The Odd One Out

Things had changed for all of them re­cently. Was that the rea­son why Stu­art was act­ing so strangely?

The People's Friend - - This Week - by Bar­bara Dynes

IRE­ALLY am sorry, Jane, but do you mind if we can­cel tonight? Stu­art has asked if he can come over; he wants some help with a project he’s do­ing at school.”

Phil frowned as he spoke into his phone; he hated let­ting Jane down. Since meeting her a cou­ple of months ago, his life had changed so much for the bet­ter.

“I do feel bad about this,” he added af­ter a pause.

“Don’t worry, Phil,” Jane said. “I can find plenty to do, hon­estly.”

He was relieved. Af­ter chat­ting for a bit, they said their good­byes.

Jane was great. He’d had a few girl­friends since his di­vorce, but none of them had been as un­der­stand­ing as she was, par­tic­u­larly where ten-year-old Stu­art was con­cerned.

She ac­cepted that his son usu­ally had to come first, and never made a fuss about it. She had also ac­cepted his de­ci­sion not to tell Stu­art about her at the mo­ment.

“It’s just that he’s go­ing through a funny phase,” he’d ex­plained. “Stu­art seems to want much more at­ten­tion now his mother has re­mar­ried. He’s prob­a­bly a bit jeal­ous of Chris, her new hus­band, and I don’t want to make things worse –”

“By telling him that you have a part­ner, too,” Jane had fin­ished. “I do get it, Phil. It’s fine.”

He sighed. Tonight’s visit – an “ex­tra” to the rou­tine planned ones – was an­other ex­am­ple of Stu­art’s be­hav­iour chang­ing.

His son had al­ways been a strange mix: bois­ter­ous on the sur­face, yet sen­si­tive and but­toned-up where his feel­ings were con­cerned. Was there some­thing go­ing on?

Phil’s ex, Deb­bie, could throw no light on it, ei­ther.

“He talks about your Chris a lot, Debs,” Phil said. “It can only be jeal­ousy.”

“I don’t think so!” Deb­bie said adamantly. “Stu­art loves Chris to bits, and vice-versa. They’ve loads in com­mon: mu­se­ums, art, fly­ing kites.

“And I’ve been re­ally care­ful to in­clude Stu­art in ev­ery­thing, so he doesn’t feel like the odd one out.”

It was true. Deb­bie was a won­der­ful mother; she would have surely spot­ted any­thing se­ri­ously wrong.

Phil went into the kitchen to pre­pare spaghetti, Stu­art’s favourite.

Tonight he would try to delve a bit deeper, just in case. Per­haps it was some­thing to do with school?

The door­bell rang – a “Stu­art ring”, ex­tra loud and long.

“Hi, Dad!” Stu­art said, bound­ing in and drop­ping ex­er­cise books on the floor. “This project I have to do, it’s on sport, so I chose foot­ball. I know you re­ally like it, so can you help me?”

Phil waved to Deb­bie as she drove off, then shut the door, grin­ning. It was as though a whirl­wind had hit his silent flat.

“I was go­ing to bring Mum’s lap­top, but I’ll copy stuff out later,” Stu­art said.

He re­trieved his books, then made a dive for the set­tee.

Later, as they ate, Stu­art be­gan a mud­dled ex­pla­na­tion of some new com­puter game. He was chat­ting away like there was no to­mor­row.

Phil waited for a lull, then plunged in.

“Did you tell Chris about your project?” he asked.

“Chris doesn’t re­ally like sports much.”

“But you get on all right, you and Chris?”

Stu­art nod­ded, con­cen­trat­ing on wind­ing his spaghetti round and round his fork.

“We’re go­ing to the mu­seum on Satur­day, to see the di­nosaurs,” he said. “Mum won’t come, she’s fright­ened of di­nosaurs.”

“And school?” Phil per­sisted. “Ev­ery­thing OK there?”

Stu­art nod­ded, his mouth full.

“Got a wicked new friend! He’s called Hazeem, and he’s from Pak­istan,” he said ex­cit­edly. “Dad, Ja­son Grant was telling me about his dog, and I won­dered if we could get one? We could walk it miles and let it swim in the river!”

Phil stared at his son. A dog? This was new. Keep­ing up with Stu­art was get­ting to

be a real chal­lenge.

“A nice idea, Stu­art, but no,” he said firmly. “Not while I’m at work all day.”

“But Mum could bring me round so I could look af­ter him for you!” Stu­art protested.

“No way, Stu­art. Let’s wash up, then we can take a look at your project,” Phil said.

He stood up, smil­ing rue­fully. With a full-time job, Deb­bie’s re­ac­tion to such a propo­si­tion might not be too favourable, ei­ther.

Where had Stu­art’s sud­den in­ter­est in dogs come from? More rea­son for him to visit, per­haps, if he did feel pushed out with his mother?

“You’ve got nowhere with your ‘delv­ing’, Phil,” he told him­self. “Maybe next time.”

A cou­ple of days later, Stu­art phoned him.

“I’ve got loads about foot­ball for my project,” he said hap­pily. “I’m need­ing to do cricket now. Do you know any­thing about cricket?”

“Sorry, son,” Phil replied. “I haven’t a clue about cricket.”

Af­ter a long chat, they said their good­byes. Stu­art, look­ing for­ward to see­ing the di­nosaurs with Chris, sounded fine. Maybe Phil was wor­ry­ing un­nec­es­sar­ily.

On Satur­day, Jane had ar­ranged to have lunch with friends. Phil had just set­tled down to watch the foot­ball on tele­vi­sion when his mo­bile rang.

“Phil, I’m so sorry about this, but Chris has had to work so they’ve had to can­cel the mu­seum trip. And I’ve got a physio ap­point­ment,” Deb­bie ex­plained. “Could Stu­art come over?”

