He shifted slightly on the bed, when he saw them lining up outside the door, getting ready to come in. He wondered what he looked like, and glanced sideways at Michael, guessing that he probably looked even worse. Michael smiled the softest, weariest smile Danny had ever seen on his face, and Danny smiled back. He automatically winced, screwing his eyes up in pain, and raising a hand to his swollen lips. It was easy to forget, he thought, that other parts of him were broken too, when the pain in his sides was so horrendous. Breathing hurt, let alone talking. He looked back at Michael and lifted his eyebrows. Michael managed a slight nod. His face was as white as the bandages that circled his head. He looked exhausted, Danny thought, watching him. He closed his eyes for a moment, and his mouth remained turned up. He could barely believe the strength of the emotions that were flooding him. He could only keep thinking over and over, I’m alive, I’m alive, it’s over, it’s really over and I am alive.
He had to keep telling them he was alright. None of them seemed to believe it. His mother held his hand on one side, Lucy on the other, and by the looks on their faces you would think he was on his death bed. He kept on smiling. He kept on saying it to them; “I’m alright, I’m fine, look! I’m really alright.” Michael barely spoke. He seemed drained, and barely with it. Anthony too, Danny thought glancing at where he was seated next to his brother. He sat rigidly, his body full of tension, all the fears he had imagined etched on his pale face. It’s all alright now, Danny wanted to tell them both, we did it, it really is over this time. We did it right.
He supposed he felt like a mammoth weight had been lifted from his shoulders. It seemed like that anyway. He smiled at all of them and he wanted to grab them all, hold their hands and squeeze their faces and get out of the bed and jump up and down with them. He wanted to shout it out, the way he was feeling, how good it was, how that heavy feeling had finally gone, and it didn’t feel like anything was pressing him down anymore. He felt light, that was it, light as a feather and as free as a bird. He wanted to laugh, but when he started to, they all swapped anxious looks with each other immediately.
“I’m not crazy,” he told them through his battered lips, which felt like pillows on his face. “I just feel like laughing.”
“Drugged up,” Anthony said with a snigger from Michael’s bedside. They all nodded, faint smiles pulling on their faces. Danny rolled his eyes at them all.
“Just want to get out of here,” he said then, and his eyes met with Lucy’s. He took a deep breath in as his guts took a nosedive at the thought of it all. Their lives. Finally starting. He tightened his hand over hers and let her feel his strength. “Start a life. Me you and babes, eh?”
The smile that lit up Lucy’s face made him want to weep. She was nodding and using her other hand to wipe the tears from her eyes. “Plus you’ve still got to get your bloody tattoo,” she said, making them all roar with laughter. “What?” she frowned around at them all. “He does! He said he would.”
“I’ve got it all figured out, don’t worry,” Danny grinned at her, stroking his forefinger back and forth across the top of her hand. “Just wait til the baby is born, that’s all.”
When they had all been shooed out again by the doctors, Michael cleared his throat and turned his head slowly, painfully to look at Danny. “You alright mate?” he croaked, and cleared his throat again. Danny nodded, suddenly swamped by tiredness. “Sorry mate,” Michael said then, and Danny looked at him sharply. “Sorry I fucked it up.”
“Don’t be a twat, they knocked you out, what could you do?”
“Just feel like a twat…let you down.”
“No. Fuck off did you! There wasn’t anything you could do. We were stupid to go in there. We should have known. Anyway, forget it, I mean it Mike.” Danny fixed him with a stern glare, to which his friend nodded in response. “’Cause I can feel it you see,” he explained. “I can feel it all over me, inside me, everywhere. It’s over this time. Really it is. We did it. One way or another. Maybe the right way this time. Okay?”
“Okay,” Michael nodded. “If you say so Dan…”
“I do. I do say so. Time to live now Mikey my son. You and your family and me and mine, and Anthony and his. Okay?” Michael nodded again, and forced a brave smile, his eyes looking drowsy and half open. “Good,” Danny told him. “Because we’ve all got to forget it now, you know, we’ve all got to just get on with life.” He closed his eyes, his eyelids too heavy to battle against anymore. I thought I was gonna’ die, but I didn’t. I paid for what I did, and so did they. It’s all over.
The next time he woke up, Danny found his brothers strained face staring back at him. He was sat to one side of the bed, elbows on knees, hands clasped together under his chin. He had a small beard, Danny noted right away. And flecks of grey all through his hair. Danny blinked and grinned. “Hi John.”
