Simon sat back on the sofa trying to watch the evening news playing on the television in front of him. But he couldn’t concentrate on it. His mind kept returning back to the fact that his mum and Niki were now forty-five minutes late home. He was worried that, if they were this late, it could only mean bad news.
On the bus on the way home from college that afternoon, he and Freddie had been talking about their plans for Hades that night. Well, Freddie had been bubbling over with excitement about it. Just as Freddie was getting off the bus when it reached his stop, Simon's phone had beeped announcing a new text message. He still tended to tense up whenever that happened, worrying it might be from his dad, even though he hadn't heard from him in days. He had relaxed when he saw it was from Niki.
The text had read:
“Your mum and I are meeting Kate right after work. She says she needs us to sign important papers. We’ll be late home.”
As he read the text he’d known what she was talking about. It concerned his dad. Something had happened, and Niki wasn’t even hinting at what it might be. He’d put his phone back into his pocket.
When he’d arrived home he found the house quiet and empty, but there wasn’t anything strange in that. He always got home from college before his mum and Niki got home from work, so he didn’t think anything of it at the time. He’d simply taken his laptop out and started work on his latest college essay.
When six o’clock came and there was no sign of his mum and Niki, Simon became nervous. Aunt Kate’s office wasn’t that far from Abby Street Health Centre, where his mum and Niki’s offices were. Taking so long could only mean one thing. There was trouble with his dad. His dad had found a new angle to make their life difficult. It would just be like him to do that. And his mum and Niki were delayed at Aunt Kate’s office sorting it all out. Or trying to get together a defence against his dad’s new idea. His mind raced trying to guess what his dad’s new idea might be. But his knowledge of the law was so small that he couldn’t think of anything. That didn’t mean his dad hadn’t found something.
He’d turned on the television news in an attempt to distract himself, but that had failed. The second story had been about the fallout from a celebrity divorce case. A footballer and a soap opera actress had divorced, infidelities on both sides, and both sides claiming to be the innocent party. And they were now fighting for custody of their two children. The footballer and the actress had both spoken to the press about the custody hearing, both claiming the Family Court judge was biased against them. There was now a huge outcry against their behaviour: from judges and lawyers, and two MPs had raised questions in the House of Commons about it. It was as if the whole world was suddenly obsessed with parental custody. Something Simon just didn’t want reminding about.
He reached over for his laptop, wondering if maybe he could find out what his dad was up to if he did an internet search. But he didn’t know where to start. Searching for “Child Custody” just brought up the same results he’d got before. When he searched for “Ways Around Child Custody” all he got were American websites talking about how to get your child back after the courts had ruled on custody cases. It all felt so helpless.
He jumped with surprise when he heard the front door burst open with a loud bang and Aunt Kate burst into the room. She was in her work clothes, a matching navy blue skirt and jacket over a pale grey blouse. Her blonde hair was pulled back from her face in its usual neat French plait which, together with her very carefully applied make-up, made the features of her face seem strong and sharp. She always looked the same, her clothes and make-up and hair style all designed to enhance her professional image. The image of a woman always in control.
Aunt Kate and his mum were so alike. Their body shapes, facial features, and even hair colour, were just the same. They could have looked more like identical twins than sisters, with Aunt Kate being the younger one. But their styles were so different that if you didn’t look closely at them you would have been surprised to hear that they were even sisters.
Aunt Kate raised her hands above her head and cried out: “I am the champion of the world!”
“Kate, do you have to be so over the top?” his mum said as she entered the room.
“We bloody won and we should be proud of that,” Aunt Kate replied, lowering her arms.
“Of course we should be,” Niki added, as she entered the room, joining his mum in front of the other sofa.
“What happened?” he asked, closing the lid of his laptop but leaving it still resting on his knees.
“You tell him,” Niki said to Aunt Kate, slipping off her jacket and sitting down next to his mum.
“You’re the solicitor, you spill the gossip,” his mum added, looking at Aunt Kate.
“And it’s all due to my star witness here,” Aunt Kate said, as she sat next to Simon.
“Me?” he asked.
“Yes, you, my little darling,” Aunt Kate laughed, smiling broadly at him.
“For God’s sake, tell him Kate,” Niki said. “You’re not Horace Rumpole cross-examining a copper.”
Simon glanced at Niki. Who was this Horace Rumpole? Should he know him?
