This is it. The end of the story:) Thank-you for reading and reviewing and I hope you enjoyed it.
Four of Ben's mates rocked up on Saturday afternoon. Actually, let me correct that; three of his mates and one, younger, 'hanger-on' appeared, all of them in jeans and jumpers with dark hair and dark eyes and a great curiosity about where it was they'd just landed.
I wasn't very impressed with the number of guests. The fact that I couldn't transport them all in my car necessitated in Wafiq having to drive to the airport with me and help cart them all home, something which he was very good about, but our guests were displeased with. Maybe it was because their older, male relative immediately started lecturing them on how they should conduct themselves while in Australia. And trust me, even though Wafiq was speaking Arabic, I could sense exactly what he was saying and exactly what sort of reactions he was getting.
Still, everyone elected to travel home in Wafiq's Landrover over my twenty-three year old Ford. There was only room for four of them, though; Ben plus three guys, and this left the youngest kid to travel home with me. He fell asleep in the car, his head against the window, and his long, thick eyelashes meshed together. He looked very young, no more than twelve, and very innocent. I wondered who he'd convinced to let him travel to Australia, and how much – or how little, to be precise – fun he was going to have hanging around with four older boys who clearly had very different mindsets, attitudes, aims.
I figured Wafiq wouldn't let him suffer too badly. Will, too, could probably amuse him for a day or two. Will was good like that, I'd noticed, as was Lee. Actually, I mused during the drive home, I should probably get Will and Lee and his family take the kid out. They could all go together and make it a semi-family thing. Hell, I'd even pay for it.
I had much more important things on my mind than amusing pre-pubescent kids. Namely, there was my stupid Christmas in July, to which basically all of my colleagues had been invited, and to which almost all were choosing to attend. I was learning not only the importance of keeping my mouth shut about my private life, but that a ridiculous amount of people did not understand the concept of a Secret Santa. I can understand that if you aren't born in a Christian country, it might be a new concept. What I cannot understand is how people who were born and raised in Brisbane could be ignorant of how it works. I also cannot understand why it is that people who do not live in Australia, when told not to spend more than $50 AUD, ask me to convert rupees or dirhams or Kiwi dollars into Australian dollars. Just fucking google it.
My one saving grace with Ramyar and his mother. I was not obtuse to the fact that Ramyar was doing this partly to save his own hide and ensure our guests enjoyed the day, but I truly appreciated the assistance. I was also falling more and more in love with his mother, something which I was very vocal about, and her unfailing assistance. Ramyar just looked at me like I was crazy whenever I declared my feelings, and said that were I an Indian I would feel very differently. I refused to believe this.
We arrived home and I parked my car. My guest – whose name was, of all things, Jihad – was still asleep.
'Jihad,' I whispered.
There was no response.
'Jihad,' I repeated, louder.
Still not response.
'Jihad,' I said, loudly.
Jihad remained asleep. I thought about nudging him, but he wasn't my kid and I didn't want to scare him. Instead, I unpacked his bags and took them into the house, hoping the noise would wake him up.
'Where's my brother?' Bashar inquired.
'In the car,' I replied. 'He's sleeping. If you want to try and wake him up...'
This was a stupid thing to say, because Bashar's method of waking his brother involved shaking him and doing his very best to embarrass him. I groaned. Wafiq frowned. Jihad blushed and hurried out of the car. I noticed that he stayed very close to Wafiq and I when we went inside, even when the other guys were busy outside inspecting the dogs, the backyard, the cute girl over the back fence.
'I'll look after him,' Wafiq pledged, when Jihad made a trip to the bathroom and we had two minutes privacy. 'I have a break from study for the next few weeks.'
'Let me know if it gets too much,' I sighed. 'It would be a shame for him to come all this way and hate every minute of it.'
'Aren't you taking holidays next week?' Wafiq queried.
'I technically also have Friday off to prepare for Christmas in July,' I corrected. 'That's a clusterfuck I could have done without.'
'You don't want to do it?' Wafiq questioned, obviously not understanding 'clusterfuck'.
