The small boy sat on the cold concrete tier of the grandstand set into the earthen embankment around the football oval. He was hunched over, knees drawn up, chin resting on knees, arms wrapped around his legs. His eyes were staring, unfocussed, out on to the oval. A single tear ran down each cheek. A stiff breeze ruffled his hair; he shivered, and drew his arms tighter.
“Penny for them,” a rich, deep male voice said, gently.
The boy’s head jerked around. “Huh?”
The man was standing a little behind and to the boy’s right. He was dressed in a suit, and carrying a briefcase. He smiled as he said, “It looked like you were miles away. I offered you a penny for your thoughts.”
“Oh,” said the boy, “my grandma used to say that.” His eyes closed and his face screwed up as a long-suppressed memory surfaced. Two more tears escaped and ran down his face. He seemed to hunch over even more.
“Do you mind if I sit down, Thomas?”
The boy’s head jerked around again.
“You are Thomas, aren’t you?” the man asked, gently.
“Yes… but… but, how did you know?”
The man stepped down to a lower tier and sat down, making sure he left a metre or two between himself and the youngster.
“Well, I know a fair bit about you, actually. I know that your real name is Thomas Geoffrey Bain and that today is your tenth birthday. I know that the Geoffrey in your name comes from your dad, and I know that your mum’s name is Melissa. I also know that you were born in Adelaide, and that your mum brought you to Melbourne three years ago. Oh, and you look very much like your dad.”
The boy stared.
“Now, you must have heaps of questions, and I have a lot I need to tell you. Do you mind if we sit and talk for a while?”
The boy nodded. “I s’pose.”
“Ah… good. Well, to answer what is most likely your first question, my name is Philip deClare, and I’m a lawyer. Your dad’s family hired me to find you.”
Thomas’s face lit up at the mention of his father’s family, but his frown showed that he had plenty of questions.
“Now, let’s just go over some things that I think we both know, and then I’ll fill you in on everything else… is that all right?”
“Right. Let’s start at the beginning. As I said, you were born in Adelaide.”
That brought another nod from Thomas.
“That was on April 3 2004?”
“Your parents were Geoffrey Bain and Melissa Godfrey. They never married, but they lived together until just after you turned seven, when your mother brought you to Melbourne. Am I doing all right so far?”
Thomas nodded. “Mm hmm, but I didn’t know they weren’t married. I guess I was too young then… and Mum would never talk about Dad after we came here.”
“Well, I think there was a reason for that. What did she tell you at the time, when you came to Melbourne?”
“She said Dad had threatened her, and that we couldn’t stay in Adelaide… that if we came to Melbourne he wouldn’t be able to find us.”
The lawyer nodded. “Well, that wasn’t exactly a lie, but it wasn’t the whole truth, either.”
Thomas became animated. “I knew she was stuffing me around! It didn’t make sense to me, but when I tried to argue with her she hit me.” He thumped a fist on the concrete. “Dammit!” Suddenly the anger dissipated; the boy sighed, and bowed his head, his breathing ragged.
For a few moments the two sat in silence while Thomas calmed down. Eventually he looked up at Philip. “So… what did happen?”
“Your mum was beginning to show symptoms of a mental illness. That led to her drinking a lot. Your dad tried to get her to seek help, but she refused, saying there wasn’t anything wrong. The drinking got worse, and then she began doing drugs. She still refused to get help, so your dad gave her an ultimatum: get help, or he would take you and leave her.”
“That was the ‘threat’?”
“Yes, I’d say that’s what she was referring to when she told you that.”
“And… was that when we left?”
“Yes. Your dad came home from work one day to find you both gone. No note… nothing. You’d simply vanished. He informed the police but they didn’t do much. There was no record of your mum’s illness because she’d never sought treatment, and as far as they were concerned she was a responsible adult who had decided to take her son and start a new life.
“Your dad hoped you would phone him or write to him—”
“I did write! I wasn’t allowed to tell him where we were, but I did write! Didn’t he get my letters?”
“Thomas, I’m sorry. He never heard a thing from you.”
“That bitch! She said she would post them. She probably just threw them out. I’ll kill her!”
The lawyer nodded, his expression serious. “I can see how you’d want to. It won’t be necessary, though. But we’ll come back to that.”
