Happy Monday, everyone! (Can happy and Monday be used in the same sentence? Is that legal?)
With only a week to go before the official release date of Who We Are, I thought I’d tease you with a sneak peek! So, here is the prologue, written in Oliver’s point-of-view, and set ten years before the official story begins. I hope you enjoy it!
I WAS READING a text from a friend when the doorbell rang. I glossed over the message that told me all about the fun they’d had at the club last night, how apparently I’d have had an absolute blast and I’d missed the best night ever. I didn’t plan on replying.
“I’m so sorry I’m late.” My social worker, Andrea, bustled through my front door, clutching her bag and several files close to her chest. “My last meeting ran over. Is Ty still up?”
“Yeah,” I answered, closing the door behind her. “He’s playing in the living room.”
She walked over the uncarpeted floor, stepping over toys and various pieces of washing I’d forgotten to pick up, while smiling her non-judgemental smile. “Hey, Ty!” Her voice was bright and songlike as she bent down to my little brother’s level, dropping her bag to the floor. “Cool train. Is this Thomas?”
“No. That’s Henry. Thomas is blue.” Tyler narrowed his eyes like she was a moron…because everyone knows Thomas is blue.
I stood awkwardly for a moment, stuffing my hands into my pockets, before finally taking a seat on the couch. I watched them play together for a few minutes, pondering if this was some kind of test and hoping Tyler passed.
Then, Andrea got up from the floor and came to sit next to me. “How are you doing, Oliver?”
I thought about it for a second, wondering if there was a right answer she wanted to hear. Just six months ago I was living on my own – nowhere fancy, just a tiny flat above a chippy in Wythenshawe. I was independent for the first time in my life. I had friends, a social life, a good job after completing my hairdressing apprenticeship which I began as soon as I left school at sixteen. I knew exactly where my life was heading.
But then, five months ago our mum was diagnosed with leukaemia. Three weeks ago, it killed her. I couldn’t lose Tyler too. We didn’t have anyone else. “I’m good. We’re good.”
Andrea raised an eyebrow, like she didn’t believe me. “Oliver, raising a young child is incredibly difficult, especially when you have no experience. You’re allowed to be honest with me. I’m here to help you.”
“We are good,” I insisted. “I can do it. I swear I can.” Please don’t take him from me.
“I know you can. I’ve seen nothing here over the last few months to suggest that you’re doing anything other than a fantastic job. My point is you’re not alone. There are many ways we can help you, should you need it. I’m not here to try and catch you out. I’m here to offer support and advice and make sure you’re both adjusting okay.”
Oh. Did she really mean that, though? Could I trust her? Andrea had been visiting for the last three months, ever since we discovered my mum’s cancer was terminal and I’d be becoming Tyler’s guardian when the inevitable happened, thanks to his deadbeat dad fucking off the second the stick turned blue. On reflection, she’d never actually given me any reason to believe Tyler would end up in care, but I was a twenty-year-old man with no real prospects, not much money, and no clue how to take care of a four-year-old on my own. This time six months ago my life consisted of styling hair by day and getting drunk and screwing around by night. I wasn’t exactly glowing parent material.
But, that was before. That wasn’t my life now, because, Christ, I loved my brother. I could change for him, learn for him. I would take care of him.
“He…he’s already stopped asking for her as much,” I said, staring over to him, watching him play with his trains, completely oblivious to how unfair the world was. “It’s only been three weeks. I’m worried that he’s forgetting.”
“Children adapt very quickly. It’s important for him, for both of you, to keep talking about her.”
“I do. We, uh…” Damn, this was hard. My voice cracked and my chest hurt just thinking about her. I missed her. Every second of every day. I missed her. “We have a photo next to his bed and we say goodnight to her every night.”
“That’s good.” Andrea nodded, smiling sweetly.
