“Is that everything you need?” Alan asked.
Troy nodded. “I think so. Mummy usually does it.”
Alan grunted. There were a lot of things that “Mummy” did that he would need to learn. He was crossing his fingers that he had packed Troy’s school bag properly. Peter had found some papers from the Watsonia Meadows Primary School, which they were hoping was the right school. Troy had shrugged when they had asked him to confirm it.
“Come on, Bradley. It’s time to take your brother to school.”
Peter stuck his head out from the laundry. “Bye, boys!”
Alan stepped over and gave Peter a quick peck on the lips. “Thanks for doing that for me,” he said, nodding towards the washing machine.
Peter smiled. “That’s okay. With what they’re going through, it’s not really surprising that Bradley had a wet bed this morning. At least there was a waterproof protector under the sheet. I’ve still got time to hang out the washing before I have to go to work.”
Alan appreciated that Peter had looked after everything else so he could organise both boys’ day. He still wasn’t sure what to do with Bradley, but he knew he had to start looking for a child-care centre. Alan would be returning to work the following week, and he needed someone to mind Bradley during the day. There were a lot of other things to do, but that was the priority. Alan and Peter had already agreed that Peter would take Troy to school the following week since Peter didn’t start work until nine. However, Alan was the legal guardian and needed to be there for the first day.
A couple of minutes later they were on their way. Alan felt uncomfortable using Lisa’s car, but it had the child seats fitted, and he hadn’t taken the time to work out how to install them in his own vehicle.
It was only a short drive to the school, but there was nowhere for him to park. He couldn’t drop the kids off like most of the mothers were doing. He needed to go in and explain the situation. Alan was hoping they wouldn’t ask for proof of guardianship, because he still hadn’t contacted the lawyers—another job he was hoping to do that day.
“Look, there’s Ethan!” Alan glanced back to see Troy waving at one of the students walking to school.
“Who’s Ethan?” Alan asked.
“He’s in my class. He’s who I play with at lunchtime.”
Alan smiled at the confirmation they were at the right school. He had been confident it was, but there had still been a nagging doubt. It wasn’t long before he had found a parking spot and was leading the two boys back to the school. Taking both boys by the hand, he led them across the crossing and into the grounds.
Alan was relieved that the way to the office was well signposted. He soon found himself standing in front of a windowed counter. A middle-aged woman approached from the other side.
“Can I help you?”
“Hi, I’m Alan Thrush. I’ve brought my sister’s boy, Troy Lyndon, in, but I need to speak to someone about a few matters.”
Troy tugged on Alan’s arm. “Can I go and play? The bell hasn’t gone yet.”
Alan was afraid to let him out of his sight, but he reasoned that the school was as safe a place as could be expected. “Okay, but don’t go too far, just in case I need to call you back.”
“Thanks!” Troy shot out the door.
“Can I go and play, too?” Bradley asked.
“No, Bradley. You have to stay with me.”
Bradley crossed his arms and pouted. “That’s not fair!”
Alan patted him on the head and turned back to the woman with a sheepish grin. “Sorry about that.”
She laughed. “That’s okay. Believe me, I understand kids.”
“Yeah, I suppose so.”
The woman smiled. “So what was it you wanted to discuss with someone?”
Alan glanced down at Bradley and then leant forward in an attempt to stop the youngster from overhearing. “There was a car accident on the weekend. Troy’s dad was killed, and his mum is still in hospital. I’m his guardian for now, but I’ve got no idea as to what needs to be done.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” She reached out and put a hand on Alan’s forearm.
Alan pulled a face. He still hadn’t worked out how to handle expressions of sympathy from complete strangers. “So what do I have to do?”
“If you’ll wait here, I’ll check if the principal can see you now. I’ll also pass the word onto Troy’s teacher so she’s aware of it, just in case he needs some special attention. We’ve also got a counsellor who can talk to Troy, if necessary.”
Alan hadn’t considered the possibility that Troy might need professional help with the loss of his dad. He wondered if Bradley might need support, too. “Thanks, I really appreciate that. Should I go get Troy, or is it okay for him to keep playing?”
“Just let him play until school starts, and he can go straight to his classroom.” She glanced down. “He’ll need his school bag, though.”
Alan felt himself blushing. “Thanks again. Come on, Bradley. Let’s go find Troy and give him back his bag.”