“Alright little brother?” John grinned back, his shoulders relaxing with relief. Danny shifted on the bed, and winced automatically. They had encased his middle in thick, tight bandages to hold the ribs in place. He felt like he was wearing a cast. He felt the sudden urge to throw back the blankets and run for the door. There was so much waiting out there now, he remembered, and licked his lips. A whole world he had never dared believe in before. “They tell me you’re gonna’ be okay.”
“Course I am. I’m always okay.”
“Good, good,” John sighed and nodded at him. He dropped one hand from his chin, slid it hesitantly across the bed sheets towards his brother. Danny felt it fall softly onto his arm and frowned at it. “Nothing to worry about now, you know?” John said to him, speaking gently, as if Danny was a kid still, as if he were still tiptoeing around his moods. “They’re all in jail.”
“Yep,” Danny agreed. “Or dead.”
John’s forehead creased. “Yeah,” he looked away briefly. “Or dead. You’re gonna’ be okay though, yeah?”
“Course I am John. Don’t you worry. I got Lucy and the baby to think of now, you know. Have you seen the size of her?”
“Yeah,” John smiled. “Listen, I won’t keep you long, but I’ve got something to tell you.”
“Yeah, I mean, you might not want to do anything about it but he asked me to tell you, so….” John shrugged his broad shoulders while Danny looked on in curiosity. He could see John was struggling, just like that day on the beach, struggling to find the right words and put them in the right order. “I mean,” he said, “you hadn’t contacted your dad, after I gave you the letter and stuff?” He looked at Danny expectantly. Danny made a face, then winced in pain.
“I’ve had a lot of other stuff on.”
“Oh I know, I know, of course,” John looked startled and uncomfortable, and smiled weakly. “I know, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”
“So what has he asked you to tell me?”
“Oh. Well, he wants to meet you. He’s here. I mean, not here in the hospital, but he’s booked into a hotel nearby. He wants to make amends with you. Get to know you.” John raised his eyebrows hopefully and tried another wary smile. Danny blew out his breath and felt himself growing weaker by the second. He looked back at his brother and could see how much it meant to him. The eagerness to please, to do something right, was etched all over his face.
“Okay,” he said with a slight nod. “Tell him that’s fine. When I’m out of here. I’ll be at Lucy’s. You can give him the address.”
He watched the relief flood his brothers face, and found it quite touching. He closed his eyes briefly, and then opened them again to find John getting up from the chair, and buttoning his coat. “I’ll leave you to it. You must be exhausted by now.” He leaned forward then and for a terrifying moment Danny was sure John was going to plant a kiss on him. He braced himself, but John merely gave him an awkward clumsy hug, that made his ribs grate in protest when he lifted one arm to reciprocate. “I’m so glad you’re okay,” John told him. “And I’m glad it’s all over. We can all look forward now, can’t we?”
Danny nodded at him and closed his eyes again. He wanted John to go, so he kept his eyes closed until he heard the door open and close. He wondered vaguely what his mother would think about him finally seeing his dad again, after all these years. He was not sure if he would want to hug the man, or hit him. He pushed it away, pushed it to one side in his mind, something to deal with when the time came, and he felt his eyelids growing heavier again. He thought of the men in the ground, and the men behind bars, and the rest of them, the survivors. How they would just have to get on. Just keep going.
It felt like the baby was taking over her entire body. It was simply exhausting to imagine she had four more months to grow. She could not fathom how her body would manage to stretch any further. She had not had a decent nights sleep in weeks, but her mother told heritt was normal, that it was natures way of preparing her for the many more sleepless nights to follow. In the weeks following Danny and Michael’s release from the hospital, Lucy reflected that life felt dreamlike. Things were unusually quiet, subdued even, but in a calm and healing way. There were so many things that made her smile. Anthony’s wife Christina finally agreeing to meet Danny, Lucy having gone to the trouble to arrange a big dinner party at her flat. Michael bringing Jenny along, holding her hand, a wicked gleam in his dark brown eyes. Danny talking tentatively to his father on the phone. Danny sleeping like a baby, deeply and soundlessly, as if his mind had finally emptied itself of horror.