'Ben wanted to do it initially. I don't mind doing a small one, either, just for you guys. Unfortunatley now I have several executives coming from work, and that's changed things a bit. It's more expensive, more time consuming and a lot less fun.'
'Will is also on holidays. We'll help. Do you want us to come around on Friday morning?'
'Oh, this isn't your problem. Will can help, but you're welcome to just enjoy it.'
'Will said you would be very cross if you received more than two guests,' he stated. 'I'm very sorry about this. I tried to explain. I tried to tell them 'no more than two, because Brett has no wife and no maid and it will be too much', but it can be difficult for them to understand. The older women who have never travelled and never been educated don't understand that you could be so different and a lot of the men in my family assume you have a girlfriend, women that you're...' he paused, embarrassed. 'Women you enjoy but are not married to. They assume that you have a lady who will help you.'
I stared at him, floored. Humiliated, too, because I knew he'd put himself out for me. 'Wafiq, you and your family have done more for my kids than I could ever repay you for. Having a couple of the boys over is the least I can do and don't think that I seriously dislike having four over. It's surprising to an Australian to have so many over, but if that's the way your people do things, then I'm sure I'll live. You guys have always been gracious while I've been in your country.'
'This is because we need your skills,' he joked.
'All the same, everyone has been very nice.'
I could feel someone looking at me, and turned to see Jihad in the doorway. Wafiq followed my gaze to the child, who was looking more and more uncertain of himself with each passing second.
'Lie down and have a rest if you want,' I offered. 'Or you can have something to eat first, if you prefer.'
'Try and speak more clearly,' Wafiq suggested to me. 'You have a strong accent and it can be hard to understand. I'll tell my cousin what he should do, and later, I will tell you what I told him. Does this suit you?'
I shrugged. 'Go for it.'
Wafiq took him around the house, explaining things. He showed him the contents of the pantry and fridge, the dogs, the backyard, the bedrooms, everything. When he was finished, he took Jihad to the bedroom we'd made up for him and left to have a nap.
'He seems a lot younger than the others,' I said, gesturing to the boys who were all outside standing on the back fence and talking to the girls over the back.
Wafiq followed my gaze and frowned. 'The others would have preferred you live in the US or UK. Those are the countries they want to visit. Jihad has always wanted to come to Australia. None of the men wanted him to come, but his older sister is a teacher and she adores him. She gave him the money he needed and persuaded their father to let him go.' Wafiq paused, hesitated. 'Please don't tell anyone, but Bashar and Jihad have different mothers. They get jealous, even when there is no reason to be.'
'Is Jihad's mother the preferred wife?' I asked curiously.
Wafiq quickly replied 'no', but I could tell from his face the correct answer was 'yes'. I was grateful to have this information sooner rather than later. I'd seen spats born of jealousy between Lee and Will, and Will and Ben, and had more or less figured out how to deal with them. With any luck I'd be able to keep Bashar and Jihad behaving decently. Or, at worst, I could prevent them from tearing each other to pieces.
'There are only three children in the family,' Wafiq added suddenly. 'Bashar, and then Jihad and his sister. Perhaps if there were more of them they wouldn't fight.'
'It's okay,' I shrugged. 'Ben and Will fight.'
He grinned. 'I noticed. Will denies it.'
'Will blames Ben, and Ben blames Will.' I sighed. 'You may have noticed religion and sexuality are the root of 90% of their arguments. The rest relate to food, what one of them allegedly did to annoy the other, and accusations of favouritism.'
'My brothers and sisters fight over what's on television and who spends the most time looking in the mirror. Before my brother Muhammed moved to New Zealand they used to fight with him over his dogs. He used to make a lot of money breeding them. He still does, in New Zealand, but my brothers want the dogs to breed. They're angry he took the best dogs with him, even though it was Muhammed who bought the dogs and Muhammed who has spent years breeding them and caring for them. They fight even though our father and grandfather tell them that they have no right to claim the dogs as their own.'
I laughed. 'Those poor kids without siblings. They don't know what they're missing.'
