66. The end of this chapter

In which truths are explored, revealed, accepted and expressed.

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Julia

I was half-expecting Matt to be late back from the hospital; Scott family gatherings often consumed people and it was hard to escape. But to my surprise, he was back just after ten, and we headed off to the retail park. He was quiet, and it seemed his weird mood hadn’t been made any better by his visit. He didn’t give me many details about the new baby, for which I was grateful, but said he had held her, and that Nico and Lisa, who I had met via Skype, had turned up unexpectedly and it had all got a bit crowded and noisy, so he had left.

As we wandered around furniture shops, I sensed Matt’s mind wasn’t really on the task at first, but then he seemed to pull himself together and started paying attention, and then, predictably, messing about.

‘So, how big are we going then?’

‘Well the size of yours is alright.’

‘Yeah, mine’s bloody huge.’

‘It could just do with a bit more support.’

‘So – bloody huge, but not hard enough. A disappointing review all in all.’

‘Behave yourself.’

‘Sorry Jules, just trying to inject some light-heartedness into proceedings. Should we try them out do you think? Would they mind if we jumped up and down?’

‘I think they’d prefer us to just lie down.’

‘Well I don’t know if I can be responsible for my actions if I’ve got you lying next to me in a public place.’

‘I’m sure you’ll find a way to restrain yourself. What about this one? It’s oak, I like the headboard and footboard, and the mattress is in the sale.’

‘Has it got a telly that rises up like a submarine from the bottom end?’

‘I don’t believe it has. I don’t think you’re taking this very seriously.’

‘Sorry. You’re right. Let’s lie down then. Don’t blame me if we don’t get up again.’

Matt’s phone pinged with a text, and he got his phone out. He looked at the screen for a few moments, then showed it to me. It was a video of a tired looking Amy holding a very small baby, waving at the camera. Matt looked entranced and was waiting for my reaction. I didn’t know what to say, and just shrugged.

‘All babies look the same to me. I’m sure she’s adorable.’

He put his phone away, and we carried on.

Dec

Charlie was passed around a few more times, handling it all with great patience, but after a while, a nurse came in, raising her eyebrows at the amount of people in the room.

*OK, I think it’s time for everyone to go home, now. Amy and Charlie need some rest and quiet.

>We are just arriving!

łYou should have been here on time, then, Nico. Only yourself to blame.

When everyone started to stand up, I sat in the chair vacated by Nico and Iz.

*You too, Dad.

Suddenly realising this was directed at me, I looked up, startled.

‘What?’

*Mum and baby time now, just for a few hours, let her recuperate a bit.

‘But – I – no! Ames?’

)Actually, Dec, it might be a good idea to go home, get a shower, you could bring me back some chocolate buttons later?

‘But I can get you chocolate buttons from the shop. And I don’t need a bloody shower.’

łJesus, he’s worse than Cal used to be ‘oh but’.

Beth put her hand on my shoulder.

_Dec, sweetheart, I think what Amy’s trying to say, without hurting your feelings, is, maybe she could do with some time on her own where she doesn’t have to worry about how tired you are, whether you’ve had your lunch and how much you might be starting to smell.

Amy looked at Beth gratefully, but I felt like I’d been punched. I had envisaged spending the whole day with my girls.

)Sorry, hon, just a bit of down time, yeah? I need a shower myself, some sleep if I can. Charlie could do with another feed and a nap, she’s had a busy morning. Come back this afternoon, we’re not going anywhere. Can’t walk far with these stitches anyway.

I just sat and looked at them, on the verge of tears. I heard Jay and Beth quietly leave the room, Cal and Iz in their wake. Carol and Rose left too, Rose giving me a pat on the way. Nico squeezed my arm and Lis kissed me on the cheek. I hardly noticed them all go, and carried on looking at Amy. Looking at her properly, instead of through my love filter. She always looked beautiful to me, but she also looked tired, pale, wiped out. I pulled myself together.

‘I’m going to miss you. Fuck, Amy, I can’t believe how much I’m going to miss you both.’

)Take a photo, some video on your phone. You can send it to Mum, and you can look at us till later.

It was better than nothing, so I took my phone out, took pictures of Charlie, pictures of Amy, pictures of Charlie and Amy, video of Amy holding Charlie and waving, video of close-ups of Charlie looking at the camera. I hoped it was enough to last until I came back. I leaned over and held them. Kissed Amy, gave Charlie a gentle kiss on the forehead. Her skin was so soft, it felt like it might melt.

‘Can I just hold her before I go?’

)Oh Dec, of course.

I picked Charlie up and held her close, looking into her eyes.

‘I’ll be back, lovely girl, don’t forget me.’

)Dec, you’re going home for a few hours, not trekking to the Himalayas.

‘It feels like I’m going to be away forever though – a few hours is half her life! You wait till you have to leave her.’

)I’ll see you later, hon. Love you so much.

‘Love you too, babe. Will you marry me?’

)Yes, Dec, as I’ve said the last twenty, fifty, hundred times you’ve asked me, I will marry you.

‘Just checking.’

)Get out of here, before they send security.

I gave Charlie back, stroking her soft cheek and kissing her perfect forehead again.

‘Bye then.’

I backed towards the door, opened it and stepped out. Looked back through the window, almost unable to turn round and walk down the corridor. Blew my family a kiss – with a start followed by a huge grin I realised this was actually my family. Bits of me entwined with bits of Amy to make Charlie. We were tied together forever. It was the first time I’d ever known someone who was part of me, and it felt great. But now I had to leave them, and it felt crappy. I took a deep breath, then turned and ran down the corridor and out the main door before I could change my mind and chain myself to the bed.

Beth was waiting for me by the main entrance. I skidded to a halt, nearly running by her.

‘Sorry, Beth, didn’t see you.’

_Just checking you’re OK, sweetheart. It’s hard the first time, isn’t it?

‘So hard! I feel like I’ve left part of me back there.’

_Well I guess you have, in a way. Dec, it’s totally up to you, but how about coming over for lunch? Nothing special, just if you’d rather not be on your own. We can all do it together, like we used to. Extra helper now, with Iz.

As usual, Beth had seen what I needed before I’d even realised it myself. I was being torn away from my family, so she was offering me some alternative family time. I saw with new eyes what it meant to be called part of a family I hadn’t been born into, and felt doubly loved.

‘Beth, I’d love that. Your roast potatoes would really help. I’ll go home first, though, have the shower that everyone seems to think I need, pick up some stuff to bring in later.’

_Chocolate buttons?

‘Yeah, that kind of vital stuff. You would not believe how important chocolate buttons have been over the last few months. I seriously thought we might cause a global shortage.’

Beth laughed and touched my cheek.

_See you later, then, sweetheart.

She headed over to the car where Jay was waiting, engine going. I waved at them all, then tried to remember where I’d left my car. Eventually found it, parked at a bit of a crazy angle, a parking ticket on the windscreen.

‘Fuck.’

Got in, drove home.

Opening the front door to the flat felt slightly surreal. The last time I had been home, only two of us lived here. Now there were three of us, and everything had changed forever. Nothing had prepared me for how completely different I would feel, less than twenty four hours after leaving here the last time.

I sat on the sofa, pulled my phone out and watched the video of Amy and Charlie over and over. I hunted on my laptop for Diane’s email address, then I sent the photos and video to her, and also texted them to Rose, Beth, Lis and Matt for good measure. I found several packets of chocolate buttons, which I put by the front door to remind me to take them when I left. I went into our bedroom and found some baby clothes. We’d taken some in Amy’s bag when we left, but I just wanted to choose something myself; it made me feel a bit useful. I put the clothes next to the chocolate buttons. I had a shower, changed my clothes, cleaned my teeth, made myself presentable. I didn’t want to stay there any longer on my own, so I picked up the things I’d put aside and headed off to Jay and Beth’s.

It was an old fashioned Scott Sunday lunch, like we used to have when I lived there. We were all in the kitchen, Beth was directing operations, Cal was trying to be grumpy and uncooperative but couldn’t help being diverted by constant teasing from Jay and me. Iz wandered around finding bits of vegetable that had fallen on the floor and handing them to anyone who would take them. Despite the chaos, Beth eventually declared that we were just waiting for everything to finish cooking, and we could all go and sit down for five minutes.

_Unless someone would like to set the table?

łDec’s job.

Jay hurried out in the direction of the living room, closely followed by Cal.

‘Looks like it’s you and me, then, Iz. Help put the knives and forks out, sweetie? Look, here are the forks, can you carry them to the table? Put one on the side of the mat, like this. I’ll do the knives. Do you think we’ll have any pudding?’

/ice cream!

‘Well, there’s always a chance. Shall we put spoons out as well, then, in case there’s ice cream?’

/yes. Mummy have ice cream. Stawby an choccit.

‘Definitely spoons then.’

I turned round to get the spoons, and caught Beth watching us from the doorway. She had a strange smile on her face, and the hint of a tear in her eyes.

‘What?’

_You’re going to be great, that’s all. No, not going to be. Already are.

She turned round and went back into the kitchen.

Matt

We drove to the retail park and wandered around furniture shops, but I couldn’t concentrate on beds, and Jules got annoyed with me for fucking about too much. She was just telling me off for not taking it seriously, which I fully deserved, when I got a text from Dec. He had sent a video clip of Charlie and Amy, and my heart flipped when I saw it, as it brought all those feelings of want right back to the front of my mind. I showed Jules the video, not really knowing what I wanted her to say or do.

I knew she wasn’t into babies – we’d spent enough of the last nine months telling each other how not into babies we both were – so why I was so disappointed when she said, ‘All babies look the same to me. I’m sure she’s adorable.’, I don’t know. I felt like I’d been slapped, though. Charlie had had a profound effect on me, and I wasn’t used to Jules not feeling the same way as me about things.

We decided on a bed, or rather Jules decided and I agreed, having run out of the little enthusiasm I’d had by the time we’d got to the third shop.

Part of my mind was screaming something at me, something I didn’t want to hear, so I shoved it as far away as I could and pretended I wasn’t listening to the voice telling me that if I really wanted a family, if what I’d just become aware of really was what I wanted, I was going to have to face Jules with it. I could feel it bubbling inside me, and when we’d finally ordered the bed, and then Jules had gone off to lunch with her friend Evie, I was on my own, and I had to let it out and do something about it.

What I would usually have done is texted Dec on some pretext and arsed about until he worked out that I needed to talk about something. God forbid I ever actually came out and asked for help. But Dec was inconveniently engaged with the daughter who had caused all this, and I was going to have to rely on the back-up system that was Jay and Beth. I at least had enough insight to recognise that I needed to talk to someone, I just wasn’t relishing it being Beth.

So I got in the car and drove over to my brother’s house, feeling like my head was going to explode. I felt like my whole world had been stood on its end, like everything I thought I knew about myself had been tossed into the air and scattered. I felt anchorless. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted a family, which rather inescapably meant that I wanted children. And Jules didn’t.

I walked up the path to their front door, bracing myself as I rang the bell. Jay pretended to be surprised to see me, but Sunday lunch was always open house, and I often went along uninvited.

‘Matty! What’s this? We weren’t expecting company, I’d better get Beth to put some clothes on.’

‘Ha ha, the day Beth isn’t ready for visitors on a Sunday is the day the world ends. I just fancied a roast dinner. I knew you’d be good for it, you’re so predictable. And Beth always makes too much, I’m saving you wasting it, really.’

‘Good job we’re not having sushi this week then.’

‘That’s the thing about predictability; sushi tends not to be on the menu –’

As I walked into the living room, I saw Dec. I wasn’t sure what he was doing there, I thought he’d still be at the hospital, but I’d never been more relieved to see him.

Julia

Eventually, after I’d got cross with Matt for messing about in the bed shop, we had decided on a bed and a mattress. I got as sensible a decision from Matt as I could, and the whole process was a bit tiring. By the time we got back, I was in two minds as to whether to cancel Evie, but I hadn’t seen her for ages, and I wanted to tell her about moving in with Matt. I knew she wouldn’t tell anyone else, and I was interested in her reaction. She had met Matt a few times, and seemed to quite like him, but I knew she was still reserving judgement based on some of the things she’d heard about him.

Dec

Matt saw me, and a look of surprise and relief flickered across his face. The weird thing he’d had going on that morning was back, if it had ever gone away.

}Dec! Have you deserted them already?

‘No, I got kicked out. Some bad-ass nurse said Amy needed ‘mum and baby time’, whatever that means.’

}Probably means Amy paid them off to get rid of you so she can have Charlie all to herself. They’re bloody devious these women, saying it’s what always happens, they make it up as they go along half the time.

‘I’m beginning to think so. I thought you were doing stuff with Julia today?’

A wild-eyed, wary expression on his face. This was what was causing the weirdness – it was something to do with Julia. Matt was unlikely to talk to me about it while Jay and Beth were around, but he needed to get it out of his system. What he’d been thinking coming here, I didn’t know – he hadn’t known I would be here, and Beth would have noticed his agitation and been too curious for Matt to get away with not saying anything

Matt

I didn’t know how to begin, not here, not with Jay and Beth around. I don’t know why I’d thought I could talk about this with them, there’s no way I could have even started. I hoped I might be able to talk to Dec on my own, but didn’t hold out much hope, not today. Until I got the chance, I was going to have to try to act normally.

‘Just this morning. Free man this afternoon.’

Jay headed off into the kitchen, and I had my chance to at least ask Dec if he had time to talk, if indeed he had a few spare minutes before returning to the bosom of his family.

Dec

Something really wasn’t right. Matt seemed wired, as if he was trying too hard, losing control; I hadn’t seen him like this for a long time. Even Jay had picked up on it, and he raised an eyebrow at me before heading into the kitchen.

‘Well you’ve arrived just in time to avoid all the work, you jammy bastard.’

Matt

‘Good timing is a particular attribute of mine.’

But I didn’t seem to be using it to my advantage right now.

‘Fancy going for a beer after lunch?’

Oh thank fuck, he’d noticed something was up. I don’t know how he did it, but he always knew.

‘Yeah.’

Oh, but he’d be heading off again soon, surely?

‘Unless – when are you going back?’

‘No specific time. There’ll be plenty of opportunity for you to get it off your chest.’

‘Fuck, Dec, you know me too well. Thanks, mate, appreciate it.’

Dec

Matt was quiet through dinner, producing meaningful glances between Jay and Beth.

_Dec, when are you going back to see Amy?

‘A bit later, Matt and I are going for a beer first.’

Relief in their expressions. They knew Matt talked to me without quite as much fuss as if they were trying to crowbar information out of him.

łSounds good, mate. Actually, Beth, how about a trip out? We could go up on the moors, have a bit of a stroll, wrap everyone up.

\oh Dad …

łNo arguing, Cal, it’ll do us good.

Matt

I didn’t say much at dinner, and I could see Jay and Beth looking at each other, in-between the cooing over Charlie. In the end, Dec put Jay out of his misery and told him we were going for a drink. Jay decided a family outing was necessary, which left the house available for soul-baring. I had a fucking awesome family, which I didn’t appreciate often or deeply enough.

Once everyone else had gone, Dec got me a beer and himself a glass of water. I couldn’t let it pass, even though I knew his ‘I’m a professional athlete’ answer.

‘You’re a serious lightweight, Dec. Call yourself a rugby player? You give your sport a bad name.’

‘Ha ha, I have to be careful, it’s all sugar. Might allow myself one later. Maybe even two. Big day.’

‘She is amazing, I got your text.’

Thinking about Jules’ reaction when I showed her the video clip reminded me what I needed to think about, and I felt my face fall.

‘OK, Matt. Let’s do this. Spill.’

I ran my hands through my hair, took a deep breath and looked at Dec wretchedly. I didn’t want to say it, I didn’t want to talk about it, because then I’d have to do something about it, and I kind of knew what that was, but I didn’t want to address it. I looked away. If I wasn’t looking at him it might be easier to say.

‘I’m fucking freaking out.’

‘What, about Charlie?’

What? Maybe he got the wrong idea because I went all silent after I mentioned the video.

‘Fuck, no, mate. No, your text was just … shit, I suppose I should start at the beginning.’

‘It’s a very good place to start.’

Oh he wasn’t seriously quoting The Sound of Music?

‘Yeah, thanks for going all Julie Andrews on me when I’m baring my soul?’

‘Sorry.’

‘Anyway … well, Jules moved in with me last week, and we’ve been –’

Dec

‘Whoa, whoa, hold on, you can’t just slip that in like it’s nothing. Holy shit, Matt. I didn’t know things were that serious with you two.’

No one had known. It was typical of Matt to do something huge like move in with his girlfriend and then act like everyone must have known all along; he did it to try and avoid the inevitable family inquisition that would follow, but never seemed to realise that it just made people more curious about him and what he got up to.

Matt

I’d almost forgotten it was such a big deal. With everything else that had gone on in my head today, I’d managed to lose sight of the fact that Jules and I had this big secret we were keeping from the rest of my family. So now I had to go through all that first. And it wasn’t like it was just the moving in, none of them really knew how much we saw of each other, as I always gave them the brush off when they asked.

‘Yeah, well, that’s just it, I … we … didn’t want this big announcement, family gathering, meal, Beth going all ‘oh it’s so lovely’, Rose icing the wedding cake, Mum being all quietly hopeful, you and Amy rubbing your hands with glee going ‘you’re just like us now’. It’s not like that. I bloody love you all, but sometimes, fucking hell, it’s like you can’t have anything to yourself, it all has to be shared around.’

‘Are we really that bad?’

‘Sometimes. I need my space. Need people to back off.’

‘I know that.’

