Stuart Hatford’s son is four years old when he first meets him. He has a mess of red curls, a lisp and bruises on his arms.
Stuart holds the boy in his arms and Nathaniel's whole body shakes as he sobs quietly.
“I'm taking the boy when I leave, Mary,” Stuart tells his sister, Mary looks at him with cold eyes.
“No one is stopping you brother, this is no place for a child.”
Nathaniel is an energetic child who doesn't like to sit still. He bounces up and down in his seat on the plane, happily munching away on his strawberries.
The air hostess tells him how cute he is and Nathaniel buries his face in Stuart's side.
“I guess he's shy,” she says. Stuart pats Neil's head.
Stuart contacts The Family as soon as he sets foot on British soil. The phone call is curt and people are unhappy with him but his standing makes it so no one can contest his leaving criminal life.
When Nathaniel starts school his bag is bigger than he is, Stuart's heart lurches in his chest when he drops him off at the school gates.
“Bye Daddy,” Nathaniel calls to him, Stuart absolutely does not pull his car over and cry from happiness.
Nathaniel makes friends easily. His best friend Carla is as energetic as he is and people keep calling her Nathaniel's little girlfriend and Stuart keeps telling them that Nathaniel is five years old.
Carla becomes a staple of the Hartford home. Nathaniel calls her La La and she calls him Neil.
When Neil is six he watches his first game of Exy on television. He's so enthralled he's on the edge of his seat, popping nuts into his mouth like they're popcorn.
“Daddy, dad, look did you just see that cool he was like,” Neil makes a wild gesture with his hands, “and then…” another gesture. Neil is swinging his legs excitedly.
“They are very impressive Neil,” Stuart tells him.
“Do you think I can do that?” Neil asks. l asks. Stuart looks at the screen and sighs, he knows how heavily involved in Exy to Moriyama is, and how involved Nathan and Mary are with the Moriyama’s. Hopefully it will not eventuate into a problem.
“I’ll see about a little league team,” Stuart tells him. Neil’s face lights up.
Due to regulations Neil doesn’t join a team until the following year. Him and Carla join The Cheltenham Saracens Little League seven to ten division together. Neil is chosen to be a striker and Carla a backliner.
This is also the year Stuart quits the office job he’s been working for the last four years and opens a bookshop. It’s a small place with a winding staircase in the middle tucked into a medium sized street in Cheltenham. Half the store is filled with second hand books, Stuart has procured several versions of classic literature with college student notes spanning several decades. His favourite is a worn copy of Hamlet that someone has penciled in extensive questions marks on the pages.
The other half is new releases with exciting bright colourful covers. Stuart hires three staff members. They’re all hard-working university freshman. Dominique, Alice and Paul.
Stuart paints the sign over the door in gold and holds Neil up so he can inspect it the sign reads “Hatford and Son”
At eight years old Neil is by far the best player on his exy team, Carla has quit but she still comes every week to cheer him on. Her curly hair bunched into pigtails as she holds up a sign reading ‘HATFORD #10’ in glittery blue pen. He takes the team out for hotdogs and ice-cream from time to time.
Alex, the father of one Bobby James buys him a cup of tea and they talk amicably over it as the children run a bit wild. Stuart notices the green of Alex’s eyes and the tightness of his grey t-shirt. He ignores the feeling, he hasn’t dated anyone in years.
Alex, son of Bobby James apparently doesn’t think the same because he finds the man’s number tucked into his messenger bag alongside his laptop.
After chastising the man for several minutes Stuart agrees to go to dinner. The agree on getting the same sitter for the boys and so Stuart asks Dominique if she would mind spending a few hours with them.
On their one year anniversary Alex asks Stuart to marry him. Neil and Bobby James seem a bit unsure about the whole arrangement but the two of them get on well enough. So in the May of the year Neil turns nine the sign above the bookshop becomes ‘Hatford and Sons’
“Nathaniel Abram Hatford” Stuart scoulds as Neil stares at him sheepishly. His son has a split lip and bruises on his arms. He’d had to pick Neil up from school for fighting.
“He called Bobby James a spastic, he deserved it,” Neil says, his bottom lip jutting out. Stuart wraps his arms around him just as Neil starts to cry.
“I’ll make you some tea,” Stuart states kindly, pushing Neil towards to couch.
“Thanks dad,” Neil calls to him grabbing the telly remote and switching through the channels until he finds a cartoon to hold his attention. Stuart can’t bring himself to dish out even a minor punishment.
“I’m really proud,” Alex tells Stuart when they’re alone in bed together later that night. “I’m glad Neil stood up for Bobby James, even if I wish it hadn’t resulted in such blows. Stuart kisses Alex on the top of his head.
“I’m glad too,”
Stuart and Alex are thinking about adopting. The bookshop is thriving, Alex has a senior position in his marketing company. The boys are settled in well at school with only a minimum amount of fighting on Neil's part.
Stuart has made sure any criminal transactions that may have happened in their pasts has been cleared away, not that Alex's past is a concern. The guy works in marketing.
They've filled out all the forms and are waiting to talk to a caseworker. They've decided to do the preliminary meeting while the boys are at school, just in case it doesn't go well.
The meeting is a relieving success and even though it takes a few months Stuart is proud to introduce his sons to their two year old sister Anna
They change the sign above the shop to ‘Hatfords’
Bobby James, Neil and Carla are doing homework on the floor in the lounge room. They have Anna with them and she's babbling away. She's still not completely coherent, but her speech has come along nicely.
“Is that so?” Neil says sagely to her gurgling. “Please tell us all about it.”
“Whale.” she says pointing at the textbook layed out in the middle of the trio. They're doing a biology unit about oceans.
“Yeah, that's a whale.” Bobby James agrees. Alex wraps his arms around Stuart from behind and Stuart leans back into his chest
Bobby James decides he's going to quit exy for football. Stuart expects Neil to be a little upset but he just shrugs.
“I'm not quitting though Dad. I'm the best player in our club,” Neil says and he is. He's won mvp two years in a row.
Neil and Carla go to Bobby James’ matches and cheer obnoxiously. A few people shush them and Stuart and Alex take it open themselves to be even louder, Anna giggling at the noise.
Bobby James gets his first girlfriend and him and Neil start to fight non-stop. Neil slams his bedroom and refuses to come out.
Stuart looks helplessly at Alex.
“Neil? Sweetheart?” Stuart calls, cautiously pushing on Neil's door. Neil is curled up on his bed surrounded by his favourite blanket, emblazoned with the flag for the national exy team.
“Hi Dad,” Neil says softly, “why does Bobby think I need a girlfriend? I don't want one.” Stuart sits down on the bed and tugs Neil into a hug. “I really don't like girls, I mean not for like kissing and stuff. Even though they're nice. Like Carla.”
“Carla is nice,” Stuart acknowledges. Neil let's out a laugh “What about boys?”
“Boys are nice but I don't want to kiss them either.” Neil tells him.
“That's okay, you don't have to kiss anyone, you're still young.” Stuart says. Neil presses his head into Stuart's stomach.
“Yeah,” he mumbles hollowly and Stuart's heart aches.
Neil starts working in the shop. He leaves to read the language books. Stuart is pretty he's taught himself German, French and Spanish at this point. Which is an incredible feat considering he's failing half his classes at school.
“They're really boring,” Neil huffs when Stuart receives a letter from his headmaster.
“That doesn't mean you can ignore the work,” Neil just sticks his tongue out.
The year Neil turns sixteen is the start of one Andrew Joseph Minyard.