Alan was sitting against the workshop door when Bob Burnside’s car pulled up. By the time his boss was out of the vehicle, Alan was standing with his backpack in his hand.
“Morning, Alan,” Bob called out as he approached. “I hope you realise I’m not going to make it a habit to be here this early.” His grin showed Alan that he wasn’t annoyed.
“G’day, Bob. I’m sorry about this, but I really didn’t have many options.”
Bob’s smile faded away, and a hand came up as if to offer some tactile support, but it dropped away without completing the action. “Yeah, I know. Sometimes things happen, and all we can do is to cope the best we can.”
“Yeah.” Alan realised he had an opening to tell Bob he would be quitting, but he couldn’t bring himself to say the words. He hadn’t committed himself to that line of action even though he knew there was little choice. The phone call from Steve late on Saturday, where they discussed financial matters, had given him options, but he felt that he needed to be around for the boys. They were his priority.
Bob started to unlock the door, but he stopped and tossed the keys to Alan instead. “Here. You might as well do this.”
After following Bob’s instructions on how to open up the garage and turn off the alarm, Alan moved his backpack over to his locker. “Time to get started. Which job do you want me to do first?”
Bob’s expression was odd, but Alan couldn’t read it. His best guess was that it was mixture of compassion and worry.
“You can begin by reviewing Dave’s work on the Alfa.” Bob pointed to a vehicle in the corner. “Then get started on the Commodore in Bay 3. That’ll keep you occupied for the next couple of days—it’s been rear-ended pretty badly.” He paused to stare at Alan for a moment. “And if you want to talk about things at any time, feel free to speak to either me or Merry.”
“Thanks, Bob. I may take you up on that, but not now.” Alan knew he was procrastinating, but he told himself that he should put in a decent amount of work before telling his boss he would be leaving. “Did Merry find any child-care places around here?”
Bob shook his head. “Sorry, no. They’ve all got long waiting lists.”
* * *
It was mid-morning when Alan stuck his head through the door of Bob’s office. “Have you got a few minutes?”
Bob looked up from the paperwork he was reviewing. “Sure, Alan. Come on in.”
Alan entered and closed the door behind him. He was nervous, but he had finally built up the courage to do what he knew needed to be done.
“What’s it about?” Bob asked.
Alan kept his gaze lowered. He couldn’t meet his boss’s eyes because he knew how much Bob had done for him over the years. Alan had been working for Bob since he was an apprentice and had gotten to know him and his family pretty well. He had been at their place several times for barbecues along with the other employees. Bob and Merideth would tell him that he could bring a girlfriend to those social events, but he always went alone. He had never mentioned Peter to them.
“Maybe Merry should be here, too,” Alan said as he sat down. He put his hands in his lap, but that didn’t feel right. He crossed his arms across his chest, but then he felt that made him seem arrogant. He ended up resting his hands on his thighs, the fingers drumming a nervous beat.
“Oooookay.” Bob picked up the phone. “Merry, can you come in here?” He paused. “Yes, I think it is. I’m with Alan.”
Merideth entered the room a few seconds later, though Alan felt the silence that had followed the phone call seemed to last for years.
“Hi, Alan. How are you doing?” she asked as she dropped into the last vacant chair in the office.
Alan glanced up guiltily. “G’day, Merry. I’m fine.”
“Okay, Alan. What is it that you’d like to talk about?” Bob asked.
Alan took a deep breath and made eye contact with his boss. He looked past the craggy exterior of the older man and saw someone who he believed had the compassion to understand.
“I’m sorry, Bob, but I have to offer my resignation. I’ve given this a lot of thought, but my nephews need me to be there. I can’t keep on working. I’m sorry; I really am.”
Bob’s forehead wrinkled. His eyes flicked towards his wife before returning to Alan. “What about money? You can’t raise two kids without an income, at least not if you want to do a decent job.”
Alan swallowed before answering. He had reached the point of no return and didn’t see that he needed to keep his personal life a secret from them anymore. “We’re going to live on my boyfriend’s wage for now. It’s going to be tight, but we think we can do it.”
Bob’s eyebrows went through the roof. “Boyfriend?”