He went on. “Your dad almost gave up when he didn’t hear from you, but your grandparents persuaded him that something — probably your mother — was preventing you from contacting him. Even though you were young they reckoned you would find a way to contact him if it was possible.”
Thomas was shaking his head. “After I’d written a few letters she told me that she’d heard that Dad had died in a car accident. I cried for days, and I didn’t feel like trying to do anything after that.”
“Well, your dad kept trying. He put ads, which included a photo of you, in papers all around Australia, hoping that someone would recognise you and contact him. He guessed that she might have changed your appearance and your names, but, of course, he didn’t have a clue how she might have changed you, or what name she might be using.”
The boy nodded. “She did change our names, and she kept my head just about shaved for a few months. I hated that!”
Philip smiled. “Well, now that it’s longer again you look just like you did in the photos your dad gave me. You just look a bit older. Oh, my! Please forgive me, I’m forgetting something important.”
He reached for his briefcase, rummaged around inside, and drew out a silver chain upon which hung a silver coin.
Thomas gasped. “That’s Dad’s!”
The lawyer held it out, leaning to close the gap between them. Thomas stretched forward and took it and examined it lovingly. “I made this for him. It’s a shilling that I found at the beach. I kept it because I’d never seen any of our old coins before.” Thomas grinned, “It’s even older than Dad. He said he’d always wear it.” He reached out to hand it back.
“No, you keep it Thomas. Your dad wore it right up until he gave it to me. He wanted you to see it so that you would know that I was genuine. You’ll be able to give it back yourself, soon.”
Philip continued his story. “About a year ago, a friend of mine met your dad at a conference. They got talking, and your dad told him about trying to find you. My friend suggested that your dad get in touch with me because I’d had some success in tracking down people who had gone missing.
“He contacted me the next day. We arranged a meeting, and he asked me to take on the task of finding your mum and you. Well, you, to be truthful. He wanted you back in his life — but not your mother. He hoped that you would want him back, too.”
Thomas looked up at the lawyer. “There’s nothing I want more!” he said, softly, but emphatically. “I’ve hated it here, and I’ve hated being away from Dad. I’ve hated every single one of Mum’s boyfriends…” He ran out of steam, and bowed his head. After a few moments he added, barely audibly, “I’ve almost hated Mum, too.” He burst into tears, his whole body wracked with his sobs.
Philip got up and sat beside the boy. He wrapped his arm around Thomas’s shoulders. Thomas slumped against the man, who simply held him until he was ready to continue.
When the youngster straightened up a few minutes later the man pulled out a handkerchief and handed it to Thomas.
The boy wiped his tears away and blew his nose. “Thank you,” he said, looking up at the lawyer. He made to hand back the handkerchief, but the man waved it away.
“You keep it, for now… just in case you need it again.”
“Oh… thank you… so, um, what happens now?”
“Well, you will need to decide what you want to do. I can lay out all the facts and possibilities, and answer any questions you have, but you’re the one who has to make all the decisions, I’m afraid.”
“Can I talk to my dad?”
“Certainly, but he wants you to be free to make a decision without his influence. He asked me to do whatever is necessary to allow you to come to your decision without any coercion. He—”
“Without any what?”
“Coercion. It means using force to make something happen.”
“Oh, um… well, I don’t really need to think about it. I want to be with Dad.”
“Do you mean you would like to live with him, or just that you would like to see him?”
Thomas looked at the man as one would look at a dog learning a new trick — with patience and forbearance. “I want to live with Dad. Of course I want to see him, I want to talk to him, I want him to hug me like he used to, but mostly I just want to live with him. Just being in the same house would be enough!” He gave the lawyer a searching look. “Please?”
Philip chuckled. Every time he looked at Thomas he saw the boy’s father. The physical likeness was striking, but the boy had the father’s mannerisms and the same way of speaking, too. It was uncanny, but it left no room for doubt that this was the boy for whom he had been searching.
“Well, I guess that’s definite enough. I think your dad will accept that.”
Thomas looked at him, a little frustrated, not quite understanding what the man was saying. “So… what are you saying? Is that a ‘yes’?”