The week before Christmas, she was thankful to be off work at last, and putting her feet up a bit. Danny had finally arranged for his father to come over to the flat, to meet them both in person. He was nervous, of course, trying on two different t-shirts before he settled on his Clash one. He went out on the front step three times to smoke a cigarette. He was trying to give up, for the baby, and cursed himself each time he reached for the door knob, shaking his head at his own weakness. In the end Lucy got up from the sofa and caught his arm before he ducked back out. She reached up and pressed her hand against his cheek, smiling at his taut expression, tracing her fingertips over the faded bruises. “Relax,” she told him, as he opened the door and stepped half outside with his cigarette between his lips. “He’s coming because he wants to see you. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Danny smiled back, lit his smoke and puffed a sigh of smoke into the crisp December air. She watched him shiver, and shake back his hair. She felt the rush of warmth towards him that was always there on the surface, making her want to bury her head in his chest, and feel him wrap her hair around his fingers. She kept her arm linked through his. “There’s a taxi coming,” he nodded, narrowing his eyes at the road. Lucy peered past him and watched the black and white taxi pull in behind her old mini. She rubbed his arm.
“I’ll put the kettle on.”
She did not want to intrude on their meeting, so she busied herself in the kitchen, gathering three mugs and placing the chocolate cake she had made in the centre of the table. She bit her lip, waiting anxiously, a smile tugging at her mouth, while Danny met his father for the first time in fifteen years. It was exciting, she thought, scary and daunting, but extremely exciting, and she couldn’t help but feel pleased for the baby, who would have two sets of grandparents to be spoiled by now.
When Lucy heard the front door close, she came to the kitchen doorway. She had a brief moment before he turned to face her, to look Danny’s father up and down, and for a moment the similarity to Danny took her breath away. He was shorter, and thinner, but with the same shock of thick blonde hair, and it was his movements too, she mused, gazing wonderingly, it was everything about him! “This is Lucy,” Danny said then, seeming to take a huge brave breath as his father looked up at Lucy. She stuck her hand out and he immediately took it in both of his. She knew she was going to like him right away.
“Darling,” he said, “good to see you, how lovely to meet you! Bloodyhell eh?” He was grinning from ear to ear, Lucy noted, like the cat who had got the cream. There was an edge of nervousness about him, in his eyes as he looked quickly from Lucy to his son, and back again, pulling back his hands, and making an awkward show of removing his thick duffel coat. He unwound a navy blue scarf from his neck, and Danny took it with his coat, hanging them carefully on the hook. He then gestured for his father to go into the kitchen, and Lucy moved back, allowing them in.
“Good to meet you too,” she told him, showing him to the table. “Would you like tea or coffee?”
“Tea please,” Brett replied, pulling up a chair. “Two sugars love. Did you make this too?” His eyes had rounded at the sight of the chocolate cake.
“She’s baking non-stop at the moment,” Danny said with a grin. “Must be that nesting thing I’ve heard about.”
“You’re looking well,” Brett nodded at her, still with that beaming smile across his face. Lucy made the tea and placed the cups on the table. “Due in May is it?”
“That’s right,” she agreed. “I’ll be huge by then!”
Danny came to her side then, snuck an arm around her waist and pulled her into him for a hug. He kissed the top of her head. “You look beautiful,” he looked over at his father. “I’m always telling her.”
They sat down, taking a chair next to each other, and she felt Danny’s hand creep onto her knee. She knew what he and his father had talked about, during their telephone calls over the last few weeks. She knew they had taken things slowly, getting to know each other through the conversations. The first one had been the hardest. She had seen the tears in Danny’s eyes afterwards, and then the anger. That night they had sat out in the kitchen for hours, their hands wrapped around the mugs of thick cocoa she had made them. “There’s still part of me that wants to blame him,” he had admitted, rubbing at his eyes with both hands. “And her. There’s still part of me that thinks, if he’d stuck around me, if she’d let him, then things would never have got to that point with Lee….I would have….” He had trailed off then, but she could easily have finished the sentence for him. He would have told his dad.
By all accounts however, Brett would not have been much help to anyone back then. He had been in and out of prison over the years. He had never worked a steady, reliable job. He had battled a drink problem. Lucy looked at him now and she realised you could see it all on his face. “Some people have kids at the wrong time for them,” she had said to Danny. “They can’t cope. They’re too selfish. They do all the wrong things. But one thing you can say for sure about both of your parents now, they regret it and they are sorry. They want to be there for you now.”