The next hour was spent with the principal, Mrs. Winters. After a short discussion, she decided that the easiest approach was to treat Alan as a new school parent and load him down with all the literature they would normally mail out. She then took him outside and across to the cluster of rooms where the classes were held for the younger students. There, she introduced him to Ms. Frowley, Troy’s teacher. Bradley played with the other kids while the three adults talked quietly in the corner.
As the conversation ended, Alan glanced at his watch. “It’s time to go, Bradley.” It was later than he had intended, but he had quickly realised there was a lot he needed to learn about Troy’s school.
Bradley looked up from the picture he was drawing. “Do we have to? I’m not finished yet.”
“Sorry, Bradley, but we’ve got a lot to do.” Alan turned to Mrs. Winters. “Thanks again for helping me out. I’ve got a lot I need to get done and not a lot of time.”
The principal smiled. “It was my pleasure. If you need to ask any questions, please don’t hesitate to ring.”
“And don’t worry about Troy. I’ll keep an eye on him, and I’ll let you know if there’s anything to be concerned about,” Ms. Frowley added.
After a handful more pleasantries and convincing Bradley he could finish his picture at home, Alan headed back to the car. There was a child-care place nearby, and he was hoping he would be able to find a spot for Bradley there. It would make Alan’s life easier if the two boys were dropped off and picked up at places in close proximity.
He frowned when he pulled into the car park of the Little Bell Childcare Centre. The garden was unkempt, and there was litter on the ground. Not a lot, but enough to be noticeable. It didn’t create a good first impression, and Alan was wondering if it was going to be suitable. He felt a sinking feeling as he realised yet again the responsibility he had taken on by accepting the boys. It wasn’t going to be enough to find a place to mind Bradley during the day; he also needed a place where he was sure Bradley would be well looked after.
“This isn’t home. I want to go home!” Bradley crossed his arms and wouldn’t let Alan undo his five-point seat harness.
“We’ll be going home soon, I promise. We just need to check out this place.” Alan wondered why he was trying to justify himself to a four-year-old.
“I don’t want to. I want to finish my picture!”
Alan moved Bradley’s arms out of the way and undid the harness. He picked up the young boy and lifted him out of the car.
“Let me go! Let me go! I want to go home!”
Alan kicked the door shut and used the remote control to lock the car while holding Bradley against his chest with his left arm. “We have to do this, Bradley. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.”
Bradley started squirming and hitting Alan across the head.
“Ouch!” Alan used his free arm to grab Bradley’s bicep. “Stop it! No hitting!” Alan was about to shake the boy when he made himself stop and take a deep breath. He had dealt with Bradley’s temper tantrums before but only while babysitting when he and Peter didn’t have any other responsibilities. Alan was learning that dealing with a tantrum when there were things that needed to be done wasn’t as easy as he thought.
“I want to go home!” Bradley’s voice was getting louder.
Alan started to tickle him, hoping it would stop the young boy’s yelling. It took a minute, but by the time they entered the building, Bradley was giggling, not yelling.
“Hello. Who do we have here with the giant voice?” The lady who greeted them as they entered had a huge smile on her face that went well with the colourful beads threaded through her hair and the bright yellow dress she was wearing. “I thought someone had left the TV on too loud.”
“Sorry about that,” Alan said as he lowered Bradley to the ground. “He only just started.”
She laughed. “That’s okay.” She held out a hand. “I’m Ruby Wilson. Welcome to Little Bell. How can I help you?”
Alan gave her a wry smile to thank her for being understanding. Her actions and acceptance also counteracted the poor impression he had received in the carpark. “I’m Alan Thrush. I need to get Bradley into full-time child care starting Monday. Are you able to help me?”
Ruby frowned. “Monday? As in Monday next week?”
“Yes.” Alan didn’t like the way the question was asked. It made it sound like he was being unreasonable.
“Is this permanent or just temporary? It’s just that we’ve got a waiting list for places, and it’s not likely we’ll be able to place him for another three or four months, at best.”
Alan blinked a couple of times. “Months?” he echoed faintly.
Ruby stared at him for a few seconds, her forehead wrinkling. She knelt down so she was at Bradley’s eye level. “Hi, I’m Ruby. What’s your name?”
“I’m Bradley, and I’m four!”
