43. Life gets better

In which the lovebirds fly home, before we get caught up with happenings and a baby arrives.

Matt

Cal had been pestering all of us to play football with him, but it was hot, and he wasn’t getting any takers. We’d sent him in to the kitchen to ask Dec, who’d stopped snogging Amy for long enough to say he’d be out soon, and after a wait that had Cal jiggling with impatience, they came out into the garden, holding hands, flushed, looking shell-shocked and blissed out. Jay followed them and came back to sit with Nico and me, where we proceeded to take the piss.

Cal

Dad was gone for a few minutes, and then Dec and Amy came out, and they were holding each other’s hands like they were boyfriend and girlfriend. They gave some cakes to Mum, and then started talking to her. I needed to get over there before anything else happened to stop me playing football.

‘Can you play football with me now?’

Dec

I hauled my attention to Cal.

‘Yeah, course. Why don’t you see if Matt wants to play too?’

\he said he wants to watch you.

‘Did he.’

I glanced over to where Matt was sitting, flanked by Nico and Jay. As I flicked a V at them above Cal’s head, they collapsed with laughter.

‘Just me and you then, mate. You’ve got the ball? I guess I’ll be in goal.’

Amy stayed with Beth; I could see the two of them cosying up in a couple of deckchairs for a girls’ gossip, as Lis made her way over to join in. I walked over to Cal’s inflatable goal and installed myself between the posts. My gaze wandered over to Amy …

Cal

Dec walked over to the goal, and shooed everyone out of the way so I could take penalties without them being in the way. I put the ball down on the spot and ran up, kicked it hard, and scored. I should have been pleased, but Dec wasn’t even looking at the ball, he was looking at Amy.

Dad, Nico and Uncle Matty all laughed again, and I realised they were laughing at Dec, but not quite why. It wasn’t funny – he needed to concentrate on what he was doing, or it would be too easy and he might as well not be in goal.

‘Come on then, Cal, try again.’

I lined up another shot, and scored again, but I shouldn’t have done because I didn’t kick the ball very hard, and it went almost straight at Dec. He wasn’t looking. Again. I was cross.

Dec

\dec, you’re not even watching.

‘No, sorry Cal. I’m watching now. Take another shot, give it a Theo Walcott smash.’

Cal

I put the ball on the spot again, and took a run up, making sure Dec was looking this time. It wasn’t a very good shot, and Dec only saved it because it hit his knee. I was cross again, but because I needed to try harder. Dec threw the ball back to me.

‘Here you are, have another kick.’

Dec threw me the ball, and I placed it on the spot, but as I kicked it, I noticed Dec was looking at Amy again, and it made me scuff the ball. It was another not very good kick, and the ball wobbled slowly up to Dec, and then past him into the goal while he was looking the other way. I felt like saying ‘honestly Dec’ like Mum would have done, because I wasn’t enjoying this at all.

Dec

As I threw the ball in Cal’s direction, my glance slid over once more to Amy, who was laughing at something Lis had said, and twirling a strand of her dark, wavy hair round her finger. The ball rolled slowly past my foot as I stared, spellbound.

\dec why do you keep looking at Amy? You’re not looking at the ball.

I didn’t need to look at Matt, Jay and Nico to know they had heard Cal’s question.

}Yeah, keep your eye on the ball, Dec.

łConcentrate, now.

>Hey guys, be fair, is hard for Declan to concentrate when his brain is full of kisses.

łIs that it, Dec, is it your brain that’s full of kisses? You seemed to have a lot of them on the tip of your tongue, among other things, a minute ago.

Matt

It was bloody hilarious watching Dec attempting to concentrate on being in goal for Cal, while every ten seconds or so, his eyes would sidle over to where Amy was sitting talking to Beth and Lis. Cal would score, which he usually enjoyed, but not if you were being too obvious about letting the ball in. Jay, Nico and I ribbed Dec mercilessly, until he gave up.

Cal

Dec looked at me, picked the ball out of the back of the net, threw it to me, and started to walk to where Dad was sitting with Nico and Uncle Matty.

‘Sorry, Cal, I think I’m going to quit while I’m ahead. I’m sure Uncle Matty will play with you, he seems full of himself today.’

Dec

‘Hilarious, guys. Matt, you’re up in goal.’

}Oh no, I’m sure that wouldn’t be good for me, you know, the stress of moving in, fucking cripple and all that. I definitely need to take ih easy. Jay?

łNo way.

>I go in goal for Cal. I don’t get distracted by beautiful womens.

łThat’ll be a first then.

>I overcome it for Cal.

Cal

I stood with the ball tucked under my arm, trying to look as cross as I could. I had been waiting all day for someone to play football with me, and it had lasted for four kicks, and it had been rubbish. Dec was talking to the others, and I thought they would just laugh and drink beer, but Nico got up and walked over, ruffled my hair and stood in the goal. I stood on the spot and looked at him, hardly able to believe that Nico was going to be my goalie.

‘Why you wait, Cal? I am ready to be your goal saver.’

‘It’s called the goalkeeper.’

‘Ha, I know this. You want to try a goal? Maybe I save, maybe I keep.’

I put the ball on the spot and kicked it. Nico dived, but couldn’t save my brilliant shot. That’s how it was supposed to work. I did lots more brilliant shots, and Nico hardly saved any, except some that hit him when he was diving the wrong way.

Dec

}Your talk with Amy went well then.

‘Didn’t do that much talking, actually.’

}So I gather. Feel better?

‘Feel fucking awesome.’

łSeriously, Dec, why did it take you so long?

‘I don’t know, now. Don’t know why I didn’t do it weeks ago.’

łNeither do I, would have saved us all a lot of sighing and mournful looks.

‘Piss off, I wasn’t that bad. It’s bloody terrifying if you think there’s half a chance she’ll say no.’

łI think you were the only one who thought there was any remote part of half a chance she was going to say no. The pair of you have been pretty bloody amusing, being all best-friendy with each other, but all the sidelong glances and, Jesus, talking about her all day long to anyone who would listen. I don’t suppose that’s going to stop anytime soon.

}I think it can only get worse now. We’ll just have to live with ih. Get our glazed expressions on. Going in goal for Cal seems quite an attractive proposition for the foreseeable when Dec’s around.

I locked eyes with Amy again across the garden and a big smile spread across my face. She walked over and sat next to me, nudging her way under my arm, and I pulled her close to me. She was soft and warm and lovely and my heart nearly stopped every time I looked at her.

Matt

Inevitably the eyes of the two young lovers locked while Dec was sitting with us, and Amy drifted over, sitting next to him and snuggling in under his arm. She looked completely comfortable there; Dec looked like the cat that got the cream.

Dec

)Hey you.

‘Hey you. Do you know Matt?’

)No. Hi Matt, it’s lovely to meet you at last. I’ve heard a lot about you.

}None of it puts me in a good ligh, I imagine.

)That’d be telling.

}Whereas I, on the other hand, have heard practically nothing about you from the horse’s mouth – the horse being Dec in this scenario – and have had to rely on gossip and hearsay for my information.

Amy looked up at me. I shrugged. I hadn’t told anyone how I felt about Amy, because there had been nothing to tell. Or, maybe I had been too scared to admit there was something. In any case, I hadn’t said anything to Matt, who hadn’t been around to ask awkward questions, and I had avoided any awkward questions from anyone who was around.

‘Not sure I can trust Matt with sensitive information. He’s a bit of a smart-arse.’

}Would have been nice to be trusted with any type of information. Still, I can see why you’d want to keep her to yourself.

)Am I sensitive information then, Dec?

‘Extremely sensitive. Handle with utmost care.’

Matt

He introduced Amy to me, and she seemed very nice, which I know is damning with faint praise, but that’s how she seemed, as she gazed, stupefied, into Dec’s equally infatuated face.

It was bound to happen sooner rather than later, and sure enough before more than a minute had passed, Dec stroked her cheek, looked at me defiantly, and bent down and kissed her.

‘For fuck’s sake, geh a room guys.’

It seemed like the thing to say.

Only not here. Definitely out of bounds.’

A worried look had crossed Jay’s face, as if he thought they might commandeer the master bedroom given half a chance.

Dec

I leaned down and whispered in her ear.

‘Not a bad idea? More privacy, less running commentary.’

I held her gaze as she looked up into my eyes, an impish glint in her expression and a fetching blush on her cheeks. She knew what I was suggesting, and she wanted it. A quick raise of the eyebrows, a slight nod. We stood up, grinning.

Matt

‘Where are yuh off to?’

‘Well it was your suggestion, you work it out. Just going to say goodbye to Beth.’

I almost applauded his fast work. Admittedly, it had taken six months of pining, but now he was off to get his end away in an afternoon.

‘Fuck me, you don’t hang about once you get your arse into gear, do you. Amy, I hope you know wha you’re doing, Dec isn’t usually this decisive. He’ll be another hour going ‘ooh, shall I put my coat on or just carry it’. Will almost definitely be blubbing before the end of the day, though.’

Dec

Yeah, Matt thought he knew me so well, he was such a … actually he was pretty spot on. I was useless at making my mind up, sometimes, and it wasn’t unheard of for me to have leaky eyes at times, mostly back around Christmas when it was all going on, but I wasn’t indecisive about this. This was a no-brainer. And it looked like Amy had my back anyway.

Matt

I expected Amy to blush and look embarrassed, but she looked me in the eye.

‘I completely know what I’m doing, thank you. In fact, given what I know about you, Matt, I think I could safely tell you to fuck off?’

Oh, she was going to be alright, this one. She was going to able to handle Dec with no problem.

‘Dec, I like her.’

‘You should feel honoured, Amy never swears.’

That surprised me, because it sounded like she was born to it, but I took him at his word and further upgraded my first impression of Amy.

‘Ah, Summers exerts his dastardly influence already. Fuck off too, the pair of you.’

Jay, conscious of Cal’s ears listening a short distance away and Beth’s disapproving glance from across the garden, had his head in his hands.

Guys, you’ll get me in serious shit with Beth.’

Even better, then. I still tried to corrupt Cal and annoy Beth at every opportunity.

I watched Dec and Amy hurry across the lawn, and suddenly remembered something from our Christmas ‘I wish I was normal’ conversations. Beer and sex. We’d both got the beer side of things well under control, and now it looked like at least one of us was going to be getting the sex part ticked off too.

‘Dec!’

He turned and I raised my beer bottle to him.

‘Here’s to normal.’

He knew exactly what I meant.

Dec

I laughed, remembering our ‘beer and sex’ definition of normal life, grabbed Amy’s hand and we ran giggling to her car.

)Your place or your place?

‘Ha ha. I suppose your parents are home?’

)Yeah.

‘My place it is.’

Amy put the key in the ignition.

‘Amy, wait.’

She turned her entrancing eyes on me.

‘Just wanted to do this.’

I leaned over and kissed her deeply.

)Mm. Is that a warm up?

‘You bet. There’s lots more where that came from. How fast can you drive?’

)Within the speed limit, mister.

‘Get moving then, woman, we’ve wasted enough time already.’

Amy started the car. We got moving. Hadn’t really stopped since.

Cal

After that day, I hardly saw Dec without Amy. I didn’t mind, because Amy was nice, and she played with me, she even went in goal sometimes, and it was almost as good as having two Decs. But for a while after that day, nobody saw Dec very much at all, and if anyone asked where he was, someone would say ‘Amy’, like that explained everything, but it wasn’t like before, when he went away and everyone was cross and no one talked about it, because I was allowed to phone him on Dad’s phone, and he came round for Sunday lunch. So everything was still alright.

Matt

Nobody saw much of Dec and Amy after that. They were inseparable, intertwined, as one. It lasted a long time, as long as I’ve lasted and will still be lasting after I’m out of the picture, which won’t be long now I suspect. Dec and Amy, romance of the century. They were meant to be, star-cross’d lovers, perfect partners, fated. Fuck, I was jealous.

Not that I wished him anything but happiness, it was good to see after all of his travails, Dec getting what he wanted, getting better, getting sorted, getting laid. But I was having my own crisis in the nether regions department; a crisis of self-belief and a crisis of confidence. Whether it was Carrie, or the bastard MS, or some twisted mixture of the two which had taken it all away, stolen my sexual mojo, I suppose I’ll never know, but it went away, and it was gone for a long time, with nary a twitch nor a tingle to let me know I was male after all, not some kind of unfortunate eunuch.

Dec

Remembering it now made me smile. I kissed the top of Amy’s head again, then turned onto my side, pulling her arm round me, feeling her soft body moulding itself to mine. Life was pretty good.

Jay, Beth and Cal had moved back to the city a couple of months ago when Jay took the job as Raiders’ assistant coach. It was something he had begun discussing the day we went to watch the Raiders game after Christmas.

Matt had moved down just before the barbecue – he’d been well enough to stay at the house in Stafford and oversee the move from that end. Carol had stayed in the Midlands, but was considering moving down too. Matt’s health had vastly improved. He had recovered almost completely from the pneumonia that had debilitated him so much and had not had a flare up of MS since. He was beginning to think about working again, and getting a place of his own in the city, although he was living with Jay and Beth at least for the next few months.

Looking back, I could hardly believe it was more than a year since it had all started with a skid and a swerve on the bypass. The months since Christmas had flown by – I had a small operation to repair the tear in a ligament in my shoulder –which had turned out not to be as bad as I had feared – and had then commenced my rehab with a vengeance. It was hard work, lots of repetitious movements and mind-numbingly boring gym stuff designed to strengthen everything around injured parts, and make me stronger and fitter than before I got injured. There were a few other players in rehab, and we worked together as team-mates to overcome the tedium. After a couple of months I was able to join in light training, which progressed to full training with both Raiders and Trojans, and at the end of April, almost four months after the assault, I was on the bench for Trojans, my first game in all that time. I came on for ten minutes; it was the most exhausting ten minutes of my life, I was shattered afterwards, but the glow from playing again more than made up for it, and I scored a try to put the icing on the cake. Jay and Cal had come down to watch, Cal wearing his Raiders shirt with ‘TIAGO’ on the back. He now worshipped Nico, as people tended to, and as well as showing an unhealthy interest in my bad language, he sometimes tried to copy Nico’s unique style of grammar. Beth despaired almost as much either way.

Luke Woods and Ben Hearne had gone to court charged with assaulting me and causing criminal damage to my property. They had been found guilty and were currently in prison for longer than I’d imagined. It was only because Raiders had shown me more generosity than anyone could have expected that his plan to destroy me hadn’t worked. His first aim was to break me financially, which he had nearly achieved. Then he wanted to ruin my reputation through revealing my use of an invalid passport and hiding the accident. Lastly, he expected all of the above to lose me my job, as payback for what he considered a personal slight against his former employers and the team he still supported. All he really achieved was Jay leaving, as well as getting himself and his nephew put in prison. I was still coming to terms with all of this, one of the many things Adam, my psychologist was helping me with.

Seeing Adam had been one of the best things I had ever done. He saw things very clearly, and didn’t let me give him any bullshit. I guess that’s his job. He told me I had been suffering from a post traumatic stress disorder following my accident, but that it was exacerbated by unresolved issues around the death of my parents. In plain English, my head was already messed up when I crashed my car, but the crash just made everything worse.

Adam’s forthright manner was just what I needed – he helped me to open up and tell him things I’d never told anyone, and am never likely to, about my experiences in care. He helped me work out what I really felt, and to start letting people into my life more. He also helped me prepare for playing again. He understood the psychology of sport, and knew how important it is to be mentally strong. I was still very much a work in progress, but I had progressed and was able to look back at how I was a year ago as if it was another life, another me, a different person.

Amy kissed my shoulder and tightened her arm around me, pulling me closer. I turned over towards her, took her face in my hands and kissed her gently on the mouth. She kissed me back. Time stood still then, while we loved each other. Afterwards, breathless:

‘That has to be one of my favourite things to do, ever. You are fucking amazing, Ames.’

)Not as amazing as you.

‘Much more amazing than me. Hard to believe, I know. But there it is.’

)You could up your amazingness by giving me breakfast in bed.

‘What, you need more? Wasn’t that enough for you, babe?’

I kissed her, only half joking and more than willing to start again.

)Ha ha, I mean real food. Toast and jam, cup of coffee please thank you I completely love you please thank you.

‘So unfair, you know I can’t resist those eyes when they plead.’

)They do come in very useful.

‘Wait here then.’

)Not going anywhere, otherwise it wouldn’t be breakfast in bed.

I got out of bed, pulled my jeans on and headed down to the kitchen. I was living in lodgings provided by the club, a shared house for some of the younger Raiders players – Bonksy, Danno and Mikey all lived there too.

I had tried to move back to my flat a few weeks after Christmas, but it had been too much, the bareness of it just reminded me constantly of what had gone on up there, both with Luke and Big, and the state I had been in for most of the time I had spent there.

Rose had offered me her spare room on a more permanent basis, but I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted. Nico and Lis offered too, but that didn’t feel right either. Jay and Beth were still living in Stafford, and hadn’t told anyone about Jay trying for the assistant coach job, but even if they had been in the city, I’m not sure it would have been right to move back in with them.

When Jay had suggested the shared house as somewhere I could have my independence and privacy but not be on my own, I had realised that it was what I wanted. I still saw Rose a lot – in fact she was unofficial second mum to all of us living there. She regularly brought cakes and provided a shoulder to cry on for anyone who wanted it.

Rose was thinking about taking in a lodger herself, maybe linking in with some of the fostering agencies in the city. I could foresee her future full of young lads with enough troubles to keep her happily mothering for the time being. I went to see her every few days, just to check her lodgers weren’t taking advantage, and to be plied with tea and cake. Everyone got together with Jay, Beth and Cal, Matt, and Nico and Lis for one of Beth’s special roasts, available most Sundays, and it seemed like the family was getting bigger and bigger. Not that Beth or Jay seemed to mind.

Matt

I won’t go into the sordid details of how I explored things to try and regain a tiny sense of something down there, but in the end, by the time I’d moved in with Jay and Beth in Devon, I’d felt stirrings with some relief. I was scared, though. Scared that it would never be the same, scared to even try. Not just of sex, but of something like Carrie happening to me again. I was scared that if I ever gave myself to someone in the same way, I was going to end up in the same deep well I’d spent the last fuck knows how long clawing my way out of.

Of course, I mentioned this to no one. It’s not the sort of thing you can bring up over dinner or text to your mate or even, really admit to yourself. So I went on with everything else. Plan A seemed to be going well, which was to live with Jay until I got well enough to a) get a job and b) find a place of my own. I knew that the bastard MS could, theoretically, come back anytime and fuck up the whole plan A, so plan B was that there would always be a place for me with Jay and Beth, but I was determined, so, so determined that I would never need it, that plan B would remain merely a plan.

The better I felt, the more I convinced myself that I was going to be one of those few lucky, lucky people for whom the bastard MS came and went and sodded so far off I never saw hide nor hair of it again. And if it did come back, it was going to be when I was an old man, and it wouldn’t matter. So I took it, the getting better, and enjoyed it, and started to live again.

I even found someone who could cut my hair like Becky from Classy Cuts. As soon as I could get out, I’d had Beth take me to the salon, ignoring all protests that she could do it and save me some time and money. Some things you just have to do a certain way, and this was one of my little obsessions. Moving down here, well, one of the things I was obsessing about in a slight way was who I would get to cut my hair. It was as if I was a girl or something, but you can’t help what keeps you awake at night. Not that it did, of course. Well not much.

Anyway, I asked Becky, the last time I went to Classy Cuts, if she knew anywhere nearby to Jay and Beth’s new-old house that she could recommend, and she amazed me by having a cousin who owned a salon in a town a few miles away from the city. It was perfect, I gave it a try, and if anything Becky’s cousin Janine cut my hair even better than Becky. And I will now stop sounding like an utter girly wanker about my hair, it’s just, some things are important, alright?

Beth bombarded me with information about local bastard MS groups and their activities. I really didn’t want to be part of a Sunshine Variety Coach crowd, all packed off to the panto in the fun bus, but there was a walking group that caught my eye. It wasn’t something I planned to be part of long term; once I really regained my strength and knew what I was capable of, I would be off on my own, but as a first time thing, going with a group of people who would be sensitive to sudden tiredness, and difficulty climbing over stiles, seemed like a good way to re-introduce myself to hiking with a bit of a safety net. So I packed a bag one morning, got picked up in the fun bus, and off we went.

Except, of course, this was the morning Beth decided to give birth. Oh I suppose she didn’t really choose to do it just to annoy me, but as soon as I saw the ‘missed call’ messages on my phone, it felt inevitable. I should have known. I’d agreed to look after Cal when it all happened. I was the obvious choice, I was always there, Cal and I got on great, I babysat all the time.

Dec

I was in the middle of buttering Amy’s toast when my phone rang in my pocket. Jay.

‘Hey.’

łDec, you’re needed as baby backup.

‘What?’

łBeth’s having the baby, Matty’s gone off on this hike thing, he won’t get back here in time. You said you’d do it if he couldn’t, come and stay with Cal?

‘Oh, right, fuck, didn’t know what you meant for a bit. Wow, Jay.’

Beth had been pregnant for what seemed like forever. I’d almost forgotten there would be a baby at the end of it.

‘Yeah, we’ll be right over. Five minutes, ten tops. It’s OK if Amy comes too, isn’t it?’

łWell as you’re a bit of a buy one get one free offer at the moment, I wouldn’t expect you to be able to come without her. Course, it’s fine, mate. Just hurry.

I left everything in the kitchen, ran up the stairs, burst into the room.

‘Get dressed, we’ve got to go.’

Amy sat up, alarmed.

)Why? What’s happened?

‘Beth’s having the baby, Matt’s gone out, we’ve got to go and stay with Cal.’

)Oh, that’s completely amazing. Can you throw me my top?

We dressed really quickly, no time for breakfast, showers or cleaning teeth. Rushed downstairs, got in my car and drove off.

Driving was another thing Adam had helped me with. I had managed to slowly face getting back behind the steering wheel with his help, and now could barely remember the terror I had felt last Christmas in Beth’s car.

After some pushing from Jay and Beth, who knew how much it meant to me, I had contacted the police about my car, and was surprised and delighted to find they still had it. It needed a lot of fixing up after all the time in the police yard, dented and crumpled from the crash and exposed to the elements, but this was the car I had bought with the small amount of money I had inherited from my parents on my eighteenth birthday. It meant a lot to get it back, and even more to get back behind the wheel without completely freaking out.

I drove quickly to Jay and Beth’s house, pulling up outside less than fifteen minutes after Jay’s call. They saw us arrive, and were outside and into their own car before we’d reached the front door. Jay wound down the window.

łCal’s in the garden, playing football. Help yourselves to anything. Thanks, guys.

_Thanks sweetheart, see you both later.

łWe’ll ring you. OK, let’s go have a baby!

Jay drove off, even faster than usual, tyres squealing as they raced away. We went through the house to the garden.

‘Hey, Cal, practising your dribbling?’

\yes but I need a goalie.

