and is so generous with his time. He often helps Carol in her garden, he’s always at the club coaching the under elevens or publicising some charity event or something and he always has time to stop and chat to anyone – Raiders supporters, shop assistants, neighbours, anyone. Dec has really missed having you around, and I think he’ll always be sad you’re gone, but he’s got a great family who love him to bits and try to keep him sane. Having our baby is going to be the most exciting thing we’ve ever done, and I know he wishes you were here for it. Thank you for making him what he is today, for giving him to us.

Amy looked up at me and I bent down and kissed her, my heart overflowing.

‘Awesome, babe. I love you. Will you marry me?’

)Course, hon. Always. You OK?

‘Yeah, I should be blubbing, shouldn’t I, but it’s just not there. I’m OK.’

Amy gave me the piece of paper and I rolled it up with the others.

_Me next. I’ve tried to keep it short, but there was such a lot James and I wanted to say.

I held my other arm out and pulled Beth in close.

_OK, sweetheart. Here goes then.

She started reading.

_Dec was a very angry young man when he came to us. He made out he was a bit of a bad lad, but I was pretty sure I could see the real Dec underneath the attitude and the bad language. James took a bit of convincing, but with love and patience Dec stopped hiding behind his behaviour, and we saw the boy who’s turned into the lovely man he is now. You’d both be so proud of him. He’s loving, caring, loyal, he loves our two children so much, and they adore him. He’s so much a part of our family we can’t imagine it without him. Dec doesn’t talk much about you, it makes him too sad, but when he does it sounds like he had a very happy childhood. We can’t replace you, but we can love him enough that maybe it doesn’t hurt him quite so much all the time. We did have a bit of a hard time a few years ago, when things went a bit wrong for all of us, but we came through it, one way and another, and I think it made us all stronger, helped us realise what really mattered to us – things like acceptance, openness, being together, love and family. Now Dec’s going to be a father, James and I have realised how much he’s grown up, and how privileged we’ve been to be a part of his life. He’s going to be a great dad, he’s so good with Cal and Iz, he always knew just how to be with Cal, even when he first arrived as a stroppy sixteen year old, and every other word was a swear word. Now it’s just every word in three, so he’s made some progress. I’m so sorry I never met you, I would have loved to have known Dec’s mum and dad, to have found out what he was like when he was Charlie. I think you’d be very pleased with how … he’s … turned –

Beth lowered her bit of paper. Her bottom lip was trembling and some tears had run down her cheeks. It looked like there was a bit more written on the page, but she was choked up, and couldn’t read any further. I took it from her and put it with the rest, then and wrapped her up in a hug.

‘Thanks Beth. You’re fucking amazing.’

She wiped her eyes.

_Sorry, I couldn’t quite finish. There wasn’t much more, I was waffling anyway.

‘It was perfect. Can I put the cork in now?’

:Not yet love, you’ve got to listen to me yapping on now. Don’t worry, it’s not long, I’m not a great writer, or speaker.

‘Rose, you could talk the hind legs off a herd of donkeys and you’d still not be finished.’

:Yes, love but not speeches and stuff. Anyway, this isn’t a speech, it’s just telling your mam and dad some things. Hope that’s alright.

‘Come here, then.’

Amy and Beth stepped back and I put my arm round Rose. She put her glasses on and took out a piece of paper that had been folded and unfolded many times. She fiddled with it nervously, clearing her throat.

‘Rose, it’s only me.’

:No it’s not, love, it’s your mam and dad as well. They’re a lot to live up to. I just want to say it right.

‘Whatever you say will be right. It always is. They’d love you. I love you. You’re great.’

:Thanks love. You know I think the world of you, don’t you.

‘I know.’

Rose squared her shoulders, took a deep breath and started reading.

:Declan often says I’m like a mum to him. He agreed once to let me mother him, and I’ve held him to it all this time. I’ll carry on as long as he wants it, too. But I’ll never be his Mum, and that’s the thing I find really hard, that he hasn’t got you both. By, he’s a grand young man. I can’t take your place, I wouldn’t want to, but I’m very glad I’m here in mine watching him grow up. He’s a credit to you. He’s found it hard without you, but he’s resourceful and strong, and he’s made his own way. The family he’s found, all of us, well it’s not traditional or conventional, but it’s full of love and laughter and that’s the most important thing. You don’t need to worry about him, he’ll be alright. That’s all, love.

Rose took her glasses off and looked up at me. I bent down and kissed her on the cheek, pulled her in for one of her enormous hugs. Took her piece of paper from her and started to put the top on the bottle.

}Er, what about me?

I looked up at Matt, surprised.

‘You only decided you were coming this morning, you – oh, you’re taking the piss.’

He looked a bit hurt.

}No, although you’re right, I haven’t had time to prepare anything along the lines of the three muses here. Anyway, it’s only something little, and I’m not speechifying it, but this is from the first time I watched you play, a few months ago. I just wrote something on the back. It should fit in the bottle.

