“Settle down, Alan. You’re starting to worry the boys.”
Alan gave Troy and Bradley a guilty look. The two boys were sitting in front of the television, apparently mesmerised by the antics of SpongeBob SquarePants, but as Alan watched, Troy glanced in his direction with a fearful expression on his face. Alan pushed his concerns to one side and smiled as reassuringly as he could at his nephew. “Sorry,” he whispered to Peter.
Peter dragged Alan away, out of sight of the boys. “You told me that Helen didn’t think the Lyntons could take the boys from you and that Friday will either be a complete waste of time or that you’ll be able to sort out your differences with them and everything will work out. Nothing to worry about.”
“I know, but that’s not the only thing on my mind. Mum hasn’t called yet, either, and that’s bothering me.”
Peter chuckled and pulled Alan in close. “She told us she’d call tonight. You got that text from her mid-morning saying that Thomas had picked her up, and that was our biggest concern: that she’d be stranded on Cape York with no one waiting. They probably won’t have mobile reception while they’re travelling, so we have to wait until they arrive and she can use the phone at the community. You know all of this, so relax!”
Alan tried to do as he was told but was only partly successful. He smiled at Peter, knowing that if it wasn’t for the guy he loved, he would be a complete wreck. “Thanks.” He rested his head on Peter’s shoulder. “Thanks for everything.”
“My pleasure.” Peter kissed the top of Alan’s head. “Did Helen say if you need to do anything in particular between now and Friday?”
“There’s nothing to do. Helen and I discussed everything this afternoon, and she said she’d meet me in the city on Friday morning. I just have to wait…”
“Then how about I get you a beer? I’ll cook dinner tonight; Spaghetti Bolognaise won’t take long to make, and it’s something we know the boys will eat. That’ll reduce everyone’s stress levels.”
“And I’ll sit here waiting for Mum to ring.”
There was a pause before Peter replied. “On second thoughts, why don’t you cook dinner? I think you need something to do, and that will keep you occupied. I’ll supervise.”
Alan chuckled, knowing what Peter was doing, and he appreciated the effort. “You’re a rotten supervisor. You know you don’t like anyone else in the kitchen if you’re cooking.”
“Ah, but I’m not cooking. You are.” Peter grinned as he rose, pulling Alan upright at the same time. “Time to start getting dinner ready, Alan. It’s your turn.”
It was forty minutes later, with the sauce simmering and the water for the pasta starting to boil, when the phone rang. Alan abandoned the food and raced to the phone. It was, as he’d hoped, his mother, ringing to let him know that she’d arrived safely. After chatting with her and then letting her talk to the boys, he returned to the kitchen to find Peter cooking the spaghetti.
“Everything okay?” Peter asked.
Alan wrapped his arms around his partner. “One worry off the list. Now I only have to wait for Friday.”
“Good. Dinner will be ready in five minutes. Tell the boys it’s time to wash their faces and hands.”
Alan gave Peter a quick kiss before doing what he was told. He reminded himself again how lucky he was that Peter was there to help.
* * *
“Are you sure this is appropriate?” Alan asked as he stared in the mirror early Friday morning.
“It’s the best suit you’ve got.” Peter gave Alan a critical onceover. “You have to create a good impression.”
“I look stupid.” Alan stuck a finger into the top of the button-up shirt and tried to stretch the collar. “I hate these things.”
Peter smiled and reached over to straighten the tie. “You look fine. Just remember not to let them rattle you. You’re a great parent for the boys, and no one can say otherwise.”
Alan grunted. “They’ll be saying otherwise; I know they will.”
“That doesn’t make it true. Don’t let them get to you, and you’ll be fine.” Peter gave Alan a kiss before stepping back. “Now get going. I’ll get Troy to school and leave Bradley with Tracey. You concentrate on handling this mediation session.”
Alan’s smile was weak. “I’m so nervous. There’s a lot riding on this meeting.”
“You’ll be fine.” Peter cast a slow eye up and down Alan’s body. “You look absolutely fantastic. Good enough to eat, even. I think you should wear suits more often.”
Alan laughed. “Over my dead body!” He stepped forward and gave Peter a quick peck. “Thanks. I know it’s going to go fine, but I can’t help worrying.”