‘Will I do?’

\yes but I need someone to tackle me.

‘Well I can’t do both. Can Amy do it?’

Cal considered.

\girls aren’t very good at football.

)I’m pretty good, Cal. I’m not sure you’d be able to beat me. Give it a go?

This sparked Cal’s competitive streak, and he couldn’t resist showing Amy how good he was. A few minutes into our game, my phone rang. Matt.

‘Sorry, Cal, got to talk to Uncle Matty. Hey, Matt.’

I walked off into the house.

}I’ve been trying to call Jay and Beth, I missed a call, their phones are off.

‘They’ve gone to the hospital. The baby’s on it’s way.’

}Farty bumfucks. I knew this would happen when I’m in the middle of sodding nowhere. Arse.

‘Don’t stress, Amy and I are here with Cal. I don’t expect anything will happen for hours, from what I gather. Enjoy your walk.’

}I could try and geh one of the guys to bring me back.

‘It’s up to you, but I don’t think there’s any need. I’ll ring if there’s any news.’

}There might not be a signal. Shit, I don’t know what to do.

‘Well you could rush back, spoil your day and just be sat waiting for hours – days maybe. Why don’t you enjoy the walk like you planned? We might take Cal to the beach later. No point sitting around waiting.’

}I hate it when you’re right. I’m jus pissed off with myself, I promised them I’d be there for them and now I’m out here enjoying the scenery while you get dragged over there.

‘We’re more than happy to be here. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to babysit soon – two for the price of one, now.’

}You’re righ, I’m being a twat. Thanks Dec. Ring me if you hear anything.

‘No worries. See you later.’

Matt

Dec was so laid back about it all, and didn’t seem to mind having his day disrupted, although he was still spending it with Amy, so I guess he wasn’t missing much except a few more hours in bed. So I continued, feeling guilty, but not wanting to make someone else miss it by getting them to take me home.

Dec

I wandered back into the garden, where Cal had installed Amy in front of the small inflatable goal. I watched for a moment, loving how she was so willing to play with him.

‘Cal, Amy and I are going to have some breakfast. Have you had yours yet?’

\i had some Golden Crunch, but I’m hungry again.

‘What are you hungry for?’

\monster Munch.

‘OK, I’ll get your Monster Munch while I make us some breakfast. Would you like to go to the beach in a bit?’

My run and the gym were out the window now, but there was no reason at least one of my plans couldn’t still go ahead.

\can I take my kite?

‘That’s a great idea. We’ll take a picnic as well, and your football.’

)I’ll make some sandwiches.

‘Thanks, babe.’

I paused to kiss Amy. Couldn’t pause too long with Cal’s eyes on us.

‘OK, Cal, find your kite, I’m just going to do some toast and coffee for me and Amy.’

Cal ran out of the kitchen, and I grabbed Amy for a longer kiss. We weren’t quick enough to beat Cal, who came back with his kite in record time.

\dec why do you always kiss Amy?

‘Well, I really like her a lot, and she’s my girlfriend.’

\does it hurt?

‘No, Cal, it’s very nice.’

\i don’t want a girlfriend if I have to kiss her.

We both laughed.

)You’d be surprised, Cal. Just wait and see.

The disgusted look on his face showed how much he doubted this.

\when can we go?

‘After we’ve had breakfast. Here’s your Monster Munch, and some purple squash.’

Amy made the sandwiches and packed a bag with food and drink, while I made the breakfast. With Cal’s chivvying we ate quickly and were soon ready to set off.

Matt

The hike was great. It was more healing than anything else I had experienced over the past few months – the sun was out, I saw wildlife, and identified birds. I talked to lots of different people, from all walks of life, all of whom had one version or another of the bastard MS. I particularly chatted with Imogen, who was a little younger than me, had curly red hair and green eyes, and a mouth that turned up at the corners so it looked like she was always smiling. She had a great arse, too, which I noticed when I walked behind her. I definitely felt some stirrings down below, which further helped the healing process.

Imogen and I talked a bit about the bastard MS, shared stories, but talked mostly about nothing much, having a laugh with everyone, joining in the general chit chat and lighthearted banter. I hadn’t intended to join this group in any way, but they talked about all going out for a drink later in the week, and I missed it, being part of a ‘crowd’, and I thought it would be a no-pressure way to see Imogen again and continue exploring the stirrings, so I said I’d go too.

Dec

It was still fairly early and the beach wasn’t yet too full. We managed to fly Cal’s kite, paddle in the sea, collect shells, build sandcastles, race each other, play football, eat lunch, eat ice cream, build a trench to hold back the incoming tide and get loads of sand in our shorts before Cal’s energy wore us out. We headed back as the afternoon passed and the beach filled up.

\dec, will Mummy and Daddy be there when we get back?

‘No, Cal, they’re at the hospital. Mummy’s having the baby.’

\when will they be at home?

‘I don’t really know. It can take a long time to have a baby.’

\will I have to be in bed on my own?

‘No, mate, Amy and I will stay with you until your mum and dad or Uncle Matty come home. You won’t be on your own.’

\where is Uncle Matty?

‘He went out for a hike with his friends. He’ll be back later.’

\dec, can you stay with me tonight?

‘Uncle Matty will be there.’

\but can you stay as well? Underneath? Like at Christmas and your birthday?

Although I’d stayed with them loads of times since my birthday, I’d been in the spare room, just so I could get some sleep. Once I was back in training, I couldn’t cope with a full weekend of sleepless nights, much as I loved being with Cal. I looked over at Amy, checking with her.

)It’s OK, I should spend some time at home, I suppose. Been getting a bit of grief lately.

‘Alright then, if you really want me to, Cal, I guess I can this once. As long as you don’t wake me up in the middle of the night wanting to get in with me.’

\dec, do you still make noises and do bad swears in the night?

Amy laughed.

)I think I’ve spotted Cal’s hidden agenda. He’s missed your mad night noises.

‘Do I still have mad night noises?’

)Oh yes.

\dec goes ‘mm mm’ and ‘no’ and sometimes he says bad words beginning with ‘fuh’.

)I know he does, Cal. And sometimes he goes ‘mm yeah’ too. He’s pretty noisy to spend a night with. Are you sure he won’t keep you awake?

To my knowledge, I hadn’t had a nightmare since Luke and Big were found guilty. The faceless brown-booted man and the boot coming towards my face had disappeared as soon as I recognised Luke after the Raiders game, replaced with a few jumbled dreams where I was being chased, which left me disoriented and apprehensive afterwards. These also disappeared after the police caught the man with the scraggy beard who had been in the van that day.

He turned out to be Big’s other uncle. The whole thing had been thought up by Luke Woods, who had been present by chance at the inquest following my car crash, and had been the one who had recognised me. Luke had sensed an opportunity to profit from the information, and used his indignation as a former Raiders employee to justify his actions. He had enlisted his nephew, Big, and his brother, Paul, in his scheme.

Big had been ideally placed within the club to keep an eye on me and at the same time deflect any potential suspicion by pretending to be my friend; we had been friends before, but Big had not been able to get over the things I’d done and joined in willingly with Luke’s plans.

The police had routinely interviewed other members of Luke Woods’ family and had come across Paul, matching the description I had given them, and who didn’t give up much resistance in the end. After he had been dealt with, and the short-lived media frenzy surrounding it all had died away, my dreams settled down and I had thought I slept soundly. Now it was apparent that wasn’t the case.

‘I didn’t know. Sorry if I’ve kept you awake, babe.’

)No, silly, it’s cute. You don’t have nightmares any more though, do you?

‘No, not that I remember. There’s obviously something bizarre going on in here though.’

I tapped my head.

)Well, Cal, I think it’s only fair that if Dec keeps you awake with his mad dream noises, you can wake him up and get in with him.

‘Thanks a lot, there goes my night’s sleep.’

Amy laughed.

)Works for me.

She gave me a saucy look and changed the subject. I thought back to several very enjoyable middle-of-the-night encounters with Amy, and silently thanked my crazy brain.

We had been back a couple of hours, and had just started to think about what to do for dinner, when my phone rang. Jay.

‘Jay, any news?’

łYeah, mate, we’ve got a daughter. She’s fantastic.

‘Oh wow, congratulations. Everything OK, Beth alright?’

łEverything’s perfect. She’s perfect. Beth’s perfect. Can you bring Cal over?

‘Yeah, course. Now?’

łYeah.

‘Have you rung Matt?’

łNot yet, I’ll do it now.

40. Somewhere I belong

In which tables are turned, and chairs turned over.

Matt

A bit later, having been sitting in the living room for the second consecutive evening, although without the beer I’d been able to wheedle out of Jay the night before, I decided to go to bed before I got too tired to manage it on my own. Beth being pregnant, and Mum’s arthritis, meant that having any help getting into bed was not an option and for once I was sensible about how much I could manage.

Dec

The doctor prodded and poked me much as Lee had; my arm had stiffened a lot, and the bruises on my back and side were extremely tender to touch. He spent a lot of time poking them; I tried to ignore the pain and tenderness.

*Did you receive any blows to the head, or hit your head at all?

‘No. I hit my chin on the ground.’

*Yes, that’s a nasty graze, we’ll clean it up, but it’ll be fine. Same for these abrasions on your forearm. I think you’re going to be OK, no sign of internal bleeding, ribs intact. I think you’ve been very lucky. These types of injuries often rupture internal organs. But your shoulder is a different matter. I think there might be some soft tissue damage – a tear or something to muscle or ligament, maybe your glenohumerals. You’re going to need a scan on it. I can refer, or, am I right in thinking you play for Raiders?

He indicated my training kit.

‘Yes.’

*Well, they may have faster access to scans than I do. Talk to them, see your GP if you need to.

He asked a nurse to clean the grazes, and said I could go back to the waiting room once that had been done. Then I’d have to wait for an X-ray to see if there was any damage to the pins and plates in my arm. I sat with my eyes closed while a nurse dabbed antiseptic on my arm and chin, which really stung, and then started picking out tiny bits of grit which had embedded themselves in my skin.

I felt really peculiar; not ill, or sick, but not really there, very distant from everything. My phone had pinged a few times, announcing texts, but I couldn’t be bothered to look at them. The nurse finally finished with me, and I went back to wait with Jay and Nico.

‘You really don’t both need to be here. I’ve got to wait for an X-ray now.’

łAlright, which one of us would you like to fuck off then?

‘Your choice.’

łOK, Nico, I think I’m going to stay here with Dec. What about you?

>I stay with Declan also. We must fight for it?

łNah, I don’t think he means it. Besides, if you go I won’t have anyone to talk to apart from Mr Chatty here. Bad luck, Dec, neither of us are fucking off anytime soon. Take a seat.

He patted the chair next to him. I sat down, unable to raise a smile at their banter.

łSo what did they say?

‘Need an X-ray.’

łI heard you say. What about the other stuff? Bruises, bleeding, what?

‘It’s OK, nothing to worry about. They got some grit out of my chin and my arm. Now I’ve just got to wait to see if everything’s as fucked up as it feels. I’ve really done my shoulder. Fuck it, I can’t deal with this. If my shoulder is gone, that’s it, I’m fucking screwed.’

łWhat exactly did he say?

‘Something about getting a scan through Raiders. Might have torn my … some fucking long word. I know I have, I felt it go. Fuck, shoulders take fucking ages, it might not ever be right. And if my arm’s gone too, I might as well give up now. It’s just too fucking hard.’

łI think you should wait until you’ve had the X-ray and the scan, so you know, rather than getting upset now, when you don’t know for sure.

‘What the fuck do you know? This ever happen to you, did it?’

All my rage suddenly came boiling up, misdirected at Jay.

łNo, mate. Calm down a bit, and keep your voice down, there’s other people here.

‘Fuck you. I’m not fucking calm. My whole life just got ripped apart. I might never play again. It’s not fucking fair.’

I stood up and kicked the chair, sending it skittering into the wall. I looked around for something to throw or punch, kicked the chair again. The receptionist looked over, picked up the telephone. Jay stood up, held out a placating hand to her, and then grabbed my upper arms, holding on tightly, forcing me to look at him. I tried to shrug him off, but he gripped harder, hurting my arm but holding me steady.

łDec, I know you’re angry. This is the last thing you need, you’ve had a bastard of a day, you’re upset and in pain and scared and fuck knows what else. You’re right, this never happened to me, but I’ve had my fair share of injuries, wondering if this is the one that finishes it all, and I had to give up in the end because of my knee. So I understand a bit. Kicking the shit out of the furniture isn’t going to help, unless you want to get us all thrown out of here. You need to wait for the X-ray and the scans, and take it from there, one bit at a time. OK?

I looked at him. The fury had subsided slightly, but was still bubbling.

‘I guess.’

Jay let go of me, looked over at the receptionist, who had replaced the phone, and nodded.

łSit down.

He gestured to the dislodged chair. I moved it back and sat.

>I need coffee. I go to find some – Declan, you want? Jaime?

I shook my head.

łIf you can find anything decent.

Nico headed off in search of caffeine.

łDec, I’m more than a little worried about you at the moment.

‘I’m fine.’

łYou definitely are not fine. Your head is all over the place. You spend half the night in some kind of daze, and then you chuck all your toys out of the pram at once and start mouthing off and throwing your weight around. I know you’ve had a major trauma, but it’s not like you. Talk to me?

‘Don’t know if I can.’

łTry. Start with what all that was about just now. Tell me.

‘Just … so fucking angry.’

łI get that. Tell me.

‘It just seems like … I just get some of my shit together and something happens that fucks it all up again.’

łOK. Except it wasn’t just something happening, it was Luke Woods, twice, making a serious effort to fuck it all up. It’s not just random, the whole world isn’t against you, just one seriously fucking screwed up waste of space.

‘But he’s done it, he’s got what he wanted. If I can’t play again, he’s won.’

łDec, he’s probably going to prison for what he did to you, that’s not winning. I think you need to focus on this X-ray and then getting a scan on your shoulder. It might not be as bad as you think. These things often feel worse, especially when you’re worried about it. Try not to think about the what-ifs. It can drive you mad. And you’re already a bloody nutter.

‘Agh, it’s doing my head in. I just keep thinking about him forcing me to go with him, I couldn’t stop it, it makes me feel … ashamed.’

łThen try not to think about it. Luke Woods is an ex-conditioning coach. He has some serious muscle. He could have got the better of you on a good day, let alone when you’re already shaken up and have a broken arm. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Like Nico said, he’s the one in the wrong, not you. Jesus, Dec, if you keep thinking about it like that you’re just letting him beat you up over and over again.

‘That’s what it feels like. I can’t get it out of my head. I keep seeing it, feeling it.’

łYou need some distraction. Ah, Nico, just in time. What can we do to amuse Dec and take his mind off his woes?

>Ha! We can tell stories of great tries of Nico Tiago.

łSeriously, mate, trying to cheer him up, not make him sick. Is that for me?

>All I could find, cappuccino from machine. Declan, I know you see my tries today, which is best?

‘Don’t know.’

>You must choose! Jaime, you say, I am sure.

łBoth bloody lucky in my opinion. Jesus, Nico, this coffee is awful. I hope you didn’t pay for it.

They bantered back and forth, it was fairly entertaining, but I still felt in a dark, cold, far away place inside. Eventually I was called for my X-ray. Jay insisted on coming with me, and for the chat afterwards with the doctor.

łYour head’s not on straight, I want to make sure someone remembers what they tell you.

The pictures showed my arm had suffered no further damage, although it felt to me like it had been squeezed in a vice and stamped on by elephants. The doctor said it had been put under severe pressure, but the pins, plates and more importantly bones had held firm. The residual pain and swelling was more to do with the damage to my shoulder.

łSo that’s good news, isn’t it.

I nodded. I had really expected the worst, more operations, irreparable injuries to the already broken arm. How much more would Raiders be prepared to invest in someone who was so damaged before they had even proven themselves? Or reached their twentieth birthday? It remained to be seen what would happen to my shoulder, and those questions could still be asked.

Jay took me back to Rose’s flat. It was getting late by now, but she was still up, seemingly waiting by her door, which she opened as soon as she heard us come in.

:Oh love, come here.

She folded me up in one of her enormous hugs, but I had no response for her.

‘I’m going to bed.’

She looked at me, then at Jay.

łDec, Rose has been worried sick about you, you wouldn’t let her come and see you, you could at least give her the time of day.

‘I just need to go to bed.’

:Alright, love, you know where I am.

I left my bedroom door open while I got undressed, and could hear them talking in the living room. Then I sat on the bed, in the dark, as their words drifted over me.

ł… really worried about his state of mind. There were a lot of tears back home, everything seemed to set him off. He’s been really strange tonight, first hardly speaking, then shouting and kicking stuff. He’s had nightmares every night he was with us, and two panic attacks today. He’s not himself. We saw some of the old Dec back home, it was really great to see him and Cal getting on like they always did, almost like nothing had happened, but he was … he just seems … quieter. More serious.

:Well I have seen him like this, uncommunicative, down, and I’ve often heard him crying, his flat is right above mine, I can hear everything. Oh love, you can’t expect him to just go right back to how he used to be with you. He’s happy to have you back, but he’s been so sad, he’s had so much to cope with, and tried to do it all on his own. He kind of goes into himself. You just have to stay with him, let him know you’re there, give him something to hold on to.

łFunny that, he gave me exactly the same advice when my brother was having a hard time. Jesus, Rose, this head stuff is all a bit beyond me. I don’t feel like I’m qualified to help him.

:He doesn’t need you to be qualified, love, just to be there. He’s been so lonely, had to fend for himself for so long, he feels more comfortable on his own. But it’s no way to be when you’re hurting, so we have to give him what he won’t ask for, even when he pushes us away.

łYeah, I kind of get that. It’s all this other stuff, these mood swings, nightmares, panic attacks, it’s pretty heavy duty.

:I don’t think you need to worry about it. Doesn’t his boss have some psychologist sorted out?

łYeah – whether it does any good or not …

:He’s the one who’s qualified. We just have to do our best with what we’re good at. Show him we love him and he’s not alone.

łI’m not really much good at the touchy feely stuff.

:You managed to sort things out between you over the last few days, though, didn’t you? Sounds like you did that fairly well, love.

łYeah, we did sort things. I did more serious talking than I’ve ever done in my life. I’m usually the first to arse about, avoid the issue, but there was stuff I needed to sort out in my head, things I needed to understand. We got there in the end, but I realised how messed up he’s been over the past few months, and why. I ended up making a big speech after Christmas dinner – I was a bit pissed, but it seemed like the right thing to do.

:What did you say, love?

łOh, how Dec’s part of my family, forever, whatever, all that.

:Oh, love, that sounds grand, just what he’s needed. He’s so missed his family, it’s so sad what happened to him, losing his parents when he was so young, then when he thought he’d lost you too, well that was really hard for him to deal with. Parents are what he’s needed.

łHm, not sure I feel like his parent … well, maybe when he first arrived, we had to be a bit firm with him. I’m not actually sure what I feel like. Kind of, like – yeah, a responsibility, but he’s also really good to have around, like a mate. Jesus, when I saw him lying on the ground out there today, I didn’t think he was breathing, he looked … I thought … oh Jesus … I’m sorry.

:Here you go love, don’t worry, I’ve had a little weep too, before you got here. It must have been terrible for you, finding him like that.

łIt felt like … almost as bad as when we woke up and Cal was gone, or when Mum called me about Matty. Same lurch in my gut, I just thought the worst.

:But he’s alright, love, he’s safe, maybe a bit more knocked about and none too happy at the moment, but he’s still here. He’s got you and your family, and he’s got me – he’ll get there. As long as he knows he’s got us, it doesn’t matter how it all works.

łIt is all a bit bloody complicated, when you think about it. I suppose I haven’t thought too much about exactly where he fits with us or we fit with him. I just know he fits.

:And he knows that?

łYeah. Well, he should do, I told him enough times the last few days.

:Then I think, love, you’ve already helped him more than any psychologist. For a long time, he really thought the things he’d done meant he was never going to see you again. He was very hurt, and very sad and ashamed, and very mixed up. He thought he’d done it all to himself, like he deserved it somehow. Making things right with you is very important to him, but it’s going to take time to sort through it all in his mind. He’s not going to be his old self overnight, he needs you to be patient with him.

łJesus, Rose, he just … if he’d only … Beth and I, we’re worried we made things worse for him. If we’d realised what a state he was in, how much he’d let go, what he’d lost, what he was going through, we would never … well, I don’t know. I was bloody angry … I hope that if we’d known, we might have done things a bit differently.

:From what I’ve seen, Declan’s pretty good at hiding when he needs help and making sure you don’t get close enough to find out. You’re not to blame, but neither is he. It’s all been one long, horrible mixed up time for you all, but it sounds like you’ve all made a start at putting things right. That’s the important thing.

łDo you think he’ll be OK?

:Yes, love, I think things are getting better for him –

Jay’s phone rang.

Matt

As I got into bed, I picked up my phone to call Jay. I wasn’t sure if he was still at the hospital, and just wanted to check how things were going. The atmosphere here had been subdued as Beth worried and Mum tried unsuccessfully to take her mind off it; neither of them seemed to have the energy to fuss over me as Beth wheeled me back to my room and said goodnight. As she closed the door, I dialled.

‘Hey mate, you OK? Thought you’d be asleep by now.’

‘Jus puh mysehf tuh behd, doin yuh ouh of a johb. Is Dec ohkay?’

‘Yeah, just brought him back, he’s gone to bed.’

‘Hoh is heh?’

‘Not great, a bit all over the place, taken it all a bit badly, not talking to anyone.’

‘Sohnds lihk heh nehds a kick up the ahrs. Cahn I cahl hihm?’

‘Yeah, of course.’

‘Mehbe I shohd try the ‘not lehving yuh alohn wehn yuhr fehling this shih’ technihque on hihm.’

‘Not sure, worth a try, worked for you didn’t it.’

‘Gihv ih a goh. Try ih now.’

‘OK Matty, see you tomorrow.’

I pressed Dec’s name. No reply. Can’t say I was surprised. But he wasn’t getting away that lightly; he’d set the bar pretty high the night before last, and he only had himself to blame. I sent a text.

‘Just 2 remind u. Family. Connected. I’m a stubborner fucking bastard than u. Will call & txt u all night. Turn off phone, I’ll still do it. Talk 2 me. Matt.’

Dec

I put the phone on the bedside table. I doubted he would last all night, he’d be asleep before long. I glanced at the list of messages and missed calls from earlier. Lacked the energy to open most of them, but replied to Amy.

Me: =Tired n sore, going 2 bed. Spk soon. Dec

My phone pinged again.

Matt:=Here’s the first of many. Tell me how u doing. M

I ignored it. Another ping.

Amy: =Poor u. Hope u feel better soon. Amy xx

In the living room, Jay and Rose continued dissecting my life. I got under the duvet, leaving the door open, their words muffled by the bedclothes. I drifted in and out of sleep, unable to completely relax. My phone continued to ring, and ping with texts. I thought of Matt sitting up in bed, calling me when he should be sleeping, and I reached for the phone and turned it off. The silence made me feel more guilty than the ringtones.