He held out a match ticket, from the game I had persuaded Cal to ask him to go to. I turned it over. On the back, he had written I don’t know much about rugby, but if Declan Summers is half as good a player as he is a friend, he’s fucking awesome and destined for greatness. I was really touched. This whole thing wasn’t something Matt would have felt very comfortable about, and he could easily have avoided it, or done or said something light-hearted to take the emotion out of it. Usually, a bit of banter would have occurred, but I recognised this was a serious gesture.

‘Thanks, Matt. It means a lot that you did this.’

He nodded. I put the ticket in the bottle and pushed the cork into the top. Then I wrapped some tape round it. It didn’t really matter if it was absolutely waterproof; it was never going to reach its destination, I just didn’t want it to sink while I was still watching it. I held the bottle for a while, still trying to conjure up some kind of feeling. Maybe Beth was right, and I would feel what I was trying to feel later, when I’d sorted through it in my mind. Holding onto a bottle wasn’t going to make anything happen.

I drew my arm back and threw the bottle, as hard as I could, out into the sea. I was pretty good at throwing things, and it went a long way; we watched it bobbing for quite a while, as the tide took it further and further out. Amy and Rose had their arms round me, Matt had his arm over Beth’s shoulder. I wasn’t sure how long to stand watching a bottle getting smaller and smaller on the outgoing tide, but I knew nobody was going to suggest leaving until I made the first move.

Matt

It went much as expected, really. We all wandered aimlessly with him for most of the day, trying to help him do his anniversary thing in whatever way he saw fit, but it had all been pretty low-key, he’d seemed fairly upbeat about the whole thing, apart from a couple of times when he got a bit wobbly, and I stepped in with my metaphorical jester’s hat on and eased the tension as was my role. He even did this, like, thousand page long speech on the beach, his accent getting thicker and more Australian as he read it, and he got through sentimental addresses from Amy, Beth and Rose without any kind of emotional outpouring. It’s not that he didn’t want to get emotional, I think he kind of did in a way, but whatever it was he was expecting, he didn’t quite get there.

And then yours truly, theoretically the class comedian, well I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking. Maybe it had all got to me more than I’d realised, but we were all just standing watching his message in a bottle float out to sea, and I was re-running the day in my mind, in some kind of speeded up action replay, and I just had this image, which almost made me laugh, of Dec dashing around this town he used to live in, chasing after shadows and peering in corners, like he was trying to find something. I wondered if he knew he’d been looking for his mum and dad, and then the image changed into something even more potentially amusing, of Dec running about looking for the thing that had never left him, that he always carried with him, kind of like when someone’s looking for their glasses when they’re on their head all the time.

Obviously, it wasn’t really amusing, it was quite poignant, but it was the image that amused me, not the reality. But anyway, I just said it, without thinking.

‘Hey, you know what’s just occurred to me, Dec.’

‘No. Do tell.’

He probably thought I was going to say ‘the pubs open in half an hour’ or some such shit.

‘Well, I’ve watched you today tramping here and there, looking for I don’t know what, memories or feelings or something, and getting all frustrated because it’s not happening. What’s just occurred to me is that you’ve been looking for your mum and dad. You left them behind, in a way, when you moved to the city, and maybe part of you thought they’d be here when you came back, and you’d find them again, somehow. You’ve been looking in the wrong place. They’re not here –’

I gestured to the beach in front of us and the town behind us.

‘– or here –’

I pointed to the tattoo on his forearm, now a fairly tasteful swirl of roses and calligraphy.

‘– they’re here.’

Dec

He walked up to me and put his hand on my chest, over my heart. I stared at him, and as the truth sunk in, I felt it shockwave through me. When my legs buckled, Matt tried to catch me, but I collapsed to my knees as the memories, the sadness, the grief, the sorrow, the pain, the anger, came boiling up from the place I’d buried it all.

Matt

I don’t know what I’d expected, maybe a nod as he thought about it, a word or two of agreement. What I did not fucking well expect was for the most anguished expression I have ever seen to come over his face, as he dropped to the ground, on his knees. I tried to catch him, but he was sixteen stone of rugby player, and there was no way I could hold him. And the noises that started coming out of him – wails, moans, incoherent shouts. I was bloody terrified.

Dec

It swept over me and I knelt on the beach and sobbed and howled and raged. I couldn’t keep it buried any more, I had to let the hurt out, noisily and painfully, as memories crashed over me and feelings rampaged through me. I cried because they were dead. I cried because they’d left me. I cried for the good times I’d lost and the hard times I’d found. I cried because they were never coming back. I cried because they’d never know me or Amy or our baby. I cried for it all, everything that had been and everything that would never be and everything that should have been and everything that shouldn’t have been. I threw handfuls of sand at the sea. I pulled my hair. I shouted and screamed. But mostly I cried. I don’t know how long I knelt there, feeling it all, remembering it all, crying it all, because I’d never really cried about it before and there was a lot of crying to be done.