I heard the front door open but assumed it was just Ben and his mates. It wasn't until Mahir took a seat next to me that I realised it was actually my old housemate here for a visit. I grinned and asked him what I did to deserve his company, and he laughed and told me he missed me, something I didn't particularly understand as we saw each other each day at work.
Mahir noticed our guests in the backyard and asked, with raised eyebrows, if these were Ben's friends from the UAE.
'They are,' I confirmed. 'These are the boys that started my Christmas in July fiasco.'
'Oh you're still whinging about that,' he said reprovingly. 'Brett, you love organising things.'
'No, I don't. I like having family over. I enjoy Michael being around. It's good to catch up with my mates, and I can tolerate Ben's friends but I did not want half of our fucking board members invading my house and making a nice social get together into an event that costs a bomb and has caused me more stress than I could have imagined possible.'
'You should get Will and Wafiq to help you with the baking,' Mahir suggested. 'They made nice things last Christmas.'
'We have already offered,' Wafiq pointed out.
'Brett is stubborn,' Mahir agreed. 'He likes to complain.'
I didn't like to complain, it's just that I found this particular upcoming event to be particularly annoying. Truthfully, it only got more annoying over the next couple of days. I felt stretched thin, between my guests, planning for the Christmas in July, and finishing up my work before I took my weeks' leave.
On the Friday before the big event, I took Jihad to the all-year-round Christmas store to buy decorations. After buying some tinsel and shiny new decorations, we did what can only be described as the world's biggest grocery shop. It was time-consuming and expensive and agonising largely because Jihad wanted to poke and prod and inspect every single unfamiliar item.
I arrived home frazzled and a damn sight poorer than I'd been four hours ago. No sooner had I unpacked, though, than Will and Wafiq showed up, with shopping bags fall of flour and sugar and macadamia nuts. Close on their tail was our cleaner, who we'd called in to do a 'thorough' clean, so my employers wouldn't realise I was actually a very lazy slob who was putting up four very lazy, slobbish foreign boys.
'Would you like us to leave?' I asked the cleaner.
My nineteen year old university-student cleaner pretty much shoved us out the door. She told us to come back in five hours, which I thought was a bit excessive, but then, I've never really noticed grime.
'This is very hard work,' Will remarked wryly as we found shelter in a cafe.
It was busy; the usual Friday afternoon rush, and it would be half an hour before our lunch arrived. In the meantime, we had free bread and soft drink and conversation with which to amuse ourselves.
'It is,' I replied, wounded. 'If you don't like it, you can head back home and help the cleaner.'
Will grinned. 'I'm guessing you've been stressed out about this?' he asked.
'Terribly,' I admitted. 'This is a really big deal. I know I keep whinging, but all I ever intended was to have a quiet dinner with you boys and Ben and his mates. Instead, I get twenty fucking questions about Secret Santa, people who are far too important to my retaining of food and shelter for me to tell them to... oh shit, give me a minute. If I don't answer this, it'll be someone important,' I said, as I retreived my ringing phone from my pocket.
To my surprise, it wasn't work or Ramyar or my cleaner. It was Lee, calling to tell me that he had a new daughter, Sophia, born two months premature. Both Claire and Sophia were fine, but Sophia was very, very tiny and being transferred to another hospital with better facilities.
Suddenly everything I thought was horrible and annoying was trivial and meaningless. I was worried for Claire, for the baby, and for Lee. I was worried for the family's two, elder children and how they would be coping, who would be looking after them, what would happen if the unthinkable occurred and Sophia passed away.
'You go to the hospital with Will,' Wafiq said emphatically when I told them the news. 'Jihad and I will go to the mosque for prayers, and then we'll go to your house and take care of things.'
I was so grateful I didn't argue. Neither did Will, and soon the two of us were at the hospital where Sophia had been transferred to, waiting anxiously with Lee and his two eldest kids. Sophia was being checked over and Claire, in her own, separate ambulance, was still on her way.
It was a very anxious wait. Still, when several hours later, Will and I both got a chance to hold the newborn, it all seemed worth it.