Matt

I bombarded him with texts and calls, but then felt myself getting tired. Bugger, I was never going to win this if I fell asleep like a fucking cripple this early in the contest. So I set the alarm on my phone to screech at me every ten minutes. I may well doze off, but I could just damn well wake up again and send a text, or try ringing again. He might turn his phone off, that’s what I would do, but he’d have to turn it back on again sometime, and when he did, there would be a zillion messages from me, which would tell him something; hopefully something more than ‘you have a zillion messages from Matt’.

It’s not really that I wanted to win some kind of contest, although a competition does tend to focus the mind. I was imagining what was going on for Dec, how traumatic it must have been. Beth had given me more details, and it sounded like he’d been forced out into the car park with his broken arm twisted up behind his back, before being kicked while he was on the ground. Jay and Nico had interrupted the kicking, but Jay had thought Dec was dead when he got to him. I knew a bit about being almost dead. And now I knew a bit about having someone to hold on to when you tried to shut yourself away. So the least I could do was stay awake, just in case he answered, and it gave me something else to focus on apart from impotent rage.

Dec

I turned on to my side and pulled the duvet over my head. Felt rather than heard someone in my room. A hand on my shoulder, gentle, aware of the pain.

łDec.

I didn’t move or acknowledge Jay.

łI know you’re awake, you can’t have slept through all that racket from your phone. I’m going now, try to catch some sleep at Nico’s. We’re setting off early tomorrow, won’t see you again for a bit. I know you’re feeling sorry for yourself, be strong, stay positive, eh, mate?

I didn’t reply.

łOK. Take care of yourself. Call us soon.

He left the room, leaving the door open. A short time later, Rose came in.

:Anything you need, love?

No reply from me. A sigh from Rose.

:Well, you know where I am.

She left, shutting the door behind her, leaving the room in complete darkness. I felt the familiar misery welling up in me, and gave in to it, trying to cry without making any noise. It hurt my chest, and the tears ran down my nose, soaking my pillow. I’d thought I was past all this, the dark sadness bearing down on me. Getting Jay, Beth and Cal back, and keeping my job, had been major positives. This was about old losses and feeling scared, demoralised and powerless. I tried to cling on to the thread of family that had been given back to me, and was surprised to find that although it was tenuous, it was there, and it comforted me a little bit.

Matt

I don’t know how many times I’d done it, hauled myself out of sleep, sent a text, drifted away again. I lost count. It just felt like a rhythm I’d got into. Then I heard the phone trill, and I opened my eyes to send another text, but it wasn’t the alarm that had sounded, it was the text alert. He’d replied.

Dec

Thought again about Matt, wondered if he’d given up and gone to sleep yet. Turned my phone back on. Alerts from all the missed calls and texts arrived, the last one only five minutes ago. Somehow, Matt wasn’t asleep. I sent a text.

Me: =Stop it now. Made your point. Go to sleep.

Matt:=No.

Matt

He’d done it now, he’d replied, he’d broken the cycle. I was in. I called him. It went to voicemail. I sent another text.

‘Cripples Corner says fuck you. When we need help we’ll fucking ask for it. Unless we’re Declan Summers.’

‘Matt, please stop.’

‘No.’

Dec

I was getting a dose of my own medicine. It was irritating beyond belief, but I couldn’t deny that the thought of someone putting themselves out for me, not being prepared to leave me alone, was starting to work. It needed to stop, though. Matt needed it to stop. Dialled the number.

Matt

He was getting a dose of his own medicine, and I had to admit I was enjoying turning the tables. Then, my reward, as my phone rang.

‘Heh, Dec. Rohnd two to meh.’

Oh, yeah, I know I said it wasn’t a competition, but it so was.

‘Matt, please stop. It’s late.’

Yeah, I knew how late it was – too late for you, mate.

‘Thoht you’d have turned yuh phone off by now.’

‘I did. It doesn’t help. Please go to sleep.’

‘Noh.’

‘Please.’

‘Noh.’

I couldn’t stop myself smiling; I was having a great time. Not revelling in Dec’s distress, but now he was talking to me, now he was going to be OK, I was relishing the sweet taste of just desserts.

Dec

I could hear the grin in his voice; he was enjoying this.

‘You fucking bastard, I can’t believe you’re doing this.’

}Talk to meh then.

‘What about?’

}Whaever ih is tha’s making yuh fehl bad.

Matt

Just two nights ago, he hadn’t been able to stop me rambling on about my shit. His turn to share.

‘I can’t do this now.’

‘OK, yuhr choice. Member wha yuh said bout pushing pehpl away thogh. One day they wohn cohm back. Buh noh tonigh. Tonigh, I fehl an allnigher cohming on. Ihv had a greht day, fehl top of the world. Can outlast yuh no sweat.’

And I could. Provided my alarm kept going off.

Dec

‘Just fuck off, Matt.’

He laughed.

}This ihs poetic juhstice. Yohr saying everything I said. Difference is, weh both know Ihm right. Don’t rehly have tuh goh through ih all do weh?

I was silent.

}Noh gonna wohk. Spihl. I knoh yuh had another kicking. I knoh yuh hurt yuhr arm again. I ‘spect yuhr angry and scahed, I fucking would beh.

Matt

And that did it, broke the dam, a flash-flood of words tumbling over me as I tried to swim along and keep up.

‘I just fucking let him do it, alright? He just came along and grabbed me and I had no choice, I just went with him because he was fucking hurting me. I didn’t fight him, or shout, or do anything to stop him, I just fucking let him do it all again. If it hadn’t been for Jay and Nico, I was this close to another boot in the face. I think he was going to finish it this time. Shit, Matt, I’m just completely fucking useless.’

I paused briefly to make sure I’d got it all.

‘Well I guess I ahsked for tha. Hohly fuck, Dec. Where dohs all this shit of yuhrs come from? How dohs ohn fucking psycho bahstrd giving yuh a kicking become yuh being useless?’

‘I couldn’t stop him.’

So this was all mixed up with being hurt, with needing to seem tough, with being embarrassed about feeling weak. With hating being scared. I was going to need to persuade him that it wasn’t his fault.

‘Ih’m not suhprised. He’s a fucking psycho bahstrd. They’re usually faihly determined. Yuh were already frehked ouh, he fucking bent yuhr fucking broken arm, the fucking bahstrd. Yuhr the only ohn who blames yuh. Why do yuh think yuh have to do everything yuhself?’

‘Don’t know. Always have. Feels like failing to ask for help.’

‘Yuhr a bluhdy mad fucker aren’t yuh?’

Possibly a madder fucker than me, and that was saying something.

‘So I’m told.’

‘Sort ih ouh.’

‘OK.’

He’d given in much more easily than I had. Lightweight.

‘OK. Yuh can go now. I’ll stop stalking yuh.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Call me if yuh need anything.’

He was as likely to call me in times of need as I was to call him, but you have to offer, don’t you.

‘Yeah, right.’

‘Worth a shoht.’

‘Matt …’

‘Yeh.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Wehcome. Bluhdy nutter.’

‘Fucking cripple.’

Dec

It had helped. Just saying it, letting out everything I’d been holding inside, felt better. I lay down again, and pulled the duvet over my head. Slept straight away. No dreams, no faceless men in brown boots, just deep, dark sleep.

Matt

And that’s how it started, the ‘not leaving you alone when you’re feeling this shit’ business. To be honest, Dec did it to me more than I did it to him, because he started seeing a psychologist soon after that, and he learned more healthy ways of dealing with the mountains of crud clogging up his brain, although there were occasions not long after that Christmas when I was more perceptive than usual, and consequently was on the receiving end of some of the Summers bloody nutterness, as well as on the dishing out end of a listening ear and late night texting sessions.

Cal

I woke up when it was still dark. Dad had said my name and ruffled my hair and shaken my shoulder, and all of those things had gradually woken me up, until I opened my eyes to see him sitting on the edge of my bed, the light from the hallway shining into the room.

‘Hey mate, sorry it’s early, but we need to go home. Come on, get dressed and come downstairs for some breakfast, and then we’ll go.’

He put my trousers and sweatshirt on top of the bed, and my shoes on the floor. I didn’t move straight away, it felt like it was still night, and I couldn’t quite remember where I was.

‘Come on Cal. We’ve got to go back so I can help Uncle Matty get up.’

Oh, I was in Nico’s house. Then it all flooded back. We were here because Dec had been hurt by a bad man, and Dad had to be with him in the hospital.

‘Where’s Dec?’

‘He’s at Rose’s. He didn’t stay in the hospital.’

‘Did he have sewing?’

‘No, he didn’t need any. He’s OK – well, his arm’s a bit hurt, but it’s not like last time.’

‘Is he like a Frankystein?’

‘No mate, he’s fine. Come on, we need to get moving. You can talk to Dec on the phone later.’

It hit me, then, that I might not see Dec for a long time. His birthday was in a few weeks, which was ages, and I wasn’t ready to just go home. If Dec hadn’t been hurt by the bad man, I would have been able to say goodbye and check about our birthday plans.

‘Daddy, I think we need to go and see Dec, so he knows we are going home.’

‘No, Cal, it’s too early. Dec was pretty grumpy last night, and you know what he’s like with early mornings. He’ll just go ‘mmpf’ and roll over.’

I didn’t want to just go home, without seeing Dec for myself, to see if he had any more cuts or bruises. Maybe if I said the right things, he wouldn’t be grumpy. Maybe if I said the right things to Dad, he’d let us go and see him.

‘But Daddy, I didn’t say thank you to Dec for saying to Santa about Optimus Prime. And we should say goodbye.’

Mum was always saying it was important to say thank you, and to be polite. Dad sighed. He must have been thinking about what Mum would say too.

‘I’ll tell you what. We’ll go over there, see if Rose answers the door, and see if we can wake him up. We can’t stay, though, just tell him we’re going home and hope he’s feeling better soon. OK?’

‘Kay Daddy.’

‘Right, get dressed, eat breakfast. That’s the list. Probably the shortest one ever. Got it?’

‘Yes. Get dressed, eat breakfast.’

I grinned at Dad and he handed me my clothes.

We hadn’t said goodbye to Nico and Lis, because they were still asleep, but Dad said we could talk to them on the phone later. As Dad drove through the dark, empty streets, I nearly fell asleep, but woke up when Dad parked the car and banged his door. He came round to my door, opened it and took the seat-belt off.

‘Are you sure Cal? It’s dark and cold, and Rose and Dec will still be asleep, and they won’t be too pleased to see us right now.’

‘I want to see Dec.’

‘Alright then. Hop out, mate.’

We walked to the front door and Dad pressed the button. We waited a long time, and I wanted Dad to press the button again, but he didn’t, and it was so long, I thought Rose or Dec might not answer it. Just as I thought Dad was going to go, the box with the buttons on it crackled with a voice.

‘Yes?’

‘Rose, I’m so sorry, it’s Jay and Cal. We wondered if we could come in and say goodbye to Dec.’

‘Oh, of course, love.’

Rose’s voice sounded funny coming out of the box. The door made a buzzing sound, and Dad pushed it open. We walked over to Rose’s door, and waited for her to open it.

‘Hello you two.’

‘Hi Rose. Sorry about this. Cal didn’t get to say goodbye, and we’re just heading off back for Matty.’

‘That’s OK, love, it’s nearly time to get up anyway.’

‘Ha ha, Rose, you’re priceless. It’s hours away from time to get up. Did you talk to him last night?’

‘No, he didn’t say a word to me. I heard him talking to someone, though, later on, on his phone.’

‘Oh well, he doesn’t have to say anything, just listen to us saying goodbye. Alright if we go in?’

Rose nodded, and Dad opened a door off the hallway. The room was dark, but the light went into the room from the door and shone on the bed. The top of Dec’s head was poking out of the duvet, and I went over to the bed and stood by what I could see of him, which was mainly hair.

Dec

\dec.

I pulled the duvet further over my head.

\dec, wake up.

A small hand tried to shake me.

Cal

I reached out and shook him, like Dad had done to me earlier. Dec seemed awake, or almost awake, because he’d moved. He just needed a bit of help, and he’d be properly awake.

Gently, Cal, Dec’s hurt his shoulder.’

‘But Daddy, he’s not waking up.’

Dad took over, using his ‘no arguing’ voice.

Dec.’

Dad put his hand on Dec’s arm, and Dec’s face peeked out of the duvet. His eyes were a bit open and he was awake. Dec rubbed a hand over his face and he made a groaning noise.

Dec

A firmer hand on my arm. My brain started to work. I opened my eyes. The door was open and the room was lit by the hall light. Cal was standing by the bed, Jay beside him. It was still dark outside. I rubbed my face, as all the pain from Luke’s brown boots woke up with me. Groaned. Sat up, slowly and sorely, and put the lamp on.

‘Hey Cal, what are you doing here?’

\me and Daddy are going home.

‘What time is it?’

łEarly. Don’t worry, you can go back to sleep after we’ve gone. Cal wanted to say goodbye. Well, we both did. Rose kindly answered her door at this ridiculous time of the morning.

\dec, when are you coming to play with me again?

Cal

I knew the answer to this, because we’d agreed yesterday, and made our plan.

‘I don’t know, Cal, soon I hope. Maybe for my birthday? We’ve had a good time this Christmas, haven’t we.’

‘Yes. Have you had more sewing?’

I think Cal may have had an ulterior motive for wanting to see you. He didn’t want to miss any new gore.’

Dec laughed. ‘No, Cal, no new sewing. Just a few extra bruises and a hurt shoulder. I hurt my chin too, look.’

Dec tipped his head back to show me a big patch of red, broken skin underneath his chin. It wasn’t quite as cool as sewing and lines, but it looked like it would hurt a lot.

‘Awesome.’

You seem chirpier this morning.’

‘Matt did some reverse psychology. He’s almost as stubbornly annoying as me.’

‘Ha ha, yep, that’s Matty alright. He told me he was going to give it a go. Glad it made a difference. How’s the shoulder?’

‘Still fu … very painful.’

Dec had nearly done a swear, but he hadn’t done it at the last minute. I was disappointed, because Dec could usually be relied on to do swears without even thinking about it.

Nice catch, mate, Beth will be proud. Get it checked out later, yeah? OK, Cal, we’d better get going so we can be home soon. Say goodbye to Dec.’

‘Bye, Dec.’

‘Bye Cal.’

Dec reached over and ruffled my hair.

‘See you soon.’

See you soon, mate, you’ll ring us won’t you?’

‘Yeah. Thanks for everything. I mean … everything.’

Just … don’t forget about us.’

Daddy and Dec shook hands, because I suppose it is difficult to cuddle someone who is in bed and who has a hurt shoulder.

‘Not likely. Piss off before you set me off again.’

Dad laughed and I smiled, because Dec had done a swear after all. Rose closed the door after us, and we drove back.

Dec

Jay laughed and walked out with Cal, shutting the door behind him. For the first time, I thought ‘my family‘, and I smiled to myself. I turned the light off and settled myself slowly back down under the duvet for a few more hours of sleep. Rose had other ideas. A knock on the door.

:Here, love, now you’re awake I brought you some tea.

I groaned inwardly, but sat back up, trying to ignore the protests from my bruises and scrapes. I had been unforgivably rude to Rose last night, and needed to apologise.

‘Morning, Rose. I missed your tea.’

:Did you, love?

‘Yeah. I missed you as well, nobody bossing me about or organising me, don’t know how I managed.’

:I’m sure you did just fine.

‘Sorry I went to bed when I got in yesterday, it was rude, I was being a twat.’

:It was understandable, love. You had a bit of a day of it by all accounts. How are you feeling now?

‘Well my shoulder is pretty bad. I need to go to the club and get them to look at it –’

:But in yourself, how are you? Jay was here for a long time last night talking about you.

‘I know, I heard you.’

:Sorry, love, I know that annoys you, but he needed to talk. He’s worried about how you’re coping with all this. He feels very far away. He said you cried a lot?

‘Yeah, well, I suppose I did. I felt – feel – really emotional. Everything seemed so normal, and that was huge for a start, that it wasn’t awkward at all. Then they’d say how glad they were to have me there or something and I’d realise how close I’d been to losing them and I’d just cry.

:And this latest upset, and getting angry at the hospital, then barely speaking when you got back yesterday?

‘I’m a bit better now. Yesterday just all got a bit much. I had a talk with Matt, Jay’s brother, yesterday …’

I told her about our conversation, and how I’d done a similar thing to him a few days before. Rose laughed.

:Sounds like you’re both as bad as each other. Or as good, not sure which. I’m glad you’re feeling a bit better. Don’t stop talking to us, love, whichever one of us is around.

‘I’ll try.’

:That’s all you can do. Are you getting up, or having a lie-in?

I lowered myself back onto the pillow.

‘Lie-in. Then I’ll call Don and sort out a scan for my shoulder. Thanks, Rose.’

I disappeared gratefully under the duvet again, resurfacing a few hours later.

Feeling in a much more positive mood, if still battered and the worse for wear, I caught the bus to the ground and saw Lee, who looked at my shoulder and referred me for a scan the next day. I caught up with the strength and conditioning guys, just to update them. It was another week before I was expected back anyway, so the scan would just help them re-jig my rehab to fit in with the extra shoulder damage. I felt a lot more optimistic than yesterday, but when I really thought about it, I’d pushed a lot of it down deep, where I pushed everything I couldn’t deal with right away. Maybe this wasn’t the best way to deal with my shit – perhaps the psychologist Don had sorted out would be a good thing.

However I came to terms with what had happened yesterday, for now I concluded it had been an extremely stressful day, and I needed to chill a bit today. I had a family, people who weren’t prepared to let me get on with things by myself, who wanted me to be part of their lives. But before I could get on with chilling, I had several calls to make.

‘Hi Amy.’

)Dec! How are you?

‘A bit battered. Bloody sore. Sorry I didn’t get back to you yesterday.’

)Oh, don’t be silly. I completely understand. It was late by the time you got home.

‘Yeah, and I was pretty wiped. Anyway, things feel better now, so just thought I’d say hi. It was good to see you yesterday.’

)Yeah, you too, great game.

‘Yeah, it was fucking amazing to be there again.’

)Hey, a bunch of us are going out later, just for a pizza. Do you fancy coming?

‘Er … who’s going?’

)Oh, usual crowd, um except Big, obviously. Or David. But everyone else.

‘I don’t know, Amy, it’s been a while. Don’t want to spoil everyone’s evening.’

)It’s only pizza! Oh, go on – you’ve got to start somewhere.

I was undecided for a few moments, then thought why the hell not?

‘Alright, you’re on. I’ll come.’

)Great!

She gave me the time and place, and I moved on to the next call. DI Johnson.

‘It’s Declan Summers’

ϙHello. Thank you for calling. How are you?

‘Sore. Thanks for asking.’

ϙWhat can I do for you?

‘I just thought I should stay in touch after yesterday. Is there any news?’

ϙWell, Ben Hearne and Luke Woods have been formally charged with grievous bodily harm and criminal damage. Luke Woods has two counts of GBH following yesterday’s assault. His DNA was also found in your flat, we’ve managed to positively identify his boot-print from the pictures your doctor took, and it turns out the anonymous texts we were looking into originated from his mobile phone. It’s likely, if they are found guilty, they face a prison sentence.

I was silent, absorbing it. Didn’t give a shit about Luke, but Big going to jail was overwhelming.

ϙDeclan?

‘Yeah, I’m here, sorry. Er, yesterday at the ground, there was another man, in the van, he got out and spoke to Luke Woods. He … did anyone see him?’

ϙWe weren’t aware of another man. Was he involved in the assault?

‘No, well, not directly, but he knew Luke Woods, and seemed to know me. He seemed to be trying to get Luke to stop.’

ϙDid you recognise him?

‘Well, I think so, he seemed familiar, but I can’t place him. Sorry, I know it’s not much information. I just wondered if anyone noticed him or – fuck! I know who he is.’

I had a sudden image of him, not from yesterday, but standing on Jay’s doorstep.

‘I don’t know his name or anything, but I know where I’ve seen him before.’

I immediately regretted saying anything, because I was more than aware that Raiders hadn’t gone to the police about my theft of the charity money.

ϙGo on.

‘He came to the house once, where I used to live, he – I don’t know how much you know about everything, it’s complicated. I crashed my car, someone died.’

ϙWe are aware of the incident.

‘This guy came round, pretended to be the man’s son, threatened me. Shit – this means it’s all connected.’

ϙWhen you say threatened, what exactly do you mean?

‘He just … got angry, asked for money, said he’d tell the club about my passport and stuff if I didn’t pay him.’

ϙDid you pay him?

‘Yes.’

ϙHow much?

I was silent for a while, considering.

‘A lot.’

It was DI Johnson’s turn to be silent – maybe he was writing down what I’d said, maybe he was wondering how much more information was waiting to be revealed. I wasn’t sure I wanted him to know the whole story.

ϙI think we need to talk properly, Declan. Can you come in to the station?

‘Maybe later, there are some things I need to do first.’

I hung up and called Don to tell him what else might be about to hit the fan. I told him about my conversation with DI Johnson. Don sighed.

-You don’t make things easy, son. No, that’s not fair, I guess it’s not your fault. We just need to make sure this doesn’t get more complicated. I think I’ll have a chat with our lawyers and get them to ring you. Don’t go to the police before you’ve talked to them.

I hung up and texted Matt:

Me: =Hope Cripples Corner not missing its resident nutter.

Matt:=Much less crazy. Nobody doing bad swears except me. Might have 2 teach Cal.

Me: =Beware the wrath of Beth if u do.

Matt:=I can handle Beth. Just 2 keep me going: bloody shitty fucknogglets you arsebasket ;P

Call to Beth:

_Hi Dec, how are you, sweetheart?

‘Not too bad. Aching a bit. Got to have a scan on my shoulder tomorrow, see exactly what I’ve done to it.’

_I hope that goes alright, sweetheart. James says your arm is OK though, the pins and plates held OK?

‘Yeah, no more damage. Did they get back alright?’

_Yes, they set off so early, and you know how fast James drives anyway. They were here before Matty woke up – actually he was asleep for ages, I hear you had a late night conversation with him.

‘Yeah, we were trading stubborn points.’

_That must have been some contest.

‘Pretty spectacular. Is he OK?’

_Yes, he’s managed to sleep it off. I think he would have kept going all night. He set his alarm to go off every ten minutes so he could keep texting you.

‘Bloody hell, that is dedicated. I think he might even be worse than me. Don’t tell him, he might think he’s won.’

_Is there anything you boys won’t turn into a competition?

‘Probably not.’

She sighed.

_Do you want to talk to James?

‘Yeah, quick word.’

She went to find him. In the silence, I imagined their house, tried to feel part of it all. Nearly managed it.

łHey, mate, you alright?

‘Yeah, good, just been to see the docs, arranged a scan for tomorrow.’

łGood, I’m glad you can get cracking on that. How’ve you been today? Any more dreams last night?