Alan dropped his eyes to the desk top. “Yes. Peter’s the one who’s dropping the boys off this week before he goes to work.” He looked up. “I can keep working this week, though, if that helps. We’ve got things organised for now, but I have to finish on Friday because we’ve got nowhere for Bradley to go on Monday.”
Alan realised that mentioning Peter may not have been a good idea. Bob didn’t seem to have heard what he was saying. “Yes. I’m sorry to do this to you. I’ve really enjoyed working here, but I’m needed at home. I’m really, really sorry.”
Bob crossed his arms. “Resignation not accepted. You’re fired.”
“What?” Alan’s mouth dropped open.
“You heard me. You’re fired. I’ll let you finish up today, but don’t plan on coming back tomorrow.”
Alan just sat there. This wasn’t the reaction he had expected.
“Bob, don’t be too hasty. I think we need to discuss this some more,” Merideth said.
Bob’s expression changed to one of confusion. “Huh? But I thought—”
“Not now, Bob.” Merideth turned to Alan and smiled. “Why don’t you go back to what you were doing, Alan. Bob and I will talk things over, and we’ll let you know what’s going on soon. Don’t worry, we’ll work it out.”
Alan nodded. He was as confused as Bob looked. “Thanks, Merry.” He rose to his feet and glanced across the desk at Bob. “I’ve really enjoyed working here, Bob. You’ve been great to me, and I feel rotten for doing this to you, but I really don’t have a choice. Sorry.”
“We understand, Alan.” Merideth smiled warmly as she rested a hand on Alan’s shoulder for a moment. “Leave things with us and go back to what you were doing.”
Alan left the office and returned to the main workshop. He pulled out his phone before resuming work and rang Peter. He had promised he would ring after he had tendered his resignation.
“Alan! How are things going there?”
“I don’t know. I told Bob and Merry that we’d be living on your income for a while, and Bob went sort-of crazy. I never thought he’d be homophobic. He told me I’m fired.”
“Yeah, but Merry’s trying to calm him down, I think.” Alan glanced at the office window where he could see Bob and Merideth arguing. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but it could be that I’ll be out of a job at the end of today instead of the end of the week.”
“A few days’ income isn’t going to make a huge difference, I suppose. Don’t worry too much about it. Hey, we might even be able to sue them for wrongful dismissal and give us some more money in the bank.”
“I don’t know. I’d hate to do that to them. They’ve been really good to me over the years, and they gave me last week off without any notice.”
“We don’t have to make a decision now. I’ve got to go—a customer just came in—but let me know what’s going to happen. And don’t worry about dinner tonight. I’ll pick up something on the way home. Take care, Alan!”
“Thanks, Peter. Love you.”
As he hung up, Alan reflected on how much Peter’s support meant to him. The situation they found themselves in was seriously disrupting their lives, but Peter hadn’t complained. Alan wasn’t sure he would be able to cope if it weren’t for his partner.
It was almost lunchtime before Merideth approached Alan. “Alan, can you please finish up what you’re doing and come up to the office?”
Alan glanced up at her, seeking a clue as to what was going to happen. She was smiling, so he was hopeful, though he wasn’t sure what he was hoping for. “Thanks, Merry. I just need to get this last bracket off, and then I’ll come and see you.”
“Thanks, Alan. See you soon.”
Alan watched her head off before returning his attention to his job. Bob had been right about the Commodore job taking a few days. There was a lot of twisted metal that needed to be removed before they could start rebuilding the back of the vehicle.
Once he was finished, he headed to the washroom to clean up the grease and grime on his hands, as he expected to be eating his lunch after the meeting. He took his time; he found himself reluctant to learn his fate.
Knowing he didn’t have any option, Alan trudged his way to the office. He knocked.
Bob didn’t sound angry, so Alan pushed the door open and stepped through. His gaze went first to the desk where Bob was drumming his fingers. His lips were pursed and his forehead wrinkled. Alan then glanced at Merideth, who returned an encouraging smile that made Alan feel better. He knew that Bob and Merry were a team, and it seemed that she was on his side.
“Have a seat, Alan. I think this might take a bit of time,” Bob said.
Alan dropped into the remaining chair and waited.