“How’s the job going?” Brett asked, breaking the silence, and picking up his tea. He looked so eager to please, Lucy thought then, his eyes almost constantly on his son, his lips twitching with unease, while his eyes burned with enthusiasm.
“Danny has two jobs now,” Lucy said proudly, slipping her hand onto his and squeezing.
“Oh it’s not really a job yet,” Danny shrugged. “But I’ve got on this course, this counsellors course? There’s this place near here, this youth place. They’re open all day. Kids can come in and out, find out about jobs and experiences, get advice and help. That kind of thing. And they have like a Friday night disco, and a garden project, and a band on the go. You know.”
“To keep them off the streets?” Brett was nodding emphatically. “Brilliant! Bloody brilliant! I’ve been involved with one myself, in Southampton. I go in and talk to the young lads about drink and that? Try to put them off!”
Danny glanced at Lucy, raised his eyebrows then looked back at his dad. “Yeah, that kind of thing,” he nodded. “So they have a place to go, and people to talk to. They can get into things that will help them.”
“And you’re gonna’ get a job there?”
“Just a volunteer at the moment,” he shrugged again. “But they’ve put me on a course, so yeah, hopefully, one day.”
“Well that’s brilliant, just brilliant,” his dad was beaming again. “Amazing. After all that’s happened. There’s not many people that could turn it into something positive like that, you know. Took me bloody years to sort myself out. Wasted so much bloody precious time. But you can’t keep looking back, can you? It doesn’t do you any good. No.” He made a fist then and bumped it against the table as if reinforcing this point. “You got to look forward. Enjoy the moment and look forward. So well done you, you should be proud of yourself.” He put his tea down and bit at his lip for a moment, and again Lucy was reminded of Danny, and she wondered how on earth this must feel for him, despite the phone calls, sitting across the table from his father, after all these years. “I did try to find you, you know,” Brett said then, swallowing hard.
“I know. John said.”
“I bundled about from disaster to disaster,” Brett went on. “But in between I’d try to find you. I had no idea where you’d all gone. Then there were times I was in such a bloody mess I convinced myself you were better off without me.”
“Not exactly,” Danny murmured, this hand tightening on Lucy’s knee.
“I know, and I’m bloody lucky you’ll have anything to do with me after the mess I’ve made.” Brett’s expression was sombre. “And that goes for your mum too, in my opinion.”
“We made our amends a long time ago,” Danny said. “There’s no point dragging it up. She had her hands full with me at that age. I only hope this little blighter doesn’t give us half the trouble!” He smiled warmly at Lucy, but she could see the tremor in his lips.
Lucy patted his hand and got up then from the table. She realised they had a hell of a lot to catch up on, and work through. She yawned dramatically and pushed back her chair. “I think I might go for a little lay down, if it’s all right with you two?” She glanced at Danny and winked. “I’ll leave you to it for a bit, and catch up on some rest, if that’s okay?”
“Course it is love,” Brett assured her. “You go for it. You won’t get the chance once the little one is here! If it’s anything like him, it’ll scream non-stop from the moment it pops out!” He rocked back in his chair with laughter.
“So Kay keeps saying,” Lucy grinned. She squeezed Danny’s shoulder as she passed him. “See you in a bit.”
In the bedroom, she left the door slightly open and spread herself out on the bed. Moments later she heard the soft pattering of small feet, as Kurt followed her in and jumped up beside her. Instinctively, Lucy wrapped both hands around her swollen belly, and rested them there. She felt the immediate and reassuring kick of the baby against her palms, and smiled slowly to herself. She fell into sleep with the gentle pokes of the baby against her hands, and the soft murmurings of conversation from the kitchen in her ears.
“We must look like a right pair of soppy bastards,” Michael sighed, shaking his head and lifting his hand to his forehead briefly. They sat, side by side in the tattoo parlour, sleeves rolled up, teeth clenched.
“Soppy bastards is the way to go,” Danny replied, biting his lower lip and meeting Michael’s eyes as the needled hammered into his skin. He made a face and laughed. “Shit!”
“They’re gonna’ love it,” the mohican haired tattooist was grinning back at them. “It’s the ultimate statement of love! Scarring your own body for someone!”
“Plus you owed Lucy one,” Michael was saying. “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here.”
