26. Get ready for this

In which Dec encounters recovery and remembering, and anticipates reunions.

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Dec

Silence. Darkness. Faded to grey, sounds reappeared. Voices. Made no sense at first. Pains in both my arms. Mixed up with my dream. Someone was kicking me. I wasn’t sure where I was.

‘Fuck off, Big.’

>Hey Declan, you live. Stop moving, the lovely Suzanne try to take your blood pressure.

I opened my eyes. Two faces bent over me. Nico and a nurse. My brain attempted to make sense of it, but failed.

‘What?’

*Hello Declan. Just need to take your blood pressure. Both your arms are pretty knocked about, but I’m using your left so we can leave the operation site alone. Does it hurt?

‘Mm. Where’s Big?’

>What is big?

‘He was just here.’

>Only just me and Suzanne. You wake up from operation on your arm. You are confusing.

*I’ll give you some oxygen, that’ll help you think better.

The nurse put a mask over my face, and I felt a cold gas enter my lungs. A few breaths later, and things were a lot less foggy.

*That looks better, more colour in your cheeks. Blood pressure’s fine. Stay here for a bit, then we can take you back to your room. You’ll feel tired and want to sleep for a while, but try to get moving as soon as you can. Eat something too, and have a drink.

I felt the mattress move underneath me as the bed sat me up.

*Is your arm hurting? Do you need painkillers?

‘Mm, please.’

*Here you go, then, some meds for the pain and some water. Can you hold the cup?

My right arm was in a sling, so I tried to take it with my left hand, hooked my fingers in the handle, did my best, but spilt a lot, so the nurse got a straw and I managed to swallow the tablets.

I looked at Nico.

‘Thanks for coming.’

>Is no problem for me. I talk to the beautiful Suzanne while you sleep. She tell me your operation go very well, and now your arm is very good. I must call Rose and Lis to say you are awake. Suzanne, I use my phone?

*Not in here, sorry. Best go outside.

>OK. Declan, I must do this, I am not long.

‘No worries. Say hi.’

My throat was dry and I was really thirsty, and I managed to drink two mugs of water. This reawakened my appetite – it was getting on for a whole day since I last ate anything. My stomach growled.

*Hungry, are you?

I nodded.

*You can go back to your room when your friend gets back, they’ll bring you some dinner. You must be ravenous.

‘Starving.’

*The food in here is great, you’ll have a feast. Just need to take your temperature – pop the thermometer in your mouth for me.

Just as she took the thermometer out, Nico came back.

>Rose, she is very relieved. I think she worry all day. She want to visit, I say is OK.

‘Course.’

*You can take Declan to his room now, if you’re OK with the wheelchair. You’ll be able to use your mobile there if you want to.

>Thank you, Suzanne. Declan, I have to ring Don and Jaime to say you are OK, we can wait until we are in your room. Maybe you talk to them?

‘Sure.’

Once back in my room, Nico phoned Don and Jay and told them everything had gone well. I spoke briefly to both, but was still groggy and knew less than Nico, so didn’t have that much to say.

Just as I rang off from Jay, my dinner arrived. As Suzanne had predicted, it was a feast, and I ate the lot.

>You are hungry, my friend. Is good I have big lunch.

‘Sorry, I was starving. Nothing since midnight.’

>Ha, I know this.

Nico’s phone pinged. He looked at the screen.

>Ha, Lis say you must stand up, get blood to move. She boss you from my phone. You stand up now.

‘What?’

>You remember your list from Don, this is one thing. Suzanne she say also. You move to keep blood going, OK?

I grumbled a bit, as my large meal had made me feel sleepy, but swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood up. It was so much easier without the cast getting in the way, and without the constant pain of the broken collar bone. Even though my arm hurt, and was stiff and sore, and the scars themselves covered in dressings, I managed so much better, and it lifted my spirits.

‘How far should I go?’

>Ha, you ask me? OK … there is drink machine in the corridor, go there, get me coffee!

‘OK then.’

I set off out of the door, looked left, saw the coffee machine at the end of the corridor. Got all the way there, realised I had no money. Walked back. Nico was waiting with a huge grin on his face.

>Your head still not work right. You have no coins, eh?

‘Yeah, very funny. You can get your own fucking coffee.

:Well this must be Declan’s room, I can hear the language from the corridor.

‘Rose!’

:Hello, love, it’s good to see you up and about. Come here.

She folded me up in one of her huge hugs, being very careful of my right arm.

:Oh, love, that’s better. I’ve been so worried all day, soft aren’t I?

‘It’s nice to be worried about.’

As I said it, I realised how good it felt that someone was thinking about me, and how much pressure it took off me.

:I suppose so, love.

>Rose you have a chair. I go to get coffee from machine, as Declan fail. You want?

:Tea if they’ve got it, ta, love.

I sat on the edge of the bed and swung my legs back in.

:That looks so much better, love. That big cast just got in your way. Is it sore?

‘Lots of painkillers. Will be sore tomorrow.’

I could feel my energy slipping away; I was finding it hard to speak.

:Not long and you can have a shower, I imagine you’ll have to be careful of those dressings for a while. Maybe you can stick your arm out the shower curtain or something?

‘Mm.’

I was feeling very sleepy, couldn’t keep my eyes open. Tried to listen to Rose, but everything faded.

: … sure he’s going to be alright?

> … fine, is normal to sleep …

: … how long I should stay …

> … go home soon, he look out for the night …

: … night Nico, love. No, I won’t stay much longer …

: … night Declan, love, I’m going home, I’ll see you in the morning …

Woke up with a start a lot later. It was dark in the room, there was no sign of Rose or Nico. I assumed they had gone home. I had had more strange half-dreams about Big and someone else, wearing brown boots, who was stamping on my phone. I kept trying to make the other person become DivDav, but his face wouldn’t stay there. I seemed to wake up regularly, in a panic, then drop off to sleep only for the same thing to happen again.

By the time morning came, I was shattered, and my arm was starting to throb. A nurse came in before long and gave me some painkillers, which calmed my arm a bit.

I managed to doze without dreaming for a while before the doctor came to check on me, shone a light in my eyes, signed a form and said I could go home in the afternoon. I also had an early morning visit from Don, Pete the physio and one of the conditioning coaches. They wanted to check my arm and make some plans for my restart in the New Year. I hoped they didn’t expect me to remember any of the conversation, which mostly carried on over my head, and was a detailed discussion about muscle fibres and recovery rates. I think it was decided that my arm might need a week or two before the stitches were out, and then I would be back on the treadmill, getting fit again. That was fine by me; a large part of me couldn’t wait to get back to training and feel a proper part of Raiders once more.

-See you on the sixth, then, Declan.

‘Sixth. Right.’

£You might need to write it down, Don. He’s not going to remember his own name for a while. Better still, tell someone else.

‘Tell Rose.’

-Right you are. You’re doing well, son. Have a good Christmas.

‘Thanks. You too.’

I slept again, after a good breakfast, until Rose appeared.

:Alright, love? I’m glad you’re awake, hardly saw you yesterday before you were out of it. Had to go back home in the end. How did you sleep?

‘Not too good. Weird dreams, kept waking up.’

:So you’ve been knocked out on the table but kept awake half the night after, you poor love. How are you now?

‘Still tired.’

:Have a snooze then. I won’t tell. I brought some magazines, look. I’ll be here when you wake up.

So I did. My eyelids were drooping anyway, and I drifted off quickly.

Dreaming. Although it feels real. I was in the car park at Raiders, had my phone out to call Rose. It was dark, my head was down, looking at the screen on the phone, and I was heading over towards where DivDav’s car should have been, although neither he nor his car were anywhere to be seen.

I heard footsteps behind me. Turned, half expecting it to be DivDav. Caught sight of movement, then something hit the back of my head. Heard it smash. Glass cascaded around me. I staggered, stunned. Dropped my phone.

Felt blows, slashes, to my face. Bent forwards, hands over my head, trying to protect myself. More blows hit my body, and I fell to the ground. Feet all round me, kicking me, grinding bits of glass through my clothes and into my skin, stamping on my phone, stamping on my arm, sharp peaks of agony overtaking all my senses. Looked up, tried to see who it was.

Blond hair, tall … familiar. And then brown hair, tall, stocky, Big. They redoubled their efforts to kick the shit out of me. By looking up I’d left my face vulnerable, and I lay there helplessly as a brown boot headed towards my face, crashing into my nose with a blast of pain. Seeing stars didn’t begin to describe it, whole universes flashed in my head. I tried to cover my face again, but I was nearly unconscious and I couldn’t move my arms. More blasts of pain burst over me and I fell into the black.

:Declan. It’s alright, love, you’re dreaming. Come on, wake up, now. You’re OK, I’m here. Shush now.

Someone’s hand smoothing the hair away from my forehead. For a confused second, my heart soared.

‘Mum?’

:Oh love, it’s Rose. You’re OK, you were having a dream. Calling out, fighting you were. It’s alright now. You remember where you are?

I opened my eyes groggily as I crashed back to earth. The sun had made its way into my room and was shining on the floor. I tried to get my thoughts working. My heart was pounding, and I was panting like I’d been for a run. I pushed away the brief instant when I’d thought Mum was here, and made myself focus on what I’d been dreaming – no, not dreaming. Remembering. It was big. It was …

‘Big.’

:What’s that, love?

‘Not DivDav.’

:Sorry, you’ve lost me.

‘Not a dream. I remember. Being kicked. Not DivDav. It was Big and someone else, I knew him, but it wasn’t Dav. They hit me with a bottle.’

It started to bring it all back again, felt like I was there again. I closed my eyes.

‘Shit. Big. No way.’

:What do you mean, love? A big bottle?

Exasperated that I would have to explain myself, I sighed and tried to gather my thoughts into something comprehensible.

‘Big’s … he was my mate. It’s a nickname. His name’s Ben.’

I waited for the penny to drop.

:Ah, I see. And so this friend of yours has been hitting you with bottles in your dreams?

‘No, I told you, it wasn’t a dream. I remember it.

:Are you sure, love? You’re pretty dosed up at the moment, your mind can play all sort of tricks. You and Nico were certain it was this Dav fellow the other day.

‘It was real. Memory, not a dream. Can’t explain – I know the difference.’

:Well if you’re really convinced, we need to contact the police, but we’re not going to do it now, it can wait till you get home. Any idea when they’re letting you out?

‘This afternoon. You don’t have to wait.’

:Course I don’t love, but I’m going to, I hardly saw you yesterday before you dozed off again. You’ve gone a very funny colour, I think I’ll get a nurse.

‘No –’

But she had bustled off in search of someone. I tried not to go over my newly uncovered memories, but my brain was on a single track. Once again I was hit by the bottle, once again I saw my phone smashed, once again I looked up and saw Big and … who the fuck was it? I knew him … and once again the brown boot smashed into my face. In my head I lay on the ground in the car park, powerless to do anything about it.

Big. He’d been the only one who’d been nice to me, had gone out of his way to talk to me, been for a drink with me. What had that been all about? Surely he wasn’t the one who trashed my flat? He did know where I lived though, and as far as I knew, DivDav didn’t. He’d come to see me in hospital, twice. As I remembered this, and Big standing over me looking stunned when I’d fallen out of bed, I also remembered something he said when he visited with DivDav:

°Probably have to wait till his phone’s back in commission.

How had he known about my phone, unless he’d been there when it was broken? Hardly anyone knew. With a sinking heart, I started to put some of it together. His friendliness seemed the biggest sham now, designed to – what? – get information out of me? Keep me on the back foot? And once the outcome of the points deduction was known, that was it, payback. I remembered DI Johnson’s question about the ‘Payback’ text. Rose was right, I was going to have to contact the police as soon as I felt a bit more alert.

Rose returned with a nurse in tow.

:He’s just had a bit of a shock, that’s all, he lost his memory when he was attacked, and it’s all come back while he was asleep.

*Well let’s have a look then. Are you in any pain, Declan?

‘Bit of a headache, arm’s a bit sore.’

*Alright, then, let’s see what we can do.

She took my temperature, pulse and blood pressure. Offered me some more tablets.

‘I don’t want to go to sleep again.’

*Well, I can understand that, but these will make you a bit drowsy. You’ll doze on and off for a while. You are going to have someone with you when you go home, aren’t you?