“He got in trouble at school yesterday for hitting another boy with a stick. He never did anything like that when Mum was alive. I keep thinking I’ve done something wrong,” I admitted. It was so hard. Everything was just…so hard.
“I think the most likely reason is that he’s four years old and still learning right from wrong, and how to communicate his emotions effectively. The school is aware of your situation. You mustn’t be afraid to discuss your concerns with them.” Reaching out, she put her hand on my knee. “All anybody wants is what’s best for that little boy, and what’s best for him is to stay with you, his family. There are lots of people to help you along the way.”
Those words felt like a pin stabbing into the balloon of pressure that had been building up inside my chest for months. “Thank you,” was all I could think of to say. I didn’t know if I’d ask for help. Honestly, part of me just wanted to get on with life and find some kind of routine for Tyler and me, but knowing it was there provided some relief.
“Olli can I ‘ave my ‘tine yet?” Tyler threw his train down on the floor and moulded his body into a leapfrog position.
Crap. I’d forgot to go shopping. Crap. Crap. Crap. “Aw, I’m sorry, Ty. We’ve ran out of Ovaltine. I can make you some warm milk instead.”
His little face scrunched up, his cheeks turning red, and I prayed to whoever the hell might be listening that he wouldn’t lie down on the floor and paddy in front of Andrea.
“I don’t like milk!” he yelled. “I want ‘tine!”
Oh shite. Please stop. “I’m sorry,” I said to Andrea, completely mortified, before turning back to Tyler. “Tyler, use your quiet voice please,” I told him in a firm tone, because I’d overheard his teacher use that line in school.
Clearly, his teacher had magical powers that I didn’t possess.
“It’s late,” Andrea said, offering a sympathetic smile. “Which is my fault. He’s probably overtired. I’ll leave you alone.”
“I’m sorr-” I went to apologise once more but she cut me off with a wave of her hand.
“No need. I’ll call to arrange another visit. I’m happy to leave it two weeks this time if you are?”
“Absolutely.” I hadn’t meant to sound so thrilled, but if she’d decided to leave a longer gap between visits then that must’ve meant I was doing okay, right?
“Of course if you need anything sooner you know where to find me.”
I nodded, smiling gratefully, while also wanting to chew Tyler’s arse off for continuing to embarrass me by screaming in the middle of the floor, and went to follow her from the room.
“I’ll see myself out,” she insisted. “You see to Tyler. Goodnight, Oliver. Bye, Ty!” she added, her voice cheerful as she waved at him.
“Bye,” he said, his voice sulky before he stuck his bottom lip out.
Walking over to him, I crouched down. “Look, let’s go see what’s in the cupboard,” I said, holding out my hand for him to take. “And we’ll make friends again.”
He took my hand but still wore a grumpy face. “I always have ‘tine before bed.”
Standing up, I led him into the kitchen and lifted him onto the countertop. Opening the cupboard, I moved the beans and spaghetti out of the way, searching for something to make him a warm drink with. “Ah ha! Horlicks. That’s just like Ovaltine, only white instead of brown. In fact, it tastes even better than Ovaltine. I read somewhere once that Superman drinks Horlicks.”
“No he doesn’t,” Tyler said, his mouth trying to smile but his bad mood stopping it reaching his eyes. “You made that up.”
His cheeky grin grew wider. “Did too.”
I stuck out my tongue and poked his belly. “Did too.”
“Did…” He started chuckling, and it was adorable. He had such a throaty laugh for such a little boy. “Hey! You said too!”
“What d’ya say? You gonna try the Horlicks? And if you don’t like it I’ll let you tip it on my head.”
He laughed again. “Bet you won’t.”
“I will, I promise. But if you like it then I get to tickle your belly until you scream.”
He giggled again. “Okay.”
Upstairs, he drank his Horlicks –without complaint – while I read him a story about a bear who couldn’t stop trumping.
“Eww!” I said, scrunching my nose. “Did you trump?”
“Noooo!” Tyler laughed. “It was the bear!”
