Alan Thrush watched as the coffin was slowly lowered into the grave, his vision blurred by tears. Craig had done a stupid thing, but it was too late for recriminations—four days too late. Driving home in the heavy rain after a Saturday-night dinner with friends, Craig had tried to overtake a slow-moving vehicle, had lost control of his car…and with that his life.
The soft whimper from his left recalled Alan to his duty. Craig’s thoughtless act of careless driving had left his wife in hospital and Alan responsible for their children. Without letting go of the small hand that tightly clutched his, he knelt down. Ignoring the mud that was dirtying his suit, he drew the little six-year-old boy into an embrace with his right arm.
“Shush, Troy,” he said gently, “Daddy’s gone to heaven now. He’s watching over you and your brother from there, and he wants you to be happy.”
“I want my mummy,” Troy whimpered as he buried his head into Alan’s shoulder.
“We’ll go see her soon, I promise,” Alan whispered before looking with imploring eyes past the crying boy to the man standing beyond him.
Peter O’Gorman returned the unspoken plea with one of helpless sympathy. His own arms were busy cradling Troy’s four-year-old brother, Bradley while whispering soothingly to the distressed child. The two young men were ill-equipped to be thrust into the role of substitute parents—especially to two small boys who had lost their father and whose mother would be spending an extended time in hospital.
Alan had been honoured when his sister, Lisa, and brother-in-law had asked if he would be the guardian of their children in the event that anything happened to them. That had been a few years earlier. At the time, Alan had thought the request a formality. He never expected that he would ever need to follow through. Now his racing mind was panicking at everything he was going to have to do for the boys. He suddenly realised that he didn’t even know which school Troy attended, though he assumed there should be some papers somewhere at Lisa’s house that would tell him. He knew he would have to explain the situation to Troy’s school the next day.
For the first time in a long while, he felt he needed his parents. They would have been able to offer advice. Unfortunately, they were somewhere in Queensland on their long-planned, retirement tour around Australia. Alan and Lisa had tried to get them to carry a mobile phone, but their parents had refused. They didn’t like what they still considered to be new technology and had cheerfully replied that they would just ring from public telephone boxes every once in a while. Alan was desperately waiting for their next call so he could cry for help.
He was grateful that Craig’s parents were there. He could recall that he met them at Craig’s and Lisa’s wedding, but he hadn’t recognised them when they had shown up at the house two days after the accident. Alan had been relieved when they had asked if they could organise the funeral because it allowed him to concentrate on the boys. Troy and Bradley knew them well, calling them “Nanny” and “Grandad” when they saw them. Alan’s boss had given him the week off, though Alan was beginning to suspect that even that amount of time wasn’t going to be enough to work out how to look after two boys.
The other mourners were shuffling forward to throw a handful of dirt into the grave, but Alan and Peter vetoed the idea with a quick, silent exchange. The two boys were too distressed. Alan thought that Troy understood what was going on, but he wasn’t sure about Bradley. He’d been surprised in the past by the precocious four-year-old, but he didn’t want to take any chances on stressing his youngest nephew any more than he had to.
Putting his right arm under Troy’s backside, Alan stood and hoisted the little boy to his hip. Troy’s head remained buried in Alan’s shoulder, infrequent sniffling sounds emerging as Alan felt his shirt growing damp.
Taking a short sideways step, Alan moved up next to Peter. After transferring Bradley to his left-hand side, Peter reached out and took the hand that Alan proffered. The young men stood quietly, hand in hand, as they shared a grief-stricken moment of contemplation of the grave. Public displays of affection were rare for Alan, but he needed the support of physical contact. Tears were falling unchecked down his face, while Peter struggled manfully to maintain his own composure.
As the mourners started to drift away at the end of the graveside service, Alan let go of Peter and headed over to offer, once again, his condolences to Craig’s parents. While he had lost a much loved brother-in-law, they had lost their only son. He didn’t like sharing his pain with anyone except Peter, but he was prepared to make an exception. Reminiscing about Craig might help all of them start to move on. Peter followed, still carrying Bradley.
Craig’s parents stepped forward to meet them halfway.
“Mr. and Mrs. Lynton, I’m so sorry—” Alan started lamely, when he was interrupted by the stern-faced woman.
“Who is this…person…holding my grandson?” she asked while giving Alan a stony gaze, so at odds with the compassion she had shown earlier when they had talked about the children.
“This is my partner, Peter.” Alan started to tense up with what he feared was about to come. He prayed silently that it wouldn’t happen—not at Craig’s funeral.
