Alan leant over and gave Peter a kiss. “Have fun at work.”
Peter chuckled. “I doubt it, but have fun at your playgroup. Don’t let all the other mothers run roughshod over you.”
Alan grinned and gave his partner a light punch on the arm. “I’m not a mother.” The grin faded. “The boys have got a mother, and I’m never going to take her place. I’m not taking Craig’s place, either, but if the boys need a father figure, I’m here.”
Peter sighed his acknowledgement of that truth and held out his arms in apology. Alan accepted the offer, and the two guys hugged before ending with a light kiss. Alan glanced around and then raised his voice. “Troy, Bradley, it’s time to go!”
“Are you sure you’ve got everything ready?” Peter asked.
“I hope so. I’m sure I’ve done everything for Troy, but this will be the first time I’ve gone to Lisa’s playgroup.”
After getting the all clear from the doctors regarding Bradley’s bedwetting, Alan had concentrated the next couple of days on learning the boys’ morning routines. It was now Thursday, and he felt confident that things were settling down. Joining Lisa’s friends at their regular Thursday morning playgroup might be a challenge, especially if they started expressing too much sympathy—Alan still couldn’t handle being put on the spot when it came to Craig’s death—but Carol Smith was supposed to have warned the other mothers against talking about certain topics.
Troy entered the kitchen dressed in his school uniform. “Uncle Alan, I need a milk bottle.”
Alan blinked. “What for?”
“Ms. Frowley said we have to bring a milk bottle to school.” Troy’s lower lip started to quiver. “I have to have one or I’ll get into trouble!”
“When do you need it by?”
Peter chuckled and headed to the refrigerator. “I think we have one that’s almost empty.”
Alan smiled his thanks at his partner, then turned to Troy and dropped down on one knee so he was at the young boy’s eye height. “When did she ask you?”
Troy shrugged. “A few days ago.” He dropped his head. “I forgot.”
Alan sighed. “We need to know about these things when you’re asked, Troy.” He made an educated guess. “Did your teacher give you a note to bring home?”
Troy nodded, a frightened look on his face. “But I lost it. Please don’t be angry! Ethan and I were making paper planes and I ran out of paper and—”
Alan pulled him into a hug. “It’s okay, Troy. Just don’t do it again. You’re just lucky we have what you need.” He released the young boy and smiled. “What’s it for?”
“I can’t tell you. It’s a surprise for Father’s Day.” Troy glanced past Alan and smiled. “Thanks, Uncle Peter!” His expression wavered. “Can I have two?”
Peter glanced over from where he was rinsing out the bottle he had just emptied. “Why?”
“So I can make you a surprise, too!”
Peter’s eyes widened, and his jaw dropped. He stared at Troy and then at Alan.
Alan chuckled as he glanced at the kitchen clock to make sure he wasn’t running late. “I think we can do that, Troy. Uncle Peter also deserves to celebrate Father’s Day.”
* * *
“…so we found a jug and poured the milk into that.” Peter smiled at his co-worker. “And don’t ask what he’s going to make, because I haven’t got the foggiest idea. What can you do with a plastic milk bottle?”
“I can think of a few things.” Scott grinned. “So…Troy is going to make you a Father’s Day present. How do you feel about that?”
Peter sighed as he returned his attention to the store entrance. While there were no customers at the moment, one could arrive at any time. “I’ve never denied that the boys can be great at times, but even this morning had the potential to be stressful. Troy could’ve remembered what he needed to bring as they were rushing out the door. He’s not the best at being on time.”
“He’s making something just for you. He wouldn’t be doing that if he didn’t think you were someone special. You’re a father figure for him.”
“Don’t say that!” Peter grimaced. “Craig was their father, and no one can replace him. I don’t want to even try. I’m happy to look after the boys in the short term, but Lisa is the one who needs to be in charge for the long term.”
“The boys still need some male role models in their lives.”
“But does it have to be us?” Peter screwed up his face. “I understand that we need to be there, that the boys are dependent on us, but it’s really fucking up our lives. Nothing’s the same. It’s been a couple of weeks since Alan and I…” He stopped before he said too much, though he suspected that Scott was able to complete that sentence anyway.