'God, she's tiny,' Will remarked worriedly, as he stared down at the infant. 'Lee, take her back, I don't want to hurt her.'
Lee snorted with laughter. 'You're such a wally. Hey, take a photo on your phone for Ben, okay? He text messaged me before. He said one of his mates' father is a doctor, and they rang him to see what happened to babies who were born this premature, and this guy told them to stay away. You know, because of germs. So, he won't be coming in but he wants to see a picture.'
'Are germs a problem?' I asked worriedly.
Lee paused. 'They better not be.'
'You don't see this as an issue?' Michael hissed.
'Not really,' I replied tiredly as I laid the knives and forks and baskets of chopsticks on the table. I had no idea what chopstick protocol was, but figured the mere supply of them would be enough. 'You and Lee were never that close.'
'I'd expect him to tell me his baby was born!' Mikey exclaimed, hurt. 'He rings you and messages Will and Ben, but he doesn't bother letting me know.'
'He probably figured I'd tell you,' I pointed out.
'Brett, you're totally missing the point...'
'...Michael, today isn't the day,' I interrupted. 'If you don't want to be here, you can go home. I, however, have a Christmas in July to host, and tomorrow morning I will be getting up at the crack of fucking dawn because it's killing me not being able to see my granddaughter.'
'She's not your granddaughter.'
'She's not your granddaughter. She's the child of a man you fostered.'
'As I said Michael, I'm not in the mood for your crap.' I grabbed a stack of little glass containers and put them on the various tables I'd set up, before filling each one up with chocolates. Some were kosher. Some were halal. Some were even vegan. All of them, however, were pretty nice. I'd sampled quite a few last night when I'd returned from the hospital.
There was silence for a few minutes before Michael spoke.
'I know you're sorry,' I said brusquely. 'I know you didn't mean what you said.'
'Brett,' he whispered. 'I lost Teagan.'
'What?' I replied, turning around to face him. He looked terrible, devastated.
'She's furious with me for taking her to the psychiatrist and talking to her about... about what she tried to do with Ben and Will. She asked her social worker if she could live with her grandmother.'
'And they agreed?'
He nodded, downcast. 'Yeah. They agreed.'
'Oh fuck.' I stared at him, shocked. 'Mikey, do you want me to leave this in Ramyar's hands? He'll be here in an hour.'
My lover shook his head. 'No, no. I want to be busy. I don't want to think. When I have time to think, I look back at all of the mistakes I made. I can't stand thinking.'
I took stock of what he was saying. 'Okay, well, then, let's keep moving. We're alone for another half hour before the boys come back from the movies and mess up our good work. We have half an hour to get everything in order.'
It was a thoroughly bittersweet day. I missed Teagan already, despite the fact that I had never been close to her – Michael had never really allowed me to be close to her – and that she'd hurt her brothers. I hated that she'd thrown his efforts to help her in his face. I knew how much Michael loved her, knew how he'd move heaven and earth for her and still it hadn't been enough. Despite all he'd done, she'd rejected him, thrown him out of her life.
I didn't blame her. Not a chance. You can't blame someone who's experienced what Teagan's experienced for being brash or sexually inappropriate or ungrateful. Teagan had more than her due share of demons. To blame her would to be deny what she'd been through.
All too soon the night began. Guests filtered in. Time sped up, became a wild blur. Eleanor and Ramyar's mother, who were doing the serving, worked quickly but calmly. They did a good job, both of them. They wore Santa hats so everyone would know who they were, and they kept a smile on their faces in a way that I would never have been able to manage.
Michael didn't sit with me during dinner. He was helping out the ladies by keeping everyone's drinks filled. I felt guilty about this, guilty that he wasn't beside me, enjoying the evening. I wished I could have given him that kind of recognition. I wished I could introduce him to everyone, and have them treat him well. He did a lot for me. He always has, and he does it so effortlessly that I never realise how much he's accomplished until he's no longer doing it.