:He’s staying at mine.

*Oh good, nice to have your mum looking after you, eh?

Neither of us contradicted her.

The rest of the morning and afternoon passed slowly, me trying and failing not to fall asleep, waking with a start every time my head dropped forwards, and Rose checking her watch every five minutes. I had another great meal at lunchtime, but shared it with Rose, who wasn’t included in the free fabulous food offer at the private hospital. I told her it wasn’t a patch on her cooking, but we both knew I wasn’t being completely honest.

I was finally given the all clear to leave, and we made our way to the car park, where Rose had parked as close to the main entrance as she could. My legs wobbled alarmingly, but I made it to the car. I was panting a bit by the time I got there, and I considered ruefully how much conditioning work I was going to have to do just to regain my fitness, let alone get back to a state in which I could play a game of rugby. Big and his mate had certainly had some payback in the form of the amount of my life they had taken from me.

Rose settled me in her comfy armchair, then left me in front of the TV while she made some tea. She shouted through from the kitchen.

:Nico’s going to ring later. He said he won’t visit as you’ll be tired, but he’ll come and see you tomorrow morning. Beth rang this morning, she’s going to call you later, I had a chat with little Calum too. He told me you’ve spoken to Santa about an – oh what was it – Optimax something –

‘Optimus Prime. It’s all sorted. Me and Santa know what we’re doing.’

:Oh that’s good, then, love. Wouldn’t do to disappoint him, he seems very keen.

‘Yeah. I know. Need to keep my promises. Can’t wait to see him, though.’

:I think he feels the same, from the amount of questions he asked about you. He’s very interested in your operation scars.

‘He loves gore. The bloodier the better.’

:Oh, typical six year old then.

Rose came in with two mugs of tea, gave me one and settled down on the sofa. We passed the evening companionably, although she did keep making me move around and do the exercises the hospital had suggested to avoid blood clots.

I went to bed early, finding it much easier to undress without the plaster cast and painful collar bone, although as the operation sites had begun to throb, I took some painkillers just before I settled down. I fell asleep really quickly, but was woken up a couple of times by the phone ringing in the hallway. From the muffled conversations I overheard, it was firstly Nico and then Beth. Rose told them both I had gone to bed, but would ring them tomorrow, and I slept on again.

Dreaming. I am flying, with Mum. She wants to show me things, tell me the names of things, talk to me, but I want to see everything, and fly on ahead. I turn round and she has gone. I fly everywhere, but I can’t find her.

I woke the next morning, with tears on my face and a heavy sadness in my chest. I didn’t think about Mum very often, it was too painful. I’d only been thirteen when she’d died with Dad in the accident, and my subsequent experiences in various foster homes hadn’t lent themselves to introspection or dealing in any helpful way with grief. It had been more about survival, which didn’t include any kind of a softer side. By the time I’d got to Jay and Beth, I had shut Mum and Dad away somewhere virtually inaccessible. If I didn’t think about them, I didn’t have to deal with the loss of them. I’d dreamed about Mum a few times in the past few weeks, and it had unlocked that place. I tried now to push my sorrow back there, but it wouldn’t quite fit, leaving a part of me feeling exposed and vulnerable.

It took me a while to get out of bed that day, feeling down physically and emotionally. Rose spent a lot of time trying to gee me up, but she was working really hard for little reward. Nico and Beth phoned back, but I couldn’t find the energy for long conversations. Rose asked if I wanted to phone DI Johnson, but that felt a long way from possible.

I also had a phone call from Adam, the psychologist Don wanted me to see in the New Year. I made an appointment, he said he would send a letter confirming it, and that was another thing sorted, but another reminder of how much I had to do to get better.

After nearly a day of trying to get a response out of me, Rose had had enough, and took matters into her own hands. She called Nico and asked him to come over.

:I think he needs some cheering up, hardly had a word out of him all day.

Nico arrived half an hour later, full of chatter and charm, and raised my spirits a bit. He told a funny story about trying to buy a present for Lis in town that morning, he teased Rose mercilessly about her need for tea, he made fun of the TV programmes that were on in the background, and it was impossible not to be a bit swept up in his performance. I caught myself smiling, despite myself, and Nico noticed too.

>Ha, this is better. You seem very sad today, Rose tell me.

‘Had stuff on my mind.’

>You must say this stuff, or we cannot help.

I was silent. They couldn’t have helped, whatever I said, and I wasn’t going to tell them what was on my mind. I could barely acknowledge it myself, and talking about it would release a whole lot of shit I wasn’t ready to face.

>Huh, you are stubborn. OK, is up to you.

:Are you worried about this business with your friend, love?

I shook my head, frowned at her, didn’t want both of them going on at me.

>What business?

Rose ignored my scowl.

:Declan thinks he’s remembered the assault. He thinks it was someone different to that Dav fellow you told the police about. I think he should call DI Johnson, but he’s not felt up to it today.

>Declan, you remember?

I was trying not to, but thinking about it now brought the flashbacks into my head; kicks and punches and slashes. I groaned and covered my face with my hands. Too much I was trying not to think about.

‘I remember being punched and kicked, glass smashing on my head. It was Big. Ben Hearne. And someone else – I think I know him, but it wasn’t DivDav.’

>Declan, you must tell the police.

‘Rose thinks it was a dream.’

:Well it did happen while you were asleep, love.

‘I know the difference.’

>OK, is importante. If you are sure, we tell the police the wrong name before. We must tell them.

‘I’m sure I remember.’

>Then I call, like last time.

Nico made the call, I was relieved to have it taken out of my hands. It was a short conversation.

>He say he come this evening to talk to you. I say yes. I stay or go, which you want.

‘Stay, please. When’s he coming?’

>Ha, I forget to ask. Rose, I am here all evening, feed me please!

:You’ve got a cheek on you. Alright, I’ll get cracking on tea.

>I call Lis to say I stay longer.

DI Johnson eventually arrived about eight thirty. He asked me to go over what I remembered, and was particularly interested in how I knew it was Big, and what I could recall of the other man. I described what I could remember: blond hair, brown boots, nondescript clothing. I couldn’t see how any of it could help, it was all too vague. He asked the question I had been expecting.

ϙWhat made you remember?

‘I woke up after a dream, and I just remembered.’

ϙHow can you be sure it wasn’t part of the dream?

‘Because it’s a memory. I can’t explain it any better. It’s like when I remembered Dav texting me on Saturday. I just know. I’ve remembered something else though, not something from my sleep. When I was in hospital the first time, Big and Dav came to see me. Big said something about my phone being out of commission. I don’t know how he would have known that unless he’d had something to do with smashing it.’

ϙInteresting. When you gave us David Allsop’s name we did some checking on his phone records, and he tried to contact you by text and phone on three occasions between twenty and thirty minutes after your phone was destroyed. Although it’s not impossible, it seems unlikely that he would have done this if he had known your phone was broken. You’re sure this other man wasn’t David Allsop?

‘I’m sure. Dav’s got dark brown hair, this man was blond, and could have been taller. I’m sure I know him from somewhere.’

>Do you know yet the anonymous numbers?

ϙWe’re still working on it. Lots of red tape. Thank you very much, Declan. We’ll be in touch. Can we get hold of you here over Christmas?

‘No, I’m away.’

I smiled to myself as I thought about going up to Jay and Beth’s.

‘Rose, have you got Jay’s number?’

Rose wrote out a number for DI Johnson, then showed him out.

>Huh. Ben Hearne. You are sure?

‘I’m sure.’

>Are you OK? He is your friend, he never hurt you in training, he seem OK.

‘I know. No, I’m not OK really. He’s kind of fucked up my life for the next few months. I thought he was a good mate, we went out for a drink when no one else would talk to me. Don’t know what to think about that now. Don’t feel like I can trust anyone.

>You know you can trust me and Rose and Jaime. Start with us. We look after you now. We are Three Musketeers. Four if you count Lis. No, six with Beth and Cal. We are Six Musketeers. Were there six? There should be six, what good is three?

:You do talk some nonsense, lad.

>Ha, I say what is in my head. Sometimes is much nonsense, sometimes is much clever. Is luck which one. I go now, Lis she make special dinner.

:But you’ve had your dinner.

>She don’t know this.

He winked at Rose and stood up to go.

>Declan, I hope you OK, I try to cheer you up, you are sad still, yes?

‘A bit, I’ll be OK. Thanks for coming.’

He left and it was just Rose and me again.

Matt

And so the days ticked on to Christmas. I was more aware of it than I might have been because Cal was so excited – he had an advent calendar in my room, as well as one elsewhere in the house, and he came in every morning to open the cardboard door and eat the chocolate and tell me how many sleeps until Santa.

He told me earnestly how he’d asked Dec about some Transformer toy, and how Dec was going to talk to Santa about it. I hoped Dec wasn’t just bullshitting, and wasn’t going to let Cal down. I tried to talk to Beth about getting some presents for Cal, but she just waved me away and said that Santa was bringing enough more than enough, and there wouldn’t be any names on anything, and to save my strength. I wasn’t quite sure what I was saving it for, as there didn’t seem to be a marathon or even a walk to the toilet in my immediate future, but it was the end of the subject.

I was, however, slowly, infinitesimally, feeling things get better. There were days when I could sit in the chair in my room for a few minutes – not many days, but it happened, and it was something I used to chart my progress. I could sometimes even get myself out of bed and into the chair myself, although these occasions were few and far between, and I couldn’t get myself back again.

There were also days when my lungs decided they were going to try to expel all the foul deposits left in their depths, and I would cough uncontrollably, and Jay and Beth would sit with me trying to help me get it under control as I choked, their fingers poised on the nine on the phone. Those days left me weak and feeble for a long time, exhausted with the effort and sore from the overused chest muscles. I tried not to notice the fear in their eyes when it happened, but it was hard not to, and I knew I wasn’t truly out of it yet, it could still take me. The upshot of all the coughing was that I was the proud recipient of a baby monitor. It was switched on whenever there was no one in the room with me, so at the slightest sign of dying, someone could be with me in an instant to stop me. Bastards. I hated the fucker, it just made me feel more like an infant. But it was another thing I put up with because, at the end of the day, they were terrified and they had given up everything so I could be here and not in some shitty care home.

Cal

I only had a few more days of school, and then it was the Christmas holidays. I couldn’t remember ever being more excited than I was that year. I spent a lot of time in Uncle Matty’s room, playing with my toys and talking to Uncle Matty, who seemed to be able to talk and play for longer, and slept less, than when he first came to live with us. Sometimes all four of us would be in there, and we’d watch Uncle Matty’s TV, and Mum, Dad and Uncle Matty would talk, or maybe Uncle Matty would be asleep, but we’d all still be there.

Like any good six-year-old, I was counting the days to Christmas, but I was also counting the days until Dec arrived, which was going to be two days before Christmas.

I had talked to Dec on the phone a lot, although Dec didn’t talk for long, and we didn’t make any plans about what we were going to do while he was here.

Mum said that we needed to see how Dec felt, and not try to make him do a lot of playing and games, but me and Dec had always done a lot of playing and games, and I wasn’t sure what Dec would do if we weren’t doing that. Mum said Dec had been sad, and hurt from his cuts and broken arm, and that we needed to give him loves like we did to Uncle Matty, but Dec wasn’t going to be asleep in his bed all day like Uncle Matty, and I was pretty sure he’d want to play football, or cars, or Jenga, or any of the things that we always did.

Dec

I spent the weekend focussing on doing the physio exercises Pete had given me, determined I was going to be as fit as I could when I returned to the club in January. I needed less and less help generally from Rose as my arm got used to its new operational status. My mood lifted as I did more for myself, I tried to concentrate on being busy rather than thinking, using Rose’s ‘don’t prod it’ theory, and managed to push things down far enough that I couldn’t feel them.

Lis visited a couple of times, Nico had an away Raiders game on Saturday, so I didn’t see much of him. Beth rang, I spoke to her and Jay and confirmed arrangements for Tuesday. That helped to cheer me up as much as anything. I was really looking forward to going up there, although Matt, Jay’s brother, was now living with them and very poorly, and Jay’s mum was going to be staying at the same time as me, and I was nervous about how everything was going to work out with us all. Couldn’t wait to see them all though, see them properly without being on medication, or in huge amounts of pain, or unable to talk without a six year old translator. Really needed to see how it was all going to work out.