Scott reached over and put a hand on Peter’s shoulder. “Don’t give up too early, Peter, and don’t do something stupid, either.”
Peter narrowed his eyes at his co-worker. “What do you mean by that?”
“You’re getting frustrated, and when you get frustrated, you tend to react without thinking.” Scott cocked his head. “Remember that supplier who gave us the runaround about when we’d have new stock? You were lucky to only get a warning from our boss. It could’ve been a lot worse.”
Peter ground his teeth and then sighed and nodded. “You’re right. It’s only for a few more months. I can stick it out for that long.” He stared vacantly across the shop. “A few long months…”
Scott slapped him on the back. “Once things settle down, you won’t notice the time. And take things like this morning as your reward. The boys love you. Loosen up and love them back.”
Peter snorted. “I’ll try. But if Bradley starts wetting the bed again…”
Scott laughed. “You’ll cope. In the total scheme of things, bed-wetting is not that big a deal.”
“Are you speaking from experience?” Peter grinned at his co-worker. “You seem very definite on the subject.”
Scott gave him a mock punch in the arm. “Shut up.” He nodded to the shop entrance. “We’ve got a customer.”
* * *
“Alan!” Carol Smith waved a hand to beckon him into the room. “I’m glad you and Bradley could make it.”
Before Alan could do anything, Bradley raced over to where Carol’s son Mike was playing with two other children. Alan chuckled. “He seems happy to be here. Sorry I’m late, but I had trouble finding this place.”
One of the other women laughed. “It’s a little out of the way, but once you’ve been here once, it’s easy.”
Carol quickly introduced Alan to the other members of the playgroup. Besides Carol and her son Mike, there was Helen with her daughter Ashley, Veronica with her son Rodney, Sue with her twins Jayden and Deidre, Irene with her daughter Rachel, and Katherine with her son Harry and newborn Elizabeth.
Alan smiled and lifted a hand in welcome. “Hi, everyone. Please accept my apologies now if I forget some of your names.”
Sue laughed. “Don’t worry about it. I sometimes forget the names of my own kids!” She stood up. “Would you like tea or coffee, Alan?”
“Coffee would be nice, thank you. Black with two sugars, if that’s okay.” Alan sat down as Sue headed to the kitchen. The chairs had been arranged in a loose arc that allowed the adults to chat while still keeping an eye on the children playing. Alan wasn’t good at judging ages, but he thought that Mike and Bradley were probably the two oldest kids there, with most appearing to be a year or two younger.
Veronica screwed up her face for a moment. “I know Carol asked us to not talk about certain things, but can you let Lisa know that we all miss her?” She gave Alan an apologetic look. “Unfortunately, I can’t get away to see her. Rodney just takes up too much of my time.”
Alan must have looked confused because Helen leant over to whisper to him. “Rodney has some issues. Veronica’s other half couldn’t deal with him and walked out on her at the start of the year.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Alan grimaced as he glanced at the kids. “Which one is Rodney, and how old is he?”
Helen pointed to one of the smaller boys, who was digging a hole in the sandpit by himself. “He’s just turned three. He doesn’t mix well with the other kids; he can be a little rough as well as having a tendency to throw temper tantrums.”
Sue returned from the kitchen with Alan’s coffee. “Here you are. What are you two whispering about?”
Helen glanced at Veronica before looking up at Sue. “I was just explaining about Rodney and Veronica’s ex.”
Sue winced. “Yeah…” She glanced across at Katherine as she sat down. “Any word from the lawyers, Katherine?”
Katherine sighed. “No. The bastard still hasn’t okayed the settlement details.” She gave Alan a wry smile. “I know not all men are bastards—you’re here helping out Lisa, so we all know you’re one of the good guys—but when someone chooses Mother’s Day to say he’s leaving me for another woman…”
Alan blinked, not sure what to say in response to the revelation. Looking at the sleeping baby by her side, he guessed that it wouldn’t have been too long after Elizabeth’s birth.
Carol smiled at him. “In case you were wondering, the rest of us are still with our partners. Unfortunately, separations aren’t that uncommon. As I’m sure you’re finding out, things change when you have a child, and not everyone can cope with that. No offense, but it’s usually the guy who gives up on the relationship.”