Matt

Dec was just beside himself, I don’t think he knew what he was doing. He hurled sand around, he wailed, he pulled his hair, he shouted, he cried and cried, tears and snot pouring out of him at the same time as all the noise, and it just went on and on. I looked helplessly at Rose, Beth and Amy, hoping for some guidance, but they were all looking as shocked as I felt.

Rose recovered first, and got on her knees beside him, putting her arms round him. I stood rooted to the spot, looking on, horrified.

‘Just hold him. He needs to know we’re here.’

Rose seemed sure, but I didn’t think any amount of cuddling was going to help him out of this, and I got my phone out in case we needed to call someone … well, who I had not a clue, but it felt way beyond me, and I wanted to hand it over to someone else.

Amy and Beth had followed Rose onto their knees on the sand, and after a while, feeling foolish, I joined them, making a circle round Dec, holding his shoulders, saying reassuring things. It seemed to last for hours, but it eventually started to calm down; it wasn’t hours, but it was a bloody long time, and then, finally, to my overwhelming relief, he stopped, and flopped forwards, head on his knees, panting and sniffing, the occasional shudder.

Dec

They all held me, even Matt. None of them tried to stop it. After a long, long time, I felt it recede, felt cleaned and emptied by it. I was exhausted, could hardly lift my head up, and I knelt on the sand trying to get my breath back. I felt Amy’s hand on the back of my neck, stroking my hair; I looked up into her eyes, which were filled with tears as she rested her forehead on mine.

)It’s OK, Dec. We’re all here. Take your time, hon.

I closed my eyes and took several deep, ragged, snotty breaths.

‘Did someone say something about man-size tissues?’

Matt

Yes, that would be me, as a joke, back when we were having a laugh at lunchtime, and nobody was going all mental patient all over the place.

‘Well I did, but I actually was taking the piss that time.’

‘Here you are, love.’

Rose could always be relied on to have a tissue. Dec blew his nose, wiped his eyes and sniffed a bit. I was still reeling from the disaster zone I seemed to have caused.

‘Fucking hell, Dec, I’m sorry. If I’d thought you were going to –’

‘It’s OK. I needed it. That was ten years worth of bottled up shit. Sorry it was a bit explosive. Fuck. Did I scare the seagulls?’

After all that, he was worried about the effect he’d had on the wildlife?

‘Sod the fucking seagulls, you scared the living shit out of me.’

I was seriously shaken up, that was my best mate, who for a bloody long time, I’d thought was going to be seeing out the end of the day in a straight-jacket.

Dec

Matt did look a bit shaken. Thinking back, although we’d both helped each other through some difficult times, and there had been tears on both sides, this was in a different league from anything Matt had ever witnessed.

‘Sorry. Call it blub club plus, or something.’

Matt

I sat down on the sand next to him, needing to tell him how scared I’d been, but unwilling to upset him any further.

‘Fuck, Dec, that was extreme. I thought you were going to stop breathing, or hurt yourself or something. Are you OK now?’

Dec

I nodded. I felt as if something that had kept me tied up had been cut away, and now I was free. It was what I’d been looking for, expecting to find, ever since we arrived here this morning.

‘Thanks for being here.’

Matt

I nodded back, but felt tears pricking at the corners of my eyes, whether of relief or concern I was not in a position to tell, so I got up and started to walk down the beach before anyone noticed.

Dec

Matt nodded in turn, got up and started to walk down the beach. He looked like he was wiping his eyes as he went. I put both my arms round Amy, held her close and stared out at the sea. The bottle had disappeared, floating too far away to be able to see. Behind me, I became aware of more sniffing. Beth was being comforted by Rose, trying to muffle it and not succeeding. They were having a muted conversation in between the sniffles.

_… I just never realised there was so much pain and hurt there, all this time.

:It’s always been there, love. He’s hidden it away. I’ve seen bits of it before, not quite like this though.

Beth looked up, saw me watching her. She wiped her eyes.

_Oh Dec, sweetheart, I’m so sorry. It just took me by surprise, that’s all. Rose did say something like this might happen, but we’d been everywhere today, and did all the words, and I didn’t think it was going to. I just got upset, seeing you like that.

I stood up, and she came over and kissed my cheek.

_Are you alright?

‘You know what, I think I am. I think I’ve been carrying all that shit around with me for ten years and it’s about fucking time I got rid of it. It feels like it’s been getting harder and harder to keep it all down there, not all of it will always go away when I try to make it. Now it’s out and gone, and I don’t have to worry about hiding it any more. Sorry if it was a bit dramatic.’

_Oh, Dec, sweetheart, well I won’t say it wasn’t dramatic, but please don’t apologise. Whatever you need, you know we’re here. Where’s Matty going?