“And a big four you are, too. How would you like to play with some toys while I chat with your dad?”
“He’s not my dad. He’s my Uncle Alan. My dad’s in heaven.”
Ruby flicked Alan a startled glance before returning her attention to Bradley. “Okay, how would you like to play with some toys while I chat with your Uncle Alan?”
Ruby raised an eyebrow at Alan. “Is that okay with you?”
Alan nodded absentmindedly. He was still coming to terms with the idea that finding a child-care place might not be as easy as he had first thought.
Ruby led them along the corridor and left Bradley in a room where a group of kids that appeared similar in age to Bradley were playing. After a quick word to one of the adults supervising, Ruby led Alan back to her office.
“Would you like something to drink?” Ruby asked as Alan settled into a chair.
He felt like asking for a beer or three, but he knew that was because of the stress. “A cup of coffee would be really nice, thanks. Black with two sugars.”
Ruby picked up the phone and ordered two coffees. She then peered across the desk at Alan.
“Can you tell me what’s going on, Alan? From what Bradley said and your reactions, you’ve only just started looking after him. Is that right?”
Alan nodded and explained the situation. Partway through the story, a young girl in a paint-speckled apron delivered their drinks.
“If you’re full, is there anywhere you can recommend?” Alan asked. He was still worried about the boys and what needed to be done, but Ruby had a personality that encouraged him to relax.
“I’m sorry, but everyone has waiting lists. There’s a big shortage of child-care places, and most parents start organising things months in advance.” She paused and tapped her finger against her lips. “Do you know if he’s been going to kinder? He’s old enough, though his parents may’ve been keeping him back for an extra year.”
Alan shrugged. “I don’t know. I can ask Lisa tonight, but I don’t recall her saying anything about that.”
Ruby pursed her lips and stared through the side window at the garden beyond. Alan followed her gaze and saw Bradley giggling as he played with some other kids in a sandpit.
“I’d love to take your nephew, Alan, but there’s just no room. There is something I can do, though. One of our little girls is going to be away next week, so Bradley can take her spot. That’ll buy you some more time, but I think you’re going to have to find some alternative type of care. I’m really sorry.”
“What options do I have?”
“There are some home-based carers, but the quality is quite variable. The only ones that I know well enough to recommend are all full. What about relatives or neighbours? Is there anyone who doesn’t work during the day who can look after Bradley for you?”
Alan pulled a face. He didn’t want to leave his nephew with Craig’s parents unless there was no other alternative. He wouldn’t put it past Craig’s mother to start indoctrinating Bradley against him. “I’ll have to ask Lisa if there is anyone she can think of. We’ve only just moved into her place so we can look after the boys; we don’t know any of the neighbours.”
“We? I take it your other half works, too.”
Alan froze for an instant. He had no idea what her reaction would be if she found out he was in a same-sex relationship. He quickly decided to cut that topic short. “Yeah. Thanks for the advice, Ruby. I’ll take you up on next week while I try to find something else.”
She smiled. “In that case, why don’t I show you around? Even if it’s only for a week, it’ll still be good for you to know how things work around here.”
* * *
“Where’s Uncle Peter?” Bradley asked as he looked around Greensborough Plaza.
“Not far. We’ll just get him, and then we’ll go and get lunch.” Alan kept a firm grip on the little boy’s hand as they walked towards the communications store where Peter worked. Even though the shopping centre wasn’t crowded, Alan didn’t want to take the risk of Bradley getting away.
Alan grinned. He found it cute the way Bradley gave the fast-food restaurant an alternative name. “Yes, Old MacDonald’s.”
Alan was looking forward to catching up with Peter. The morning hadn’t worked out the way he had expected, and he wanted to unload on his partner. The only thing that had gone according to plan was picking up a copy of the guardianship papers from the soliciters.
“There he is!” Bradley started to pull away. As Peter wasn’t serving any customers, Alan made a quick decision and let Bradley go.
Bradley made a beeline to his target. “Uncle Peter!”
“Bradley!” Peter was clearly surprised, but grinned, grabbed the boy under the arms, and lifted him up high before putting him down again. “What are you doing here?”
“We’re going to Old MacDonalds. Uncle Alan promised.”
Peter glanced around and spotted Alan as he entered the shop. “G’day, Alan. This is a pleasant surprise.”
