Authors: Theresa Smith
Tags: #romance, #love, #drama, #mystery, #family, #law, #orphan, #domestic violence, #amputation, #tension
"Daddy just made that all square," Ashley
Charlotte looked down at him, placing her
hand onto his head, threading her fingers through his thick dark
hair. He was still wearing his school uniform; he had been sitting
with Charlotte working at his first grade readers when the sound of
cursing and hacking from down below had distracted him too much for
any continuation. He refused to settle until he knew what all the
fuss was. He was a curious boy by nature; a great thinker with an
insatiable need to know all of the details so he could think them
through, process them, and then present his thoughts for
He was a lot like his father.
Charlotte watched her mother for some time,
taking note of the haphazard way she was hacking at the hedge. It
was ridiculous. And yes, as Ashley had pointed out, Toby had just
trimmed it all to perfection. She could hardly imagine what he was
going to make of this. Turning back to Ashley, she shrugged. "I
guess Granny doesn't like the hedge much anymore."
He looked thoughtful as he considered her
answer. "Why is she crying?"
Charlotte took a closer look at her mother,
startled to note that she was indeed crying, tears running freely
down her face, an expression caught between anger and sorrow
wrought upon it. "I suppose she really, really, doesn't like the
hedge. Come on, let's leave her to it." Charlotte steered Ashley
from the rail back to the lounge, coaxing him into reading some
"What the fuck?!" Toby's voice could be
heard clearly filtering in from the backyard through to the
kitchen. Charlotte headed out to him through the laundry door, glad
the children were all tucked away in their bedrooms, unable to hear
him. He was standing with his hands on his hips staring into the
disaster ridden pool area, branches all over the place, some even
floating in the pool itself.
"Mum had a tantrum with the hedge. It was
He turned to face Charlotte, disbelief
written all over his face. "She didn't think to maybe just, I don't
know, calm the fuck down?"
Charlotte reached out and rubbed her hand up
and down his arm, deeply sympathetic. "I'll help clean it up.
Sorry. The hedge was Dad's pride and joy. I think this is
"I know what this is," Toby interrupted.
"It's not dealing with shit. That's what this is. I don't have time
for this. It's fucking eight o'clock most nights when I get home.
What am I supposed to do now? Fish branches out of the pool?"
Pissed off had nothing on Toby in this moment. "I'm tired. I want
to see my kids. Not deal with this shit."
"Leave it. I'll do it tomorrow. I'll make
her help. Don't worry about it," Charlotte soothed, trying to calm
him down. He was fiercely protective of his time and he hated any
intrusions upon the small window of it he had to spend with the
kids each night.
He shook his head, exhaling sharply. "I am
not making you do that. I'll do it later. I'm going to see the
girls and then I'll read Ashley a story." He leaned forward to
press a kiss on her forehead as he moved past her, heading back
Charlotte remained out by the pool, staring
into the darkness at the mess her mother had made. Iris could go
for a long time without a meltdown, and Charlotte would start to
think that finally, after all this time, she had at last let it all
go. And then an occasion would pass, or an anniversary that only
her mother knew about, and it would start again. Six months ago,
completely out of the blue with no occasion Charlotte could pin it
to, she had burnt every single book Royce had left behind in an old
steel laundry basin out in the middle of the backyard and let the
kids toast marshmallows on the inferno. Last year at Christmas she
had organised for the entire outside of the house to be repainted
in a completely different colour scheme because Royce had chosen
the previous one. Sometimes her rages were rather subdued, more of
a statement than anything else; other times they were the
equivalent of a natural disaster in both scope and devastation.
Charlotte tipped her face up to the sky. So
many stars tonight. Her father was under this sky somewhere else;
somewhere of his own choosing; somewhere they were not.
It was getting harder and harder not to hate
him for it.