“Proving your commitment to Jenny, that’s what,” Danny reminded him and he rolled his eyes and nodded.
“The design is genius really,” the tattooist went on, his thin face screwed up in concentration as he traced the lines stencilled onto Danny’s arm. “The way it works, you can add more names to it as you go, you know, if you have more kids or whatever.”
Michael and Danny met eachothers eyes and burst out laughing.
Afterwards they sank a pint in the Old Inne, for old times sake, and to wet the baby’s head, and then it was time to go home, to see the girls. Giddy with excitement and invigorated by alcohol, they walked the whole way back to Lucy’s flat. As they walked, Danny inhaled deeply, aware that he could feel it again, all through him, that lightness he had first experienced on waking up in the hospital. It was the only word he could find to describe it. Just lightness. It was his guts too. He could barely remember how they used to feel, knotted and curled and heavy and sick. Not now, he reflected, basking in the glorious June sunshine as they headed down Barrack road together, laughing and joking about the mutilation they had just endured.
They found the girls out in the back garden, soaking up the sun. Anthony and Christina had just arrived with the kids, and a huge bouquet of flowers. Danny shook hands with Anthony, swapped his usual polite nod with Christina, and let Anthony pull him in for a proper hug. “Congratulations Danny,” he was grinning from ear to ear, pumping his hand and slapping his back. “Welcome to the club!”
“She’s beautiful Danny,” Christina smiled at him, and he nodded in reply. He didn’t need anyone to tell him that, did he?
“Come on let’s get this over with,” Michael groaned, pushing past his brother to join Jenny, who was at on a deck chair, with Zach eating an ice cream on her lap.
“I’m not sure we want to see!” she joked, swapping a look with Lucy. Danny found Lucy’s side and knelt down next to her.
“You ready for this?”
“Go on,” she told him. “It better be good. I can still remember how much mine hurt!”
“Oh I think you’ll find ours beat you in the pain stakes Lucy!” Michael told her, with his hand poised to pull off the bandage at the top of his arm.
“Er, she’s the one who just gave birth!” Jenny reprimanded him with a giggle. “Come on then, get it over with, show us what you’ve gone and done to yourselves.”
“On three?” Michael looked at Danny. He nodded. “One…two….three!”
They pulled off their bandages simultaneously. Lucy peered closer, her mouth gaping, her eyes wandering greedily over the extent of the work he had endured. “You are nuts!” she giggled, hand going to mouth.
“That must have killed!” Anthony exclaimed, next to Michael, poking at his arm.
“Must have cost a bomb!” said Jenny, with a slight frown.
“What do you think?” Danny asked Lucy, cutting the rest of them off, like they had always been able to, slipping away into their own private space, where everything else became a blur and a hum, and it was just them, nose to nose, eye to eye. Lucy traced her finger over the tattoo, following the swirls of thorns and roses that encircled his upper arm, and along the letters of her own name, which linked through a chain of daisies onto his name, and then finally, making a circle, onto the baby’s name, Eliza. She looked at him, breath caught in her throat, tears shining in her eyes. “It’s all of us, see?” he felt the need to explain to her. “Me you and Eliza, linked together in a circle see? And you know what the tattoo man said? The way it works with the brambles and the flowers, you can add on more names too, you see? When we have more kids?”
Lucy laughed at him, then cupped one hand to his cheek and kissed him hard on the lips. “I was expecting just my name or something,” she said. “Not all of that! We wondered what was taking you so long!”
“Had to wet the baby’s head too,” he grinned. “Give her here then.”
He slapped the bandage back over the tattoo and eagerly accepted the sleeping infant from Lucy’s arms. He stood up with her, settling her tiny warm body into his arms, making sure to support her head. He looked her over. She had so much hair, already getting blonder by the day. She stirred and lifted a tiny pink fist, then opened her eyes slowly, blinking him in. He stared at her and he did not speak, because it was like a spell that might be broken if you spoke, and interrupted it. He smiled down at her and she stared back at him in that intense way she had. She had his eyes, they all said it. Deep blue, they flashed with anger when she screamed. But she didn’t scream now. She stared at him and he felt like he had known her his entire life. She was the final piece in the puzzle, he reasoned, staring at her. She made it all make sense, she made everything worthwhile, and when he stared at her, he knew that there was more love possible in this world than he had ever imagined.