Bob ran a hand through his thinning hair while looking over at his wife. Alan had the impression Bob was trying to avoid eye contact. “The first thing, I suppose, is that I should apologise. I probably gave you the wrong impression earlier when I said you’re fired.”
“Probably? Bob, dear, just get to the point. Alan’s a mass of confusion at the moment.”
Bob scowled. “Since it was your idea in the first place, why don’t you explain it to him?”
“That’s probably best.” Merideth turned her attention to Alan. “You see, Alan, I’ve been checking out the options for you since your phone call last week. I know what it’s like to raise young kids, and I honestly didn’t know how you’d be able to cope by yourself. There are a lot of single parents, and my admiration goes out to them, but they will typically have settled into the role over time. You’ve been thrown in the deep end, and I was expecting you to be sinking.”
Alan gave her a wry smile. “You’re right about that. I still haven’t gotten everything organised. There always seems to be one more thing that I’ve got to do.”
She nodded. “That’s what I thought. So I half-expected you to be offering your resignation this week—or maybe a request to work part-time. I spent part of the weekend working on various options.” She smiled at her husband. “You’ll have to excuse Bob. He drew the short straw. I told him that if you offered to resign, he had to refuse and fire you instead, because it would be the best for you.”
“And don’t think it made me happy doing it, either, Alan,” Bob interjected. “You’ve been a good employee—and a good guy overall.”
“But why?” Alan was confused but no longer tense. He could tell that Merideth and Bob wanted to do what was right for him even if the way they were doing it seemed strange.
Bob looked at Merideth to answer the question.
“Because if you’re fired, Alan, you can get government benefits immediately, while if you resign you’ll have to wait. Money was going to be a problem for you, at least that’s what I thought, so Bob and I worked out how to maximise the amount you’d be getting. Firing you also meant we would have to pay out more than if you resigned. We could pay you the extra, anyway, but it became more complex for us, tax-wise, than if we fired you.”
“So, I’m fired?”
“Only if you want to be.” Bob threw his wife a sour look. “It seems that Merry’s changed her mind.”
Merideth gave Bob a mock-haughty look. “I haven’t changed my mind. I’ve just recalibrated the options based on new information.” She grinned at Alan. “You hadn’t told us about your boyfriend, which meant I’d been assuming you had no other source of income.”
“So, what’s the situation?” Alan looked from Merideth to Bob and back to Merideth.
She smiled. “Government legislation requires us to offer unpaid maternity leave of up to twelve months to all women who are having a baby. I’m sure you know that, but the same applies in situations of adoption, and there is also an option for paternity leave for fathers if the mother is going to resume work. With a little bit of poetic license, we’d like to suggest you apply for paternity leave as a result of your recent ‘adoption’ of your nephews. That will guarantee you a job when you return.”
Alan’s eyes opened wide as what they were doing for him sunk in. “Thank you!”
Bob scowled. “It’s not quite that easy. I’m still going to have to hire someone to fill in for you while you’re away, and we don’t have enough business to keep both of you on when you return. It’s going to be complicated.”
Merideth waved that problem away. “Don’t you worry about that, Alan. We’ll sort it out.”
Bob rolled his eyes. “You mean I’ll have to sort it out, because you want to expand the business so I can keep both of them on.”
Merideth chuckled. “Yes, Bob. And that reminds me of another advantage of you going on paternity leave, Alan. Since you’ll still be listed as an employee, we can get you in for some part-time work when it suits you. You said that you had someone to look after your nephew a couple of days a week. Is that right?”
Alan nodded. “Yeah. Our next-door neighbour said she could look after Bradley on Thursdays and Fridays.”
“Good. We won’t ask it of you immediately, but when you’re settled why don’t you let us know, and you can do some work on an ad hoc basis to generate some extra income. You could’ve done that if you no longer worked for us, of course, but things are a lot simpler for you if you’re still an employee rather than a contractor.”
“There’s one condition, though.” Bob leant forward and fixed Alan with a stern gaze.
Alan felt a sense of trepidation. Bob’s expression was the one he used when he wasn’t happy about something. “What is it?”
Bob grinned. “You and your nephews have to come to our place for a barbecue sometime soon. Oh, and make sure that boyfriend of yours comes along, too. Merry and I would like to meet him.”
