Sunil, our regular social worker, arrives unannounced on Saturday morning. He's a short, balding, chubby Indian man in his early thirties and he dresses in black slacks and checkered cotton shirts.
He's arrived to ensure that Brett and I are taking good care of our foster son, Lee. The house is a pigsty, I'm eating my breakfast, and Lee and his friends, Angus and Hamish, are sitting in front of the television in their boxers and shirts playing the Playstation. Brett's at work, our dog Lexis is scraping at yapping at the back door and there's something large, green and sticky smeared all over our kitchen table, so his presence at this point in time is the last thing I want.
'Hi,' I greet weakly, opening the squeaky screen door. 'Uh, come in. We were just about to start cleaning up.'
Sunil laughs, because he's been our social worker long enough to know that this is the regular state of our abode. When God was divvying out the clean genes, he obviously skipped the males in our household.
'How are we all going?' Sunil inquires, glancing around.
Lee, Angus and Hamish reply with half-hearted grunts before returning to watching Lee attempt to cross a ravine. I shrug at Sunil, and gesture for him to take a seat at the kitchen table. His gaze focuses on the mysterious green stickiness, and I grab a handful of tissues and attempt to scrub it off.
'Sorry. We actually were going to clean today.'
'Maybe you should get a scourer,' he suggests, inspecting the sticky patch. 'I don't think that's going to come off with tissues.'
He has a point there; all I've managed to do is enhance the mess with tiny, tissue fibres.
'Good idea,' I agree, temporarily abandoning my weet-bix to collect our grotty old scourer. It takes a good five minutes of rinsing before all the bits of spaghetti sauce, onion and twelve hour old mince are washed away, and it still smells a little dodgy. Sunil shakes his head at me as I start scrubbing at the mess.
'Maybe I should help you,' he suggests. 'We could clean the kitchen and have a little talk.'
He must notice my immediate reaction of fear - fear that Lee's going to be taken away from us, mainly - because he quickly advises me he isn't about to berate me. Our house is 'lived in' not 'messy', and he 'understand there are those times when you aren't expecting visitors'. Grateful that he's not angry, I rinse off the dishes and pile them on the side of the sink.
'Nice hair,' he comments, picking up a surprisingly-clean tea towel.
'Thanks.' Lee and Hamish dyed my hair red a few months ago and it was starting to look a little scabby, so I bleached the lot, and dyed it blue at the roots and red at the tips. The 'middle' part, where the dyes mixed, is now purple, and I'll admit, it looks pretty cool. I have white-white skin, so there's a good contrast going on. 'Even Brett likes it.'
'He didn't like it plain red?'
'Not really. He thought it was a little too much.'
We chat about Brett and Lee whilst we wash up and clean the counters and cupboard doors. Sunil's a surprisingly efficient cleaner, and when we've finished all but the floor, he fills the sink with hot water and a dash of vinegar and leaves our clothes and scourers in there to soak.
'Let's go and clean the study,' he suggests.
'How do you know it's dirty?'
'Damon, Damon, Damon,' he sighs. 'I think we should organise for some gay men to visit you and show you how to clean.'
I poke my tongue out at him and head to the study. The study is actually the tidiest room in the house; with three of us using it, we like to keep our respective assignments, textbooks and reference materials in order. Having said that, it does get rather...dusty, and on the way to the study, I collect old rags from the linen closet.
'So why are you helping us clean?' I ask, embarrassed. 'Are we that bad?'
'No,' he smiles, shutting the study door. 'You're not that bad. I had something more serious to talk to you about, but before I start, I'd like to let you know that you're more than welcome to say no if you feel it would be a little too much for you. Also, even if you agree, they may not.'
'They,' he nods. 'Tammy and her mother. Her mother has breast cancer and she needs extensive chemotherapy.'
Sunil proceeds to give me the life story of seventeen year old Tammy and her single, dying, mother. Tammy's been looking after herself while her mother's been in hospital, but her grades are slipping, she's pushed all her friends away, and she's living an isolated, lonely, existence. Her mother can't meet the repayments on her house, nor Tammy's living expenses, so it's been determined that whilst her mother fights for survival, Tammy will enter foster care. Should her mother die, the proceeds from the upcoming sale of her house will be placed in trust until Tammy's eighteenth birthday.
I feel terrible for the poor girl. It's so depressing to hear of so many horrible things going on in someone's life, but I hardly see how Brett and I could take her. We don't have a spare bedroom for starters, and nor do we have any experience in looking after a teenage girl.
'You could clear out the study,' Sunil argues. 'You have a large living area in this unit, the computer desk could surely fit in there. If you purchase a small bookcase and cabinet, you'd have no problems. And what do you mean you have no experience with teenage girls? You had no experience with teenage boys, and you've done a fantastic job with Lee.'
I wouldn't describe Brett and my raising of Lee as 'fantastic'. More 'mediocre, and frequently bordering on negligent', but I don't care to regal Sunil with the nasty details of the all the times we've screwed up, so I shrug and stare at the floor, wondering why it is he isn't accepting the fact that I'm not too keen on this idea.
'Damon, surely you didn't expect that you would only be asked to care for males?' he prods. 'This is going to be just as difficult for her as it will be for you. She's not well accustomed to men.'
A frustrated sigh escapes my lips. 'You said we could say 'no'. Sunil, please, we're really not too good at this, and if Tammy was a boy, I wouldn't care, but...'
'...Well that's the most ridiculous thing I've heard,' he replies. 'You know what I think? I think you're scared.'
'I'm not....' I trail off, a miserable expression settling itself on my face. 'Okay, you're right. I'm scared. If she doesn't get on with men, why would you want her to move here? Why not a single mother?'
'Because her grandparents live two streets over and she's used to going to church with them every Sunday.'
Oh fuck. We're not a very religious household, not in the slightest. None of us believe in any higher being, and we certainly don't worship anyone, let alone have a weekly playdate with church. Arguing with Sunil is obviously a fruitless endeavour, because he goes on to advise me that if Brett, Lee and I are interested, he'll take Tammy and her mother around tomorrow. My mind's in a tizz by the time he leaves, and I glumly finish off the cleaning we started together, working my way through the house, scrubbing and mopping, folding and washing.