“Hi, Peter. Are you able to take a lunch break now? I need to talk to you about a few things.”
Peter glanced over to the other salesman. “Scott, do you mind if I leave you for a bit?”
The gangly youth with heavy, wire-framed glasses grinned. “I’ll be fine. If I need help, I’ll give you a call.”
* * *
After lunch, Alan and Bradley headed home. Alan noticed the light flashing on the answering machine and hit the replay button.
“Hi, Lisa, this is Carol. We all missed you and Bradley this morning. Where were you? I hope nothing’s wrong. Give me a call when you get this. Bye!”
Alan swallowed. Another task was added to his mental list—changing the recorded message—but it wasn’t one he could do at that time. He wasn’t in the right frame of mind and couldn’t think of what to say.
“Bradley, were we supposed to go somewhere today?” Alan asked, not particularly hopeful.
Bradley shrugged. “School?”
“School? Which school?” Alan was aghast at having messed up that badly.
“Troy’s. Mummy always takes me.”
Alan let out a slow sigh as his heartbeat slowed. “Do you know someone called Carol that you see on Thursdays?”
Bradley pondered for a couple of seconds and then shrugged. “Can I play?”
“Sure.” Alan filed the mystery away as another question to ask Lisa that night. Since Carol hadn’t left a last name or a phone number, there was nothing he could do about it. Instead, he started working his way through the documentation he had accumulated from the morning’s visits.
When he came to the form that indicated who was allowed to pick up Troy, he filled in Peter’s name. He would take it with him the following day when he took Troy to the school. It was unlikely that Peter would need to do so, but his work was ten minutes from the school, while Alan’s was more than twenty. If something urgent came up, Peter would be able to act faster than Alan.
“Uncle Alan, will you play with me?”
“Not now, Bradley. I’ve got to go through all of this stuff.”
Bradley climbed up onto the seat next to Alan. “What is it?”
“Things from Troy’s school. I have to read all of it so I know what’s going on.”
Bradley pointed to one of the sheets of paper. “What’s that say?”
Alan smiled. “That’s the instructions for what to do if we need to take Troy out of school early.”
“Yeah, but what does it say?”
Alan chuckled. Bradley could be single-minded at times, and he knew he wasn’t going to get any rest unless he either gave Bradley something else to do or he did what he was asked.
“Okay, it says, ‘In the event that you need to pick up your child before the end of school, please go to the office and ask for someone to summon your child. Do not go directly to the classroom.’” Alan stopped when Bradley slid off the chair and headed back to his picture. He didn’t blame the young boy; it wasn’t exciting reading.
Alan was just finishing when the doorbell rang. He opened the door to find a smiling, grey-haired lady holding a small plastic container. Alan had the impression that her eyes would be twinkling if it was humanly possible.
“Hi! I hope I haven’t come at a bad time.” She grimaced. “I’m sorry, that didn’t come out right. What I meant was I hope it’s not an inconvenient time.”
Alan blinked. “Ah… Are you sure you’ve got the right house?”
The lady gave a short bark of laughter. “I really seem to be scatterbrained today. I’m Tracey Liverpool, your next-door neighbour. You must be Lisa’s brother.” Her expression saddened. “I heard about what happened, but I didn’t want to intrude earlier. I’ve brought a cake and something for the boys.”
“Tracey! What’ve you got for me?”
Alan turned to see Bradley approaching.
“Hello, Bradley. I’ve got one of your favourites.”
“Charming Chocolate Chip Cookies?”
“No. Super Scrumptious Silly Cereal Bars.”
“Yummy!” Bradley gave Alan one of his wide-eyed, beseeching looks. “Can I have one, please, Uncle Alan? Please?”
Alan grinned and glanced across at Tracey. “Come on in. I’m Alan Thrush, Lisa’s brother, as you guessed.”
“And I presume that handsome young man I saw leaving earlier is the partner that Lisa’s told me about?” Tracey asked as she entered the house.
Alan paused before answering. He didn’t detect anything more in the older lady’s tone than simple curiosity. “Yes, that’s Peter.”
Bradley stepped between them and looked up at Tracey. “Can I have my Super Scrumptious Silly Cereal Bar now?”
“Of course,” Tracey said, before glancing at Alan. “That’s if it’s okay with your uncle.”