Charlotte went inside and headed up the hall
to her mother's room, entering without knocking. Iris was curled up
on her bed watching TV in her pyjamas. Charlotte sat beside her,
saying nothing at first. There were so many things she wanted to
say, not least of all, "Clean up those bloody branches," but she
refrained, because now that she was here, beside her mother, she
was struck by just how forlorn she looked. And before the chance to
say anything whatsoever presented itself, Iris sagged down against
her, her head falling into Charlotte's lap, loud sobs pushing their
way out through her small frame. Charlotte stroked her mother's
hair, putting her other arm firmly around her so she could pull her
They were only branches after all.
Toby sat opposite the school guidance
officer, listening to her talk on and on about the emotional
pressures that kids can be placed under, blah fucking blah, with a
surreal sort of disbelief that he was actually sitting here
expected to take this seriously. It was a sheer fluke he had been
able to come in at all. When Charlotte had phoned in a state asking
if he could possibly go down to the school because there had been
an incident with Ashley, it was only the fact he'd had a court
appearance cancelled that he could even answer the phone, much less
actually help her out. She almost never rang him for help, usually
relying on Iris and managing it all herself; he knew how lucky he
was that she did this. But on this occasion, he was able to come
through for her. Charlotte had no details, the school had simply
rung her requesting a parental presence due to an incident, and to
get there as soon as possible. Toby decided this might be a good
time to interrupt the monologue from the child psychologist
wannabe. Time was money. For him more than her, he had no
She stopped speaking, looking at him with
surprise. "I'm explaining that," she replied, a touch of
superiority entering her tone.
Yeah, that was not happening. "No, you were
diagnosing my family. What happened today? Just the facts, none of
the theories on why you think Ashley is a little psycho."
She looked offended now. "I was just trying
to give you my impressions."
"I don't want your impressions. I want to
know why I'm sitting here."
"Ashley cut a girl's hair today in class."
She sat back then, looking at him with superior satisfaction.
Toby waited, and it was some moments before
he realised that this was the incident. "Right. Kids cut hair all
the time. What's the big deal? A snip here, a snip there. Who even
notices?" To think that Charlotte dealt with this sort of crap all
the time; she deserved a fucking medal. She was definitely the
better parent when it came to micro managing the small shit.
The woman reached over to the side of her
desk and tossed a long blond plait out into the middle of it, two
bright blue ribbons still tied in place at both ends. Oh shit; that
was a lot of hair, more than thirty centimetres of it, for sure. He
looked at it for a few moments, assessing his next move. Clearly
guilty. He was not going to win this. "Where is Ashley now?"
"In the sick bay."
They had confined him then. "Did he hurt her
with the scissors?"
"No. But the little girl is very distressed.
Her mother is furious."
Of course she would be. He would be too if
some little shit cut Bree's hair off while she was at kindergarten.
"Okay. I'll take him home. We'll get to the bottom of it."
"I don't think you understand the
seriousness of this. Ashley is being expelled. He's not welcome
back. This is an elite establishment. We can't have our students
sitting in fear of one of their classmates."
Toby stared at her, unable to believe what
he was hearing. "You're expelling a six year old? For cutting
"It's assault. This is serious."
Nothing pissed him off more than people who
tried to use legal terms they knew nothing about. "Do not talk to
me about what constitutes assault," Toby replied, leaning forward,
his manner altering vastly as his anger peaked. "This is not
assault. But you know what, you can shove your fucking elite
establishment right up your arse and keep it there for all I care.
And you want to know something else? You don't know shit about my
family and my son and you have no right to psycho analyse him for
your own benefit." He stood then, not even sparing her another
glance; he was so angry and so aware he had probably stepped over
several lines of proprietary just then in the worst possible way.
It was remarkable how he could command professionalism in the most
notorious of situations, yet faced with someone blind siding him
about his son, total capitulation into the masses. Stalking out of
the room and out into the main office, he asked abruptly where the
sick bay was. Before the bewildered secretary could answer him,
Ashley poked his head around a door and peered out at him. Toby
strode over, hoisting him up into his arms and leaving the building
without even so much as a backward glance.