I’d always had a sneaking respect for Dec’s ability to throw himself into everything that was going on with this bloody family. He’d talk to anyone about anything, I don’t think I ever heard him say ‘none of your business’ or refuse to answer an impertinent question.

‘I don’t know how you do it, everyone knowing everything that’s going on with you. Do you keep anything to yourself?’

‘Not much, I guess, but Matt, I’m coming from a very different place to you. I kept too much to myself for too long, and it nearly destroyed me. It’s all out there now, so if I’m too pigheaded or dumb to see trouble coming, there’s all you lot to tell me. You’ve always had your family, and I’ve slowly added to it, pretty much without asking you. I can really see how it gets too much.’

That wasn’t it. I had never begrudged Dec and his added extras being part of my family. It had always seemed right, like he just belonged with us.

Dec

It sometimes bothered me that, much as I loved this crazy, random family, there were members of it who hadn’t had any choice in the crazy randomness, and might at times have wished that some of the more random bits of it weren’t there.

}Don’t get me wrong, mate, I wouldn’t change it, not any of it, fuck, where would I be without you all? Stuck in some care home, dribbling, most likely. I must sound like an ungrateful bastard. When I was ill, and Jay gave up his job to come and look after me, that was humbling. You realise what you’ve got. That’s part of what I’m freaking out about.

So that was reassuring – Matt wasn’t specifically freaking about the crazy random family having another new addition – but I needed to find out what was at the root of it all.

‘So … Julia moved in, and ..?’

}Well, OK, so we kind of did it all low key, Jules has been staying over more and more, I suppose it’s kind of happened gradually, there wasn’t really a huge ‘let’s do it’ moment, we just realised half her stuff was already there, it had happened and so she gave up her place. She’s not a big one for families, doesn’t always want to join in with everything we do. We agreed no announcements, we thought we might be able to pop it in the conversation sometime –

Matt

Even as I was saying it I realised what a forlorn hope that had been.

‘Er, you do know Beth, the one with the sixth sense, married to your brother, never misses a thing?’

‘Yeah, well, a bit of hope over experience, I suppose. So that’s what we agreed, and I’ve been pretty happy with that, part of me thinking ‘ha ha, I know something you don’t know’, feeling a bit smug. Then you go and have your bloody beautiful baby, and for me, it’s pretty intense. I was blown away, Dec, so much more than with Cal or Iz, even though they’re brilliant too. I don’t know why, but Charlie’s just got to me. I wanted Jules to come with me this morning, be part of it, but she was just like ‘no, it’s your family, I don’t really do babies’, and I was like ‘but it’s Dec’s baby, it’s a huge thing, please come’, but she wouldn’t.’

Dec

So maybe it was more about how Julia was reacting to the crazy randomness. It was certainly true that since Matt had started seeing Julia, he had been around less, had come to less of the meals and get-togethers. Maybe it was because Julia wasn’t keen, not because Matt had got tired of us. We hadn’t got to know her that well, because she often didn’t come with Matt when he visited, and we’d all said it could be because we were a raucous bunch and not everyone’s cup of tea.

‘Well, fair enough, I guess. We are pretty full on when we’re all together. It can be a bit intimidating.’

Matt

And yeah, that was part of it, it was full on when everyone was together, and if you weren’t that type of person, then you felt like you didn’t belong. Jules had told me she didn’t feel like she fitted in, but I didn’t think it bothered her that much; I hadn’t realised until now just how much it bothered me.

‘She’s not intimidated, she’s just … it’s one of the things … I liked her in the first place because she always does what she wants. If she doesn’t want to do something, she doesn’t make excuses, she just says so. You always know where you are with her. It’s not like she’s mean with it or anything, there’s just no bullshit. With all of us, she doesn’t feel part of it, doesn’t really want to, I guess. She’s got her own friends, her family live abroad, we don’t do everything together, don’t expect to. It’s been refreshing, she lets me get on with my stuff and she does hers, it makes doing stuff together more exciting somehow. This has been the first time I’ve really wanted her to do something with me and she’s said no. I told her it was important to me, and she still wouldn’t.’

‘Sounds like she’s being true to herself.’

And I knew that. I knew Jules was never going to change her mind, not for me, not for anyone. It was me who had changed, or at least who had deluded myself about who I was and what I wanted, and expecting her to understand, let alone compromise, was unreasonable.

‘Yeah. I know. But I’m wondering if I’ve made a bloody huge mistake. I’ve been so concerned with having my space and keeping my distance and feeling pleased with myself about you lot not knowing everything … when I was with you this morning, I realised I’d forgotten that as well as being a pain in the arse sometimes, our family is pretty bloody great too, and I want her to share it.’

‘You can’t make her, if it’s not what she wants.’

I knew that, too. I knew Jules never did anything she didn’t want to, especially if you tried to persuade her, but part of me just wanted to grab her, shake her and say ‘Look, this is what we could have’. But it wasn’t going to happen.

‘No, I know, but I think … I think I always thought things might gradually change, especially now we’re living together, and she’d get sucked in. Now, I don’t know if she will, and I’m worried I might start to get sucked out.’

This was all just kind of occurring to me as I was speaking. I hadn’t ever sat down and thought about it, but as I was saying it, I realised how true it was, how much I’d distanced myself from them for Jules, how much staying with her would mean more distance. It was something else to get my head round.

Dec

Matt usually wanted me to ask something specific, the thing that had been on his mind, so he could tell me without seeming to have made the first move. I wasn’t sure what that was yet, but he seemed uncertain, as if he felt he had to choose between Julia and his family. Maybe he did, although it would never be because we had forced the choice on him. If he was thinking about some kind of ‘one or the other’ situation, he probably wanted to be sure of how he felt.

‘Do you love her?’

A long pause. Matt looked everywhere but at me. Finally down at his fingers. This wasn’t the question he wanted me to ask; it had taken him by surprise, and he didn’t know how to answer me.

Matt

It was like Dec to get to the heart of things. I could ramble on, distract myself with a load of waffle and forget what I was trying to sort out, but Dec often cut through my bullshit with a short question. It was probably all his years of counselling. And the truth was, at that moment in time, that I didn’t know if I loved Jules. I hadn’t worked it all out then, everything was too much, and until this morning I hadn’t thought I needed to know if I loved her or not. Now it seemed important.

‘I don’t know. I like her a lot. I love being with her. Fuck if I know, I can’t work out what I feel anymore. I’m so scared of loving someone and it going to shit like it did with Carrie …’

I stopped speaking as all of that welled up in me and threatened to stop me in my tracks. I never talked about Carrie, to anyone, because talking about her made it hurt again, as if it had just happened. Telling Jules about her all those months ago had been hard, and it wasn’t an experience I was about to repeat. Carrie wasn’t the issue here, or at least not directly. I took some ragged breaths.

Dec

He stopped speaking. It was a blunt admission for Matt, and it probably brought up some old hurt. Although it didn’t seem like this was the thing that Matt wanted to talk about it, I decided to explore it a bit more. He wasn’t sure if he loved her, but they’d just moved in together …

‘So you haven’t said it to her?’

Matt

Oh get real, Dec. Everyone says it, all the time, without meaning it. Of course, he didn’t know about Jules’ anti-love thing, or that I said it to her as a joke.

‘Fuck yeah, always saying it, doesn’t everyone? ‘Love you’, text it, whatever. Being sarcastic half the time. Can’t not say it in bed, not the done thing, seems ungrateful somehow.’

As I was saying it, I was imagining what an knob I must look to Dec, and I couldn’t help but think what a git I’d been to Jules, albeit unintentionally.

Dec

‘Shit, Matt. Has she said it?’

Another pause. Matt looked like he couldn’t decide what to tell me. There was more to this than I was ever going to get to the bottom of.

Matt

I knew she hadn’t, would never say it, but I had to be honest about what would have happened if she had.

‘No. I would have run screaming to the hills.’

‘Fucking hell, Matt, you are one emotional fun-ride. Have you ever thought about investing in a therapist?’

‘No need, when I’ve got you. You can pass on the wisdom of your countless lengthy sessions with the lovely Adam.’

Nope, talking to Dec was as much psychoanalysis as I was ever going to get.

‘It is all a bit twisted, isn’t it. And it was all going so well until this morning. You had to fuck it all up by having your bloody bundle of joy.’

I didn’t mean it to sound as whiny as it did, and I saw a brief flicker of hurt cross Dec’s face.

Dec

That did take me by surprise. I’d thought we were somehow talking about Julia and Matt moving in together, and Matt maybe regretting it, but now it seemed like it was about Charlie. I felt a flare of protectiveness towards my not-yet-day-old daughter, who had done nothing to anyone and yet was being blamed somehow for Matt’s emotional fuck-ups.

‘My apologies, shall I send her back?’

Matt

I needed to explain what I meant, so he could see it was my shit I was whining about, not his daughter.

‘Too late. Another can of worms opened. Jules doesn’t want kids. Very adamant. Not the ‘I’ll say I don’t till I’ve trapped some poor bastard then I’ll change my mind’ not wanting, but seriously doesn’t do babies, or kids actually, at all.’

Dec looked puzzled.

‘Really? She’s great with Cal and Iz.’

‘I know, she makes an effort when she’s with them, throws herself into anything she does, that’s another thing I love about her. There’s lots of things I love about her. Anyway, I’ve always thought I was ambivalent about the whole kid thing, not really bothered about it one way or the other, if it happens one day in the far, far, way far future, so be it, but not grown up enough yet to even think about it, let alone come down on one side of the fence or the other.

Dec

I had always assumed that about Matt, too. I couldn’t remember ever specifically talking with him about wanting children, or not wanting them, but Matt’s whole life for the last few years had been about avoiding commitment and responsibility. It had seemed obvious.

}But this morning, seeing you and Amy and Charlie, and holding her, and what you’ve got, your little family, all the love, all the potential, everything you’re going to have and do together … I so fucking want it. I really, really want all that. Fucking hell, it’s knocked me for six, complete revelation. Dec, I don’t know what to do. Jules is never going to change her mind, I’m never going to have any of it with her. I showed her the video you sent, I was being all proud and uncley, and she had a look, and said ‘all babies look the same to me’. She wouldn’t even pretend for a second.

I was struggling to keep up with this new development. It seemed as far from the person Matt was as it was possible to be, but somehow, it felt right. I thought about how much time he had for Cal and Iz, how interested he’d been in Amy’s pregnancy when Julia wasn’t around, the look on his face this morning when he held Charlie, and it all made sense. Maybe Matt hadn’t realised himself, maybe he’d avoided the truth, but now he was going to have to face it, and what it meant for him and Julia, and I was going to have to help him do it.

Matt

This was what I was here for, so I could tell Dec how it was and ask him what to do.

‘Matt, you can’t have it both ways. You’re with her because she’s independent and knows what she wants and doesn’t bullshit. Now you’re feeling differently about some stuff, you can’t be annoyed with her because she speaks her mind. You need to talk to her, tell her what you’re feeling.’

But I didn’t want him to say that. I didn’t want him to say I had to talk to her, tell her what I was feeling. I already knew that, and I wanted him to say something different.

‘I just bloody knew you were going to say that. What the fuck do I say? “Sorry, Jules, I’ve made a terrible mistake, I know you’ve just given up your flat and moved in with me but you’re probably going to want to piss off again now, I’ve decided I want a baby”?’

I suppose that’s what I was going to have to say, in the end, albeit a little more sensitively.

‘You’re sure it’s what you want, not just some emotional reaction? Babies do funny things, make tough men go all soppy, all that shit.’

Yeah, I’d tried to convince myself of that as well, but no. This was something that came from deep within me.

‘I think … if I’m totally, brutally honest with myself, which, yeah, I know, I’m not very often, it’s always been something I wanted. But it wasn’t available, and it scared the shit out of me to think about, there’s all the commitment bollocks that goes with it, so I just arsed about to cover it up, and ended up convincing myself it didn’t matter to me one way or the other.’

Ah, the commitment bollocks. I said this wasn’t about Carrie, but it was, really, wasn’t it. Maybe if I’d been less … or more … oh shit, I really couldn’t think about it.

Dec

So he was being honest with himself, which was unusual for Matt. Now he needed to face up to the consequences.

‘Do you want her to move out?’

Matt

The thought of it made me go cold. Jules had only been living with me a week, but it was my life now, and thinking of doing any of it without her was untenable.

‘Fuck no. I like her being there. She makes me laugh, she’s good for me, she’s very caring, we talked about what would happen if I get ill again, she’s not fazed by any of that. We like doing the same things, we give each other space, we kind of get each other. She’s fucking hot too, and we’re bloody good together. But this just feels like a huge thing. Too fucking huge. I don’t know if it can work.’

‘OK, I know it’s not what you want me to say, but you need to talk to her. If it’s too huge, it’s better that you both know now, rather than get months or years down the line and end up hating each other and bitter because she didn’t know that was how you felt. Or, even worse, if she got pregnant. It happened to us, and it was what we both wanted. If that happens, and you want it and she doesn’t, that could be really messy, you’re both going to end up getting really hurt. Tell her, Matt. If she’s a straight talker, she’ll appreciate it in you too.’

I’d hoped that he would find another way, something that would mean I didn’t have to tell her. But there was no other way, I’d known that all along really.

Dec

Matt was just about the furthest thing from a straight talker it was possible to be. He loved talking, using words to win arguments, to baffle people, to show off, and he often took the long way round instead of getting to the point. It felt like he was going to need to try a different route if he stood a chance of making anything work with Julia.

}Oh just stop making so much sense. I’m regretting telling you now.

‘No you’re not, it’s why you wanted to talk to me. You know what you’ve got to do, you just wanted someone to confirm it.’

Matt

‘Adam speak?’

It sounded like the sort of thing a shrink might say. It was also the truth.

‘Dec speak. Maybe a hint of Adam. Seriously, mate, talking to me is all very well; who knows, it might help you sort things out in your head, but nothing will change unless you talk to Julia.’

‘OK, I’m getting the point. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. I really thought I was going to able to avoid deep and meaningfuls with Jules. Never thought I’d be the cause of one.’

I couldn’t remember having many myself, and most of them had been over in a matter of minutes. That was unlikely to be the case this time.

‘Do it soon.’

‘Yeah. I know. Shit, we just bought this fucking expensive bed. That’s what we were doing this morning. I should have put it off, I had all these nagging thoughts, just ignored them.’

‘Matt, talking to her doesn’t have to mean it’s over, maybe you can work something out.’

Yeah Dec, like what?

‘Did you ever have a deep and meaningful that ended well?’

‘Well, a few with Amy, yeah. Massive one with Jay years ago. I’ve actually found that things tend to end better if you talk about them rather keeping quiet. But that’s just me.’

‘Well … maybe there’s some hope for me then. I guess I’ll just have to give it a go.’

Maybe Jules wouldn’t react like I thought she would, like I’d betrayed her. Maybe she’d think of a way this could work. Maybe. I sighed, put my face in my hands, took a deep breath. I knew I had to do it soon, before I lost my courage.

‘I suppose I shouldn’t delay it.’

Another deep breath, while I waited in the hope that Dec would come up with a reason why I didn’t have to do it straight away, but he didn’t, the bastard.

‘OK then, best go off and do the deed. Fuck, Dec, sorry, didn’t mean to piss on your day.’

‘No worries, not feeling pissed on at all. Let me know how it goes, yeah?’

‘Yeah. Wish me luck.’

Although I was going to need more than the mythical gods of fate to help me now.

‘Luck, mate’

I stood up and walked out, got in my car and drove away.

Dec

I felt bad for Matt, and wished him well. I would give him a call later and see how it went, but for now I had a new family to think about. I got my phone out so I could talk to Amy.

)Hey, when are you coming back?

‘When am I allowed?’

)Oh, Dec, it’s not like that. Come back now, please, hon. We miss you. Where are you?

‘At Jay’s. I had dinner here, then had a chat with Matt. They’ve all gone out.’

)Sounds like you could do with some female company. I know just the girl. She’s petite, blue eyes, dark hair, no teeth, hell of a pair of lungs on her –

‘Sounds perfect, I’ll be right there. I like a woman with no teeth. Even better if she’s wearing a nappy.’

)Then it’s your lucky day.

‘Ha ha, see you soon babe.’

I hung up and texted Jay to let him know I was locking up.

Jay: =How’s Matty?

Me: =So-so b on standby.

Jay: =What’s happened?

Me: =I’ll let him tell u.

Jay: =Very informative, thanks.

Matt

I went over and over it in my mind while I drove back home, thinking so hard that I wasn’t concentrating on driving, and ran a red light. I thought of several different ways to say it, all of which ended badly, and by the time I reached the flat I was so nervous my legs shook all the way up the stairs.

When I got in, though, Jules wasn’t there. She must still be with Evie. All of my pent up nervous energy needed somewhere to go, to do something, but there was nothing to do but wait. I thought about texting, but didn’t know what to say, so I waited, tying myself up in more mental knots.

I rehearsed all the ways I could think of to start it all off, what I would say to begin. It wasn’t going to be pretty, however I did it, but at least if I started out right, I could hope Jules might listen to the rest of it. Then I started to talk myself out of saying anything. Maybe I was just having a late crisis about moving in together. It was huge for me, well for both of us, and we’d done it pretty quickly; perhaps it was a delayed backlash, subconsciously looking for a way out.

I’d sorted it all out in my head, that it was just cold feet, and then I thought of Dec’s face when I told him I hadn’t said anything, and how feeble my excuses would sound. And that’s all they were; excuses.