On Monday, after a trip to my GP to have various stitches removed and to be told I no longer needed the sling, which I hadn’t been wearing much anyway, I borrowed a holdall from Rose, packed it with all the clothes Lisa had bought me, and put the presents I was taking up into another bag.

Now the stitches were out from my face and scalp, I could wash my hair. I still couldn’t have a shower, though, and had to ask Rose to help me using her shower hose over the bath so I could avoid soaking the dressings on my arm. It was such a relief to have clean hair, I almost didn’t mind Rose having to do it for me. It must have been washed when I was first admitted to hospital, to get the blood out, but I hadn’t been able to wash it since. It felt like another step towards recovering, getting back on my feet.

I hadn’t looked in the mirror much since I’d been out of hospital; seeing myself in the mirror on the ward had shaken me, and the odd glimpse out of the corner of my eye was all I’d been able to cope with. However, now the stitches were out, I risked an in-depth study, keeping it exploratory and fact-finding, and not thinking about how all the marks actually found their way onto my skin in the first place.

The bruises were still there, beginning to fade but still very noticeable, in every shade from deep green through canary yellow to dark browny purple; the stitches had been replaced by raised red lines which bracketed my face. I could still barely recognise myself.

I wondered how long the scars would last – I’d asked at the surgery when I had the stitches out, but they were non-committal, which I took to mean ‘a long time’. I really didn’t want to think of men in brown boots kicking me every time I looked at myself, so I was going to have to start covering all of those thoughts over with something else soon.

Matt

Two days before Christmas was the day set for Advent. Not the coming of the baby Jesus, but the coming of the juvenile rugby player. Dec was arriving that evening, and Cal rushed about excitedly all day, tidying his room up, drawing pictures, cleaning out his rabbit, so that everything would be ready. Because obviously the teenager wouldn’t have set foot through the door if the straw in the rabbit hutch wasn’t clean enough to see your face in. Fucksake.

Since they came back from Devon, Cal had talked a lot about Dec and his scars and bruises, seeming to find it all fascinating rather than horrifying, and I was looking forward to having a look for myself, nosy parker that I was. I knew Beth and Jay were nervous about him coming.

Jay felt that things hadn’t been properly sorted, and wanted to get to the bottom of everything. He wasn’t a fan of long conversations, but he seemed to have resigned himself to this particular one.

Beth just wanted everything to be lovely again. She’d been hurt more by Dec shutting himself off and not telling them about some pretty huge shit than she had about the actual huge shit, and wondered if things could ever be back the way they’d been.

It could be pretty handy, being a useless lump in a bed, who couldn’t talk much. People opened up, told you stuff. Of course, sometimes it meant you had to lie there while they fussed and went on at you as well, but the payoff was you sometimes got to hear the good shit, always provided you could a) remember it and b) not fall asleep at a crucial point.

Then Dec was here for Christmas. He was here for four days, and by the time he left, he’d changed things for me, and he was my mate, and part of my family. The End. What, you want details? My version of events? Blow-by-blow account? Oh alright then, if you insist.

Cal

So after what felt like years, it was at last the day that Dec was coming. I had tidied my room so that you could see the carpet and all my toys had been put away to leave room for Dec’s clothes and trainers and pants. I so wanted Dec to see my dinosaur bedroom; my old bedroom had Ben 10 curtains and blue walls, but my dinosaur bedroom was cool, and it was a big boy’s bedroom. And Dec hadn’t seen Percy, my rabbit, yet. Mum had never let me have a pet, because Tabitha, our cat wouldn’t like it. But Tabitha lived with Nico and Lis now, and I had Percy. Dec would love him.

Mum had a text from Lis to say that they were driving in Lis’s car, and that they should be at our house in a few hours. Mum had made some dinner, but we weren’t going to have it until Dec got here.

Dec

It was finally Tuesday, the day I was going to see Jay, Beth and Cal; the day, if it all went right, I was going to get my family back. Rose left in the morning, torn between wanting to be on her way to her sister’s and staying to fuss over me, but finally leaving me to it along with a long list of things I had to do and say, pots of jam to give to Beth, and a couple of her speciality huge hugs.

I wandered around restlessly, waiting for Lis to pick me up in the afternoon. I did some exercises, watched some of a Christmas film on TV, ate lunch, paced some more. Lis, of course, showed up dead on time.

The car journey was nearly as tortuous as the waiting had been. It should have taken about two and a half hours, but loads of other drivers seemed to be making an early Christmas getaway and the motorways were pretty busy. Being stuck in several traffic jams did nothing for my nerves. We got there in just over three and a half hours.

Cal

It got dark, and although I kept looking out of the window, I couldn’t see anything. Lots of cars went by, but I could only see their headlights, and none of them stopped. I took up a permanent position at the hall window, and pressed my face to the glass.

Finally, a car stopped outside, under the street-light, and a light went on inside the car. I saw Dec in the passenger seat, but he didn’t get out straight away. I jumped off the chair I’d been standing on and ran into the kitchen.

‘He’s here, Mummy, he’s here.’

Dec

It was early evening, dark and cold as Lis pulled up outside the house, following my directions via a map on her phone. I had managed to get us lost once, but we had found our way again and now we were here. My pulse rate rose with anticipation. I was finally here, I would find out if it really was all OK, if we could be together again, if things could be mended, or … not. I was excited and terrified.

~Ready?

Deep breath. I looked at Lisa, who gave me a reassuring smile.

‘… Ready.’c

2. Do you remember the first time?

In which Matty does some things for the first time, and does other things for the last time.

Matt

I pushed her away and stumbled backwards.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’

I so wished I had my glasses; the whole world felt out of focus, things were happening that I didn’t quite understand, and it was all making me feel a bit sick and dizzy, but she’d put them somewhere, and I couldn’t see to look for them. Cindy moved towards me again, until I put up my hands in a kind of fending off gesture.

‘Andrew’s my mate.’

She laughed again, compounding the confusion I was trying to fight my way through.

‘It’s OK, Matt. Drew and me have a … um … open relationship. We both see other people if we want to.’

‘What?’

First I’d heard of it, but then Andrew didn’t really confide in me much any more.

‘Yeah. It’d be OK.’

Her voice was low and breathy, and she was so damn close, and now she was touching my arm, running her fingers slowly down from my shoulder, and I thought I was going to explode. I was so conflicted. This was what I’d been thinking about for weeks, Cindy touching me, kissing me, me touching her, it had filled my alone time, given me some nicely sordid little fantasies for the shower, but it being real was different. I couldn’t quite get my head round it.

She was closer now. I’d backed up against the wall, and she was right in front of me, almost touching, so almost that it felt like there were little arcs of static between us. She reached up again and cupped my cheek.

‘You’re so cute. It’s really OK to have a bit of fun, Matt. Drew would be totally OK, I know it.’

Now she was closer, I could see her face, and look into her eyes, and I was lost. I was gone. Whatever ear-splitting alarm bells were going off in my head, this was Cindy, this was my daydream come true, offering ‘a bit of fun’, and saying her boyfriend, my best mate, would be OK with it. I stopped struggling with my conscience, and my hormones took over.

Iz

OK, so here’s the first taste of Matty love. Go Matty and all that, but this is what you have to look forward to.

Matt

Now, I may have lacked experience in the women department, but what I lacked in practical application I had more than made up for in theoretical learning. I had read books – no, not just porn, but real books, about what made women tick, what turned them on, where to touch, what to do, how to be. I’d watched DVDs – again, not just porn, but ‘how to’ stuff. I was pretty much a theory into practice kind of guy, and I had a head full of knowledge that was just aching to be tried on a real live woman. Here was real live Cindy, apparently desperate for it to be tried on her, putting all my well-researched theories into practice.

‘I’ve never –’

How could I have never? I was eighteen. Eighteen and a half if you want to split hairs. Practically middle-aged in the virginity stakes. But there it was, and I needed to get my excuses in first.

‘I know. Drew said. It was so cute, the two of you coming here all innocent.’

Oh great – did Andrew just blurt all my secrets?

‘It’ll be OK, Matt, you’ll be fine. I know you want to, I’ve seen you looking at me.’

Yeah, well, cat out of the bag, then, nothing to lose. Unable to stop another groan or moan or grunt escaping from my throat, I tentatively lifted my hand up to touch her hair, then the other hand, then cupped her face in my palms, with my fingers in her hair, and bent down to her mouth, which opened beneath my lips, and all the softness and slipperiness and tongueiness I had ever imagined opened with it.

And then things happened really quickly. I’d always, in my imagination, taken things really slowly the first time, so I could savour the moment and relish the experience. But I hadn’t factored in several years of teenage neediness, nearly two months of pining forlornly after Cindy, or the fact that she had her tongue down my throat, her hands up my shirt and her luscious body pressed hard against me. All of these elements made for an explosive cocktail, and before I knew it she’d pulled my shirt over my head, had divested herself of most of her clothes too, and was standing in front of me in her bra and pants. Then I definitely wasn’t able to go slow.

Every single one of my buttons had been well and truly pushed, and stopping now would cause cataclysmic, seismic chain reactions that would be felt in the depths of rural China. I pulled her towards me with my hands on her buttocks and kissed her deeply, grinding my crotch into hers. She kissed back, but started to pull me towards the bed. I willingly followed her lead, and lay down next to her, where we rolled around for a while, kissing and rubbing against each other until I wasn’t sure I could take it much longer.

This was so much more than my distant memories of pashing Lily Knight, this was real, this was grown up, this was sex, or at least it was going to be in the very near future. I felt Cindy reach for my belt, unbuckle it, and slide the zip down on my jeans, then her hand wriggled below the waistband of my boxers and I felt her fingers on my cock. I nearly let rip against her right then, but just managed to control myself.

‘You can touch me, Matt, I won’t break.’

She turned away from me and arched her back, and I could see her nipples peaking through the lacy fabric of her bra. They were irresistible, and with widened eyes I bent my head down to them. As I touched and tasted her breasts through her bra with my tongue and fingers, she wiggled my jeans and underpants down my thighs. When she had taken off the remainder of my clothes, she reached behind her and unclasped her bra, and I had my first ever view of a real live pair of breasts. I was awestruck.

‘Holy fuck.’

‘Hopefully.’

I couldn’t help myself; I leaned down to her, cupped them both, kissed them both, sucked them both, unable to stop feasting on them.

I’ve always been a bit of a breast man – actually who isn’t? Some of us say it’s legs or arses or necks or even elbows, but really, when it comes down to the nasty, it’s those two soft orbs of womanliness that are the difference between us, those glorious spheres that quiver and tremble with every movement, that have nipples that harden under your touch, your breath, or even your gaze.

Nipples are so much more subtle than dicks; if you can see a woman’s nipples through her shirt, it might not be because she’s aroused, she could just be cold. Or she may just be excited about what she’s talking about. You can never assume, you have to delve, and I’ve always loved a good delve.

Breasts don’t have to be big, although big is beautiful. They can be small but perfectly formed; they can be the ideal medium-sized handful; they can be purely perky or delightfully droopy; they can be high fliers or low slung; they can be almost anything and they’ll attract my attention.

I have given a lot of thought to breasts over the years. Lau’s are perfect – not so big that they’re the only thing you notice when you meet her, although yeah, I noticed. Not so small that she has to wear padded push-up bras to get a cleavage; what you see is what you get – well that’s pretty much Lau all over. But more of Lau later. Patience, dear readers.

Anyway, so I’m a breast man. Could be something to do with all that time with my mum – ew, let’s not explore that little nugget too deeply – and Cindy was pushing me closer and closer to the edge with hers. I could easily have come just by looking at her, but I wanted to do it properly.

‘Shit, condom.’

‘I’m on the pill.’

‘But we should still …’

‘Why? I’m clean and you’ve never done it before, so why do we need it?’

I ignored all the reasoned arguments about only ninety nine percent guarantees, and not knowing her that well so could I trust her, and I didn’t need any further persuasion, especially as I had no condoms, and didn’t fancy sprinting down to the vending machine in the Student Union while Cindy went off the whole idea back in my room.