‘I think I freaked him out a bit. He’s just getting himself together. He was supposed to be the comic relief, not the best supporting actor.’

Beth looked thoughtful, then headed off after Matt.

Matt

I hadn’t got far, and hadn’t finished wiping my eyes, when Beth caught up with me.

‘Matty, wait.’

I didn’t wait. The last thing I wanted was Beth trying to get to the bottom of things with me.

‘Matty.’

She took my arm and pulled me back, making me slow down to match her stride.

‘Well that was a bit of an event, wasn’t it.’

‘Mm.’

‘Are you alright, Matty?’

‘Not really. Are you?’

I thought if I could turn it round on her, it might focus things away from the bloody traitorous leakage running down my face.

‘No. I didn’t expect anything that powerful. I was a bit scared.’

I don’t think I’d ever known Beth to be anything other than completely in control of things, and I admired her ability to just say how she was feeling. How different my life would be if I could a) realise how I was feeling and b) say it.

‘Where did it all come from?’

‘Oh Matty, this has will have been building up for years. Sometimes it’s the smallest things that set it all off.’

‘And sometimes it’s the stupidest. What the fuck was I thinking?’

‘You can’t blame yourself, sweetheart. It could have been anything any one of us said or did.’

‘Nice try, but I’m pretty sure I was the one who started it all.’

‘It wasn’t your fault. I think it will have helped him.’

‘Yeah, well, we’ll see. I thought he’d sorted all his shit out with his shrink.’

‘I know seeing Adam has really helped him, but that doesn’t mean he’s sorted through all his troubles. He’s made loads of progress, but sometimes you store things up without realising. You know he never talks about his parents. Maybe he never lets himself think about them, either. All of that, back there, could be a culmination of the last ten years, and a full on day of thinking about them, remembering them, talking about them. Think of yourself as the last straw, not the only straw.’

As we walked, I looked out to sea, not at Beth. She always talked sense, really, much as I moaned about her meddling ways, but although I’d been worried about having been the one who caused it all for Dec, there were now other misgivings tapping at my consciousness. I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk about them, and didn’t speak for a while, as we walked along the shoreline.

‘Matty, talk to me. What’s bothering you?’

How did she always know? It was like she had a sixth sense when you wanted to keep something from her. I didn’t want to do this right now.

‘Piss off, Beth, sometimes people just want to be alone with their thoughts.’

‘I know, sweetheart, but when you’ve just seen your friend very distressed, and been very worried about him, maybe being alone with any thoughts that might have been thrown your way isn’t the best thing.’

‘Do you ever stop fussing over people?’

She sighed. ‘No, I suppose I don’t. And I’m not going to stop now. Please tell me, Matty. I’d like to help if I can.’

‘Seriously, Beth, just piss off. I’m quite capable of walking up the fucking beach on my own, I don’t need you to fucking babysit my every move.’

It was the tone of voice that usually worked, if the ‘fuck’s didn’t. Beth was pretty persistent, but hated being told to piss off, and usually called the cavalry, i.e. Dec, when I came on too strong with her. If I went on long enough with it, she’d give up, I was sure.

‘You know what, Matty, I think I won’t this time. What’s going to happen if you get back to Dec and you’re still being like this? He’ll know, and then he’ll spend all night trying to drag it out of you, won’t he. And that’s not fair on him, not today. So just get over yourself, tell me about it, let me help you sort it out, and we can go back and convince Dec that everything’s OK.’

Oh bollocks, she had a point. Dec was almost as good as Beth at knowing when I needed to talk, and both of them were better at knowing it than me. Sighing to myself, realising I may as well give it up willingly, rather than walk all the way along the coast to avoid it, I tried to explain.

‘It’s just bloody terrifying, the thought of how much shit we’ve all got lurking in us, waiting to burst its way out like that. I don’t think I could handle it if it happened to me. I don’t know how he’s handled it, how he’s not foaming at the mouth in the back of the little white van or some such bollocks.’

‘Oh Matty, you and Dec are so different, you’ve had such different experiences, just because he’s reacted like this doesn’t mean you will. Losing his parents like he did, when he did, we can never really understand what that’s like.’

‘Maybe, but I’ve got a fair amount of unsorted crap of my own that I’d rather not think about.’

‘If you talked about things a bit more, sweetheart …’

‘Yeah, well, that’s the thing, though, isn’t it. I don’t do talking, I do this, don’t I.’

I waved my hand vaguely in the direction of the rest of the way down the beach.

‘I’m not going to change any time soon.’

‘Oh Matty, if you’d –’

‘No, Beth. You wanted me to tell you what I was thinking. I’ve told you. Now can we go back? Fuck, we’ve walked miles.’

I turned round and looked back along the sand. I couldn’t see Dec, Amy or Rose, but they would have been small dots by now.