Irene nodded. “Saul and I almost broke up after Sharon was born. Having a newborn in the house put a strain on our relationship, and Saul was close to walking out.” She turned and smiled at where her daughter was playing. “But he couldn’t leave Sharon, and after a few months we had a new balance. Everything’s been fine since, and we’re planning on having another baby soon.” She grinned at Alan and the other women. “Saul likes that part of the process.”
“Don’t all guys?” Sue grinned but didn’t wait for a response. Instead, she turned to Alan. “Carol told us that you’ve given up work to look after Bradley. What are you going to do for money?” Her smile was apologetic. “Looking after kids can be a fulltime occupation. Unfortunately, while it pays well, hugs and kisses don’t buy groceries.”
Everyone either grinned or laughed. “They certainly don’t,” Katherine said. She smiled at Alan. “Are you single?”
Alan hesitated for a moment, wondering if he was going to get a chance to answer since he hadn’t been given any time to respond to Sue’s question before Katherine asked hers. “No, I’m not. I’ve got a boyfriend. We’re going to be living off his income for the next few months.”
There was a stunned silence from most of the group. Carol was the exception. “I went in to see Lisa yesterday, and she told me all about Alan’s partner. Lisa thinks the world of Peter.” Carol smiled at Alan. “She thinks the world of both of them.”
“She’s letting them look after her boys?” Irene asked. “Isn’t she worried that…” Her face went red as she flicked Alan a quick glance. “Sorry. I guess she doesn’t have any other option.”
Alan’s momentary anger was quickly replaced by the pain of why his sister didn’t have options. “Peter and I were babysitting the boys the night of the accident.” He brought a hand up to pinch the corner of his eyes to try to prevent the threatening tears. He didn’t like thinking about that night.
“Lisa told me that Alan and Peter often babysat for her and Craig.” Carol’s tone was hard. “She trusts Alan and his partner, and her opinion is the only one that matters when it comes to her boys. I trust them, too.”
Alan looked up and scanned the group. Carol was glaring at Irene who wouldn’t meet her gaze. The other women seemed uncertain, but not alarmed, apart from Veronica. Veronica was smiling across at Alan.
“I’ve got a cousin who’s gay.” Veronica chuckled, though with a tense edge. “He used to babysit for me, too, until he found out how difficult Rodney can be. You’re lucky; Bradley’s an angel in comparison.” She sighed, and her shoulders slumped. “Everyone’s an angel in comparison to Rodney.”
“Hey, cheer up,” Sue said. “Didn’t the doctor say that he’ll be better when he’s older?”
“She said he’ll probably be better. If he doesn’t, though, she recommended drugs.” Veronica screwed up her face. “I don’t really want to do that, but there are times…”
Helen, who was closest, pulled Veronica in for a hug.
Alan stared first at Veronica and then over at Rodney. He didn’t understand then what was the problem with the young boy, though twenty minutes later he did when he needed to assist Veronica by restraining the kicking and screaming boy. Rodney had started throwing sand at the other kids and had then tried to hit Bradley.
Bradley wasn’t upset; he simply moved away, along with Mike and Rachel. While Alan helped Veronica soothe her son, he couldn’t help admire how the other children took Rodney’s tantrum in their stride. They didn’t care.
That thought was reinforced ten minutes later when, after Rodney had calmed down, one of the girls came up with a small plastic shovel and asked him to build her a sandcastle. Rodney immediately went to work.
“It makes you wonder when they learn to discriminate, doesn’t it?” Veronica said to Alan. “At this age, being different doesn’t mean being wrong.”
Alan didn’t answer. He was too busy wondering the same thing.
* * *
“Thanks for being here, Mum,” Lisa said, her face still a mask of withheld pain.
“You’re my daughter. If you or Alan ever need me, I’ll be here.” Rosalie reached over and patted Lisa’s hand. “At some point in time I have to go back and collect your father, but even then we’ll be back as soon as we can.”
“Is everything okay at home? Are the boys happy?”