“I know. Just give me a call if you need any info while you’re there. My boss knows what’s going on and has said I can take calls and help out if needed.” Peter gave Alan a gentle push towards the door. “Go, or you’ll miss the train.”
Alan grinned. “And if I miss that one, there are three others following that will still get me to the city in time.”
“It’s much better to be an hour early than five minutes late. Now, Marvin K. Mooney, I said go!”
Alan chuckled at the Dr. Seuss reference as he walked out the door. Peter had bought the book on Tuesday, and it had become an instant hit with the two boys. He and Peter had started to use the reference whenever they wanted the boys to hurry up.
* * *
After Alan left, Peter walked into Troy’s room and opened the curtains. “Time to get up, sleepyhead!”
Troy lifted his head and then let it collapse back onto the pillow “What time is it?”
“Time to get ready for school.”
Troy didn’t stir. “Do I have to?”
Peter pulled back the doona cover and gently pulled the boy into a sitting position with his legs over the side of the bed. “Yes, you do. Your breakfast is on the table, so can you please go and start eating while I get your brother up?”
Peter didn’t wait for a response but headed into the next room where Bradley was still sound asleep. It was only then he realised that, with all the preparations they’d made the night before to get Alan ready, they’d forgotten to wake up Bradley during the night to make him go to the toilet. Dreading what he would find, Peter slipped his hand under the covers and felt the mattress. He didn’t get the result he wanted.
“Bradley! You’ve wet your bed again.”
The barely audible murmur in response did not help Peter’s mood. The unexpected incident had thrown his planned schedule off, and he knew he was going to have to rush to get everything done in time. He grabbed some clothes and took them to the bathroom. He then returned and collected the young perpetrator. “Come on, Bradley. You need a shower.”
The young boy rubbed his eyes as he was led out of the room. “What are we doing today?”
“You’re spending the day with Tracey.”
Bradley came alive with that news, and his face lit up. “Yippee!”
As they passed Troy’s room, Peter glanced inside to see the occupant lying back on his bed. “Troy! Get up and go have your breakfast.”
Bradley jumped. “You scared me!”
“Sorry, Bradley, but Troy needs to get up and get ready for school.” Peter looked up, and his displeasure rose another notch. “Troy, get out of bed!”
Leaving the older brother to hopefully follow instructions, Peter took Bradley to the bathroom and started the shower. Once it was at the right temperature, he stripped off Bradley’s wet clothes and told him to get in and wash himself down.
Peter then headed back towards Bradley’s room but paused outside of Troy’s. “Troy! Up! Now!”
Peter decided to give him one more chance and continued on his way back to strip Bradley’s bed. He needed to start the washing machine straightaway. The making of the bed with new sheets could wait until Alan arrived home.
Once that chore was done, he rushed back to check on Bradley, who he found sitting on the floor of the shower, running his fingers through the water droplets on the screen door.
“Time to get out.” Peter grabbed a towel. It only took him a few minutes to dry Bradley and get him dressed. He then took him into the kitchen and sat him down at the table. He gritted his teeth when he saw that Troy still wasn’t there, but he decided to start Bradley eating before dealing with his big brother.
“Why aren’t you getting ready? You’ve got to go to school!” Peter said, trying manfully to not shake some sense into the little boy, who was playing with a monster truck.
“Why do I have to go?” Troy asked, looking up momentarily. “School’s boring.”
Peter took a deep breath to stop himself from yelling. “Because that’s just the way it is. You have to go to school, and Bradley is going next door to spend the day with Tracey.”
Troy kept playing. “Why can’t I go to Tracey’s, too?”
“Because you’re going to school! Do I need to get you dressed?” Peter didn’t wait for a response and started to strip off Troy’s pyjamas. He was going to be late if they wasted too much more time.
With no cooperation from Troy, Peter changed the boy’s underwear and got him into a pair of pants. When he tried to do them up, though, there was a cry of pain. The zipper was stuck on the briefs.
“You’ve hurt my willy!” Troy said.
“I’m sorry,” Peter said, only half meaning it, “but if you had been helping me, that wouldn’t have happened.” Peter quickly sorted out the problem. “Now lift up your arms so I can get your shirt on.”