Julia

Evie and I spent the afternoon talking, laughing and catching up. I told her about Matt, and she hugged me and congratulated me, and I could see from the look in her eyes that although she was pleased I was happy, she was holding back some concern.

‘So you’ve finally done it then, Jules. I never thought I’d see you living with someone.’

‘I know, but it’s been surprisingly easy. There wasn’t this big build up when I was worrying about if he was going to ask me, it was suddenly just out there, and I did lose it a bit on the day we decided, but then I just realised it was right, and it had happened anyway. We’ve been getting on very well, no arguments, we both like things the same way, really.’

‘Hmm. You’re just perfect for each other.’

‘Don’t be like that. I think we are. I never thought I’d hear myself say that, I used to think he was a complete tool, but I really think he’s changed. I mean, yes, he’s completely sex mad, but only with me, and that’s fine. Better than fine.’

‘Jules, you’re so loved up. He could poke bloody needles in your eyes and you’d say it was because you like the same things.’

‘I’m not loved up. You know I don’t do love, and he doesn’t either. That’s what’s so great, we both know where we stand, there’s not this big romantic thing that’s not real. It’s all completely real. It just makes sense.’

‘OK, my lovely whatever you say. Good for you. It sounds like it’s what you want.’

‘It is, we both want the same things, or don’t want them to be more accurate. He’s got this huge family, lots of children and babies, but he doesn’t want to do all that, so he’s perfect for me.’

Evie nodded, but didn’t say anything.

‘So, anyway, I’ve bent your ear enough. Tell me about your boss.’

By the time Evie had finished pouring her heart out about her job, it was late afternoon and I was really tired. I loved spending time with my best friend, but I’d been woken up early after little sleep, then we’d shopped for the bed, and Evie’s off-loading had finished up the little energy reserves I had. Resisting her asking me to stay for tea, I drove home. Matt’s car was in his parking space, and I wondered if he was as tired as me. Maybe we could curl up in bed together for a sleep, or have an early night.

Matt

When I heard Jules’ key in the door, I knew it wasn’t cold feet. I knew I had to tell her, and I had to do it now. I felt the blood drain from my face, leaving me feeling sick and lightheaded.

Julia

I knew something was wrong the minute I walked in the door. Matt was sitting on the sofa with his head in his hands, and for a brief second I was reminded of that first day, when I woke up on his sofa after we’d had sex. Then I shook the thought from my head, but other concerns were lining up to make their own suggestions. He looked up and gave me a thin smile as I closed the door behind me, but he looked washed out, tired and emotional.

‘Hey you.’

‘Hello. Are you alright? You don’t look very well.’

‘Can we talk?’

‘I’m really tired, Matt, can it wait?’

I knew that waiting never helped a situation, but I really didn’t feel I could hold my own in a serious conversation just at the moment. I didn’t know what was going on with Matt, if he was having a delayed reaction to me moving in, or something else, maybe he was experiencing symptoms of MS again, but whatever it was, it looked bigger than I felt able to cope with right at that moment.

‘I don’t think it can, Jules. It’s important. There’s something I need to say.’

I sighed and sat down, my visions of a cosy nap together disappearing, and my stomach contracting with apprehension.

‘Alright then.’

Matt looked at the floor and fiddled with his fingers.

‘Holy fuck, this is hard.’

As I waited, my heart started to beat faster, and my head started to buzz with the anticipation of what he was going to say.

‘OK. I know we’ve talked about stuff and … we’ve got similar … we kind of think the same about a lot of shit and maybe I’ve … oh bollocks I had it all straight in my head. Let me start again. This morning, Dec’s baby, it’s kind of … no, I need to just …’

I couldn’t make any sense of it, and my patience ran out.

‘Matt, please can you just say whatever it is you want to say? I haven’t got the energy to sort through all this.’

‘Sorry. Sorry, Jules. OK. OK. Here’s the thing. I hope I haven’t misled you … I really have only just … shit, this is so hard.’

‘Matt, please, you’re worrying me. Please just say whatever it is.’

‘I want children.’

My heart nearly stopped. My blood nearly froze. It was the one thing, the one thing that was insurmountable, non-negotiable. Anything else – serious illness, a gambling addiction, a need to paint the flat black and recite poetry all day – anything else, I could have coped with it, dealt with it, discussed it and come to terms with. Children were not part of that deal, wanting children was a deal-breaker, and Matt knew that. I hoped I’d misheard him, or misunderstood him.

‘What?’

‘I’m sorry. I was trying to say it better than that, I didn’t mean to just blurt it.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’m so sorry, Jules, I didn’t know. I honestly didn’t know, until this morning, it started when Dec rang, I just felt weird, kind of jealous, and then I went to see them, and Charlie, she’s so … small and … I didn’t know but … as soon as I saw her, saw them with her, it just kind of clicked, I realised that’s what I want.’

My heart still stuttered, my blood still chilled. He was still talking, and it wasn’t getting any better. Oh God oh God oh God, he really meant it. He wanted children, out of the blue, when yesterday he did not.

‘How can you not have known?’

‘I don’t know. I’m pretty good at avoiding stuff. But I swear, all those conversations we’ve had, I meant it, I thought I fucking meant it. I haven’t lied to you, it wasn’t until today that I knew.’

‘So … what are you expecting from me? Are you expecting me to have your children?’

‘No … I know how you feel about it. I just wanted to be honest with you about how I’m feeling.’

I could feel myself losing my grip on my temper, on all my emotions, as everything I thought was in my power began to slip away from me. I could feel my life spinning out of my control, falling out of my hands. My heart started again with a lurch, in fact now I could feel my heartbeat getting faster, and my cheeks flush as my voice rose.

‘Well it’s a pity you didn’t feel the need to be honest before I uprooted my whole life and moved in here with you, isn’t it. I’ve made a commitment to you, the biggest commitment I’ve ever made to anyone, and it’s all based on fucking lies and pretence.’

‘Jules …’

‘I’ve just wasted the best part of a year of my life on you, thinking you were someone you’re not.’

‘Jules, please believe me, I’ve only just worked it all out. I wasn’t deceiving you. If you’d have asked me yesterday, do I want kids, I’d have said no, or at least said fuck knows. I know I have no right to say this, but … is there any way we can work this out? I don’t want to lose you.’

The effrontery of it galvanised me. He had just told me the one thing that was going to split us up, and now he wanted to know how to make it better.

‘How exactly do you think we’re going to work it out, Matt? You want kids, I don’t. One of us is going to be very fucking disappointed. Well it’s not going to be me.’

I felt my anger rising up in me like a flood. I stood up, unable to contain myself, needing to do something significant. There was a coffee cup by the sofa; I picked it up and hurled it at the wall, where it smashed satisfyingly, splattering brown droplets across the Farrow and Ball Shaded White paintwork, and dribbling down towards the floor. Smashing things felt good, and I looked for more things to break.

In the meantime, I hurled more words at Matt. I can’t even remember exactly what I said, but they were vile, horrible words because I felt vile and horrible, because the way he’d betrayed me was vile and horrible. At that moment, I hated him; he had been perfect for me and he had just taken that away.

Matt sat looking at me as I screamed at him, his sad expression making me more and more angry. I found the plates, and threw them on the floor and at the wall as I hurled vitriolic insults him. I found the wine glasses we’d chosen together and smashed them one by one on the kitchen worktop as I screamed my pain at him.

I wanted to hurt him; I nearly threw things at him, but I stopped myself and threw them so near him that he flinched as they shattered near his head. He was a lying fucking arsehole, and I told him so, and finally I told him I never wanted to see him again. Then, before I really did him an injury, I left.

Just before I did, I took the keys to the flat out of my bag and turned round. Matt had got to his feet and was heading towards me. I didn’t want him to touch me, or be anywhere near me, so I launched the keys at him as hard as I could. They hit him in the face, and he stumbled backwards as I turned and went through the door, slamming it behind me and running down the stairs as fast as I could, blinded by the tears I could at last allow myself to release.

64. You’ve got to hide your love away

In which people say they love each other without using words.

Matt

I crashed into bed only when I could no longer keep my eyes open. I thought I’d lie awake ruminating, but I must have tired myself out with it all, because I was suddenly aware of my phone trilling at me. It wouldn’t usually have woken me up, not much did, but the sound was the FaceTime alert, and it must have permeated my slumber as significant. I grabbed the phone off the bedside table and saw Jules’ name. Even in my mid-sleep fog, I knew it was important.

‘Hey you.’

As her face appeared on my pillow and I tried to work out what she wanted to say, I aimed for casual, trying to make it seem as if the rest of my life didn’t depend on the next few minutes.

‘Hello.’

‘You OK?’

‘Yes.’

And it seemed as if I was going to have to drag it out of her.

‘Is there a reason you’ve called me at …’

I checked the time

‘… What The Fuck o’clock?’

‘Yes.’

Jules could be beyond frustrating sometimes, and now she was answering my questions with less than the bare minimum of information, and I couldn’t help feeling irritated.

‘Oh good, because I really wouldn’t want to just be lying here asking random questions. As long as there’s a fucking reason, that’s bloody fine.’

‘I already am.’

This floored me. What the fuck was that supposed to mean? My brain was wrapped in sleep and the previous day’s circular thinking, and I couldn’t work it out.

‘Already are what?’

‘Living with you.’

‘Oh.’

I couldn’t tell if this was a good thing or a bad thing, and was still wary about putting another foot wrong.

‘Meaning …’

‘Meaning, I’ve been here all day, thinking, and I eventually realised that even apart from all my stuff being at your place, this isn’t my home any more. I feel more at home over there, with you. I already am living with you, just maybe neither of us realised it. Until today.’

Oh thank you all that is holy and good, she’s OK with it. Somehow, it’s been pulled back from the jaws of disaster, and I can breathe.

‘So you’re not going to dump me for having the temerity to suggest a slightly longer term relationship?’

Just checking. Always good to check and double check you’re not going to be dumped.

‘No.’

I felt myself untense, which unleashed a diatribe borne of relief.

‘Thank fuck for that. Oh Jules, I thought I’d fucking blown it. Shit, I’ve been thinking about you all day, wondering if I should call or text. I shouldn’t have just blurted it, it just kind of occurred to me, and next thing I knew I was saying it, and I should have been as fucking freaked as you, but like you said, it had already happened, and that’s not quite as fucking terrifying as planning it, in some weird way, so as soon as I saw your face I realised I’d fucked up, but I couldn’t unsay it, and then –’

‘Matt, stop.’

I stopped.

‘You’re burbling.’

‘Sorry, I’m just so fucking relieved.’

‘I get that.’

‘Are you OK, though? You’re not like ‘oh well all my stuff’s there I suppose I’m going to have to’, even though you don’t really want to, are you?’

‘Do you even know me at all? Does that sound like the sort of thing I’d say?’

‘Ha ha, no, I suppose not, I’m just having my own little insecure moment – well, I’ve been having them all day, I suppose. I knew you needed to go off and have a think, but not knowing what you were thinking was bloody awful. I kept going ‘she’ll be OK’ and then ‘no, she’ll dump you’ and then ‘you should call’ and then ‘don’t be a twat, that’s the last thing she wants’.’

‘Well now you know what I want. I want to live with you.’

‘Holy fuck, Jules, this is huge. Both of us, making some bloody enormous commitment. Fuucking hell.’

I widened my eyes at her as it sunk in. I’d never asked anyone to move in before. With Carrie, it was half an assumption on my part, and half a reluctant ‘oh well if I must, my house is being sold and I haven’t got a choice’ on her part, and so this really was the biggest thing I’d ever done – we’d ever done. Jules had never shared a home with anyone, at least not a romantic partner. It really was commitment city for us.

‘But we’re not, really, are we. It’s still like it was in the beginning, in a way, we’re still finding out how it works, seeing how it goes. I think I’m going to give the flat up, though.’

Ha ha, Jules, yeah, let’s just keep this little fantasy going a bit longer. No, of course, it’s no big deal, you move in here and give your flat up and change both of our lives, and it’s just business as usual really. And I went along with it, because that’s how I wanted it to be as well.

‘Whoa, blow my fucking mind why don’t you.’

‘Yes, well, it makes sense, but we’re going to have to sit down and do it all properly, splitting bills and everything.’

I put on a mock serious expression. This was just Jules being Jules, making sure she knew how things were going to be.

‘Yes, of course, how wise and sensible, it’s a good job we’re not hopeless romantics.’

‘It’s a bit late at night to talk about the specifics, maybe we can do it tomorrow, after work, when we get home.’

‘I like the sound of that – ‘when we get home’. You’re not putting up any bloody girly fairy lights or furry cushions or shit, though.’

Jules wasn’t the only one who could call the shots about how it was going to be. I saw her suppress a smile.

‘Maybe that could be a point of negotiation.’

‘Nope, not negotiable. If I’d thought you were the fairy light and cushion type of woman, I’d never have asked.’

This was partially true. I knew Jules’ tastes, they were similar to mine, and it was another reason I’d been able to speak without thinking yesterday morning.

‘Maybe I’ve hidden my penchant for twinkling illuminations and plush furnishings from you all this time.’

‘You’d better bloody not have, you’re in for a big disappointment if you think my – our – place is having a womanly makeover.’

I paused to grin.

‘Jules, come home. Now?’

We both smiled at those words.

‘No, it’s way too late. I don’t expect you want to sleep.’

‘Fuck no, I want to celebrate.’

I was completely awake, now, and I wanted my girl here at home, in our bed, party for two.

‘Well that’s all very well for you, with your cushy part time job where you can roll up any time of the morning, or indeed afternoon, but I need to be in early, and I need my sleep.’

‘Please?’

‘This might be the last night I get to spend in my comfy bed.’

‘There’s not much of the night left. Wait, are you saying my bed’s not comfy?’

Although it was true that I slept better in Jules’ bed, even though we were hardly ever there. Not that I was going to admit it.

‘Not as comfy as mine.’

‘Bloody cheek. My bed’s the best.’

‘Well we’ll just have to agree to differ.’

‘Maybe … we won’t. How about, as a kind of ‘welcome Jules’ present, we buy a new bed? A bloody huge one with a telly that slides out of the end, and built in speakers, and a massaging mattress and –’

I was even willing to go shopping with her. I was a hopeless case.

‘Actually, a new bed that we’ve both chosen does sound like a good idea. I think we might have to compromise on some of the added extras.’

‘You’re not even here yet and you’re making me compromise. Might have to reassess … nah, you’re still fucking worth it. OK, here’s another compromise, just so you know I can. Come home, Jules, and sleep. I promise. I’ve got a hard-on the size of the Empire State Building, but I’ll ignore it for you, and let you snore away.’

It was the most magnanimous of gestures, as far as I was concerned. I might have to forego the party for two, but there would be plenty of other opportunities, and if it got her over here tonight, it would be worth it. I just wanted to hold her.

‘I do not snore.’

‘You bloody do snore. Mrs Bartlett from upstairs was down earlier complaining about it.’

‘If Mrs Bartlett from upstairs was complaining about noises from the bedroom, I doubt it was just me she would have been hearing.’

‘Well, there is that.’

‘So I can really just go to sleep?’

‘Yeah. Promise. Thinking about Anne Widdecombe as we speak.’

‘Alright then.’

‘Woohoo.’

I may have fist-pumped in the manner of a small boy.

‘See you in a bit.’

I opened the door to the bedroom, then got back into bed, so that when Jules arrived I could watch her coming through the front door, coming home, for the first time.

Julia

I disconnected, grabbed my car keys and my bag and drove across the city to Matt’s – or rather our – apartment. It was very early in the morning, and it all felt a bit unreal. As I pulled up outside and stopped the car, I took several deep breaths, and then made my way inside. Matt was waiting in bed, the bedroom door open and soft light spilling out into the living room; the rest of the flat was in darkness. I shut the door and called out.

‘Hi honey I’m home.’

‘What bloody time of night do you call this? Your dinner’s in the dog.’

I reached the bedroom and leaned on the door frame looking at Matt as he lay in bed, hands behind his head.

‘We haven’t got a dog.’

‘Oh yeah. Jules, we should get a dog.’

‘No dogs.’

‘But I’ve already given him a name. Frederick Ponsonby Smythe the Third.’

‘No dogs.’

‘Poor Frederick will be heartbroken. He’s a cockapoo.’

‘No dogs. Also, while we’re at it, no cats, birds, rodents or anything else that needs feeding or shits indiscriminately. Except you, of course. You can stay.’

‘You’re hilarious.’

He pulled the duvet back and patted the sheet.

‘Come on then, first night in your new place, big moment. Excited?’

‘I’m managing to control myself.’

Although I admit my heart was beating a little faster than usual. I walked over to the bed and felt under the pillow for my t-shirt, then laughed softly to myself.

‘It’s all making sense. I keep my old tshit here, I’ve brought half my books over, I even found myself wondering where to put one of my pictures the other day. How did we not realise?’

‘Which picture? It had better not be a bloody kitten.’

I pulled off my clothes and put my sleeping shirt on, while Matt watched appreciatively, then I got in to bed. He put his arm round me and I tucked myself in close to him.

‘Starry Starry Night. Van Gogh.’

‘I bloody love that painting. He painted it from his room in the loony bin.’

‘I know. I know practically everything there is to know about it. I’ve had the print for years.’

‘Where were you going to put it?’

‘On the wall.’

‘Ha ha, yeah, good move, otherwise we’d be stepping on it and shit.’

‘In here? Above the chest of drawers.’

He looked over at the spot and considered.

‘Yeah. I think it’d look great. Bring it over, we’ll do it.’

‘Really?’