Rosalie smiled her reassurance. Lisa asked variants of the same two questions each time she visited. “Everything’s fine. The boys miss you, naturally, but Alan and Peter have everything under control.”
Rosalie didn’t mention the upcoming inspection by the Department of Human Services. While she still had some reservations about keeping the dramas with the Lyntons from her daughter, she accepted Alan’s judgement that Lisa needed to concentrate on getting better and didn’t need any additional stress.
Lisa’s gaze drifted to the digital-photo frame that Steve had brought in at the start of the week. There were no tears, but Rosalie could feel the longing emanating from her daughter. “Will they still remember me when I finally get out of this hellhole?”
“They will.” Rosalie gave Lisa a critical visual examination. “By the time your hair has grown back, you’ll look like you used to, and Alan can bring them in to see you. We’ll need to check with the doctors, but maybe next month?”
“No! I don’t want them to see me like this!”
“It’s okay, Lisa, they won’t.” Rosalie reached over, took Lisa’s hand, and started to rub it gently. “Alan won’t bring them in until you look better, I promise. Just trust us as to when that will be.”
“I don’t want Troy and Bradley having nightmares!”
“They won’t. They’ll just see their mum in bed. You may still have a cast or two, but as long as you look like you did, they’ll be fine.”
Rosalie spent the rest of her time at the hospital encouraging Lisa to be positive. It worried her that Lisa was still so despondent.
* * *
Peter looked up and then grinned as first Bradley and then Alan entered the shop. Peter grabbed Bradley as the young boy raced forward, then lifted him up into the air. “What are you doing here?”
“Uncle Alan said we could have Old MacDonalds for lunch, but you have to come, too.”
Peter raised an eyebrow at his partner as he put Bradley back on the ground. Alan grinned. “Playgroup’s just finished, and I thought Bradley and I could take you out for something to eat.”
“That sounds great.” Peter glanced over at Scott who chuckled and waved a hand to dismiss him. “It looks like my lunch break has just started.” It was then that Peter noticed the scratch above Alan’s eye. “What happened to you?”
Alan chuckled. “I got into a fight with a three-year old who needs to have his fingernails cut.”
“Rodney didn’t want to go home,” Bradley said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Uncle Alan helped his mum put him in the car.” He grabbed Peter’s hand. “Come on! We’ve got to go to Old MacDonalds!”
Alan tilted his head towards the shop entrance. “Shall we go? I’ll tell you about it while we’re having lunch.”
It wasn’t long before the three of them were seated in the food court on the third floor of the shopping centre. Bradley was munching away at his cheeseburger Happy Meal while Alan and Peter ate their burgers in a more sedate manner.
“How was your playgroup thingy?” Peter wasn’t sure how much Alan wanted to say in front of Bradley so he kept his question vague.
“Interesting. I came out to them, which caused a few waves but nothing serious.” Alan chuckled. “It turns out that Lisa had already told Carol about you, but that’s okay. In fact, it was probably just as well, as it meant I had someone on my side when I told them.”
“You said it caused a few waves…” Peter let his voice trail off, letting Alan decide if he wanted to talk about it.
“One of the mothers essentially said that I must’ve been Lisa’s only choice to look after the boys, implying that anyone other than a gay couple would’ve been a better option.” Alan grinned as Peter scowled. “She quickly backed down. One of the other mothers has a gay cousin who used to babysit for her. She was very supportive, as was Carol. The others didn’t seem to care one way or the other.” He paused and his brow wrinkled. “Though Katherine may’ve been disappointed. I think she was hoping I was single…and straight.”
Peter glanced over at Bradley, his mind in turmoil. On the one hand, he resented anyone thinking that being gay meant being unable to do something. On the other hand, he was finding parenting to be a chore he would prefer someone else to do. He wasn’t worried about Alan’s comment about Katherine as long as she didn’t cause problems for him further down the track. “Everything was fine after that?”
“Pretty much.” Alan grinned at Bradley. “After experiencing Rodney, I now know how well off we are. As Veronica—that’s Rodney’s mum—said, compared to Rodney, everyone else is an angel.” Alan cocked his head and tapped Bradley on the arm to attract his attention. “Do you play with Rodney at playgroup?”