Brett walks in the door as I'm finishing up. He works full-time at the local TAFE, but on Saturday mornings, he spends four hours keeping his practical skills up to date by working as a boilermaker. In addition to this, he studies part-time, although he's only been taking one subject a semester since Lee moved in. The slowed completion of his degree shouldn't matter; in a few year's he'll have his degree, not that he seems to have needed that hallowed piece of paper.
I think Brett's hot as hell in his workclothes, all dirty and greasy and hard-bodied, and I basically throw myself at him the second he walks through the door. He has beautiful shiny dark hair, olive skin, and even his braces don't detract from the pure goodness of his kisses. He may be twenty-six, but he looks slightly older, and I rub my fingers against his stubbly chin, pleased that's he home.
'You two are disgusting,' Lee reprimands us blandly. 'Get a room.'
'You two are disgusting,' Brett mocks him,breaking our kiss. 'How many girls have I seen you kiss Lee?'
'Only three, and one was my mother and another my sister, so don't get too excited.'
Brett grins and gives me a quick peck on my lips. 'I'm going to have a shower and then we'll go to the hospital. Helen's had her baby. A girl, Jessica.'
'That's nice,' I reply brightly. 'I'll have a shower with you, I feel all icky from those cleaning chemicals.'
I ignore Lee's screwed-up face, and the laughter it earns from Hamish and Angus, and follow Brett to the bathroom. He does't normally kiss me in front of anyone, and although we weren't directly in Lee's view when he kissed me, I'm amazed that he did it, rather than pushing me into the kitchen before returning the affection. I guess he's happy about his new niece. Helen is his older brother, Ashley's, wife, and it has to be said that Brett's family take inordinate pride in procreating.
Expecting him to laugh, I tell him about Sunil's visit, and his request for us to take Tammy in. I'm more than a little shocked when he asks me, quite sincerely, whether I think Lee and I would cope.
'Brett, she's a girl. She's seventeen. What if you're attracted to her?'
Brett looks horrified, and maybe a little hurt. 'You don't think I understand the difference between a foster child and a casual woman on the street?'
I shrug. 'I dunno.'
'Damon?' he asks, kicking off his clothes. 'Are you attracted to Lee? Sexually?'
A mental image of Lee, in his scruffy old shoes and jeans, with dirty-blonde hair and green eyes flashes through my mind. 'Hell no. He's fourteen.'
'Well there you go,' he replies, kissing my nose. 'Now, do you think she'd fit in or not?'
I hesitate. 'Maybe. But maybe we should ask Lee, too.'
'I was planning on doing that.'
When we're clean, dry, and dressed, Brett asks Lee for five minutes of his time. Lee shrugs and pushes his blond bangs from his face before reluctantly standing up and following us to the courtyard. Hamish and Angus are eating lunch, and it looks like Lee's more interested in joining them than speaking with Brett and I.
Cautiously, Brett and I outline Sunil's request. I tell him everything I know about Tammy, waiting for his response, and wishing he'd show some reaction. Lately, he's been developing a habit of just standing there, seemingly emotionless, whenever we try and tell him some important, or punish him.
'Look, I'll be honest,' Lee shrugs when we've finished our spiel. 'I don't want anyone else here, but if it's only until her Mum's cured, I don't care. I can live with that. Who knows, maybe she'll even be hot, or have hot-looking friends. As long as she isn't some ugly bitch, I don't care.'
'Lee,' Brett comments warningly. 'That's not...'
'...How you speak about women,' he finishes. 'I know. Sorry. Let me know if she's moving in, okay? 'Cause Angus and Hamish and me are going to go to the movies. We'll be back tonight, if that's okay.'
I'm not sure how I feel about this. All I can do is half-hope that Tammy and her mother don't think we're a suitable foster family.
'Fine,' I tell Lee. 'I'll leave the outside light on, but don't forget your keys.'
Right now, I need to call Sunil and tell him Brett and Lee want to meet Tammy.
Tammy and her mother, Leonie, are due to arrive at ten-thirty, so at nine-thirty I wake Brett and Lee. I've spent the past hour and a half cleaning, and I sit down to eat breakfast with them. Our unit is sparkling clean, Lexis has eaten his breakfast, and our three Siamese fighter fish are swimming around their respective bowls and tanks in the middle of the table. Meanwhile, I'm worrying about meeting Tammy. I have no idea why I get so nervous at the prospect of meeting a potential foster child, but I do. Even Brett, who was packing shit when Lee first came to meet him, seems unconcerned.
'How were the movies last night?' Brett asks Lee.
Lee shrugs. 'Okay. We got in a popcorn fight with some girls and got thrown out halfway.'
'Did you get their numbers?' Brett prods.
'Nope. We were thrown out before we had a chance. It doesn't matter, they weren't that special.'
Brett grins at me across the kitchen table. He's amused, as always, at the way the more things change, the more they stay the same. According to Brian and Ashley, Lee's a lot more confident, and often significantly cruder, than Brett was at his age, but nonetheless they get on so well I'm sometimes left feeling excluded and jealous.
We turn as someone knocks on the door, all three of us surprised to see Sunil, Tammy, Leonie, and another social worker, Gail, standing at the front door.
'Good morning,' Sunil greets brightly. 'Did we sleep in?'
'I thought you were going to be here at ten thirty,' I reply, my heart racing and my palms suddenly sweaty.
Sunil winces. 'Did I give you the wrong time? My apologies. I'll make coffee for everyone if you want to get dressed, or at least put some shirts on.'
Embarrassed, we slink to our respective bedrooms to dress. Well, I'm embarrassed, Lee looked annoyed that his breakfast is being interrupted. I have a super-quick shower and brush my teeth, before dressing in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt and gelling my hair so that's it's not an awful fluffy mess. Brett and Lee haven't bothered; Brett's wearing an age-old black Kurt Cobain shirt over his 'sleeping' tracksuit pants, and Lee's wearing one of his many tasteless t-shirts with a pair of equally tasteless boxer shorts. They're sitting at the kitchen table with Gail, Sunil, Tammy and Leonie, finishing their fruit loops.