Troy was sullen, but he did what he was told, and the rest of the dressing went quickly. “Can I play with my truck now?”
“No. You still need to eat your breakfast. Now, come on.” Peter gave him a chance to get moving—with no response from Troy—before taking him by the arm and forcing him into the kitchen.
Bradley was finishing his cereal. “Can I take a toy to Tracey’s? Mummy usually lets me take a toy.”
“Okay, but only one.” Peter proceeded to make sure Troy had something to eat. He glanced at the clock and hoped the boy wouldn’t take too long or they’d be late for school.
Bradley slipped out of the room and then came back a few minutes later. “I can’t find my monster truck. I can’t go to Tracey’s without my monster truck!”
Peter turned to Troy. “Was that Bradley’s monster truck you were playing with earlier?”
Troy shrugged while slowly putting another spoonful of cereal in his mouth.
Peter took a moment to tell himself that they were only kids. “Bradley, check in Troy’s room. It might be there.”
Peter could tell it was going to be one of those days. He hoped Alan’s day would turn out better than his.
* * *
Alan was waiting at the Gloria Jeans coffee shop when he spotted Helen Chambers. He wiped his hand nervously on the sides of his pants before stepping forward to shake hands. “Hello.”
His lawyer was dressed in a smart, though low-key outfit. She smiled. “It’s good to see you again, Alan. And I know you’re worried, but don’t be. All the factors are on our side here.”
He nodded. “Do you know what’s going to happen?”
“We’ll be taken to a meeting room along with the Lyntons and their lawyer, and a representative from the Children’s Court will try to mediate an outcome so we don’t have to go before a judge. I’ll do most of the talking initially, but I expect the mediator will bring you and the Lyntons into the conversation at appropriate times.”
“Is there anything I should or shouldn’t be doing?”
“Whatever you do, don’t lose your temper. If you’re being provoked, I’ll jump in and stop it, but it’ll be up to you to not say something stupid. On the plus side, if the Lyntons or their lawyer try to provoke you, the mediator will notice. If it ends up going before a judge, the mediator will be writing up a report, and that sort of behaviour will count against the Lyntons. That’s why I won’t be trying to do that myself, and you shouldn’t try to, either. Don’t worry about losing the boys, Alan, because I can assure that the law is very much in your court, if you’ll pardon the pun.”
She waved a hand towards one of the empty tables. “Now, would you like a coffee before we go in? We’ve got plenty of time.”
Alan gave her a tentative smile. “I’ve already had one, but, yeah, another would be great.”
Helen looked around and then raised a hand to attract the attention of one of the staff members before sitting down. The young man came over and smiled. “Good morning! How can I help you?”
“What’ll you have, Alan?” Helen asked.
“A large cappuccino, please.”
Helen turned back to the waiter. “And I’ll have a regular Why Bother.”
The young man nodded. “A large cappuccino and a regular Why Bother. I’ll bring them out to you shortly.”
As soon as the waiter was gone, Alan asked, “What’s a Why Bother?”
Helen laughed. “I’ve been here before, which is where I heard about it. It’s a low fat, weak, decaf latte. As the barista told me when I first asked what it was: why bother?”
Alan smiled. “So why do you bother?”
She shrugged. “Because I like a nice hot drink to warm me up on cold mornings.”
* * *
“Good morning, everyone. I’m Katrina, and this is Frank. I’ll be leading this mediation session, and Frank will be taking notes. This will be very informal, but if the dispute between the two parties is not resolved and it needs to go before a judge, my report from this session will be presented at that time.” She cast a smile around the circular table. “Now, how about we all introduce ourselves?”
The man in the dark suit spoke first. “My name is Alex McIntyre, and I’m representing Mr. and Mrs. Lynton, the grandparents of Troy and Bradley.”
“Pleased to meet you, Alex. Is this your first time here at the Children’s Court?”
Alex narrowed his eyes momentarily, as if examining the question for any hidden agenda. “It is, but I’ve had many cases before the County Court.”
Katrina smiled. “We do things very differently here, but welcome. I hope you find the experience interesting.” She peered past him. “I presume that you are, therefore, Mr. and Mrs. Lynton? Penelope and Henry, I believe.”