Dec

I stood and watched as she caught him up, taking his arm and walking further up the beach. I wasn’t sure what I’d missed; my head was still in a whirl, I wasn’t really thinking clearly. Amy followed my gaze.

)What are you thinking?

‘Nothing coherent. Still a bit wobbly. Come here.’

I pulled her into my arms, kissed her and folded her into a hug.

‘You have been amazing. How are you doing, babe? Knackered yet?’

)Not yet, but it won’t be long. There are plenty of places to sit down, I’m completely fine.

‘We should go as soon as Matt and Beth get back. Jay won’t last much longer on his own with Iz once Cal’s home from school. Rose, how are you doing? Cup of tea before we go?’

:What everyone else wants to do is fine, don’t worry about me, love.

‘How about we go back and wait in the café? Two birds, one cup of tea.’

)Good plan. I’ll text Beth and let her know.

We strolled back down the beach towards the café, arm in arm. We didn’t talk much. I tried to work out how I was feeling, how things had just changed for me. I had spent the last ten years trying to avoid feeling what I had just felt very publicly, and now everything was out there, I felt a bit light-headed, almost as if I was floating. I was dehydrated from all the crying, and my throat was sore, my voice croaky.

One of the biggest things had been what Matt had said. I could now think of Mum and Dad not as burdens of sadness to keep hidden, but as thirteen years of my life that weighed very little and that I wore with me, in my heart. I was no longer scared of what accessing the memories and emotions associated with those thirteen years would do to me; I had faced it, and rid myself of a lot of baggage. I would still be sad when I thought about them and talked about them, but I was pretty sure I would be able to do it much more easily now.

We reached the café and ordered tea for Rose. Amy had water, and put her feet up on the bench seat, resting her back against my arm and her head against the back of the seat. She looked like she might fall asleep soon. I had a sudden urge for a coke float, which used to be my favourite thing on a Saturday morning, gathered here with Billy, Jase, and Will. The drinks arrived, and Rose poured out her tea.

:Don’t know how you can drink that, love, so much sugar, it looks revolting.

‘It is pretty sweet and sickly. It’s nostalgia, really. Special treat on a Saturday morning.’

I sucked a bit through the straw, pulled a face.

‘No, it’s not the same. I don’t think I’ve got such a sweet tooth as I used to have.’

:I can get another cup, you can share my tea if you like.

‘I couldn’t possibly deprive you, but thanks for the offer. I’ll grab some of Amy’s water in a bit. She’s nearly asleep, look.’

) … no I’m not. Just resting my eyes.

:You have a snooze, love, it’s been a long day.

)Mm. Might do. Carry me to the car, later, hon.

‘OK, babe. Whatever you say.’

I reached round and put my hand on her stomach, kissing her behind her ear.

‘How’s the bubster doing?’

)Fine, hon.

:How are you doing, Declan love?

‘OK. I feel, well, apart from feeling a bit foolish and hoping not too many people were out there to see me, it feels like a good thing in a way. I didn’t realise all that was in there. I’ve been feeling a bit, like there’s something bubbling under, for a while. I could keep a lid on it, but only just, and it was making me a bit edgy. I think the lid’s blown off now, but it took a lot of crap with it. Back to manageable levels.’

:Well, good. That’s good. You gave us all a bit of a turn out there, though, love. Last time I saw you like that, remember when your team lost all those points and you poured your heart out onto my kitchen table, while me and Nico looked at each other and wondered what on earth we were going to do. This was worse, though, I … I wondered if you were going to be alright when you stopped. There was so much hurt on your face, old pain. Sometimes it’s hard to get back from those old places.

I looked at the worry on Rose’s face. I wanted to reassure her.

‘I was always going to be alright, Rose, the same way and for the same reason I was always going to be alright that time with you and Nico. Because I had people with me who cared enough about me to hold on to me. As long as I have all of you, I’ll always be alright. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but that’s the truth. If we look after each other, we can make sure we’ll all always be alright.’

Rose took my hand and squeezed it. Then her knack for changing the subject at just the right moment kicked in.

:Oh, I meant to tell you, Bron and Gethin are coming down next weekend. Gethin’s got a new girlfriend, Bron wants me to check her out.

‘Where are they all going to sleep?’

:Oh, they’ll get a B&B or something. Bron’ll stay with me, I expect.

‘I know someone who might put them up …’

Matt

‘Where are they?’

‘Amy just texted. She said they’ve gone to wait in the café. I think we should go back, and you should tell Dec why you were upset, and let him know you’re OK.’

‘You appear to be the boss.’

‘Don’t be like that, Matty, you know I’m right. Dec doesn’t need to be up all night holding you together.’

‘I suppose not.’

‘You know if you ever need someone to offload to –’

‘Yeah, you’ll be the first interfering busybody I call. Enough now.’

I started walking back along the beach, a bit faster than Beth could manage without trotting to keep up. It meant she didn’t have enough breath to badger me, and I was silent until we reached the café.

