23. Dream a little dream

In which boundaries are established, an invitation is made and considered, and dreams of brown boots begin in earnest.

Advertisements

Dec

:Feels good to be outside, eh, love?

‘Great. Where’s your car?’

:I had to park quite a way away, but you wait here and I’ll come and pick you up. Here’s a bench, look. I won’t be long.

I thought about insisting on going with her, but I was flagging and my legs had begun to ache. The constant jogging of my collar bone wasn’t helping either. Decided for once not to be needlessly stubborn. I sat on the bench, closed my eyes and waited.

Footsteps and voices all around me. The sound of the entrance doors swishing open and closed. Cars pulling up and pulling away. The occasional ringtone. Sun on my face and breeze in my hair. Relative freedom. Let my mind drift while I waited. Started to relax. Felt my shoulders untense, hadn’t realised how tight I’d been holding myself, since Rose told me about first my bag and then my flat. Concentrated on unwinding everything, mind and body. It felt like I needed several weeks rather than a few minutes, but it was a start. Had only scratched the surface when I felt a hand on my arm, and heard Rose’s voice.

:Declan, love, you asleep?

I opened my eyes.

‘Relaxing.’

:Oh is that what you call it. Come on love, here’s the car. You sure you’ll be able to get in alright? I’m a bit worried about that plaster cast –

‘Give it a try.’

I stood up, wandered over to Rose’s car and slowly got in. It was quite a tight squeeze, even though the seat was all the way back. My right arm, in its unbending cast, threatened to get in the way of the handbrake and Rose’s gear changes.

:Don’t worry, I’ll work round you.

She was trying to sound cheerful, but Rose wasn’t a confident driver and I could see she was a bit worried. I shifted as far to the left in my seat as I could and tried to hold my arm on my lap. Rose had to put my seat belt on for me.

:It’s not really that far, won’t take long.

Sounding like she was trying to convince herself, she started the engine and we set off. She drove very slowly, taking great care with all the gear changes. The flats were over on the other side of the city, but the traffic was fairly light. Rose didn’t say a word to me, she was concentrating so hard on driving, hands gripping the steering wheel so hard her knuckles were white, teeth chewing on her bottom lip.

I looked around me as she drove, noticing all the lights and sparkle. Was it nearly Christmas? I thought back to the weekend and counted forwards to what the date must be today. Hadn’t really been paying attention. Must only be ten days or so to go. Hadn’t given it a thought, I’d been so preoccupied with everything else that had been going on. Christmas seemed largely irrelevant just at the moment, but the rest of the world obviously didn’t share my opinion.

We finally pulled up outside Rose’s garage. She breathed a deep sigh of relief, got out of the car, and came round to open my door.

:Alright, love, here we are then. Let’s go in and have a cuppa and a bit of cake.

‘Thanks a lot, Rose.’

:Get on with you, always got tea and cake on the go.

‘I mean for everything. Really, thanks.’

:Well, remember our deal, as long as you want it, I’ll stick my oar in. Still a deal?

‘Deal.’

As we reached Rose’s front door, I glanced up the staircase, and of course it was noticed.

:I’ll go and check on how things are going in a minute, get you settled first. Don’t go up yourself, love. Try not to think about it.

Rose led me inside and into the lounge, where she made me sit in her comfy armchair. Bringing me a cup of tea and a large piece of fruit cake, she headed off to check on my flat, as I sipped carefully and ate slowly.

Rose came back, accompanied by Tony, the landlord. He told me the police had finished in my flat, had taken some samples and photos, but they wanted to talk to me. He didn’t paint a pretty picture of the inside of my flat, it seemed like virtually everything I had up there had been ruined, and I was doubly glad I had already agreed to stay with Rose.

Tony had arranged a cleaning firm for the next day, and started to talk about costs and insurance, before Rose gave him a stern look, but I couldn’t blame him for bringing up the subject.

‘Kay, thanks, let me know.’

*It’s all locked up again now, I’ve had the locks changed – here’s your new keys, for both of you. The cleaning firm will get the keys off me, I’ll let you know when it’s all done.

‘Thanks.’

:Thanks, Tony, thanks for sorting it all out for Declan – he’s not really in a fit state to do it himself.

*No problem, let me know if there’s any hassle tomorrow.

Rose showed him to the door, then came back, looked at me and sat down on her sofa.

:Right, love, I think we need a list of things to do.

‘Really? What things?’

:Well, getting you some new clothes for a start. We also need to let people know where you are, organise some people to sit with you while I’m at work –

‘What? No, don’t need that.’

:I can’t go off to work tomorrow and leave you here on your own.

‘You bloody can, I’m OK.’

:I’m out all day, love. I took today off so I could be around, but I can’t get tomorrow off.

‘I’m fine. physios said.’

:They said you can walk. Don’t see you doing much else for yourself for a while. Come on, love, humour me, I won’t relax if I’m worrying about you.

‘Don’t need babysitting.’

:No, alright, fair enough, how about someone popping in just to check? Have a chat? I know Nico wants to, he’s asked me to ring him.

I sighed, I wasn’t going to completely win; I could foresee lots of compromising in my future.

‘OK, visits is fine. No sitters.’

Rose sat back, satisfied, and I had a sense that she had haggled me down to where she had wanted me in the first place.

Cal

Then, before tea, Mum got the phone and let me press the button to call Rose. I gave the phone to Mum, because she wanted to talk to Rose first.

Mum talked to Rose about how Dec was, and said a lot of ‘oh no, that’s terrible’ and ‘oh poor love, how is he’, and I was worried for a little while that Dec was too hurt or too sad to talk to us, but soon Mum stopped saying ‘oh no’, and looked at me.

Dec

I couldn’t hear much of what Rose said, as her phone was in the hallway, but from her lowered voice I assumed she was talking to someone about me. I realised this was something else I would get lots of in the near future. After a while Rose came back into the room holding the handset.

:Want to talk to Beth?

I smiled broadly and put my hand out for the phone. It still felt incredible that she wanted to talk to me.

‘Hi Beth.’

_Dec, lovely to hear your voice. You sound much better. How are you, sweetheart?

‘Getting there.’

_Rose tells me you’ve had some more trouble. Are you OK?

‘Getting there.’

_Alright, then, I’ll stop fussing. There’s someone here would like to ask you something. Are you OK to talk to Cal?

‘Great.’

Cal

Mum held the phone out to me.

‘Come on Cal, Dec’s ready now.’

She whispered in my ear: ‘Don’t forget what we said,’

I whispered back: ‘I know, Mummy.’

Then I took the phone and forgot everything we’d practised.

‘Dec, can you talk now?’

Dec

‘I can talk better, yeah. Thanks for helping me out when I was in hospital.’

\can you come and live with us on Christmas?

‘Oh … er … ‘

I was completely thrown. Was Cal asking me to spend Christmas with them? I had not thought beyond this afternoon. Planning for a major event in – what? – a week or so was far out of my reach. Had assumed I would be here at Rose’s for, hmm, a couple of weeks? Did that include Christmas? But if they were asking me to go there to stay, if they wanted me there, in their home … what if they were asking me to live with them again …

Cal

I’d expected Dec to be really pleased and excited, but he stopped talking altogether. He could talk again, and although his voice still sounded a bit funny, everyone would be able to know what he was saying, so I wasn’t sure why he wasn’t talking.

‘Mummy he’s being quiet.’

‘Er, yeah, sorry Cal, just thinking. Don’t know if I can answer you just yet. Can I talk to Mummy?’

‘Mummy – talk to Dec.’

I handed the phone to Mum, hoping that I hadn’t somehow messed things up. What I’d said wasn’t what we practised, and maybe I’d done it so wrong that Dec would say no. I hadn’t considered Dec saying no until now, and I clung on to Mum while she talked, feeling worried.

Dec

_Hi Dec, sorry, sweetheart, that was a bit different than we rehearsed. I shouldn’t think you’ve had a chance to think about Christmas yet.