“Not much. He makes really good sandcastles, but we play without him.” Bradley took another bite from his lunch. “His train tracks are good, too,” he added, spraying small pieces of bun as he spoke.
“Try to finish what’s in your mouth before you speak.” Alan smiled at Bradley to indicate he wasn’t upset and then turned back to Peter. “Rodney seems a nice kid, but he’s got…problems.”
Peter raised an eyebrow while continuing to eat. He wanted to see if Alan would explain, but he didn’t want to push in case there were things that Alan felt he couldn’t say in front of Bradley.
Alan grimaced. “He’s a handful to handle, so much so that his father walked out on him and his mother. Playgroup was only for a couple of hours, but he had three temper tantrums in that time. Two of them included throwing things at the other kids.” He pointed to the scratch above his eye. “This was from the last one. Veronica was happy that I was there so I could restrain him until she could get him to calm down. I was afraid the second time that he was going to hurt himself, he was getting that upset.”
“Should she be bringing him?” Peter thought that if Rodney was a danger to himself or the other kids, then it was probably better if he didn’t attend.
“The other mums are happy…well, happyish…for him to be there. I suspect it’s more that they know Veronica needs a break, and while she almost never took her eye off her son, she seemed appreciative of the adult company. Being a single mum must be tough enough, but when she’s got to look after someone like Rodney…” Alan just shook his head rather than completing the sentence. “I’m glad I could help her.”
Peter grinned at his partner. “So you spent all your time as the muscle man battling a three-year-old?”
Alan laughed. “No, most of the time they just talked. I didn’t join in a lot because I didn’t have the history to understand what was being discussed, but beside talking about what new things their kids had done in the last week, most of it was spent talking with Katherine about her upcoming divorce.” Alan scowled. “I almost wish I knew her husband so I could go punch his lights out.”
Peter hesitated before saying anything. Alan was not normally violent. “Why do you say that?”
“What would you do to someone who, three weeks after the birth of their daughter, chose Mother’s Day to tell his wife that he’s getting a divorce because he’s found someone better to shack up with?”
Alan snorted. “And that was pretty much my reaction, too. It seems he was only waiting for their daughter to be born before he left her. He’d been having an affair for months. Some people shouldn’t be parents, and he’s one of them.” Alan sighed and then reached over to take Peter’s hand. “That’s why I’m so happy you’re with me. I couldn’t do this without you.” He grinned. “And I’m also extremely happy that neither of our boys is a Rodney.”
Peter forced a smile onto his face. There was no way he was going to let Alan know that he resented the disruption the boys were having on their lives. He worried about how Alan referred to Troy and Bradley as ‘our boys’, but he was also encouraged by how relaxed and comfortable Alan was looking. Peter was hoping that Alan was recovering from the previous weeks of stress and trauma and that he would soon be reverting to the partner he had fallen in love with years before.
* * *
The young woman smiled. “Alan? I’m Debbie from the Department of Human Services, and this is Raj Mehta. Sorry we’re a little late, but the traffic was worse than I expected.”
Alan stepped back to allow the two visitors to enter the house. “That’s okay. It’s not that late.” He was a little surprised at their appearance, as he had expected someone older. Debbie was an attractive woman who didn’t look much older than Alan, while Raj was a slender young Indian with a bright white smile, who Alan estimated to be a few years younger.
Debbie chuckled. “Thanks, but Raj and I know otherwise. We said four-thirty, and it’s almost five. Shall we get started?”
“Sure. What is it that you want to do?”
“Why don’t you introduce us to Troy and Bradley, and then, if it’s okay with you, can you give Raj a tour of the house while I chat with the kids?”
Alan hesitated. He wasn’t worried that the boys would say something wrong, but he was nervous at leaving them alone with a stranger. “Before we do that, can you show me some sort of ID?” He gave Debbie and Raj an apologetic look. “I know you had an appointment, but I don’t really know who you are.”
“That’s fine.” Debbie smiled as she reached into her purse, and Raj reached into the pocket on his jacket. “Nowadays, you can’t be too careful.”