“That’s right, Miss...” Penelope Lynton said, ending her statement with a raised eyebrow.
“It’s Van der Meer, but we try to keep things to a first-name basis in these sessions. My job is to mediate the dispute between you and Alan,” she said, glancing momentarily at the young man, “and to hopefully come up with a mutually acceptable resolution. I’m not a judge you have to convince, and my role is preferably small. I’m just here to make sure we stay on track.”
Henry Lynton put a hand on his wife’s arm to forestall her from saying anything. “Thank you, Katrina. I’m sure we’re all here for the same purpose: to do what’s best for our grandchildren. They’ve been through a traumatic time, and we all want the two boys to have the loving and caring home they’ll need to help them get through this.”
Katrina nodded. “Very true, and I’m sure you’re right. Since we’re touching on the subject, there’s something that’s concerning me. I’m aware that Lisa Lynton is currently in hospital and is expected to be there for some time, but I don’t appear to have a submission from her for this session. Does anyone have it for me? The wishes of the parents are very important in matters like this.”
Helen responded. “Alan has requested that Lisa not be informed of the situation, and the Lyntons have, to date, agreed. She has severe injuries, and everyone agrees that she doesn’t need the stress of knowing there’s a custody battle over her children. Unless it is important that an update is received from her, the most current document is the one I sent you, indicating that Lisa and Craig Lynton appointed Alan to be the guardian of their children in the event that they were unable to care for them.”
Katrina smiled. “Thank you. That makes sense, and it reflects well on everyone here that you are all that considerate for Lisa. And you are...?”
“I’m Helen Chambers, and I’m representing Alan Thrush today. And while this is my first mediation session, I’ve been here at the Children’s Court a few times before, including one time only four weeks ago.”
“Welcome, Helen. And that leaves...”
“Hi. I’m Alan Thrush, Troy’s and Bradley’s uncle and the one that Lisa asked to look after her boys.”
Mrs. Lynton jumped in before Katrina could respond. “That’s only because she doesn’t know the sort of lifestyle you live!”
Katrina held up both hands. “Please stop!” She narrowed her eyes at Alex McIntyre. “Have you explained to your client the details of the Children, Youth and Family Act of 2005?”
Alex appeared uneasy. “I’ve explained to them that they would need a child-protection order if they wanted to take custody of the children against the wishes of Mr. Thrush.”
“Which is what started this whole process and led to today’s meeting. But have you bothered to inform them about section 162 of the Act, that before we overrule the parents’ clear preference in who should have custody, it needs to be shown that the children have suffered or are likely to suffer from physical, sexual, emotional or psychological harm, or their physical development or health has been or is likely to be harmed? The mere fact that Alan Thrush is in a homosexual relationship does not meet any of these requirements. If the children are to be taken from him, something more will need to be shown.”
Alan’s eyes opened wide at the controlled outburst from the mediator, and a small smile appeared on his lips as he finally accepted that, as Helen had told him, the law really was on his side.
Mrs. Lynton started to rise, but that action was aborted by both her husband and their lawyer. “Who knows what perverted acts he gets up to? How can we leave defenceless children in that sort of situation?”
Katrina sighed. “Yes, Penelope, I agree. We don’t know what perverted acts, if any, he gets up to, just like we don’t know what sort of perverted acts, if any, you and your husband get up to. I’m assuming none,” she added quickly, holding up a hand to forestall the threatening explosion, “and I’m assuming none on his behalf, unless you have evidence otherwise.”
Mrs. Lynton ignored her lawyer’s attempt to stop her from speaking. “Everyone knows that they’re disgusting perverts. I will not let my grandchildren grow up in a house of depravity!”
Katrina leaned forward. “I’m sorry, Penelope, but unless you can prove the depravity you speak of, you have no choice. If that is your sole concern, then this will be a very short session, because without evidence, there is nothing that is going to change the status quo.” She paused to see if there was any response. “Therefore, I recommend that we shelve this matter, and let’s see if there are any other concerns that you have.”
Mr. Lynton cleared his throat while his wife sat speechless. “While we are disappointed by what you’ve said, Mr. McIntyre did indicate that was what you were likely to say. We do have other concerns, such as access to the children. They are currently our only grandchildren, and we do not want to be shut out of their lives.”