“Your partner, as in business partner?” Mr. Lynton asked. His hopeful tone seemed to beg Alan to agree.
“No,” Alan said quietly but firmly. “As in my life partner. The one I’d marry if the law allowed it.”
“Henry,” she said, turning to her husband, “we’ll need to take the children home with us. Can you please get the car ready?”
“No!” Alan struggled to keep his temper under control. This confrontation—at Craig’s graveside—was almost too much for his already fragile mental state. “Lisa appointed me their guardian. Until she says otherwise, they stay with me.”
Penelope Lynton stared down her nose at the young man. Her disgust was patent.
“She evidently didn’t know the sort of company you keep. Someone like that is clearly unable to provide a decent environment for children to grow up in. No, my grandsons will need to stay with us. We know how to look after children; I raised Craig and his sister, Ruby, after all.”
Thinking the matter was closed, she turned back to Henry. “Well? What are you waiting for? Go get the car!”
Alan scowled at her, while taking a deep breath. There was no point arguing. He knew he had the law on his side—the guardianship papers were filed with Lisa’s and Craig’s lawyer—and he also had current possession of the children. The main thing was not to give the old harridan any excuse to seize them.
Spinning on his heels, he caught Peter’s attention and tilted his head towards their car. Peter nodded once and headed off, Alan just behind him.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Mrs. Lynton screamed. “You bring my grandchildren back to me!”
“Ignore her,” Alan whispered to Peter. “Just keep walking. I want to get away from here as fast as we can.”
“Okay, Alan,” Peter replied, starting to stride out. His long legs soon had him outdistancing his shorter partner. They both knew that would give him more time to put Bradley into the car and to be in the driver’s seat, ready to go as soon as Alan got there.
Peter was just closing the door after strapping Bradley in when Alan arrived. Before Alan could do anything, the Reverend Greg Young jogged up to join them.
“Excuse me, but where are you taking these children?” Rev. Young was slightly short of breath, and his face was flushed.
“They’ve had a long and stressful day. We need to take them away so they can calm down,” Alan replied as he opened the car door. He didn’t want to give any clues as to where they were going.
“Mrs. Lynton says that the children are supposed to go with her.” Rev. Young glanced back towards the irate grandmother.
“I’m sorry, but I’m their guardian.” Alan proceeded to put Troy into his booster seat.
“No! Don’t let me go!” Troy didn’t release his vice-like grip on his uncle.
“It’s okay, Troy. We won’t be going far. It’s just a short ride.” Alan tried to be soothing, but he couldn’t avoid the edge of frustration and anger that Troy’s grandmother had invoked.
“Do you have proof of that?” Rev. Young nervously wiped his balding forehead with a handkerchief.
Once he had Troy secured in the seat, Alan stood up and faced the minister. It had been a good service, and Alan tried hard to avoid blaming the messenger. Gritting his teeth, he looked past him at the source of his irritation.
“Craig’s and Lisa’s lawyers have the papers; they wrote them up about four years ago. You can contact them if you have any doubts. Clearly, I’m going to need to get a copy, but all of this has just been a rush.” With a sigh, he turned his attention to the man in front of him. “I’m sorry. I’m still upset about Craig, worried about my sister, and trying to be a good uncle to my nephews. I don’t need someone telling me that they want to take the boys away from me.”
Alan thought for a moment. He wasn’t up to having a fight over custody. Not there and then. “We’re staying at Lisa’s place. If you give me a call tomorrow—you’ve got the number—I’ll be able to put you in touch with the lawyers. They should be able to explain everything.” Alan was weary. It had been a long and stressful couple of days. “Thanks for the service, too. I’m sure Lisa would’ve liked it.”
Dismissing everything from his mind except the need to get away, Alan climbed into the car. As soon as he was seated and even before he’d fastened his seat belt, Peter had the car moving. Tears once again blurred Alan’s vision, though the ones of pain for Craig were mixed with those of anger at Craig’s parents. Nonetheless, he kept a keen ear out for any sounds of distress from behind him. The two boys were both whimpering but didn’t seem overly distraught.
Alan was not aware of where they were going until the car pulled up and Peter unclipped his seat belt. Looking out the window, Alan was surprised to see Lisa’s house and not the hospital. “What are we doing here? We’re supposed to go see Lisa!” he exclaimed, rattled at the unexpected destination.
Peter smiled softly at his partner. “We’ll head off as soon as we’ve changed Bradley. He needs some clean clothes, and we didn’t think to bring any to the funeral.”