‘No, I slept through. Until you woke me up at the crack of hours before dawn, that is.’

łBlame Cal, he was determined to say goodbye. I think he wanted you to swear, and have lots of stitches. You’re a big disappointment.

‘Story of my life. I’ve got to go to the police in a bit.’

I outlined the most recent part of the Declan Summers saga.

łJesus, Dec, you really are always in the thick of things. Good luck, mate. If you need someone to go with you, make sure you ask. Nico’ll be up for it, I’m sure.

‘I’ll be OK, Don’s got some lawyers on it, don’t think he wants more scandal if he can avoid it. Jay … I’m sorry for all the hassle I’ve caused. I heard you and Rose talking last night, I’m just … my head’s all over the place and I get a bit up myself.’

łAh, mate, don’t worry about it. Rose, she’s amazing. She could set up her own advice line. OK, I guess I need to say this again. I can take any shit you dish out. Family, yeah? We might have words about it, we definitely won’t always agree, and if I think you’re being a prick I’ll let you know, but I’m here. We’re all here. You’ve even got Matty looking out for you. Now bugger off, you bloody head case.

‘Thanks.’

łYeah. Cheers, Dec, talk to you soon.

One last phone call, to Nico:

>Declan! Good to hear from you my friend. How life treats you today?

‘OK, thanks. Nico, I just wanted to say thanks for helping me out yesterday. Without you and Jay, things would have been a lot worse. Sorry I was a bit of a dick at the hospital.’

>Ha, yes you are, but we understand. You are hurt, you are sad, you are angry. Is OK. Lis say when you come over? Tonight?

‘I can’t tonight, I’m out, sorry.’

>Tomorrow then, I tell her.

‘OK, that would be great.’

>We miss hearing about Christmas with Jaime, we want details, yes?

‘I’ll probably send you to sleep, then, but OK. Thanks, Nico, see you tomorrow.’

One last text, to Rose:

Me: =Back later, out for tea. UR GR8. Dec.

Rose:=whats ur greight

Me: =It means you’re great.

Cal

So that is it, the story of that Christmas, when things were mended, and in a way better than mended, although it took me a long time to be able to see it like that, because I was six, and I just wanted things to be back the way they were.

39. Welcome to my nightmare

In which we experience a certain amount of deja vu.

Dec

As I sat outside the bar, eyes covered, I became aware of someone standing in front of me. I moved my hands away from my eyes to see a pair of brown boots on the floor in front of me. I’d seen them so often in my dreams, it took me a moment to take in that they were real, and here, which meant …

Startled, I looked up to see Luke Woods staring down at me. Fear instantly paralysed me. My heart pounded and I could hardly breathe.

+Did I not warn you? Stay away from Nico Tiago, I said. But you didn’t fucking well listen, and he stopped coming to the gym. Lost me a lot of business.

I felt my heart racing. I tried to get to my feet, but he pushed me back down in the chair. I glanced to my right, towards the door to the bar, and left, down the corridor, trying to work out the best direction to get away.

+Oh no you don’t. And try shouting if you like, they won’t hear you, it’s too noisy in there.

In a swift movement, he grabbed my right arm, twisting it to send a spike of pain from my broken wrist up to my broken collar bone. Using the pain, he forced me to stand, and twisted my arm behind my back. I could barely see, the pain was so intense. My legs were still shaking, and sweat ran down my face, stinging my eyes.

+Let’s go for a walk. There’s someone you should meet.

He pushed me down the corridor. I looked behind me to the door, desperate for Jay to come back. Luke pushed my arm up further. I gasped, could feel everything being stretched beyond its limits. Round and round in my head, Luke’s brown boots were kicking me in the face, stopping me thinking clearly. All I could think or feel was fear.

Luke seemed to know the back ways inside the club. The corridors we went down were dark and silent. He went nowhere near the treatment room or changing rooms, and after manhandling me down a couple of flights of stairs, we came to a fire door with a bar across it. He pushed me up against the door, pinning me with his body while he pressed the bar with his left hand.

The door opened and a blast of cold air hit me. It cleared my head momentarily, and I tried to kick backwards at him and wriggle out of his grip. He kicked the back of my knee, causing it to buckle and me to drop. My weight was taken by my twisted arm and I felt something tear in my shoulder. I cried out in agony. Luke hauled me back up and continued pushing me forwards until we emerged from behind some large wheeled bins into the car park.

By now, I could hardly focus on where I was or what was happening to me. The pain throbbing from my arm and shoulder was taking all my concentration; dark blobs were gathering at the edge of my vision, I felt dizzy and sick, and was close to passing out. I couldn’t pick my feet up properly, and every time I stumbled, Luke yanked on my arm, causing more needle stabs along my collar bone and then down my arm to my fingers.

We seemed to be heading for the far side of the car park, where it was darker and there were fewer cars, and a white Transit van was parked. As we approached the van, the door opened and a man got out. I barely glanced at him, other than to notice he was wearing a Raiders shirt.

|What’s this, Luke?

+This …

He shoved me forwards, and I fell onto my knees, gasping and panting. The relief of not having my arm bent up behind me stopped me from moving any further. I cradled my arm against me, trying hard not to sob with pain.

+… is our fucking problem. Remember Mr Declan fucking Summers? Also known as Charlie fucking Collier to the proper authorities. But not to Raiders, not until it was too fucking late.

I stayed on the ground, hunched over, holding my right arm close to my chest, trying to stop shaking, trying to catch my breath and organise my thoughts.

|I thought you were just going to talk to someone about Ben.

The man’s voice sounded familiar, but I was in no state to search my memory. I couldn’t even raise my head to look up at him.

+Yeah, well, turns out this piece of shit is hanging around today, all chummy with Jay Scott and his kid again.

|What did you bring him out here for?

+He hasn’t learned his lesson yet. Thought we could have another go at teaching him. Maybe you’ll be less of a fucking wimp about it than Ben.

He kicked me hard from behind and I sprawled forwards, banging my chin on the ground, scraping the skin off my left arm on the tarmac and landing on my right arm, which was curled up under me. I cried out with the pain that exploded from my shoulder.

|Luke, what are you doing?

+Which bit didn’t you fucking understand last time, Summers? Was it the warning?

He kicked me in the side, twice. Sharp pain bit me, my mouth filled with bile and I curled up, coughing and retching.

+Was it the beating?

More kicks to my back, pain bloomed and spots danced before my eyes.

+Did we not kick you fucking hard enough?

|Luke …

The other man seemed to be protesting, but not very loudly. I tried to look at him, to get him to help, but I lay powerless on the floor as Luke walked round me, aiming kicks with each step which crunched into my legs. I watched as his feet moved round to where I lay, my left arm trying to protect my head. Too much of me was exposed, I didn’t stand a chance. I looked on in horror as he came level with my face and drew his brown-booted foot back. This wasn’t a dream or a memory. It was happening again. I closed my eyes and whimpered. Heard a shout. Waited for the pain and longed for the darkness.

Cal

‘Shit. He would have seen Dec sitting there. I bet he’s done something, taken him somewhere or something.’

Lis frowned. ‘Really, Jay? Dec is pretty strong. You’d have to be fairly determined to get him to go somewhere he didn’t want to without a fuss.’

‘You didn’t see him, Lis. He was white as a sheet, he couldn’t stand up, he wasn’t thinking straight. And if he’d yelled, would anyone have heard him? It’s pretty loud in here.’

Jaime, you think this Luke take Declan somewhere?’

Dad nodded. ‘My guess is outside. I think we need to have a look.’

‘I’m going to call the police.’

Dad looked at Lis, and I thought he was going to tell her not to, but she spoke before he could say it.

‘If this bloke’s got Dec, he could be in for another kicking. It nearly ended badly for him last time, didn’t it. If we’re wrong, well, we get a telling off for wasting their time, but if we’re right, they need to be here, yeah?’

Dad nodded, and I stayed very quiet. I could hardly believe this was all going on around me, and they had forgotten I was there, so they hadn’t sent me somewhere else.

Lis picked her phone up and pressed numbers, holding it to her ear. As she started to talk, Dad and Nico ran out of the room, Nico pressing on his phone too.

I had never been with anyone while they called the police before. I’d been with Mum when she called the ambulance for Dec, before we knew it was Dec, but the police was different, it felt like it should be more exciting, although Lis used nearly the same words to start with.

‘Police … Raiders Stadium … Lisa Tiago … I think someone’s going to get beaten up … No, but I really think you need to get someone up here fast, and if you make me explain it all before you do, it could go very badly … OK … Someone’s on the way now? … OK then … Well, it’s Declan Summers, he was attacked a few weeks ago, here, and the person who did it, well we think he’s got him again … no, not for sure, but …’

Lis tried to explain to the police person, but it was taking a long time. While she was still talking, I heard the sound of sirens. One of the windows looked out onto the car park, and I got up and walked over. Lis came with me, still talking on the phone.

It was dark outside, but the car park was lit with bright lights. There were lots of cars, and I saw a police car with its lights flashing near the entrance to the car park. As I watched, I saw some people running, but I couldn’t see what happened, because they went behind some cars. More police cars came then, and people started to stand and watch whatever it was that was happening. It was very frustrating to be up here watching and not down there, really seeing.

Quite a few other people were looking out of the window, too, and some of them were asking Lis what was going on.

‘Hopefully the police are making an arrest.’

That was all she would say, and she looked at her phone and pressed it a lot so that people wouldn’t talk to her.

After a while, nobody was looking out of the window any more, because there wasn’t anything to see, and Lis and I sat down at the table again. We were nearly the only people left, and I think everyone else had gone outside to see for themselves. I wished we could go outside to see as well. I wanted to know where Dad and Nico and Dec were, and if the police had anything to do with them, and I was still hoping there might be robots attacking with guns.

Lis kept looking at her phone, like she wanted it to ring, and then she’d look at me and smile, but as soon as she stopped looking at me, she stopped smiling. Then her phone did a bell sound, and she sat up and looked at the screen, and then frowned.

‘Helpful, Nico.’

She tapped on the screen, like she was sending a text. Then she stared at the phone again, until it did another bell sound. She pressed the screen and looked at it.

‘Oh my God.’

There was more tapping and another bell sound. I wanted her to tell me what she was reading, but it was Lis’s private message, and Mum was always telling me that what people got in their private messages wasn’t for me to know unless they wanted to tell me. I wasn’t allowed to ask, and I wasn’t allowed to look at her or Dad’s phones when they got texts. But I really wanted to know what had happened to Dec, and if the bad man called Luke was still here somewhere, and where Dad and Nico were, and what all the policemen were doing.

I couldn’t ask, so I did the best I could, which was a really big huffy sigh. Lis looked up and noticed me, then put her head on one side.

‘Sorry Cal, this is all a bit of a nightmare. I should think you’re wondering what’s going on, yeah?’

At last, she’d realised. I nodded.

Dec

More shouts. Still no pain, no darkness. Running feet.

Opened my eyes. The brown boots had gone, running away, others were chasing them. There were flashing lights and sirens. Noise and light. I lay my head back down on the ground and shut my eyes again. I felt a rushing from in my head, and everything went very distant and indistinct. From what seemed like far, far away, more feet, running towards me. He was coming back. I couldn’t move, couldn’t even raise my head, paralysed by fear and flashbacks. So I took another route to protect myself; I pushed it away, closed my mind down, to avoid it all. A voice, from a great distance.

łDec! Dec! Oh Jesus, no, no, no. Dec!

It sounded like Jay. Running feet came closer, skidded to a stop. Thumped down beside me. Hands shook my shoulder, tapped my cheek.

łOh my God. Dec. Oh my God. Fuck. Fuck. Dec, can you hear me?

Still sounded like Jay. I was so far away I couldn’t be sure. With a struggle, I opened my eyes. Jay’s stricken face slowly came into focus, his expression changing to one of massive relief as I looked at him. He covered his nose and mouth with his hands, breathing heavily and deeply.

łOh my God, Jesus, Dec. Fuck. I thought … Jesus. Say something, can you speak?

‘Mm OK.’

łOh thank Christ. Can you move, sit up?

I tried, but everything was hurting, and my coordination and focus were shot. Jay put his arm underneath my shoulder and helped me push up from the ground.

‘Aaah.’

łWhat, what is it?

‘Shoulder. Tore it. Arm’s fucked.’

łJesus, are you trying for some kind of most injured Raider award, or something?

He tried to smile, but tears filled his eyes, and he pulled me into a bear hug.

łJesus, Dec, I thought you’d had it, seeing you lying there, you weren’t moving, you’re so pale, I thought I was going to have to give you fucking mouth to mouth. Jesus.

He exhaled loudly and shakily, and looked over to where the blue lights were flashing, wiping his eyes on the back of his hand.

łI think they’ve got him. Nico chased him, Jesus he can run fast, tackled him, sat on him, I think. There’s an ambulance on its way.

‘No ambulance.’

łDec, you need to get checked out.

‘No more fucking hospitals. Docs here can look.’

łI don’t think they’ve got the kit, mate.

Not getting in a fucking ambulance.’

łOK, take it easy. Your choice, alright?

The shock of it all suddenly caught up with me, the rushing strangeness threatened, and I started shaking again, teeth chattering, body shuddering. Jay took his hoody off and put it round my shoulders, leaving his arm round me. He got his phone out, dialled a number.

łHi Lee, it’s Jay again. Are you still at the club? Great. Can you come out into the car park? Dec needs checking out … no, not that – there’s been a bit of an incident. Thanks.

I carried on shivering, head down, eyes closed, Jay carried on sitting on the ground next to me, arm round my shoulder. I heard footsteps running towards us. Opened my eyes in a panic. Nico. He knelt beside me and looked into my face.

>Declan, you are alright?

I looked at him, unable to answer, unable to focus on anything.

łWe’re waiting for Lee to come and check him out. I don’t want to get him up in case it’s the wrong thing.

>But there is ambulances coming.

łI know. He doesn’t want to go to hospital.

>Declan, you have no choice. You look very bad. You bleed. We see him kick you.

It was all too much. I was tired, hurting, cold, scared and everyone wanted me to do things I didn’t want to do. I started to cry, small sniffs at first and quickly moved on to large, heaving sobs. Jay folded me up in another bear hug. Nico put his hand on my arm.

łIt’s OK, Dec, it’s all OK now. It’s all over. They got him. Come on, mate, ssh.

>Here is Lee.

÷What the fuck’s been going on out here?

łCan you have a look at Dec? He’s had another kicking.

÷What, since I left you upstairs? Bloody hell, Dec, I’m going to have to get you a loyalty card. Is that what the police are doing here?

łYeah, Nico caught the guy who did it.

÷What’s the damage, Dec?

I couldn’t stop shivering and sobbing to answer.

łCome on Dec, if you don’t give us something it’ll be in the ambulance with you.

÷Maybe inside would be better? We’re going to have the press over here if we’re not careful.

łI didn’t want to try moving him.

÷I think if he can sit up he’s OK to move. We can all help. Let’s try to get him to the treatment room.

Jay helped me up and I leaned on him and Nico as we made our way back across the car park. I was starting to stiffen up and was beginning to feel the blows to my side, back and legs, as well as my arm and shoulder. I had stopped crying, but was still shivering and everything felt unreal and distant.

We reached the treatment room. Lee asked me to sit on a treatment table, and shone a light in my eyes.

÷Any bangs to the head?

I shook my head.

÷What’s this blood round your mouth then?

‘Hit my chin on the ground.’

÷OK, that’s going to need cleaning up, it’s got half the car park in it. No kicks or blows to your head, though, and you didn’t bang it when you fell?

‘No.’

÷You’re holding that arm a bit awkwardly. Is that where you fell?

I shook my head.

÷What happened, then?

‘He twisted it behind me. Tore my shoulder, felt it go.’

÷What, here?

Lee touched the top of my shoulder, which made the pain intensify and zing along my arm. I flinched and cried out.

÷Hmm. What about the rest of your arm? Any problems with the op sites?

‘Just all fucking hurts.’

÷OK, lets see, try some of these movements. Might be a bit soon, it might need to settle down, but it’ll give us an idea.

I tried to do the movements, but it was just too painful. I couldn’t, daren’t, lift my arm very much at all. Lee bound it up in a makeshift sling and I tried not to wince when he touched it.

÷OK, what else have you got?

‘Kicked all over.’

÷OK, let’s see then, I’m just going to lift your shirt up.

He prodded various places on my back and side, and then I had to stand up and drop my trousers for him to look at my legs. I had to hold on to Jay, as I was wobbling a lot, but whether from shock or damage I wasn’t sure.

÷Okay, pretty bad bruising, and one looks a bit near your kidney. I know you don’t want to go to hospital, Dec, but you really need to get this checked out, I don’t want you with undetected internal injuries. You might have broken a rib, and you need an X-ray on that arm. I think your legs are badly bruised, but nothing more.

I was silent, just wanting it all to go away so I could be left alone.

>Declan I know you, when you are quiet it mean you will be stubborn. You must go. Is serious. I am serious.

I tried to consider it sensibly. It was the fussing that was doing my head in. What would cause least fuss?

‘I’m not staying in.’

I could feel their relief.

łNo, mate, no more hospital pyjamas for you. Just go and get checked out. I can take you, we can cancel the ambulance, if it’s not here already.

>I go see.

Nico jogged out. Lee looked at Jay.

÷So what’s the story? Who did this?

łDo you remember Luke Woods?

÷Er, conditioning coach a few years back?

łYeah. It was him. Fuck knows what the full story is. Nico thinks he’s related to Ben Hearne, uncle or something. It was both of them a couple of weeks ago, he came back to finish the job.

÷Shit. Can’t quite get my head round it all. This might sound a bit crazy, but do you remember those pictures we took of your hand, Dec?

I nodded.

÷Maybe the police might like to see them, match them up with his boots?

łWhat’s this?

Lee told Jay about taking shots of the boot print on my hand.

łLee, you’re a genius, I think they’d be very interested. Dec, we’ll have words later about why this hasn’t been mentioned before.

My phone pinged in my pocket. Somehow it had survived me landing on it, and looking at it gave me a way to avoid answering Jay.

Text:

Amy: =r u still around? Fancy a drink?

I didn’t have the energy to reply and explain it all. Put the phone back in my pocket and kept my head down so I didn’t have to look at anyone.

łYou’re looking a better colour, Dec. You were really pale before. You’ve stopped shaking too. Jesus, what a day you’ve had. Two panic attacks and a kicking. And the night is young.

It seemed I wasn’t going to have to explain myself immediately, so I gave Jay a weak smile. Everything still seemed to be going on around me without involving me much, which was fine by me, until Nico came back.

>Ambulance is cancelled, but the police they want to talk to us before we go. I say Declan he is not well, but they come now.

‘No …’

I put my head in my hands, couldn’t cope with more questions, more people, more talking.

łSorry, Dec, I don’t think we’ve got much choice. When this happened last time, I needed to get back for Matty, but they wouldn’t let me until I’d talked to them. They only waited to talk to you because you were out of it.

>Declan, we are here with you. Lee will stay. He will say if is too much.

÷Sure thing, mate. I’ll be here keeping an eye.

There was a knock on the door. DI Johnson walked in and sat down. He checked over details of the 999 call, then talked to Jay and Nico. I couldn’t focus on the conversation, and I was aware of Lee glancing at me from time to time as I sat on the treatment table, head bowed, staring at the floor. Jay reminded Lee about the pictures of my hand that were on his phone. DI Johnson was very interested in them, and asked Lee to send them to him.

ϙDeclan, can I ask you some questions? It won’t take long.

I raised my head with an effort. Nodded.

ϙI understand from your friends here that you have received further injuries. Can you confirm that the person you named in our earlier telephone conversation is the person who also assaulted you tonight?

‘Yeah. Luke Woods.’

ϙWas anyone else involved in the assault?

My head was full of Luke kicking me, over and over. It was threatening to overwhelm me, and talking about it made it worse. I took a shuddering breath.

‘No.’

ϙCan you tell me how you got from the upstairs bar to the car park?

‘He hurt me. Twisted my arm.’

ϙDid you try to resist?

‘No. Yeah. Once. It tore my shoulder.’

÷Declan has a broken arm and collarbone. I think his arm was twisted up behind his back. It would have been very painful.

ϙThank you, sir. Declan, were you forced into the car park against your will?

I thought about it. I couldn’t see how I could have avoided it, but I felt at fault. I should have been stronger, fought more. I felt tears fill my eyes and run down my face.

÷I think it’s fair to say that Dec didn’t go there willingly to be beaten up. Actually, I think that’s enough questions for now. He’s not feeling a hundred per cent, he’s had a big shock and he really needs to go to the hospital to get checked out.

ϙAlright. Declan, I’ll be in touch. Thank you for your time.

He stood up, closed his notebook and left the room.

>We take Declan now?

łYeah, I’ll just have to get my keys, Lis has got them – fuck it! Cal! How am I going to explain all this to him?

>I take Declan, you take care of Cal. He don’t need to know everything. Take him to ours, Lis feeds him, I let you know what happen.

łI need to call Beth, check if she’s OK with me being late. If Matty needs lifting, she … can’t do it. I’ll see what kind of a day he’s had.

Jay left the room to make the call. I could hear his voice from down the corridor. There was no way Jay could leave Beth to look after Matt on her own, and I wanted to tell him to go home, but he was walking away from me and I couldn’t find the strength to raise my voice.

>Come, Declan, my car is near. You can walk?

Nico was standing by the door, beckoning to me, and I didn’t have the focus or the energy to argue about it, so I slipped down from the treatment table and stood, swaying slightly. Tried a couple of steps.

‘Yeah. Might be a bit slow.’

>Ha, is OK. Lee and me, we catch you.

We made our way slowly out to the car park. A police car was still there, lights flashing, drawing a crowd. Nico’s car was near the door. He opened the passenger door for me and I got in, painfully and slowly. I couldn’t move my arm enough to reach the seatbelt, so Lee and Nico had to put it on for me. Lee put his hand on my shoulder.

÷Maybe you should come in tomorrow, get checked over? Tell me what they say?

‘OK.’

÷Good luck.

He shut the door, Nico started the engine and drove away. I rested my head against the window. I really couldn’t believe this was all happening again.

>Declan, you are OK?

‘No, I’m not fucking OK.’

>I know this, I mean, you don’t want me to stop?

‘No, just get there, get this over with.’

>OK. You look pale, don’t be sick.

‘I won’t be sick.’

Cal

‘Nico just texted, he’s down in the doctor’s room with Dec and your daddy. Dec has been hurt, and they’re getting him checked and talking to the police.’

‘Did the bad man hurt Dec?’

‘Yes, I think so, but I don’t think it’s as bad as last time.’

‘Will he have more sewing?’

‘Er … sewing?’

‘Yes, to keep his skin together.’

‘Oh … stitches. I don’t know, Cal. Nico didn’t say.’

Lis’s phone started singing, and she picked it up quickly and held it to her ear.