‘Really. See, I’m not territorial or anything, this is totally our place, together. You weren’t thinking of moving anything or changing anything else in any way whatsoever though, were you?’

‘Weell, I thought we might have to paint the walls purple. It’s kind of a deal-breaker.’

‘Right then. Out you go, you’re no longer welcome. It’ll just be me and Frederick from now on.’

He pulled me into his arms and folded me up. I felt his erection nudging me.

‘Anne didn’t work her magic this time then?’

Matt

‘Ha ha, well, she did at the time, and then you showed up and shook your tits at me, and all Anne’s hard work went down the drain. It’s not a problem. You go to sleep. Look, putting the light out.’

And my intentions were honourable, but you know how it is, you’ve got a gorgeous woman lying next to you, old tshit and no fuking pants, and you’re too excited to sleep. And even though you’ve promised, and she’s tired, well, she’s fucking hot, and you’re trying to ignore your hard-on, but you just can’t help wondering if she’s as tired as she says she is. So I gave her a goodnight kiss, and I suppose it was a bit more than a peck on the cheek, seeing as it was a snog on the lips, and there was tongue action.

Julia

‘That’s not noticeably helping me get to sleep.’

‘Sorry. I’ll behave.’

I lay in his arms and waited. I didn’t have to wait long.

Matt

And I tried, I really did. I tried for at least a minute.

‘Jules …’

‘Yes.’

‘How sleepy are you?’

‘Pretty sleepy.’

She did sound tired. And it had been a full on day for both of us. And she had to get up earlier than I did. I should just stop, be a gent, behave myself like I’d promised.

‘Oh. OK.’

But it was so fucking hard, when I was … so fucking hard.

Julia

I waited some more.

‘Jules …’

‘Mm.’

‘You’re not asleep yet, then?’

‘Apparently not.’

‘Are you nearly?’

‘Well I might be, if I didn’t keep getting asked if I was asleep yet.’

I smiled to myself, knowing I was going to give in eventually. I waited a little bit longer.

Matt

No, she was right, I was being annoying, and I was also breaking my promise, which just wasn’t right on our first night of cohabitation. But she was so gorgeous, and I wanted her so much.

‘Jules …’

‘Oh for fuck’s sake.’

She pushed me onto my back and straddled me, and I got my way. I’m pretty sure she didn’t mind, really, if what happened after that was any kind of measure …

Julia

‘Welcome home, Jules.’

‘Can I get some sleep now?’

‘By all means.’

‘Thanks.’

‘My pleasure.’

‘I think Mrs Bartlett might be glad of some sleep too.’

‘I aim to please.’

‘Goodnight Matt.’

‘Goodnight Jules. Goodnight Mrs Bartlett.’

Matt

And there we were, a week later, all moved in and living together. To say things had happened quickly was a bit of an understatement; I certainly got to see Jules in decisive mode. She had given notice on her flat and negotiated a quick release from her tenancy by the end of the next day, and organised removals and storage for all her stuff. We took the day off to move her in on the Friday, naturally being banned by Jules from telling anyone at work what we were doing, so I had to fend Lexi off from curiosity killed the receptionist overload (‘So are you going away for the weekend together?’ ‘Yeah, kind of.’ ‘Kind of? How’s that?’ ‘Kind of a mystery tour.’ ‘What?’ ‘Tell you later.’). We didn’t tell anyone, actually, be they work, family, friends, anyone. I wanted to see how long it would take Beth’s spidey-sense to work it out, and liked having something of mine that wasn’t constantly being examined and picked apart by the rest of the family. It felt good having Jules all to myself, at least for a while, and I know she was more than happy with things that way.

Ever practical, the first thing Jules wanted to do was divvy up the bills, so while she was working things out I took a hammer to the bedroom wall and put up a hook for her Van Gogh print. It looked great there. It said ‘this is Jules’ bedroom too’, and I liked it a lot.

Julia

The next few days were a mad whirl of arrangements and organisation. I contacted my landlord to give notice on my flat, and he had a new tenant lined up twenty-four hours later. He agreed to waive my month’s rent if I could move out by the weekend, so Matt and I had to decide which items of my furniture we wanted to have at his place, and which ones I was going to, firstly, store and then eventually move up to Norfolk. I still hadn’t decided what to do with Nons’ house; renting it out was a possibility, but until I decided, I could keep my things there.

Matt and I took the day off on the Friday, hired a van, and spent the day shifting furniture and boxes from my flat to the storage place and his flat. We had decided not to tell anyone about me moving in, not to make a big deal about it. Matt warned me that if Beth found out – ‘or rather when she finds out, she always finds shit out’ – she would want to throw a party or at the very least have a big meal together ‘to welcome me to the family’, and we didn’t want that. We hoped we could just take it slowly and get used to it in our own time; Dec and Amy’s baby was due in a week or so, and that would deflect the focus from us – we hoped we might then be able to drop it into a conversation so no one noticed.

We sorted out practicalities like rent and food – Matt owned his apartment, so we agreed I would pay half his mortgage as rent, and we decided to stick to our current shopping arrangements. This meant that Matt would continue to shop online, and I would go out to choose my own food when I felt like it. We could always change things later. I brought my Starry Starry Night picture over as part of my van load, and Matt put up a picture hook for it. We lay in bed and looked at it on that Friday night.

‘Perfect.’

‘You’re pretty handy with a hammer.’

‘I know. I have many hidden talents.’

‘You know what would look even better in here?’

Matt looked at me suspiciously.

‘No, what?’

‘A bright pink furry duvet. And some multi-coloured fairy lights kind of draped around the –’

Matt cut me off with a hefty kiss, which had the dual impact of shutting me up and leaving me breathless.

‘Or, maybe, I’ve seen these lovely cushions in a catalogue, they’d look –’

Another kiss stopped me from continuing, this time coupled with his hand travelling under my shirt and pinching my nipple fairly hard.

‘Are you liking my ideas then? How about, Margie was telling me about this wallpaper you can get that’s got tiny kittens all over it, it sounds so –’

He flipped me onto my back and pinned my wrists above my head with both hands, nudged my legs apart with his knee and laid his whole weight on top of me. It nearly suffocated me, but he didn’t stay like that for long.

Lifting his torso from mine, Matt bent his head down and sealed my mouth with his, biting and sucking at my lips and tongue fiercely. He started to thrust against me, not inside me yet, but rubbing hard along me, setting me on fire. He lifted his mouth from mine and raised an eyebrow when I didn’t speak, then briefly supported himself on one arm as he reached down to position himself to enter me. That achieved, he clamped his mouth over mine again and began to pound into me. I wrapped my legs around his back, wanting more, wanting him to thrust harder and faster, our tongues tangling with each other’s, my hands still pinned above my head, him in me and me around him, both grunting with exertion and groaning with pleasure, as we raced each other to our mutual detonation. I felt him stiffen, and clenched him tightly.

‘Oh fuck, Jules, fuck yeah, fuck, fuck, ahhh, oh fuuuck, unhh.’

I felt him shudder into me once, twice and then a final time, and then I felt my own fireworks start as he continued to move in me, using his fingers on my clitoris to pull all the tingling throbbing from all over my body to that one place in my centre, and then ignite it in a swirl of sensation and light that flooded through me and took me with it on a wave of delirium.

I lay for some time, unable to think, hardly able to catch my breath, arms flung wide, Matt lying half on top of me, panting, both of us slippery with sweat. Eventually, I could move and I wriggled out from under Matt, who rolled over and pulled me to him, kissing me tenderly.

‘Well, fuck me, I hope that’s taught you not to go all girly on me.’

‘Oh, was I offending your masculinity? Is that why you were so, so manly and domineering?’

‘There’s only so much girl shit I can take before my testosterone takes over. Let that be a warning to you.’

‘Or a lesson in how to get it rough if I want it.’

‘Fuck yeah, that too. But if you want it rough, you seriously only have to ask.’

‘Sometimes it’s more fun not to have to.’

‘Julia Marran, you are one deviously wicked woman.’

He wrapped me up in his arms and we drifted off to sleep together.

Matt

We settled into life together almost immediately. I had expected Jules to have a little wobble, maybe try to exert her independence in some way, but nothing really changed apart from waking up together every morning and going to bed together every night, and that was awesome, more than awesome.

Sleeping with Jules had always been great, but being in this new phase of us brought an intensity to the bedroom that I hadn’t anticipated. We still pretty much did our own thing at other times, going in, staying out, doing stuff together and apart, and at the end of the first week we knew it felt great, like things were really working, why hadn’t we done it before?

Julia

And things were great that first week. I really enjoyed living within walking distance of work, and surprised myself by feeling totally at ease calling Matt’s place home. We were easy with each other, too, not noticeably changing our routine – Matt went out to watch football in the pub, I read my book when Matt was there and when he wasn’t, we both cooked meals, and we went out to dinner once. I was feeling settled and happy.

Matt

It was a Saturday, Jules had been living with me for a week and a day, and she had gone shopping before I’d got up. There was a Raiders home game that day, and I was taking Cal, as I had started to do regularly since he first asked me a few months ago. I was sitting watching a football preview programme on TV when my phone rang with Dec’s ringtone.

‘Hey mate.’

‘Hey. Amy’s in labour.’

I felt a little thrill of anticipation. Despite all the scoffing Jules and I had done about the whole baby thing, it was still my best mate who was about to become a dad. It was a big moment.

‘Holy shit. Are you on your way to hospital then?’

‘No, I don’t think they’ll want us there yet. I’m not going to be playing today, though, Don’s let me pull out of the squad.’

‘Bugger. Oh well, I’m sure there’s someone as good if not better waiting in the wings.’

‘Yeah, whatever.’

He sounded a bit worried – once you lost your place in the team, it could be hard to get it back, but babies tended not to care much about that when they decided to make their arrivals. Just ask Lau how convenient her labour was.

‘Don’t worry, mate, I hear Raiders are looking for ball boys. I’m sure you’ll find something to do.’

‘Piss off. Are you taking Cal?’

‘Yeah, heading off to pick him up in a bit. Hope it all goes well your end – let me know, yeah?’

‘Yeah, although if it’s a middle of the night job, we won’t be telling anyone until morning. Boss’s orders.’

By which I assumed he meant Amy and not Beth, although you couldn’t always tell.

‘OK mate, well good luck, keep me posted.’

Julia

The next Saturday, I called Evie in the morning and arranged to go and see her for lunch the next day. Matt and I were going to go bed shopping in the morning, but that left the afternoon free. He often went to Jay and Beth’s for Sunday lunch, whether he was invited or not, and I decided not to go with him mainly because baby speculation was reaching fever pitch but also because I didn’t want to run the risk of them all finding out about our new living arrangements.

Matt was taking Cal to watch the rugby that afternoon, and he never got up very early on a Saturday if he didn’t have to, so I took myself off into town to do some shopping. Matt hated shopping, made all his purchases on line, whether it was food, clothes, birthday presents or anything else, and there was no chance he was going to come with me, especially as he was going to be devoting a chunk of his Sunday morning to looking at beds.

I took my time in town, had lunch, and got back just before Matt had to set off to collect Cal. As I walked in the door, he was finishing a phone call.

Matt

As I spoke, the door opened and Jules came in, carrying several shopping bags. She kissed me on the forehead and dumped the bags on one end of the sofa before flopping down next to me.

‘What babe?’

Attention back on my phone, I heard Amy’s voice in the background, possibly an exclamation of pain.

‘OK, right there. Sorry, Matt. Needed. Catch you later.’

‘Yeah, love to Amy, see you soon mate. Bye.’

I looked at Jules as she raised an eyebrow at me in query.

‘Amy’s gone into labour.’

Julia

‘Oh. That’s early, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah, I think it is a bit. Dec’s had to pull out of the game today, Cal’ll be disappointed.’

‘Oh well, at least it will all be over with soon, everyone will know if it’s a boy or a girl, what the mysterious name is going to be, and all the constant conjecturing can stop.’

‘Yeah.’

I looked hard at Matt, he seemed a bit off, but nothing I could put my finger on.

‘Are you alright?’

He seemed to rouse himself, gave me a big grin and stood up.

‘Yeah. I guess it’s just a pretty big day for the Scott family, even if the main protagonists aren’t Scotts. I think you might be disappointed if you think they’re all going to shut the fuck up now, though. Beth still talks constantly about Cal and Iz, isn’t that what mothers do?’

‘I wouldn’t know. My mother doesn’t talk constantly about me, I’m quite sure.’

I hadn’t even heard from my mother for over two months, and that was only a short text informing me that ‘Dubai far too hot. Off to Moscow.’

Matt looked at me sympathetically.

‘Well my mum’s stopped bragging about me and Jay now she’s got grandchildren. Maybe it’s an age thing.’

‘Maybe.’

‘I’d better get going. Good shop? I see you needed many more items of clothing. Any pants?’

‘I did buy some underwear. Stop rifling, I’ll show you later.’

‘Promise?’

‘Promise. You won’t be disappointed.’

‘Crotchless?’

‘Not if you paid me. Wait and see.’

He pouted, but gave me a hug and kiss and left to fetch Cal.

Matt

I really did feel a bit weird about it, as if something momentous was happening. Well, I suppose it was, but it wasn’t happening to me, and I didn’t really care greatly for babies in general, much as I was excited for Dec and Amy in particular. In fact, I was a bit resentful that I was likely to see less of them, as always happened with new parents and exhaustion and shit. Piles of shit, actually. So I wasn’t quite sure what I was feeling, and it didn’t fit with what I should be feeling, what I thought I’d feel, so I basically just ignored it. Jules seemed to notice and asked if I was alright, but I grinned at her and told her everything was fine. Then I went to watch Raiders with Cal, and didn’t think any more about my bloody incomprehensible feelings.

When I dropped Cal back at Jay’s, Beth was predictably in full-blown anticipatory overdose. She asked three times if I’d heard from Dec, although she knew full well he’d call her first, or at the latest second, after Rose. And he had contacted her a while ago anyway, to say Amy had gone into the maternity unit, and things were going well, but not to expect anything for a while. It was almost as if Beth hadn’t had children of her own, and wanted it all to happen immediately.

‘Beth, calm down.’

We were standing in the kitchen, where I’d made her a camomile tea in an attempt to stop her having a stroke, which I thought might put a bit of a dampener on the day. Telling her twice before to calm down hadn’t had a noticeable effect, but I was enjoying being the one who was telling her what to do for a change. I hardly ever saw Beth flustered.

‘I am calm.’

‘You are so far from calm. You know they’ll be fine, right?’

‘I know, sweetheart. It’s just hard not knowing what’s going on. I did offer to go with them, but they said no.’

‘Ha ha, I’m not surprised, if this is what you’re like. Amy needs organised professionals, not family members going all hyper.’

‘I’ve worked on maternity wards.’

‘Yeah, a million years ago. It’s nothing personal.’

‘Oh I know that, really. I just can’t wait to meet him. Or her. I know they know if it’s a boy or a girl, I don’t know why they wouldn’t say.’

‘Beth, believe me when I tell you, from the bottom of my heart, that keeping a secret from you is so bloody hard, it’s worth seeing the look on your face just to keep going, in the face of all your probing.’

‘I don’t probe.’

‘You bloody do, you can’t help yourself. I’m just saying, sometimes we all like keeping things to ourselves that you don’t know about.’

Shit, if Beth had been on her game, she would have sniffed out Jules and I living together in a heartbeat after that. But it went right over her head in a haze of baby, and I decided to escape before I gave too much away. A quick game on the X-box with Cal, and I was off home to Jules. The thought of Jules waiting at home, our home, still made me smile.

Julia

I spent the afternoon trying on my new clothes and reading a book. I was really engrossed in the novel, and didn’t realise the time until I looked up and it was starting to get dark. I put some lights on, and was just starting to wonder where Matt was, and whether I needed to start some dinner, when I heard his key in the lock, and he walked in. He looked tired, but gave me a big crinkly smile, sat down next to me on the sofa and hugged me.

‘Hello. Good game?’

‘Yeah, really good. I think I’m starting to get the hang of it. You have loads of men, and they chuck the ball to each other and chase each other, and then one of them gets caught, and they all pile on top of him. I think they might be trying to squash him. And one of the ones in the pile gets the ball and runs really fast until one of the others catches him and then they all pile on top of him too. It’s great fun. There’s fighting and everything, but it’s all part of the game, so nobody really minds.’

‘Hmm, sounds delightful. Have you eaten?’

‘Yeah, had a pasty and chips with Cal at the stadium. Have you?’

‘How on earth do you stay so skinny? No, not yet, I was just thinking about it. Might just have a sandwich if you’re not having anything.’

‘I’ll do you something.’

‘Oh, no, there’s no need –’

‘Let me, Jules, I’d like to, I’ve deserted you all afternoon.’

‘Alright then, but I don’t feel deserted. I’ve had a nice quiet time, me and the apartment getting to know each other. We’ve had some thoughts about beds.’

‘Oh you’ve both been plotting, have you? Tell me while you eat. Pasta?’

‘Perfect.’

He got up and walked over to the kitchen, getting out a pan and filling it with water.

‘Sorry I’m a bit late back, I stayed at Jay’s for a bit. Still no news from babyland, but I think Amy’s gone into hospital now.’

‘Excitement in overdrive?’

‘Yeah, kind of. For Beth and Jay it’s almost like being grandparents. Weird. I escaped, me and Cal played on the X-box. I let him win.’

‘Oh, you lost to Cal?’

‘No, I let him win.’

‘Oh. One day you really must explain the difference.’

‘Jules, you wouldn’t know one end of a controller from the other. Cal would beat the pants off you. And that’s my job.’