‘You’re forgetting something.’

Cindy ran her thumb under the top of her pants, if you could call the tiny scrap of nothing much pants.

‘Can’t do anything with these on. Take them off.’

I was open to suggestions or, as it turns out, direct orders, at that point, and did as I was told, pulling the lacy thong down her thighs, over her feet and dropping it on the floor. I would have liked to have explored it a bit longer, having a bit of a thing for knickers, but events were urgently coming to a head.

‘Come on, Matt, what are you waiting for?’

I groaned as Cindy spread her legs, and the promised land awaited and I just knelt and stared at her naked body in awe. I felt a moment of panic, as I wondered if I really knew what to do, but it seemed like my brain was happy on autopilot as I knelt between her thighs, positioned myself and plunged forwards into her. I had never felt anything like it, in all my wildest wanking fantasies. To feel myself inside her, filling her, pulling out, thrusting back in, the friction, the movement, the sensation. I wanted it to last, but it wasn’t going to last, it was going to be over soon, I could feel it building and bubbling, filling my balls and setting my cock on fire, and Cindy seemed to be building and bubbling too, writhing beneath me, moaning, and here it came, here I came. It rushed through me, searing my body with hot electricity, pouring out of me in streams of throbbing … joy. I shouted, and Cindy shouted, and I collapsed on her, panting, unable to move or feel or speak, until she pushed me off her and I rolled onto my side, a grin on my face.

I was spent. I was in heaven, or somewhere very like it. Surely not my smelly room in halls, it must be some kind of divine antechamber. There was an angel lying next to me at any rate. I looked into Cindy’s eyes, smiled, and pulled her close, kissing her hair, stroking her soft skin.

‘Wow.’

‘Good?’

‘Wow.’

She laughed and rolled away from me.

‘Good then. Bin bags.’

‘What?’

‘We’ve got to get to the charity shop before they close.’

‘What? No. I can’t move.’

‘Come on, get up, no time. They shut at one on a Wednesday. Here.’

She threw my jeans and t-shirt at me so they landed on my chest. I really didn’t want to get up. I wanted to hold her close and talk about what had just happened, how amazing it was, how much I loved her. Nothing in my books and DVDs said it would all be over within minutes of all the shouting.

‘Can’t we just … stay here for a bit? I dunno, hold each other and talk or something?’

‘Ha ha, no Matt. That was great, but cuddling is just for me and Drew.’

‘Oh.’

It was as if someone had plunged me into an ice bath. The glow I’d been feeling disappeared instantly, replaced by a sinking feeling.

‘What was all that about then?’

‘We were just having fun, weren’t we?’

Yeah, if your idea of fun is having your heart ripped out and stomped on fairly comprehensively. But obviously if you’ve been stupid enough to believe something different when it isn’t true, you’re not about to admit it.

‘Yeah, I suppose.’

‘Well then. Bin bags, for this lot. Come on.’

And for some reason, I did what she said. I put my clothes in bin bags, I meekly followed her to Oxfam and gave them away, and I bought what she told me to from the same shop. I did it all in a daze, unable to put coherent thoughts together, unable to speak much. I even let her lead me into an opticians, where a lucky cancellation meant a trial pair of contact lenses and an order for a new pair of glasses. Walking back without my glasses on, I felt naked, which further compounded the strangeness.

When I got back to my room, Cindy having gone to the Union bar in search of Andrew, I dumped the shopping bags on the floor and flopped onto my bed. Cindy seemed to have lost interest in the ‘big reveal’, and I still hadn’t looked at myself in the mirror. I was – well, heartbroken may be overstating it a little, I don’t think my heart was broken. For the few minutes we were – what were we doing? Fucking? Yeah, sounds right. For the few minutes we were fucking, Cindy was the love of my life. I’d wanted her since Andrew got her. I’d overlooked several annoying character flaws in favour of several distractingly attractive physical traits, but since she metaphorically poured cold water on me straight after the sex, I’d been in a stupor of regret and self-condemnation. I’d just slept with my best friend’s girlfriend. I’d just ignored all the carefully constructed fantasies of how I wanted my first time to be, of how respectful and careful and giving I was going to be, to have a frantic fuck with someone I shouldn’t have. Instead of lying here glowing, revelling in the fact that I had at last HAD SEX, I was lying here cold and miserable inside.

It felt like Cindy had used me. Whether she and Andrew really did have an open relationship or not, I had no idea, but she had wanted me at that moment, and she’d had me, and that was that.

I could have lain there all afternoon feeling sorry for myself, wondering whether to say something to Andrew, and what exactly that something would be, and I did spend some time doing that. But then I made a decision. I’d lost my virginity, not in the way I’d planned, and not with someone I would have chosen, not really.

My crush on Cindy was well and truly over, as any woman who would sleep with their boyfriend’s best mate wasn’t for me, even though the twisted logic of that and what it said about me had to be shoved far to the back of my mind. But I’d had sex. I’d done it. It had been incredible, and if only for that I could be thankful to Cindy. She’d cut my hair and changed my clothes, and I decided to have a good look at what she’d done.

I hauled myself off my bed and walked over to the mirror. I looked back at myself. Skinny, lanky, dorky, stupid Star Wars t-shirt. Cool haircut, though. And my eyesight was so poor that it had been a while since I’d studied myself without glasses – but contact lenses undoubtedly changed my ‘look’. Maybe the clothes would make a bit of a difference after all. Feeling ridiculous, I looked in the bags from the charity shop for a different shirt and trousers, and changed into them. Considered the results in the mirror, although as I turned this way and that, I felt like a preening princess. But even so, I had to admit to looking and feeling different. The bloke staring back at me was still a skinny lanky dork, but he had a bit of something about him. Maybe it was the hair, maybe it was the clothes, maybe it was the lack of specs. I quite liked it, and smiled stupidly at myself.

There was a knock at the door. I opened it to find Andrew, and immediately felt embarrassed at my newly makeovered state; he didn’t look too happy to see it either.

‘She did it, didn’t she.’

He put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me backwards into the room.

‘What?’

‘Cind. She cut your hair. Bought you clothes. Did she fuck you too?’

‘What?’

‘I’m not stupid, Matt. Where are your glasses? What’s all this?’

He pulled at the collar on my shirt.

‘Er …’

‘Did you?’

‘What?’

‘Fuck her?’

This was so far removed from any conversation I’d ever had with Andrew that all sensible words fled my brain, but he must have seen something in my face.

‘Jesus Christ, you did, didn’t you. What did she tell you? That we had an open relationship?’

‘Er …’

‘Jesus Christ. You fucking knob. She’s my – Christ, Matt, she’s the best thing that ever, ever happened to me and you’ve just fucking – ugh you knob.’

And with that he punched me. It came out of nowhere, and I suppose really it wasn’t that hard of a punch, him being a nerdy dork with no muscles, just like me, but it connected with my cheek and knocked me backwards so that I fell on my arse on the floor, and he jumped on top of me and we started wrestling as I tried to get up and he tried to stop me. He grabbed the collar of my shirt and pulled my head up, then let go and the back of my head bounced on the floor.

‘Ow.’

‘Sorry.’

‘What?’

We stopped wrestling and looked at each other. Andrew had tears running down his face, and a strange mixture of emotions raced across him: sorrow, anger, shame, and finally laughter. He started to shake with it, seeming to come close to the edge of tears again. I lay pinned beneath him, trying to get my breath back, trying to work out what was going on.

Eventually Andrew stood up and held a hand out to me. I took it warily, and pulled myself to my feet, wondering what was coming next.

‘Shit, Matt, you bastard. You fucking bastard.’

I hung my head, barely able to look at him.

‘Sorry. She said you –’

‘I know exactly what she said. She said it all to me, that first night. She’s got a boyfriend, back home, some footballer bloke. Apparently they have an open relationship too, and she’s done the haircut and clothes thing with him as well. When she told me she’d made you over, I just started thinking, what if that’s what she does, how she does blokes? I think she collects virgins.’

‘What?’

That seemed to be my catchphrase at the moment; I had spent most of today in a haze of not understanding and getting things completely wrong.

‘This footballer bloke, she told me she was his first too, then me, now you. And I think – shit I hate to say this – I think she might have done the open relationship thing with someone else.’

‘What, here? On campus?’

Andrew nodded. I sat down on the bed, and he sat next to me.

‘Christ, what a mess, Matt.’

‘So you guys don’t have an open relationship?’

Andrew snorted.

‘Well she obviously does, she just neglected to inform me. I thought we were pretty exclusive, apart from her back home boyfriend, who apparently ‘didn’t need to know about us’. Shit, I’m just as bad, aren’t I.’

‘Sorry. I just believed her. Still, I shouldn’t have done it.’

‘She’s hard to resist.’

‘Yeah.’

‘You’re a fucking bastard bumhole for doing my girl.’

‘Yeah.’

‘I should dump her.’

‘Yeah.’

‘I might not, though.’

‘OK.’

‘I don’t want you to fuck her again.’

‘OK.’

And there we had it. Andrew spent the rest of his three years at University being tormented by Cindy. I lost count of the times he knocked on my door, needing to talk, needing reassurance that he was doing the right thing, or wanting permission to dump her, or just wanting to tell me he loved her but that he’d found out about yet another ‘makeover’.

He eventually dumped her for good just before Finals, which screwed both of them up so much they both failed – some would say justice was done.

Whereas I’d lost my virginity, but found something else, a new haircut, new clothes, a new face. I’d also found attractiveness, confidence, of a sort. And Cindy had been right – walking into the canteen that night had been a revelation.

Shallow as it made me, I couldn’t help being pleasantly surprised at the amount of girls who came and sat at my table, chattering to each other at first, but swinging covert glances my way, and holding eye contact. The new bruise deposited on my cheekbone by Andrew was also a bit of a talking point, and elicited sympathy and a few tender touches too. I was asked if I was ‘new’, and when I told them I’d been here since the beginning of term, and always sat in this spot for dinner, I smiled to myself at the ‘no, that other bloke sits here, kind of skinny, with … oh!’. I went back to my room that night a new man. I wondered if Andrew felt the same way.

And thus began the belated chapter in the life of Matt Scott: Ladies Man. The rest of that term, I chatted girls up, tentatively at first, worrying all the time they were going to laugh in my face, but gaining confidence as even if they didn’t fall at my feet, they at least talked back. I went on dates, I had lots more sex. University campuses seem to be the place for it; lots of girls and boys away from the constraints of home life for the first time, eager to test out their new found freedom. It worked for me. I took more interest in my appearance, not to the point of obsession, but there were to be no more haircuts from my mum, and I bought my own clothes now.

By the time I went home for Christmas, I was juggling two potential girlfriends and a couple of one night stands who wanted it to be more. It was a little overwhelming, and I relished the three week break back in Stafford, where I could get on with some course work in peace. I turned my mobile phone off and decided to take a breather from the whirl of girls.

When I got home, I was surprised to find Jay installed in the living room. We grunted a greeting, mine a more subdued grunt than usual, as he was an interloper these days, someone who treated the place like it was home, but was hardly ever there. A bit like me, now I was at Uni, I suppose.

‘How come you’re back?’

Jay was never around for the festive season, there was always a game on Boxing Day, or thereabouts, or there was training or travelling or some such shit.

‘Done my hamstring. Out for a few weeks.’

‘Oh. Bummer.’

‘Yeah.’

Not playing rugby was just about the worst thing that could happen to Jay. He was naturally taciturn, but not playing rugby made him sullen and self-pitying and a general pain in the arse to be around. I sighed inwardly at the thought of trying to be jolly for him for the next – how long?

‘So you’re back for, what, a week or two?’

‘Not sure. Might have to go back in a few days, start rehab.’

‘What, before Christmas?’

‘Maybe.’

‘Mum’ll be disappointed.’

Jay shrugged, Mum’s disappointment being neither here nor there for him when compared to the thrill of doing lots of exercises so he could play again.

‘Your brother thinks he might be able to do some physio with the Old Rotarians down the road.’

Mum had come in, unheard by me, and I turned round and gave her a welcoming hug.

‘Hi Mum. Oh, well, that’ll be great if Jay can stay here a bit longer.’

I looked at him pointedly, but he was staring impassively at the TV.