Toby parked the car down at the Strand. He
looked over at Ashley who had his face turned towards the passenger
window. "Hey, you want to tell me what that whole hair cutting
thing back at school was about? That wasn't a very nice thing to
Ashley just shrugged, keeping his face
Toby reached over and took a gentle hold of
his chin, turning it towards him. "Ash, why did you cut that girl's
Ashley's eyes filled with tears. "Because
she's mean. I hate her. She's always so mean to me. She teases me
and pokes her ruler into me and trips me over when the teachers
aren't looking. I hate her. I hate girls! I hate all girls! They're
dumb and they're mean and they hog you and I never asked for them
anyway!" He was crying then, tears soaking his face and dripping
down into Toby's hand.
Toby stared at him, stunned. He pulled
Ashley up and over onto his lap, squashing him between the steering
wheel and his body. Cradling his head, he let him cry, hugging him
tightly. How could he have missed what was right in front of him?
He needed to stop working so late each night. When the sobs
subsided into hiccups, Toby pulled out a hankie and cleaned up
Ashley's face. "Well, you know what I think?"
Ashley shook his head.
"If that girl was so mean to you, then she
probably had it coming. But the thing is mate, that sometimes, even
when someone has it coming, we still have to walk away. You can't
get people back like that; you just can't do it. It doesn't seem
fair, but it's just the way it is." He rubbed Ashley's back gently.
"How would you feel if someone cut Bree's hair off like that?"
Ashley shrugged. "I don't know," he
"I think you would be mad."
He shrugged again.
"You have to go to a new school now."
"Good. I hate that school."
Toby kissed him on the head, his anger so
endearing; and even though he knew he had to discourage it, he
could not help but still be amused by it. "Mummy's going to be a
Ashley shrugged again. "I don't care. She
likes the girls more than me anyway."
And that brought them around to the real
topic at hand. Toby was aware that Bree and Courtney tried to
monopolise him; they were pushy and loud and would elbow each other
to get to him first, Ashley always waiting patiently for his turn,
inevitably receiving his attentions last. Toby felt deeply
remorseful about this in hindsight. He had overlooked his son's
sensitivity and mistaken it for understanding; but he was so tiny
himself, how could he possibly be expected to understand anything
as emotionally complex as the division of a busy father's attention
amongst his children?
"Mummy doesn't love the girls more than you,
and neither do I. But you're right about one thing. They do hog me
a bit. I'll have to make sure they don't do that anymore. That's my
fault, not theirs," he explained gently. He smoothed Ashley's hair
back from his forehead. The innocence of his face, so young and
untouched by the evil of this world. It took a lot to rile up this
little boy; the pressure he must have been feeling to have cracked
as he had.
"Can't we just get some boys instead?"
Toby chuckled. "It doesn't work that way
mate, sorry. I did try, but I'm starting to think that it might
just be you and me as a team. Would that be so bad? If it were just
the two of us against all those girls?"
Ashley looked up at him, wide eyed and
serious, his eyes still shining from all of his tears. "I don't
mind that. If you stop the girls from hogging you."
Toby nodded. "I promise. And I promise I'll
come home a bit earlier so you and I can do something together
before you have to go to bed each night." Toby was careful about
the promises he usually made to Charlotte and the children, mindful
of not making any he could not possibly hope to keep. But this one
he was sure of; he would keep this one. The cost to his career was
so minimal when compared to the cost to his son. Toby loved all of
his children; but the love he felt for this little boy was a shade
richer, only a shade mind. There were reasons for this. Many of
them. That he had tried to do away with him when he was still in
the womb, something he had never forgiven himself for; that he was
his first born; that he was a son, a representation of all he had
never had himself as a child; that he was what had brought
Charlotte back to him; the reasons were plenty and all of them