‘Not really. Is it next week?’

_A week on Thursday. You are a bit out of it, aren’t you? I just had a quick chat with Rose. We really want to see you, but we’re not going to be able to make it down there for a while. But if you think you’ll be fit enough, and if you’d like to come up, we’d love to have you here for Christmas. Cal would absolutely love it. He’s talked about you non-stop since we left you yesterday.

Cal

This was true. I’d asked all sorts of questions about where Dec had been, what he’d been doing, why he’d been gone, but none of them had really been answered. The only things Mum and Dad would talk about were how long it was going to take Dec to get better, and all the things I wanted to know about his cuts and bruises, and things at the hospital, like the wee bag and the water bag. Still, it was a lot better than not being allowed to talk about Dec at all.

Dec

‘James and I would love it too. James really wants a good talk. We’ve all missed you, sweetheart.’

So it was just for Christmas. I was immediately overwhelmed with conflicting feelings – disappointment that it was just for Christmas, and not forever; relief that I wasn’t going to have to think about whether I stayed here or moved to where they were; joy that they wanted me to spend time with them. Tears welled up and spilled down my face, taking me by surprise. I had the phone in one hand and couldn’t bend my other arm, so couldn’t wipe my eyes. I sniffed.

‘I … er … don’t know what to say.’

What I wanted to say was ‘yes, yes, fuck yes’, but I looked over at Rose, who was turning the pages of a magazine, pretending she wasn’t listening intently. I really didn’t want to upset her, didn’t know what plans she’d made, after she’d been good enough to give me a room in her home. Bloody hell, being looked after was hard work.

_Well there’s plenty of time, have a think and let us know, OK?’

Cal

I suddenly remembered my Transformer dilemma and tugged on Mum’s arm.

‘Yes, alright Cal. Dec, are you OK for another word with Cal?’

She handed the phone over again.

‘Dec, I haven’t got a Optimus Prime yet.’

‘Really? Did you put it in your letter to Santa?’

‘No, because you were going to get it on my birthday, and then you didn’t get it on my birthday, and I didn’t put it in Santa’s letter because I don’t want two Optimus Primes.’

‘Oh, OK … well … sorry for the confusion. Me and Santa will sort it out. OK?’

‘Kay. Bye.’

Dec

I laughed at his abruptness. Beth came back on the line; she was laughing too.

_I don’t know what he likes more – your promises of Transformers or your cool scars. I’m a bit worried he’s going to get into a fight so he can look more like you.

‘Shit, Beth, don’t say that.’

_As long as he doesn’t start swearing like you, he’ll be OK.

‘Sorry.’

_Honestly, you and James are as bad as each other. Maybe you’re a bit worse than James. I suppose it’s up to me to keep Cal on the straight and narrow.

‘You are good at it.’

_No help from you! Anyway, let us know what you think about Christmas, sweetheart. No rush, short notice is fine. Want a quick word with James?

‘Yeah.’

The more I talked to them, the more real it felt. It was filtering into my brain that I might not have lost them forever after all.

łHey mate.

‘Hey.’

łHow’s it going?

‘Getting there.’

łYeah, and really, how’s it going.

I paused. This was an opportunity to put right some of the things that had caused this mess in the first place. Not bottling things up, saying how I was really feeling, being honest, asking for help. Not easy. Deep breath.

‘Still pretty shit. I’m a bit of a wreck. And my flat was broken into, everything trashed.’

łJesus, Dec, I didn’t know. That’s all you need. You’re staying with Rose, though?

‘Yeah, she’s been bloody great.’

I looked over at Rose and grinned at her. ‘Bit bossy, but I can take it.’

łShe’s more than a match for you, mate. How’s all your aches and pains?

‘Getting there. Honest. Better than yesterday.’

łYou sound much better – well I can understand you for a start. Nico said you fell out of bed?

‘Bloody hell, can’t do anything round here. Yeah, but no damage. Pulled a few stitches. Big bruise on my arse. Fucking hurt. Felt a bit of a twat. No more.’

łOK, glad to hear it. Be strong, mate, stay positive. See you soon.

There was a catch in Jay’s voice that I really didn’t want to investigate.

‘Hope so. Bye.’

I put the phone down and rested my head back against the chair, blowing my cheeks out. Looked over at Rose, who put down the magazine she hadn’t been reading and looked at me.

‘They want me to go up for Christmas.’

I couldn’t read Rose’s expression.

:What do you want to do?

Well that was the question. I hadn’t given Christmas a thought, but now I was remembering the last three Christmases, which I had spent with Jay, Beth and Cal. They had put to rest the ghosts of several miserable festive seasons in various foster homes, and to be part of their Christmas now would mean a lot – to be with them at all, but especially for Christmas. It was just the thing to help me get over the seemingly constant stream of bad things that had happened to me in the last few days.

On the other hand, I couldn’t bear to let Rose down. I didn’t know what she was expecting or wanted. Before yesterday, she hadn’t been planning a house-guest, and would have been organising something else, somewhere else, for weeks.

‘Kind of depends on you.’

:Don’t be daft, love. Don’t worry about me. The only thing I will say is, it’s a long way to Stafford, are you up to the journey?

I ignored the last part, apart from briefly wondering just how far away Stafford was.

‘What were you planning, before me?’

:That’s not important, love. Just do what makes you happy.

‘For fuck’s sake, Rose … sorry … what I mean is, if I wasn’t here, what would you be doing for Christmas? Please tell me.’

:Well, as you asked so nicely, in the end, I was going to go to my sister’s, same as every year.

‘Looking forward to it or not?’

Rose hesitated, as if trying to decide whether her answer would sway my decision.

:We get on really well, you know that, and I love seeing Gethin, he’s about the same age as you, did I tell you?

‘Might have mentioned it.’ A few zillion times.

:But if you need me here, I’ll stay. I can see them any time.

Finally, I knew what I needed to.

‘No, I think I’ll go. Sort something out to get there, get the train or something. Where exactly is Stafford?’

:I can take you, drop you off on the way.

‘Rose, you get nervous driving out of the garage. No fucking way you’re taking me. I doubt it’s ‘on the way’ to Pontypool.

:Cheek, I’m a good driver, very careful.

‘Whatever you say. But you’re not taking me. End of.’

Rose gave me a look that suggested I hadn’t heard the last of this conversation, but stood up and said she was going to start some dinner. I felt exhausted at the thought of all the battles I was going to have with Rose over the next few days. I closed my eyes, and must have dozed off, as I suddenly felt a shake on my shoulder.

:Come on love, tea’s ready.

‘What, already?’

:You’ve been asleep. Not as tough as you thought, eh? Want it here on your lap, or at the table in the kitchen?

‘Table.’

Cal

I heard Dad talk to Dec for a little while, and then Mum and Dad were talking to each other. I thought about listening outside the room again, but I just wanted to know if Dec was coming for Christmas, so I went straight in.

‘When is Dec coming?’

‘He hasn’t decided yet, sweetheart. I think we surprised him. He might not be able to come.’

‘Oh, but, I want him to.’

‘I know, Cal, but Dec’s got to make his own mind up. He’ll let us know, when he’s thought about it.’

‘When will he?’

‘I don’t know. Try not to think about it, until we hear from him.’

I tried really hard not to think about it, but it’s difficult not to think about something you’re trying really hard not to think about, especially if it’s something you’re excited about, and something to do with Christmas, which isn’t far away. I really wanted to be with Dec again, so we could play, and tell jokes, and watch Arsenal, and read stories, and do mouth and bottom burps, like we always did.

Dec

Half way through the meal, the phone rang again. Rose answered, and took the call in the lounge. I was getting a bit annoyed at her tendency to discuss me first out of earshot – nothing had happened to me that I didn’t know about, and I knew she thought she was considering my feelings, but nonetheless it was irritating. Decided to wander into the lounge, with my plate balanced precariously in my left hand, to have a listen.