It's then that I get my first good look at Tammy. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it definitely wasn't for her to be crying. She's upset, and I can tell she doesn't want to be here. Seeing how terribly her mother's illness is affecting all facets of her life is pretty distressing. Even Lee, who ever since his girlfriend, Krystle, broke up with him, has liked to cultivate a rough, uncaring attitude towards women, is giving her worried looks.
The second thing I notice is her bosom. I can't help it, she has the biggest boobs I've ever seen, and I'd like to point out that I've browsed through a lot of James', Brett's and Jamie's 'straight' porn. Other than her remarkably large breasts, she's on the fat side of chubby, and rather ordinary looking. She has brown hair and blue eyes, blotchy red skin – probably from crying, and a rather pointy nose. She's wearing beige three-quarter length pants and a blue button-up shirt, and there's a silver cross hanging around her neck.
'Tammy, this is Damon,' Sunil introduces. 'Damon, go and get a chair out of the study and we can sit down and get to know one another.'
'Hello,' she sniffles. 'I'm sorry.'
'Hello,' I reply awkwardly. 'Um, do you want breakfast? I guess it's kind of rude eating in front of you.'
Tammy gives me a small smile. 'I've already had breakfast, thank-you.'
'Damon?' Sunil interrupts. 'Go and get a chair.'
Embarrassed, I flee to the study and collect the typist's chair. This is exactly why I don't want a female living here; I'm only five years Tammy's senior, and I have no idea whatsoever how to speak to her. She sounds so polite, and she looks so grown-up, especially next to Lee, who's still a little short and skinny. I can't imagine her living with us; she just wouldn't fit in. She needs a nice, Christian family with a caring mother to look after her and a bright, friendly foster-sister.
I wedge my seat in between Brett and Sunil who are detailing our household routine to Tammy and her mother.
'Damon will make your lunch,' Lee adds, when Sunil starts talking about household chores. 'He makes pretty good lunches. Hamish always nicks mine.'
'Lee thinks with his stomach,' Sunil smiles. 'It's a friendly household Tammy. I know it must be intimidating to move in with three men, but they can offer you your own room, and they have a few female friends who aren't much older than you.'
Tammy wipes her reddened eyes. 'I don't really need to live here. I can…'
'…no you can't,' Leonie interrupts. 'For goodness sake Tammy, you know we don't have any other options, so don't make this any harder than it need be.'
There's little physical resemblance between Leonie and Tammy, other than their weight. I'm assuming, judging by the older woman's unnaturally flat chest that she's had a mastectomy as part of her treatment, and there are dark circles under her eyes, probably due to the stress and pain she's been through.
'Maybe we should take a tour of the unit,' Gail suggests before the argument can continue. 'I understand the spare room is currently being used as a study, but it would give you some idea of what furniture you could take with you. Damon, you and Leonie can come with us, and we'll leave the rest of the boys to talk through any current household issues you may have.'
Tammy starts sobbing during the tour. By the time we're in the study, she's a mess. Gail hugs her, patting her hair and exchanging worried, sympathetic, looks with Leonie.
'Honey, it's okay,' Gail whispers, patting Tammy's back. 'The boys are just as nervous as you are. You're worrying your mother, honey, and there's no reason to be concerned. You'll be perfectly safe here, and when your mother's in between hospital visits, she'll be able to pop over whenever she wants. I'll warn you, though, that the house is normally a lot messier. They're terrible slobs.'
Tammy shakes with laughter. Gail smiles and hugs her again, fixing her hair and wiping her tears away. Leonie will be staying with her parents – Tammy's grandparents – in between hospital stays. That Tammy won't be stay with her grandparents is something I find peculiar, but I've learnt that it's often best not to ask questions about such matters.
Gail takes Tammy to the bathroom to wash her face before returning to the kitchen. We discuss our living arrangements a little further, before they head off, leaving us in relative peace.
For about five minutes, Brett, Lee and I sit at the kitchen table in silence.
'Man she has some tits on her,' Lee remarks eventually.
I can't help myself; I have to laugh my concurrence. Brett sighs, picking up his cigarette lighter and fiddling with it.
'I've got to say, I don't think she'd do too well here,' he admits. 'There are going to be far too many men who'll be far too interested in her chest.'
'I feel sorry for her,' I add. 'She was so upset. The last thing she'll need is someone like Mitch or Jamie eyeing her up.'
Half an hour later, though, we receive a phone call. Tammy and Leonie are happy with the household and want Tammy to stay with us, at least until she finishes high school. Unable to say 'we have some friends who are really horny, pervy, bastards', Brett, Lee and I agree.
Monday afternoon finds Lee, Hamish and I helping Tammy move in. The study's been cleared out, cleaned and vacuumed, and thankfully Tammy only has a single bed, so we're not having too many issues fitting her furniture in.
Leonie's returning to hospital on Thursday for further treatment, however she's promised to come around tomorrow, and on Wednesday, to visit her daughter after school and ensure she has everything she needs. Unlike Lee, Tammy has the furniture and clothing she requires, and having taken care of herself on and off for the past three months whilst her mother's been receiving treatment, she's quite independent.
As we move, I learn that Tammy's father died in a car accident five years ago, and her paternal grandparents are deceased. She has no uncles or aunts who can care for her, and her maternal grandparents live in a government-run retirement village whose managers are unwilling to bend the rules and allow Tammy to live there. Leonie, thankfully, was approved as a 'temporary resident', owing to her age and illness and she'll be staying there during the periods where she's released from hospital.
I find it incredibly frustrating that our government can allow a family to be separated, when up until her diagnosis, Leonie held down full-time employment whilst raising her daughter. They've never lived off welfare, and it seems ridiculous that there's so little financial support available to them.
'Admittedly, I was tempted to rent a unit for her with the proceeds from the house,' Leonie confesses. 'But I'm so worried. I wouldn't be able to sleep if I knew my daughter was all alone, fending for herself.'
'We don't mind,' I half-lie. 'We never thought we'd have a kid placed with us, let alone two.'
Leonie gives me an appraising look. Hamish, Lee and Tammy are unloading Tammy's possessions from the car and we're alone in the room, and judging by the expression on her face, she's about to say or ask something personal.
'I don't mean to offend you,' she starts.