Alan glanced at Helen who nodded her head, giving him permission to speak. He then looked Mr. Lynton in the eye, deciding it was easier to deal with the grandfather and not the grandmother. “Peter and I have no problem with you being involved with the children. We’d even welcome it. There’s no doubt you know a lot about raising boys, and we’d love to take advantage of your knowledge.”
“Then why don’t you let us raise them? That would solve all of our concerns.” Mrs. Lynton’s tone was one of exasperation tinged with pleading.
Helen intervened. “Because the boys’ parents wanted Alan to look after them if they were unable to do so. Since Alan and Peter were already in a relationship at that time, we have to assume that they were happy for both young men to care for their boys. Alan is more than willing to do as his sister has requested and has indicated to me he would be disappointed if the boys were taken from him.”
“He would still be able to see the boys if they lived with us,” Mr. Lynton said.
“Would he?” Helen gave the grandfather a challenging look. “Your wife has already made it extremely clear what she thinks of Alan. If she’s true to her principles, she is likely to deny access by someone she thinks is unacceptable. Alan, on the other hand, is quite willing to let you and your wife have access to the boys. Their best chance to have good access to both their uncle and their grandparents is if they stay with Alan.”
Henry Lynton sat stony-faced while his wife looked like she was about to expire from apoplexy. Neither spoke.
“That seems to be a fair appraisal of the situation,” Katrina said. “Let’s proceed on that basis: Bradley and Troy will be staying with their uncle, and Penelope and Henry will have access to them.”
“But how much access would they really have?” Alex McIntyre asked. “It’s easy to say they’ll have access, but what happens if Mr. Thrush then turns around and denies them?”
Alan settled back and let the lawyers sort out the details. He was happy. The boys would be staying with him.
* * *
Alan snatched Bradley by the arm and yanked him back from the road. “Look out!”
Bradley looked up with a puzzled expression. “Why?”
Alan nodded his head towards the silver Corolla that passed in front of him. “Because that car was coming and you were going to step in front of it.” Alan could feel his heart rate beginning to slow down. “Don’t step onto the road unless you’re holding someone’s hand, okay?”
Bradley shrugged. “Okay.”
Alan wasn’t sure the lesson had sunk in, but instead of reinforcing it, he led Bradley across the side street towards the school crossing. While he waited until the lollipop lady stepped out and stopped the traffic, Alan thought about the bottle of champagne waiting at home. He felt like celebrating after his day at the mediation session, and beer wasn’t going to do the trick, so he bought the bottle on his way home and put it in the refrigerator before collecting Bradley from Tracey’s house.
“Come on, Bradley,” Alan said when the lollipop lady stepped out to stop the traffic.
As they entered the school ground and headed to where they would wait for Troy, they passed a handful of students who had been let out early. There were also a couple of parents waiting for their children, and a worker nearby was using a set of long tongs to pick up rubbish.
“Can I play?” Bradley asked as he pointed towards the playground.
Alan smiled. “Sure.” He knew he could keep an eye on the young boy from where he stood as well as watch for Troy.
A few minutes later the school bell rang and a wave of students streamed towards Alan. His gaze flicked over the students as they passed. As the flood changed to a trickle, Alan’s forehead wrinkled with worry. On the previous days Troy had been out by then. Alan guessed he had been held back in class for some reason, though he was concerned as to why that may be.
“Bradley!” Alan waited until he had the boy’s attention and then beckoned. “Can you come here, please?”
When Bradley arrived, Alan took him by the hand. “Come on. We’re going to look for Troy.”
Bradley looked around. “Where is he?”
“I don’t know. That’s why we’re going to look for him.”
They headed towards Troy’s classroom. Alan kept glancing around just in case Troy was waiting somewhere along the route. As they arrived at the room, Alan saw Troy’s teacher locking the door.
She looked around and then smiled. “Mr. Thrush, isn’t it? How can I help you?”
“I’m looking for Troy. I didn’t see him come out.”
She frowned. “Didn’t they tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“Troy’s grandparents picked him up over an hour ago. They said they were going away for the weekend and wanted to make an early start.”