: … talk to the police, they’ve taken samples – oh hello love. Everything alright?

‘Apart from being talked about behind my back, yeah.’

Rose gave me a steely look.

:It’s Nico. Perhaps you’d like to talk to him?

‘Thanks.’

I put my plate down and took the handset from her.

‘Hey.’

>Declan, you are not nice to Rose. She worry about you, and we talk last night while you are not here. She tell me about your flat just now. I worry. The one who take your key, and piss in your bag, he is the same, I know it. You know who do it before.

I was silent. I had my suspicions, but naming DivDav out loud was not something I could do easily. He was a mate, and if he wasn’t, he had made a fool of me.

>Declan, you are there?

‘Yeah. I … I’m not sure. We don’t know for definite. I don’t think he would –’

>He do it before, you know this.

‘I just saw him this morning, we made up, shook hands, we were OK.’

>You must tell the police. They will find out.

‘Maybe. Not tonight.’

>Huh. OK. Soon though.

‘Kay.’

>And be nice to Rose, she try hard for you.

‘I know.’

>Lis want to see you, she like a man with stitches. We come tonight?

‘I guess, if you can get past Rose.’

>Rose love to see me. Lis love to see Rose. You love to see us both. Good. We are there soon.

Having been thoroughly Nicoed, I finished my plateful and took it back into the kitchen, where Rose was clearing away the tea table.

‘Sorry, Rose, just getting a bit fed up of being talked about when I’m out of the room. I don’t mind if you talk to people about me, just like to know what you’re saying, that’s all.’

:I know, love, sorry too, just trying to spare your feelings with going over it all again. I should have remembered from before how you are with being talked about.

‘Nico and Lis are coming over.’

Rose’s face lit up.

:Oh, that’s grand. When are they coming?

‘I think they’re on their way.’

Her face fell.

:Better do some tidying up, then.

I looked around at the spotless kitchen.

‘Why?’

:Got to look nice for visitors.

‘OK, give me a duster.’

:Cheeky, doesn’t need dusting.

‘Hoover then.’

:Or hoovering.

I looked at her. She looked back. I think I won that one.

:Alright then. You go back and sit down, I’ll get a nice packet of biscuits and put the kettle on.

I let her get on with fussing in the kitchen, went back to the living room, flicked the TV on for some early evening meaninglessness. Sat with my eyes closed, letting it wash over me until I suddenly heard my name.

*… Summers. Police are investigating an assault at the Raiders stadium on Saturday night. It is understood that the young player, who is at the centre of Raiders’ points deduction scandal, was attacked after Saturday’s victory over Chieftains, and has spent the weekend in hospital. His injuries are reported to be serious but not life-threatening. No further details are known at this time.

They showed an old photo of me, from the haircut I was about seventeen. It brought it all home. I still had no memory of Saturday evening, apart from the little flashes that presented themselves at odd times when I stretched my stitches or moved too quickly and set off a twinge.

I had actually been beaten up. Someone had wanted to physically hurt me and had done me some pretty major damage. And then, as if that message wasn’t enough someone had come to my home and trashed that too. I shied away from the thought that ‘someone’ might be a person or people I knew, as it was terrifying. It suddenly occurred to me that Rose could be at risk if ‘someone’ knew I was staying with her.

‘Rose!’

She came hurrying into the room.

:What’s the matter, love?

‘Don’t let anyone in, be really careful. Lock your doors, front and back.’

:What are you talking about, love?

‘It’s not safe. I don’t know if they know I’m here.’

:Are you feeling alright, love? You’re not making any sense.

I knew I wasn’t, I was trying to explain but feeling a sense of urgency, and it was all getting jumbled up. Deep breaths.

‘OK. Sorry. Whoever did this –’

I gestured at myself

‘– and my flat, it could be the same person. They must know me, know where I live, and if they know I’m staying here who knows what else they might try. I don’t want you to let anyone in, even if they say they’re a friend.’

:Oh, love, you’re safe here, no one gets past my front door. I assume Nico is on the guest list?

I conceded that point.

‘But no one else. Not until I know who did it. And don’t just buzz people in until you know who they are. And don’t tell them I’m here, even if they sound like they know. And you need to sort out your back door, it’s too easy to get over the wall. Keep it locked, and you need a bolt or something.’

:Alright, then.’

Rose looked amused, then frowned.

‘But do you think someone you know might have done all this? You should tell the police if you’ve remembered anything.

‘Not sure, don’t want to be wrong.’

:Oh love, you’ve got to say something.

‘I know. Tomorrow?’

She sat down beside me and patted my hand.

:It’s a funny old time for you, isn’t it love? I think you’re coping really well with everything. You’ve had quite a few ups and downs over the last few days, you need time just to sort through it. I think some peace and quiet here, then some time with your family at Christmas is just what you need.

The door entry buzzer went.

:Well, I don’t think we’ll be starting the peace and quiet until after Nico has been …’

‘Check it’s him, don’t let him in till you’re sure.’

:Alright, love …

I could hear her on the intercom in the hallway.

:Who is this? … What are you here for? … No, just checking … Alright, love, come in.

She went to open her front door. I wasn’t sure Rose’s security measures would be up to much, and it continued to gnaw away at me. Voices from the hallway.

>What happens, Rose, why these questions?

:Sorry, love, Declan is having some kind of panic about safety. Wants to make sure nobody gets in who might … oh I don’t know, you’d better ask him yourself.

She showed Nico and Lisa into the living room. I shuffled up on the sofa to make room. Lisa bent down and kissed me on the cheek.

~You’re looking lots better.

I smiled at her.

‘Thanks. Getting there.’

~Sounding it too. Just as well, seeing as Cal’s not here to translate.

>What is this security nonsense?

‘Not nonsense, don’t want Rose to get hurt. Just need to check people before letting them in.’

>There is only one person you need to check. You know this.

:No, Nico. I can’t be sure. I’m not talking about this now. OK?

~OK Dec.

Lisa sat next to me and took my hand. She reached up to Nico and pulled him down next to her.

~Let’s not get stressed, yeah? We’ve come to see Dec and help him feel better, not start going on at him. Rose, did you say the kettle was on?

:Yes, love, there’s some chocolate biscuits too.

~I’ll come and give you a hand. Nico, behave yourself.

>Ha, always, baby.

He gave her a cheeky grin. Rose and Lisa left the room. I turned the TV off, and I could hear their voices in the kitchen as they got to know each other.

>Sorry, man. You know I worry. We promise Jaime we look after you. I forget you don’t like to be looked after. You are problem.

‘I worry too, about Rose.’

>I know this. She is strong, I think. Very clever. Cares very much. She – oh, she bring tea and biscuits. Tremendo!

We sat and chatted, or rather Rose, Nico and Lis chatted while I mostly listened. Even though my speech was back to normal, talking was still painful, my mouth was bruised and the stitches pulled. I was feeling tired, and there was something emotional there too. When I’d been battered and bruised as a result of playing, it was like battle scars. But this, these marks that had been deliberately put there by someone, well there was nothing glorious about it at all. I had felt similar things when I’d been battered in the training sessions after my suspension – the bruises themselves were physically insignificant, but psychologically they were hard to overcome. This was worse – someone had meant to do me a serious injury. I couldn’t think about it, but I couldn’t ignore it either, and it put me on edge.

Rose was still conscious of my earlier tantrum about being talked about, and checked with me with her eyes before saying anything. I gave her a nod, and she told Nico and Lis about my lack of anything to wear.

~So you haven’t got any other clothes than what you’ve got on?

I shook my head.

~Well I think we need to get onto that first thing tomorrow. I’m not working, I’ll go and get you some stuff, yeah? Tell me your sizes, which shops you like, maybe we can have a look on the internet – Rose have you got a computer?

:Sorry, love, not up with all this technology. All I can do to work my mobile phone.

Lis got her phone out, but couldn’t get a signal.