The boy launched himself at the lawyer, who suddenly found himself locked in a stranglehold hug. There wasn’t much he could do but hug back. He heard a muffled “Thank you!” from lips buried somewhere between his shoulder and his neck.
When Thomas resurfaced there were tears streaming down his face. “Thank you,” he repeated. “Thank you so much!” He drew out the ‘so’ as kids are wont to do when they want to add emphasis. “When can I talk to him? When can I see him?”
“Soon, Thomas, soon. But there’s something else I need to tell you first.”
Thomas sighed, but looked at the man expectantly.
“There’s no easy way to say this… your mother and her boyfriend were arrested this morning.”
Thomas’s mouth dropped open. “Wh… why? How?”
“I’ll answer the ‘how’ first. When my investigator found out where you were living, he kept an eye on the house for a few days because we needed to be sure that you actually lived there. We became concerned because there were people coming and going quite often, and at odd hours. We suspected they were buying drugs, so I phoned your dad and we had a long discussion. Our main concern was for you, so once we confirmed that you did indeed live there, I talked to the police and explained the whole situation. It turned out that there were outstanding arrest warrants for the boyfriend, and because your mother was involved with him the police were interested in her as well.
“Since there were no charges or court orders from South Australia, the question of your welfare was a matter for your parents to settle. If they couldn’t come to an agreement the police would ensure that you were placed in foster care. Your father didn’t want that, of course, so we came up with a plan, and the police went along with it.
“The idea was that I would visit your mother with the aim of getting her to sign over all of her parental rights to your dad. I’d also talk to you to find out what your wishes were. Then I’d get you out of the house and the police — who would be waiting — could then move in.
“Of course, it didn’t go according to plan because you weren’t at home when I called.”
Thomas chuckled. “No, I got really pissed off with Mum and her boyfriend. She completely forgot my birthday, and he didn’t care anyway. As far as he was concerned I was just a nuisance, so I kept out of his way as much as I could. Mum had never missed my birthday before, though. I was so angry with her I stormed out and came down here.”
Philip nodded. “When I got there she was pretty upset. I think it had finally dawned on her that she had messed up her life, not to mention yours. She signed the papers without any argument; she seemed genuinely concerned about you, and said she could see that you’d be better off with your dad. Unfortunately, she had no idea where you had gone.”
Thomas harrumphed. “She never had any idea where I was. Most of the time I thought she didn’t care.”
The lawyer nodded, and sighed. “I had the signed papers, but now I had to find you. The police promised to allow us in if I found you and there was anything you wanted to get out of the house, so I left just as they made the arrests.
“Because things hadn’t quite gone to plan I phoned your dad. He is the client and I didn’t want to act without his advice. He insisted that when I found you I had to make the situation clear to you, and then allow you to decide what you wanted to do.” He gave Thomas a warm smile. “He didn’t tell me how forcefully you could express an opinion!”
Thomas laughed. “I think I get that from Dad!”
Philip went on, “Well, I was wondering whether I’d have to sit outside the house and wait for you to return. That wasn’t a very attractive thought because your mum said you often stayed out all day.”
Another harrumph. “Yeah, to get away from her when she was on the booze… and away from her boyfriend. He’s a real prick.”
Philip chuckled, “I think I’d agree with that assessment.”
The man and the boy shared a laugh. “I hope they lock him up and throw away the key!” Thomas said.
“Anyway,” Philip continued, “just as I was wondering what to do the old guy next door came out and asked me what was going on. It was pretty obvious it was a police raid so I didn’t need to say much.
“Then he asked what would become of you. I told him your dad now had custody of you but that I didn’t know where to find you. He told me of a few places where he knew you’d go when you had to get out of the house, so it was a matter of eliminating them one by one. This was the third one I tried.”
“That would have been old Mr Lane. He’s really nice,” Thomas said. “I often had a meal with him when things were bad at home.” He thought for a moment. “Um, so… what happens to Mum now?”
“Well, it probably depends on how heavily she was involved in the boyfriend’s drug business. She might be charged with your neglect, though, so she probably won’t get off scot-free.”
Thomas sighed. “I really hope she gets help. She wasn’t a bad mum when she was sober, but her drinking made her really hard to live with. And I’m still pissed off that she told me Dad was dead!”