“You sure?” I wafted my hand in front of my nose. “It’s a bit stinky in here.”
“It’s the bear! It’s the bear!”
Noticing his Horlicks was all gone, I took the cup from his tiny hands and placed it on the bedside table before hovering my fingers above his belly. “Well I think it was…you!” Hand on his belly, I started tickling…just like I promised.
He laughed and wriggled and kicked out with his legs. Every so often I’d stop for a second so he could catch his breath before going back in for more. “Olli, stop!” he pleaded, crying with laughter. “I can’t b-breathe!”
Relenting, I buried my face in his belly and blew a giant raspberry. “Come on, buddy. Time for teeth and then sleep.”
In the bathroom, I let him brush his own teeth before going over them myself, and then we headed back to his room where he changed into mismatched pyjamas – because I hadn’t figured out how to be organised with washing yet – before he climbed into bed. As always, I tucked him in, folding the duvet over his small body before sitting on the edge of his mattress. Picking the framed photo of our mum off the little wooden table next to his bed, I said goodnight to her before angling the frame in front of Ty.
“Night, Mummy,” he said, giving the photo a kiss. “Will she come home when she’s finished working for the angels?” I couldn’t count how many times he’d asked this question, or how many times it’d broken my heart.
“She wants to, because she misses you so much, but she can’t, Ty. She can see you though, and she can hear you if you talk to her.” I didn’t know if that were true. I suspected not, but it was a nice idea and one a four-year-old needed to believe.
“I love you, Mummy. Did she hear that?”
“Yep.” I nodded. “She heard it, and she loves you too.”
“How’d you know?” he asked, his expression inquisitive.
“Because I can feel it.” Taking his little hand, I placed it on his chest. “Right in here. Feel it beating? That little thump?”
“That’s your heart, and hearts are filled with love. As long as you feel that little thump, you’ll know that you’re loved, okay?”
Nodding quickly, he smiled.
Taking the photo from him, I took a last look at my mum as I placed it back on the table. I looked like her. I had her red hair and blue eyes. I was taller though – just over six foot, something I must’ve inherited from my father, although I didn’t remember him well enough to recognise other similarities, and my mum hadn’t kept any photos. Sometimes I’d see her face and feel…angry. I’d feel so mad at her for deserting us, for not having her life more sorted and secure and leaving us with nothing. It was selfish and unfair of me and then I’d hate myself for it. The truth is I wasn’t angry. I was alone. I missed her and I needed her. I wasn’t mad, just…scared.
“Time to go to sleep now, mister.”
Tugging on my arm, Tyler looked up at me with pleading eyes. “If I wake up in the night can I come in your bed?”
There hadn’t been a single night yet since Mum passed away where he hadn’t snuck under my covers around two AM. As with everything, I didn’t know if letting him was the right decision, but I justified it by telling myself he’d grow out of it. Presumably he wouldn’t still be climbing in my bed when he was an adult, so where was the harm?
Lowering my head, I kissed the top of his head. “Sure you can.”
“Nighty nighty, Olli.”
Since putting his life on hold ten years ago, Oliver Clayton doesn’t know who he is anymore. To his clients at the hair salon, he’s the sassy and confident stylist. To the crowds who come to watch his drag act at the club, he’s the fierce and fabulous Miss Tique. He’s popular. Talented. Out, proud, and self-assured.
He’s also a good actor.
Sebastian Day is content with life’s easy, if not a little monotonous, routine. After several failed relationships, he likes the simplicity of being alone in his truck at his job as a heavy goods driver, spending the weekends with his teenage son, and putting the world to rights with his cat, Marv. He’s not lonely. He isn’t hiding.
At least…he doesn’t think he is until he meets the mesmerising stranger with the red hair and purple lips.
Can Oliver and Sebastian help each other embrace who they are? Or will a cruel twist of fate end their journey before it’s even begun?