Monday morning it was freezing cold downstairs. The fire had gone out overnight, Gareth probably forgot. I set about emptying the ash and lighting a new fire. Matty helped me get some logs in, then put the kettle on. It took me several tries to get the fire to light, I was definitely no boy scout.
Matty came over with two mugs of coffee and we huddled on the sofa waiting for some heat to be given out. It was just then the phone rang, I thought it must be Gareth's. I followed the ringing and found the phone, it was my phone. I didn't remember leaving it downstairs. I picked it up and answered. I did it automatically, without thinking.
It was my mum. "Alex!" she almost shouted down the phone.
"Hello mum," I replied, a bit taken aback.
"Finally," she said, "why don't you ever answer your phone? Why haven't you called us? We've been worried sick, your father and me. You know it's totally irresponsible. What do you think you're doing? I don't know what's got into you. And dragging little Matty along with you. His parents have reported him missing. Where are you?"
The barrage of questions didn't stop coming, they hit me like a freight train at full speed, I wasn't expecting this.
"Sorry... my phone died," was all I could think to say.
"That's no excuse and you know it. It most probably isn't true anyway. Why are you telling lies now? What's come over you? We'll come and get you, both of you. Where are you? Give me the address."
On and on, yes okay she's a bit worried, but... "I can't tell you where we are. We're fine. I have to go. I'll phone you."
"Alex, Alex," I heard her say as I cut off the call.
I switched off the phone, I needed time to think.
"That was my mum," I said to Matty, just as Gareth came downstairs.
Matty looked concerned, but it was Gareth who spoke. "That was your mam who rang?" He asked.
"Yeah, she wants to know where we are."
He went into the kitchen and spent the next few minutes making a pot of tea. I thought most people used tea bags, like instant coffee, but not Gareth.
"You should switch it back on," he told me. I didn't realise he'd seen me turn it off. "There might be a message."
There was: 'Alex please be an adult. Phone us and we will come and get you. You are not in any trouble. Love you, mum.'
Not in any trouble, I doubt that was true.
"Well?" Gareth asked. Matty was looking at me too.
I read the message. "Well you didn't really think you could stay here forever, did you?" Gareth sat down at the table and drank his mug of tea.
"I never really thought about it," I told him, and that was the truth, I never had.
We sat there not speaking. I was thinking, but without any concrete ideas. Things just came and went in my head. Finding Matty, the train journey, the night in the cottage and all the events that followed. It was like a replay. A replay that left me bewildered. Matty was looking at me all the time. I couldn't read his mind, but I imagined him thinking 'what now Alex?'
As if he had asked the question I blurted out, "I don't know."
Now Gareth had turned his attention back to me, it was like being on centre stage. "I don't mind you being here, but if the police are looking for you, that ain't good for me."
He couldn't bring himself to say 'I like you being here' could he? No, only he didn't mind. I never mentioned the police, why would he think they are looking for us.
"Why would the police be looking for us?" I asked him the question hoping to dismiss that as a problem.
"Two missing boys... one fourteen years old, the other fifteen? At the least you're on the missing persons list." Gareth was right of course. My mum was right as well. Us being here could cause problems for him, for everyone.
Thinking and talking about it was once more interrupted by the beep of my phone. A message from Michael. I didn't want to deal with that. I left it to read later.
"Who was that?" Matty asked.
"It was Michael... my brother," I added for Gareth's benefit.
"You never said you had a brother," Gareth smiled.
"Yeah well," I replied, "we've never talked much about ourselves."
"Older or younger?" he asked.
"Younger... about a year younger than Matty."
"And you?" Matty had been very quiet up till now, "you always lived here alone? I mean just you and your grandfather."
"Since ten years old, yeah," Gareth replied.
"And your parents?" Matty was off. Question time.
"They left... left me here."
"With your granddad."
"Yeah, a mean old bastard."
"Ah huh... got me doing everything around the place. Used to hit me... all the time. Well now he's sick, which is just what he deserves."
There was another silence between us, somehow though I felt we'd just got a step closer to Gareth, but I doubted we'd be here long enough to find out anymore.
"I need to go and move the sheep this morning. I'll leave you two here to think about what you want to do. Okay?"
"Yes, later then," I replied, and Gareth got up to put on boots and jacket.
I'd said yes, yes it was okay, but it wasn't okay at all, nothing was okay. I just thought then about Aled, it was exactly like he'd said, 'it's all fucked up.'