“I wrote a reply to your father’s solicitors, outlining what we’d present to the judge if he took us to Family Court for your sole custody,” Aunt Kate said, settling herself back against the sofa. “In that reply I outlined that you are sixteen, and therefore a Family Court judge will give very high preference to your wishes over either parent’s demands. I also included a print out of all your father’s emails and texts to you as evidence. The main thrust of our argument is that your father is an unfit parent and his behaviour shows that. I also told them that I am working pro bono, hinting I could keep representing you lot long after your father’s money runs out. Technically that wasn’t true, but they weren’t to know that. I had it couriered around to Saunders, Saunders and Duffy’s office on Tuesday afternoon, well late afternoon. Well, I didn’t exactly courier it around to them, I sent Maisie, one of our admins around there with it and a receipt form. Saunders, Saunders and Duffy can be tricky bastards. My colleagues, Dawn and Teddy, helped me with the reply. Family Law is their speciality. We didn’t expect to hear anything straight away. As I said Saunders, Saunders and Duffy can be tricky bastards, and Dawn warned me they could push us right up to our court appearance. Then this afternoon I received a reply from them, and that was brought around by a genuine courier. They were giving in to all my demands.”
“What?” Simon asked.
“Your father’s emails and texts are toxic,” Aunt Kate replied, smiling at him. “They are so toxic that Saunders, Saunders and Duffy just folded as soon as they saw them. Which wasn’t until yesterday afternoon, arrogant bastards. They could have strung us along for weeks, but they just folded. They obviously saw that they didn’t have a leg to stand on because your father has been a real twat.”
“Kate!” his mum snapped.
“How else can I describe Matthew’s behaviour? He was a twat,” Aunt Kate replied, staring across at his mum.
“She’s right,” Niki added.
“And the best part is that your father has given in to all our demands,” Aunt Kate said, turning her attention back onto Simon.
“That your father gives Rosie a divorce,” Aunt Kate said. “That he pays her child support, backdated to when they split up.”
“So we could afford a holiday this year,” his mum said with obvious excitement in her voice.
Niki gave her a quick and strange glance, the expression on her face saying that they hadn’t agreed this yet.
“And he’s agreed to carry on paying support if you go onto university,” Aunt Kate added.
He could afford to study nursing. He smiled at the thought.
“And you’ll really like the last one,” Niki said.
“You get to choose when you see your father,” Aunt Kate said. “He can’t force you to see him every Saturday, or see him at all.”
Simon felt a rush of excitement. He didn’t have to endure anymore Saturday afternoons of his dad’s Christianity and homophobia forced onto him. He was free from that.
“Thank you, thank you!” He could feel his eyes glazing over with tears of relief, though he was quickly able to blink them away.
“It’s all due to you. You saved all those awful emails and texts and that’s how we got him,” Aunt Kate replied.
“Thank you,” he replied.
“Come here,” said Aunt Kate.
She opened her arms and drew him into a quick and strong hug. She pulled him close, pressing their bodies close, her cheek against his. For a moment he could strongly smell her sweet and sharp perfume. Then she let go of him and they settled back on the sofa.
“I have a lot to thank you for,” Aunt Kate said.
“Why?” Simon asked.
“You helped me beat Saunders, Saunders and Duffy, and that’s got me noticed at work. Miriam, one of the senior partners at work, has already commented on it. I’m finally getting noticed, and that will only lead to good things.”
“Beating my dad did all that?”
“Your father’s solicitors are notorious around here. They are so right-wing they are two steps right of the BNP,” Aunt Kate said.
He wasn’t sure what she meant but he nodded his agreement anyway.
“They have gone after same-sex widows and widowers who were the main beneficiary of their lover’s wills over estranged family members. They are always going after lesbians and gay men in custody and adoption cases. They’ve tried to challenge the local council’s equality policy. They even defended a Brown Hill GP who refused to treat any LGBT patients because she said it went against her Christian beliefs,” Aunt Kate listed.
“I know of that doctor, she’s an old monster,” his mum added.
“Saunders, Saunders and Duffy are notorious amongst all the other solicitors in the area. Everyone has had runs in with them, and many have just given in when faced with their wall of ignorance, bigotry, bullshit and dirty tricks. Well, I’ve won against them, and won big. And that news will get around quickly. This win will bring in more work to our firm and I’m getting noticed for doing that. And you helped me do that. So it’s thank you to you, Simon,” Aunt Kate said.
“Oh right,” Simon said, suddenly feeling embarrassment creeping up the back of his neck faced with Aunt Kate’s gratitude.
“And all this awful mess is finally lifted from above us,” his mum said.
“And we don’t have to see Matthew’s smirking face again,” Niki added.