‘Yes dear. It’s lovely to see you, Matthew, have you brought much washing?’

I grinned and fetched my bags.

‘Is that a new haircut, dear?’

‘Yeah. Andrew’s girlfriend did it.’

This stirred Jay.

‘What, Dipstick’s got a girl?’

Andrew’s surname was Distock, with predictable consequences.

‘Must have missed the headlines on the news. Class minger is she?’

‘Jameson, stop it now. Andrew’s a nice looking boy. So is Matthew. What have you done with your glasses, dear?’

‘I got contacts.’

‘You look very different. You can see your eyes. You haven’t got a girlfriend have you?’

She looked at me hopefully. I laughed and shook my head at her.

‘Not yet. Too young to get tied down.’

I wasn’t about to get into the tangled web of girlfriends, potential girlfriends and one nighters that had littered the last few breathtaking weeks.

‘Yeah, and the class minger’s taken.’

‘Fuck off, Jay.’

And I wasn’t about to take Jay’s shit anymore. He was sitting there like he owned the place, like the whole world revolved around him and his precious hamstring, and he needed a – well, maybe a slap would just get me in more trouble than it was worth, but give me a few years in a gym and I could do it. At least a slap. Anyway, I’d gone away to Uni a boy, but I felt like I’d come back a bit of a man, and I wanted him to know.

‘Matthew, language.’

‘Sorry, Mum, but –’

‘Jameson’s come back to … recuperate from more than an injury. Just be nice to him.’

‘What?’

‘Just be nice.’

She looked at me, asking me with her eyes. I caved, and looked at Jay, who was still staring at the TV. Fascinating programme about sharks, apparently. I looked back at Mum, who mouthed ‘later’ at me and took my bag into the kitchen to start my laundry.

I have to say, in my defence, I usually did my own laundry, but Mum liked to do it, is what I told myself, and I’d had a hard term and I was knackered from the long forty minute bus and train journey home and deserved a bit of pampering.

I sat down on the sofa, slipped my shoes off – Timberland boots I’d found in a charity shop the week before – and lounged along the length of it, prepared to give sharks a go in the name of being nice to Jay. After a while I felt his eyes on me and looked up at him.

‘What?’

‘You. What’s with the new look?’

I shrugged. ‘Just fancied a change.’

‘Working for you is it?’

‘S’pose.’

This was Jay and me communicating at the highest level. There were hardly any grunts at all. Sophisticated linguistic effort on both sides.

‘What’s she like, then?’

‘Who?’

‘Dipstick’s woman.’

‘Don’t know why you’d care, you think she’s the bloody class minger.’

‘Sorry. Didn’t mean to be a git.’

What? Had Jay just apologised? I hadn’t heard the trumpets announcing the end of the world, so I had trouble believing it.

‘I was just interested. Feels weird you guys being all grown up. So what’s she like then?’

This felt strange, talking normally with Jay, but I bit the bullet.

‘Pretty, I guess. Bit of a bitch, though.’

‘Oh?’

‘Fucks around.’

‘And Dipstick puts up with it?’

‘He’s besotted.’

‘Idiot.’

‘Yeah, well.’

We went back to watching sharks. Apparently, they don’t have any bones, and some of them can live up to a hundred and fifty years. Who knew.

Jay wasn’t finished yet though.

‘Seriously, Matty, what’s with the hair, and the contacts?’

‘Like I said, time for a change.’

‘And Dipstick’s bitch girlfriend was the one to change you?’

He’d hit a bit closer to the truth than I liked, and I made my reply deliberately offhand.

‘Seemed like a good idea at the time.’

Jay gave me a sharp look.

‘She didn’t fuck around … with you?’

I shrugged, trying to make it as small a deal as possible.

‘Amongst others.’

Jay’s eyebrows disappeared into his hairline.

‘Holy shit, Matty. You broke your duck.’

‘Fuck off. How do you know when I broke my duck? How do you know I had a duck to break?’

‘It’s written all over your Jack Wills jeans and your lack of nerd-specs. You got laid, little bro.’

‘So? Who hasn’t?’

I was really trying to hold my own with Jay. This was about the most adult conversation I’d ever had with him, not that there was a lot of previous experience to compare with, and I was determined it wasn’t going to dissolve into petulant insults and sneering, at least on my part.

‘Ha ha, nice try at nonchalance.’

Nonchalance? Since when did Jay know words like nonchalance?

You hadn’t, at least not to my knowledge, not before you went away to Uni. You didn’t seriously boff your mate’s girlfriend? Not your first time?’

Jay was looking at me with a mixture of disbelief and awe and … something else I couldn’t identify.

‘It wasn’t like that.’

I squirmed with embarrassment. I’d tried to erase the whole Cindy incident from my mind, had hardly seen her or Andrew since, had been comfortable with not exploring it in any way.

‘What was it then? Mistaken identity? They were on a break? They have one of these modern ‘we can see other people’ things going on? And by the way, good on Dipstick if he’s managed to wangle that one.’

‘Yeah, you’d think.’

‘What? Really? They see other people?’

‘Not they. Her.’

‘Oh. Oh Matty …’

I would almost describe the look that came over Jay’s face as sympathetic.

‘She told you they do other people, and you did her, and then you found out Dipstick wasn’t quite as open-minded as she was.’

‘Yeah, very perceptive.’

When the hell had Jay got perceptive?

‘He punched me, actually. And his name’s Andrew, not Dipstick.’

‘He punched you? Like, actually made contact? Did it hurt? Jesus. I’ve been away too long.’

‘Yeah, it hurt. But I deserved it.’

‘Yeah, I’ll say you did. But he didn’t dump her?’

‘No, like I said, besotted.’

‘Sounds like he deserves what he got as well then.’

‘Whatever. Can we talk about something else? Or find out more about sharks?’

‘Your call.’

We turned back to the TV, but it wasn’t long before Jay’s newly awakened curiosity surfaced again.

‘So was it just the once, or have there been more?’

‘What is it with the zillion questions?’

‘Just showing an interest. You’re my little bro, I worry about you.’

‘Since when?’

‘Since you went out into the big wide world away from mummy’s apron-strings and started fucking around with your best mate’s woman.’

‘Piss off. I’m not about to go into details to satisfy your prurient prying.’

‘Fine, have it your way. Just thought you might like to talk about it with someone other than Mum. But I’m sure she’ll be up for advice on premature ejaculation, or what to do when the condom splits, or how to leave in the morning when you’ve got no intention of seeing her again.’

I was silent for a moment, battling with myself. It would be good to have someone to talk to about it all, but Jay? I’d never talked to Jay about doing the washing up, let alone about doing a relationship. I wasn’t sure he was sincere, and prior experiences told me I was as likely to get the piss taken out of me as I was to find out anything useful. Still, he did seem to be showing signs of being vaguely human, against all the odds, and I made a snap decision to give him a chance. We could always go back to grunting like Neanderthals for the remainder of the holidays if being homo sapiens didn’t work out.

‘Well how do you, then?’

‘What, leave in the morning?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Best not to.’

‘What? Not leave?’

‘Best not to wait until morning. Once you’ve stayed the night, they think it’s, like, a “relationship”, so if you’re not up for a “relationship” – ‘

Jay was busy air-quoting for my benefit.

‘– or for extricating yourself from one, make sure you bugger off as soon as possible afterwards, and never cuddle them or say you’ll call them unless you want weeks of needy emails or texts.’

‘But I always cuddle. Kind of says thanks.’

‘Ha ha, really? You’re so cute. But it’s making a rod for your own back, mate. Unless she’s The One. Or one of the ones.’

‘And how do you know if she is?’

‘Jesus, Matty, how the fuck would I know? You don’t need to know either, not when you’re still barely out of nappies. There’s plenty of time for you to find The One yet.’

‘But I thought you and …’ oh what was her name, Mum had told me, ‘… Sophia were …’

I tailed off as an incredibly miserable expression crossed over Jay’s face.

‘What?’

‘Don’t go there, mate, that’s all. You’re best off playing the field, not committing to anyone, that way you won’t be crushed when it all goes tits up. Just try not to fuck with someone else’s girl along the way.’

Jay really looked on the verge of tears, and I couldn’t handle it, had never seen him cry, even when we were kids. I backed off the deep and meaningful, and tried some lighthearted banter.

‘Yeah, well, me and commitment not exactly an item. Cuddling afterwards is the fullest extent, and maybe not that any more, if I take your advice.’

Jay gave me a weak smile and turned back to the TV, where the sharks had given way to World War Two, and we sank back into our more comfortable reticent state.

Later on, I was sitting up with Mum after Jay had gone to bed, and she told me the whole story. I had only half realised there even was a whole story; Jay’s life outside of rugby usually held little drama, it was on the pitch where the highs and lows seemed to happen. But nevertheless, there were off-field events apart from the hamstring that had caused my brother to come home for some recuperation.

The short version is that Jay’s girlfriend, Sophia, had been having some of her own open relationship action with Jay’s team mate and friend, and he’d been among the last on the team to know. They’d been together for about a year, and had moved in together a couple of months ago. It had affected Jay to the point of him considering leaving his team, Royals, and looking for another club, but he was under contract until the end of the season, and it was likely he was going to have to stay there for another few months at least.

I felt terrible. I’d done exactly the same to Andrew as Jay’s mate had done to him, and then asked Jay advice about it. I was probably lucky to have got away without another punch, which would have done a lot more damage than Andrew’s, and for Jay to be civilised about it was remarkable in the circumstances. Mum sensed my discomfort, but I couldn’t tell her the details of my newly non-virginal status without serious embarrassment, and much as I talked to her about a lot of things, this was one of those subjects I couldn’t broach.

‘Are you alright, dear?’

‘Yeah.’

‘You’ve gone very quiet.’

‘Just thinking.’

‘Anything you want to talk about?’

‘No, not really. Just think I might have made things worse for Jay.’

‘How’s that, dear? You’ve not been fighting again, have you? Honestly, Matthew, you’ve only been home five minutes, I did say be nice to him.’

‘No Mum, nothing like that. I didn’t know about him and Sophia, and I just … told him about some stuff that I wouldn’t have done if I had known.’

‘Oh.’

I saw that she wanted to ask me, but that she knew I wasn’t really up for talking about it.

‘Just … be a bit sensitive, Matthew. I know your brother doesn’t really talk about things, but this has hit him hard.’

‘Yeah. I’ll try.’

My way of trying was to be my annoying little brother self. I didn’t think Jay would want to talk to me about his woman troubles, and the best I could do was not let him wallow by antagonising him as much as I could. I made a point of talking about computer code at dinner time, of watching re-runs of University Challenge and blatantly celebrating when I got the answers right, of reading books with titles like Moonwalking with Einstein, and Introduction to Algorithms, but none of it had the desired effect of making him annoyed with me. He didn’t even really seem to notice, and it was as if he’d finally given up being irritated by my brains, much as I’d given up being overawed by his brawn.

We rubbed along together for the Christmas holidays. Jay had found somewhere to get his physio, and had decided to stay for and beyond Christmas itself. I’d finished my assignments, and decided one morning to look at my phone, which I’d had on silent and in a trouser pocket since I got home, to avoid the girls who had been plaguing me before the end of term. (This was obviously before I became chairman of the board of phone addicts anonymous, as turning my phone off for even half an hour these days has me sweating.) As I turned the phone on, I saw all the texts and voicemails, and my heart quailed a little bit.

‘Holy shit.’

‘Finally caught up with you have they?’

Jay had just come in after a training session, and was leaning on the door frame in his gym gear.

‘Who’s caught up with me?’

‘Whoever it was you were just ‘holy shitting’ about.’

‘Oh. Yeah. You could say that.’

I glanced down at the phone’s screen again. Admittedly I hadn’t turned it on for more than two weeks, but surely this volume of phone usage was excessive? I wasn’t that big of a catch; I’d hoped that if I just went out of radio contact, they’d get bored and make my decisions for me.

‘Wanna tell me?’

I looked at Jay, who pushed himself away from the door and sat down in the armchair across from me.

‘I know I’m more the strong and silent type, but if I can help at all …’

Jay and I hadn’t had a recurrence of our touchy feely moment since Mum told me about Sophia; I’d wanted to stay clear of it all in case I brought up stuff that made either of us uncomfortable. Maybe … just maybe … it was time to stop acting like a ten year old, and talk to my brother like we were both grown ups. I sighed.