He looked up at the lawyer. “Is there anything else you need to tell me?” he asked, with a resigned sigh.
“Actually, I think that’s it,” Philip replied. “Now, is there anything you want from home? And are you hungry? ’Cause I’m famished.”
Thomas grinned. “I missed breakfast, so I could eat a horse.”
“All right, let’s do something about that first.”
* * *
The man and boy chatted over lunch at a sidewalk cafe; Thomas telling of his life in Melbourne, Philip filling some gaps in Thomas’s knowledge of his family.
After the meal they went to Thomas’s old home and packed the few things he wanted to keep. While they were there he took time to go next door to say goodbye to Mr Lane. The elderly man made it clear that he expected reports on life in Adelaide. His eyes were moist as he hugged Thomas. “I’m really pleased things are looking up for you,” he said.
“Me too!” said Thomas.
“Now, is there anything else you want to do before we head for home? Anyone else you would like to say goodbye to?” Philip asked as they were getting into the car after leaving Mr Lane.
“Nah, it’s all right, thanks. There is a friend I should talk to, but I’ll see him at school on—” He stopped abruptly as the realisation set in that he really was bidding goodbye to Melbourne. Adelaide was seven hundred kilometres away. “Damn! I won’t see him on Monday,” he said, exasperated. He turned to Philip. “Would you mind if we call and see him, please?”
Five minutes later they parked outside a row of six terrace houses. “Andrew lives in this one,” Thomas told Philip, as he opened a gate into a small but neat front garden. “There’s just him and his mum.” He rang the doorbell. “Oh… and Rusty,” he added, as the door opened and a large brown shape jumped up at him.
“Rusty! Down!” said the lady who had opened the door, laughing. “Thomas! Hi, come in. Andrew’s in his room.”
Thomas disappeared into the house, leaving Andrew’s mother — whose name was Jocelyn — and Philip to introduce themselves.
“Come into the kitchen. You might as well be comfortable while you wait for the boys. Cuppa?”
“I’d love a cup of tea, thank you,” Philip said. “It’s not too long since we had lunch, but there’s nothing like home-brewed tea! I never enjoy those little pots they serve in restaurants.”
Philip sat at the breakfast bar and explained the reason for the visit while Jocelyn bustled about on the other side. She put the kettle on and got out some delicious-looking cupcakes.
“Oh, that’s wonderful news,” said Jocelyn. “I’ve always worried about Thomas. He’s such a nice kid and he’s been a terrific friend for Andrew. He’s never said much about home, but I had a feeling things weren’t too happy there.” She paused. “Andrew’s going to miss him, you know… Thomas is the only really close friend he has. In fact, they are so close that I’ve wondered if they might…” She trailed off as Thomas came into the room pushing another boy in a wheelchair.
“This is Andrew,” Thomas announced.
Philip stood and shook hands with the boy.
“You’ll forgive me if I don’t stand…?” Andrew said, causing them all to laugh.
Thomas went to the fridge and got Andrew and himself soft drinks. They helped themselves to the cupcakes.
“You’d better grab something before the garbage disposals finish it all,” Jocelyn told Philip.
The lawyer laughed. “Don’t worry, I had two teenage boys. We thought about hiring a full-time cook just to keep up with them and their mates. I learned to get in first, or I missed out altogether.”
As they talked, Philip saw that Jocelyn was correct: the two boys had a very close relationship. Philip found himself hoping that they would both survive the separation.
When it came time for Philip and Thomas to leave, Jocelyn and Andrew — wheeling himself — followed them out to the car. As Philip was thanking Jocelyn for her hospitality Thomas was saying a teary goodbye to Andrew.
“You behave yourself, or I’ll be forced to come over to Adelaide and sort you out!” Andrew said. “Remember what I told you, all right?” He gave his friend a look that said disagreement would not be tolerated.
Thomas leaned down and hugged the wheelchair-bound boy. “I will” he said, quietly, with tears in his eyes. He turned to Philip. “I think we’d better go before I start bawling.” He gave Jocelyn a quick hug, and got into the car.
Philip shook Andrew’s hand. “I’ll try to make sure Thomas has a way to keep in touch.”
“Thanks,” Andrew said. He smiled bravely, but Philip couldn’t help but notice the sadness in the boy’s eyes.