“But why did you take so long at Aunt Kate’s office,” he asked his mum and Niki.
“Because your Aunt Kate kept us so long signing legal paper after legal paper. There seemed to be a book worth of papers to sign,” his mum replied.
“I had to do it right, you had to sign everything,” Aunt Kate said. “If I got one paper wrong then Saunders, Saunders and Duffy could use it to worm their way out of all this. They’re tricky bastards.”
“It’s all done now and we’re finally free from it all,” Niki said.
“And we need to go out and celebrate it,” Aunt Kate replied, with obvious delight in her voice. “All four of us.”
“Oh…” Simon said, without thinking, and then realised he didn’t know what to say.
“You’re already too big to go out with your mum and your aunt?” Aunt Kate said, with a jokey, almost laughing tone to her voice.
“It’s nothing like that,” Simon mumbled. He could already feel the embarrassment rushing up the back of his neck.
“Tonight’s the big night,” Niki said. “He’s going to Hades tonight with his new friends, and they’re a great bunch.
“I love going to Hades!” Aunt Kate exclaimed. “I’ve been there loads of times.”
“But you’re… I mean... Are you...”
He tried to ask but embarrassment took away his words. He didn’t know how he could ask her if she was gay.
“You mean, am I gay?” Aunt Kate said, still smiling at him. “No, I’m straight, but all my friends outside of work are gay. Your mum is the nearest I have to a straight friend and she’s bisexual.”
“But why are all your friends gay?”
“Simon, don’t be so personal,” his mum snapped.
“Rosie, let him ask. He needs to know about people,” Aunt Kate replied, then turned her attention back onto Simon. “I like the company of gay people. With gay women there isn’t all that female competition. I’ve got the better boyfriend, I’ve got the better taste in clothes, I’ve lost so much weight on my diet, and you’re trying to steal my boyfriend. With gay women I can have really good and uncomplicated friendships, and I don’t have to take sides with them against their boyfriends or husbands. With gay men there’s isn’t all that sexual bullshit that there is with straight men. They always try to pick me up or get all macho around me. With gay men I’m just one of the boys and I can have a really good bitch with them, and none of them are worrying that I’ll steal their boyfriend. I really like the friendships I have with my gay friends.”
“So do I,” Simon quietly agreed.
“Now we all need some dinner, and I suggest takeaway pizza. I’m paying,” Aunt Kate said.
Simon glanced at the clock, sat on the shelves covering the long wall and saw it was nearly seven o’clock.
“But it’ll take half an hour to get here and I need to leave at seven-thirty. I’m meeting my friend Jeff at his home at eight and the bus takes half an hour to get there. I’ve probably got to leave about seven-twenty to make sure I catch the bus,” Simon babbled, the sudden panic that he could be late for meeting Jeff grabbing hold of him.
“Where does your friend live?” Aunt Kate asked.
“Martindale Road,” Simon replied.
“That’s on my route home, sort of. I can give you a lift. I’ll get you there in ten minutes,” Aunt Kate said.
“You’re going home? I thought we were going out tonight?” Niki said.
“And we are. I can’t go out celebrating in my work drag. I need to go home and change into my party drag. Then we can really go out and celebrate. And I can drop Simon off on the way. Now you two need to get changed, too. I’m not going out with you two looking like that,” Aunt Kate said to his mum and Niki.
“She has a point,” his mum said. “We can’t go out looking like a District Nurse and a Social Worker.”
“But we’re all eating first,” Niki said. “I’m not eighteen anymore, I can’t go for a night out of an empty stomach.”
“So which is the best pizza place around here?” Aunt Kate asked.
“I just need to make a phone call,” Simon said as he jumped up off the sofa.
“Be quick,” Niki called out.
Simon hurried into the kitchen. The thought had struck him, as the three others were debating about getting changed, he needed to tell Jeff what had happened. He needed to share the good news.
Once in the kitchen he took his phone out of his jeans pocket and called Jeff’s number. Jeff answered on the second ring.
“Are you okay? You’re still on for tonight?” Jeff asked, as he answered the call, a worried tone in his voice.
“Yes, I’m fine, and I won’t miss tonight for the world. I rang because I’ve had some really good news and I wanted to tell you.”
“What is it?”
“My dad has dropped trying to get sole custody of me. He’s stopped all his legal shit, and all his threats to take my mum to court. He’s also finally agreed to pay support to my mum,” Simon said, the words bubbling out of him.
“That’s brilliant! We can really celebrate that tonight.”