* * *
“How’s it going at home?” Scott asked Peter as their remaining customer left the store.
Peter shrugged. “It’s weird. I don’t think I can call it anything else.”
Scott grinned. “Did you ever think you’d be a de facto dad?”
“Nope, and to be honest, I’ll be happy when things get back to normal.”
Scott’s eyebrows rose. “What do you mean?”
Peter looked at the crowd outside before answering. He struggled to find the words that would say what he meant without sounding petty. He watched as a young mother dragged a reluctant toddler past the shop entrance.
“It’s just…so different. The kids are great, but they’re a lot of work. They’re already changing the way we do things. We used to go out regularly: drinks with friends and dinner every week or two. Movies, nightclubs—you know what I mean.”
Scott nodded. “The playboy lifestyle.”
Peter scowled. “No! We weren’t playboys—just a pair of guys who liked to have fun. That’s gone for now; we have to be responsible.”
“I know what you mean. Sorry, I couldn’t think of another way of describing it.” Scott grinned. “It sounds like my Friday nights, except I’m still single.”
“Yeah, and it’s all stopped. Two of our friends came around Friday night, but I don’t know how long they’ll keep on doing that, and I haven’t seen the rest of our friends for more than a week.”
“What did Alan say when you told him this?”
Peter glared. “Are you crazy? There’s no way I’m going to tell him. He’s single-minded at the moment—completely focused on the boys. He doesn’t need to hear any of this.”
Scott narrowed his eyes at his work colleague. “Is that fair to Alan?”
Peter shrugged. “I’m not going to leave him, and I’m going to do what I can to help out, but that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy it.” He paused as a guilty conscience poked. “There are certainly times when the boys are a lot of fun, but it’s the other times that grate. At least, it’s not forever, though it’s already starting to feel that way. I can’t wait until Lisa comes home.”
Scott appeared sceptical, but any response was lost as a young mother came into the shop. Peter held in a wince when her little girl tried to grab one of the phones on display.
* * *
Alan checked his phone after he had cleaned up and noticed that he’d missed a call. Expecting it to be Peter, he frowned when a private number appeared. He checked his voice mail.
“Hello, Mr. Thrush. This is Helen Chambers from Trent, McDonald & Associates. I’m letting you know that a referral has been made for a child-protection order for Troy and Bradley Lynton. Can you please ring me as soon as possible to discuss?”
Alan sighed. He had been able to put the matter out of his mind for most of the day, but the message brought all his worries to the fore. He ran a nervous hand through his hair before ringing the lawyers.
“Trent, McDonald & Associates. How can I help you?”
“Hi, this is Alan Thrush. Could I please speak to Helen Chambers?”
“Thank you, Mr. Thrush. Putting you through now.”
Alan listened to the on-hold advertising for a mercifully short period of time.
“Helen, this is Alan. You left me a message about a child-protection order.”
“A referral for a child-protection order. The Lyntons’ lawyer has made a claim that the children are at risk living with you and your partner and has asked the DHS to investigate. There’s no order at the moment, and hopefully there won’t be. I took the liberty of explaining the situation to an acquaintance who works for the DHS, and she alerted me to the referral. All above board since we’re on record as being the solicitors for your sister and her husband.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that at some point in the future, and it could be tomorrow or it could be a month away, depending on their workload, you can expect a visit from a department caseworker who will evaluate the situation and determine if the children are at risk. We discussed this at our last meeting, but it’s now been confirmed. You and your partner will need to be prepared.”
Alan pulled a face. “So we have to keep the house clean and spotless for an indefinite period of time?”
She chuckled. “Only if one of you is Superman. No, be yourselves, and don’t do anything special. The caseworker may spot it if you’re trying to put up a facade. But take a hard look at what you’re doing and establish some good procedures so that when the caseworker shows up, you won’t be flustered.”
“Yeah, right.” Alan sighed as he thought about how difficult that simple instruction would be to follow. “Thanks, Helen. Is there anything else?”
“Not for now, but we’ll keep an eye on the situation, and if it looks like a child-protection order will be placed, we’ll be there to represent you. Otherwise, good luck!”
“Thanks. I think I’ll need it.”
Alan closed his phone and slipped it into his shirt pocket. He slumped forward and rested his head on the wall.