~Oh, OK, know what, I’ll just pop home and get my laptop. Then make a list. Soon have you sorted.

Lisa stood up, put her hand out to Nico for the car keys, and left. As the door closed behind her, I had a sudden thought.

‘Wallet.’

:What, love?

‘Never got my wallet back. Would have been in my bag with the keys. Shit.’

>OK, Declan, now you must tell police. You must report stolen money. If they have your cards, you must do something.

‘Can’t pay for clothes.’

Nico let out an exasperated sigh.

>We pay. You don’t worry about clothes. But you must do this. Rose, you have a number for police?

Rose looked from me to Nico, battling with herself about what to do.

:Wasn’t it DI Johnson, love? He gave you his card, I put it in my bag somewhere …

She started rifling through her cavernous handbag, sorting through various pockets and bits of paper. Finally, she held a business card up. I found myself with my own battle – angry at the powerlessness that I was feeling, but relief that it might be sorted, and I might regain control over this part of the whole situation. At the moment everything felt out of my grasp and I hated it. I put my head back on the sofa and closed my eyes. Rose patted my shoulder.

:Alright, love, it’s for the best. Get it over with, if we can.

‘Mm.’

I had no more fight left; they could do what they wanted to. Rose handed the card to Nico.

:Here it is. Try this one, love. He’s the one who spoke to Declan yesterday.

>OK, I call now?

Nico looked at me, eyebrows raised. I looked at him and shrugged.

>Ha, is a Declan ‘yes’, I think. OK …

He dialled the number. Waited.

>Hello, my name is Nicolàs Tiago … yes … is me … I call about Declan Summers. I have information you should know … about both … I think we know who do this to Declan … we also think he take Declan’s wallet and keys … his name is David Allsop, he is player with Raiders.

I found it hard to listen to, tried to drift away, but Nico’s voice pulled me back.

>He do this before, not the beating, but the piss on the clothes. He in trouble at Raiders for treating Declan bad … what? … yes, he is here, he is not well, he is just from hospital. I phone for him … OK, I ask, I don’t think he talk tonight.

Nico looked at me.

>This policeman he want to talk to you, OK?

I looked back at him. I supposed I was going to have to do it sometime, but I was exhausted, my brain felt fuzzy, and all I could do was look at Nico and shake my head.

:Maybe tomorrow, love. I’ll get Declan to ring.

Rose, my guardian angel. Nico spoke into the phone again.

>I think not tonight, but he call you tomorrow … OK … yes … before eleven … OK … what you do now? We worry about him finding Declan again … OK … yes … OK … thank you.

He hung up. Breathed out.

>They talk to you tomorrow, can do nothing until then. He say if we worry, we call them again.

:Alright love, well you got that off your chest. I think we need to cancel Declan’s bank cards too – can you remember which ones you had in your wallet, love?

‘Only got one now. Not much in it.’

:Still, better safe than sorry. Which bank are you with?

I told her, and let her ring them for me. I was starting to feel sorry for myself again, very tired, a bit out of control, sad and confused about DivDav. The bank wouldn’t talk to Rose, hard as she tried to make them, so I sighed, took the phone. Gave them what details I could remember. They cancelled everything. I put the phone down on the arm of the sofa and flopped backwards.

‘Fucking knackered now.’

:I bet you are love. Banks always tire me out. Such a palaver.

>You do well. Now is less worry.

The intercom buzzer sounded, making me jump. Rose got up to answer it, as panic stabbed through me.

‘Don’t let them in if you don’t know them.’

:Relax, love, it’ll only be Lisa.

I was incredibly jumpy, and energy reserves on empty weren’t helping. Lis ran the gauntlet of Rose’s questioning, exaggerated for my benefit, then plonked herself down next to me and opened her laptop.

~I guess you haven’t got broadband, Rose, so I brought my dongle.

:If you say so, love, haven’t got a clue what that means, I’ll let you get on with it. More tea for anyone?

No one had much of a choice. Constant tea was the price you paid for visiting Rose. I wasn’t really up for online shopping, but I needed clothing pretty urgently. Especially pants and socks. Not that sure I wanted to discuss my underwear requirements with Lis, but didn’t have much choice – it was her or Rose.

‘Don’t have any money.’

>Declan just find out his wallet is gone from Saturday. We call the police and his bank, but I say we buy his clothes.

~Oh Dec, of course – oh my God, do you think it was the same –

>I know it is the same one. I tell the policeman.

~Sorry, Dec. He was a friend of yours, wasn’t he? Must be tough.

‘Mm.’

A look passed between Lis and Nico.

~Well, anyway, let’s not worry about that just now. We’ll have a look at a few bits, I’ll go and get them tomorrow and you can be best dressed of the year again. What’s first on the list?

‘Pants.’

~Oh Lord! OK, well I guess we don’t need to look at those, just tell me what you prefer and what size. I’ll believe you.

She winked at me. I gave her the information.

‘Socks. Size 11.’

~OK, another easy one.

‘T shirt, hoody, jeans. That’s it.’

~Alright, where do you usually shop?

‘Anywhere. Not fussy. Nothing fancy.’

>Ha, I think Declan shop in Primark for cheap but don’t want to say.

‘Primark is fine.’

~I think we can do a bit better than that for you. Don’t worry about it, we’ll call it an early Christmas present, yeah? Ah – no arguing. It’s not cool to argue about Christmas presents.

Lis carried on talking about sizes and colours, showing me different pictures, I lost interest, becoming rapidly exhausted. Rose reappeared with more tea and biscuits.

:Did you know Declan’s going to Jay and Beth’s for Christmas?

~No! I knew they were going to ask. Oh Dec, that’s great news. What did Beth say?

‘Er, haven’t told them yet.’

~Well what are you bloody waiting for?

‘Need to sort transport, might not be possible.’

:I told you I’d take you.

‘And I told you it’s too fucking far.’

I couldn’t help snapping at Rose; I was tired of arguing about everything. As Rose and I stared each other down, this particular one felt like it could rumble on for some time; however, Lisa rolled her eyes at us and got involved.

~I’ll take you. I really want to see their new place, it’s a great excuse.

Rose and I looked at Lis, both trying to hide our relief.

>Ha, I laugh at you, Declan and Rose. So stubborn. You want to say yes, but you don’t say. I say for you. Yes, Lis will take Declan to Jaime‘s. Now, Declan, you phone to Beth and make her happy.

‘Are you sure, Lis?’

~Very sure. I can take you any time after Tuesday lunchtime. Let me know, yeah?

I gave her a huge smile, grateful and relieved.

‘Thank you. Very much.’

She smiled back. I reached for the phone again, but I didn’t know any numbers without my mobile.

‘Does anyone know their number?’

~It’s here, look.

Lisa showed me from her phone’s address book. I dialled, clumsily. Using my left hand to do everything was getting to be really annoying.

Cal

We had tea, and I played with my fire engine for a while, in Uncle Matty’s room. I heard the phone ringing, but no one picked it up to stop it ringing.

‘Yuh gona geh tha?’

I looked up at Uncle Matty. I loved answering the phone, but I wasn’t supposed to unless Mum or Dad were there. But if Uncle Matty had told me to, that was bound to be OK. So I ran into the living room, picked up the handset and pressed the button.

‘Hello who is it?’

‘Hi Cal, it’s Dec.’

He must be phoning to say if he was coming for Christmas. I was suddenly scared he would say no, and I didn’t want him to say no to me, so I said the first thing that came into my head.

‘Dec, I ate three fish fingers.’

‘That’s great. Well done, mate. Fish is good for you. Is your mum there?’

I put the phone on the table and went to get Mum, who was in the kitchen.

‘Mummy, Dec wants to talk to you.’

‘Is he on the phone? Did you answer it again? Cal, what did we say about that?’

She walked and told me off at the same time, until she reached the phone.

‘Hello? Dec? … everything alright sweetheart? …’

I was hanging around, trying to see if I could work out what Dec was saying by what Mum was saying.

