The Odd One Out
Things had changed for all of them recently. Was that the reason why Stuart was acting so strangely?
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.”
“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.
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.
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!”
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! ■