Philip settled into the driver’s seat and started the car. “Next stop, Ballarat!” he announced. “We’ll stay in a motel there tonight and then we’ll be able to make it to Adelaide tomorrow.”
“OK,” Thomas said, quietly.
The young boy fell silent. It was almost half an hour later, well after the car had joined the fast-flowing traffic on the Western Freeway, when he stirred again. He sighed, sat up straighter, and turned to Philip. “Andrew told me to be myself,” he said, “but I’m scared.”
“Scared to admit it to yourself… or scared that Dad won’t approve?” Philip’s rich, deep voice was gentle and reassuring.
Thomas gave the lawyer a startled look. “How… how did you know?”
Philip smiled. “I have a gay son. That doesn’t make me an expert, but it does mean that I notice things.” As a rest stop came into view Philip jabbed the indicator switch, and turned off the freeway.
“Why are we stopping?”
“I need a toilet break.”
Thomas decided he did, too. There was a snack van parked in the rest area, so Philip bought them a tub of hot chips each.
They sat across from each other at a picnic table and began eating.
“Thomas,” Philip began. The boy looked up, very unsure of himself. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you anything awkward; I’d just like to say something that might be helpful. Is that all right?”
The youngster nodded.
“Did you know you have a gay uncle?”
Thomas’s look of surprise showed that he didn’t know. “Really?”
“Yes, your dad’s younger brother. He lives with his boyfriend not far away from your dad’s place.” He paused to allow Thomas to digest this new information.
“Now, the important thing is that your dad thinks the world of his brother. He doesn’t care two hoots that your Uncle Ben is gay. Do you know what that means?”
Thomas looked puzzled. “Um… no?”
Philip gave the boy a gentle smile. “How about I put it this way… do you think that knowing your dad loves his gay brother might make it easier for you if you do decide you’re gay?”
Thomas’s face brightened. “Whoa!”
The lawyer chuckled. “When your dad told me about your uncle I asked him, ‘How will you react if I find Thomas and it turns out he’s gay?’ His answer was that he would love you whether you were gay or straight or anything else.”
Thomas closed his eyes and sighed. A small smile appeared and he looked up at Philip. “I don’t need to worry?”
“I’m sure you don’t.”
Thomas jumped up and in what seemed like milliseconds was on Philip’s side of the table.
“Another one of these stranglehold hugs and I’ll be asking your dad for danger money!” the lawyer grumbled. Thomas giggled, and tightened his arms around the man.
A few minutes later they were on their way again.
“When can I talk to Dad?” had been a frequent question during the day, and Thomas asked it again as they moved onto the freeway.
“In about an hour,” the lawyer replied, looking at his watch. “He won’t be available until after we get to the motel.”
“Agh!” said Thomas.
Philip chuckled. “Hey, it’ll happen before you know it.”
That turned out to be an accurate prediction, for Thomas, exhausted by the day’s events, soon drifted off to sleep. He didn’t wake until he sensed the changed momentum when Philip took one of the Ballarat exits from the freeway.
“Where are we?” asked a sleepy Thomas.
“Ballarat. We’ll be at our motel in a couple of minutes.” He looked across at Thomas. “So… how’s your birthday been?”
Thomas thought for a moment. “Well, it’s been the worst day ever.” He paused dramatically. “But it’s also been the best day ever!” He grinned at the surprised look on the lawyer’s face. “Gotcha!”
Philip laughed as he turned into the motel. “You did… but, don’t worry, I’ll get you back!”
And he did.
A few seconds later he parked in front of a motel unit. As they got out of the car they both stretched, relieving cramped muscles. Philip took out a key and unlocked the door to the unit, giving Thomas a gentle push in as he opened the door.
As Thomas’s eyes adjusted to the softer light level after the bright sun outside he saw a figure rise from a sofa. The man stood still, waiting for the penny to drop.
Thomas stared at him for a moment. “DAD!” he shrieked, and launched himself into his father’s arms.
Philip closed the door gently and went for a walk, leaving the two to get reacquainted. The lawyer was right. His handkerchief was needed again.
Copyright © 2014 Alien Son
Many thanks to Azyclar (“I read things sideways, I think it improves their flavour”), for editing my writing and turning it into a story.