‘I just turned my phone on, it’s been off all holidays. I’ve had a few more messages than I was anticipating.’

‘Messages from?’

‘A few girls.’

‘Ah. Maybe not my specialist subject just at the moment.’

‘Sorry, didn’t mean to remind you –’

‘Jesus, Matty, it’s not like I’ve forgotten. Come on then, shoot. More than one girl? Go Matty!’

‘Yeah, well, I was kind of hoping it would be down to one or less by the time I got back, but they all seem to be hanging in there. Sarah’s texted twelve times – I miss you. Where are you? Did you get my text? Happy Christmas kiss kiss kiss. Text me. Etcetera. Ruby’s left five voicemails, I dread to think what they say. Charlotte has texted and left voicemails, and Pia has sent me lots of happy and sad faces and kisses.’

‘Bloody hell, Matty. Four women on the go. I bow to you.’

‘I can’t do it, though, they’re doing my head in. Pia and Ruby were just one night, I never intended – I feel like such a bastard. Sarah and Charlotte are both hot, but they don’t know about each other, and I’m going seriously loopy trying to juggle it all.’

Jay had an amused look on his face.

‘A bit like buses, then.’

‘What?’

‘None for years then four come along at once.’

‘Oh. Ha ha. Funny. Not. What am I going to do? I was hoping if I ignored them it would all have resolved itself when I got back. Now I’m just going to be straight back into the middle of it all.’

‘OK. First rule of women. Never expect them to do your dirty work. You’re going to have to decide who you want, if you want any of them, and tell the others thanks but no thanks. Jesus, I can’t believe I’m actually giving you girl advice.’

‘Neither can I. Isn’t there an easier way?’

‘You could always leave Uni and stack shelves.’

‘Shit. But how am I going to choose?’

‘Well there’s no law to say you can’t have more than one girl on the go at one time, but believe me, it quickly becomes messy and complicated, even when everyone’s happy with it.’

‘Really? Have you done it?’

‘Not since I was at school. Remember Shona McKenna?’

I nodded.

‘And Rosie Phillips?’

I nodded again. ‘Oh. Both at the same time? Did they know?’

‘Well, yeah, kind of, but Shona was in a different year to me, and she and Rosie didn’t come across each other very often. But at the end of term it was the school dance, and I took Rosie, but asked Shona as well. Ever seen two girls trying to scratch each other’s eyes out? Hot as fuck, but seriously scary, especially as once they’d finished with each other they both joined forces and came after me. Believe me, Matty, you’re better off sticking with the one woman at a time, and ones who don’t have added complications like already having boyfriends.’

‘It does sound less stressful.’

‘Trust me. You need to call the one-nighters and let them down gently, and call whichever of the long-termers will cause you more lost sleep if you don’t have her than if you do, and pick her. And let the other one down gently. And Jesus, Matty, stop cuddling them afterwards. It seriously gives them the wrong idea.’

And after that, something changed between Jay and me. Something matured; things were different. I wouldn’t say we became pals, or even greatly altered the way we communicated with each other. We didn’t even see any more of each other than we had before, but Jay would occasionally call me and ask how I was doing, and I’d text him or email him if I’d seen his photo on the back page of a paper. Something like – Me: I c u muscled yr way onto the Guardian sports pages. Thumb wrestling or something? Jay: Don’t b jealous, u’ll nerd yr way onto the cover of Geek Weekly one day. He even sent me a pair of trainers he’d got free from a sponsor. Cindy would have been proud.

I finally worked out the girl thing, as much as anyone was ever going to, and had a few short-lived flings but nothing long term. I was more interested in my degree, to be honest, than I was in having a girlfriend, but I was very interested in sex, and was happy to see a woman for a few weeks while we stayed casual and exciting, but got used to ending it, quickly, when she showed signs of wanting more commitment. I used all the moves I’d learned from books and DVDs, and added a few of my own, and always made it a point to ensure we both had a good time.

I finished my degree, graduated with first class Honours, and was amazed and choked when Jay came with Mum to my graduation. The ceremony was in June, and he was spending some time in Stafford before joining his new club, Raiders, who were based down south. His presence caused a bit of a stir, which I would have resented a few years ago, but had grown comfortable and self-confident enough with to enjoy the reflected attention.

I had landed a one-year contract with an IT company in Holland, and Jay took Mum and me out to a posh restaurant to celebrate and say ‘bon voyage’. I left the next day, knowing Mum would miss me and worry about me, but needing to start living my own life.

I carried on my commitment-free life in Holland, stockpiling casual relationships while avoiding being tied down in any but the most erotic way. My book, DVD and now practical knowledge had stood me in good stead, and most women were impressed at how well I knew my way around their bodies. I got a reputation for being an excellent no-strings lay, and it suited me that way. Nobody was under any illusions and nobody got hurt.

I also got a reputation for being an excellent Information Systems technician, and once my contract was up, it was easy to find another job with the reference I was given from the Dutch company. I could conceivably have gone anywhere in the world, but I fancied a bit of familiarity and home comforts, and when I was offered the job in Stafford, I took it, fully intending to stay for a maximum of a year before jetting off somewhere exotic.

  Funny how things turn out …

1. Beginnings

In which we meet everyone, but especially Matty, and decide whether or not we like him.

Iz

How do I let myself get talked into these things, eh? Just because I’ve done languages at Uni and happen to be an interpreter, and, you know, like words and stuff, people think – assume – I’m OK with just spending every waking minute putting everyone’s rambling life stories into some kind of order. Well, alright, I admit I have loved it. So I’m not really moaning, because it’s been awesome making everyone’s tales fit with everyone else’s. It’s just the assumption that I take issue with, and the constant ‘Iz, have you finished putting the book together?’ and ‘I don’t suppose there’s room for one of my poems?’ and ‘When can we all read it?’. Because without all the hassle and interruptions, I would have finished a looooot sooner, I can tell you.

However, here it is, done. I thought it was five people’s stories, and it is that, but really what it is, what it has become, is Matty’s story, with a big slice of Lau, a large helping of Dec, a dollop of Cal and a spoonful of Julia. It’s like a family album, like a huge panoramic photo of our family through the ages, or rather through the ages of Matthew Robert Scott age 0 – 57 and a little bit beyond.

I hope I’ve done a good enough job, I’m pretty pleased with it, the whole thing has helped me know different sides of people I thought I knew pretty well, and I hope you will feel the same. I haven’t changed anything without permission, and haven’t left anything out, although obviously there are millions of things that have happened to us all that aren’t in there. I’ve had some great reminiscences about things that happened, and some great argy-bargies about things that I said happened and others said didn’t, or the other way round. That’s the thing about remembering, it’s so subjective.

Oh, and while I’m on the theme of subjectivity, weeelll, there may be one or two or nineteen or twenty bits where the heat is on, if you get my drift. I might warn you about them, I might just let you hurtle headlong into them. Watch out for my ‘parental guidance’ alerts, but also, just be on your toes. Rumpy pumpy could crop up anywhere, without warning. Just saying. TBH it’s not that great (let’s be generous and call it) erotica. Julia is rather clinical – this went here, he did that, I screamed that – Matty just copied her really, and Lau should have remembered the phrase ‘too much information’ once in a while. But anyway, now you know.

Anyway, Scott family, and anyone else who reads it (Tom, if you really feel the need to blog it, knock yourself out), enjoy it for what it is: the stories of some mighty fine people and one mighty fine person in particular.

Iz xx

Cal

This is for Matty.

It’s not about you, Matty, you raging egomaniac, but reading your story made me realise how much knowing a different side of things can mean to the people you love.

So it’s for Matty, because I miss him, but it’s about all of you, family and friends. This is my side of things.

How do I do it? Just straight, factual, one thing after another, like Lau? Or jumping around here and there like Matty? Or starting straight then adding clips and cuttings like Dec? I suppose I should just get going and see how it pans out.

One thing I do know: There. Will. Be. No. Porn. Jesus, I don’t think I’ve ever blushed so much in my life as when I was reading Matty’s and Lau’s stories, even if you say you censored yours before it got to me, Lau. Neither my kids nor my mum will be reading details of … private stuff, because it’s just not going in, alright?

I can at least start at the beginning. Can’t I? Maybe not. Things can get pretty confusing round here, even if you start out in a straight line trying to explain them. Perhaps that’s where I should start, with who we all are and what we all are to each other. Let’s give it a go.

Me. I’m Cal. Calum James Scott, son of Beth and Jay, brother of Iz. I’m married to Chrissie and we’ve got two children, Conor and Lily. I’ve been a rugby player in my time, but retired a few years ago, and now I’m a Physiotherapist.

That’s easy so far, isn’t it? A nice ordinary family, simply explained. Then it starts to get interesting …

Dec

I thought this would be easy to write, because I’d done most of it way back then, when I was more than a little bit mad, when writing it all down helped me. But it’s made me think about it all again, about what I lost and what I found, or rather who I found, and I can’t go back over it, not right from the start to now, it’s too hard, opens up too many hurting places.

God, Matt would laugh at me – I can almost hear him calling me a ‘miserable doomwank’. So, OK, because it’s important that people you love know about things, I’m going to do this, but only up to a point. Only up until it’s good, until it’s shining, kind of the top of the mountain. All downhill from there, as they say, and I’m not really up for that journey, downhill I mean. And there are some things I’m not going to tell you, because I spent a lot of time in a therapist’s room sorting them in my head, and to go there again will seriously fuck me up.

So, off we go to the top of the shiny mountain.

Julia

Dear Matt

I wrote this, and it’s about you. I thought you had a right to see it.

Julia

Laura

From: lustylau@hotnet.com

Hello Everyone

I’ve just had a lovely surprise. Well, I think it’s lovely. Maybe I’m not quite sure yet. But Matt left all of us something. He addressed it to me, but it’s obvious it’s for all of you too.

He hid a story on the computer, something he’d been writing in secret for over a year. It’s his story, and parts of it are your parts of his story, and I know he wanted you to read it, because he says things in it he would never say to you out loud, only in his heart.

You don’t have to read it, Matt would have understood. But if you would like to, here it is. Don’t print it off, for goodness sake. It’s really long.

Just a word of warning – some of Matt’s descriptions are rather intimate. He gets up close and personal, about our relationship and about previous relationships. It’s probably not something to read to small children. I wondered about cutting bits out, to make it less embarrassing (I mean to me, Matt wouldn’t have given a hoot), but I’ve decided to leave it as it is.

I’ve only just finished reading it, and I think I’m going to do something similar. It feels good to think that something of you lives on after you’ve finished. It feels good to think that Matt has kept this much of him alive for us.

As I said, take your time, read it slowly, or never if it’s too much.

I’m planning on getting some kind of memory file together, maybe on the computer or real paper in a real box somewhere for the things that I don’t know how to computerise (help Tom!), so if you’ve got anything, please let me have it.

Anyway, here it is.

Laura xx

Matt

My name is Matt, and I am a swearaholic. Actually, although most people call me Matt, I have been known to answer to Matty and Matthew, with the occasional ‘arrogant bastard’ thrown in for good measure. And a couple of people call me Dad, or Daaad if I’ve done something particularly squeamishly embarrassing, which I try to manage at least once a week, because it makes them say ‘Daaad’ and I bloody love it. But, yeah, swearaholic. Even invented ‘Fuckotinell’ to help counter it, but it never really did the trick – in all likelihood because, despite some people’s assertion that I have some kind of compulsion to say, oh I don’t know, fuck or bollocks a bit too often, I would retort that it’s not actually a compulsion, not a neurological medical condition as such; I already have one of those. No, I can trace the origins of the increase in the ‘fuck’ rate to a certain Christmas, when a certain teenager name of Declan Summers took it into his head to shove his way past my painstakingly erected defences, without even so much as a by-your-leave, to become my best mate-brother-aunty-ohidon’tknowwhatthefuckheis.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. A lot had happened in my thirty years on this planet before the year that I nearly died. I’ve been around a bit, got a bit of a reputation in some quarters, so you might think you know me; I doubt you do. In any case, here’s my story, here’s how I got where I am, the whole roller-coaster, hands in the air and scream, wind in your hair, log flume water in your pants, hundred mile an hour fun ride that has been Matt Scott. Ready? I hope so.