‘Nico, what’s going on? … OK … OK … OK … So not too bad then? … It’s just there are small ears listening, and I need to tell him something … OK … I’ll say that then. What’s Jay going to do? … OK … Oh … OK, yeah, that’s fine … No, we can go home, I’ll wait to hear from you or Jay. Shall I call Beth? … OK … OK … OK … Yeah, see you later. Be careful, Nico, no more bloody car park heroics, yeah? I was worried to death … Yeah, I love you too.’

Lis put the phone back on the table and looked at me.

‘Dec is going to the hospital, but he’s not badly hurt like last time. Nico is taking him, he’s not poorly enough to go in an ambulance. Your dad’s talking to your mum to sort out Matt, and you’re coming home with me.’

So that answered some of my questions, but there was something else I was getting more worried about.

‘Did the police catch the bad man?’

If the bad man was still around, maybe he would carry on trying to kick people, and if he knew I knew Dec, perhaps he would try to kick me. I didn’t want to have my bones broken, even if it meant I had metal in my arms and could be a Transformer.

‘Yeah, sweetie. Nico caught him in the car park and kept him there until the police got there. They’ve taken him away. You don’t need to worry, yeah?’

I felt very happy about that. I had been worried, without realising it. And now I could think about the other things that had happened.

‘I want to go to the hospital with Nico and Dec, I want to see him have sewing.’

I hadn’t really had a chance to look closely at it before, and the thought of sewing a person’s skin was fascinating. I hoped I would be able to see Dec soon, so I could see whether he looked like a Frankystein again.

‘Nico’s already gone, and your daddy wants you to come back with me.’

‘But I saw Dec before.’

I didn’t want them to think I was too little to see blood and sewing. I was six.

‘I know, sweetie, but this time, your daddy wants you to come back with me, yeah?’

I couldn’t argue with Lis like I did with Mum, because I didn’t know what she would say, so I had to do as I was told.

‘Am I sleeping in your house?’

‘I’m not sure yet, Cal, I’m waiting to hear from your dad, but if we go home, we can at least have some tea and see what happens.’

‘What is for tea?’

‘Ooh, what do you fancy? I do a mean fish finger. Or a bustin’ chicken nugget.’

I remembered Lis’s chicken nuggets from before, and she burnt them, even though it wasn’t her fault, it was Nico’s fault for talking to Mum and Dad in the kitchen. But best steer clear of the chicken nuggets.

‘I like fish fingers.’

‘Sorted then. Come on, grab your backpack, we’ll head off.’

Matt

Beth had expected Jay to set off for home shortly after the match finished, but he’d texted and said he was catching up with a few people, so she was waiting for a text to say he was on his way. She, Mum and I were in my room, drinking tea, when her phone rang.

‘Hello, are you on your – oh. Oh no. Oh James … but where is he now? … Who’s with him? … oh James … how bad is it? … but he wasn’t unconscious … oh James …’

If she said ‘oh James’ once more without telling Mum and me what in the name of fuckness was going on, we were going to manhandle the phone off her and ask ourselves. She looked at me, then at Mum.

‘I don’t know. I’ll ask. Matty, something terrible’s happened.’

Yeah kind of got that, just tell us. Who’s unconscious?

‘Dec’s been beaten up.’

Again? Holy shit, that boy just attracted disaster.

‘Fuck, Beth, is heh ohkay?’

‘It’s not as bad as last time, but Nico’s taken him to hospital. He might have damaged the broken arm.’

‘Fuck.’

‘James wants to know – he’s going to the hospital in a bit to check on him, he thinks he might have to stay while they check him out, and he wants to know if he needs to come home to do your bed bits.’

I thought about it. I felt ridiculously panicked at the thought of Jay not being there, despite all my whining about independence and not being treated like a child.

‘We could try the care agency, but it’s a bit short notice.’

Hearing the plea in Beth’s voice, the ‘please, not loads of hassle on top of this news’, I pushed past my panic and did a quick self-assessment.

‘Noh, Ihm guhd. Ih’ll duh ih mysehf.’

‘Really, sweetheart?’

‘Yeh. Hahv a pee, tahk ohf clohths, geh in behd. Ehsy.’

Beth gave me a look of deep gratitude.

‘Thank you. James, Matty thinks he can do it himself … yes, we’ve had a great day, he’s been up and about, helped cook tea, we’ll have him out pruning the apple tree tomorrow … yeah … oh James, give him my love … yeah, I might later … do they have any idea who … no! … not well, but I did meet him a few times … oh it’s so awful that Dec knows them … he’s going to be very shocked, be gentle with him … I just know what you’re like sometimes … OK, I’ll ring Lis and talk to Cal, see you tomorrow sometime. Love you.’

She disconnected and looked at us, eyes wide with shock.

‘I can’t believe that’s happened again. It was the same man who did it before, he used to work for Raiders, a conditioning trainer. He’s been arrested, apparently Nico rugby tackled him in the car park and sat on him. Thank goodness they were there. Cal’s gone to Nico and Lis’s, I think James is going to stay there, and they’ll come back early tomorrow. Matty, are you sure you can manage by yourself?’

‘Yeh, Beth. Today, goh tuh behd by mysehf, tomohrow pruhn the ahpl treh, next day hahf marathohn.’

Beth gave me a weak smile. Maybe I was being over-optimistic with my half-marathon timetable, and she didn’t want to burst my bubble.

‘It’s a worry for you dear, are you alright?’

‘Yes, thanks Carol. I am worried, but James said he thinks Dec will be OK. Oh, but he’s had such a day already, with his panic attack thing this morning, and going home, then his first rugby game for ages, and now this. I hope it doesn’t set him back. I’ll just give Lis a ring, check she’s alright with Cal, then I’ll see if I can get hold of Dec.’

Beth took her phone and walked off into the house. Mum picked up the mugs and stood up, looking at me.

‘That poor young man. He’s had a lot to contend with in the last few months.’

‘I thoht yuh said tha boy was a trohblmahker.’

‘I may have misjudged him. He’s a nice young man, and I’ve seen you two become friends. He can’t be all bad.’

‘Noh, not ahl bad.’

I listened to Beth talking to Lis and then Dec, unable to make out the words, but hearing the panic recede from her voice a little. As Beth calmed down, I slowly filled up with anger that some bastard had had a go at my already injured mate. I felt the need to do something, not that I had the physical capacity for grand gestures, but that didn’t stop the need. I grabbed my phone from the bedside table and sent a text. That would show them.

I hoped it struck the right note, told him I was thinking of him without being overly sympathetic. I didn’t get a reply.

Cal

I went with Lis in her car, which was awesome because it was red and only had two seats, and its roof was made of material instead of metal. Lis said the the roof folded down so the wind blew your hair about, but she didn’t fold the roof down because it was winter and it would be too cold, and I didn’t sit in my car seat, because Lis didn’t have one.

I had fish fingers, beans and chips for tea. I didn’t tell Lis I’d already had chips, because Mum didn’t let me have chips twice in one day. Then we played on Nico’s X-box, and then Lis talked to Dad on the phone, and then she talked to Mum on the phone, and I talked to Mum on the phone, and then we watched a bit of a DVD, and then I went to bed. I didn’t have any pyjamas, so Lis said it was OK to sleep in my pants and Arsenal shirt. I wanted to stay awake until Dad got back so I could ask about Dec and his sewing, but I fell asleep and he still wasn’t back.

Dec

I was just about holding it together. A loud scream seemed to be building somewhere inside me, threatening to overpower me. It was affecting my concentration and making me jumpy and irritable. I couldn’t offer Nico any conversation, although he tried. We got to the hospital, and Nico parked his car illegally in front of A&E, helped me out and we went in together. The hospital was expecting me, but said there was likely to be a wait. It was Saturday evening, they were busy.

I sat next to Nico on the uncomfortable plastic chairs, staring at the wall, feeling my shoulder and arm swell up and become more painful. It was joined by throbs and twinges from all the other places Luke had kicked me. I didn’t say anything for some time, and Nico sat with me, not saying much either.

>You must call Rose. She need to know.

‘She’s not expecting me till later, I’ll call when I know how bad it is. I don’t want her worrying, or rushing over here.’

>She might find out, there was TV cameras.

‘Fucking hell.’

>You want I phone her?

‘No, I’ll do it. It sounds more serious if someone else calls.’

I got my phone out, dialled the number, took a deep breath, put on a brave face.

:Hello, love, alright?

‘Hi Rose, no, not really. I’m at A&E.’

:What? Oh love, what’s happened?

‘Well, bit of a re-run of last time. Someone tried to kick my head in. But I’m OK. Nico’s with me, we’re just waiting to be seen.’

:Oh love, I’ll be right there.

‘No, Rose, please don’t come down. I’m not going to be staying in, it’s all OK.’

:But you said you got kicked – are you hurt?

‘Well, yeah, I’ve hurt my arm again, and there’s a few more bruises for my collection. But I’m OK. Please don’t come down, Rose. I’ll be back there soon, I promise.’

:Alright, love, if that’s what you want. Can I talk to Nico?

I handed the phone over. That short conversation had been pretty exhausting.

>Hi Rose … yes … yes, he is hurt, he is in a bit shock … I don’t think you need to if he don’t want it … yes, I call you later … be careful of yourself. Bye.

Nico gave the phone back. It rang almost immediately. Beth.

_Dec, oh, Dec, sweetheart. Are you OK?

‘No.’

_I can’t believe it’s happened again. Where are you?

‘In A&E.’

_Is someone with you?

‘Nico.’

_Oh Dec, you poor love. You must have been terrified. James says they got him though.

‘Apparently.’

I was finding it hard to string more than one word together and keep my eyes open at the same time. Out of energy, I handed Nico the phone.

>Hey, Beth, is Nico. Declan he is not with us really. I think he is OK, but he hurts pretty bad and he have a big shock. We wait for doctor … yes … no, he see Lee, the Raiders doctor, he want him to come here for X-ray and for looking at where they kick him. He think about internal injury … no … yes … oh, OK, I know he worry. Cal is OK with Lis. You are OK? … I know, is worry to be so far, but we look after him … OK, we call you later.

He gave me the phone back.

>Is there other people you want me to talk to?

‘No.’

>Maybe Don? He will know what happen.

I sighed. Couldn’t really hack all the fuss, and having to think was doing my head in.

‘OK. Don. Thanks.’

I handed him my phone.

>Is OK, I use mine.

As I was putting my phone back in my pocket, it pinged with a text.

Matt: =Fucking attention seeker.

It almost brought half a smile to my face although I didn’t send a reply. Another text, almost immediately afterwards.

Amy: =OMG just heard what happened. RU OK? 😦 xx

Me: =Not OK. In A&E. Spk soon.

Nico was still talking to Don, telling him the same things he had told Rose and Beth. He finished his conversation and put his phone away.

‘Nico, you don’t have to stay.’

>Ha, is true I don’t have to. I stay, though, because you are my friend and you are hurt and seem not right to me. I want you don’t be alone, and I want to see you are OK. Jaime he come soon. He leave Cal with Lis. He want also to see you are OK.

‘He can’t, he needs to get back home.’

>He sort with Beth, don’t worry about him.

I didn’t have the strength to argue any more. I felt drained, dull, lifeless. My arm and shoulder were throbbing and I could feel every bruise forming under my skin. I settled into a kind of lethargy, in a world of pain, where I couldn’t move or talk or think about anything beyond staring at the wall. Nico tried to talk to me, but eventually gave up when he got no answer. Jay arrived after a while, taking a seat next to me. Nico went to move his car, and then check how long it would be before I was seen.

łDec, the police have arrested Luke Woods. Him and Ben have been charged with assaulting you before, and he’s also been charged with assaulting you tonight.

‘What about the other one?’

łWhat other one?

‘There was someone else –’

Details came back to me.

‘– older, scraggy beard, Raiders shirt. He was in the van.’

łJesus. Why didn’t you say before? You told the police it was just Luke.

‘Forgot.’

łJesus, Dec. I suppose you’re not really thinking straight. Well, as soon as you’re up to it, you should contact them. How are you doing?

‘Everything fucking hurts. You should go home.’

łIt’s a bit late, now. Lis is putting Cal to bed. We’re going to set off first thing tomorrow. I needed to come and see you’re OK. Stop worrying. Beth says Matty had a really good day today, and he’s going to put himself to bed, so that’s great, isn’t it?

‘You should be there with him, instead of fucking about here with me.’

Jay sighed.

łI really thought you’d got it. Maybe this has messed your head up more than I realised. You’re my family. You need me here, I need to be here, to make sure you’re OK. I’ve checked with Beth, Matty doesn’t need me just at the moment, he’s fine. So I’m staying here, and you’re going to accept that I need to be here and you need me to be here. Jesus, Dec, how many more times do we have to have this conversation?

I stayed silent, continuing to feel guilty about Beth and Carol having to manage Matt on their own. Nico came back from the reception desk and sat down. His charm had apparently not managed to shift me up the waiting list, and they said it was going to be another hour at least. I continued to sit on the uncomfortable plastic chair, staring at the wall, feeling everything carry on stiffening up, feeling guilty, feeling separated from reality. Jay and Nico talked over my head. Jay patted my back and ruffled my hair every so often. Although it was comforting, I couldn’t respond.

łBloody good tackle, Nico. Hope you didn’t hurt yourself landing on the car park.

>Ha! I am not hurt, but he is hurt. He bang his head, and I think he break some fingers.

łGood. Fucking bastard, it’s the least he deserves.

>You are right. I feel horrible he know Declan by me.

łJesus, Nico, it’s not your fault. Sounds like he had a major grudge going before you ever took Dec to his gym.

>Maybe you are right. I think he hurt Declan before. I see bruises on his shoulder after we are at his gym. Declan tell me it happen when he is drunk, but now I wish I say more.

łWell, trying to get Dec to admit to anything has always been a bloody hard job, eh, Dec?

‘Huh?’

łNothing, go back to sleep.

‘Not asleep.’

łMight as well be. Nico, did you see anyone else? Dec says there was another man there, in the van.

>No, I don’t see. I am busy chasing … wait, maybe there is someone when we first see Declan … I don’t remember well.

‘How did you know?’

łKnow what?

‘Where he took me.’

Jay blew his cheeks out.

łBit of luck, really. Nico was with Lis and Cal when I went back. I told him about you spotting Luke, and remembering it was him before. We asked around, and someone had seen Luke going through the door to where you’d been sitting. We ran out there, but you were nowhere to be seen. Took a bit of a gamble that he would try to get you outside. Lis called the police, and Nico called while we tried to find you. We got out there as fast as we could; when we got to the top of the steps, we saw him over on the other side of the car park giving you another going over. I shouted, he ran. Nico chased him, I got to you as quickly as I could. Fuck knows how the cops got there as fast as they did.

>I think there is a car there always after a game, down the hill. I am glad, I don’t think I can sit on him much longer.

‘Thanks.’

łNo problem, mate. I would say ‘anytime’, but please, for fuck’s sake, don’t go getting yourself beaten up again.

‘Sorry.’

Jay rolled his eyes.

‘Couldn’t help it.’

łI know that, Dec.

‘Couldn’t stop him.’

łI know.

‘Sorry.’

łIs that what’s bothering you?

‘Wasn’t strong enough.’

łJesus, Dec, he nearly pulled your fucking arm off. And you weren’t feeling too hot to start with. He’s a complete fucking nutcase.

‘Just froze.’

łI’m not surprised. Jesus, you’ve been through enough, don’t start giving yourself grief about what he did to you. He’s the worthless piece of shit here.

I hung my head. Despite Jay’s words, I still felt guilty and ashamed about letting Luke dominate me.

>Declan, what he do to you is bad. Is his bad, not your bad. We hate him, not you.

łNicely put.

>Thank you.

I heard what they said, and most of me knew it was true, but somewhere inside I was cowering in a corner with my hands over my head, completely powerless to stop it all happening.

‘Couldn’t stop him.’

Tears filled my eyes and I started to cry again.

łAh, Dec, come here.

Jay put his arm round me and pulled me towards him.

łDon’t let him get to you like this. He’s won, then, hasn’t he, eh? He didn’t win – here you are, large as life and twice as ugly. Possibly three times as ugly.

‘He nearly did. If you hadn’t been there –’

łYeah, could have been nasty. But we were there, we had your back. We always will, one way or another. You don’t have to be invincible, do everything on your own. I wish you’d bloody remember that once in a while, it would save me repeating it every five minutes.

I was silent, considering. Nico’s phone rang.

>Hello Rose … no we wait still … he is no worse … ha, yes, you would, I know this, but no, don’t come, they see him soon, I am sure. Jaime is here now. I call you as soon as I know.

As if Rose’s call had caused it, my name was called.

31. What Christmas means to me

In which it is Christmas Day, and there is excitement and bonding.

Cal

… the next thing I knew I was in bed, and it was still dark, but I felt backwards for my stocking and … HE’D BEEN! My stocking was full of presents. I wanted to start opening them straight away, but I was supposed to take the stocking in to Mum and Dad so they could watch, and I didn’t know what the time was. While I wondered what to do, I heard noises coming from below me. More of Dec’s noises.

‘No … no, no … mm … nnn … unh …’

He was louder than last night, and I wanted to see if he would do another swear, and then he would be awake and could help me with my stocking.

I climbed down the ladder and stood by Dec, wondering how to wake him up. He was moving around in the bed, twisting the duvet round him. I reached out and touched his cheek, and his eyes snapped open, although he wasn’t looking at me. He tried to sit up, and banged his head on the underneath of my bed.

Dec

… felt a slash to my cheek, heard glass shattering, felt blows raining down on my body, lay there helpless as I watched a brown boot heading towards my face …

Woke up in darkness, sweating, confused, disoriented. Could hear breathing close by. Tried to sit up, banged my head.

‘Fuck.’

Remembered doing the same yesterday. Cal. I was in Cal’s room.

Cal

It worked! He’d said a swear, and he was awake. He rubbed his head as he lay down again, and looked at me.

‘Cal?’

‘You made noises again. I poked your face and you shouted. You did another swear.’

Dec looked at me, then shook his head, blinked, and nodded.

‘Sorry, mate, must have been dreaming again.’

‘Can I open my stocking?’

‘What? Oh. What time is it? Where’s your dinosaur clock?’

My dinosaur clock just said numbers, and I didn’t always know if they meant it was time to get up. I picked it up and showed Dec.

‘No, Cal, it’s far too early. It’s not even morning yet. Go back to bed.’

‘Can I come in with you?’

‘Try to go back to sleep in your bed, yeah?’

I’d been pretty sure he would say that, after Dad told him I wasn’t allowed in with him and Mum, but it was always worth a try. However, after being back in my bed for ages and ages, I still wasn’t asleep, and I could hear Dec still moving around, so I knew he wasn’t asleep either. I climbed back down the ladder and had another go.

Dec

He lasted about five minutes in his own bed, then hopped back down the ladder.

\i can’t get back to sleep. Can I come in with you?

I had no resistance – it was too late, I was too tired, I’d missed him too much.

‘Come on then.’

I shuffled over to the wall, while Cal took up the rest of the available space. He was asleep in seconds, while I carried on thinking about my dreams, worrying about why I kept revisiting the beating.

Cal

I fell asleep for a while, and then woke up again and thought it must be time by now. Dec was still asleep, or had his eyes shut. I tried to look in his eyes by pulling his eyelids up. Then Dec opened his eyes on his own.

‘Stop that, Cal, I’m awake now.’

‘Is it time yet?’

I showed Dec the clock again, but he shook his head.

‘Not yet. If you go back to sleep, it will go quicker.’

This was torture. My stocking was right there, waiting to be opened, and every second felt like years. It was all I could think about, and going back to sleep would be impossible.

‘But I can’t, I want to open my stocking. Santa’s been. Has he been downstairs?’

‘Yeah, mate, he’ll have been everywhere.’

‘Can I go and see?’

‘No, stay up here, wait till Mummy and Daddy and Granny are ready to go down.’

‘But Granny takes ages, she always says ‘just let me wash my hands’ and then she’s a long time.’

‘I know it’s annoying having to wait, but that’s the rule. Shall I tell you a story while we’re waiting?’

A story with Dec might make the waiting more bearable, so I nodded and snuggled up against him.

‘How about the end of the Christmas Mouse? You fell asleep before we finished it last night.’

That sounded good. I had wanted to hear about the mouse.

‘Kay.’

Dec wasn’t reading the story, he was remembering it from his head, and he got some bits wrong, like forgetting their names, and what order things happened in, but I helped him, and we got to the end, where the cat went to live with Santa.

When it was ‘The End’, Dec looked at the clock.

‘OK, it’s time now. You can take your stocking in to Mummy and Daddy.’

I jumped out of bed really quickly, took the stocking off the end of the bed and ran to Mum and Dad’s room. The door was locked, and I rattled the handle lots of times before I heard it unlock, and Dad opened the door. He had his pants on, and his hair was sticking up.

‘Hey Cal. Is it that time already? Merry Christmas.’

He got back into bed, and I jumped on top of the duvet. Mum was just waking up, and she sat up so I could cuddle her and give her a kiss.

‘Happy Christmas sweetheart. Ooh, what have you got here? Santa’s been busy, hasn’t he?’

‘Is Dec awake, Cal?’

‘Yes.’

‘Go and get him. I’m sure he’d like to watch you open your stocking.’

‘James …’

Mum laughed and cuffed Dad on the arm, but didn’t say not to fetch Dec. Frustrated that it was taking so long to get to opening the stocking, I raced back to my room and tugged on Dec’s arm.

‘Daddy says come and watch.’

‘What?’

‘Come on, I want to open my stocking. Daddy says.’

I pulled Dec’s hand until he came with me. He stopped to put clothes on, but I couldn’t wait for him, and I went back to Mum and Dad.

I jumped on the bed and emptied the parcels onto the bed, then started tearing paper off, while Dec came in and sat on the end of the bed and yawned. There was lots of cool stuff: toys, pens, badges, games, a torch, Pokémon cards, chocolate coins, and dinosaurs. But now I’d opened everything, I started thinking about the big presents that might be downstairs under the tree in the living room and in Uncle Matty’s room.

Dec

As I walked into Jay and Beth’s room, I mouthed ‘you bastard’ over the top of Cal’s head, but Jay just laughed as Cal jumped on the bed, up-ended the stocking and started ripping paper off parcels. He made short work of it all, and soon had a pile of small, exciting looking stuff. Then he immediately wanted more.

Cal

‘When can we go downstairs?’

Not yet, Cal, it’s far too early for Granny and Uncle Matty. Play with your stocking toys for a bit.’

‘But when?’

‘When we hear Granny get up. She won’t be late, but it’s still too early for her.’

‘But when?’

It was like nobody else was excited about Christmas at all, and nobody seemed to want to go downstairs.

‘Just be patient sweetheart. You’ve got all these lovely things in your stocking.’

Maybe Dec will play in your room with you while you’re waiting?’