'We're very hard to offend,' I reply. 'Ask away.'
She looks relieved. 'Thank-you. What I wanted to ask was if you're happy having someone her age here. Did you want a younger child? By the time they're teenagers, you've missed out on so much of their life, and so much of the fun of raising them.'
It's a difficult question. When we initially fostered we were hoping for a young child, in the newborn to five year old range, but we've struggled so much with Lee that I'm not entirely sure we'd be suitable parents for anyone prepubescent. I try my best to be honest as I reply, realizing as I speak that I'm not entirely unhappy that Tammy's moving in. I was being stupid, thinking we couldn't possibly care for her adequately. She's almost grown up and the amount of care she's going to require from us is minimal.
Leonie laughs at my reply. 'Teenagers are worse than young children. You've missed the worst of Tammy's hormones, but she was far worse six months ago than she ever was as a child.'
'Great,' I grin. 'Lee's already turning into a little shit. He got publicly dumped and humiliated a month or so ago and he's trying to pretend he really doesn't like women as much as he does.'
'It doesn't bother you that he's straight?'
'Why would it bother me? I wish he had better choice in women, though. I keep pointing out nice girls for him and he just ignores me, like I'm a fool.'
It's true; I have tried to point Lee in what I see as the 'right direction' and he continually ignores my prompts. I wouldn't be so bothered by his attitude, but he comes up with some vulgar ways of describing women, and I wish he'd learn to accept that Kystle was nothing more than a bad seed, the sort of person that most people have to date to learn what not to look for in a partner.
'That's boys for you,' Leonie agrees. 'And I have to say that from our point of view, I think Tammy moving in is God's work,' she continues as Tammy and Hamish lug in a chest of drawers. 'The department showed us all kinds of families, all who were entirely inappropriate. Then I happened to see your file on Sunil's desk and asked about you. Tammy was furious…'
We glance over at Tammy, who nods vigorously. 'She's embarrassing. She started demanding to know if they were intentionally showing her only the crappy families.'
'…I wouldn't language like that,' Leonie argues, waving her daughter's comments away. 'I merely pointed out that I'd specifically asked them if there was anyone who lived in this area and they said 'no'. Then that fat lady – what was her name, Tammy?'
'Mum, we're fat ladies,' Tammy giggles. 'But the other fat lady is Fiona.'
'Anyway, Fiona then had the gall to tell us that they knew better how to look after my daughter. But, I expect I shouldn't complain, the Lord led us in the right direction.'
I'm not sure whether to be infuriated that the social workers thing we're bad foster parents, weirded out by all the God comments, or paranoid that we're going to let Leonie and Tammy down by showing that we are, as Fiona told them, inappropriate. I settle for a fake smile and silence.
'Isn't your church gonna be pissed that your daughter's living with gays?' Lee asks.
Leonie pauses. 'We went to the evening service last night and made everyone aware. Some are unhappy, and vocally so, but we belong to the Uniting church, and they're more accepting than some other churches. The pastor wishes to extend his invitation for you all to attend.'
'We'll be right,' Lee replies hurriedly. 'We'll, uh, worship from home or something.'
Leonie and Tammy exchange pointed looks. I can tell they're displeased that we're not churchgoers, and I start to wonder exactly which families they were shown if Brett and I came out tops. I will admit that there's a lot of bureaucracy in the foster care system, and when I was doing work experience at the agency, I learnt how fickle and immature some of the employees can be. If a parent or child annoys them too much, they'll be shown only the less-favoured families, whilst the well-behaved, younger children will be given to the foster parents who crawl up the agency's butt.
'Okay, I can finish by myself,' Tammy hints as Lee drags the last of her bags in.
'Thank Christ,' Lee replies, wiping his hands on his shorts. 'You wanna help me with my assignment Hamish?'
Hamish replies in the negative, but follows Lee out to the lounge, where we've cleared a study area, anyway. I'm out the back smoking a cigarette and chatting to Leonie when Brett arrives home. I realize I'm losing my nervousness, at least with Leonie. She's very open, but she's not pushy or overly loud, and I haven't even been clock-watching.
Brett doesn't kiss me 'hello' which isn't entirely unlike him. He's so pathetic when it comes to public displays of affection. I asked his ex-girlfriend, Eleanor, if he was like that with her, too, or if it was just because I'm a man that he doesn't like to touch me in public, but she confirmed he was the same with her.
We've also been warned, by Sunil and Gail, to try and tone down our behaviour. Apparently Brett, Lee and I get quite 'rowdy' and some of the stuff we do might make Tammy uncomfortable. We're now required to keep our shirts on, not swear or blaspheme, and try not to do or say anything that may embarrass a seventeen year old girl. Lee is to keep his paintings of naked women out of view, and we should introduce new people to her one at a time, warning them beforehand that she's not accustomed to being in male company.
'I should be off,' Leonie comments, standing up. 'I can't thank you enough for taking her in. She won't be any problem, but if she is, don't hesitate to let me know.'
'You can stay for dinner,' Brett offers. 'Hamish will probably stay for tea, so one more person's not going to make a difference.'
Leonie wants to stay and it's obvious, despite her arguments to the contrary. Eventually we persuade her to stay, although she insists on helping us. No, that's not true, first she tries to persuade us to accept payment, but we tell her she's crazy and that there's nothing particularly interesting about the frozen pizza we're sticking in the oven for dinner. Eventually she agrees and settles herself making garlic bread and salad. I wish she wouldn't, she's starting to look exhausted, but she insists.
The second dinner's served up, Hamish and Lee throw themselves into their 'usual' chairs, bicker over who's getting the 'best' slices, and start chowing down.
'Don't you say grace?' Tammy asks hesitantly.
Hamish and Lee glance at each other, pure evil glinting in their eyes.
'GRACE,' they yell, mouths full, sweeping their hands out in a wide circle. In doing so, they manage to knock over Gina, Brett's female Siamese Figher Fish's bowl. It lands on the tiled floor and cracks, with water, glass and Gina going flying.
'Holy shit,' Lee swears. He and Hamish dart out of their seats, desperately trying to locate Gina. They find her flapping around in a pile of glass, and after a few attempts, Hamish catches her.