‘Ohh, great. That’s great. Really great.’

Well it sounded like it was good, but Mum looked like she might be crying, so I was really confused.

‘Sorry, Dec. I’m really pleased. I thought you were going to say no. I’m so pleased. Oh, sweetheart, I’m so glad you’re coming. It’ll be great to put an end to this crappy year in a good way … ‘

As I stared at Mum, who had said an almost bad word, which she never did, and watched her wipe her eyes, Dad came in and put his arm round her, asking her about it without using words, but using his eyes and his eyebrows. Mum put her hand over the phone so Dec couldn’t hear what she was saying, but I could.

‘No, I’m okay, James, it’s Dec. He said yes, he’s coming for Christmas.’

I put my arms in the air like footballers do when they score a goal, as Dad took the phone from Mum. He was smiling, but his voice was wobbly too.

What have you been saying to make my wife cry? … I’m yanking your chain, mate. We’re really pleased. Talk later, yeah?’

Dad pressed the off button, and looked at Mum, and they both smiled at each other, and smiled at me.

‘Dec’s coming to stay with us for Christmas.’

I put both arms in the air again, as if I was Theo Walcott.

‘Yessss!’

‘I think you might need to tidy your room before Dec gets here, or we might never find any of your things again.’

I suppose there’s a downside to everything. Having to tidy my room was the downside to Dec coming for Christmas. But he was coming, we were going to be able to do all the things we hadn’t done for ages, and it was all going to be alright.

Dec

I hung up. Wiped my eyes.

‘That went well. Everybody cried.’

:Oh, love, tears are good sometimes.

Rose appeared to be wiping her eyes too, in fact Nico was the only one who wasn’t. He was smiling his enormous smile.

>You do good thing. You mend it with you and Jaime. This is big. Very good. Baby, I think we go now. Declan, he look very tired. He has big day today, and more tomorrow.

~Yeah, of course. Dec, is it OK if I pop in tomorrow morning to drop off your clothes, check you’ve eaten breakfast and generally fuss about annoyingly?

‘I suppose.’

>I come also, after training.

‘No need.’

>I know this. I want to steal Rose’s biscuits when she not here.

They stood up, Lis kissed me on the cheek, Nico gave Rose a hug, then Rose saw them to the front door.

>I call to remind him to talk to the policeman. Call us if you worry, or the police if you really worry. OK?

:Thanks you two.

~You’re welcome. We’re all in it together. He’s a toughie, but he needs us more than he’ll admit. Right, Dec? I’m sure you’re listening.

They said their goodbyes, and Rose shut the door behind them, making a big thing of putting the chain on, for my benefit. She came into the living room, picked up cups and plates, tidied up in the kitchen, plumped some cushions.

:You look done in, love. I know it’s early but why don’t you go to bed? You know where your room is. Get some sleep, recharge your batteries.

It sounded like the best idea anyone had had for a long time. I could hardly pull myself off the sofa, as moving made all my aches and pains protest together. I remembered the medication I had brought home from the hospital. Now was a good time to take some, get some solid sleep.

I padded into the kitchen, got the bottle of pills. Asked Rose to open the bottle, took some with a slurp of cold tea, said goodnight and went to bed. Rose had put my pyjamas from the hospital in the wash, and I had no underwear, so got into bed in my clothes. Slept.

Dreaming. Chased by faceless men in brown boots. Can’t fly, can only run, looking over my shoulder. They nearly catch up with me, then I trip –

– woke with a start, in a sweat, in darkness, heart racing, panting. The details of the dream faded, but the panic stayed for a long time. Eventually my pulse calmed, my breathing slowed, and I drifted off again.

Dreaming. This time I can fly. I fly around the world looking for a man in brown boots. There are too many. None of them are the one I am looking for. After a long time flying, I see him. He is a long way away. He isn’t looking. Doesn’t see me coming until I am almost there. He turns round, but just before I see his face, he disappears.

12. Against the wind

In which Matty rallies somewhat, and we find out what’s bothering Dec.

Matt

I am with Carrie. We are having a picnic in a park, a rug beneath us, food and drink spread out on it. I stand up to go, and she looks at me, bright blue eyes begging me to stay. She takes my hand, pulling me towards her and I fall …

Dec

I lay for a long time, just looking at the ceiling. Concentrating on the bland whiteness. A cure for thinking. Eventually I had to get up. I was hungry and I needed a pee. Hard to believe that ordinary things like that could matter.

I heard my mobile ping in the pocket of yesterday’s discarded trousers. I got out of bed, picked up the phone and took it to the bathroom. Once I had peed, I checked the message.

Nico: =I come this morning, we train together. Gym 10.30.

Really didn’t feel like training. What time was it? Phone said 9.30. Could text back and put him off. Considered it. But this was Nico bloody Tiago.

A couple of years ago I had spent a large part of my teenage savings travelling up to Twickenham to see Nico Tiago play for Argentina against England. When he joined Raiders at the beginning of last season, it was unreal. I had trained beside him under Jay’s coaching, hardly believing my luck. Worthless piece of shit or not, you didn’t text Nico Tiago and make an excuse. Better get moving then.

Made a reasonable stab at organising myself. Toast and tea for breakfast. Showered. Shaved. Dressed appropriately. Remembered to take phone, keys and wallet with me. Kit bag. Set off down the stairs.

Rose was lying in wait; her door opened as I reached the entrance hall.

:It’s good to see you up, love. Just on your way out, are you?

‘I’m going to the gym.’

:Oh that sounds like a grand idea. Blow the cobwebs away.

‘Something like that. Has to be done.’

I fidgeted, wanting to be away, not wanting to be rude.

:Sleep alright?

‘So-so. Lot on my mind. Listen, Rose, I’m meeting someone at the gym, don’t want to be late. Really sorry. I’ll call in when I get back, yeah?’

:Right you are love. You can take the telly back with you.

‘Great, see you later’

The gym was where I thought it was, just down the road from the corner shop. I was a bit early, and Nico was nowhere in sight. I asked at the desk, but they hadn’t seen him. Waited ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Thirty minutes. Started to think he had been taking the piss. At ten past eleven I was just about to walk back home, when he sauntered in the door. His easy smile faded a bit when he saw the look on my face. He checked his watch.

>Sorry to be late. I am always.

He shrugged with a sheepish grin.

>Come, meet Luke.

We changed quickly in the changing room, and walked onto the gym floor. Nico waved to a tall blond man who was adjusting some weights.

>Lukey! Please come to meet Declan.

The blond man walked over slowly, looking less than thrilled at the prospect.

+Nico. Alright?

>I am good. This is Declan. He is my guest today. Can we talk about a programme for him?

+Could I just have a quick chat with you, Nico?

He looked pointedly at me. I moved away and stood watching from a distance. I had a feeling events of the last few days were about to cause more trouble.

As they talked, Luke looked at me several times. He didn’t look happy. Nico seemed unflustered. I remembered Nico saying that Luke used to be a trainer at Raiders, and began to understand his unhappiness. I walked over. Clearly heard the words:

+… lying little bastard …

And some of Nico’s reply:

>… give a chance …

‘Nico, I think I’m going to head off. No worries. Thanks for inviting me.

>No, Declan, you must stay. Lukey will help us.

Luke didn’t look like he had any intention of helping me, and was clenching his fists intimidatingly.

‘It’s OK, I understand. I wouldn’t want me here either if I was him. Thanks anyway.’

I turned and walked away. Nico’s raised voice echoed behind me.

>If you don’t train him, you don’t train me also. I go.

+Wait. Nico. OK, alright, I’ll give it a go.

>Thank you. Declan, come back. Please.

I turned round. Nico was beaming. Luke scowled, but did not protest when Nico beckoned me back.