It was only then that Alan noticed the large wet patch down one side of Peter’s shirt—right where he’d been cradling Bradley during the burial.
“What about you?”
Peter shrugged. “I’m not the one going to see my mum. It doesn’t matter if I look like a slob.”
Twisting around to view the boys in the back seat, Alan saw that Bradley was trying to undo his seatbelt, while Troy had fallen asleep. The older boy’s face glistened from the tears he had shed both at the funeral and during the drive.
Alan made a decision. “I’ll stay in the car with Troy. It would be cruel to wake him up before we get to the hospital.” He reached into his pocket and handed over the house keys. Getting a second set for Peter was another thing to add to the long list of things to do.
Peter nodded. “I’ll be back with Bradley as quick as I can.”
Alan watched Peter carry the small boy into the house. The two young men had been babysitting on the fateful night, and Alan could still remember the rising sense of anxiety that had culminated with the news of the accident in the early hours of Sunday morning. Peter had stayed with the boys while Alan had raced to the hospital. He had been unable to see Lisa because she had been in surgery. When he was told it would be at least a day before she was able to have visitors, he had returned to his partner. It hadn’t taken the two guys long to decide that they would move into Lisa’s house to look after the boys until their mother could come home.
He had gone back the next day, and Lisa had confirmed she wanted the boys to stay with him and Peter. She hadn’t been up to saying a lot, and it was then that the nurses had indicated Lisa would be in hospital for an extended time, though they wouldn’t make any commitments as to the length. The short time he had spent with her had been enough for Alan to plan on looking after the boys for at least a few weeks.
Late on the day after the accident, Peter and Alan had gone through Craig’s and Lisa’s papers and found the phone number for Craig’s parents. That had been a tough phone call to make. The Lyntons’ immediate focus had been on visiting Lisa and formally identifying Craig’s body—something that Alan was grateful he didn’t have to do. They had promised that they would be out to see Alan and their grandsons the next morning. After he had finished talking—crying, more accurately—with the Lyntons, Alan went back through the notebook where Craig and Lisa had jotted down phone numbers and addresses. There were a few other names that Alan recognised and rang, and he then left the word to spread. He had contacted his boss and had been told not to go into work until the following Monday.
The next few days had passed in a blur. Between getting ready for the funeral, trying to keep the two boys entertained, and going to see Lisa once Peter was home from work, Alan hadn’t had time to rest. In bed at night was the only time he found to mourn.
Craig’s parents had shown up as promised on the Monday, while Peter was at work. They had been kind and considerate, making a point of asking how Alan was feeling. After discussing a few items regarding the funeral, they had played with the boys for an hour to give Alan a break to do some shopping. Mrs. Lynton gave Alan a hug before they left, telling him to call her at any time if he needed any help with Troy and Bradley.
Alan’s recollections were disturbed when he heard the car door open. He looked across to see Peter fastening Bradley into his child seat. One of the few smiles in days crossed Alan’s face as he remembered the first time Peter had tried to fasten the five-point harness and had been told, in no uncertain terms, that he was doing it all wrong—by a four-year-old who then proceeded to lecture Alan’s twenty-five-year-old partner on how it should be done. Peter had been very diplomatic and had thanked Bradley afterwards for being so helpful.
“Ready?” Peter asked after climbing into the driver’s seat. He handed a green calico bag to Alan.
Alan nodded. “Yeah. Let’s get going.” He glanced at the bag and then back at Peter.
“I’ve got another change of clothes in there plus some snacks in case they’re hungry. We’ll be out for a while, and it’s been a long time since breakfast.”
“Good thinking. At least the traffic should be lighter at this time of the day.”
Peter grunted as he pulled out of the driveway. Alan understood what he meant. The Alfred hospital was still over half an hour away. Alan was hopeful that they would be able to transfer Lisa to a closer hospital in the near future, but The Alfred was one of Victoria’s two main trauma centres, and major accident victims end up there more often than not.
“Where are we going?” Bradley asked.
Alan twisted around so he could smile at his nephew. “We’re going to see your mummy, but it’s a long drive. Do you want something to eat while we drive?”
Bradley’s forehead wrinkled as he considered the question. “What’s you got?”
Alan sorted through the bag on his lap. “How about a banana? Or a muesli bar?” He decided not to mention the small packets of chips. He made a mental note to speak to Peter about feeding the boys junk food. They hadn’t been worried about what they had been feeding Troy and Bradley over the previous few days, but it was time to start being responsible.
“Wouldn’t you prefer a banana? They’re really good for you.”
“I want chips!”