Alan waited until Tracey had opened the container and had given Bradley what looked like a lump of cornflakes stuck together with some shiny substance before he led her to the kitchen table. “I have to admit he was beginning to drive me nuts.”
Tracey glanced at the clock. “Almost three. That’s about when he starts to get cranky. His blood sugar levels start to get low unless you’ve been giving him snacks during the day.”
Alan sighed. “There’s so much I’m not doing right.” He stared at where his nephew was making a mess on the floor, with crumbs going everywhere as Bradley motored his way through the cereal bar. “He certainly loves whatever is in it.”
Tracey laughed. “It’s not completely bad for him, but it’s got a lot of honey in it. I’ve yet to meet the kid who doesn’t have a sweet tooth.”
Alan made them both a cup of coffee, and they had a slice of the apple teacake that Tracey had brought with her. Alan started to relax as Tracey nattered about some of the episodes with the boys that she had witnessed. He realised that he had found someone whom he could look to for advice when he needed it.
“I’m sorry to ask this, but I’ve got a problem, and I was wondering if you were able to help me out,” Alan said.
“If I can. What is it?”
“I have to go back to work next week, but I’m having trouble finding somewhere to leave Bradley for the day. I’ve got him in a place for next week, but they can’t take him after that. Do you know of anyone who might be able to look after him for me?”
Tracey’s forehead wrinkled as she thought. “While I’d love to take him myself, I’ve got other commitments three days a week. I can look after him on Thursdays and Fridays, if that helps, but I can’t do the whole week. I’m trying to think of who else might be suitable, but I would have to ask around. There’s no one I can be sure of. Sorry.”
Alan shrugged. “That’s okay. If you could ask, I’d really appreciate it. I’m not sure what I’d do if I can’t leave him with someone. I can’t take him to work; a garage is no place for a young child.”
“What do you do, if it’s not a rude question?”
“I’m a motor mechanic. Most of my work is either car servicing or smash repairs. Peter’s a communications salesman at Greensborough Plaza, selling phones, accessories, and tablets. He’s able to drop Bradley and Troy off before he goes to work, and I should be able to pick Troy up when school finishes—I’ll just start work early—but Bradley’s the problem.”
“And naturally you don’t want to leave him with Craig’s parents.” When Alan started, she smiled. “I was at the funeral—though I hung back—and I saw what happened. Leaving Bradley with them has to be your last choice, right?”
Alan smiled with relief and nodded. “Yeah, you’re right.”
Tracey reached over the table and patted Alan’s hand. “You’ll work it out. Craig told me a few months ago that he thought you and Peter would make great parents.” She sighed and looked out the window. “I’m just sorry it had to come about this way.”
The two chatted for another twenty minutes before Tracey left. Alan had to admit that the coffee break and adult company had made a difference, and when Bradley came up and asked for some more help with his picture, Alan smiled and joined the youngster on the floor.
They were almost finished, when Alan glanced at his watch. “Fuck!” He had ten minutes to get to the school to pick up Troy.
“What does ‘fuck’ mean?” Bradley asked.
Alan blinked before looking away. He felt his face going red. “It’s a grownup word.”
“But what does it mean?”
Alan jumped up. “Sorry, we have to go and get Troy. I’ll explain it later.” He was thinking much later—such as ten years later. He was relieved when Bradley didn’t ask again, though his anxiety levels started to rise when Bradley insisted on putting away his textas and colouring book before he would go to the car.
“We’ll do it when we get back,” Alan said.
“But Mummy says we should always put our things away when we’re finished. It’s one of the rules!”
Alan lifted Bradley up and started moving to the door. “Just this once, we’ll do it later. You can tell your mummy that it’s my fault. We don’t want to leave Troy waiting for us, do we?”
Bradley thought about it for a moment. “No, I s’pose not.”
Alan rolled his eyes and smiled at Bradley’s matter-of-fact tone. He was learning that both boys could act very serious at times but often at the strangest things.
Students were streaming through the gates when they arrived. Alan found a place to park and then helped Bradley out of the car.
“Can you help me find Troy?” Alan asked, thinking that doing so would help keep Bradley occupied.
“Okay.” Before Alan could react, Bradley slipped away and started to thread his way through the crowd.
“Bradley!” Alan tried to follow him, but there were too many students. In seconds, Bradley was out of sight.