Dec

We carried on chatting until Matt and Beth arrived. Matt looked a bit wild-eyed and wary, like he did when something was up that he didn’t know how to talk about. Beth held my gaze and raised her eyebrows at me. They sat down at the table, squeezing next to Rose, as Amy was still asleep with her legs stretched out.

‘Good walk?’

}It’s a lovely location. Ten out of ten for childhood reminiscence spots.

_Matty.

}Oh alright. Dec, Beth says I should tell you, so you don’t have to drag it out of me later. Told her to piss off, but for once she stood firm. Not a big deal really. Any other day and I might have put up more of a fight, but you get special dispensation today.

_Matty. Just say it.

}OK. Well, first, before I do, I just want to check how you are. Are you still a bloody hysterical blart bomb likely to explode with salt water, snot, showers of sand and unbelievably loud noises at any minute, or are all things Summers a bit calmer?

‘I’m feeling OK, thanks for asking so sensitively.’

}Fuck off, having my own mini-crisis here. Alright, Beth, I’m doing it now, I just didn’t want to set him off again. OK, Dec, when you did your little display just now up the beach, it scared ten fucking kinds of zombie-shit out of me. Not just because I thought you were going to do yourself an injury, although there was that. I’m a bit afraid of what I might have lurking down there for me, waiting to pop up at some inconvenient moment. There’s all the shit with Carrie. Then there’s the bastard MS waiting in the wings, the nearly dying of pneumonia, and although my dad died when I was two, and I thought I was OK about it because it was so long ago, that’s a nice little undercurrent too. And, oh, just all of the joys of being the current Mr Matthew Robert Scott. Shit, this is so the wrong time to be unloading all this. But anyway, long story short, I was worried about what I might have waiting to ambush me. So that’s why I buggered off up the beach, as well as to get the image of you, bawling your eyes out, right out of my head.

‘You’re not me, Matt.’

}Well thankful fucks to the god of small mercies for that.

‘Just because something happens to me doesn’t mean it will happen to you.’

}I know that, and Beth reminded me of the same thing. I think … I was so pleased with myself for working out what was going on here with you, that when it produced that reaction I was really shocked. I don’t think I could let go like that, I don’t ever fucking want to.

‘It’s not like I had a choice.’

}That’s kind of my point. But I’m not dwelling, I’m putting it all away to ponder another day. Seriously. I was under orders to tell you why I wandered off, and I’ve done my duty. May we speak of this no more.

‘OK.’

}What the fuck have you been drinking? It looks disgusting.

‘Coke float.’

}Ugh, I can’t think of many less palatable combinations than brown sugary liquid and creamy curdling blobs. Is there anything else on offer?

Matt

As promised, I briefly shared with the group why I had seen fit to flounce off, and then the subject was dropped and to all intents and purposes things returned to normal.

I still had an underlying unease, although I covered it up with my normal arsing about. Dec would have noticed if he hadn’t been preoccupied with his day, so I kept things to myself and resolved to … well, do nothing about it, I suppose.

Dec

He looked at the menu, while I considered what he had told me. Matt was really complex. People couldn’t tell when he was being serious, and he often wrapped up sincerity in bluff and sarcasm to put everyone off the scent. He had a lot of things he wouldn’t readily talk about, and pushing him to talk usually resulted in him retreating further behind his front. I hoped he would come to one of us in his own way and his own time if he needed to.

As we waited for Matt’s and Beth’s drinks to arrive, I noticed I was being stared at from the other side of the café. There was a woman at a table with a boy, who looked about eight or so. Something about his face looked familiar, but there was no way I could have known him when I lived here – he was too young. The boy was looking at me intently, but looked away when I caught his eye, and he kept glancing back to see if I was still looking, then looking away again when he saw I was. I looked at the woman, I assumed she was his mum, to see if I recognised her, but I couldn’t recall her. After a while, they got up and the woman went to the till to pay. As they passed our table, the boy slowed down and looked again. I smiled at him. He smiled back and stopped.

*Are you Declan Summers?

I nodded, and his mum turned round at the sound of his voice.

*Ned, come here, now.

He held his ground for the briefest moment, but couldn’t disobey and ran up to her, looking back at me. He tugged on his mum’s t-shirt.

*Mum, it’s Declan Summers.

*Who?

*He plays for Raiders. Uncle Jason used to go to school with him.

Something clicked. That was who he looked like – Jason Dixon. He must be related to Jase. Nephew? I tried to recall details of his family. Did he have an older sister? Couldn’t remember.

They left the café, the boy looking back over his shoulder and trying to get his mum to listen to him. I might have followed, but Amy was still asleep against me, and I didn’t want to disturb her.

:Did you know them, love?

‘I don’t think so. The boy looked like someone I used to know, I suppose he might have been related, but I didn’t know the boy or the woman. He seemed to know me, though.’