“What was that about a child-protection order?”
Alan spun around. “Oh, hi, Bob. Sorry, that was my sister’s lawyers.”
Bob raised an eyebrow. “Problems?”
Alan grunted. “Craig’s parents are fighting for custody of the boys. They’ve told the Department of Human Services that we’re a risk to Troy and Bradley and asked for a child-protection order.”
“Why are they doing that?”
Alan made a face. “Because they don’t want a gay couple raising their grandkids.”
Bob nodded. “I can understand that.” Something in Alan’s expression had Bob backpedalling quickly. “I mean that I understand that they’re uncomfortable with something they’re not familiar with. It’s their grandsons’ welfare we’re talking about. I suspect I’ll be just as defensive for our own grandkids when they appear. That doesn’t make what they’re doing right, but I can understand it.”
Alan stayed silent while he thought about what Bob had said.
“How well do they know you, Alan?”
“Not very well. We’ve only really met since the accident.” Alan calmed down as he accepted the point that Bob was making.
“So they don’t really know if you’re capable of looking after their grandsons properly.”
“Yeah, and they’re not looking past one thing.” Alan gave Bob a wry smile. “They showed up on the weekend, and while Mrs. Lynton kept trying to put me down, the point was made that they wanted what’s best for the boys.”
“Would letting them have custody be that bad?”
“I’m not giving up the boys!” Alan took a breath to try to bring his emotions under control. “Lisa wants me to look after them. Even Craig told me he wanted me and Peter to look after the boys if something happened. They want me, not Craig’s parents, to be Troy’s and Bradley’s guardian.”
Bob grinned. “Well, that answers one question.”
Alan was confused. “What?”
“You’re one-hundred percent committed to this new job of yours. You’re like a young lion, defending his pride.”
Alan winced. “Please, not that. I’ve already watched the Lion King movies more times than I think is healthy. Bradley loves them. He’d watch them over and over again if we let him.”
Bob laughed. “Welcome to the club, Alan. Welcome to the club.”
* * *
That night, Peter watched from the doorway as Alan put the boys to bed. He smiled at the loving way his partner stroked Troy’s hair as he wished his nephew a good night’s sleep. The smile faltered slightly when Alan did the same for Bradley; Peter was the one who had borne the brunt of washing duties when Bradley wet the bed, which was more often than not. The little boy was adorable when he smiled, but Peter was finding the extra and unpleasant, early-morning work of stripping his bed frustrating.
Peter stepped back as Alan left the boys’ bedroom and closed the door. “Beer?” He thought his partner needed to unwind, and the alcohol was to be the first step towards some more enjoyable relaxation activities.
Alan shook his head. “Thanks, Peter, but no. I’ve got to get up early tomorrow, so I think I’ll just go to bed, too.” He leant over and gave Peter a light kiss. “You can stay up, but I need my sleep.”
Peter’s lips twitched into a smile he didn’t really feel. “Okay, Alan. I think I’ll watch some TV and then I’ll join you.”
Alan paused before leaving. “Are you sure you’re okay with picking up Troy on Friday if I have to work late to finish everything up?”
“I’m sure. I’ll just take part of the afternoon off and pick him up when school gets out. You just let me know at lunchtime if I need to do it.”
Alan’s expression of gratitude produced a warm feeling in Peter’s heart. “Thanks, Peter. I don’t think I could do this without you.” Alan gave Peter another soft kiss before heading to the bedroom.
After Alan was gone, Peter headed into the kitchen and retrieved a stubbie from the fridge. The first beer went down quickly, and he was about to take another into the living room but then decided to take all of the remaining five. He was feeling frustrated, and since sex was off the menu, he decided to get drunk instead.
Monday-night television didn’t really excite him, but Peter watched it anyway before heading to the bedroom. He stripped off his clothes and then stood and stared at the shadowy figure snoring on the other side of the bed. He wanted to slip over and caress the person he loved, but he knew it wouldn’t be appropriate. Alan was right about needing his sleep, so Peter slid into the bed and lay with his back to his partner.
Peter told himself that it wasn’t going to be forever. He was still telling himself and still struggling to accept that fact when he finally fell asleep.
Copyright Notice - Copyright © November 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.