Together we went over a programme of weights, treadmill, spin and rowing. Luke asked questions about my programme at the club, and what he suggested for the morning wasn’t that different. Nico and I worked together, not talking much. Luke adjusted speeds and weights and tensions from time to time. It was a good work out, and felt great to do something so physical after my days of inactivity.

We showered and changed quickly afterwards. Then, in the lobby:

>I need to eat. You come for lunch? There is great sushi bar. I fetch the car.

He jogged out of the door before I could reply. I waited. A hand on my shoulder, not gentle.

+A word.

I turned to see Luke, closer and more in my face than felt comfortable.

+I don’t want you in my gym, you little shit. I don’t want you hanging around with Nico either. Piss off now, before he gets back, or you’ll regret it.

He gripped my shoulder again. Squeezed. Very hard. Lost my bottle. Had no fight left. Turned and walked away. I guess sometimes you can be a worthless enough piece of shit that you text Nico Tiago and make an excuse.

I slipped in the front door as quietly as I could, not wanting Rose to hear and come out to chat. I promised myself I would pop down later. My quiet entry worked, and I made it to my flat undetected.

The work-out had energised me, but my encounter with Luke had brought home to me how difficult things were going to be for me now. I was going to meet people with similar feelings to him on a daily basis at the club, in the street, in the supermarket. I was going to have to get used to it.

My mobile rang. Nico. Thought about ignoring it. Didn’t.

‘Nico, hi.’

>I get your text. What happen?

‘Yeah, sorry, I remembered I had an, er, appointment. Had to go. Sorry.’

>Huh. Luke, he say you change your mind and are allergic to fish.

‘Oh.’

>So which is true?

I paused, thrown.

>Or maybe Luke say something to you? This morning, he is a dick.

I took a deep breath, not believing I was about to blow off Nico Tiago.

‘He did make it clear that he didn’t think his gym was right for me. But to be honest I can see his point. I’m nobody’s ideal customer at the moment. I’m a fucking disgrace. Thanks for taking me this morning, but I think it’s best if you just leave me alone.’

>Oh you think is best.

He sounded amused.

>I decide what is best for me. Best for me is to train with you. We find another gym.

‘Nico, I really don’t –’

>Enough. I decide. I let you know when I find somewhere good. Bye.

He hung up.

Stuart Clarke called after lunch, asking me to go in early the next day to go over what he called a plan of action. He had sounded brisk and professional; I couldn’t hear anything else in his voice, no opinions leaking through. Didn’t know him all that well, but so far it felt OK.

Washed up some plates and mugs. Made a cup of tea. Ordinary tasks designed to keep me busy enough not to think. But in the end, in a flat devoid of television, computer or books, thinking was almost all there was.

So I plugged the headphones in my phone, put some music on and took stock. Counted my blessings. There weren’t many, and what there were, were not of my own making. Still, it was easier on the mind than the alternative.

Blessing number one: I was still just about connected to Raiders. Somehow I had managed that. It wouldn’t last, but for now I still had it.

Number two: People had helped me and been nice to me. Without Rose, I couldn’t imagine the state I would have been in yesterday when I finally woke up. Nico had been needlessly kind; he and his wife were friends with Jay and Beth, and I would have expected a different response from him. I didn’t deserve any of it, but they didn’t seem to see that.

Number three: I was fit and healthy, things that people always seemed to count in lists of blessings.

That was pretty much all I could think of. Didn’t take long. The other side of the coin, the messed up last few months of my fucked up, pathetic waste of a life, produced a longer list. Thinking about all the things I needed to sort out, to put right, would never be able to put right, took much longer. My mental list started chronologically.

Matt

I am sleeping. It could be night or it could be day. There are sounds. I do not know what all of them are, but one of them is Jay snoring. The other sounds could be machines – there is a bleep, and a tick, and a rasp, and something with air rushing through it. I thought I was sleeping, dreaming, but now, maybe, I am awake. I open my eyes and it is bright, too bright, and I close them again and I fall …

Dec

It all began when I crashed my car. Jay, Beth and Cal had gone on holiday in the summer. I was looking after the house and the cat while they were gone. The first night they were away, I had been coming home after an evening with the lads. I’d had a beer, only one, as I’d known I was giving Bonksy, Big and Danno a lift home. It was pretty late, the roads were empty.

As I drove along the bypass, on my way home after dropping the lads off, I lost control of my car. I still don’t know what happened, one minute I was driving, the next I was swerving, terrified, all over the road. They did all sorts of tests afterwards, couldn’t find anything on the road, couldn’t find anything wrong with the car, but couldn’t blame it on me.

As the car span out of control and veered off towards the ditch at the side of the road, I saw someone picked out in the headlights. Too late to avoid him, even if I had been able to. The car caught him on its way into the ditch, stopped with a jolt.

I sat there, stunned and shaking. My airbag had inflated, pinning me inside the car. I wasn’t hurt, but for a long time I couldn’t move or think, just sat there, gripping the steering wheel. Once I tried to move, to undo my seatbelt, I realised I was stuck, and I had to manoeuvre my phone out of my pocket to dial 999. They all arrived in a clamour of sirens and blue lights, got me out, found the man under the car, zipped him into a body bag and took him away. I was breathalysed, checked out, questioned, released. My car was taken away. I didn’t get it back.

By the time Jay and Beth came back from holiday, a couple of weeks later, my life had taken on a surreal edge where I couldn’t tell them about it. The police had finished with me, I didn’t claim on my insurance, and I just couldn’t tell them. I was full of guilt about the man who had died. I didn’t know anything about him. Couldn’t stop thinking about him. The crash replayed itself over and over in my head. Everything together was too much to cope with, and reduced me to a robot. I could only exist, anything else was too hard, too much to process.

I was already thinking of moving out when the man’s son came to see me. The inquest had been about a week before, and had been reported in a minor way in the local press. I’d used a police-recommended solicitor, it had all seemed fairly straightforward, and I’d managed to keep my whereabouts for the day from anyone who knew me.

Keeping everything from Beth and Jay was getting harder; Beth in particular always seemed to know when something was up with me, and she kept asking me what was wrong, pushing me to talk. Moving out seemed to be the only way to stop all the questions.

When he knocked on the door, it was the middle of the day. Jay was at the club, Beth was out somewhere with Cal. I had been sitting listlessly on the sofa, watching a movie channel on TV. I nearly didn’t answer the knock, but Beth was waiting for a delivery, so I went to the door. The man was tall and heavily built. He had short brown hair and a scraggy beard. He was wearing a Raiders shirt and baggy jeans. I could not guess at how old he was. Older than me.

|Hello Charlie

I was put instantly on the back foot and on the alert.

‘Sorry, what?’

|You are Charlie Collier, aren’t you?

‘Don’t know what you mean’

|Alright then Declan, if that’s the way you want it. I’d like to talk to you.

He stepped forwards. I blocked his way, held my hands out in front of me

‘Whoa, hold on –’

There was no way he was getting into the house. Lots of Raiders supporters knew where Jay lived, not many made a nuisance of themselves, but I didn’t know this bloke, and he intimidated me more than a little. He raised his voice.

|Well we could talk about it out here, Charlie, where anyone can overhear, but somewhere more private might be best. What do you think?

He moved forwards again. Torn between protecting Jay’s property and worrying about what he might be going to say, I decided to let him in, just to the hallway. Another shameful choice. Me first. I left the front door ajar, stood between him and the door to the lounge. Tried to appear unconcerned. Heart was pounding, wondering how he knew, what he was going to do.

‘What do you want?’

|Well, son, you’ve caused me a bit of trouble.

‘What?’

|You had an accident last month.

‘What do you mean?’

|Stop playing dumb, boy, you know what I mean.

His tone was aggressive and I shrank a bit.

|You drove your car into a ditch on the bypass. Hit an old man on the way. That was my old dad.

I reeled as if I’d been punched. I think I physically stepped backwards to keep my footing.

‘I – don’t know what to say. I didn’t know he had any family.’

|Yeah, well, we haven’t always got on. But recently, now, we got on better. He was right fond of my little girl. Jessie, she’s called.