‘Ha ha. Shall I open a bottle of wine?’

‘If you want some. I’m going to have a beer or several. I’ve been very good all afternoon, avoided temptation because I was in charge of a minor and then I was driving. Now I’m letting my hair down – by all means join me with your namby-pamby wine.’

Although Matt’s bantering tone was light, I was sensing something slightly strange from him, the same slight weirdness I felt this morning. There was no point pushing it with him, he would withdraw and get defensive if I asked him what was wrong. He’d tell me soon enough if he didn’t sort it out, or at least I hoped he would. He busied himself making my dinner, and I put my head back in my book. It wasn’t long before the pasta was cooked and Matt brought it over with a glass of wine.

‘What, no table service?’

‘Didn’t seem much point just for you. Besides, I can sit beside you and do this.’

He bent down and kissed my neck, then nibbled my earlobe. It sent tingles of desire racing down to my core, but I concentrated on eating.

‘Mm, this is really good.’

‘I have to agree. Very tasty indeed.’

He licked my neck and gently kissed the curve of my jaw. He planted a few more tender kisses along my jaw until he reached the corner of my lips.

‘Hey, you should have made enough for two if you wanted some.’

‘I love it when you pretend you’re not interested.’

‘I am interested – in my dinner. You just made it for me, I’m eating it. And drinking my wine.’

I took a mouthful.

‘I’ve been thinking about you all afternoon, wondering about your new undies.’

‘Have you really? Not at all diverted by large men trying to squash each other then? I’m wearing them now.’

‘Really? Whoa.’

Matt pulled my top slightly to the side so he could see the lacy edge of my bra.

‘All looks bloody good so far. Peep-hole?’

‘No. What is it with you and holes in underwear? The whole point of underwear is to contain things, not to let them out.’

‘Ah, that’s my Jules, practical to the last.’

He bent down and kissed my breast where it disappeared into the lace of the bra. I felt a flicker of his tongue as he slid it behind the fabric. I ate another couple of mouthfuls, knowing that I wouldn’t get to finish my meal. Soon Matt would be driving me wild and my resistance would be over.

‘Matching knickers?’

Sighing, I put the plate down on the floor.

‘Yes.’

‘Yum. Bikinis?’

‘No.’

He put a hand on my thigh and slid it up a little way, to the hem of my skirt.

‘Shorts?’

‘No.’

‘French?’

‘No.’

With each answer, his hand crept further up my thigh, pulling the hem of the skirt with it. His fingers brushed the inside of my leg, until I was sure he would be able to feel my wetness.

‘Pantaloons?’

I laughed. ‘No.’

His hand crept higher and then stopped, just about at the point where he thought he would be able to feel the edge of my pants.

‘No fuking pants?’

He looked a bit confused.

‘No. Keep going.’

He pushed his hand up further, until finally his fingers encountered what they were searching for and he started to explore the fabric.

‘Oh my … Jules … thong?’

I nodded.

‘Holy shitmenot. Were there no other pants available in the whole of the city? I thought thongs were for when there was no other pants option.’

‘I thought you might like them. They’re particularly uncomfortable, so maybe the quicker you have a look and get them off me, the better.’

‘You got them for me?’

I nodded again. He grinned.

‘I don’t deserve you.’

‘No, you don’t. You bugger off all afternoon leaving me to read my book in peace, and then you cook me dinner when you come home even though you’ve had yours, you bastard, and then you rip my clothes off and –’

‘I haven’t ripped your clothes off.’

‘Are you waiting for permission?’

Our last night together was pretty incredible. We were totally immersed in each other, responding to each other without needing to talk, seeming to know when to slow down, when to speed up, when to kiss tenderly, when to fuck hard, who should be on top, when to use fingers, when to use tongues, when to stop, when to start again. It was the early hours before we finally went to sleep, utterly exhausted and completely satisfied, Matt curled up against my back, holding me tightly against him.

Matt

When I got back, I made a quick bite of pasta for Jules, and then we got lost in exploring her new underwear, and all the fun that brought to the bedroom. For a full description of all the frolics, see her account. She tells it well. It was our last time, the last fucking amazing time we were together, before …

63. Sitting, waiting, wishing

In which Matt goes off at a tangent and then returns to ask a game-changing question.

Matt

And things were great for a few months. We didn’t change anything, we didn’t acknowledge that anything might have changed, we got on with being together and enjoying life. We had great times, some of it doing ordinary stuff like films and hikes together, some of it going away together, some of it staying in together, a lot of it involving being in bed together. And while we’re there together, me and Jules, in that happy place, before I fucked it all up, I think I’m going to make a few changes of my own here.

I promised a Matt Scott fun ride, a mixed up splurge of a life-story, I believe I called it. And so far I’ve done things in sequence, with the odd ramble off the beaten track when I’ve got distracted. I’d like to deviate from the sequence of events, and if I’m honest, it’s because the next bit is hard, the next few bits are hard, and I don’t want to face them, not just yet. So bear with me while I procrastinate. I’ll try and make it fun, I’ll try and fill it with pithy insights. I’ll try.

I want to tell you about Tottenham Hotspur. I have had a few loves in my life, but Spurs have been with me through thick and thin. I had never been to Tottenham (the London Borough) before I went to Tottenham (the London Football Club), so I can’t claim they are my home side or anything. But Andrew was born in Tottenham – oh, holy shitballs, I just remembered, more of Andrew later. It’s juicy. It’ll be worth the wait – but back to me.

I met Andrew in my first week of secondary school, and we bonded, in a juvenile male way, over science class, to start with. We recognised the inherent geek in each other, and decided that it was easier to face the bullying together. I hadn’t developed any clear loyalties for any sports teams, having no aptitude for or interest in sport per se, but had fostered a need to break out of Jay’s shadow in some small way, a miniature rebellion if you will. Jay’s contempt for football that wasn’t rugby football made me want to like it; I just hadn’t got round to doing anything about it.

Andrew had a Spurs bag, and so when he asked me what football team I supported, I said Spurs, just so it would be something else we’d have in common. There were a few awkward moments when he asked me who my favourite player was, and mentioned some recent results about which I had no idea, but I bluffed my way through, did my homework on them, and turned almost overnight into Tottenham Hotspur’s biggest fan. Not pretending, but really. Partly it was so that Andrew and I would have this thing, this commonality, and partly it was to piss Jay right off.

Ever since, I have loved Spurs with all my heart. My days are brighter when they win, and darker when they lose, and although I don’t get to see them at White Hart Lane very often, I will move heaven and earth to get to see them when they’re on TV. I told Lau once that I loved her more than Spurs. It is just about true, but it is a close thing. I don’t think I’m even joking.

Nowadays, of course, I have made my peace with rugby, have been to games with Cal, Tom and Josh, and been to watch Cal and Josh play for Raiders, and I’ve been so proud of them. But in that small part of my heart reserved for Spurs, I know that I would have burst if it had been White Hart Lane they had been running out at instead of Raiders Stadium. Jay will never understand, and we often have the same conversation. It goes something like this:

‘I see your team won/lost/drew again.’

‘The mighty Spurs roll on/bunch of tossers/meh, boring game.’

‘Why do you support them again?’

‘Because they’re the best team.’

‘Doesn’t their bloody woeful record tell you otherwise?’

‘Just because a team never wins anything doesn’t mean they’re not the best.’

‘How does that work, exactly?’

I shake my head at the ignoramus who thinks that results and trophies mean everything, just because he’s won just about everything there is to win in rugby terms. He’ll never get it.

So, Andrew then. I promised you juicy, and juicy you will get. Not long after I’d started seeing Jules, while she was up in Norfolk for her aunt’s funeral, actually, I got an email from Andrew. I’d had the odd few over the years, mostly extolling the virtues of Christianity in general and the African Technology Ministry in particular. He would respond to things I’d said in my emails – at least the things that weren’t disrespectful and sarcastic – but as it was usually months since I’d written to him, I’d forgotten what I’d told him. I’d never gone into great detail about my life; he felt so far away in distance and in the time it took to correspond, that I was reluctant to pour my heart out, especially as my emails could be splattered all over some African classroom as a lesson in how not to … I don’t know, do grammar or use abbreviations or live your fucking life or some such shit.

Anyway, I hadn’t heard from Andrew for a while, longer than usual, and then I got this email, from a different email address, not one attached to the ministry thing. Here’s what it said.

Hi Matt

Sorry I’ve been out of touch, I’ve been off the grid for a while, trying to sort my life out. Things went a bit pear-shaped for me a few months ago, and I’ve been in a bit of a state.

The short story is Karen and I are getting divorced. It’s all a complete nightmare, and I’ve come back to England to recover. I’ve left ATM, left Karen and Rebecca over there, and come back to stay with my parents.

I would really like to get in touch, but I no longer have your phone number or address. If you’d be happy to, maybe you could email me back and we could have a chat? I’d like to catch up with what’s been going on with you over the last few years, as I expect you’ve got a lot to tell me too.

Andrew

He’d PSed a mobile number and an address where I could contact him, and as Jules was away and I was at a loose end, I rang him almost straight away.

‘Hi Andrew, it’s Matt.’

‘Matt! Oh my God, that was quick.’

The blasphemy wasn’t lost on me, but I didn’t comment on it.

‘Yeah, well, it’s been a while since I heard your dulcet tones, I thought I’d better call before you disappear off the face of the civilised world again.’

‘How are you?’

‘Great. Really great. You know I live in Devon now, right?’

‘Yeah. What was all that about? Isn’t that where your brother lives?’

‘Yeah, same city. Same house for a while. Long story. Short version is: I was ill a few years back, moved down here so they could help me out.’

And that was the edited, summarised, précised, cut down version of the pared to the bone story of it all. It appeared Andrew still knew me pretty well, though.

‘And one day you’re going to tell me the long version, but I doubt I’ll drag it out of you right now. Ill how?’

Nope, not going into all that.

‘It was a long time ago. I’m better now.’

‘Ha ha, nothing ever bloody changes, does it, Matt.’

I noticed the bloody, too, but didn’t comment on that, either.

‘You’re as hard to get intel out of as ever. Well, fair enough I suppose, I haven’t really earned my confidante stripes recently, I’ll have to extract it out of you sometime using the beer and whisky chaser method.’

OK, now he was going on about getting me pissed, and I needed to ask.

‘So what exactly has been going on with you, Andrew?’

‘Apart from being the biggest dickhead known to man?’

‘Maybe we could start there. You mentioned, er, divorce?’

It turned out Andrew had strayed from the fold in spectacular fashion, by having a torrid affair with one of the directors of the mission thing. They had both lost their jobs, and Andrew’s marriage had imploded.

‘But I don’t get it, Andrew. Isn’t doing the nasty out of wedlock kind of a big no-no for you religious types?’

‘Yeah, well, I’m not sure that’s how you’d categorise me these days.’

‘Really? How should I categorise you?’

He laughed bitterly. ‘Backsliding heathen sinner.’

‘That sounds like someone else’s category. Have you renounced it all? I could never really see you singing ‘Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam’. And when I remember how much we used to take the piss out of the God Squad at Uni – fucking hell, Andrew, you were the God Squad.’

I was so hoping he’d given it all up, so I knew where I stood, and whether I could have a normal conversation with him, or still needed to rein in some of my more impetuous phraseology. I was really enjoying talking to him after all this time, and had a feeling he was more like the Andrew of old than the weird Andrew I’d been corresponding with like a pen-pal over the last few years.

‘I think that was part of the problem, really. If I’m honest, I realised fairly soon after moving out there that it was all a huge mistake. I mean all of it – going to Africa, the bloody ministry, all the God stuff; I got swept up in it. Karen and I went to this church one time in Aberystwyth, and it was all exciting, and they were so welcoming, and before I knew it I was in it all up to my hairline. I didn’t really stop to work it all out.’

‘That doesn’t sound like you.’

‘No, well, Karen was really enthusiastic, I guess we just got carried away. When the ATM thing came up, it seemed so exciting, but then when we got over there, I had time to think, and eventually I realised I’d made a huge mistake. I tried to talk to Karen about it, but she’s still really into it all, they all kept praying for me, just driving me further away. Shit, Matt, I feel so guilty about Rebecca. I feel like I’ve just abandoned her over there.’

‘Are you going to be able to go and see her?’

‘I hope so. I haven’t got any money. I’m trying to find a job, but I’ve been out of things for so long.’

‘What sort of thing are you looking for?’

‘I’ll do anything. I’d prefer something in computers, but I can’t really afford to be choosy.’

‘Where are you based?’

‘I’m at my parents’ at the moment. They’re still in Stafford.’

‘Well, maybe it’s a long shot, but remember I used to work for Eyeti in Stafford? Do you want me to see if they’ve got anything going? Last I heard they were expanding like wildfire, hiring left right and centre.’

‘Would you? Really? Oh mate, that would be bloody amazing.’

And that’s how I got my mate Andrew a job at the company I used to work for. A little bit of synchronicity, or a reward for coming to his senses. We stayed in touch, after that, and a part of my life that felt like it had been knocked off course clicked back into its intended orbit.

What else can I tell you about, while I’m on this sabbatical from the narrative? Oh yeah. Somewhere along the way, between then and now, I worked out what happened with Carrie. Obviously she is not here to confirm or deny this theory, but in the moments when I allowed myself to ponder the whole fucked up business rather than drowning in sorrow and regret, I got it, what happened.

Remember her mum, who she ditched for being inconveniently alcoholic when she was trying to sort her life out? Remember the flashes of fear when I was trying to tell her how I might end up with the help of the bastard MS? Remember how she was all over my arse for wanting to look after her, and then got all over my arse about not being able to afford shit when I reduced my hours? Most of all, remember how she told everyone we knew I got HIV from fucking around and didn’t tell her? Well good, I’m glad you’ve been paying attention.

How I figure it is this. She had some major issues. Yeah, big surprise Matt, well worked out, bet it took you all of ten seconds to come to that conclusion. But those issues weren’t about being controlled, as it would have been reasonable to assume, although, yeah, that was a theme. No, our lovely Carrie just didn’t want to look after people. She left her mum to the caring Martin and then to the clutches of statutory services; she tried her hardest to convince me there was nothing wrong with me when I was first struggling with my diagnosis; she ran off with her abusive ex-boyfriend when it all hit the fan with me; she told everyone it was my fault, so no one could suggest that maybe I deserved better than what she’d handed out, on the contrary would applaud her strength for acting as she did.

It all made sense. She hadn’t been as hung up on being controlled as she’d made out, and looking back, she had in a way had me almost as tied up as Martin had her. I hadn’t been able to move for worrying I was going to upset her by seeming like I was trying to own her in some way; she had us move into what was basically a shit-hole that we painted; she reduced our circle of friends by refusing to go out with them; she wouldn’t let me do anything nice for her without jumping through so many hoops it was hardly worth doing in the end.

She probably manipulated me from the beginning – maybe Martin wasn’t as bad as she made out, maybe he hadn’t done everything she said, maybe she knew what it would take to get me to fall for her (not much), and maybe it was just her way of escaping a situation she didn’t want to be in. Even at the start, she had threatened to make claims about me when she wanted me to leave her yoga class, so she knew how to do whatever it took to get her own way. Maybe it was the only way she knew how to be, maybe none of it was premeditated, maybe she believed it and it became her truth. Maybe.

Working it out didn’t make me feel any better about her and what she did to me, but it helped a little bit to have a reason for it. It still churned inside me, messing with every relationship I had, or didn’t have, for years. It went away for a while with Jules, but in the end it messed with that too, in a way. It wasn’t until Lau that I got rid of it; it finally seemed less important.

Lau, well, whoever I’d been with when I met Lau, I would have finished it to be with her. She knows that, she knows we were meant to be. She calls me a daft sod for saying it, and she knows I don’t believe in fate, or destiny, or all that bollocks, but with her … but I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s plenty of time for Lau. I’m going to be telling you a lot about Lau.

While we’re here, in this little hiatus between getting it right with Jules and getting it so fucking wrong, I’ll tell you about William. I met William when I went up to Norfolk with Jules, just the one time.

I was expecting to spend a lot of time with Jules that weekend, helping her to sort out her aunt’s house, providing moral support and maybe dispensing wise and objective advice about what to keep and what to throw away.

What happened was I got pissed with her next door neighbour, who needed more support than Jules in the grand scheme of things, and was a Newcastle United supporter into the bargain, so doubly needy.

It so happened that Toon were entertaining Spurs that weekend, and William had Sky Sports, so it would have been rude to turn down the offer to watch the game, and then the one after that, which neither of us had a vested interest in but, well, it’s what you do isn’t it.

By the time Jules came back, having loaded her car with bags of stuff for the tip, and filled William’s hallway with more bags of stuff that he was going to take to charity shops, we were both three sheets to the wind and barely coherent, let alone able to offer any sensible advice.

‘Oh, heeey Julesy baaby. Do you need any help there?’

‘No thank you, Matt, I think you’ve helped enough for today.’

‘But, noooo, I haven’t done anything yet, have I, I’ve gotta do something, I’ve come all this way to do something for my girl, that’s you Julesy, you’re my girl, you are, and I haven’t done anything yet.’

‘No, I did notice that, but to be frank, if you start helping now you’re going to cause more work. Just watch your football.’

‘Aw thanks Julesy, you’re fucking ace you are.’

‘I hope you haven’t been leading William astray.’

‘Nah, he supports Newcastle, he’s already as astray as he can get. Sorry, Willybilly.’

‘It’s alright, lad. You’re tipsy and you support Spurs, you don’t stand a chance.’