'In here,' Lee demands, lifting the lid on Blinky's tank. Hamish tosses her in, and the second she swims behind the clump of plant in the tank, we all heave a sigh of relief.
'Ow,' Hamish remarks, removing a shard of glass from his foot and showing. 'Man that's nasty. Check it out.'
'Hamish, put it in the bin and get a bandaid,' Brett requests tiredly. 'Slave Lee, consider kitchen duty to be yours for the next two weeks.'
'And apologise for being rude,' I add, getting up to collect a dustpan and towel
'Sorry,' Hamish and Lee apologise, glumly and in unison.
Leonie and Tammy exchange pained glances, and I realize that they're not used to having reckless, brainless, teenage males in the house. They're probably used to everything being neat and tidy and feminine, with no one to mess anything up.
'Sorry,' I apologise, picking up the visible shards of glass and mopping up the wet floor with the towel. 'They're not normally this bad. They're just showing off. Or something.'
Brett goes to the bathroom to inspect Hamish's foot and make sure there isn't too much damage, and I pass him, wondering how cranky he is, as I take the wet towel to the laundry. He doesn't seem too upset, only embarrassed, and within ten minutes we're all sitting down at the table, eyes shut, listening to Leonie give thanks.
I understand why Leonie and Tammy are overweight the second I sink my teeth into Leonie's garlic bread. There's possibly nothing else in the world so fantastically rich and buttery and garlicky. Ignoring the supermarket brand frozen pizza, I focus on the garlic bread, regretfully licking my fingers as I finish my fifth piece.
Meanwhile, Hamish and Lee are snickering, their laughter growing louder and louder as the meal progresses.
'Do you want to be Slave Lee of the bathroom, too?' Brett asks irritably. 'If not, at least try and show some table manners.'
'Why 'Slave Lee'?' Leonie inquires, trying her best to ignore the two snickering teenagers to her left.
Brett tries to explain that this is what Lee calls himself whenever he's given cleaning as punishment, but he loses track of his sentence as Hamish and Lee start crying laughing.
'What?' Brett asks, annoyed.
Gasping, Hamish points to the fishtank where Gina and Blinky seem to have become remarkably intimate after a notably short period of time. In short, they're fornicating in the middle of our kitchen table, under the watchful gaze of six people.
'Gordon's looking,' Lee snorts, pointing to his fish, who's flaring wildly at the mating couple.
'How amusing,' I remark dryly. 'The fish are having sex.'
Lee and Hamish break into fresh peals of laughter. Even Tammy, Leonie and Brett smile at the occurrence.
Later, as Leonie's leaving, saying good-bye to a teary Tammy, she asks if our house is always like this. Somewhat regretfully, I confirm that it is.
'Good,' she replies, unexpectedly hugging me. 'You call me if you have any troubles.'
We wake up the next morning to find Gina dead, apparently attacked by Blinky. I guess the sex wasn't good enough for him to want seconds.
After Uni, I make a trip to the local pet store to buy a replacement tank and fish for Brett. Hamish and Lee have funded the exercise, and of their own volition, something which makes me kind of proud of them even if they are responsible for the death of yet another fish. Twenty minutes later I'm standing at the counter waiting to pay for my purchases. It's a quiet afternoon and the owner, who's serving me, inquires why it is I'm buying a female Siamese. After all, it's the males who are the beauties.
Guiltily, I explain our chaotic home life, the broken bowl, and poor, dead, Gina. It's actually quite intimidating to explain to someone your various acts of negligence, and I wince and blush my way through the explanation. Once I've stammered my way through the story, shamed that we've killed another fish, the owner gives me a careful look.
'They may have mated before her death,' he remarks. 'If so, you can either let your current fish eat the fry, or raise them.'
'We'll raise them.'
'You'll have to find homes for them,' he replies. 'And raising fry is going to take a bit of work.'
The thought of baby Blinkys is too exciting for me to consider allowing my fish's offspring to become food. Instead, I settle down and listen to a detailed talk on raising Siamese fry before rushing home to ensure I'm there when Tammy and Lee arrive home from school. I beat them home by half an hour, and spend that thirty minutes staring at Blinky - who has indeed made babies with Gina - and the fry, which are starting to hatch from the eggs-I-failed-to-notice when I removed Gina's carcass earlier in the day.
Lee is the first to arrive and he dumps his bag at the door and after giving our baby fish a cursory glance, heads to the kitchen for something to eat. He doesn't attend the same high school as Tammy, something for which I'm oddly grateful, and his bus obviously gets him home quicker. Tammy herself arrives ten minutes later, an intimidated expression on her face.
'Hi Tammy,' I greet, looking over. 'Get something to eat if you're hungry. Your mum said she'd come over around four-thirty, so if there's anything you need to do before them, now's probably the time to do it.'
'I'm not hungry, and I'm used to managing my time,' she replies awkwardly. 'I think I'll go to my room and do my English assignment or something. Can you tell me when my Mum comes?'
'Yeah, no problems.'
Thankfully, Tammy arrived with her own computer, which is in her room, utilising our ADSL. I think it's peculiar that she'd want to go to her room; if I were her I'd want to get to know everyone as soon as possible, but I don't comment. Instead, I flop on the couch next to Lee, trying to become engrossed in the Bold and the Beautiful. Lee has the worst addiction to soaps.
'Did you have any schoolwork?' I prod. Tammy may, as she claims, be able to manage her time, but Lee's still in the habit of leaving everything to the last minute. I can't say I particularly blame him; repeating a year at high school is probably as frustrating as failing, and having to retake, a subject at university.
'Are you sure?'
Lee grins. 'I'm actually telling the truth for once. Hamish wasn't at school today, so I did my homework at lunch, in the library. I'm turning into a square. It was kind of cool though, one of the seniors got busted looking at porn on the library computers.'
'Don't they have net nanny or something?'
'Nope. God Bless crappy public schools who can barely afford the internet connection.'
Lee's probably the greatest foster kid you could want, at least at this particular point in time. Sometimes I want to strangle him, but right now, I love him to bits, in a brotherly kind of way. He's not particularly moody, and despite his often coarse remarks about the fairer sex, his uninhibited interest in women amuses me.
'So, are you interested in any girls at school?' I inquire as casually as I can manage.