}The perils of dining with a sporting superstar, one just can’t have a mochaccino in peace these days without it being ruined by the rabble.

We finished our drinks, although I left most of my coke float and drank Amy’s water, and then we decided to put Jay out of his misery and go home. Jay had texted Beth a couple of times asking when we were going to be back, and she was starting to feel guilty.

_I hardly ever have a day off from the children, I’m just prolonging it as much as I can. He’ll cope. I might text him and tell him what to do for our tea, so it’s ready when we get home.

‘Great idea, Beth, if you really want to eat black oven chips and rubber burgers.’

}Or worse, find the house burnt down and all your possessions charred to a crisp. Nothing more likely to ruin an appetite.

_Sadly, I think you could be right. How about we pick up takeaway on the way back, then?

}Top idea. I’ll wash up.

_Really, Matty?

}Fuck, no. That’s what the dishwasher is for. Right, are we all ready? Dec, wake Amy up unless you’re giving her a fireman’s lift to the car park. Or I could go and fetch the car … oh fuck it, why did I even suggest that, you’re all going to sit here and let me sod off on my own now, aren’t you.

_I’ll come with you, sweetheart. I think Amy could do with the extra rest, and Rose has done a lot of walking about today.

‘And I’m propping Amy up. If I come, she’ll fall over.’

}You’re excused, fucking nancy. Summers is deducted five man points for using a lame excuse. Right, won’t be long. Beth, you remember where we parked don’t you …

As they left, Amy stirred and woke up. She swung her legs over the edge of the seat, sat up, yawned and rubbed her eyes.

)Hello. Did I doze off?

‘Yeah, babe. Huge snores and everything. Look – the whole place has emptied because of the noise.’

)I wasn’t snoring! Rose, I wasn’t snoring?

Rose laughed.

:No, love, but you were pretty fast asleep. Are you still getting morning sickness?

)Yeah, three o’clock every morning, you could set your alarm by it if you really wanted to be up then.

:I’m not surprised you’re tired, then, love. Shouldn’t last much longer, hopefully, first twelve weeks is usually the worst.

)Hope so. Aren’t Matt and Beth back yet?

‘They’ve been and gone.’

)What, while I was asleep? Was I asleep that long?

I laughed at the surprised look on her face.

‘Yeah, babe. They’ve gone to fetch the car so I don’t have to carry you through town over my shoulder. Sorry I wore you out today. Early night, yeah?’

)Sounds lovely. But really, an early night, with just going to bed early to sleep and not …

She stopped herself and looked at Rose, who laughed.

:I know what ‘early night’ means, love, I’ve even had a few myself, although not for a while, mind. Declan, let the poor girl catch up on her sleep and stop being so demanding.

‘It’s not my fault she’s bloody irresistible.’

:Actually, love, it is. Have some willpower.

)Thanks Rose.

‘Yeah, thanks Rose. Thanks a bunch.’

We laughed as I pulled Amy close enough to whisper in her ear.

‘You’re just too fucking gorgeous, fancy a quickie out the back, by the bins?’

She laughed and whispered back.

)Have some willpower.

I gave her a wet sloppy kiss on the cheek and hugged her tight to me. I was starting to feel some kind of normality creeping back following the weirdness of the episode on the beach. We sat and chatted for a while longer, and just as I was beginning to wonder if they’d got lost on the way back to the car park, I saw Matt’s four wheel drive pull up outside the café. He honked the horn. Amy and Rose got up and walked to the car, while I paid the bill for the drinks.

As I was leaving the café, I noticed a car coming pretty fast down the road along the seafront. It braked sharply and pulled in behind Matt’s car. Both front doors opened, and the little boy from before got out of the passenger side. A man got out of the driver’s side. The boy had a big grin on his face and turned to speak to the man.

*See, it is him.

The man stared at me, realised he was staring, closed the car door and walked with the boy to where I had stopped. I was aware of everyone in Matt’s car watching.

*Charlie?

‘Er, Declan.’

*You don’t remember me.

I thought about the boy, and who he’d reminded me of, and his Uncle Jason. I added a few years to the face of the boy from my memories.

‘Jase?’

The man smiled, nodded and held out his hand. I grinned, and clasped it.

‘Fucking hell!’

*I hope you don’t mind, Neddy here recognised you in the café, he goes to Raiders with his dad a lot. He came back full of how he’d seen you, wouldn’t give his mum any peace, she rang me and I had to come straight down, see if you were still here. What are you doing here?

‘I’m with my family.’

I gestured to the car. They all waved at him, and he raised a hand self-consciously.

*Oh, well, sorry, looks like you’re all just off. I just wanted to see if it really was you. How long has it been?

‘Probably about seven years. That’s when I left.’

*Bit longer than that, you moved about so much, changed your name, we kind of lost touch. You’re doing well for yourself.