Well I suppose playing with some of these new toys would make the wait more fun. And I remembered what I’d thought yesterday, about sharing my stocking with Dec if he’d been too bad to have his own. Dec hadn’t had his own stocking, so it was only fair that I let him play with my things for a while.

Dec

Jay had an evil glint in his eye. I had been hoping to go back to bed for at least an hour or two. However, Beth was looking at me hopefully, and she looked wiped out. I caved.

‘Come on then Cal. Let’s take all this stuff back to your room. We’ll have to play quietly though.’

Cal gathered up his new treasures and ran back to his room. I looked Jay in the eyes.

‘You guys are seriously taking the piss.’

He grinned and settled down under the duvet.

łMerry Christmas, Dec. Thanks for the lie-in. Best present ever.

_Thank you, sweetheart.

Cal and I played with his toys for the next hour and a half. I loved it. We made up games, imagined stories about things and pretended our heads off. Tired as I was, I wouldn’t have swapped this Christmas morning for any other morning in my life. For a long time, I thought I’d never see Cal again. I wanted to enjoy every minute now I was back here. Finally, we heard movement from down the hall. Cal noticed before me.

Cal

‘Granny’s awake!’

I got up and went to the door, ready to run downstairs and start on the big presents, but Dec called me back.

‘Give her a minute, Cal, she’ll need to get dressed and stuff, and we’ll all need breakfast first. I know it’s hard, Christmas is exciting, but we might have to wait a bit. And we need to see if Matt’s getting up as well.’

Not more waiting. I was so fed up of waiting and waiting.

‘Ohh, but I’ve been waiting for hours.’

‘Only because you woke up so early. If you’d gone back to sleep, it would have seemed like no time at all. Come on, let’s have another go with this car – look, if you push this button, the lights come on.’

Dec

We heard another door open, then Jay came into the room, running his hands through his hair.

łOK, Dec, you’ve done your stint, thanks, mate. Go back to bed if you want.

‘No, I’m OK, I’m awake now. I’ll make a cup of tea, though, if you like.’

łThat’d be great. Seriously, thanks for this. Beth gets really tired at the moment, she needed the extras.

‘She did look wiped. Tea for all then.’

łCome on Cal, lets see if Mummy wants to play with all this cool stuff.

Jay picked Cal up in one arm and scooped the toys up in the other, and I heard them chatting as he took Cal into their room.

I went downstairs and filled the kettle, putting mugs out on the side. I found Matt’s spouted cup and put it out too. Decided to see if he was awake. Pushed open the door to his room. It was dark and I couldn’t see him, but could hear his noisy breathing.

Matt

I was awake before anyone came into my room the next day. It was Christmas Day; I could hardly believe how excited I was at the thought of actually getting up, leaving my room and sitting down to eat dinner. People did it every day of their lives, sometimes twice a day, but I’d like to bet it had never meant as much to any of those unthinking bastards who wasted their lives not appreciating the finer things like a place at a table, or holding a knife and fork properly. I resolved never to take things like leaving my bedroom for granted again.

I started to hear sounds from above, noises that made me think I wasn’t the only one awake. It was unlikely Cal would have slept through, with the amount of Santa anticipation he had been experiencing, and I knew the plan was that he would come in here first for some presents. So when the door opened and it was Dec, I was a little bit disappointed. I’d been looking forward to the squealing, the shining eyes, the thrill of watching a small child do Christmas morning.

I’d never spent Christmas with Jay, Beth and Cal, having always found ways to avoid it before, despite Mum asking me to go down there with her every year. Beans on toast in front of the Doctor Who Christmas Special had been my middle finger up to ‘tradition’ and ‘commercialism’, but this year I was going to throw myself into the family Christmas vibe if it was the last thing I did. However, it looked like it wasn’t going to start yet, as Dec poked his head round the door.

‘You awake?’

‘Course, ih’s Chrihsmus. ‘Cited.’

‘Want some tea?’

‘Prehfer a tequila slahmer and a hot waihtress.’

If you didn’t ask, you didn’t get.

‘I’m just doing tea for now. No drinks with worms in before breakfast. And I’m as hot as you’re getting, hope you can handle it.’

He made me laugh, this kid. I pulled a face at him.

‘Hahv tuh do. Disappointihg lack of clehvage.’

‘Tough shit. Back in a minute, then.’

Cal

While I was playing, I heard Dec and Uncle Matty talking on the speaker, and just managed to hear a swear before Dad switched it off.

‘Those two are getting on well.’

‘I know. We’re going to have to watch out if Matty perks up a bit. Could cause all sorts of mischief.’

‘It would be lovely if Matty did perk up, though. Maybe he’s needed someone to cause mischief with.’

‘God, Beth, don’t wish that on us.’

Dec

I made tea for everyone, and a juice for Cal, realised I didn’t know everyone’s milk and sugar requirements, so had to make a up a tray with a jug of milk, a bowl of sugar and some teaspoons. I tested the weight, judged I could carry it up the stairs even with my shoddy arms. I took the tray up to Jay and Beth, who were still in bed watching Cal re-enact some of our earlier games.

łGet you, Mr Domesticated. You’ll make someone a lovely wife one day. One sugar, stirred please.

_Thanks Dec, this is a treat.

łWhat do you mean? I do you tea in bed.

_Once in a blue moon. Cal, Dec’s done you some juice too. Careful now, don’t spill it.

‘I’ve made one for your mum, Jay, not sure where she is?’

łShe was in the bathroom, but I think she’s back in her room now. Give her a knock. About time we were thinking of getting moving, I suppose. Or, maybe we’ll just stay here for a few more hours and let Dec get on with cooking the dinner.

‘Really? I can only do woossy beans. And I need help to use the can opener.’

łIt’s almost worth having woossy beans for Christmas dinner in exchange for a couple of extra hours in bed. Is that one for Matty? You saw him already?

‘Yeah, he asked for tequila.’

łWe heard. Dec, you do know there’s a monitor by his bed, we can hear everything until it’s turned off …

‘Sh … eep shoes. I completely forgot. Sorry.’

I glanced quickly at Cal, who was immersed in driving cars across the duvet.

łYeah, well, luckily certain ears were more interested in playing with their new space ships than listening to your witty repartee. Sounds like he’s OK then?

‘Seemed OK. I wasn’t in there for long. Better go and distribute.’

I took the tray along the hall and tapped on Jay’s mum’s door.

‘Mrs Scott, would you like a cup of tea?’

She opened the door, saw the tray, looked surprised.

#How lovely, oh and you’ve brought milk and sugar.

‘I didn’t know how you take it.’

#Just milk, thank you. Is this one for Matthew?

‘Yeah, I’m just going to take it in.’

#He might need help to drink it.

‘That’s OK, I can manage.’

Cal

I played on Mum and Dad’s bed for a while longer, and then the thrill of my stocking toys began to be overtaken by wanting to open more presents, and I asked again if we could go downstairs.

‘OK, Cal, you’ve been very patient. And Granny and Uncle Matty seem to be awake, so let’s go down. Put your slippers on first, though.’

Oh, there was always something I had to do first. I ran into my room and pushed my slippers on my feet. As I came out of my room, Granny was coming out of hers, and she gave me a cuddle and wished me Happy Christmas, and I cuddled her back but wriggled out of it as soon as I could because I wanted to be downstairs with the presents.

Matt

True to his word, the kid was soon back. I’d taken the opportunity to close my eyes, just for a minute … and I was suddenly aware he was peering at my face, a tray in his hands. Bugger it, I’d gone back to sleep.

‘Yeh, I’m stihl alihv.’

‘Glad to hear it, keep up the good work. Do you want the light on?’

He was actually asking if I wanted stuff. Jay just barged in and turned everything on, whether I was asleep or not.

‘Lamp plehs, and Chrihsmus lights. Monitor off?’

Dec put the tray on the table by my bed and then flicked all the switches; the lights from the Christmas tree making the pile of presents sparkle. I hadn’t appreciated last night what a huge pile there was.

‘Fuck meh, tha’s a loh of presents.’

‘You should see the living room. Floor to ceiling, practically. Want a cuppa?’

‘Yeh. Lihk the trahy. Dohn fancy the waihtress muhch thogh.’

‘She returns the compliment. Does sir take milk and sugar?’

‘Mihk, two suhgrs. Shoht of vodka.’

Another instance of if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Although I seemed to be doing a lot of asking and not a lot of getting.

‘You might have to imagine the vodka. And in tea? Strange tastes. Do you need help with the cup, or can you manage?’

Again with the asking. I could get used to this.

‘Gihv ih a goh. Migh need hehp. Geh rehdy tuh catch. Thahks fuh ahsking.’

I took the cup in both hands, slightly nervous as I hadn’t tried to do this on my own for a while, but that’s what the sodding spout was for, wasn’t it, in case of spillages. I held the offending item to my mouth, taking a couple of gulps.

‘Couhd do wih more imahginry vodka.’

‘Everyone’s a critic.’

‘Are they ahl up yeht?’

‘Your mum’s up, Cal’s been up since five to three, on and off, Jay and Beth were still in bed last I saw.’

‘Fihv tuh threh? Ha ha.’

Part of me would have loved to have been there when Cal first woke up and realised Santa had been, but most of me was glad I hadn’t had to be there at such a supremely ridiculous hour of the morning.

‘Yeah, thanks for the sympathy.’

Cal

I ran down the stairs, and into Uncle Matty’s room, because that’s where Mum said we were going to start, and skidded to a stop as I saw the tree and all the presents underneath it. I had never seen so many exciting looking presents in my life – and I was sure there were more in the living room.

Matt

The door burst open and Cal bounced in, stopping in awe when he saw the tree and presents underneath. There it was, that little shining face – it was almost worth being tied to this bed by the fucking bastard just so I could be there to see it. Jay and Beth were behind him, still in dressing gowns and slippers. Beth walked over and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

‘Merry Christmas, Matty. Wait, Cal, don’t start yet, we’ve got to get Uncle Matty up and ready first. Give Uncle Matty a kiss, then come and have some breakfast with me while Daddy stays in here.

Cal

So there was going to be more waiting, and I’d have to have my breakfast first.

Dec

Cal jumped onto the bed, with an enthusiasm that made me wince when I remembered him doing the same to me in hospital, and hugged Matt.

Matt

‘Mehry Chrihsmus, Cal. Sohry, wohn be lohng.’

Jay gave me an appraising look. Whatever he saw, it was all good.

You’re looking better mate, I was expecting you to be trashed after yesterday. Feel up to it this morning? Oh, Merry Christmas.’

He ruffled my hair, as if I was the same age as Cal. It made me feel like a special little brother, in a good way and in a bloody annoying way.

‘Yeh, up tuh ih.’

I’d been waiting for this all week, I would have said I was up to it even if one of my legs had dropped off.

‘I’ll leave you to it. See you later, Matt.’

Dec picked up the tray and started to leave the room.

‘Thahks foh vodka.’

Jay gave Dec a quizzical look, probably wondering if he had been daft enough to give me alcohol for breakfast, thus necessitating several calls to out of hours GPs about mixing pills and booze.

‘It was imaginary.’

Jay looked relieved at first, then he frowned as he tried to work out what Dec meant. Comical.

Jay and I made short work of getting me ready. I felt energised, I did loads for myself, and Jay wondered aloud if my enforced sleeping for most of yesterday had somehow done me good. I had no answers for him, but didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth and just enjoyed feeling better. It looked like Christmas dinner was a goer. Woohoo.

Dec

Cal jiggled through his breakfast, hardly able to keep still. Jay’s mum had come downstairs too, and the three of us ate toast in the kitchen.

\when is Uncle Matty ready?

_He won’t be long. Daddy always helps him get up in the morning, Cal, you know that. Sometimes he needs more help. You’ll just have to be patient.

\can I go in the living room?

_Not yet, sweetheart.

\but I’ve been waiting for hours.

#Calum, what did you get in your stocking? Aren’t you going to show me?

\kay Granny.

He dashed upstairs and got his new toys, spreading them over the table, talking excitedly about his favourites. Jay came in as Cal was bombarding the remains of his breakfast with laser fire from the front of a spaceship.

_All done with Matty?

łJust need to sort the meds. Have we got any more of the blue ones? I can’t remember what they’re called.

_I’ll do it.

Beth left the table and went into Matt’s room.

#How is he, dear?

łSeems OK this morning. Doing quite a lot for himself. He got a good rest yesterday, one way and another. He might make it through today with a bit of luck.

#Oh, that is good news.

She seemed relieved.

#You’re so good to him, he’s very lucky. I’m sorry I can’t do more.

łNot now, Mum. Have some more tea.

He got up and put the kettle on.

łActually, I think Dec should do this. I am declaring him official Scott household tea maker. He uses a tray and everything. Very genteel.

‘Nothing genteel about it, saved me running up and down the stairs all morning carrying drinks.’

łAnd he’s practical and efficient with it.

Beth reappeared and washed her hands.

_OK, Cal, Uncle Matty’s ready for us now. Want to open some presents?

Cal jumped down from his chair and sped off into Matt’s room. The rest of us followed at a more sedate pace. Jay’s mum kissed and hugged Matt and sat in the chair. Cal stood in front of the tree, eyes wide. Jay had brought another chair for Beth; Jay and I sat on the floor.

łOK, Cal, first you need to find a present for everyone, then you can find one with your name on it. Shall I help you?

\no Daddy, I can read people’s names.

łOK then. Where’s mine?

Cal distributed a present for everyone, including a rectangular one for me, and then set to the rest of the pile. I watched in fascination as a small human paper-ripping machine made very short work of what was probably a couple of hours worth of cutting and sellotaping. He was methodical, looking at and appraising each present after opening, but not getting anything out of its box or playing with it. We were all mesmerised, and none of us had opened our presents.

Cal

At last. I didn’t know which to choose first, there were all sizes and shapes. I chose the one closest to me, tore the paper off and it was a Lego dinosaur, one which I’d put on my list to Santa. As I opened the other presents, a lot of the things were what I’d put on my list to Santa, but not an Arsenal shirt with Theo Walcott on the back, and not Optimus Prime. I didn’t realise everyone was watching me until Uncle Matty spoke.

‘Imprehsiv wohk.’

I looked at him, and he was smiling at me, but hadn’t opened his present. Dad noticed that too.

Yeah, you need to get ripping a bit yourself, mate. What do you think, Cal, wait for a minute and see what Santa brought Matty?’

I didn’t want to stop to see what Uncle Matty had in his present, because it was going to be something for grown-ups, like soap or something to drink, but Dad looked at me like he did when it was ‘no arguing’, and I put the present I had in my hand back on the floor.

‘Ehvryohn, noh jus meh.’

OK, everyone then. After three – one, two, three, rip.’

Nobody else had opened their presents either, but now they all took the paper off. Their presents were all from Santa, even Dec’s, so maybe he hadn’t been all bad. Uncle Matty was having trouble with his paper though.

‘Cal, cahn yuh hehp meh? Tuh much tahpe.’

I got onto the bed and tore a bit of paper in the corner.

‘Here, look, Uncle Matty, if you pull it, it will tear.’

After I showed him, Uncle Matty opened it easily. There was a box with a picture of a computer on the front. It wasn’t soap or drink, and Uncle Matty liked computers. So did I sometimes, when you could play games with them.

Matt

Presents between us in the past had been hit and miss. I’d always sent something down there for Cal, but never really knew what to get Jay and Beth, and so it might be a hamper, it might be vouchers, or it might be nothing at all. And Mum always came back from her Devon Christmas with a bottle of something alcoholic for me from them. Sometimes it was something useful, like ten year old scotch, and sometimes it was a bottle of something green with Greek writing on it.

So I was completely unprepared to open, with Cal’s help, an iPad. I could have cried, for many reasons, not least of which was their thoughtfulness and generosity, but Cal was sitting on the bed looking at the box excitedly, and I held myself together and looked at them instead, trying to convey my gratitude. They had bought me a cheap mobile phone when we realised mine had gone, just so they could contact me if they were out, but this, this was above and beyond.

Cal

‘What is it?’

‘Whoa, shih, eye pad. Thahnks Sahnta. Oops, sohry foh swehr, Beth.’

‘What’s a eye pad?’

It sounded like something a pirate might wear, but that wasn’t what the picture on the box said.

‘Plahy games, watch fihms, intehnet, music.’

That sounded like fun. I could see me spending lots of time with Uncle Matty showing him how to play games.

‘Can I use it with you?’

‘Yeh Cal, prohbly nehd yuhr hehp.’

Dec

łWhat did Santa bring everyone else? I got a DVD, cheers Santa.

_Necklace, lovely, thanks Santa. Carol?

#My favourite perfume, how did Santa know?

Matt

I knew they’d bought Dec an iPhone, as I’d helped them load the address book and add some apps I thought he might like; I sneaked a look at him as he opened it, and he looked as overwhelmed as me.

Dec

They looked at me. I was pretty speechless. Santa had brought me the latest smartphone. Previous Christmases had been low key in the present department, although Cal always had loads – for me, it had always been about who I was with, not what I’d got. This was a big present, one I felt unworthy of. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

Cal

So everyone else had grown-up presents, but we hadn’t found out what Dec had got. Everyone looked at him. He looked like he was about to cry. Again. I wondered what he’d got. Maybe he’d been so bad that he’d just got a lump of coal, like Dad said would happen to me if I was really bad.

Dec

łUh oh, look out, blub club’s about to reconvene.

\what did Santa bring you, Dec?

‘A new phone, mate. Just what I wanted.’

_I think you’ll find Santa’s programmed it with the names and numbers of your friends and family. No more lists of numbers for you to lose.

‘I don’t know what to say –’

I looked at Jay and Beth.

‘– except thank you. Er, thank you Santa.’

łOK, Cal, finish off those last couple and we’ll get out of Uncle Matty’s hair for a bit.

}Noh, stahy.

łSeriously, Matty, if you want to do dinner, you’re going to need to rest up. We’ll go in the living room.

}Lehv the dohr open? Soh I can hehr?

łOK mate. Get some rest, though, yeah? Come on, Cal, leave those now, you can come back later and have a play. There’s more in the living room.

Matt

Eventually Cal finished his parcel Armageddon, and was eager to move into the living room for round two. I wanted them to stay, to prolong being part of the festivities, but there was no way Cal was going to stay in here when there were more presents in the other room. And Jay told me to rest up before dinner because he was a bossy twat (is what I thought to myself in my disgruntlement). As they all disappeared across the hall into the living room, I felt more than ever the frustration and loneliness of being part of but not part of everything that went on. They included me as much as they could, like just now, but until I could get about by myself, I was just going to get snippets of normality, then hours of staring at the inside of my eyelids.

Just as I was starting to get up a real head of steam on some major self-pity, I realised Dec was still sitting on the floor, looking a bit emotional. Wondering if I could distract him, I looked at the box in his hands.

Dec

While Cal zoomed out of the room to get stuck into the huge pile in the lounge, I stayed where I was for a moment, feeling overwhelmed.

}Coohl phohn.

‘Yeah.’

}Whas matter?

‘Oh, I’ll get grief for saying it, but it’s too much. I don’t deserve it.’

}Why noht?

‘You know what I did, right?’

Matt

‘Er …’

Jay had been vague about the details of what exactly Dec had done to push himself so far out of favour, although I knew there was money involved, and some kind of accident, and Beth had avoided the question altogether. Mum would only say ‘that boy …’ and look angry, and I hadn’t had the energy to push it with any of them. Now I wanted to know what had gone on.

‘… noht detahls.’

Dec

‘Oh. Well, I … things just got … shit, it’s so hard to remember everything exactly, let alone explain it. OK, first I crashed my car and someone died. Then I stole some money. Then I lied to fucking everyone about fucking everything. Then … oh there’s a shitload more to it than that, but that’s the main bit. I let everyone down, after all they did for me. They shouldn’t be buying me stuff like this.’

Matt

Dec gestured to the box containing the phone, while I tried to assimilate what he had told me. Some day I was going to have to get the whole story, although it sounded maybe too complicated for me to be able to focus on right now. Whatever the whole truth, things probably weren’t as bald and bleak as he had just told me, especially not now, and if Jay and Beth had asked him up here for Christmas, then he deserved whatever they wanted to give him, however he felt about it. Maybe if I tried some pragmatism.

‘Dihnt yohr phohn get trahshed?’

Jay had told me Dec’s phone had been smashed when he was beaten up. It had been irreparable and the police still had the bits, in an attempt to recover some useful data from it.

‘Yeah.’

‘Was ih insuhred?’

I was pretty sure I knew what the answer would be to this one; kids never insured their phones.

‘No.’

Told you.

‘Can yuh affohd a new ohn?’

I knew the answer to this one as well; Dec had no money, and no possessions, since the bastards who beat him up stole his keys and his wallet, trashed his flat and emptied his miniscule bank account.

‘No.’

I shrugged as if it answered everything.

‘Sahnta knohs best. Stahy fuh bit? Tuh quieht on my ohn.’

I could hear Cal talking nonstop across the hall, and if I sat and listened to it on my own I’d start getting miserable. I didn’t want to be miserable today.

Dec

Matt didn’t seem shocked by what I’d just told him; he almost seemed keen to reassure me.

‘Course. Although I wouldn’t call the excitement going on in there quiet.’

}Mahks meh lohnly.

‘Sorry, Matt, didn’t think. Must be tough, sometimes.’

}Mohst of the tihm. This ihn’t lihf.

He waved his arm around the room.

‘You’re doing OK, getting better by all accounts.’

Matt

I don’t know why I felt this need to unburden, all of a sudden, but there it was. Self-pity manifesting itself despite my best efforts.

‘Slohly. Lahs Chrihsmus I wahs in fucking New Yohk wih my girfriehd. Sehms lihk fuhever ago. Dohnt fehl lihk I’ll ever geh ih bahk. Fehl soh guilty, Jay an Behth gahv up evrything to wihpe my ahrs.’

And there it was, full blown poor me. It had just come out, and Dec was the lucky recipient of my need to share. First it was bottles full of my piss, then prattlings full of my despondency. Where would it end?

Dec

‘Because they wanted to. I do know how you feel. It’s hard to let people make sacrifices for you.’

I wanted to return the reassurance he’d given me, and tried to think of something that might help him.

‘But do you know what, when I was talking to Jay last night, he said that him and Beth want to do this for you, he doesn’t want anyone else looking after you, wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I don’t think he sees it as a sacrifice, it’s something he wants to do – oh, no mate, don’t …’

Matt

As he was talking, I just got a sense that he really did know how I felt, that somehow our experiences had been similar enough that he really did get it. And that felt huge. And then he reminded me that Jay had given up everything for me, and told me Jay had wanted to do it. I would never understand that, could never be grateful enough, would always feel guilty and unworthy.

It just welled up in me, and started pouring out of me in deep, heaving sobs. I couldn’t stop it, I sat with my hand over my face, wishing I was somewhere else, grateful for the excitement from across the hall that would be masking the sound of the tears that were unmanning me. I felt Dec take my other hand, and it surprised me enough to reduce the outpouring a little.

‘Ih’s soh fucking unfaihr.’