Alan gave what appeared to be two government security passes a quick look. The photos and names matched the people in front of him, and both showed the logo of the Victorian Department of Human Services. “Okay.” Alan led them to the lounge room. “Bradley, Troy, we’ve got visitors.”
The two boys glanced across for a moment. Troy lifted a hand in greeting before he and his brother returned their attention to the television. Rosalie, who was sitting with them, smiled and rose.
Alan’s warning growl was interrupted by a hand on his arm. “It’s okay, Alan,” Debbie said. “I know how important TV is at their age. It looks like their show is about to finish, so I can talk to them then.”
Alan’s mother stepped forward. “Hi, I’m Rosalie Thrush, Alan’s and Lisa’s mother.”
Debbie’s brow wrinkled. “It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Thrush. Are you visiting, or do you live here, too?” She glanced at Raj and then back at Rosalie. “Our understanding is that it was Alan and his partner who were looking after Troy and Bradley.”
“I’m here to help out with my grandsons until things settle down.” Rosalie’s smile disappeared. “And also to be there for my daughter.” She sighed and dropped her gaze. “Alan’s doing what he can for Lisa, but his concentration is, rightly, on Troy and Bradley.”
Debbie winced. “I understand. How long do you think you’ll be staying?”
Rosalie’s lips were pinched, and her eyes narrowed. “As long as necessary. I’ve left my husband up in Queensland, and I have to return at some stage, but then we’ll be driving back to stay in Melbourne until Alan, Lisa, and the two boys don’t need us anymore.”
“We’re not the enemy, Mrs. Thrush.” Debbie turned to Alan. “I want to make one thing perfectly clear. Raj and I are here to make sure this is a safe place for Troy and Bradley and that they’ll be cared for appropriately. That’s it. The gender of your partner is not a factor in making either of those determinations. The department policy is that sexual orientation is irrelevant when making decisions. By the way, when do you expect your partner home? I’d like to talk to him, too, if I can.”
“Peter should be here soon. He’s usually home well before 5:30.” Alan hesitated. “What you’ve said may be the policy, but is there any prejudice despite that?”
“There’s always prejudice,” Raj said, drawing Rosalie’s and Alan’s attention, “but we work to ensure it doesn’t have an impact.” He smiled. “And since my boyfriend and I intend to become foster parents once we’re both old enough, I have a personal stake in making sure that all decisions are made as fairly as possible.”
Debbie chuckled at the expression of disbelief on Alan’s face. “Raj is usually assigned when we’re visiting same-sex couples or if the visit involves a teenager who self-identifies as gay. We’ve found things work better that way.” She rubbed her hands. “Now that that’s out of the way, I need to talk to the boys, and Raj will be checking the house to ensure it’s a safe environment. Shall we begin?”
* * *
“That went well.” Alan gave Peter and Rosalie a tentative smile. “Debbie practically said that there’s not going to be any issues raised by her and Raj.”
Peter moved over and gave Alan a hug. Alan let out a heavy sigh of relief.
“I agree,” Rosalie said. “So I’ve made a decision. Would one of your boys care to drive me to the airport on Sunday?”
The two guys separated. “What do you mean?” Alan asked.
She smiled. “That it’s time I went back to rescue your father.” The smile slipped. “I don’t want to leave, but you have things under control here. The camper van should be fixed by the time I get there, so your father and I can start the return journey. It’ll probably take us two or three weeks, because I’m not going to drive for endless hours each day, but we’ll be back to help.”
“How much do you think being here helped alleviate any concerns that Debbie may have had?” Alan asked. “If you were a factor, leaving may shift things back towards the department wanting to take the boys off us.” He gave Peter a nervous look.
Rosalie shook her head to dismiss the suggestion. “She knows I wasn’t going to be staying. We had a short chat on the subject while you and Peter were with Raj.” She smiled. “And it’s not like I’m going to leave you permanently without any support. You two will be fine until we return.” She glanced over to where the boys were watching the television. “Alan, your father wants to be here for Lisa and the boys, too. That means I have to go get him.”
Alan wanted to argue, but he knew she was right. Now that she had a mobile phone it would be easier for him to contact her, but it was time for her to go.
Copyright Notice - Copyright © January 2017 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.