Jules rolled her eyes, sat down in an armchair and got her laptop out.

Later, curled up with her in the small bed she used to sleep in when she lived there, I tried to beerily apologise for abandoning her.

‘Honestly, Matt, it’s fine. I wouldn’t say when I asked if you wanted to come up here that I thought it would be so you could spend the afternoon drinking and shouting at the television, but I think it’s been good for William. He’s lonely without Nons.’

‘So are you, Julesy.’

‘Yeah, but I’ve got you. We should come up more often, maybe you could take him to Norwich.’

‘Norwich? Errr, what for?’

‘They’ve got a football team, haven’t they? I could go shopping.’

‘Ha ha, Jules, nobody goes to watch Norwich out of choice. C’mere, Julesy baby, you’re looking fucking gorgeous right now.’

‘Matt, that is the last time you call me Julesy, or Julesy baby, without serious consequences.’

‘Hokey dokey Juuuules. C’mere though.’

But we never did go back. I would have kept in touch with William, I really liked him, but, well, things went tits up with Jules and you tend not to keep in touch with the neighbours of your ex-girlfriend’s deceased aunt, do you? I just mentioned William, because he was important to Jules, and I liked him, and seeing her care about him made me feel a) better about her saying she’d take care of me and b) guilty that I’d thought she was a bit uncaring. I guess, as with everything else Jules did, she kept a lot inside her.

So what else can I regale you with? I so want to tell you about Lau, but it’s not time yet, and I want to tell you about my family, Lau, Josh and Ella, but again, all in good time dear readers. I know, how about playing a little True or False? I did it a bit with Jules, when I was trying to dispel some of the bullshit she would have heard about me, but it is quite funny, now I’m a respectable family man, to look back at the things I was supposed to have got up to. If I’d done even half of it, I would have keeled over with exhaustion, or my dick would have dropped off, but maybe this will divert you a little. Okay, here goes.

True or False: Matt Scott has slept with more than five hundred women, and never called any of them.

False. For fuck’s sake, I wouldn’t have had time to go to work, let alone energy to breathe. Do the maths, folks. My sexual career started when I was almost nineteen. Since I was thirty-four, I’ve only slept with Jules and Lau. That makes five hundred women in fifteen years. Which is approximately 0.63 different women per week. Every week! I know I’ve been a bastard, but I wasn’t SuperBastard, with pick-up powers beyond human understanding. And I was ill for quite a long time too, and I was with Carrie for eighteen months. So no, not five hundred. I haven’t ever totted it up, and am not going to, but fewer. Far, far fewer. No, even fewer than you’re thinking. Half the time, I’d pull and then change my mind before I got to the taxi, and I’d give her a snog and a grope, drop her off outside her house and call it a night. And it was rare for me to call any of them. Yeah, never said I wasn’t a bastard, just not SuperBastard. Next.

True or False: Don’t leave your girlfriend alone with Matt Scott, he’ll be in and out of her knickers before you’ve had the piss you’ve been dying for for hours.

Weell, there may be some truth to this. A couple of times, I have availed myself of facilities – a storeroom at a club here, a spare bedroom at a party there – to explore the clear signals I was getting from said other bloke’s girlfriend. It was always mutual, it’s not like I had some kind of ability, or even wish, to persuade women against their will, but I knew they were someone else’s girl, and it didn’t matter at the time. And I guess when you’re trying to explain yourself to your outraged boyfriend, you’re going to put most of the blame firmly on Matt Scott, who a) has the reputation and b) has conveniently buggered off with someone else. So, all things considered, true. Not that I’m proud of it, I’m not proud of any of this shit, this is purely a true or false game for your edification.

True or False: Matt Scott never uses a condom and has spread gonorrhoea, chlamydia and unwanted pregnancies far and wide.

Utter bullshit. I always, always, without fail used a condom, sometimes when begged not to, and got myself regularly and routinely tested. No one ever came to me claiming they were pregnant, and if they had I would have dealt with it sensitively. Not, as some stories claim, brandishing cash for an abortion, but firstly establishing the facts and then taking responsibility if it was mine, and working something out. That was how I liked to think of it theoretically, anyway, and thankfully it was never put to the test.

True or False: Matt Scott never sleeps with the same woman twice.

Obviously false, if you’ve been paying attention, but I suppose Jules and Lau don’t count, because that was after the time when all the rumours were spreading. OK, then, at that time, you could say that might have been true, because if I recognised someone I’d been with before, I’d avoid them. But I didn’t always, because often when I pulled I was off my tits, and even if I’d recognised them, I might not have remembered how far I got. And there were some ‘sure things’ as well, women who I knew I could count on if all else failed. I was a charming bloke. And, believe it or not, there were women who turned me down. I know that’s not what the legend says. The legend says that Matt Scott walked into a room, spotted the woman he wanted to take home, end of story. Oh, if only. I mean, yeah, often I’d get to a club or a party and know fairly early on who my target was, but it would take a whole evening of buying drinks, flirting, dancing, getting closer, fending off any other blokes who were interested as well, before I found out if she’d fallen for it or not. About fifty-fifty, I’d say. So that magical five hundred number is dwindling by the second, isn’t it.

True or False: There is absolutely nothing Matt Scott hasn’t done in bed, or out of it for that matter, and you’d better watch out if you say no.

False. I had my limits, although they are not open for discussion. And as for the last bit, well that used to seriously piss me off. I never forced anyone to do anything they didn’t want to, I never even asked anyone to do something I didn’t think they were totally up for, and sometimes I was asked to do seriously weird shit that I politely turned down. I mean, come on, I never even had a threesome, although I heard about several I was supposed to have had. Must have been some other lucky sod. Sorry Lau, didn’t mean it, not really.

True or False: Matt Scott can go all night and you’d better be able to keep up.

Oh for fuck’s sake. All this makes me sound like some be-Viagraed porn star. I mean, yeah, I’ve got a high sex drive, have had since I discovered it all those years ago at Uni, but all night? Maybe, yeah, I was sometimes, OK often, ready to go again pretty soon, but remember, by the time I got down here to the city, I was in my thirties. I was slowing down. And I certainly wouldn’t have lasted all night. It was one of the many reasons I left soon after it was all over. And as for porn star – have you seen those guys? There’s no way I’m divesting myself of that amount of body hair; the thought brings tears to my eyes. Plus, I’m a skinny bastard. Do not possess even the hint of an ab. Whatever it was that made my reputation, it wasn’t my physique. So, all night? Load of bollocks.

Anyhow, all this ruminating on my previous unstoppable shag monster life is making me a bit miserable, and I don’t really want you thinking about all that, Lau, not now, so here endeth the True or False. I hope I’ve given you a reasonable picture of how things were and how things weren’t.

OK then, I suppose that’s enough avoiding the issue. I’ll get on with it, with telling you how I screwed up one more person.

Where were we then? Oh, you left me and Jules in bed, for which I thank you. And things were great, for a few months. I suppose we got into a rhythm, a way of being, that felt right. We were both comfortable with it, we spent more time together, but we still had our own friends, our own interests, I did family stuff without her, and sometimes with her if it wasn’t too full on. I fended off bloody nosy questions from Beth and Rose, mostly along the lines of ‘how are things going with Julia’, and were fishing for more details, more get-togethers, always more more more, but Jules made it quite clear she didn’t feel part of the ever expanding Scott family, and didn’t want to feel part of it. Her own family was mostly absent, I never met her parents or her sisters, and they didn’t all seem to keep in touch much.

Jules really wasn’t one who did things she didn’t want to. She never made a big thing about it, she just said yes or no if I asked her along to something, and yes was great, she was an ally against all the baby-mongering that was going on around Dec and Amy at that time, and no was fine too, I didn’t have to worry about whether she was bored or irritated.

The kids thing was a weird one. I had no intentions of ‘settling down’ any time soon, and the big fuss that was being made about Dec and Amy’s baby struck us both as extremely over the top. Don’t get me wrong, I was dead chuffed for them, they seemed really happy, but it did get a bit tedious every time I went round to Jay’s, even if they weren’t there, with all the updates on the minutiae of scans, tests, wondering about names, speculating about dates, comparing, contrasting. Yeah, I know, when I had my own I did exactly the same, and I loved it, fucking loved it all, and I feel bad now about taking the piss with Jules, especially as it kind of compounded what happened later.

Although Jules was so adamant that she didn’t want kids, didn’t even like them, she was so great with Cal and Iz; she’d get on the floor and play with Iz’s dolls, she’d talk to Cal like a grown-up about all sorts of things, no one would have ever known. But I guess that was the thing about Jules. She was good at playing a part, being a particular person in a given situation. I’m pretty sure that when she was with me, she was herself, but I saw all these other bits of her – when she was at work, when she was with my family, when she was with her friends. She once told me I was the only person who had ever crossed over her work world and her personal world, and I suppose I should take that as the compliment it was.

So, things went well for a few months, there we were, enjoying life, taking things as they happened, deliberately not making plans of any sort about anything, even a holiday, or forcing anything, and then I changed it all. Not on purpose, it was out there before I’d even thought about it, but we were lying in bed having breakfast one weekend, when I suddenly realised she hadn’t been home for two weeks, and I gasped.

Julia

‘What?’

‘I just realised something.’

‘It’s difficult to eat croissants in bed without getting crumbs on the sheets?’

‘No. I already knew that. Thought I might lick any strays off your arse later.’

‘You’re very confident I’ll be face down.’

‘Yeah I am. You know it’s your favourite way.’

‘Alright, granted. What have you realised?’

‘You haven’t been home for nearly two weeks.’

I thought about it, counting back. Then looked up at him to try and work out if it disturbed him or not. His crinkly grin suggested not.

‘I hadn’t noticed. You’re right though. Maybe I should go back tonight, give you some space?’

Matt

‘Or …’

I didn’t even think about it, just felt it, just said it.

‘Maybe … we should just make it permanent. Move in with me, Jules.’

She carried on looking at me, for a long time – trying, I think, to work out if I was serious or if this was another ‘I love you’ ‘no you don’t’ ‘no I don’t’ moment. I saw the moment she realised I meant it, and I saw the panic, and I immediately regretted doing anything so stupid. Did I not know Jules at all? She needed to know all the facts, to have had all the discussions, to have raised the subject herself in the first place, before she made a decision about such a monumental change to our status. She was frozen.

Julia

I studied his face to work out if he was joking, or meant it, or had said it impulsively and was now regretting it. When no arsing about was forthcoming and he continued to hold my gaze, I realised he was serious. Then I panicked, froze, unable to speak or even think. He realised almost immediately.

‘Fuck it, I’ve freaked you out haven’t I. Shit. OK, just to put things in perspective, you notice I’m not down on one knee, I’m not proposing like all the other Tom, Dick and bloody Alexanders you’ve dumped. I still don’t love you, if that helps. It just seems right.’

I didn’t speak, just sat, leaning against the headboard, staring at my half eaten croissant, trying to get my thoughts together.

Matt

I was frantically trying to think of other things that might add to the damage limitation, and was even prepared to take it back, to take that look off her face as she stared at her breakfast without speaking.

‘Shit. OK, let’s forget I said anything. Let’s just finish breakfast and go for our hike, as if bloody Matt Scott didn’t just bloody well say the most bloody idiotically stupid thing he could possibly have thought of saying.’

‘But you’ve said it now, I can’t just forget it.’

‘Jules, I’m an arse, I’m always saying bloody idiotic things, you manage to forget those quickly enough.’

‘I know. I think I’m going to go home.’

She started to get out of bed, and I caught her arm, trying to stop her. I knew Jules had finished at least three relationships in the past because they got too serious, too near to a proposal, and now it was me who was panicking, because once she’d decided, there was no changing her mind. If she decided to finish it with me, I was history.

‘No! Don’t go. Shit, I cant believe I’ve fucked this up.’

She just shrugged out of my grip and started to put her clothes on.

‘Please, Jules.’

‘I’m just going to go home, get my head straight, have some time to myself.’

I sat behind her and tried to wrap her up in my arms, but she disentangled herself and finished dressing, then turned round to face me. I saw I had no hope of persuading her not to go; my only hope was not to put anymore pressure on her.

‘OK. Space it is then. You know where I am, if you want to talk, or yell, or have fucking hot sex.’

I tried a smile, which was not reciprocated.

‘I know. Sorry, Matt.’

Julia

He knew me well enough by now to realise it was pointless to try to dissuade me from doing something I had decided and announced I was going to do. We were also similar enough in our need for our own space that he wouldn’t push me to contact him. I drove home in a bit of a daze, trying not to think about what he had asked me, about how it might change things regardless of whether I said yes or no or ignored it, and about whether I’d got to that stage in yet another relationship where I needed to end it.

Once I got home, I made myself a coffee, belatedly realising I didn’t have any milk. In fact, I didn’t have anything in the fridge at all, and there was hardly any food in the cupboards. Looking around me, although the flat still had the basic objects that made it mine – furniture, pictures, décor – a lot of my things were missing, the things I used every day and needed nearby.

There were hardly any clothes in my wardrobe; there was only basic shower gel in the bathroom; most of my cooking utensils were missing; there was a stack of mail that had accumulated behind the door that needed sorting through; my bookshelf was half empty. It didn’t feel like I belonged here any more. I shied away from the thought. This was my place, my sanctuary, the space I closeted myself in, away from the rest of the world. How had this happened?

Matt

Jules left, and I spent the rest of the morning asking myself why. Why had I even said anything? It’s not like I spent my life waiting for someone I could move into my flat. I liked my flat, I liked my space, I liked things the way they were. We could have carried on, and then she would have noticed herself after a while, and it would have been her idea, and I wouldn’t be sitting here wondering if I was ever going to hear from her again.

I thought about calling her, telling her I’d made a mistake, taking it back, I didn’t mean it, temporary aberration or something, but the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t honestly say it, and yet the more I convinced myself I’d completely ballsed it up. It was a miserable day.

We’d planned to go for a hike, and I nearly went on my own, but I didn’t want to be out of mobile range, so I paced around like a caged animal, wanting to call her and either apologise or find out what she was thinking, but neither of those options were going to go well for me, so I moved on from ‘why’ to the equally pointless ‘if only’s.

If only I’d stopped and thought before I’d said anything.

If only, once I’d said something, I hadn’t said ‘move in’.

If only I’d been able to think of a single thing to say that would have made it better, not such a big deal.

If only I didn’t think it was such a big deal, now I’d said it, that I really really wanted it, and even if she was still speaking to me, but said no, I’d be really sad.

Bloody ‘if only’s. They don’t get you anywhere but worse off, because they just swirl round and round your brain, getting you to imagine all the things you could have said and done differently, when the only thing you can’t do is change what has happened.

Julia

I put some music on and ran a bath, hoping that relaxing and thinking might help me to make sense of what was going on in my whirling brain. It was one of the things that helped when I was stressing about something; being on my own, I could sort through things in a logical order and try to put things in perspective. If I was living with Matt, I’d never be on my own … if I was living with Matt … and so my day went, all of it spinning round in my head as I weighed up and prioritised and wondered and tried to predict the future. I thought about our relationship and what I wanted from it; I thought about my independence and how important it was to me; I thought about where I saw me being in a few years; I thought about sickness and health and till death do us part; I thought a lot about Matt.

Matt

Eventually I thought myself into a stupor. The amount of times I reached for my phone, pressed Jules’ name to call or text, and then couldn’t think of a single thing to say that wouldn’t make it worse. The amount of times I picked up my car keys to drive over there. The amount of times I called myself a stupid, impetuous, thoughtless arse.

Julia

Eventually, I wore myself out with it all. I was hungry, so I ordered takeaway and went to fetch a bottle of wine from the Whistling Panhandler, and after I had finished my meal, and most of the bottle of wine, I found myself drifting off to sleep on the sofa.

I woke with a start, realising it was really late. It was dark, there was no traffic noise from outside, indicating that it was the early hours. I suddenly knew the answer to it all. It was obvious. I found my phone and asked Siri to FaceTime Matt.

46. She said

In which Dec finds himself in a sticky situation.

Dec

I couldn’t see Amy’s car as I pulled into the parking bay. The flat was ominously quiet and dark as I opened the door.

‘Ames?’

No reply. Fuck. Why had I let myself get so caught up with Cal’s project? Thinking about Perth had brought back some great childhood memories, talking about my dog, my friends, places I used to go. Talking about it like it was part of Cal’s school work helped me to think about it without focussing on my parents and all the sadness that brought. I’d enjoyed myself so much, I’d lost track of time, and suddenly it was late. Too late. I saw a note on the coffee table.

Tired of waiting. It’s always something isn’t it. Gone to Jude’s. Don’t wait up, won’t be back. A

What the fuck did that mean? Was she … had she … how long was she going for? Beginning to panic, I tried calling her. Maybe I could fix some of this over the phone. It went straight to voicemail. I hated leaving messages, but made an attempt.

‘Ames, I’m so sorry. I know I keep fucking up. Please don’t stay out, please come back and talk to me. I can’t bear this, not talking, knowing I’ve upset you and not sorting it out. I feel so far away from you. Please come back. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please don’t go. I love you. I love you so much.’

I hung up before I started to cry. It felt like things were broken between us, and I didn’t know how to mend it. Couldn’t bear to think about where it might end if I didn’t. The thought of losing her nearly sent me back to that dark place where I’d been when my parents died, and when I’d lost Jay and Beth. I was just about holding on. I sent Amy a text as well, then made myself a cup of tea and scooped some of the takeaway curry I’d brought home onto a plate. I sat staring at it all for a long time while it went cold, unable to decide if I should go to Jude’s to find Amy, or whether I’d just make things worse. If they could be any worse. My phone rang. For a second I thought it might be Amy, but it wasn’t her ringtone. The tone and the screen announced Beth.