I meant all of it: me being ill, Jay and Beth feeling they had to uproot their lives, Carrie leaving me, everything.

Dec

It wasn’t just filling up, this time, Matt was really sobbing, covering his face with one hand, whole body shuddering with each breath. I held his other hand, didn’t know what else to do, feeling bad that I’d brought this on him.

‘I know, mate. You’re right.’

I wished Rose was here, she was great at talking comforting nonsense when people were upset.

‘Come on, Matt, it’s OK. Shh, don’t worry, it’s OK.’

After a while, during which I watched him anxiously, worried it might affect his breathing again, Matt’s sobs subsided. He looked at me miserably, embarrassed.

Matt

I was mortified, both at the blarting and that Dec had felt the need to hold my hand. I needed to stop both, as soon as. After a quick recce of the situation, I found my out.

‘Nihs tat.’ I nodded at what I might loosely term the ‘artwork’ on his right forearm, as I disengaged from the handholding.

Dec looked down and self-consciously rubbed his left hand over the shoddily tattooed crucifix complete with dagger dripping blood. The kind of ‘tasteful’ ‘body art’ which is usually accompanied by ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’ tattooed on one’s knuckles, but a quick glance reassured me that this was not the case.

‘Yeah, it’s crap, isn’t it. Had it done when I was younger, thought it made me look hard. Might get it covered up.’

‘Good plahn.’

‘You feeling better?’

I nodded. ‘Sohry. Geh lihk this sohmtimes. Thahks. Dohn tell them, plehs? They wohry, and fuhs. Wohn leh me do dihner.’

I was desperate to do dinner, and I was well aware of how Beth reacted when I showed any sign of weakness. If she even got a hint I’d been anything less than happy and up for everything, she’d put me in lock-down and force feed me with chatter.

‘No worries, Cripples Corner brotherhood. United against unnecessary fussing, united for the having of Beth’s roast dinners whenever possible.’

I tried a smile, but decided to let him off the hook. I was sure he didn’t want to stay here with the blethering cripple when there was family fun to be had across the hall.

‘Do yuh want tuh joihn in the frenzy?’

‘No, I’m fine here, if you want me to stay.’

‘Yeh. Thahks, Dec. No mohr blahrting, prohmis. Puh TV on?’

‘OK.’

Dec found the remote and turned to a channel playing non-stop Christmas songs. He turned it down a bit, and sat back down. Before the first song had finished, I found that I couldn’t keep my eyes open, as was the usual way of things following a few seconds of excitement, and after a while I fell asleep.

Dec

Matt looked like he was starting to drift off to sleep, but I stayed with him. His eyes were shut, and his breathing became more even. I could hear Cal’s excited voice from the other room, amid sounds of paper tearing and Jay and Beth’s voices, with occasional comments from Jay’s mum. I could see how it would make Matt feel lonely, it felt a bit like they were on another planet. The difference for me was I could walk across the hall and join in whenever I wanted to; Matt would have to work a lot harder to be part of everything. It must be exhausting.

Cal

I could not believe how many more presents there were in the living room. I nearly couldn’t start opening them – there were so many that I nearly couldn’t choose where to start. But I did. I started with the big, red one, which was less exciting when I opened it and it was a dinosaur lampshade for my room. I mean, dinosaur lampshades are cool, but as a Christmas present, you can’t play with it, and you have to ask Dad to put it up for you, and he takes ages and grumbles about it. Then Mum said ‘Thank you, Granny’, and I realised it wasn’t a present from Santa, but one from Granny, so it wasn’t instead of an Arsenal shirt or Optimus Prime, and I said thank you too and put the lampshade to the side to make room for everything else.

I opened loads of presents, and one was Optimus Prime, and one was an Arsenal shirt with ‘WALCOTT’ on the back. There were some for Mum and Dad and Granny as well, and Dad had a remote control car from Dec, which I would play with, and there were some for Uncle Matty which we put in a pile for him to open later, and then I saw one for Dec, but he wasn’t in the room.

Dec

I heard Cal’s voice pipe up.

\this one’s for Dec. Where is he?

łI don’t know, did he stay with Matty? I’ll go and have a look.

I heard Jay’s footsteps coming across the hallway.

łWhat are you doing still in here?

‘Chatting with Matt.’

Jay looked across at the bed, confused.

łHe’s asleep.

‘Only just. He wanted some company.’

łCal’s found you a present. Want to come and open it? We might be able to squeeze you in among all the toys and wrapping paper.

I looked over at Matt. He seemed fast asleep.

‘OK.’

I followed Jay back to the living room. Cal sat by the Christmas tree, surrounded by toys and torn gift wrap. Beth looked like she had her work cut out keeping up with all the labels so she could remember who had given what, and she had started a list. Cal picked up a box to show me.

\dec, look, it’s Optimus Prime!

‘Cool, mate! I told you Santa knew. Looks like he knew about the Arsenal shirt too – turn round, whose name on the back? Ah, good old Theo.

Cal

I’d put my Arsenal shirt on right away, over the top of my pyjamas. It was the coolest shirt I’d ever had. Then I remembered the present for Dec.

‘This one’s for you. It’s not from Santa, it’s from Nico and Lis.’

I pushed the big, heavy box towards him. Dec didn’t look excited, he looked at Mum.

Dec

‘They already gave me all my clothes for Christmas.’

_Just open it, Dec.

I pulled the paper off, and was speechless again. It was a laptop.

Cal

Dec pulled the paper off, and it was a computer. A proper one, not one like Uncle Matty’s eye pad. A computer with a lid like Dad’s. Dec didn’t say anything, like go ‘wow’ or anything, so I decided to do it for him.

‘Cool! Can I play on it?’

I knew you could do loads of games on a computer, because Dad let me do games on his sometimes. Now I had Uncle Matty’s eye pad, and Dec’s phone and computer to play with, it was as if I’d had three extra presents.

Dec didn’t answer me, though, and I wondered if he didn’t want to share his computer. Mum would have something to say about that, because she liked people to share. Dad looked at Dec’s face, which didn’t seem very happy.

OK mate?’

‘It’s just, this … and the phone … it’s all too much. They lent me tons of money, I just don’t –’

Let me stop you before you say you don’t deserve it.’

Oh, it was because he thought he’d been too bad to have nice presents. But Santa always knew what you deserved, and Dec must have deserved a new phone and a new computer, otherwise he wouldn’t have got them, even if one had been from Nico and not from Santa.

Dad was looking a bit cross with Dec, and he told Mum to cover my ears, so I knew he might say some swears. Luckily, Mum didn’t cover my ears, and I heard everything.

‘That’s just a load of bollocks, Dec. Fucking bollocks. You’ve pretty much lost everything one way and another the last few months. That slime ball stole ten fucking thousand pounds off you, you sold everything that was worth anything to get it back, and then your so-called fucking mate steals the last bit of money you’ve got and trashes the rest of what little you owned. Nico and Lis are generous people and they wanted to do this for you. You need a phone and you need a computer, because you need to be able to keep in touch with people so nothing like this ever happens again. It’s not too much, it’s just right, because it’s something we wanted to do for you. Let people do what they want to help you, and don’t make us feel fucking bad about it. OK, rant over. It’s just more of what we said last night, isn’t it? I hope you get it now, I’m getting bored of bloody saying it. Sorry, Mum, lots of bad language. Sorry, Beth. Sorry Cal.

I was looking at Dad with wide eyes. Not only had he said lots of bad words, he’d said a lot about Dec that I hadn’t known. I thought Dec had stolen, but Dad had said some people had stolen from Dec, that one of his friends had done it. But Dad hadn’t sounded sorry for Dec, he sounded angry. I started to get that feeling I’d had for those couple of days after I’d phoned Dec, when I worried about Mum and Dad being cross with me, and what might happen if they were.

‘Daddy are you cross with Dec?’

Dad sighed and did a little smile at me.

No, mate, not cross. A bit exasperated, maybe. I’m just trying to make him understand something.’

I didn’t know what exasperated meant, but from how Dad said it, maybe it wasn’t as bad as cross.

‘You said lots of swears.’

I know, they seemed to make my point.’

Dad looked at Dec.

OK?’

Dec

I took a deep breath and tried to make myself believe it.

‘ … OK.’

Jay nodded.

łRight, lets get on with this then. Cal, what’s that huge one in red and green paper?

The unwrapping continued, and Cal finally made his way through all the presents. He found another one for me, from Rose. It was shower gel and soap, plus a big fluffy towel. I would have normally found this a pretty uninspiring gift, but Rose knew how much I was looking forward to a proper shower, once my dressings were off for good. It was also something that didn’t make me feel guilty about the amount of money she’d spent. It was perfect. I smiled to myself. I’d have to ring her later once I’d worked out how to use my phone.

Cal

I carried on with the presents until there were none left, only the ones for Uncle Matty, and there were only three of those.

Dec had another present, which said ‘from Rose’, and was a towel and some shower gel, and if I’d had that present I would have been very disappointed, but Dec smiled a lot when he opened it. I didn’t think I would ever smile if I got soap.

Dec

Presents opened, there was a bit of a lull. I wandered into the kitchen, to see if I could do anything to help with dinner, but it all seemed to be under control. Beth said she’d ask me to set the table later – something else that edged me towards believing I was part of their family again. Setting the table had always been my job when we all made Sunday lunch together. Slowly, bit by bit, it was sinking in.

e

29. Anticipation

In which it is Christmas Eve and fever pitch is approached from several angles.

Matt

The next day began much as the others had, with Jay coming in, helping me to eat breakfast, drink some tea and then drink some of the ghastly build-up drink. Then it was time for the loo. My exciting life was the envy of all.

I could get myself out of bed and into my wheelchair without help these days, I was such an elite athlete, and on good days I could just about wipe my own arse and get myself back in my chair. Still didn’t have the energy to propel the wheelchair across the two metres of carpet to the bathroom though.

There was a shower in the bathroom, but it wasn’t a wet room; I was a long way away from being able to get into the cubicle and have a really good scrub, and I felt dirty, soiled, grimy. Jay had to give me a wash every day, although I did as much as I could with the bits I could reach. Often a shave was beyond my strength, and I convinced myself the stubble made me look dangerous, rather than how it actually made me look, which was like I was auditioning to sell the Big Issue.

That morning I managed a lot for myself, taking the flannel out of Jay’s hand at one point as he started to rub it over my face.

‘I cahn duh ih, thahks.’

‘Right you are, mate. Sorry, wasn’t concentrating, I’m used to doing it with Cal.’

Yeah, Jay, that made me feel tons better. But maybe he had things on his mind.

‘Tehnager trauhmas?’

‘Ha ha, no, everything’s working out OK so far. He’s still in bed, not that I’m surprised, he spends most of his life in bed.’

I could relate to that – maybe we had more in common than I realised.

‘Tahked tuh him yeht?’

‘No. Later today, maybe.’

Jay seemed reluctant, and I wondered how long he was going to put off having his serious conversation with Dec.

‘Dohnt lehv ih too lohng.’

‘Yeah yeah, don’t go on, already got Beth giving it all the ‘don’t put it off, it’ll spoil Christmas’ shit. Don’t need you nagging me too.’

It felt good to nag him, I didn’t have much opportunity to get my own back these days, but I shrugged and handed him the flannel.

‘You look like you’ve put on a bit of weight, mate.’

I looked up in pleased surprise.

‘Rehly?’

‘Yeah, a bit. Still look like an anorexic scarecrow, but it’s good to see. You still planning to do Christmas dinner tomorrow?’

Having Christmas dinner at the table with everyone else had become the focus for me of the last week. I hadn’t been ‘out’ to the rest of the house since I’d been here, and now I could sit out in the chair for a little while, I really wanted to join in with the festivities, rather than hear it all going on while I listened from my room.

I’d told Beth my plan, and she’d initially demurred, saying I wasn’t strong enough, but I badgered her, told her how good it would be for me, promised to rest between now and then, eat what they put in front of me, drink my disgusting build-up drinks, be a good boy, and eventually she gave in. I had no idea how long I would last, maybe not beyond the turkey being carved, but making the effort was important to me.

‘Yeh.’

‘Glad to hear it. Family Christmas, yeah?’

‘Yeh.’

‘Mum’ll be here soon. She called last night, all in a dither about something or other, did we want her to come early.’

‘Yeh?’

‘She had that thing at her friend’s, drinks thing, I said I’d go and get her if she wanted, but she chose the drink over us.’

‘Typihcal.’

‘Be prepared for a full on mothering assault.’

‘Dohnt mihnd.’

And I didn’t. Of all the people who fussed about and told me what to do, Mum was the one I was least resentful of. Not that I enjoyed it, but I knew how worried she was about me, and how traumatised she’d been by finding me half-dead on my bathroom floor. She didn’t come and see me every day, but three or four times a week she got the bus over, so she could sit and look and sigh.

‘You have been warned.’

Cal

I didn’t wake up until Mum came in to get me up and ask what I wanted for breakfast.

Dec was still asleep when I went downstairs, and he stayed asleep for hours. He always used to be asleep for hours, when he wasn’t doing training or playing in a rugby game, so although I was a bit disappointed he wasn’t playing with me, I wasn’t surprised.

After a while, Mum looked at the clock, tutted, and went up the stairs. I followed her, and she tapped on my bedroom door.

Dec

I must have fallen asleep for a while, because I woke up on my own, still up against the wall, with a stiff neck. It was light outside, and I could hear voices from downstairs. I should really get up. Before long, there was a tap on the door.

_Dec, are you awake in there?

‘Mm.’

_Just wondered if you want any breakfast? Only it’s getting on a bit.

‘What time is it?’

_Eleven thirty.

I couldn’t believe I had slept away my first morning here with them.

‘Shit.’

_Yeah, Cal’s right behind me here.

‘Sorry, yeah, I didn’t realise the time. I’ll get up now.’

_We need to do your dressings sometime today.

‘Yeah, sorry Beth, I meant to get up, I just went back to sleep.’

_Don’t worry, sweetheart. So, breakfast or not?

‘I’ll grab something quick in a minute shall I?’

_OK. Just so you know, James’s mum’s here.

‘Thanks for the warning, no wandering down in my boxers then.’

_If you could avoid it; I don’t think she’s ever forgotten that incident.

I had met Jay’s mum many times on her visits to Jay and Beth. I used to sleep on Cal’s floor so she could use my room, but when Jay and Beth had the conservatory built, they used it as a guest room, so when she stayed I had forgotten she was there. I had met her at the bottom of the stairs, bleary with sleep, wearing only my boxers which I quickly realised from the shocked direction of her gaze were gaping rather revealingly. Jay hadn’t let me forget that one for some time.

‘Be down in a minute.’

I dressed quickly, spraying deodorant in lieu of a proper wash, as I’d got used to doing recently. I really hadn’t meant to sleep in for so long, but Cal’s night time visit had stopped me sleeping properly and I must have been catching up.

Cal

I went downstairs to wait for Dec in the kitchen. I’d been playing in Uncle Matty’s room, but I knew Dec would get his breakfast first, because he always did. Granny had come earlier, and she and Mum were doing cooking. The table was a bit messy, but there was room for my dinosaurs to make footprints in the flour while I waited for Dec.

Dec wasn’t long, and I stared when he came in. His hair was all short! Yesterday, his hair had been long, and like a girl, and now it was short and spiky. I hadn’t noticed when he was in bed, because it was dark. I looked at him now, as he talked to Mum and got his breakfast, but then he took his cup and his plate into Uncle Matty’s room, so I picked up my dinosaurs and followed him.

Dec

Downstairs, the kitchen was busy. Beth was peeling vegetables, Jay’s mum had an apron on and she was doing something with flour in a bowl. Could have been making pastry, I’d never been that knowledgeable about things that went on in the kitchen. Cal was sitting at the table, playing with dinosaurs. There was a radio on, playing a cheesy Christmas song. Oh yeah, it was Christmas Eve. I kept forgetting.

‘Hi Mrs Scott.’

#Declan. How are you?

It wasn’t a warm welcome. I sensed disapproval. Maybe I was being over-sensitive.

‘I’m good thanks. You?’

#I’m well, thank you.

‘It’s busy in here.’

_Lucky for you, you didn’t get up sooner, we’d have put you to work spud bashing.

‘Can I do anything now?’

_No, sweetheart, I was teasing. It would seem a bit strange to have you helping out voluntarily, not like old times at all. We’ve got it covered. Actually, though, tell you what you could do later, there are some things we need to do without a certain someone in attendance, and if you could go out with Cal for a bit after lunch that would be great.

‘Consider it done.’

_Kettle’s on, cup of tea? James is in with Matty.

‘I can do it. Anyone else?’

I made my tea and took it in to Matt’s room, only realising afterwards how easily I had lifted and poured everything. From the toys scattered on the floor, it looked like Cal had already been busy.

Matt

Jay helped me get dressed and was adjusting the bed when Dec walked in holding a mug. At least I assumed it was Dec. The long unkempt hair had disappeared, swallowed up overnight and replaced by a short, spiky haircut that had been messily arranged to hide the scar disappearing into his scalp. The nose was still obviously askew, and he needed to ditch the forlorn crop of straggly bum-fluff asap, but there was only so much a haircut could patch up.

He smiled at us.

‘Morning.’

Jay looked pointedly at his watch.

Well just about – bloody hell, where did all the girly hair go?’

‘Beth gave it a trim last night.’

Beth fancied herself as a bit of a hairdresser, and was always grabbing the scissors and snipping bits off Jay’s and Cal’s locks, whether they wanted it or not. To be fair, Cal had blond ringlets that would be the envy of many a fairy princess, and his hair needed a bit of taming now and then, but Jay had pretty standard mid-brown slightly wavy hair, and he put up with the fiddling with more patience than I would have given him credit for.

Beth had cut my hair shortly after coming out of hospital, as it had got so overgrown that it was either that or call in the dog groomers, but never again. Not that she did a bad job, really, but I’d got used to Becky, the girl who did my hair at Classy Cuts in Stafford city centre, and Beth twittered far too much, and didn’t ask about my holidays, and there was altogether too much fannying about and shit. Ugh. Anyway, she had managed to turn the kid into a half-decent looking human being rather than a two-legged afghan hound, so I suppose she deserved credit for that.

‘Much better. I see your sleeping habits haven’t changed much.’

‘Had a late night visit from Cal.’

Ah, let me guess, he persuaded you to let him get in your bed and you spent the rest of the night with no room while he slept like a log.’

‘Pretty much.’

Well you’ll know next time. We don’t let him in anymore.’

‘He said you – oh.’

It was entertaining to see the realisation cross Dec’s face that he had fallen for the oldest trick in the book, the ‘my mum and dad let me’ trick.

Yeah, you’ve been Cal-ed. You’re out of practice, mate.’

Dec laughed. ‘I guess I am a bit. Hi Matt.’

The hint of banter that had begun yesterday felt like it needed a boost.

‘Mohning – ahftenohn?’ I raised an eyebrow.

Dec grinned and took the baton.

‘Yeah, whatever. Don’t you start, I thought us cripples were sticking together.’

‘Fuck ohf.’

I grinned too, enjoying myself.

‘Fuck right back off.’

His grin widened, and it was so great to hear someone telling me to fuck off, even if it was a joke; everyone was nice to me, even when I was being an annoying git, even Jay, who took less of my shit than most.

That’s what I like to see, a bit of Cripples Corner team spirit. Keep the morale up, boys. Oh, hi Cal.’

None of us had seen Cal sidle into the room, eyes wide at the amount of forbidden words that had just been uttered in the house.

Cal

It was just as well it was me and not Mum who had been listening from the hallway. She would have said ‘honestly’ to all of them. I giggled to myself, and Dad looked round and saw me.

‘Daddy, you just –’

Shh, I know, won’t happen again. Let’s have a look at this Lego here, shall we?’

I loved it when Dad played with me, he was really good at building things and remembered how to make a spaceship without reading the structions. I had a really good game going, so we both knelt on the floor and started building while Dec talked to Uncle Matty.

Matt

I looked up at Dec, who was biting his lip and looked pensive.

‘He’s in trohbl now. Cal alwahs tells.’

‘We probably are too, then.’

‘Noh, crihpls privileges.’

It felt like I had an ally. Like a naughty school friend who, with a bit of encouragement, might help me put itching powder on the teacher’s chair or switch the sugar for salt. It felt good, kind of like things didn’t always have to be so bloody serious any more.

Jay looked up from Cal’s cars.

Guys, you’re not helping. ‘

I laughed, but something went the wrong way, and fuck fuck fuck I started to cough, and then I couldn’t stop, and I was choking, gasping for breath, unable to suck enough into my lungs before the next cough tried to force itself out. Jay was instantly by my side, and I distantly heard Dec and Cal leave pretty sharpish.

Dec

łShit. Dec, can you take Cal for some squash in the kitchen? I just need to help Matty a minute.

I herded Cal out, the coughing and gasping sounding behind us. The kitchen was full of noise and activity. Something was steaming on the hob, the radio was still on, and something was being done with – I’d been right – pastry. Beth looked up.

_Everything OK?

\i’m having some squash.

‘Jay’s helping Matt – he’s having a bit of a cough.’

_Ohh, does he need any help?

‘He didn’t say.’

_I’d better go and see.

She washed her hands and hurried out.

‘OK, Cal, where’s the squash?’

\that cupboard. I want purple.

‘You’d like purple, please, is that what you said?’

\purple please.

I poured out the squash, filled up the glass and gave it to Cal, who sat at the table to drink it.

‘Can I get you anything, Mrs Scott? I might do another cup of tea.’

#Actually that would be nice. It’s been a busy morning so far.

I made the tea and put a mug in front of her, again feeling pretty pleased with how well I was managing with lifting the kettle and pouring the large milk bottle.

‘What’s that you’re making?’

#Mince pies. I brought some with me but we thought we’d do a few more. Matthew really likes them, it’s a good way of bulking him up a bit.

_Beth’s mince pies are great – er, I’m sure yours are too.

There was an awkward pause.

#You look like you’ve been in the wars. Jameson said you were in a fight?

I sensed more disapproval.

‘Well, no, not a fight exactly, I was on the wrong end of a kicking. Didn’t know much about it till I woke up in hospital.’

#You’re still recovering are you?

‘Yeah, had to have an operation, but it’s all going to plan I think.’

#Jameson and Beth were pleased you could come for Christmas.

It seemed obvious but unspoken, however, that she wasn’t that pleased.

‘It’s great to see them, and Cal. I’ve really missed them.’

#They’ve had a hard time over the last few months.

‘I know. I regret everything I’ve done that’s made it harder for them.’

I was very aware of Cal’s small ears listening while he played with his dinosaurs.

#You won’t upset them again, will you?

‘No.’

Cal

Granny wasn’t being very friendly to Dec. Granny was better than Mum and Dad at not saying things she didn’t want me to hear, but I’d heard her call Dec ‘that boy’ a few times, and she hadn’t looked very pleased when I’d told her Dec was coming for Christmas. Now she was using her ‘telling off’ voice, although Dec didn’t look like he thought he was being told off, at least not like he used to when Mum did it.