I rang Lee several times and on each occasion the news was better; she was doing better, she didn't need help breathing, and the doctors thought that Claire had been a week or two further along in her pregnancy than they'd previously thought. All of this was terrific news and I longed to see her again. I wanted to enjoy this baby the way I hadn't enjoyed the earlier two. It wasn't that I didn't care about them, but I certainly wasn't as comfortable with them as I knew I'd be with Sophia.
Later, when presents were being opened, I watched as Michael played with his Ramyar's children, the way he cuddled and kissed them and asked Ramyar about their birth. I didn't know whether I should interrupt, for fear that the contact would make his pain worse, or leave them. In the end, I did the latter. I was simply too busy with my guests to give Michael the attention I wanted to give him.
It wasn't until five am on Sunday morning the last of my company pushed off. I was exhaused, hungry – it's really hard to eat when you're host, I'd drunk too much and my heart was hurting for Michael. By now, even the relief I felt that the event had gone well wasn't bringing me any joy. I just wanted Mikey.
'Hey, did you see Michael?' I asked Ben.
He looked up blearily. He was more than ready for bed. 'He left half an hour ago.'
'What a mess,' Michael sighed, surveying my house.
'It looks worse in daylight,' I agreed. It was Sunday afternoon. The boys were out – most were together, but Jihad was with Wafiq – and now that I was awake, showered and fed, I was finally ready to think about cleaning. It was a good thing I'd gotten some sleep under my belt this morning because the job was massive. There were the usual beer bottles and dirty cutlery and crockery mixed with chocolate mashed into carpet, tomato sauce inexplicably smeared on the couch, urine all around the toilet in my ensuite and a variety of other spills, stains and tears.
'Brett, I can't believe these people are professionals.'
'They make tradesmen look clean,' I concurred. 'I'm glad it seemed to go well. I can't imagine how bad it would have looked if there had been a disaster.'
We walked through the house oohing and ahhing at the mess.
'I'm astounded there's a pack of tampons in the laundry,' I remarked. 'My surprise is only surpassed by the used condom I found beside my bed.'
Michael was startled. 'Are you joking?'
'Nope. I stepped on it.'
He was so grossed out he laughed. I laughed, too, happy to see him smile.
Then, all of a sudden, he was serious.
'Brett,' he said.
'I want a baby.'
'You want a what?' I asked, baffled at what I thought he was saying.
'I want a baby. I want to do what Ramyar did. I have my share of the money from when we split, plus the insurance money... I want to have a child, one of my own, one who won't be messed up by sicko parents, one who won't come with an attitude, or social workers trawling through my houe. I want to have a child the normal way.'
'Hiring a surrogate so you can raise a baby as a bisexual man in a gay relationship doens't sound very normal to me,' I pointed out. 'Are you sure this doesn't just have something to do with Teagan?'
'It has everything to do with Teagan. I can't do this any more, Brett. I can't, can't keep wanting one of my own while we have problem foster child after problem foster child. You've done your bit. You've done more than your bit. But please, please listen to me. I can't do this any more.'
I saw how stressed he was getting and took his hand. 'It's okay. I understand. It's hard when they're foster kids. I love them like my own, but the truth be told, they're not. You're right when you say Lee's daughter is not my granddaughter...'
'..I only said that because I was upset, because I wanted to hurt you.'
I shushed him. 'It doesn't matter. If it means that much to you, have a baby. I love you. I'll support you.'
'You'll resent me,' he muttered. 'You'll resent me for loving it more than I love Lee or Ben. I don't think I'll love it more than Will. Probably the same. But I don't love Lee or Ben, not in the way you do, and I don't want to mislead you about that.'
'Michael,' I said firmly. 'If you ever say that within earshot of Lee or Ben or Will, I'll throttle you. But between you and me? I know how it works. Have your damn baby.'
He smiled weakly, relieved. 'I'd have to move in with you.'
'I know,' I agreed. 'You'd also have to save all your pay. It'll give you something to fall back on, because I swear to God Michael, if you walk out on me after having a baby, then you'll walk out with nothing from me.'
Mikey was taken aback. 'That's... that's reasonable, I expect.'
'Good.' I leaned over, kissed him. 'I look forward to seeing how this turns out.'