‘Hey.’

_Dec, were you supposed to be spending time with Amy tonight?

‘Yeah.’

_Cal just told me, he said didn’t think you were going to stay as long as you did. I’m so sorry, sweetheart, I didn’t realise. You should have said, I’d never have let him keep you here so long if I’d known. Is everything OK?

I took a deep breath, tried not to cry, failed.

_Oh Dec, what’s happened? Tell me, sweetheart.

‘She’s not here, she’s gone to Jude’s. I think I’ve fucked it all up. Shit, I’m so fucking stupid. She left this note saying she’s not coming back, I don’t know what she means, she’s not answering her phone, I don’t know what to do. I think she might have … left. I can’t lose her, I just can’t, I love her –’

_Dec, listen to me, you haven’t lost her, she’s just angry. James and I went through something similar when he was still playing. Rugby is a pretty full on career, it can swallow you, and there are always lots of lovely ladies who’d like to have a bit of your man, given half a chance. You both have to be pretty strong, in yourself and together.’

Beth’s reassuring words were helping to calm me down a bit, but I was still on the verge of panic.

‘You’ll get through this, I’m sure, you just need some time together, talk, tell each other how you’re feeling. It’ll be the end of the season soon, you’ll have the summer to wind down, get some normality back. Actually, thinking about it, James and I would have a blip of some sort at the end of every season, it’s all bound up with stress and expectations. It wasn’t until he stopped playing and started coaching that things changed. This is your first real season with all that pressure, isn’t it. It can be hard, you just have to work at it.

‘How did you fix it?’

_Well I think things tended to fix themselves, once the season was out of the way and we could spend time catching up with each other. Eventually I realised what was going on and just accepted it. We talked about it too, so we’d both recognise what was going on. That’s so important, sweetheart.

‘It’s a bit difficult when you’re not even in the same fucking building.’

_Yes, that is a bit of an added problem. Can I maybe suggest that the next time Cal asks you to do something when you’ve already got something important on, you just say no?

‘I can’t say no to Cal, I can’t let him down.’

_I know, sweetheart, you’re so lovely to him, but it’s OK sometimes. He’ll understand, he won’t stop asking. Make sure you talk to Amy, Dec. Even if you have to stay in for the next week to make sure you see her.

‘It’s hard –’

_I know. Do whatever it takes. She loves you. You both want it to work. So make it work. You just –

I didn’t hear the rest, as I heard a key in the door.

‘Ames?’

I rushed to the door, disconnecting from Beth as it opened, so relieved she’d come back. She looked at me with big, sad eyes, as I took in the large holdall she had with her.

‘Fucking hell, Amy, were you really moving out?’

)I don’t know. I’ve been completely miserable the last few days. I was going to stay the night at Jude’s and see how I felt.

My legs felt weak. I was terrified I was going to do or say something that would make her change her mind and leave again.

‘But you came back …’

)I got your voicemail and your text. It made a difference. Oh Dec, I don’t want to leave, but I can’t bear this uncertainty. I can’t bear it if every time you’re late or have to go somewhere last minute, or go out without telling me where you’re going, I think you’re with her.

‘Amy, what the fuck? I was with Cal. I know I was longer than I should have been, and I’m so sorry I asked you to be here and then I wasn’t, but who did you think I was with?’

Although I didn’t need to ask. She looked at me, pain in her eyes.

)God she’s a conniving cow, she’s got between us without even lifting a finger.

‘Shit, you thought I was with Becca fucking Davis? Fuck, Amy, you really thought I was with her?’

)I don’t know what to think. It all feels like it used to at school, all the mind games and then the inevitable conversation – ‘Sorry Amy, but Bec’s more fun than you. Let’s just be friends.’

I tried to hold on to what Beth had told me, that Amy was feeling insecure. It was hard. It hurt that she could believe I would cheat on her.

‘Do you think I’ve been lying to you?’

)No …

‘Well what then? It sounds like you think every time you don’t know where I am, I’m with Becca fucking Davis.’

)Dec, I’ve hardly seen you for weeks. I never know where you are these days. I thought when we moved in together we’d see each other all the time, but it’s not like that, it’s like we never bother making time for each other any more And you slept on the sofa again last night. It’s like you can’t bear to be with me, like you don’t want me any more She keeps texting me, telling me things you said or did, making it sound like you were with her. Now she’s on the scene, it feels like it’s only a matter of time and she’ll have you –

She started to cry and dropped her bag to put her hands over her face. We were still by the front door; she hadn’t even closed it behind her.

‘Oh Ames, this has just all got a bit out of control. Come here, babe.’

I pulled her into my arms and held her close, unable to stop my own tears. I couldn’t bear her being so sad. I couldn’t bear being so sad myself. After a while we both sniffed to a halt, stood back and looked at each other.

‘This is shit, Amy, how have we let this happen? We need to sort it out.’

She nodded. I pushed the front door shut, as if that would somehow keep her here, and took her by the hand to lead her into the living room. We sat together on the sofa.

‘OK, there’s lots I need to say, I’ve been a fucking thoughtless dickhead and taken you for granted and I need to apologise, but before any of that I just need to be absolutely sure that you know and believe that I love you, and only you, forever. Do you believe me?’

She looked up at me, nodded.

‘Do you love me?’

)Yes, of course. But that’s –

‘Hold on, there’s something else that goes with that, that I need to know you believe. I haven’t spent one second with Becca fucking Davis since she was in the bar after the game. She can throw herself at me all day long for all I care, I’ll never take any notice of her, she’ll make herself look like a fucking idiot for trying. I only want you, I’ve only ever wanted you, I’m not interested in anyone else, just you. I’m sure she would like you to believe something different. You can only believe one of us. If you believe her, she’s won, got what she wanted – I don’t mean me, she’ll never have me, I mean power. That’s what all this is about, she’s a bully and likes to take power away from people. Do you believe me?’

Another nod, less certain.

‘Oh Ames, I’m so sorry I’ve caused all this. It’s just been so manic recently, I’ve stopped keeping in touch with you.’

I glanced at Amy’s note on the table: It’s always something isn’t it.

‘I know I’m always getting caught up, side-tracked, late back.’

)Well I am getting a bit fed up of hearing ‘Sorry babe, I lost track of time’. Dec, I really love that you’re always helping people out, I really love how sociable you are, but I’m here too, I need you too. Like, last Sunday after the under elevens game, you went off to cut Carol’s grass and you were gone all day because Matt came round while you were there and you ‘lost track of time’. I thought we were going to talk then, but we never got more than a few minutes, and it’s been days now. There’s only so often I’m willing to wait in all day on the off-chance you’re going to actually turn up when you say you will. It’s not fair.

I thought about it, how often that happened, how I just expected her to be here when I’d finished talking or helping out or having another beer. It happened a lot.

‘I’m so sorry, Ames. I’m treating you like shit, like you don’t matter. You matter the most to me in the world. You’d really think after everything that’s happened to me, I’d realise when I was taking the people I love for granted. You’re so precious to me, I should remember it every day. If I’d been in tune with you a bit more, I wouldn’t have even thought about giving Becca Davis your number, I’m such a fucking dick.’

)Why did you?

I hung my head, embarrassed.

‘This is pretty lame. It felt awkward not to, she was pretty insistent. I was saving my own face. I’m so sorry, babe. I honestly thought she was an old friend, or rather to be more honest, wasn’t really paying attention to what you were saying, and chose to believe she was an old friend. I’m so sorry.’

Amy glanced at me, then looked down, shoulders hunched.

)When she rang me, while I was out with Cara and everyone, I could hardly believe it. She was just the same as she was at school, I knew she was up to something. I’d seen her after Raiders games a few times, hadn’t spoken to her, didn’t know if she still recognised me, she obviously saw us together and decided to try her old tricks.

‘But all they are is tricks. If we’d been a bit more in touch with each other, it would never have gone so far. We’ve both been so busy, I think I need to let you know what’s going on with me more, maybe do a bit less, make sure I have time for us to be together. And once the season’s finished and your exam’s over, we’ll have lots more time. Oh Ames, I’ve missed you. I feel like there’s been more than distance between us sometimes. I’ve hated sleeping on the fucking sofa.’

)Why did you, then? I didn’t ask you to.

‘Well, actually, you did the first night, you might not remember, you were pretty wasted. Fair enough, you were bloody furious with me. But after that, it felt like we were kind of avoiding each other, and then we felt so far apart it was a bit weird to be in bed with you. I wanted you so much but, well, that wasn’t going to happen, so I just put myself out of harm’s way.’

)But I asked you not to last night.

‘I know babe, I wish I’d talked to you about it. I didn’t want to come back until we’d sorted things out. I wanted to talk, but I fell asleep before you got back. I didn’t hear you come in.’

)It just made me feel even more like you didn’t want me.

Amy looked so unhappy and I felt so bad. I tentatively put my arm round her shoulders, and felt her relax a little as she rested her head against me.

‘Oh Ames, I’m so sorry. I just can’t move for fucking up at the moment. I want you. I need you. I love you. I love you so much. I should say it all the time, so you never feel like this again. I’ve taken you for granted, I’ve got previous, I should know by now that I have to work at things, talk about things, keep things out in the open. Me and you, we’re the most important things to each other. We can do without anything else, jobs, homes, cars, all that shit, but we can’t do without each other. We need to be strong together. We are still together, aren’t we? Are we OK?’

)If you’re sure you still want me –

How had I let things slip so far that she could doubt it?

‘Amy, I love you, I want you, I need you. I always will. We want each other, don’t we? I know I’ve already asked you this, but will you marry me?’

Amy choked back a sob with a half smile, and looked up at me with her beautiful blue eyes.

)Of course, hon. Oh Dec, I love you. I’ve been so unhappy, I think I convinced myself Becca would win, like she always did, and I couldn’t see any other end to it. You must think I don’t trust you. I do, it just all got tangled up with her. It’s what she does.

‘Maybe I need to have a bit of a word with her –’

)No, hon, just leave it, she feeds off it. Tell you what we can do though, next home game I’ll hang around afterwards, we can have the biggest snog the Raiders Bar has ever seen, tongues and everything. That might just do it.

And suddenly there it was, over. I sagged with relief as I felt Amy melt against me, and the tension between us evaporated.

‘I like the sound of that. Can I feel you up too?’

)Don’t push your luck.

I pulled her closer and folded her up in my arms, so glad we’d managed to sort things. I could see Amy’s holdall still in the hall, and it made my blood run cold to think how close I might have been to losing her.

)Oh, you know what, thinking about that weekend while I remember, I saw Mum and Dad a couple of days ago. They’re going on a cruise in a few weeks, three months round the world, it’s to celebrate Dad’s retirement.

‘Bloody hell, lucky them. That’s great.’

I genuinely meant this, as they would be out of the country and out of Amy’s business for a quarter of the year.

)It means they won’t be here for my birthday, so they want to have a special meal before they go. They want you to come too.

‘Really? They want me to come?’

)Well, OK, I said I wouldn’t go unless you were invited too. It’s almost the same. They’ve booked that fancy place near Cathedral Park, Fishers or whatever it’s called. It’s for a week on Saturday, I know you’ve got a game, I said it would have to be later so you have time to do all your post-match stuff, so they booked it for nine. Sorry, hon, I really want you to be there, hope you don’t mind.

I was more than happy to celebrate Amy’s birthday early with her parents if it meant that, firstly, they would be out of the country for three months, and, secondly, I wouldn’t have to invite them to her surprise party, so they wouldn’t be there all night disapproving of her having fun.

‘No worries. Sounds perfect. Now, did you mention some snogging? I think we need to get practising so we’re word perfect on the night. Come here, you gorgeous woman. I’ve fucking missed you. Let me show you how much.’

o0o

Declan Summers

@summs12

Playing rugby for Raiders

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Declan Summers @summs12 5 May

This is my last tweet. I have deleted the rest. Twitter didn’t amaze me, it saddened me. Deleting my account.

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o0o

Dec: =Good luck babe. U’ll smash it. See you l8r, tell me how gr8 u were. Luv u 2 bits xxx

Amy: =Thx hon, sooooooo nervous. Luv u 2 xxx

o0o

_Hi Dec, just ringing to see how Amy got on with her exam.

‘She’s not back yet, they all went out for a drink afterwards, I’m not expecting her until much later. She thinks it went OK though, sounded pretty confident actually.’

_Oh that’s great, I’m so pleased. So, if Amy’s not there, is it a good time to do some surprise party plotting?

‘Great idea. Over the phone, or do you want to come round?’

_Oh, I can’t, James is out, no babysitter. You could come to ours?

‘No, I’d better stay here in case Amy comes back early or needs me to give her a lift or something, she’s expecting me to be here.

_Sounds like someone’s learned a lesson or two.

‘Yeah, the hard way. As usual, it takes a fucking crisis, but I get there in the end. Phone it is then …

o0o

– … young player of the season is … Declan Summers. Well done, Declan, come and get your trophy – oh, er, when you’re ready. Declan? Well, it certainly looks like Declan’s young lady is eager to congratulate him on his award … er, right … ahem … ah, thank you, yes, here you are, congratulations. Phew, Declan, you’ve made me blush. That doesn’t happen very often. And now on to the award for …

o0o

Amy had gone home to change, ready to be picked up by her parents. I still had some photos with sponsors to finish up, some handshaking with various corporate people and a bit of mingling with any remaining supporters before I could get out of my Raiders suit, into my ‘dinner with Amy’s parents’ suit, and head off to the restaurant.

The whole day had been spectacular, starting with Raiders winning the semi-final of the play-offs, courtesy of a last minute try from one Declan Summers, followed by my award for young player of the season, and then by signing a new personal sponsorship deal that considerably increased my income for the next two years.

The well-rehearsed and very enjoyable kiss with Amy as my award was announced seemed to have seen off any lingering doubts in Becca Davis’ mind that her scheming was going to work, as she left the room with a face like thunder during the presentation.

I finally finished the photos and the handshakes and headed to the bar, where a few people were still listening to the band as it played its last couple of numbers. Jay and Nico were leaning on the bar, watching the sports channel on subtitles. I went over and stood next to them.

>Hey Declan, you want a beer?

‘No thanks, Nico, I’m off out soon.’

I nodded at the TV screen.

‘Did Arsenal win?’

>Yes, they win. Cal’s Theo Walcott score a goal, he is happy now. Both his teams win, but only one of his best players score. Your try must make up for this, is only second best. Tottenham, they lose. Matty is not happy, yes?

‘Probably not, he’ll get over it, I expect he’ll find some understanding woman to console him later.’

łHey, that’s my little brother you’re telling the truth about. You’ve escaped the media circus at last, then. Seeing spots before your eyes?

‘Ha ha, yeah a bit. That flash was really bright, and my jaw’s aching from all the fake smiling.’

łJust think of that lovely money, that’ll make it a real smile. Well done, mate, you’ve earned it.

‘Thanks. I think I might head off in a minute, can’t be late for Amy’s parents.’

łOh yeah, the dreaded meal. Just think of it as a free dinner followed by three whole months of not having to think about them. See – now that looks like a real smile, mate. Just a word of advice, though. Don’t try the snogging display on them. Might not go down well.

>Ha, yes, this is some kissing we are seeing. We think we watch movie awards, not rugby awards.

I grinned.

łDid it do the trick?

‘Don’t know what you mean.’

łNo, mate, course you don’t. Oh, did Brett find you?

‘Brett? Oh, Bonksy. No, was he looking for me?’

łYeah, just now, said he needed a favour. Dec, I’ve been meaning to ask for ages, why ‘Bonksy’? What does it actually mean?

‘Fucked if I can remember, it was so long ago, from Academy days. I was Captain Sensible for a while, that’s just fucking hilarious!’

łYou did have a bit of an earnest quality about you back then. Seem to have shaken it off pretty well now. Oh, here’s Brett, I’ll leave you to it. See you soon, mate, have a good evening if at all possible.

Jay clapped me on the shoulder and turned back to the TV as Bonksy approached.

]Hey Summs, I’m glad I caught you, I wondered if you could do me a favour?

‘If I can. I’m just on my way to dinner with Amy’s parents, big posh restaurant, I can’t be late.’

]Oh, nice one. Is it in town by any chance?

‘Er, yes, why?’

]Great, then it won’t take you any time at all, it’s on the way.

‘What exactly do you want me to do?’

]Well I’ve got myself in a bit of a bind, see there was this girl earlier, and I liked her and everything, and I kind of said I’d give her a lift home, but now I’ve been getting on really well with this other girl, and so giving the first one a lift home not really an option, but seems a bit rude to leave her in the lurch, and all the buses have gone now. She lives, oh I don’t know, I can’t remember exactly where, but it’s not far, practically on your way. Please, mate, you’d be doing me a real favour.

I hesitated, not wanting to complicate my evening by unnecessary Bonksy diversions. It didn’t sound like much, though, just taking someone somewhere I was already on the way to, maybe having to listen to her complaining about what a dick Bonksy was. I looked at my watch. Plenty of time to get changed, do Bonksy’s dirty work and still not be late for the restaurant. I sighed. Bonksy and I hadn’t seen much of each other since Amy and I moved in together; it felt kind of good to be helping him out of his scrapes again.

‘OK. As long as it’s on the way. You’ve told her you’re not taking her home, haven’t you?’

]Well, no, I was kind of hoping …

‘Oh fucking hell, Bonksy. Oh alright then. For old times’ sake.

]Thanks mate, I owe you one.