Ha ha. Fun ride? With me? That’s a laugh. I wish. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to convince people I’m different than I am, that I’m not always sure what ‘me’ is. Without wishing to sound maudlin, I’m here at what is potentially the end of it all for me, and without Lau, without that huge, inexplicable, indescribable, fucking amazing love I have for her, and that somehow, unbelievably, she has for me, well I wouldn’t even have made it this far. But again, ahead of myself. Oh bollocks, maybe you should just resign yourself to this being an all-over-the-place, out of sequence, mixed up splurge of a life story, because really, being the story of Matthew Robert Scott, it couldn’t be any other way.

I will at least start at the beginning. I’m told it’s a very good place to start. Or as near to the beginning as I remember. I was born – no, of course I don’t remember being born, but my mother and my birth certificate tell me – in Stafford, which is in the Midlands, England, UK, Europe, Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way Galaxy, the Universe, should you wish to send me a letter from the Aldebaran system.

I am Matthew Robert Scott, my parents having lacked the foresight to consider what the initials MRS would do to a teenage boy. I am the youngest of two boys, my brother Jay being five years older than me.

You will have heard of Jay; most people have. Full name Jameson Lucas Scott. You will notice that he got the big long Scottish sounding rufty tufty name, shortened with a cool nickname, and I’m name after some wanker in the Bible. Probably the weediest of the disciples or some such shit. Practically a self-fulfilling prophecy, as nearly all the women I’ve ever met, especially in this city, when I’ve mistakenly let slip that my brother is Jay Scott, have said, ‘Wow, I really fancied him when he played for Raiders. You’re nothing like him, are you’. It’s one of the reasons I hate him. Not really hate him. Oh but, yeah, really really hate him. He’s my brother, doesn’t that come with the territory? Mostly I hate him for being five years older than me, for how far ahead of me that makes him, how much bigger and stronger than me he’s always been, how much more confident and worldly wise he seemed growing up. I also hate him for rescuing me when I nearly died. I also love him for rescuing me when I nearly died. My relationship with Jay is really fucking screwed. But then again, probably no more screwed than any other family.

Sooo, anyway. Back to the epistle. My father died when I was two; I barely remember him – just a vague impression of largeness, a booming laugh and scratchy whiskers. And maybe even that is a false memory borne of poring over photos and talking to my mum about him. I always used to say that because I was so young when he died, and it was a long time ago, well, I don’t remember him, thus it doesn’t really matter. But it does matter, he was always there-but-not-there, throughout my whole childhood. Jay was seven so he remembers more, but he never talks about him. We were never able to bond over fond memories of our father, because the way Jay chose to remember him was to try and be just like him. Their build is the same, they have the same features – when I see Jay now and compare him to the photos I’ve seen of my father, he’s got the same eyes, the same chin, the same bulky rugby player’s shoulders, chest and thighs. Jay even calls me Matty because that’s what my father used to call me. I, on the other hand, look much more like my mum, with the skinny build, the light brown hair and greyish eyes, although I’m a lot taller than her. I wouldn’t have had a hope of following in my father’s footsteps, even if that had been my chosen path, because I was far too scrawny. I’d like to think my way was more healthy than Jay’s – talking to Mum, looking at photos, asking questions – but to be honest, I claim the prize as the bigger fuck up in the long run, so who’s to say?

So I guess that’s how it all started, my story, with the absence of a father figure, the presence of a mother figure and a brother figure, a leaning towards books and knowing shit, and a leaning away from anything that required a muscle of any description.

By the time I was ten or so, Jay was already playing rugby for the county, had already attracted schoolboy contracts from various local clubs, had been scouted by England youth teams, was the popular boy at school, had more girlfriends than he seemed to know what to do with, and really disliked having a little brother. Especially a little brother who spent a lot of time with his head in a book or fiddling with the innards of a CD player; especially a little brother who needed protecting from the bullies at school, on the orders of our mum; especially a little brother who knew answers to questions on Mastermind. And most especially a little brother who enjoyed spending time with our mum, being ten and still liking that closeness, when a fifteen year old, who might still have wanted the closeness with his mum but would never admit it in a million years, could only look on and sneer when we spent Saturday mornings making cakes or pulling up weeds or sorting out socks from the washing basket. I’m still a good sock sorter-outer, it appeals to the neat freak in me, and is about all I can contribute to the running of the house these days.

God, I’ve spent so long over the years analysing Jay and me. Some of it with paid professionals, some of it on my own in the dark. I often wonder if Jay has spent anywhere near as many minutes thinking about us, but it’s unlikely, as he’s not really a thinker. Shit happens and he reacts, he doesn’t really plan – he’s got Beth for that. But anyway, what it boils down to is this: if someone were to say ‘tell me about your childhood’, and I’ve spent enough time with shrinks over the past few years to know that they never actually say that, but if they did, then the edited highlights would be: a) my dad died when I was really little and my mum and I leaned on each other more than maybe we would have done otherwise. b) my brother made my life difficult, whether on purpose or not. c) despite this, I looked up to my brother and wanted to be like him. d) I never was like my brother in any way, and we never really connected when we were young.

That’s pretty much it. I could tell you about the miserable dark evenings standing on the touchline of some muddy rugby pitch in the middle of sodding nowhere with Mum, waiting for Jay to come on as a sub, or replacement, or whatever the don’t-give-a-toss they call them. I could tell you about all the times Jay wasn’t there when I was getting the school maths prize or being a shepherd in the Nativity play or playing in the recorder concert. I could tell you about my brief brush with popularity with girls when I was nearly eleven, which came to nothing when Jay found out and told all his mates I was gay. I could tell you about all the times I was knocked over and sat on, usually with a hair pull or a finger bent backwards, because I’d said something clever that made him feel stupid. I could tell you about every teacher in every school in every class I ever sat in asking if I was Jay’s little brother. I could tell you about all the times … oh but what’s the point? It was then. Maybe I sound bitter. I guess I was. I wanted Jay to notice me, to think I was worth something. I needed, craved, some male approval, a someone to replace my father, but he was so busy being popular and strong and older, I was beneath his notice. And I suppose, if I’m being fair, it’s not a role many teenage boys would willingly step into. Then, when he was eighteen, he was gone. He left school, signed professional terms with a rugby club, and left home.

Jay and I didn’t see each other much after that. I spoke to him if I happened to pick up the phone when he called to talk to Mum, and if he came back to stay in the off season, we’d be there together and we’d grunt at each other, but he wasn’t really interested in anything I was doing, and I had never been able to keep up with his physicality, so we really had nothing in common. It was almost a relief, a liberation, to be just me and Mum. I got on with things my way, I did my homework, passed most of my exams with straight As, joined the computer club, the chess club and the debating society with no one to call me a ‘poncey wanker’ for playing to my strengths.

Yeah, I was a nerd, a geek, I was gangly and gawky, I wore glasses, I had acne, my hair was thick and unruly and cut by my mum and I didn’t really care about the latest trainers or designer jeans. Luckily my mates were equally nerdy, and we’d talk for hours about the latest version of computer code, or the finer points of Star Wars back history, or, OK, as we got older, occasionally the finer points of Pamela Anderson.

I made my mum proud, as did Jay, and when it was time to think about my further education, I chose a University near to home, so I could come back regularly. Said it was to do laundry, but really it was where I felt comfortable.

My course was Information Systems & Computer Science, and my best mate Andrew was there too. He was as nerdy as me, and I’d thought we’d be able to carry on as we had at school with our prattling about science fiction, our off-the-cuff equation battles, our joint love of all things Tottenham Hotspur, and our occasional drunken ‘what’s the answer to life the universe and everything if it’s not forty two’ sessions.

But I hadn’t counted on Andrew dropping the nerdiness and landing himself a seriously hot babe in Freshers’ Week. It was as if he underwent some kind of overnight larval transformation. On the Tuesday he was Andrew – skinny, gawky, hair in his eyes, slight squint. Then on the Wednesday, we went to the Freshers’ Ball, downed copious amounts of cheap cider, he must have been pissed enough to ask a girl to dance and she must have been pissed enough to say yes, all while I was pissed enough to be sat in the stalls with my head spinning trying not to vomit. I lost track of him, but the next day I knocked on his door at noon, hangover pounding behind my eyes, and I had to look twice when he opened it to check I had the right room. He looked completely different.

‘Whoa. Holy shit, Andrew. Did you get lucky with Edward Scissorhands?’

‘Ha ha. Er …’

Andrew looked behind him and moved his body to stop me going any further into the room.

‘Are you coming to the Chess Club thing?’

He ran a hand through his newly chopped, and actually, now I thought about it, pretty trendy hair.

‘Shit, Matt, sorry, I completely forgot. Er …’

Again with the look behind him. I heard a giggle, and tried to look over his shoulder.

‘Sorry, mate, maybe another time, I, er …’

Andrew pulled the door to behind him and stepped out into the corridor of the halls where we both had rooms.

‘I, look, sorry, I, er, hooked up with Cindy last night and, well she’s still here. Sorry to blow you off, but …’

He shrugged, unable to disguise the huge smug bastard grin of the newly de-flowered.

‘No shit, Andrew. You dog.’

I punched him on the shoulder, feeling more than a little envious – Cindy was a girl we had both identified early on in Freshers’ Week as someone we ‘would’, although of course we ‘would’ just about anyone, given the desperate nerd-virgins we were.

‘Did she cut your hair?’

‘Yeah. Her sister’s a hairdresser, apparently she taught her. She said it brings out the sparkle in my eyes.’

He ruffled the haircut again trying and failing to look embarrassed, but managing to look extremely pleased with himself.

‘Yeah, looks great mate. Loving those sparkly eyes. Later then.’

And so things changed for me and Andrew. He was still my mate, they included me in lots of things, but Cindy wasn’t into Star Wars or computer code, or even Spurs (she was a girl, it was just about forgivable), and three’s a crowd, and they bloody snogged all the bloody time. Oh, and I had the hots for Cindy. Big time. Like there wasn’t a whole university full of girls I could have obsessed over, I had to pick the one who was doing it with my bloody best friend to be hopelessly in love with.

So spending time with them was bitter sweet. I really didn’t have any other friends, being a bit of a loser back then at the socialising thing, but seeing her with him was torture. And not seeing her was torture. So I hung around like either a lost puppy or a bad smell depending on your take on things.

I tried to join societies, clubs, go to things on my own in the hope of making some friends, and there were people on the course I talked to and hung out with a bit, but Andrew was my best mate, I used to tell him everything, in a blokey kind of way, and although I tried to give them time on their own, I felt like I needed him and didn’t want to just disappear. I told myself I was ‘being there’ in case things went wrong with Cindy, someone he could talk to for advice if it was necessary. Yeah, right, I know.

Cindy had friends she hung out with when she wasn’t sucking Andrew’s tonsils, and she’d sometimes have a go at setting me up with one or other of them, but somehow it never came off – they’d cancel or be really vague about when they were available and, oh, actually look, there’s this other boy … and anyway, I was hung up on Cindy, who was small and blonde and vivacious and curvy, and I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Maybe it was the whole ‘want her because you can’t have her’ thing – she was a safe bet because she was my best mate’s girlfriend and therefore off-limits. But thinking about it rationally didn’t make it any easier.

Occasionally Cindy and I would hang out together, if Andrew had a tutorial, or was doing laundry or something, and none of her girl-gang was around. On one of these occasions, we were in Andrew’s room waiting for him to get back from a meeting with his tutor. I was looking at my emails and she was flicking through a glossy magazine. I was also checking her cleavage out of the corner of my eye when I thought I could get away with it. Her top was low cut; there was a bit of lacy bra showing at the edge of the neckline, and it was driving me wild. She suddenly looked up. I quickly looked down at my computer.

‘Hey, Matt, this is what you need.’

‘Huh?’

I looked up, trying to seem as if I’d been engrossed in some piece of startlingly well-written cyber literature. She turned the magazine to face me and showed me a neon-pink headline which positively yelled, ‘Man Makeovers – Ten Top Tips to Get Your Geek Gorgeous!

‘You need a makeover.’