“Of course he can.” Bang went any idea of a quiet af­ter­noon, Phil thought. In­stead, he would of­fer to take Stu­art to the mu­seum. He would have to fake an in­ter­est in di­nosaurs, but he might learn some­thing . . .

Later, open­ing the door to his son, Phil blinked in as­ton­ish­ment. Stu­art stood there in track­suit and train­ers, clutch­ing, of all things, a foot­ball.

But he hated the game! “Hi, Dad!” Stu­art said, hur­ry­ing in­side. “Thought we’d go and have a kick around in the park.”

“Or we could still go to the mu­seum –”

“No, thanks, Dad! I’m go­ing with Chris next week­end.”

Phil frowned. “Stu­art, you don’t even like foot­ball!”

“So? It’ll be cool. Mum says the ex­er­cise will be good for me. You, too, she said.”

The cheek!

“Well, she’s got a point,” Phil told him­self. Sit­ting at a com­puter all day at work was not ex­actly healthy.

As for Stu­art . . . like a lot of things lately, the sug­ges­tion that they play foot­ball just didn’t add up.

It was a fine au­tumn day and, once he got into run­ning around, Phil be­gan to en­joy him­self. What was more, watch­ing Stu­art as he sped af­ter the ball, he could see the lad had real po­ten­tial.

When, later, they col­lapsed on to a bench for a breather, Phil told him so.

Stu­art shrugged. “Foot­ball’s all right some­times,” he said.

“It was a pity Chris had to work to­day.”

Stu­art swung his legs back and forth, scuff­ing his train­ers on the gravel.

“Dad,” he started. “Would I have to change schools if I came to live with you?”

Taken aback, Phil stared at the boy.

He’d been right all along – some­thing was def­i­nitely amiss. Stu­art now wanted to live with him!

Well, he’d love to have him, but it just wouldn’t be prac­ti­cal. What about the times he had to go away for his job?

And, more im­por­tant, what about Deb­bie? She’d be hor­ri­fied! Phil’s head was sud­denly spin­ning.

“I don’t know, Stu­art. It would be su­per to have you with me, but there’s your mum to think of. Have you asked her?”

Stu­art shrugged again. “No.”

Phil took a deep breath. “Why do you want to swap houses, Stu­art?”

The lad sud­denly got up, kicked his ball high into the air, and be­gan to run af­ter it.

“Come on, Dad!” he shouted.

“No! Wait!”

But Stu­art was gone, charg­ing across the park.

“What now?” Phil sighed as he fol­lowed him. An­other talk with Deb­bie was cru­cial.

Back home, af­ter mak­ing tea and pour­ing or­ange juice, he tried again.

“Why do you want to live with me, Stu­art?”

Stu­art, fid­dling with his phone, did not an­swer. “Stu­art –”

The ring­ing door­bell in­ter­rupted him. Just his luck! Im­pa­tiently, Phil flung open the door. It was Jane.

“Hi, Phil. I was on my way home and thought I’d pop in with these apri­cots I bought at the mar­ket this morn­ing. I know you like them . . .”

“Jane! Lovely to see you,” Phil stam­mered, tak­ing the bag and ush­er­ing her into the lounge.

Oh, dear, his cover was about to be well and truly blown. His new girl­friend and his son were about to come face-to-face any minute.

Well, it had to hap­pen some time.

“Stu­art is here –”

But, ahead of him, Jane was smil­ing at the lad.

“Hello, you must be Stu­art. I’m Jane.”

“Hi,” Stu­art mut­tered. “We’ve just been to the park,” Phil said.

Flus­tered thoughts raced through his mind.

He re­ally hoped Stu­art would make a good im­pres­sion with Jane, and that they would like each other.

“I’ll make you some tea, Jane,” he said, telling him­self to calm down.

He left the door open as he hur­ried into the kitchen, hop­ing to be able to fill in any awk­ward si­lences.

But Stu­art spoke up im­me­di­ately.

“Are you Dad’s girl­friend?”

Phil grinned. Chil­dren were noth­ing if not di­rect.

“Yes, I am. We see each other some­times. When he’s not see­ing you, of course,” Jane added tact­fully.

Si­lence.

Phil wished he could read Stu­art’s mind.

He went back into the lounge with the mug of tea.

“Jane is a teacher, Stu­art,” he said, hand­ing her the drink.

“My mum’s a man­ager,” Stu­art an­nounced. “She works in Clay­ton’s. It’s a su­per­mar­ket.”

“Wow! That’s an im­por­tant job.”

“Mum and Chris go places, and Gran sits with me. Do you go out with Dad?”

Phil held his breath. That state­ment smacked of “I’m the odd one out here”.

“Yes,” Jane an­swered calmly. “When you’re not here to keep him com­pany.”

Stu­art sud­denly beamed. “Cool! Dad was on his own, and I was a bit wor­ried.

“He didn’t want a dog, and I can’t come here to live be­cause I might have to change schools,” he gab­bled. “But if you’re here, then he’s not on his own!”

Phil stared.

So that was it! The miss­ing piece of the puz­zle – the boy had been wor­ried about his dad be­ing lonely!

Phil felt quite choked up about that. And to think he’d kept Jane a se­cret all this time!

Across the room, Jane was smil­ing at him.

“Maybe we can go out to­gether some time? All three of us?” Jane sug­gested.

“Not to foot­ball,” Stu­art de­clared. “I was just do­ing that for Dad.”

“Good!” Jane said with a laugh. “I don’t like it, ei­ther.”

Phil grinned as the two of them gig­gled to­gether.

It looked like he might end up be­ing the odd one out in fu­ture! ■

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