‘Yeah, I’m doing OK. How about you?’

*Yeah, pretty good, working with my dad, he’s got this timber business. Getting married next year. Remember Suzie McDonald?

‘Really, Suzie? Fuck me. Congratulations.’

I’d had to stop myself repeating her nickname, Suzie the Floozie.

*Uncle Jason …

*Oh, yeah, right. Ned was pretty keen to get your autograph, er, it feels a bit awkward, but would you mind? He’s brought a programme.

I laughed. ‘No, of course not. Do you ever come with him to the games?

*I’ve been a couple of times, when his dad couldn’t make it. Football’s really more my game, sorry. I follow the results, though, see if you’ve scored. You usually have.

Ned handed me the programme and a pen. He’d opened it to a page with my picture on.

‘I like this picture, Ned, it was my first try for Raiders.’

*I was there, it was near where I was standing, it was awesome. Did you really go to school with Uncle Jason?

‘Yeah, I did. I was just telling everyone today, we both used to sneak over the fence at the back of my house after school, so everyone thought we’d come straight home instead of going to the park. And we used to come here on a Saturday morning and drink coke floats.’

*He called you Charlie.

‘I know. I used to be called Charlie when I was at school with Jase.’

*But are you really Declan Summers?

‘Yes, I really am. What do you want me to put here?’

*To Ned, and your name, please.

I wrote in the programme and handed it back.

‘Ned, next time you and your dad, or your uncle if you can persuade him to give up the football, are at Raiders, let the girls in the ticket office know you’re there, ask them to tell me. You could come after, meet some of the players, get a tour of the ground, or something.’

Ned’s eyes went very round.

*What do you say, Ned?

*Thank you.

*Thanks, mate, that’s really good of you.

‘What’s your dad’s name?’

*Peter.

‘I’ll leave a message in the office, look out for you.’

*We should leave you to it, Char – er – Declan. Thanks for this, he’s a complete Raiders nut.

‘Keep it up, Ned. Seriously, Jase, come and find me after a game sometime, we can have a proper catch up. Great to see you, really great.’

*You too. Cheers mate, see you sometime.

We shook hands, they walked off to his car and got in. I got into the front seat of Matt’s.

}Satisfied your eager public have we?

‘Ha ha. It was an old friend.’

:Was that the little boy from the café, love?

‘Yeah, he’s Jason Dixon’s nephew.’

}Jason Dixon – why do I know that name?

‘I mentioned him today, at the house. He was my fellow fence hopper.’

}Oh yeah. So that was him. Happy reunion?

‘Bit weird meeting someone I probably last saw when we were wagging school together. His nephew’s a Raiders fan.’

}Yeah, we got that, with the autographs and the hero-worship and the big beam of light shining down on your head. Fucking egomaniac.

)Are you going to keep in touch?

I shrugged. ‘Up to him, I’ve told him to look me up after a game. See if it ever happens. I feel like I’ve left this place behind, especially after today. I’m not in any hurry to rekindle old stuff, he probably isn’t either. Good to see him, though. I was beginning to think nothing had stayed the same here. Matt are you ever going to start this car, or are we going to sit here bloody chatting for the rest of the week?’

}Yes, sir, starting the engine, sir, sorry to have kept you waiting, sir, even though it was you who was standing around outside keeping the faith with the little people, sir.

‘Piss off and drive us home.’

An hour or so later, having picked up a Chinese meal on the way home, we pulled up outside Jay and Beth’s house. Amy, Rose and Beth were all asleep in the back of the car.

}I vote we leave them here until we’ve had our pick of the takeaway, then we’ll wake them up so they can polish off the egg fried rice and prawn crackers no one ever wants.

‘Don’t like your chances if you deprive Amy of her chicken chow mein.’

}Bollocks, good point. Hadn’t taken into account hormonal surges as a risk factor. OK, better wake them up then, bagsy not it, see you inside.

Matt grabbed the bags of takeaway, jumped out of the car and slammed the door hard. Rose, Beth and Amy all woke up with a start. It was very funny.

‘Come on, ladies, Matt’s gone inside with dinner. I suggest you get going if you want there to be any left.’

)He’d better not be touching my chicken chow mein.

‘He’s well aware of the consequences if he does, babe, but everything else is fair game.’

Amy and Beth got out from either side of the car and went indoors; I stayed and helped Rose down from the back seat.

:Thanks, love. Alright?

‘I’m good, thanks, Rose. What a day. Thanks for coming.’

:You know I’ll always be there for you, love.

‘I know. It means a lot. Same here. Know what, Rose, you and me, we’re a little family all on our own, aren’t we. I mean, yeah, part of this fucking weird sprawly chaotic unexplainable one, but me and you, we’re a little unit too.’

:You’re right, love. Don’t start me off, now, I gave you my last tissue.

‘Ha ha, let’s go and fight Matt for dinner, then.’