‘What? No I don’t.’

‘Why not? I could do it. I could cut your hair, like I did Drew’s.’

Oh, I neglected to mention, Andrew’s name was now Drew, to Cindy and indeed everyone except me. Could he be any more lame? And yeah, I was a green-eyed monster. Couldn’t help it. He was shagging the girl I wanted.

‘I don’t want my hair cut.’

Although the thought of her standing close to me, running her fingers across my scalp, maybe pressing into me a bit, did nearly make my eyes go crossed and raised my pulse rate several notches. I was glad I had the laptop to disguise my hard-on, which had been threatening since I noticed the lacy bra, but had now developed fully.

‘Oh but why not?’

I do believe she even pouted a bit. It might have been the pout that did it, especially as she stuck out her chest at the same time.

‘It says here that a man’s haircut and clothes are what attract seventy per cent of women at initial glance.’

‘Oh really. Empirical study is it? Or just Cosmo bollocks?’

‘Don’t be so snooty. Why don’t you give it a try? I’m at a loose end this morning, we could go to your room, I could cut your hair, we could have a look at your clothes, make you a new man.’

‘I’m happy with being an … um … old man.’

‘Yeah, that’s your problem. You look ten years older than you are. All it would take is a little trim …’

She got up and sat next to me, looking at my hair, then reaching out and pulling at a strand, between forefinger and middle finger, measuring. I wondered if she had any idea of the effect she had on me. My breathing sped up, and I tried to calm myself so she wouldn’t notice.

‘Come on.’

She stood up and took my hand, pulling me to my feet. I quickly shut the laptop and clamped it to my groin as she tugged me along the corridor to my room. I wasn’t quite sure when I had agreed to this, but it was apparently somewhere between the pout and me looking ten years older than I was. I stood in the middle of my room, laptop jammed against the bulge in my jeans.

‘What are you standing there for? I can’t cut your hair standing up, you’re too tall. Sit down.’

She gestured to the bed. There wasn’t anywhere else. I sat down, laptop still stuck to me like glue.

‘Put your bloody computer down, Matt. I know you love it like you want to marry it, but you’ll get hair in it, and won’t that mess with the, er, microchip thingy or something. I’ll get a towel, look, so you don’t get the bits all over your clothes.’

She fetched the towel, which I held around me like a cape while I slid the laptop off my crotch.

‘Who usually does your hair?’

‘My mum.’

‘Oh. Well that explains a lot. Mums don’t always know best, do they.’

I was silent, not prepared to criticise my mum at this point.

‘Your hair’s lovely and thick, isn’t it. Nice colour, too. Oh, you’re going to have to take your glasses off, they’ll get in the way.’

‘I can’t see without them.’

‘Well dur, otherwise you wouldn’t need them. As long as I can see, you don’t need to worry. Give them here, I’ll put them on the – oh you’ve got amazing eyes, I never noticed before. You should defo try contacts.’

So first my hair’s a nice colour and now I’ve got amazing eyes. And this is my best friend’s girlfriend. If things got any more awkward I might possibly self-combust. And then she started touching my hair, pulling at it, and then snipping with the scissors she’d grabbed from the bedside in Andrew’s room, and things definitely got a whole lot more awkward. I’d never been in this close proximity to a girl – well, not since my brush with popularity when I was nearly eleven and snogged Lily Knight and Lucy Carpenter both in one lunchtime behind a portakabin.

Lily was my first kiss. She was in my class, and we were in our last year at junior school – the year when hormones started surging, and boys noticed that girls were girls rather than just not boys. I definitely noticed Lily was a girl. She had big blue eyes and wore her hair in a high ponytail, and she was really really good at spelling. She always came first in the spelling tests. I always came second, and it was my aim to beat her at least once before we went to secondary school, so there may have been an ulterior motive to my romantic interest; possibly I was trying to nobble the opposition. Oh come on, I said nobble. I was ten.

It was the lunchtime before the spelling test. I’d asked Mum to test me all week, and I knew I could get all of the words right, even ‘miscellaneous’, which I could never pronounce, didn’t have a clue what it meant, but could finally spell. If I could just distract Lily enough, I might have a chance. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but it started well enough, with me sharing my crisps with her at lunchtime. We got talking about stuff – ten year old stuff, nothing particularly earth shattering, she had a cat called Biggles, and I liked the name, and I told her about the Biggles books, but she already knew about them because her brother had some and that was why the cat was called Biggles – and she suddenly grabbed my hand and told me she wanted to show me something behind the portakabin. Poor naïve me had no idea that this was code for having a bit of a pash, so I went with her willingly, expecting maybe a secret passage or something, and was extremely surprised when she pounced on me as soon as we got there, crushing her mouth against mine in a facsimile of a movie kiss. Maybe it was a secret passage of sorts.

So I was surprised, but not so much that I didn’t enjoy it; I enjoyed it a lot, in fact, and we spent the rest of the lunchtime kissing. Fairly chastely, but still, to ten year old me, it was a highlight of my life so far. Sadly I still came second in the spelling test, but the upside was that lunchtimes after that became much more entertaining, with several more pashing sessions to follow.

Just as I was beginning to wonder if Lily was my girlfriend, she ditched me. I had gone to our usual spot behind the portakabin only to find her locking lips with Harry Thomas, the class clown, who must have joked his way into her favour, the bastard. I walked away despondent, but was accosted on the way back to the playground by Lucy Carpenter, who was one of Lily’s friends. She’d obviously heard about Lily and my lunchtime trysts, and wasn’t shy in expressing herself.

‘Lily says you’re a good kisser.’

What does a boy say to that? Yeah I am sounds rather big-headed. Am I? sounds a bit disingenuous and needy. So I shrugged, and let her take my hand and lead me to a different part of behind the portakabin, where I showed her just what a good kisser I was.

And then Jay found out, from Lily’s brother, and he decided to out me to the world, even though I wasn’t even in, and that was the end of my junior school kissing career, as I spent the remainder of my lunchtimes there fending off juvenile homophobic bullying. Cheers Jay. Did I mention I hate him?

But anyway, back to Cindy. Things were getting awkward, especially in my jeans, and I needed to alleviate the tension. I tried to focus on something boring. Maths. Equations, standard deviation, Pythagoras’ theorem. None of it boring, not to me, but it almost worked as a distraction. Locks of my hair were falling past my shoulders and onto the towel, as well as drifting onto the bed and the floor. Cindy was kneeling behind me, her knees either side of my hips. I was hyper-aware of her breasts brushing my shoulders, and indeed all the places where her body was touching mine, and Pythagoras was taking a bit of a battering.

As Cindy chattered, I didn’t say a word, I was trying so hard to concentrate my way out of saying or doing something to offend her. Finally, after what felt like hours of exquisite torment, she leaned back, then shuffled off the bed, to stand in front of me and look. She gave me a satisfied smile.

‘There, that’s tons better. Shows off those eyes. You’re a bit of a babe, Matt. Now all we need is to sort out your wardrobe …’

She walked over to the cupboard where my clothes were hanging. She was a blur.

‘Wait.’

The blur turned round, and looked like it might have raised its eyebrows.

‘Where did you put my glasses? I can’t see a thing, and I haven’t seen what you’ve done yet.’

‘Oh no, you don’t get your glasses back until the big reveal. Honestly, have you never watched any of those celebrity makeover programmes?’

I honestly never had, so I shook my head. Cindy tutted and turned back to the wardrobe, where she started taking clothes off hangers.

‘What are you doing?’

‘Sorting your clothes. Two piles. This one is ‘no hope, down to Oxfam with you’, and this one is ‘oh well it’ll have to do’. I’m hoping for a third pile of ‘wowzers’, but it’s not looking promising.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with my clothes.’

‘Not for an old age pensioner. Does your mum buy your clothes too?’

I shrugged, trying not to feel embarrassed, because that was exactly what usually happened. It hadn’t ever felt embarrassing before.

‘Isn’t your brother, like, some kind of sports hero? Doesn’t he get you free cool stuff?’

‘No.’

I wasn’t prepared to bring Jay into this. I’d never told anyone here that Jay Scott, Royals and England rugby player, was my brother, because I hated all the people who wanted to know me so they could get to Jay. Andrew must have told her.

‘Oh, you should defo get him to. Maybe ask for me as well. I went out with a footballer last year, he only played for Port Vale, but he got me a really cool pair of Nikes.’

Well at least now I knew where I stood with Cindy: a complimentary pass back to the sporting freebie world. I didn’t reply, as she continued heaping my clothes into two piles. From my fuzzy vantage point on the bed, the ‘off to Oxfam’ pile was considerably bigger than the ‘have to do’ pile, and I was likely to be wearing the same t-shirt and cargo shorts until the end of term.

‘Am I actually going to have any clothes left to wear when you’ve finished?’

‘Well, there is quite a large charity shop pile, but I did this with Drew, it was so cool, we took three bags of stuff to the charity shop, and then replaced it with loads of other stuff from the same shop, so it was dead recycly and all that. There’s this really good place just off the High Street, they do lots of vintage and labels and stuff. You’re pretty skinny, so there’ll be loads of stuff for you to try.’

‘No, I don’t do shopping.’

‘What? How do you get clothes, then?’

What, apart from my mum?

‘Internet.’

Another tut, and probably a roll of the eyes.

‘Well you’re going shopping with me today. We’ll bag this stuff up and then get you some cooler stuff.’

I was starting to feel irritated. Cindy had decided I wasn’t good enough as I was, and was just barging through my whole life, changing everything. I half expected her to announce she was changing my course from Information Systems & Computer Science to Fashion & Media, as well.

‘Look, thanks Cindy, I appreciate the haircut and everything, but I really don’t want to get rid of my clothes, or buy new ones, or even old smelly ones from a charity shop, and –’

‘Oh come on Matt, it’ll be fun. You’re already half way there. Just imagine what everyone will say when you walk into the canteen this evening and you look totally hot.’

‘Well that’s not hard to imagine, as I won’t.’

Self-confidence not high on my list of personality traits back then, but I wasn’t usually as openly self-deprecating. There was a brief silence, as Cindy turned to look at me, then walked over and sat down next to me.

‘You totally already do, Matt.’

She took my hand, and all the aching desire I’d managed to push away while she was irritating me returned with a vengeance. I felt my cheeks burn and my jeans got tight again. Bugger.

‘Cindy, I –’

‘Underneath that hair, those dorky glasses and those Matalan Online clothes, you’re a total hotty. I never realised before.’

She squeezed my hand and leaned up to kiss me on the cheek. My burning red cheek that was giving away everything. Shit shit shit. And then she lifted her hand up to the back of my neck and put her fingers in my hair and as a bolt of pure want shot to my dick, I couldn’t stop a sound coming out of my mouth. It was a moan or a groan or a grunt or some such bollocks, but I couldn’t stop it, and once it was there, it was there.

Cindy looked pointedly down at my crotch where the traitorous hard-on was throbbing for all to see. She laughed. I loved her laugh, it kind of tinkled and set the hairs on the back of my neck on end, but I didn’t want that tinkly laugh directed at my hard-on, so I pulled away from her and stood up, turning my back on her, unable to think what to say or do, trying not to die of shame.

‘Oh Matt, don’t worry, it happens all the time, Drew’s always bulging out all over.’

‘Yeah but he’s your boyfriend.’

‘So?’

I thought that was patently obvious. You shouldn’t be getting a hard-on when sitting next to your best mate’s girlfriend. Didn’t girls know anything?

‘So maybe you should just go.’

She laughed again.

‘Why? To spare your blushes? Don’t be silly Matt. I’m not embarrassed.’

I wheeled round to face her, my anger and shame somewhat offset by not being able to focus on her face, and the slightly off-balance wobble that made me stumble.

‘Well I fucking well am. You should go, Cindy. Thanks for the haircut. See you sometime.’

‘But that would be such a waste.’

She stayed sitting on the bed, and I couldn’t clearly see her face without going up to her and peering, so I didn’t have a clue what she was thinking.

‘What?’

‘A waste of a good stiffy.’

What?

What was going on now? I was about to find out, as Cindy stood up, walked over to me and put her arms round my neck, stood on tiptoe and pulled my face down to hers.  And that’s when things got a whole lot more interesting …