Matty and I didn't do much talking, least ways, not about what we were going to do. I think that had become pretty clear, but neither of us wanted to voice the obvious. The only thing Matty said was, it's still the holidays, meaning one more week.
He decided he needed some outside air and went off to look for Gareth, I think he thought he should be helping him with moving the sheep. I don't know why, because Gareth lived here alone and managed before we arrived. I went into the kitchen and set about doing the cooking having decided it would be nice to change the menu.
I was in the middle of preparing stuff, chopping veg and peeling potatoes when my phone rang. I picked it up to see who it was. "Jonathan, hi."
"Alex is everything okay with you two. What's happening?" He seemed a bit concerned.
"Everything's fine," I reassured him. "We are staying with a friend, well a guy who has become our friend," I tried to clarify things for him, but I wasn't sure that it didn't sound weird.
"What sort of guy, how old?"
"Jonathan, it's fine. He's not much older, he's cool. He lives on his own. On a farm. His granddad is in hospital."
"Well listen up. I phoned you for two reasons, apart from wanting to make sure you are alright. The first is the most important."
I was listening, "Yeah, what is it?"
"I had a visit from the police."
"Yes. They wanted to know how I knew you, how come I had taken you up to the North East. Why had I pretended to be a courier delivering a package to Matty's aunt. Everything, they spent over an hour round here."
"What did you tell them?"
"You know it's not easy being questioned by the police, they make notes. Anyway, I said I knew you through my cousin Brandon, that you went to school together and were in the school rugby team. I said that's how I ended up taking you up North. I told them I didn't know Matty, and the package was something you'd ask me to deliver because it was a surprise gift and you didn't want to knock at the door yourself. I think they believed me, but it's hard to say."
"Well I would believe it. That's a good story."
"It didn't end there though, because they wanted to know why I was going there in the first place. So I told them it was to see my boyfriend, Sean, and I gave them his number. I called Sean and explained what I'd done, in case they contact him."
"Did they say anything else, the police?"
"Actually, yes. It got a bit complicated because they also wanted to know why I had hung around and then later was seen on CCTV outside the central station dropping you and Matty off. They reminded me I'd said I didn't know Matty and that I was just giving you a lift."
"So what did you tell em?"
"I said you'd asked me if I wouldn't mind dropping the two of you off in town and I'd agreed because I had time to kill until Sean finished work. I said you and I had eaten lunch together at the pub. They can check all that and it fits."
"Yeah, that's pretty fucking clever," I was impressed.
"Maybe, but it doesn't pay to be too cocky. Especially with the law."
"Don't worry," I told him, "now I know the story you gave, I'll say exactly the same."
"Good, but now you also know they are looking for both of you. I think Alex, it would be best for everyone, you included, if you came home."
"Yeah, I know, we just want a little bit of time together before it's all over. What else did you want to tell me? You said two things, you called to say two things."
"I had a call from Jake..." He paused... silence.
"Yeah, you still there, what did he say?"
"Alex..." more silence.
"What is it?" I was getting worried now. "Please just tell me."
"Jake's mum died."
Now it was my turn to be silent. I didn't know what to say.
"Alex, I'm sorry to tell you like that, over the phone."
"No, it's okay, it's good you told me. Is he alright?"
"Well... more or less."
"I'm sorry," I said. "That was a stupid question, how can he be alright."
"I don't think he will be coming back, he said he needs to stay with his dad."
"Maybe I should call him?"
"I think it would be better to give it time. If he wants to talk to you he'll call, but he's got a lot to deal with right now."
"Yeah, I understand."
We said our goodbyes promising to keep in touch about things, and to stop myself thinking about yet another crap thing that happened I went back to cooking lunch.
When Gareth and Matty got back in a bit later, I explained everything. More to Matty than Gareth, but they were both there listening.
That afternoon after we had cleared the table and had done the washing up, I thought I better read Michael's message. I just hoped it wasn't more bad stuff. 'Alex, mum and dad are really worried... me too... you should come home... please.'
It was the 'please' that convinced me, if I had any doubts. Michael was like any younger brother, we got on, we had our scraps, and even if we never straight out said it, we knew we cared about each other. Besides, he usually never said 'please.'
I didn't mention that message to anyone. Gareth saw me with the phone, but never said anything. The afternoon drifted on with the three of us listening to music in front of the fire. Matty and I were cuddled up on the sofa, Gareth on the armchair nearest the fire. The rain started again bringing with it a melancholic feeling and a brooding darkness that was only kept at bay by the flickering glow from the fire.