‘You owe me several actually, at the last count, not that I am of course.’

I was speaking to Bonksy’s disappearing back, but he turned at the door.

]Oh, she’s waiting out the front by the programme kiosk. Cheers mate.

He walked out before I could ask her name or what she looked like. I quickly changed into my posh suit. By the time I was ready, there was hardly anyone left in the club. I headed out to the front of the stadium, kit bag in one hand and Raiders suit in its cover over the other shoulder. It had started to rain. There was someone waiting by the programme kiosk, hunched against the increasingly heavy drizzle. She had her back to me.

‘Hey there, are you waiting for Brett – shit.’

As she turned round, I recognised her. Becca Davis. Fuck.

ϸYeah – oh, hi Declan. Did Brett get held up?

I was completely at a loss for a few seconds.

‘Er, yeah, actually, he’s, er, not going to be able to take you home. Says he’s sorry.’

ϸOh. Had a better offer did he?

Fuck it, I had no reason to spare her feelings.

‘Something like that.’

I turned round and started to walk towards my car, fuck whatever I’d promised Bonksy.

ϸWait, Declan, is there any way you can give me a lift? It’s pissing down now, I haven’t got my coat and there aren’t any more buses from here. I can’t walk far, I’ve got a bad ankle.

I shouted back, over my shoulder:

‘Phone a taxi.’

ϸI’ve got no cash. Please, Declan, it’ll only take you a few minutes.

I had absolutely no reason to do anything for her, apart from my inexplicable inability not to help people out. In the end my pathetically overactive conscience got the better of me.

‘I’m heading into town. I’ll drop you off somewhere if it’s on my way.’

ϸOh you’re a star. I’m just off the bypass.

She trotted over to the car in high heels, no apparent sign of any bad ankle. I got the first twinge of misgiving. I put my suit in the boot while she got in the passenger seat and put her seatbelt on, then I got in myself. I started driving, determined to get her out of the car as quickly and with as little conversation as possible.

‘Where am I dropping you?’

ϸYou look nice, going somewhere special?

I looked directly ahead and not at her, her too-short skirt and her too-tight shirt.

‘Yeah. So whereabouts am I dropping you?’

ϸOh it’s not far, just past the retail park. I’ll say when. Going out with Amy are you?

I didn’t answer; Amy was not the topic of any conversation I was going to have with this woman. It didn’t stop her for long.

ϸWhy did you close your Twitter account? It wasn’t because of me, was it?

I didn’t answer.

ϸShame, it was fun keeping in touch. Are you on Facebook?

‘No. Is it much further?’

ϸJust a bit, we haven’t gone past the retail park yet. Don’t be so keen to get rid of me.

She was silent for a while, but kept wriggling in her seat, her skirt creeping further up her thighs as she did so.

ϸThat was quite a performance you put on in the bar.

‘What?’

ϸYou and Amy. All the tongues and roving hands. Very impressive.

‘Piss off, Becca. You know nothing about me and Amy.’

I bit my lip, annoyed that she had riled me into responding.

ϸI know enough to see you were trying to impress someone – maybe hoping to show someone what you’re made of?

‘OK, that’s it, I’ve had enough of your tiresome bullshit. You can get out now. Fuck off.’

I stopped the car. She turned in her seat and faced me, leaning forwards.

ϸMake me.

I sat in silence, clenching the steering wheel as it dawned on me just how much trouble I might have got myself into. I watched the windscreen wipers clear the screen a couple of times. Got out of the car, into the rain, and called Amy.

)Hey hon, are you on your way?

‘Ames, I really can’t believe I’m about to say this. I’m so sorry, babe. I’m in a bit of a situation. I’ll be there as soon as I can. I love you, I need you to trust me.’

)OK … Are you –

Silence.

‘Amy?’

I looked at the screen. It had gone blank. I pressed the power button several times, but nothing happened. Out of charge or just given up the ghost, it didn’t really matter. It had sealed my fate.

‘Fuck it. Fucking useless piece of fucking junk.’

I shoved the redundant phone back in my pocket and got back in the car, out of the rain.

‘What exactly are you trying to achieve?’

Becca settled back in the seat, crossed her legs and ran her hands through her hair.

ϸKeeping dry for starters. Mm, comfy seats, nice and warm, ooh look, it reclines. Join me?

‘I’m just going to go where I was going, you can stay in the car or get out–’

ϸThink I’ll stay. I’d really like to see the look on Amy’s face when you get back to the car after your night out and I’m in the front seat, looking a bit rumpled and like I just might have had a fucking good time with the driver. I might even cry a bit – Oh Declan, you’ve been ages, I thought you weren’t coming back – oh … Amy’s with you …

She made her face crumple and a tear rolled down her cheek.

ϸI … I thought after what we did … you said she didn’t mean anything to you, how could you do this …

She sat back and looked me boldly in the eye. She was a bloody good actress, I had to give her that. I could imagine it working on Amy, after everything else that had worked. I thought of a few choice names to call her, but tried to keep a lid on my rising temper. I needed to concentrate if I was going to get out of this.

‘What do you want?’

ϸOh, nothing you’re likely to give me, you haven’t got the balls, much as you want it.

‘There’s absolutely nothing I want from you, apart from getting the fuck out of my car.’

ϸNo, I didn’t think you’d actually admit it. You can’t tell me wet fish Amy Wright is actually satisfying you, though?

As I ignored her attempt to diss Amy, Becca hitched her skirt up a bit higher, undid a button on her shirt and licked her lips. It was so obvious, it was almost funny. Maybe it might have worked on someone else, someone who was unhappy, or unsure, or just fancied what she was offering. It didn’t work on me.

‘What do you want, Becca? Maybe you think I can’t sit here all night fending off your pathetic shit, but I’ve had worse all nighters, and I’ve always won in the end.’

Perhaps she realised I was serious, as she seemed to sag a little bit, and dropped her head.

ϸOh alright, sod it, you’re really not worth all this. All I actually want is for you to take me home, right to my door, so I don’t have to walk there in the rain. And you can tell that cock Deressie from me, he’s a fucking wanker.

The fight seemed to have gone out of her. I could hardly believe I’d got off so lightly. I might not have needed to call Amy at all. I started the car.

‘Fine. Which way?’

ϸNext left.

She gave me some directions which seemed to lead into, then out of, the housing estate. After a while, I was totally turned around, had no idea where I was. It took me a while to realise we were heading out of the city, and then suddenly we were on a country road.

‘Where the fuck are we?’

I’d totally fallen for it. I’d just told myself what a good actress she was, and then I’d let her fool me into driving her all the way out here, some dark lane, in the middle of the countryside.

ϸOh, whoops, must have made a mistake. Are we lost?

The road was narrow and there wasn’t anywhere to turn round. I drove for some time, looking frantically for a gateway or something so I could head back the way I’d come. Finally, in the headlights up ahead, just as I was considering reversing all the way back down the road, I saw the entrance to a field where the road widened and I would have my chance. I pulled in, and the car stalled. I tried to start it again, but the engine just kept turning over without catching. I looked at the dashboard. The petrol gauge was blinking on empty, as it had been since yesterday, but I’d forgotten about it. I banged the steering wheel in frustration.

‘Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, a million fucking fucks.’

ϸIs that a request? Not sure I can manage a million, definitely one or two, three at a push, if you’re really good …

‘Just piss off.’

I took my phone out to dial before I remembered it had died too.

‘Shit.’

If I’d thought I was in trouble before, I’d had no idea how bad things could get. Becca stretched in the seat beside me and looked at me with wide, delighted eyes.

ϸOh Declan, it almost seems like you might have planned this. What kind of a girl do you take me for?

She took her seatbelt off. Then unbuttoned her shirt and took that off too. I stared at her for a second and then turned and faced resolutely forwards, thinking ‘shit shit shit’.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’

ϸWell it seems a shame not to make the most of the situation. It’s going to be a while before anyone comes to help us down this road. We may as well enjoy the wait. I can make it very enjoyable, look …

She reached behind her, undid her bra and took that off too. I tried to ignore how naked she was, but was finding it a bit difficult.

‘Have you got a phone?’

ϸYes, but I’m not sure I’m ready to call for help just yet. Maybe in a little while I might need to …

She leaned over, stretched her hand out and started stroking my thigh. In spite of myself, and to my shame, I felt myself responding. I forced myself to think about Amy and not what was going on in my pants.

‘Becca, just stop there. I don’t know what you think I’m going to do with you out here in the rain in the middle of fuck knows where, but it is not going to happen. Not here, not anywhere.’

ϸYour hard-on tells me different.

‘My hard-on tells you I’m thinking about Amy.’

It was mostly true, although I was finding the close proximity of Becca’s nipples shamefully distracting. I picked her hand up from my thigh and put it in her lap – I really needed to get out of there.

Becca suddenly leaned towards me, grabbed my head and kissed me, thrusting her tongue deep into my mouth and her naked breasts against me. Horrified, I pushed her away as hard as I could, and, wiping my mouth, tried to find the door handle.

‘I don’t know what the fuck you think you’re doing. Do you think you’re sexy or appealing or something? You’re just sad and pathetic. I’m going to get back to the city so I can carry on with my evening.’

At last, I found the door handle and shoved the door open, almost falling out of the car in my haste to be gone, away from this terrifying crazy woman who was making me feel things I definitely did not want ever to be feeling.

ϸI’m sure Amy would appreciate a text from me telling her not to worry …

Becca’s voice followed me out of the car. I sighed as I stood up. I’d had enough. I was already in deep enough shit, I was going to have to tell Amy everything anyway, nothing Becca Davis could do now was going to make it any worse.

‘Do what the fuck you want. You’re just a silly girl who’s never grown up. You think you’re still at school. Welcome to the real world, where grown ups don’t get sucked in to your childish shit. I suggest you put your shirt on and call a taxi. Good luck with your sad little life, just stay the fuck out of mine.

I hunched my shoulders against the pouring rain, and started to walk back down the road, cursing myself the whole way for the fucking gullible idiot I was, ignoring Becca’s shouts to wait, come back, she’d phone for help, then her yells that she was texting Amy right now and telling her how hard she’d made me, finally some loud sobs mixed in with most of the names I’d already called myself since leaving the club earlier. As her voice faded behind me, I trudged on through the rain, feeling bleak and stupid.

The downpour was a very effective cold shower, but I still felt guilty about how I’d responded to Becca’s touch. It was purely physical, no reasoning or emotional part of me was even slightly attracted to her, but I’d surely blown it with Amy now.

We’d been in such a good place since we’d sorted everything out. We’d been to see Jay and Beth and talked to them for a long time about how they managed to make things work when Jay was playing. Since then, we’d worked hard on communicating with each other, but I knew Amy still felt insecure about the amount of female attention that often came my way, and now this farce with Becca was just going to blow it all wide open again. And in front of her parents, who didn’t like me anyway. I hoped against hope that Becca was bluffing about texting Amy, but it seemed like the sort of thing she would do, so I prepared myself to face the fallout from that too.

The lights of the city grew slowly closer as I carried on walking. I was soaked right through to my skin, my suit was ruined, and my shoes squelched. It felt like hours later when I eventually reached the outskirts of the city, and the first street lights.

A car came towards me, and I thought about flagging it down, but realised no one was going to give me a lift in this muddy, saturated state. It was probably a taxi for Becca anyway. The car stopped behind me. I ignored it and kept on walking. The car reversed and the window wound down.

}So do you want a lift, or shall I leave you to enjoy your stroll in the deluge?

I stopped and looked properly at the car. Blinked the rain out of my eyes and tried to make sense of it.

‘Matt? What the fuck are you doing here?’

}Do you want me to tell you before or after you get in out of the rain and start ruining my Italian leather seats?

I opened the door and got in. He turned the heater up full, but my teeth still chattered.

}Fuck me, you’re absolutely drenched. I should have brought a towel. Or a dehumidifier. Or one of those fucking industrial suction pumps. Shit, Dec, you’re a sight for sore eyes, I’ve been all over looking for you.

‘What? How did you know?’

}Well I don’t know much, I have to say. You can fill me in on the way. Amy rang me, all in a panic, said you were supposed to be at Fishers with her parents, but you’d rung her saying there was a problem, then got cut off.

‘My fucking phone died.’

}Ah. Anyway, I didn’t know where you were, but doing a bit of detective work via Jay, then your mate Brett, we worked out you may have got waylaid by the charming @bouncybec.

‘Shit, does Amy know?’

}Well, none of us know anything for definite. It was Becca, then?

‘Yeah. Fuck, I’m such a dick. I couldn’t have been more fucking stupid if I’d tried.’

}You took the words out of my mouth. Dec, what possessed you to give the woman a lift? I don’t even know her, and I’d avoid her like the plague, and you know I’m not that fussy.

‘Well I didn’t know it was her when Bonksy asked me to do him a favour. Then I felt sorry for her.’

Matt gaped at me.

}You felt sorry for her?

‘For about two seconds. The wrong two seconds. I’m just too much of a sucker for a fucking sob story. Before I had a chance to think about it, she was in the car and I was screwed. Almost literally. My car’s way back up that road, I ran out of petrol. The last I saw of Becca fucking Davis she was in the passenger seat with her tits out trying her hardest to get me to shag her.’

}Tempted?

Fuck off Matt! No! Shit, what the fuck do you think of me?’

}OK, OK, sorry, just asking the question that Amy will no doubt ask you. I hope you’re similarly vehement in your denial when she does.

‘What time is it?’

}Ten twenty six, according to the cunningly placed dashboard clock right in front of your eyes.

‘Shit. And thanks for the fucking sarcasm, just what I need. Is Amy still at Fishers?’

}She said she was going to stay there and have the meal with her parents, apparently they’re not particularly understanding of your foibles and didn’t look too kindly on having their celebrations interrupted with any concerns over your well-being. Do you want to go straight there, or go home and get dry?

I sighed. I was wet, and cold, and I really didn’t want to face Amy and have to explain everything that had happened, in front of her parents, but it was what I had to do.

‘Straight there, please. Thanks Matt. Thanks for coming to look for me. How the fuck did you know I’d be here?’

Matt put the car in gear and drove away while he started to explain.

}Apparently Becca lives around here somewhere. Amy gave me a rough idea of her address, we couldn’t think of anywhere else you might have been persuaded to take her. I just drove around in a widening circle, luckily I came across you before too many hours had passed.

‘Thanks, it means a lot.’

I was still soaking wet and cold when Matt pulled up outside the restaurant. With a heavy heart I got out and waved him off. He’d offered to wait, but I didn’t know how long I’d be or what was going to happen inside, so I said I’d get a taxi, and hoped they’d accept sodden banknotes, as well as sodden customers.

The restaurant was nearly empty when I walked in. The maître d’ looked me up and down and started to turn me away.

‘I’m with the Wright party. Sorry, got caught in the rain.’

*Oh, certainly sir, but I think they’ve just about finished.

‘That’s fine. Are they upstairs?’

*Yes sir.

I walked slowly up the stairs, very aware of the squelching from my shoes, the wet, muddy footprints I was leaving behind me and the water steadily dripping from my clothes.

When I got to the top of the stairs, I saw Amy and her parents sitting at the only occupied table. There were coffee cups and wine glasses ready to be collected. It didn’t look like a particularly happy gathering. Amy looked up, saw me, got straight out of her seat, and came over to me. I saw her think about hugging me, and think better of it, but wasn’t sure if it was because I was so wet, or because she was upset. She gave me a big smile, which helped me be a bit more sure, and touched my cheek, which helped even more.

)Dec, you made it. Come and sit down.

This was so different from the reception I was expecting that it threw me, and I stayed where I was for a second or two. Then I walked over to the table.

‘Hi Mrs Wright, Mr Wright.’

Their reception was more predictable, and was silent and icy. They barely looked at me to acknowledge my presence. I decided to ignore them back and just spoke to Amy.

‘Ames, I don’t think I can sit down like this, I’m absolutely soaked, I’ll ruin the chair. I’ve had to ditch the car and walk for miles in the rain. I’m so sorry I missed your birthday meal.’

)Well, you did let me know you were going to be late, and you did ask me to trust you, so I did. Is everything OK?

I glanced at Amy’s parents, who were listening intently to our conversation, disapproval etched on their faces.

‘Apart from having to leave my car miles up a country lane with no petrol and a half naked fucking mad woman in it, and then being nearly drowned trying to get back here, yeah, I think everything’s OK. Have you had a good evening?’

)Apart from having to coordinate the rescue of my unbelievably naive fiancé from the clutches of a – half naked mad woman, you say? Yeah, it’s been good, thanks.

‘Are we OK?’

She looked at me, her big blue eyes shining. She didn’t look like she was pretending in front of her parents, and I began to hope that maybe things weren’t as screwed as I’d imagined.

)Yeah, hon. Thank God for Matt, but yeah. We’re OK.

She stood up and before I could stop her she put her arms round me and squeezed me tightly.

)You really are very, very wet.

‘I know.’

)So am I, now.

‘I know.’

)So are you going to put your arms round me or what?

‘I’m finding it hard to resist, but they are also very, very wet.’

)Just get on with it.

I did as I was told, put my arms round her, and buried my face in her hair for good measure, feeling happy and relieved.

)Mm, lovely, now I’m completely soaked too. I think I need to go home. Mum, Dad, thanks for a lovely meal, I’ve had a completely lovely time. Sorry I was on the phone so much. I think Dec and I are going to shoot off now, we both need to get out of these wet things, and we’ve got some catching up to do. Have a great trip, if I don’t see you before.

She kissed them both, I didn’t, and then we left.

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.