Alan sighed. Being responsible could wait a little longer. “Okay, here’s some chips.”
When he heard the faint snicker from next to him, Alan glared across at Peter. “You shouldn’t have put them in there.”
“Bradley told me what to put in the bag. I wasn’t going to say no, since the junk food was in the house in the first place.”
“You’re letting a four-year-old tell you what to do?”
Peter sighed. “Today, if it makes him happy, yes. I didn’t want him to get any more upset. You weren’t the one holding him at the cemetery.”
Alan shut up. He knew he should say ‘sorry’, but he couldn’t say the words. Instead, he reached out and put his hand on Peter’s thigh as an apology. When Peter patted that hand, Alan knew he was forgiven.
The drive into the city went quickly. As Alan had hoped, there were few delays. They took the Eastern Freeway onto Hoddle Street and drove down until it became Punt Road. It was a trip he and Peter knew well because The Alfred was only a short walk from Melbourne’s main gay district—the area known colloquially as the Pink Mile.
As they approached the carpark, they all heard a loud noise.
“Look! A ‘copter!” Bradley was excited as he pointed out the window.
Alan held in his wince. The only reason for a helicopter to be approaching the helipad built over the road was for another medical emergency. He had only learnt the day before that his sister had been brought in the same way, because once they had her cut out of the wreckage, they had wanted her into surgery at the fastest possible speed.
“That’s right. Pretty exciting, eh?”
“I can’t see it. Where’s the helicopter?” Troy asked.
That was the first indication that Alan had that Troy had woken up. “If you look straight ahead, that’ll be where it lands.”
“Can you see that big flat thing over the road?” Alan asked.
“You mean the tunnel?”
Alan had never thought of it that way, but he could see Troy’s point of view. “That’s right. Well, the helicopter is going to land on the top of it. Keep watching, and you’ll see it.”
The boys watched excitedly as the helicopter landed. All too soon it was out of sight as Peter pulled into the car park.
“I’m going to fly a helicopter like that one day,” Troy said.
“So am I,” Bradley said.
Alan didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t get the first image of his sister after the accident out of his mind. The horrific injuries—even after surgery and bandaging—kept him silent.
After finding a parking spot, Peter pulled in and switched off the engine. “Come on, guys. Let’s go see your mummy.”
Alan led the way as he was the only one who knew where Lisa was located. He took Peter and the boys to the main lifts and pushed the button to take them up two floors to the trauma unit.
“Bradley, Troy, your mum’s been badly hurt. She may not be able to speak to you for very long, and you won’t be able to give her a hug, but it’ll mean a lot to her if you just say you love her and tell her to get well soon. Can you do that?” Alan asked while the old lift slowly rose.
Troy nodded, though Alan noticed he was gnawing at his lower lip.
“Can I kiss it better?” Bradley asked. “That’s what Mummy does for me.”
Alan raised an eyebrow at Peter, who shrugged. Alan knelt down so he was at Bradley’s eye level. “I don’t know, champ. We’ll have to ask the nurses if that’s okay, but if it is, I think that would be an excellent idea.”
Bradley nodded. “Okay.”
The lift jerked to a halt, and the doors opened.
“Come on, everyone. She’s down this way.” Alan took Bradley by the hand and turned right off the lift and then left down the corridor. He waved at the nurse at the ward station as he passed. He had spoken to her the day before, though he couldn’t remember her name. Peter followed with Troy.
Five doors down, Alan stopped. “This is the room. I’ll just go in first to make sure it’s okay.”
“Why wouldn’t it be okay?” Troy asked.
Alan threw Peter a worried glance. Peter smiled, nodded, and turned to Troy. “Because the doctor may be in there doing something, and we shouldn’t interfere. Alan will check that first and then will let us know if we can go in.”
“But what if it’s not?”
Alan left Peter to answer Troy’s question. He slipped into the room and closed the door behind him.
The figure on the bed turned her head to look at him. Alan grimaced; Lisa still looked shocking, though at least she was no longer wearing a neck brace. Her left arm was in a cast and held up by a pulley and weight. Her right arm was heavily bandaged and rested on a small support sticking out from the hospital bed. The blankets were pulled up to just under her chin, but the lumps underneath indicated more bandages or casts.
Lisa’s face was a swollen mass of purple with two small depressions where her eyes peered out. Her long brown hair was gone—shaved off when they had operated. The bandage that covered her head looked like a white rugby helmet with dark-red splodges of dried blood as decoration.
“Alan.” The voice was pained.
“I’ve brought the boys to see you.”