Lee pulls a face. 'No. They all either think I'm gay, a loser, too ugly, are a combination of all three. Man I wish I was gay, then everyone would help me find a partner instead of laughing at me.'
'I'm not laughing at you. Why didn't you ever ask Mackenzie out? I thought you liked her?'
'She has standards. I fall way beneath those standards. Besides, too many other guys like her.'
I pester him as to why he thinks he falls beneath her standards, and he bares his teeth at me, showing me his braces. He and Brett are both in the middle of orthodontic treatment, although Lee seems far more bothered by his teeth than Brett. Lee then continues to outline all the reasons why he won't get a 'nice' girlfriend, ranging from his looks, to his apparent homosexuality, to the fact that he wants to have sex with his girlfriend, not settle for kissing.
'You're a slut,' I snort. 'You don't need to have sex yet.'
'Did you have sex at my age?'
When I don't reply, he laughs and heads back to the kitchen for more food. I think he's heading for a growth spurt or something, because he never stops feeding his face. He's still short and skinny though, so I have no idea where he puts the calories he consumes. Already he's eaten a coffee bun, a sandwich, a banana, and now he's making himself a jaffle.
'Do you need me to make you more lunch?' I ask as he sits down next to me.
'No, I need Oscar and his mates to stop stealing mine and throwing it in the bin whenever Hamish isn't at school.'
'Oh. Would you like me to talk to the principal?'
Lee gives me a withering look. We've had this discussion on more than one occasion; when he's been picked on, or tormented, or had ugly rumours spread, and he's always told me that the day I call the school to complain about somebody else's child, is the last day he ever attends high school. Even though I know that calling the principal will only cause more trouble, I optimistically maintain the fantasy that I can rid Lee of any and all troubles with just one, magical, phone call.
Leonie arrives as Lee's finishing off his jaffle and guiltily, I inform her that Tammy's in her room and has refused the offer of a snack.
'It's fine,' Leonie replies tiredly. 'She's like that. She's terribly antisocial and she has issues with her weight. She hasn't been swimming in years because she refuses to be seen in togs.'
'She'll go swimming when she sees our friends' pool,' I reply confidently. 'They have an inground pool, and there's a waterslide leading from their balcony into the pool. Our friend Helen even went in when she was nine months pregnant. She just wore a shirt and shorts.'
'Helen's pretty cute though,' Lee argues.
I take back everything I said about Lee being a good kid. He's a good, thoughtless, kid, and I want to lean over and whack him for being so brainless. Instead, I offer Leonie coffee. She accepts, and heads down the hall to talk to her daughter whilst I prepare the beverages.
Tammy's a lot more outgoing when her mother's around. She'll respond to conversation, and even accepts afternoon tea. It's an awful feeling to realise that you're responsible for somebody's reticence, even if you are, truthfully, just as intimidated by them as they are by you. We talk about our pet fish, their new fry, and exchange snippets of our lives to date. I'm guarded about my past, having spent my teenage years in the grip of sexual abuse and shameless promiscuity. Leonie picks up on my reticence and she prods me, asking me more and more about my parents and my sister's, until I'm incredibly uncomfortable.
'I'm not intentionally holding back,' I reply, when she responds to one of my vague answers with a suspicious look. 'There's just a lot of stuff I don't want to talk about.'
Leonie suddenly seems to understand, and starts apologising profusely. Lee, however, is intrigued. He keeps looking in my direction, intently studying me. It's nerve-wracking, and the second Brett walks in the door, I drag him out to the courtyard where we're currently sitting, and excuse myself on the basis that I 'need to study'.
Lee follows me indoors, and pulls up a chair, watching me turn on the computer and connect to the internet.
'Did you need the computer?' I ask.
'No,' he replies, sitting back-to-front on the chair and biting his lower lip. He's silent for a few seconds before asking 'Were you abused?'
I turn and give him a deathly look. 'That's not the sort of question you randomly ask people.'
Lee shrugs. 'I told you about my past.'
'Because you chose to,' I retort. 'I'm not telling you anything about mine. You're too young to understand.'
I'm astounded he's even asking. Not only is it entirely none of his business, but I've already made it patently clear I'm not here to answer questions on aspects of my life that don't relate to my abilities as a foster parent. I may be 'over' what occurred during my youth, but that most definitely doesn't mean I'm happy to play twenty questions.
'Okay,' Lee agrees. 'I'll tell you something bad about my childhood, if you tell me something bad about yours.'
I pause. I'm curious; I didn't think he actually suffered any form of abuse, although if he did, it's obviously not too bad if he's willing to spill the beans.
'My stepfather was a dirty old man,' I reply bluntly. 'Happy?'
'I already knew that,' Lee shrugs. 'Your mother rang a week ago to tell me you'd seduced your stepfather. She told me to be careful, and make sure you don't...y'know, molest me.'
Immediately, I understand why Lee's asked me about my childhood. The phone had rung a few times last week, and when we'd answered, we'd been greeted by silence. Brett and I had assumed it was nothing more than a series of prank calls, the work of bored teenagers. Obviously we were wrong, and it was simply my mother, waiting for the 'right' person to answer.
'It's taken you a week to tell me this?' I ask, furious.
Lee hesitates. 'I'm sorry. I didn't know how to tell you and then Tammy moved in and... I don't know. I didn't believe it though. Damon...' he trails off miserably, as I reach forward switching off the computer. 'Damon, I'm sorry. Don't get all cranky over this, because it's not worth it. I don't care. I really didn't mean to pry, and if she hadn't said anything, I wouldn't have asked, but... I wanted to tell you, but I couldn't.'
'Do you honestly expect me not be angry?' I'm humiliated, and at the same time, furious. My skin's prickly and my words sound odd, twisted, even to my own ears. I can't look Lee in the face, and yet I have the almost overwhelming urge to demand of him what my mother sounded like, exactly how she phrased the 'warning' and how he responded. I thought my problems with my 'old' family were over, I genuinely believed I'd never see or hear from them again.
'I don't expect you to be angry with me. And be quiet, you're going to freak Leonie and Tammy out if you start yelling.'
I hate that he's fourteen years old and is frequently more mature than I am. 'I'm sorry. Really, I am. I just don't know what to do.'