I shook my head, confused, not sure why he was telling me this.

‘I’m sorry. I really am so sorry about your dad.’

Just saying those words brought back memories of someone saying exactly the same to me – the lorry driver who had killed my parents. It hadn’t helped me at all, and now it made me realise how my accident had affected someone else. The guilt I had begun to bury surfaced again, with extras.

|Well, that’s good of you. But sorry isn’t really enough, see.

‘What do you mean?’

|Well, my little Jessie she’s not well. She’s got cystic fibrosis, might not have long, little mite. My old dad, he wanted to do something for her, was going to give us the money for an extension to the house so’s she can have a nice room, convert the garage, with all the equipment and stuff she needs. Our house is real small, her room is pretty cramped. Well, now he’s dead, his money’s all tied up with solicitors, he didn’t change his will. Me and the missus, we can’t afford it on our own. We’ve promised Jessie, see, picked out colours and everything.

I was struggling to keep up with what he was telling me, and how it was relevant. I just kept nodding.

|So, what I’m coming to is, you say you’re sorry my old dad got in the way of your car, but my Jessie’s the one that suffers. You get to live here in Jay Scott’s posh house, nice and cosy, while my dad’s in the ground and little Jessie has to grow up, if she does grow up, in that dingy little room. I think, Charlie, that you owe us. You need to pay for what you did.

Now I understood. My insides turned to ice water.

‘But I don’t have any money, really. I can’t help you. I’m sorry, so sorry about your dad, and your daughter, but I haven’t got anything.’

|Is that so, Charlie? See, when I saw you at the inquest, it didn’t register at first. You looked familiar, but I couldn’t place you. Then I put two and two together. You looked just like the lad I’d watched playing for Raiders reserves a few months before. The more I looked, the more I thought you didn’t just look like him, you were him. Seen your face around the place, too. Asked around. Found out you lived here. Very nice. Raiders know you’re Charlie Collier? Jay Scott know you’re Australian? Anyone know you killed an old man?

I reeled again. Didn’t answer him.

|Thought not. Would have been all over the press, wouldn’t it. Now, it seems we can help each other out. I need a lot of money to help my little Jessie. You need someone to keep their mouth shut. Job done. Is there any way you could see that we could work this out?

My brain was working overtime.

‘How much do you need?’

A smile.

|Ah, see, we’re working together already. I’ve had a quote for ten grand.

‘What? I can’t get that sort of money. I told you, I haven’t got anything.’

|Maybe you should try. I’ll let you think about it. I’ll be in touch.

And he walked out of the front door and down the drive as I watched him go.

I stayed in my room that night, didn’t eat, didn’t talk to Jay, Beth, or Cal. Told them I had a headache. Thinking, thinking. I had no way of getting the money. Must have fallen asleep.

Woke in the early hours with a plan. The charity money. If I paid it back quickly enough, no one would know. Told myself it was borrowing, not stealing. Maybe if I sold a lot of my stuff, put most of my pay into it, I could do it, pay it back before anyone noticed. It could be worth the risk.

The man’s story had resonated with me. His manner had been intimidating, and he had threatened me, but I had believed him about his daughter. I thought his tone had softened when he talked about her. I did feel I owed him something for the death of his father. If I could do this, and no one found out, I might feel less of the crushing guilt I had been carrying with me since the accident. That was how I convinced myself, how all the real lies started.

He called round a few days later, again when I was alone in the house. He stayed on the doorstep.

|Hello Charlie. Had any thoughts about our talk?

‘I can get your money.’

He smiled briefly.

|That’s my boy.

‘But I can only get you this much. I can’t get you any more’

He put on a hurt expression.

|I don’t know what you’re suggesting, lad, I only need this one favour, that my old dad was going to help me out with. I’ll not come knocking again. When can you get it?

‘Tomorrow.’

|Bring it to The Bell, four o’clock, should be nice and empty. I’ll buy you a pint.

And so it had begun. I emptied the special account, put the cash in an old rucksack and gave my life away.

From there, it had been a downward spiral. I needed to get away from Jay’s house, scared the man would come back when Beth and Cal were around. I couldn’t tell them the reason I wanted to move out. I made up improbable excuses like wanting my independence, outright lies like starting a course to get a qualification for when I’d finished with rugby and needing to be closer to college, things we had discussed in a general way before, but had decided there was no rush. I sold everything I had that was worth anything, and moved into a small furnished flat as soon as I found one cheap enough. I put as much of my pay as I could back into the charity account and kept my fingers crossed that I could keep it quiet until I’d paid it all back.

It was much harder than I’d thought it would be, now I was paying rent on the flat and with all the bills, food and bus fares. I felt the sense of urgency, and I ended up borrowing money from all my friends, their friends and then people they barely knew. I borrowed from the bank, but they weren’t keen to lend me a lot as I had nothing. I told them it was for a new car. I was in a lot of debt, and people were beginning to chase me.

So I had already killed an old man, hidden it, stolen from a charity, lied about my passport, lied about everything else and borrowed more money than I knew how to pay back. Add to this my broken relationships with Jay, Raiders and all my friends, and my small list of blessings retreated to a dot on the horizon.

To top it all, it had all been for nothing. I had given it all away to some con man, in a completely pointless act. Fucking idiot. I couldn’t see a way out. People were beginning to seriously chase me for the money I owed them, I had had another sprinkling of texts reminding me how much I owed and when I had promised it. I was out of ideas, and pinned with inertia.

From beyond the front door, I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. I was expecting the ring on the bell, which came shortly afterwards. Rose, I predicted.

:Only me love.

A wry smile on my face, I got up and opened the door. She stood there with a small, old style large-backed portable television in her arms, and a carrier bag bulging with various cables and what looked like a digibox. She was out of breath and red in the face, so I took it all from her and beckoned her in.

‘Thanks for this, it looks great.’

:A bit old fashioned, and the vertical hold goes sometimes, but I think everything’s there that you need. Don’t ask me to set it up for you though. I just unplugged it all, that was complicated enough.

‘Cuppa?’

:If you’re having one, love. Enjoy the gym did you? Didn’t hear you come back.

While she parked herself on the couch, I shouted through from the kitchen, above the noise of the kettle.

‘It was OK. Don’t think they really wanted me there. Trainer is an ex-Raider. Not very friendly.’

:Oh don’t take no notice. People shouldn’t be so judgemental. Don’t know everything, do they.

‘I think he knew enough. Anyway, it was good to have a workout.’

:Sounds like it did you some good, love. Think you’ll go back?

‘Er, not there. Maybe somewhere else.’

:Well I wish I had your energy. I need a whiff just coming up your stairs. Glad I’ve got a ground floor flat, I am.

‘I hate staying still, really. Can’t believe how long I’ve sat around up here feeling sorry for myself.’

:Oh, love, you do sound a bit better.

I walked back to the living room carrying her tea.

‘Dunno about that, but I had a big think this afternoon. I think I’ve moped around long enough. I’m trying to think of ways to put things right. Some things, anyway. Not coming up with much.’

I told her about going through my texts and the increasingly insistent demands for repayment.

:Oh love, I can’t really help you much. I haven’t got any savings to speak of, my husband took it all when he left. And I don’t earn much from my little job –

I had to stop her.

‘Rose, Rose, the absolute last thing I’m doing is asking you for money! Fuck no! That’s how I got half way here in the first place. You’ve already helped me out more than enough. Thanks, though, you are bloody great.’

She blushed.

:Well, that’s alright then. But if you need anything else –

‘Yes, I know exactly where you are.’

I made a start on putting the television and digibox together. Even though I wasn’t great with technology either, it wasn’t complicated, and I sorted it fairly quickly. Rose, even though she professed to have no technical know-how, couldn’t resist giving her advice. I flipped the switch, and the screen lit up. The picture was a bit squashed, and the sound was tinny, but we sat and watched a late afternoon quiz show together, drinking tea and eating biscuits, chipping in with the odd answer and congratulating ourselves when we got one right. I hadn’t enjoyed myself so much in ages.