His heart was racing, and there was sweat on his brow as he approached Troy’s classroom. He hadn’t spotted either nephew as he navigated through the throng and was praying fervently that the boys would be waiting for him.
A wave of relief swept through him when he saw the boys and Ms. Frowley waiting on the steps outside the classroom. Both boys grinned when they saw him.
“Bradley, you’re not to run off on me like that!” Alan’s tone was sharper than necessary, but he was still recovering from the fright the young boy had given him.
Bradley’s face fell, and his lower lips started to quiver. “But you said to find Troy!”
“But not for you to leave me behind. You need to stay with me when we’re out, Bradley.”
Alan felt like a heel when tears started to trickle down Bradley’s cheeks. He knelt down and gathered the young boy up. “No harm done. Just don’t do it again. Okay?”
Bradley gulped and nodded.
“You’re late,” Troy said, frowning for a moment. “The bell went off a-a-ages ago.”
“But he’s here now,” Ms. Frowley told Troy. She smiled at Alan. “Troy wasn’t sure where to meet you, so I said I’d stay here with him until you showed up.”
“Thank you.” Alan tried to show his appreciation with a smile. “I’m still getting the hang of this. I’m sorry to make you stay.”
She laughed. “That’s okay. This is what we did at the start of the school year. All the kids would have to wait until someone came to collect them. You’re effectively a new school parent, so I half expected it.”
* * *
Alan was preparing dinner when Peter walked in and gave him a hug from behind, followed by a kiss on the cheek.
“How did it go this afternoon? Better than the morning?” Peter glanced towards the living room where he could hear noise. “The boys are watching TV?”
“Yes, and eating. I found out that I’m supposed to have food and drink with me when I pick up Troy. He wasn’t impressed that I had nothing in the car for him to snack on.” Alan rolled his eyes at the memory.
That earned him another squeeze from Peter. “So the afternoon wasn’t any better.”
“Actually, it was. It was just the school pickup that I stuffed up. Bradley got away from me, too, and I was panicking until I found them both waiting for me with Troy’s teacher.” Alan smiled at Peter. “How was your day?”
“Same old. I had one customer who seemed to think it was our responsibility to sort out his phone bill. I helped him for a bit and then sent him off to the Telstra shop. We didn’t get anything out of it, but Mr. Crawford likes us to do more than we need to; it creates a good impression for next time they want a phone.”
“Starving!” Peter glanced at the food Alan was preparing. “How long before dinner?”
“Another twenty minutes, but if you can’t wait that long, there’s a teacake in the tin on the table.”
“You made a cake?”
Peter’s disbelief had Alan chuckling. “No. We’ve got a lovely old lady by the name of Tracey as a neighbour, who brought it around along with some snacks for the boys. She’s the reason the afternoon went better than the morning.”
“Did you manage to sort out something for Bradley?” Peter asked as he wandered over to grab a slice of cake.
“Sort of. Tracey said she can look after him for two days a week, and I’m going to speak to Lisa tonight to see if she’s got any other suggestions. I might have to ask my boss if I can change to part time if nothing else crops up—at least, until I can find full-time care for Bradley.”
Peter’s glance back showed a surprised expression. “Will your boss allow that?”
Alan shrugged while pulling a face. “I really don’t know. I guess I’m going to find out next week.”
“What if he doesn’t?”
“Then I start looking for a part-time job,” Alan said stoically. He wasn’t looking forward to that possibility, but he had been slowly bringing himself to accept that it could happen. His priorities in life had changed even if not by choice, and he had promised himself he was going to look after the two boys to the best of his ability.
“I could ask my mum to come and stay with us,” Peter suggested tentatively.
Alan understood the reluctance. Peter’s parents lived in Adelaide, and while they happily accepted Alan as a de facto son-in-law, Peter’s mum was an over-organiser. Having her stay with them would mean having her run their lives—in a loving and caring way, but it would still be overpowering. Both guys always expressed sighs of relief after each of their visits to Adelaide. “Maybe for a short while until we get things sorted out, but hopefully we won’t need her help.”
The two guys continued to discuss what they needed to do in their new roles as temporary dads until dinner was ready. Peter said he’d change the message on the answering machine later that night, which was a relief to Alan. It was silly, but he couldn’t bring himself to erase Craig’s voice.
“Bradley, Troy, it’s dinner time!” Peter called out.