Lee shrugs. 'Forget about it. You always want to fix things, and sometimes some things can't be fixed.'
'But ignoring it isn't going to help me,' I reply, irritated. 'But nevermind. I'm going out okay? You can have the computer if you want.'
'Where are you going?'
'For a walk. I need to pick up a textbook from one of my Uni friends,' I lie brusquely, heading outside to the courtyard to give my excuses to Brett, Leonie and Tammy.
I receive in return protestations, and offers to be driven, but I neatly evade company, finding myself to be uncharacteristically good at lying. Leonie and Brett aren't even slightly cross that I'm going out on Tammy's second night in the house, evidence in itself of how truthful I must sound.
Lee knows I'm lying. His eyes follow my every move, as I wash my face, brush my teeth, and grab a jacket from the cupboard. He knows I'm up to something, and I'd even go so far as to say he knows what it is I'm about to do.
'I'm going now,' I reply, grabbing my push-bike helmet and stuffing my cigarettes and wallet in my jacket pocket. 'I'll be back in a few hours.'
'Fine,' he replies carefully, glancing out at the courtyard. 'I'll go and sit outside to the others.'
'Don't you dare say anything to them,' I warn.
'I won't,' he replies coolly.
I have a fairly basic ten-speed, and it's on this that I ride down the street. My mother and her family only live a twenty minute ride away, and I really don't give a damn what she thinks about my showing up unannounced. I know she'll be surprised, too, because I normally shy away from problems, or ask Brett or James or Terry to solve them on my behalf.
The funny thing is that by the time I'm two minutes away, I'm not even in a blind rage. I'm angry, yes, but I'm also calm. For the first time in over four years I'm going to come face to face with my stepfather and two younger sisters, and I'm going to need to call on all the self-control I have.
Their house has changed since I last saw it. It's been repainted, and the fence has been repaired, but all the same, just the sight of my old home is enough to strike fear into my heart and make my mouth go dry.
I have so many bad memories that stem from my time in this house. I wasn't ever wanted and I could never figure out why. Once, I believed it was because I was an unplanned child, but that was before I realised how few children were planned, and how many children are loved and cherished. I then assumed it had something to do with me; that perhaps I was different, and hard to love, and maybe my status as an unlovable child stemmed from my homosexuality, that maybe I was queer in more than one way.
'Don't get upset,' I tell myself, sliding the pristine, squeaky new bolt on the gate. 'If you get upset, they'll walk all over you.'
I'm terrified of my stepfather. I thought I'd grow up to be taller, and stronger, than him, but I don't think I have. Brett would be able to make mince-meat of him, but Brett's not here, and regardless, I'd never request that sort of service from him. Instead, I'm placing myself completely at Michael's mercy for the first time in over five years. His image is still imprinted on my soul, marring it, his dirty, greasy fingerprints on my heart. He had so much goddamn control over me. He tried to persuade me that I was perverted and sometimes, I think I believed him. When he'd stand over me, sneering, ordering me to blow him off, or lube up in preparation for him to fuck me, or give me any of the many, various dictions he had, I felt like a nothing. I never screamed or fought, only pleaded and begged him to leave me alone. Over time, I ceased even asking him to leave me alone, I merely numbly performed whatever sexual activity, or act of humiliation he demanded.
There's no good explanation as to why I allowed him to abuse me. Essentially, the fact was that he knew I was gay, and threatened to out me if I didn't do as he demanded. I was so terrified. I wanted to finish high school without living through years of torment, and probably beatings, and I knew, deep down, that my mother would never forgive my sexuality. I wanted to pretend, at least for a few more years, that I could come out 'later' and that everything would be fine by then. My mother would see me, not as a confused child, but a strong adult, and would come to accept me. I would have a career, and a boyfriend, and I'd be able to wipe away the pain of my adolesence within a few, short, months.
Maybe, deep down, I knew that my mother would refuse to believe me. She may hear the words, and piece together the abnormal behaviour of her husband and son, but her mind would refuse the truth. She would never be able to accept that the man she loved had abused her son. She wanted a husband far more than she ever desired a bastard, epileptic, gay, son.
'Someone's at the gate.'
The voice belongs to a teenage girl, probably my youngest sister Sharon if memory serves me correctly. She'd be fifteen or so by now - around Lee's age - but I can't imagine she'll be pleased to see me. I used to love my sisters. Perhaps I still do. I never saw them as being 'half-siblings', and nor did I ever really view them as Michael's children. To me, they were my sisters. They take after my mother in appearance and, from what I can hear, they're vocally similar.
'If it's another fucking Jehovah's Witness, tell them to fuck off.'
That would be Michael. God how I loathe him. When we first met, I genuinely believed he would be my new 'Daddy'. The stupidity of four year old children.
Sharon pokes her auburn haired head out of the door as I wheel my bike up the driveway, unclipping my helmet as I go. Our gazes meet, mine nervous, hers dumbstruck that I've shown up at 'her' house.
'What are you doing here?' she asks aggressively.
'I came to see Mum.'
'Why?' she asks, her hands on her hips. 'Haven't you caused us enough trouble?'
Understanding there's 'trouble' brewing outside, my mother, Michael and my other sister, Tanya, come to the door. I don't know what to do, I feel so damn stupid and powerless. Michael is exactly as I remembered him; tall, overweight, overbearing, with a flabby face and sulphurous teeth. He's slightly shocked that I'm here, but he's mostly furious that I've dared to invade 'his' property. He's just about to speak, when my mother beats him to it.
'Did you come for dinner?'
It's one of the most inane, stupid, ridiculous questions that's ever escaped her lips. She's always had a habit of coming out with irrelevant, 'light' questions and comments to dispel tension, but this is plain ridiculous, and we all gape at her in shock.
'Well?' she prods, artificially cheerful and ignoring our expressions. 'Are you coming in?'
'Fine,' I croak. 'That would be nice, thank-you.'
Already this isn't going the way I planned. I was expecting to make it to the front door without problem, knock on the door, and ask my mother for a 'quick chat'. I was going to ask her to respect my feelings and refrain from interfering in my life in the future, and then leave. I didn't expect to feel so powerless, so out of control, so upset and uncertain.