I didn’t want Dec to be told off, so I thought of something I could ask Granny, even though I knew the answer.

‘Granny where is your bed?’

I knew exactly where Granny’s bed was; it was in the spare room, where it always was.

Dec

Jay’s mum held my gaze while she answered Cal. I looked back at her and nodded. It was an acknowledgement and a promise.

Cal

‘It’s in the spare room, dear.’

Granny didn’t look at me while she answered, she was looking at Dec, as if she was saying one thing to him with her eyes and another thing to me with her mouth. Dec nodded, as if he was agreeing with her, and then she looked at me.

‘Will Santa know you’re here and not at home?’

‘Yes, dear, he knows where everyone is. He knows Declan’s here too.’

Granny always called people by their full names. She called me Calum, and Dad Jameson, and Dec Declan and Uncle Matty Matthew.

‘Dec probably told him – he can talk to Santa.’

I’d spotted an opportunity to put Dec in Granny’s good books. She couldn’t be cross with someone who could talk to Santa – it could make a big difference to how many presents you got.

Dec shrugged. I suppose it wasn’t polite to boast about it, although Granny didn’t look as impressed as I’d thought she would.

Dec

I shrugged with a modest smile.

#Oh, well that’s alright then. Calum, what are you having for your lunch? How about some beans on toast?

\kay. Can Dec share my beans?

‘How about I make it, eh, Cal? Remember woossy beans?’

Cal

‘Woossy beans! Can we have woossy beans?’

Woossy beans was my and Dec’s favourite thing when he was looking after me. It was beans on toast with woosser sauce in it, and we both said it was the finest lunch. Mum had tried to make it, but it never tasted the same as when Dec did it.

‘I’ll check in the cupboard – any idea where Worcester sauce might be, Mrs Scott?’

Matt

Then, while I was struggling to pull in the tiniest amount of useful breath and largely failing, Beth came in, and started rubbing my back while Jay filled a bowl with hot water and menthol, and put it under my nose. None of it ever worked, the coughing had always stopped on its own eventually, but just having them there calmed me, because when it happened, it felt like I was going to die, that I would never catch my breath again, that my insides were trying to hurl themselves out via my windpipe. But Beth knew how to offer soothing, comforting words, and whether they needed to call someone, and Jay – well, Jay was pretty useless, really, but he’d never leave until it was all over and he knew I was OK. Part of me wondered if he was waiting for an opportunity to chuck me over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift so he could show off his strength, but that hadn’t been necessary so far and I was damned if I was going to give him the satisfaction – and then it stopped.

I gradually got more and more air inside me and the need to manually haul each breath in subsided; an extreme lethargy swept over me and took me down and I was asleep before they’d laid me down and put the duvet over me.

Cal

Granny opened the cupboards and tried to find the woosser sauce, but she still wasn’t having much luck when Mum came back in. Granny stopped looking so she could ask Mum how Uncle Matty was. I thought it was obvious that Uncle Matty was alright, otherwise Mum wouldn’t have come back in the kitchen, but I didn’t say this out loud.

Mum told Granny that Uncle Matty was asleep now, and asked what she was looking for in the cupboards.

‘Worcester sauce. For Cal’s lunch.’

Mum looked like she was going to say I didn’t like woosser sauce, then she thought about it, and I saw her remember that I only liked it in beans.

‘Ohh, woossy beans! You haven’t had that for ages, Cal.’

‘Dec’s making it for me.’

‘Are you sure you can manage, Dec?’

‘I’ll give it a go. Everything’s working much better now. I may need a hand to spread the butter, oh and possibly to open the tin.’

I kept forgetting that Dec had hurt arms. I could see he had a hurt face, but his arms seemed the same as normal until he couldn’t break apart the small Lego, or he couldn’t lean down on them for as long as he usually did.

Dec

We made the woossy beans on toast together, Cal and I ate it, then we got ready to go out. Beth had suggested the local garden centre, which was just down the road, and had lots of Christmas decorations, lights, and most importantly a Santa’s Grotto.

_You might not get in, but it’s worth a shot. Don’t promise Cal, though, in case it doesn’t happen.

It showed how much of Beth’s trust I had lost that she felt she needed to tell me how to be around Cal. It was a reminder of how much I had to do to prove myself to them.

_Can you ring me when you’re on your way back, give us a bit of warning?

‘Haven’t got a phone.’

_Oh, of course not, sorry, we haven’t – no, I forgot. Take mine, the number’s under ‘Home’.

Beth sounded like she had started to say something and then changed her mind. She had probably remembered what happened to my phone and was being considerate.

She gave me some money, just in case we got in to see Santa, which I really didn’t want, but I hadn’t got my new bank card yet, so I still had no cash. Not that there was anything in my bank account any more. So I had to accept Beth’s money. We walked along the path, Cal holding tightly onto my hand, chattering all the way.

We spent a long time at the garden centre looking at all the sparkle. There were loads of people there, and it was bustling and noisy. There was a long queue for Santa, so I asked Cal if he wanted to wait, it looked like at least forty-five minutes to me. He was keen, with conditions.

\can I have a slushie?

Cal

After lunch, which was the best woossy beans I’d ever had, Dec took me to the garden centre, which was just down the road. There were lots of Christmas trees and fairy lights, and a giant reindeer made out of sticks, and the most ginormous tree, even more ginormous than ours. Dec and I walked around looking at everything, and then we saw Santa’s Grotto, and I wanted to see Santa. Because it was Christmas Eve, there were lots of people, and lots of other children wanted to see Santa, so there was a line, and Dec said it would be a long time to wait, but he would buy me a slushie and wait with me.

While we waited, we started a story. It was one of our stories like we used to do on Sunday afternoons when it was raining, and I wanted to go to the park but the swings would be all wet. How it worked was, we had to make everything we saw go in the story. There was a lot to see while we were waiting in the line for Santa; when we first stood in the line, we were near a giant animaltronic Santa, which wasn’t as good as the animaltronic Tyrannosaurus Rex was going to be at Dinosaurland, because the Santa was just waving his arm and turning his head, but he was the first thing to go in our story, because I started. We decided that Santa needed a sleigh, so we looked around to see something that he would be able to use. At first we didn’t see anything, and then Dec said:

‘Oh, you know what, Cal, I bet Santa’s sleigh is like a Transformer. I bet it kind of looks like one thing most of the year, and then on Christmas Eve, when he needs it, he presses a button, and it turns into his sleigh.’

This sounded like the best thing about Christmas I’d ever heard.

‘Yeah, I bet Santa’s sleigh is a dinosaur the rest of the year.’

‘I bet it is. I bet it’s a dinosaur made out of … er …’

Dec looked around, trying to find something like the rules of the story said.

‘Out of shovels, which stick up for spines on his back, and big hammers for his feet …’

‘And his eyes are torches, and when he changes into the sleigh, his eyes are the headlights.’

‘Good thinking Batman. And if it’s really snowy, he can use the shovels to dig a path.’

We carried on thinking about the story all the way in the line to Santa, and I had a really happy feeling inside, because I was with Dec and we were doing things like we used to, and it didn’t seem like we waited a long time at all before we were at the front, and a bit of me was disappointed because we were going to have to stop our story, and I knew that stories like that were never as good when you started them again, but most of me really wanted to see Santa so I could check about the things on my list.

I knew that this Santa wasn’t the real Santa, he would be one of his helpers just dressed up like Santa, but he would know what was on the list I sent him, and he would probably know Dec as well.

Dec

Cal was so creative and he sparked my imagination; I’d missed being with him loads, and was really enjoying getting reacquainted. We were soon at the front of the queue, Cal by now very excited. When it was his turn, he ran over to Santa and jumped up onto his knee.

*Hello young man, what’s your name?

\calum. Are you really Santa, or a helper?

*Well, I’m real and a helper. The real real Santa is coming tonight with your toys.

\did Dec ask him about Optimus Prime?

‘You know I did Cal, it’s all sorted.’

*Yes, I believe it’s all on the list?

Santa looked at me, did a slight double take presumably at my scars and bruises. I nodded.

\what about a Arsenal shirt?

Another look from Santa. I shrugged. Optimus Prime was as far as my Santa knowledge went.

*You’ll have to wait and see. It’s nice to have surprises, isn’t it?

Cal

I nearly said that it’s only nice if you get what you want and not if you don’t, but I was trying to be good and not mind too much if I didn’t have an Arsenal shirt because some children in Africa don’t even know Arsenal.

Dec

Cal continued to grill Santa.

\will Dec get a stocking?

Another shrug from me. An exasperated look from Santa behind his beard and glasses.

Cal

I asked if Dec would have a stocking, because he didn’t used to, but I didn’t know if this year was different, because it felt a bit different, and Santa said he would if he’d been good boy. I wasn’t sure if Dec had been a good boy, with him stealing and lying and making Mum and Dad cross, so I didn’t say anything else, and thought I might share some of my toys with Dec if he’d been too bad to have any of his own.

And then Santa said I could choose a present for today, from his lucky dip sack. There were lots of presents to choose from, but because they were all wrapped up, I couldn’t tell what they were. I looked at them, trying to decide whether I wanted the biggest, the smallest, or one that looked interesting. In the end I saw one that wasn’t big, or small, or flat and square like a colouring book, but was lumpy and hard when I squished it. I tore the paper off, and it was a dinosaur, but not one that I knew. It had its mouth open, and pointy white teeth, and a button that made its eyes flash red and a roar come out of its mouth. I showed Dec, who smiled at Santa, and made me say thank you.

Dec

Beth was just clearing away wrapping paper and sellotape when we arrived back. Cal didn’t notice, he was so intent on showing off his dinosaur.

\look what Santa gived me.

_Ooh, didn’t you do well. Did you have a nice time with Dec?

\we did a story about a dinosaur Transformer who was made of shovels and turned into Santa’s sleigh.

_Well it’s original. You’ll have to tell us that one, Dec, in case we’re asked for it again in the near future.

\can I show Uncle Matty my dinosaur?

_No, sweetheart, Uncle Matty’s still asleep. Play with Dec in the living room for now.

She looked at me to check.

‘Yeah, come on Cal, didn’t I see Jenga in your room?

\yes … but I’ve got Whirly Racers too.

‘Whirly Racers it is, go and fetch it.’

He ran out of the room to fetch his game.

_Thanks, Dec.

I shrugged, smiled and followed Cal. As I walked out I heard

_See? He’s so good with him.

#I do see that. He reminded Calum of his manners earlier. They seem very fond of each other.

We spent a lot of time racing small cars on the living room floor. Cal gave me the worst cars, so he won most of the time. He seemed very pleased with himself, whether because of his victories or his strategy I wasn’t sure. Half way through the afternoon, Beth came in with a bag.

_We need to do your dressings, Dec. Cal, go and sit with granny for a bit. She’s in the kitchen.

\oh but I want to watch.

Beth looked at me.

‘It’s fine, I don’t think it’s too gruesome.’

_Alright, then, stay for now but you go when I say, OK?

\kay Mummy.

I took my shirt off and Beth started to unwind the bandages that held the dressings in place, looking like she knew what she was doing – of course! She’d been a nurse, many years ago before she had Cal.

‘You’re good at this.’

_Don’t sound so surprised, it was my job.

‘I know, I just remembered.’

_It’s one of the things that made it easier to decide to look after Matty. I’ve seen it all before, I know how to do things, some idea about medication, when to call a doctor, all that stuff.

She carried on taking the dressings off, cleaning the scars with some fluid and cotton wool.

_These look pretty good, the stitches have nearly gone, there’s no swelling, no leakage. I think this could be your last dressing, Dec.

Cal had been watching intently, looking slightly disappointed that there wasn’t more blood.

\where does the sewing go?

_They’re special stitches that melt away after a while, so Dec doesn’t have to get the doctor to take them out. Is that what happened with the stitches in your face, Dec?

‘No, they took those out, and the ones in my back and legs. I had it done on Monday.’

Beth started putting new dressings on, and wound new bandages round them to hold them in place.

\mummy, can I have a bandage?

Cal

Mum never let me have plasters unless I really had a cut, but this time she looked at me and smiled.

‘How about a little tiny one on your finger?’

‘Kay.’

I held out my finger and Mum tied a bandage on the end of it. I held it up so Dec could see.

‘I can be in Cripples Corner now.’

I thought it would be alright to say it now I had a bandage. I was wrong.

Dec tried not to laugh, but Mum got cross.

‘Cal, remember what I said about not repeating everything Daddy says?’

‘But Dec and Uncle Matty say it too. It sounds funny.’

And it really wasn’t fair that everyone else was allowed to say it and I wasn’t.

‘Yes, I know, sweetheart, but it’s not, it’s not a nice word.’

‘Is it a swear?’

‘No, not a swear, but something I don’t want to hear you saying.’

‘Sorry, Cal, my fault mate. Let’s agree not to say it, if it upsets Mummy, yeah?’

That was a bit annoying. I wished I hadn’t said anything, because now nobody was allowed to say it.

‘Kay.’

‘Thanks, Dec. Right, I think that’s you all done.’

‘Nice job. Very professional. Good, eh, Cal? Bandage brothers, that’s what they’ll call us.’

‘Yeah, bandage brothers.’

I loved the name. And it sparked something off in my mind that Mum and Dad had talked about a while ago, about choosing a brother. If I could choose anyone for my brother, I’d choose Dec.

‘Dec, are you my new brother?’

‘What?’

Dec looked confused. Maybe I’d got it wrong. But Dec didn’t have a mummy and daddy, I was pretty sure of it, and if Mum and Dad wanted to give a me new brother, it just made sense to have Dec – he already did all the things brothers were supposed to do, like playing with me, and wrestling with me, and knowing which was a stegosaurus and which was a triceratops. And we already knew him. Then I saw Mum look at me and shake her head.

‘Cal –’

‘But Mummy, you said I might be having a new brother –’

‘Cal! I also said it was a secret.’

Well now I was really confused. If I could choose Dec as my brother, surely he’d have to know the secret too? I decided not to say anything else about it, because it just seemed to get me into trouble, even when it all made perfect sense.

Dec

I was a bit slow, but got there in the end.

‘Beth!’

She sighed and rolled her eyes.

_Yes, well now you know. But Carol doesn’t know yet, it’s very early days. I should have known big-mouth here would spill the beans, he heard me and James talking and worked it out. I suppose we’ll have to tell her now. God, she’ll never forgive me for you knowing before her.

‘Knowing what? Never heard a word. Congratulations for nothing, by the way. Wow.’

_Thanks, Dec.

She gave me a big, tired smile, patted me on her perfectly executed bandages, and left me to more Whirly Racing with Cal. I wondered briefly whether Beth’s news would change anything, but it was just one more thing I had no control over, and things had already changed beyond recognition anyway, so I hardly thought about it again.

Cal

So now Dec and I knew a secret together, and that felt better. Mum smiled at us, and then left us to get on with more Whirly Races.

Uncle Matty was asleep all the afternoon, and Dad was in his room, watching in case he coughed again or got more poorly, so Dec and I played and talked and fed Percy and made up more stories. The stories were mostly about Christmas, because Christmas was tomorrow, and I couldn’t think about much else.

At dinner time, Dad came out of Uncle Matty’s room, and Granny went in instead. They could have put the speaker on to hear for coughing, but when Uncle Matty had coughed a lot, they were all worried about him, and wanted to be near him, and wanted him to be in the quiet, so I couldn’t play in there.

Dec

The afternoon wore on, grew dark and became Christmas Eve proper. Cal got more and more excited, talking nineteen to the dozen about Santa, stockings and presents. Jay, who had been sitting with a sleeping Matt most of the afternoon, emerged for dinner looking tired. His mum went to sit in while Jay ate. Beth rubbed his shoulder.

_How’s he doing?

łStill sleeping it off. He’ll be OK, I think. He’s got some of the colour back in his cheeks. He wants to join in tomorrow so much, he needs to rest up. Jesus, Beth, I hate it when that happens. He can’t get his breath, you can just see it sucking his strength, right before your eyes.

_I know, it’s horrible. You were great.

łSorry, Dec, we’ve left you with Cal all day.

‘I’ve had a great time. Been exploring my inner six-year-old.’

_Oh, James, just to warn you, Cal told Dec our news.

łOur news? Oh. Shit.

Cal, wisely, didn’t comment on this particular swear and carried on eating his dinner as if butter wouldn’t melt. Jay put his face in his hands and breathed in deeply.

łWe’re going to have to tell Mum, now, aren’t we. And then your mum, and oh God, everyone. So much for keeping it quiet.

Beth nodded.

_Can’t be helped. Nice Christmas present?

łYeah, think positive.

He kissed her on the cheek, looked at me and winked.

Cal

Mum told Dad that I’d let Dec know the secret – Dad said a swear, but Mum didn’t say ‘James honestly’, and Dad winked at Dec, so I thought it might be OK. Dad said they’d have to tell Granny, so it wouldn’t be a secret for much longer, and I was glad because sometimes it was hard to remember not to say things until I’d said them and it was too late.

Then Dad did the list at me, the one about going to bed. He did the list because I would sometimes try to do lots of other things before I went to bed, and the list meant I couldn’t, I could only do what was on the list.

So, Cal, after dinner it’s bath, PJs, story, bed. No arguing, no slow-coaching. OK?’

‘Kay Daddy.’

There wasn’t much room for slow-coaching if Dad followed the list, but I could at least take a long time over eating my dinner, and see if I could hear Mum and Dad saying anything interesting to Dec.

‘James, me and your mum are going to sit with Matty once Cal’s in bed. You and Dec could use the living room …’

For?’

‘Well, I know you wanted to have a talk with Dec.’

Dec

łOh, our deep and meaningful. Jesus. Sorry, Dec, not very subtle. Up for it?

‘Sure.’

It was one of the things I’d been dreading since arriving. Sorting things out with Jay was going to be painful, and bring up a lot of things I’d prefer remained buried, and a part of me worried that I’d fucked some things up so much they couldn’t be sorted or explained or forgiven. But it needed doing, and avoiding it wouldn’t make it any easier later on.

\daddy, what’s deep pan meanyful? Is it pizza?

Jay laughed out loud.

łNo Cal, it’s not pizza. I kind of wish it was.

_Daddy means him and Dec are going to talk for a while after you’ve gone to bed.

\can’t I stay and listen?

_No, sweetheart, you need to go to bed and sleep so Santa can bring your presents.

łCal, remember the list – bath, PJs, story, bed. No deep pan meanyful on the list.

\kay, Daddy.

Cal

Dad reminded me about the list, which didn’t have listening to talking, or pizza, on it anywhere, worse luck.

Dec

Cal prolonged finishing his dinner longer than I thought humanly possible – he really was an expert in avoiding going to bed. When he finally conceded that he had finished, Jay took him upstairs for a bath.

Cal

After dinner, Dad took me for a bath, and we put loads of bubbles in it and played with my submarine for ages. Dad put bubbles on my head like white hair, and put some on his chin, like a Santa beard, and it was funny.

When the water started to get cold, I got out of the bath and dried in the towel, then got my Christmas PJs on, the ones with snowflakes and Christmas trees. I’d worn them every weekend since the beginning of December, and now it was Christmas Eve, so it was definitely a good time to wear them.

Dec

Beth and I sat in the living room, watching a soppy Christmas film on TV. It might have been Love Actually, I obviously had no interest in such slushy nonsense. Jay’s mum was still sitting with Matt. In a break from the romantic traumas of Hugh Grant, I decided to check about my role on Christmas Day.

‘What’s the drill for tomorrow?’

_Not sure there’s a drill, sweetheart, we’ll just see how it goes. A lot depends on Matty. We were going to do some presents in his room, and he really wants to get up for dinner, but after today I don’t know if he’ll be up to it. He hasn’t been out of bed properly for a couple of days, so we’ll have to see. I hate to leave him out of things, but he gets so tired, we have to judge it at the time.

‘Sounds tricky.’

_It can be hard to make the call, he’s very stubborn, and doesn’t like to give in, so we just have to keep an eye on him. His colour changes when he’s had enough, so does his breathing.

‘Is he going to be OK?’

_Oh, Dec, nobody really knows. The combination of pneumonia and MS is a bit of an unknown quantity. He’s better than he was, but it’s slow progress. Something like today could be a setback, or he could wake up tomorrow full of beans.

‘It’s a bit shit, isn’t it.’

_Yes, sweetheart, it is a bit shit. Anyway, are you ready for your early morning Santa call?

‘How early is that likely to be?’

_Well, I don’t know if you remember last year, but if that’s anything to go by, it will be about three o’clock the first time, and you’ll be able to tell him firmly to go back to sleep. Second time, and if you’re lucky he’ll make it to four, he’ll be more persuasive. He definitely can’t open his stocking until five – he can come into our room to do that. It’s hanging by his bed – there’s a duplicate full stocking, James is going to change it over before we go to bed. Under no circumstances let him persuade you that he is allowed to come downstairs and open any presents under the tree. Carol and Matty will kill you if they miss anything.

‘So I’m going to have a sleepless night pretty much from three then?’

_Yep. OK with that?

‘Absolutely fine.’

Bath time over, Cal bounced into the living room carrying another large book. This one was about space. He was about to take a giant leap onto the sofa next to me.

łMind Dec’s arm.

He clambered carefully on instead, still managing to bash my bandaged arm with the huge book. I lifted my arm up and put it round him.

‘Which chapter?’

\man on the Moon.

łRight, I’m listening this time, you two. One chapter only.

Cal had chosen well, it was a really long chapter, with lots of pictures to talk about apart from the writing, and we made it last a good long time. When we reached the end of the last page, I glanced up at Jay, who was watching me in amusement.

Cal

The chapter about Man on the Moon was really long, and had lots of pictures to talk about. Dec read slowly, and we looked at some of the pictures twice, but Dad was listening this time, and when Dec got to the end of the chapter, we both looked up. Dad was looking back at us.

You may well check me out, I have read this chapter many times, and I know that is the end of it. Bed now, Cal.’

‘Ohh, Daddy –’

What’s next on the list after story?’

‘Bed.’

Have you had your story?’

‘Yes.’

So what’s next?’

‘Bed. But –’

No buts. Just bed. Come on, I’ll carry you up if you like.’

That was the problem with the list. You couldn’t argue with it, it was just a list.

Dad stood up and I jumped up so he would catch me. He held me upside down so Mum could kiss me night night, and I said night to Dec, then Dad carried me upstairs.

My stocking was lying on the top of my bed, and I climbed the ladder and hung the stocking on the end of the bed, almost hugging myself with excitement, because when I woke up tomorrow, Santa would have been, and the stocking would be full of shapes that squished and rustled, and I would have new toys.

Dec

Beth looked over at me once Cal was safely out of earshot.

_So far, so good. I’m expecting a few false starts. Right, I’ll vacate the room and leave you and James to it.

She stood up, left the room and closed the door. I flicked the TV off, and sat nervously, feeling like I was waiting for a job interview or an exam.