Alan saw a twitch on Lisa’s lips, but the sharp exhale that followed told him she was still in a lot of pain.
“Thanks. I need to see them. I really need to see them.”
Alan heard the desperation in her voice. He realised she needed something good to focus on, to help her cope with the loss of Craig. “I’ll go get them.”
He went to the door and opened it up. “Bradley, Troy, your mum wants to see you.”
The two youngsters crept in, followed by Peter. Bradley’s and Troy’s eyes went wide.
“Troy, Bradley, come here and say hello to your mummy,” Lisa said. It was obvious she wanted to reach out with her arms but couldn’t because of her injuries.
Troy took a step forward, but Bradley didn’t move.
“What’s wrong, champ?” Alan asked. “Go on, tell your mummy that you love her.”
“Go on. She’s been waiting for you.” Peter gave Bradley a small push from behind that moved him up next to his brother.
“Come here, Troy. Has Uncle Alan been looking after you well?” Lisa asked.
Both boys were staring at Lisa, but neither moved or spoke.
Alan stepped forward and took Troy’s hand. He reasoned that Bradley was likely to follow his brother’s lead. “Aren’t you going to say hello to your mummy?” He took a step forward, but Troy yanked his hand out of Alan’s.
“That’s not my mummy!”
Before either Alan or Peter could do anything, Troy ran out of the room. When Bradley started to back away fearfully, Peter and Alan exchanged looks.
“I’ll take them down and buy them an ice cream each. We’ll meet you at the café.” Peter took Bradley by the hand and led him away.
Alan watched them go until he heard a sniffle next to him. He turned to see tears falling down his sister’s face.
“Lisa? I’m sorry, I didn’t know they’d react like that.”
“It must be scary for them.” She turned her head away from Alan, but he could see her body shaking from the sobs that ran through her.
“I’ll give them another few days, and we’ll try to prepare them better next time. That way—”
Alan was left with his mouth hanging open.
Lisa rolled her head back over to look at him, wincing as she did so. “Don’t bring them back until I look more like the mother they used to have. I don’t want them having nightmares.”
“Are you sure? It was probably just the shock.”
“I’m sure.” She stared up at Alan. “You have to be their parent now—you and Peter. You can do it; I know you can.” Her face twitched. “I need you, Alan. Will you do this for me?”
Alan knew it wasn’t the time to bring up the issue of Craig’s parents. His sister didn’t need the worry. “How long for?”
“I should be looking better in a few weeks, so bring the boys back then, but they’re talking months before I can go home. Four or five—maybe six. They said I’ll need to learn to walk again.”
Alan heard the depression in Lisa’s voice, but he was in a state of shock. He hadn’t contemplated needing to look after the boys for more than a few weeks. Before he could say something, the door opened and a nurse came in.
“It’s time for your medication, Lisa.” The nurse fixed Alan with a steely glare. “And she’s had enough visitors for now. She needs her rest.”
Alan nodded and started to back towards the door. “I’ll be back tomorrow night, Lisa.”
“Will you look after the boys?” Lisa asked. She started to raise a hand to beseech him but cried out from the pain the movement caused.
“That’s enough. You have to go now,” the nurse said.
“Alan? Promise?” Lisa asked through a grimace of agony.
Alan nodded his head. “I promise.” He couldn’t do anything else.
He was still thinking about what he had agreed to do as he headed down the stairs. He ignored the lift because he wanted something to do and needed more time to sort things out.
When he arrived at the ground floor, he headed over to the café. He quickly spotted Peter and the two boys.
“Uncle Alan!” Bradley said. “Look what I’ve got! Uncle Peter bought me a chocolate ice cream.”
Peter looked up. “How did it go?”
Alan sat down on the nearest chair and reached out his arms. “Come here, boys.” He waited until Troy and Bradley had clambered up onto his lap. “What do you think if your Uncle Peter and I looked after you until your mummy’s better?”
“Yippee!” Bradley yelled, echoed by Troy.
Peter frowned. “For how long?”
Alan looked down at the two happy boys. “Maybe six months.” He glanced over at the person he loved and couldn’t keep the tears out of his eyes. “She’s going to need to learn to walk before she can get out.”
Peter gulped. He returned Alan’s stare for a couple of seconds and then nodded. “So be it.”
Copyright Notice - Copyright © October 2016 by Graeme.
The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form — physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise — without the author's express permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.
Disclaimer: All individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.
I would like to thank C James for providing feedback on the early drafts, and rec for his invaluable editing. I would also like to thank Ricky for that crucial final review before publication.