Sharon, Tanya and Michael exchange pained looks as my mother herds us inside, settling me down at the kitchen table and inquiring if I'd like a drink.
'No,' I reply, staring down at the pink polka-dotted tablecloth. 'I really only came to ask you something. I don't want you to call Lee anymore.'
'Who's Lee?' she inquires, squinting at me.
'You know damn well who Lee is,' I reply angrily. 'Don't call him, okay? I'm not asking you for anything, and if I thought you'd...'
'...Get out,' Michael interrupts me, his huge figure looming over the kitchen table. 'Out. Now. Or I'll throw you out.'
'I wasn't speaking to you, I was speaking to my mother. I want you all to leave me alone. I want you to fuck off and die you dirty old bastard.' My fury spills out, bursting the seams of my self-control. I hate him, I hate my mother and sisters for siding with him, and I hate the way they always do their best to make me feel so small and insignificant.
He hits me. He hits me over the head, the way he always used to, because that way he leaves no marks and, according to him, with my epilepsy, 'one more hit the head won't bloody make a difference anyway'. The thick, stupid, familiar feeling of woozines blankets me for a few seconds, before I roughly push my chair backward and stand up.
'Fuck you. You have no right to hit me. I'm not your child and you can't treat me like that. All of you, fucking all of you, stay out of my life.'
He grabs my arms, pushing me into the adjoining lounge, as I speak. It takes me a few seconds to regain my balance, and the second I'm upright, he shoves me further away from him, in the direction of the front door. I stumble to the door, tears of rage and frustration forming in my eyes. I hate him. A thick, smothering, all-encompassing hatred of this awful creature swirls through ever core of my being and I realise I want to kill him. I want him to be dead, gone, buried.
We're outside within seconds, and he's preparing to hit me once more, but I can't stand here and take it. Instead, I grab the nearest thing to me, and clobber him over the head with it. Only when the black potting mix is sprinkled over his shoulders do I realise I've hit him with a young palm tree in a plastic container.
Genuinely believing he's going to beat me, if not to death, at least pretty severely, I think of Brett and wish I were in his arms. I wish he was with me, protecting me - Michael would never have hit me if Brett was around, he'd know he'd have no chance of winning and not bother starting anything - and making everything alright. My mother won't stop Michael, my sisters won't either, and I'm completely at his mercy. Physically, I'm simply not strong enough to hold my own against him.
'STOP,' someone yells.
Both Michael and I turn to see Lee, standing at the gate.
'Stop it,' Lee repeats, reaching into his pocket. 'I have a knife. If you hit him again, I'm gonna come over there and stab the fucking shit out of you.'
Where Lee procured a large, black, hunting knife from eludes me, but it's in his hand, shiny, sharp and strong, and the expression on his face leaves me in no doubt that he'd use it. Glancing worriedly over at Michael, with my heart pounding and my legs shaky, I realise that he's slightly intimidated by my fourteen year old, knife wielding, foster son.
'You fucking loser,' Michael snorts, throwing his arms up. He brings them down, pushing me in the direction of my bike. 'Both of you, fuck off. And we'll be calling child welfare about this, too.'
'No you won't,' Lee replies confidently, keeping a watchful eye on my stepfather. 'Not after you hit him you won't.'
'You really are asking for it mate,' Michael sneers. 'Once more, and I'll show you what real pain is.'
Lee obviously decides that Michael may actually be a threat to him, and merely shrugs. 'Whatever.'
Waiting to be jumped on at any second, I wheel my bike to the gate, where Lee's standing, his own bike propped against the fence. The sound of the screen door slamming makes me turn around, and as I scan the front yard, I realise Michael's gone inside.
'How many times do you want me to save your butt?' Lee inquires, sheathing his knife and stuffing it in his backpack.
I can't answer without first crying, and I'm not about to start crying when all the neighbours have come out to see what's going on. Instead, I jump on my bike and start pedalling down the street. Lee follows me, not saying a word. He's right; this is the second time he's saved my poorly-equipped ass; on the first occasion, he dragged me, naked, from the bath when I had a seizure and now he's obviously followed me, and saved me from getting the living shit beaten out of me.
'Thank-you,' I offer eventually.
We continue to ride home in silence, not stopping until we approach the local takeaway. It's here Lee requests I stop and buy him a Coke. He's run out of pocket money and, as he tells me, thinks he'll 'die' if he doesn't get a drink soon. I'm not quite ready to return home and I take the opportunity to ring Brett and ask if he's started making dinner. He hasn't.
Lee and I order fish and chips - and fried Mars Bars, which we plan on consuming before we get home - and sit outside at the dirty white plastic tables. I smoke aimlessly, mulling over the afternoon's events, and wondering whether Michael or my mother will call child welfare or not. I'm going to assume no, but I suspect I'm going to need to call Sunil and 'explain', just in case. The thought brings a feeling of dread and I run my fingernail through a scar in the table that was made with a cigarette lighter.
'You shouldn't have that knife,' I remark eventually, remembering Lee's hunting knife.
'Okay,' he shrugs, pulling it from his bag and handing it over. 'I bought it with the money I stole from you when I'd just moved in. Protection. Just in case I had to live with a pervert foster parent at some time.'
'Are you kidding?'
'No,' he replies slowly, meeting my eye. 'I'm nowhere near as trusting as you.'
Frantically, I scan my brain for the right thing to say, the right comfort, the right question, but before I have a chance to form a coherent sentence, the takeaway assistant calls out that our order is ready.
'By the way,' Lee adds as I stand up. 'I took one of your textbooks with me. Don't you think it's going to look rather suspicious that you went to pick up a textbook, but came back with nothing?'
He knows far more than any fourteen year old should. He shouldn't have known to follow me, he shouldn't have thought to buy a knife, and he shouldn't have had the experience to plan far enough head and take one of my textbooks with him, so that my tracks would be neatly covered. The very fact that he was able to think so coherently, and to act so quickly - he must have prepared himself, made his excuses, and jumped on his bike less than a minute after I left - astounds me.
'Don't say anything to Brett,' I request, taking the heavy community services text from his hands. 'Please?'
He shrugs again. 'It's your choice.'