When there was no response, Alan entered the lounge room. “Did you hear what Peter just said?” he asked the boys.
Bradley glanced up from the TV. “What?”
Troy glared at his brother. “‘Pardon’, not ‘what’. You know what Mummy always says.”
“Oh, okay.” Bradley looked back to Alan. “Pardon?”
Alan resisted rolling his eyes. “It’s dinner time. Up to the table, you two.”
“But The Simpson’s haven’t finished yet!”
Alan ignored Troy’s protest and switched the TV off. “Dinner time. Now!”
Bradley rose to his feet, but Troy crossed his arms and pouted. “That’s not fair!”
Alan sighed. He debated with himself for a moment before making a decision. He suspected he needed to set the rules early or the boys would run roughshod over him. “It’s dinner time. If you’re good, you can watch some more TV after dinner. But you need to come to the table first.”
Dinner was a disaster. At first, neither boy would eat the stir-fry that Alan had made, saying it looked ‘yucky’. With a lot of cajoling and a few threats, they managed to get Bradley to try some, but Troy flatly refused.
“I don’t like it,” Troy said, crossing his arms.
“You haven’t tried it.” Peter was getting exasperated.
“I don’t have to. I can tell from looking at it.”
Alan glanced at his watch. “I’ve got to go, Peter. Visiting hours will be starting soon, and I want to make sure I speak to Lisa. Will you be all right here?”
Peter narrowed his eyes at Troy for a moment before he returned his attention to Alan. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. I’m just going to sit here until Troy’s finished what’s on his plate. We still might be sitting here when you get back, the way things are going.”
“That’s not fair! You’re being mean to me,” Troy said.
“No, I’m not. I’m just asking you to eat what’s in front of you,” Peter said. He smiled across the table at Alan. “Go, and give Lisa my love. My respect for her—and all mums—is going up all the time.”
“Thanks, Peter.” Alan stood and headed over to the door. It was raining outside, but he didn’t grab a jacket; it was only a short walk to his car.
“Uncle Peter, what does ‘fuck’ mean?” Bradley asked.
Alan slipped through the door without waiting for Peter’s response. He suspected he was going to be in trouble with his partner when he returned from the hospital.
* * *
“Carol Smith’s from the playgroup that I take Bradley to on Thursday mornings. You’ll find the phone number of all mums in the group in the telephone book under ‘P’. I’m sorry, I just didn’t think to tell you about that,” Lisa said.
“That’s okay, sis.” Alan smiled. “I’ll call her when I get home and let her know what’s happened. Do you think any of those mum’s would be able to look after Bradley when I’m at work?”
Lisa started to shake her head but stopped with a grimace of pain. “I don’t think so. Their own kids are their priority. They might take him once or twice, but not regularly.”
“I just hope my boss will allow me to work part-time, then. Money’s going to be a bit short, otherwise.”
“Alan, use the money from Craig’s insurance. I gave you power of attorney for a reason,” Lisa said. She winced as she shifted herself in the hospital bed so she could look at him better.
“But that’s for you and the boys, not for me and Peter.”
“You’re looking after the boys, so it’s for you, too.” Lisa pleaded with Alan with her eyes. “If you can’t find any child care for Bradley, then that money’s your pay for looking after him. Please, don’t make yourself a martyr.”
Alan gave in and smiled. “Okay, if that’s what you want.”
“That’s what I want. Until I can get out of this damned place, you and Peter are their parents. I won’t let you short-change yourself.”
“If I don’t need it, I won’t touch the money, but if we need it, we’ll use it. Are you happy with that?”
Lisa’s bandaged head nodded once before it slumped back onto the pillow. Alan thought she looked exhausted.
“Peter had an idea when I spoke to him at lunchtime. I know you don’t want the boys brought in again until you’re looking a lot better, but he suggested they could ring you each night. It means they’ll get to hear your voice even if they don’t get to see your face.”
Lisa’s lips twitched into a momentary smile before pain erased the happy expression. “Thank Peter for me. That’s a great idea.”
Alan watched as her eyes closed. He stood up and rested a hand on her arm for a moment. “Sleep well, Lisa.”
He expected the boys would be asleep by the time he got home, but he knew Peter well enough to know that he was going to be blasted about swearing in front of Bradley. It was time to go home and face the music.
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.