Rose left, eliciting a promise that I would

:Pop in and see me, love, I’d like to hear how you’re getting on.

The afternoon rolled on towards evening, and it passed in a haze of brain-numbing television. Brain-numbing was good: tomorrow was Saturday. Match day. Raiders at home. Tonight, players in the match day squad would be getting an early night, other members of the squad would maybe go out for a meal with wives or girlfriends, some of the younger among us going to a club for a drink and a laugh. Those who needed to be up early for the under elevens training would be regretting it. It was part of my life, and I felt rudderless without it.

Usually there would be a flurry of texts making arrangements, re-making them, organising lifts, generally pissing about. We all had nicknames – mine had been Captain Sensible, as I was usually the one who sorted out taxis, reminded everyone we had training in the morning so should call it a night, gave lifts when I’d still had my car. I had only been peripherally involved in all that for the last few months, and nobody had called me Captain for a long time, but they were still my mates, we shared a bond through Raiders, and I missed them all. I was not looking forward to tomorrow. After more terrible Friday TV, I went to bed.

Dreaming. I am flying. So are Bonksy, Mikey, DivDav, Big and Danno. We all fly together, high above the pitch, throwing the ball to each other, laughing, spinning, looping the loop. Crazy patterns, beautiful lines, we are invincible.

Matt

Then I open my eyes again and it’s darker, easier. The sounds are all there, except Jay snoring, but I don’t think about the noises, as I’m in a strange room. I’m in a room that is all curtains, and I am in bed, although that shouldn’t be so surprising, as I’ve just woken up. Where am I? What’s going on? I was just fetching something wasn’t I?

‘… next time I ask, Cal, just tell me if you need to go, don’t wait until the last minute.’

The curtains are moved aside, and I can’t really see that well because it’s all blurry, but it looks like Beth. Beth stands there, holding the curtains apart so Cal can come in. I can tell it’s Cal because his blond curls are so shiny and bright. Beth hasn’t seen me yet, and I want to shout ‘over here’ but there’s something in my mouth and it’s stopping me talking, and anyway, she soon looks over at me and she gasps, lets go of the curtains – which fall on Cal so he has to fight with them – and rushes over.

‘Matty, oh Matty, sweetheart.’

And it seems like I might have missed something important, but trying to think about it is hard, and so I think I’ll just close my eyes, just for a second. And I fall …

Dec

I woke up near dawn and I was alone.

Couldn’t stand the thought of another day on my own in this flat going over what a mess I’d made of my life. Needed to get out, escape from it all, from my thoughts, my fuck-ups and particularly from Raiders match day. Spent a long time planning my route. Filled a backpack. Caught the early bus out of the city. Got off at a bus stop on a country lane. Walked all day. Didn’t think or feel anything except one foot in front of the other, left, right or straight on for twenty miles or so. Caught the bus home. Grabbed a takeaway. Ate it watching more brain mush. Avoided the news and sports reports. Went to bed. A good day.

No dreams.

Matt

And the next time I woke up, Mum was there too, and they all looked at me when I opened my eyes, but I couldn’t stay awake for long, even though there was a lot I wanted to ask them, which was very frustrating, and I resolved that next time I woke up I really would try hard to stay awake, as Mum would call me a lazybones and that was a laugh, as it was Jay who was the lazy sod, right down to his bones, and the thought made me chuckle.

‘What’s so funny Matty?’

‘Lahzh … bohns.’

Where had that come from? Not out of my mouth, surely. I spoke clearly, loved using words to make a point and take the piss, unless I’d had a few beers, then things sometimes got a bit less clear. But I didn’t remember having beers. Surely that would be the sort of thing you’d remember? It ought to be. Next time I had beer I’d definitely make a note somewhere, so I wouldn’t wake up wondering.

‘Matty? Jesus, did you actually hear me?’

‘Yehh … cohrhs.’

Again with the words. It must have been a hell of a party. Hope I enjoyed it. Hope I gave someone a good time. Oh, no, I wouldn’t have, because I’m with Carrie now, she’s my girl and – oh, no, too, too much, way too much remembering, fuck off all you remembery shit, let me go back to where it was just dark and fuzzy, when I was asleep or dead. Let me be dead again.

‘Matty, oh bloody hell, here.’

I felt something wipe my eyes, and opened them. It was so out of focus, everything was blurred, where the fuck were my glasses, but it looked like Jay, and it felt like he was wiping my eyes with a tissue. What the fuck? Get off Jay, I’m not four years old for fuck’s sake. I tried to move my head away, or grab his hand – it was worse than Mum licking her thumb and wiping dinner from the side of my mouth – but I couldn’t seem to move much at all.

Dec

Wanted to do the same on Sunday, but no buses to speak of. Oblivion was going to be harder to find. Muscles aching from yesterday’s walk. Ran the bath and lay back in the hot water. Watched the steam rising, concentrated on the lazy curls until the water cooled. Still needed to get outside. Walked the streets for a while, still fairly early, not many people about. Walked past a church that was open. Maybe I could do with some quiet contemplation.

Sat inside, watching the light change through the stained glass windows. Peaceful. Helped. People came in, sang, prayed, went away. Allowed my thoughts to wander over the various messes I’d got myself in. Tried to find someone else to blame. Kept coming back to me. Sat there a long time. No divine inspiration. Quite a bit of self-condemnation.

Took my phone out, plugged my headphones in and blocked the world out with music, scrolling through all the pictures I had stored. Reminders of better times – nights out, silly faces, Jay and Beth and Cal, holiday in Ibiza, my car, Cal riding a bike, celebrating a win in the changing room, a birthday cake. I lost myself in memories, living in the past feeling infinitely better than living in the present.

Eventually, a priest came and gently told me he needed to lock up, asking if I needed anything. I shook my head, smiled at him and left. On the way home, the phone pinged with a text.

Nico: =I hear about a gym. We go tomorrow. I check it, is OK for you. I pick you up 5.30. I will be late 😉

I acknowledged his text, then walked home, the winter light fading fast. Once behind my own front door, I thought about eating. Checked my supplies. Rose, in her enthusiasm for cream of chicken soup, had got me little else that I could cook. Potatoes, cabbage, other things that were very healthy, but needed peeling, chopping and otherwise preparing in a manner I could only guess at. I settled for chicken soup tonight. I would need to shop tomorrow.

Sunday night TV even worse than Saturday. Antiques, hymns, local programmes, reality dance shows. All very well when you’re taking the piss out of them with your friends, but no company when you’re on your own. Another early night.

Dreaming. I am flying. Just flying. All night long.

Matt

And after that, everything was real again, albeit in bits and pieces. Jay, Beth, Mum and Cal were here every day. Here was hospital. I’d nearly died. They didn’t tell me that straight off. All I could cope with to start with was they were all here, and here was hospital, and in the beginning they had to tell me that a lot of times, because I was tired, and I felt like shit, and I kept forgetting what they told me.

And I couldn’t bloody well speak. It was like my brain went in one direction, and my mouth went in the other, and I had no breath, so even when I managed to say some piece of unintelligible bollocks, I could only say it one unintelligibly bollocky word at a time, sometimes with pauses in the middle, if the word was a particularly long one, like ‘hello’.

Dec

Woke lying on my front with my arms stretched wide. Felt like I was still in the air for a time. Drifted. Wonderful. Small sounds slowly intruded on my tranquil floating – traffic outside, doors opening and closing in the hallway, voices, a police siren far away. Reality came in piece by piece and shattered it all. Everything came crashing back, one hit after another, knocking me down until I fell from the sky to the world.

My phone bleeped urgently, blasting away all traces of the spell. It was the alarm, telling me to get up, get dressed, get to the club to meet Stuart Clarke and start sorting my life out.