Own two feet


A message from Garry – Part II

This is part II – you might want to read Part I first

The two boys stack children’s furniture and other bits and bobs that are lying around the garden into clumsy modern art sculptures, and then clamber up onto the garden table. They take turns to jump off it and smash their creations to pieces. Each landing leads to bursts of laughter and shouting that has me smiling – attempting to stencil the moment in my mind forever.

The boys run past us into the bedroom and reappear dressed as Spidermen. The two of them leap about the garden firing invisible web from invisible web shooters on their wrists. Suddenly my son Dylan picks up a chair and throws it across the garden. Kai quickly picks it up and throws it into the air. They giggle and then Dylan races towards the patio window and fires more web at all of us, who are sitting on the other side.

They’ve been playing together like this since we arrived. First it was Top Trumps on the bedroom floor and now as a pair of slightly crazed mini superheroes with an equal attraction to construction and demolition.

“For this brief moment there is nothing else in the whole universe except my son and his son”

From the other side of the patio glass, I watch them play. A contented smile slips down into my stomach, making me feel gooey and warm. I’m interrupted by that part of my mind that wants to deconstruct the moment and pick away at it, looking for deeper meaning. ‘This is special,’ it is saying. ‘Can’t you see this is like a lost history playing itself out through these two little boys? You see that right?!’ But I don’t want to see past the moving picture they are painting. I don’t want to think. I just want to feel, and for this brief moment there is nothing else in the whole universe except my son and his son and colourful furniture flying through the air.

When we arrived earlier that day, five-year-old Kai was waiting on the drive. I can see him now. He is brimming with smiles and confidence. Dylan moves towards me, momentarily shy. My wife, Clea, and I take a collective deep breath. I think I shake Kai’s hand. Clea hugs him. He leads us into the house that immediately feels crowded. I struggle with the pram as new faces appear in the corridor. Garry’s wife smiles. Next to her their daughter Bethany looks uncertain. At first nobody is quite sure how to say hello and in what order. I hang back by the door and let my wife go first, like I often do in new situations. She starts the greetings and slowly my new older brother Garry makes his way towards me. I think I see an arm starting to extend for a handshake, but I slip past it and hug him. He tenses up slightly.

My new brother Garry is 45 (I am 38). This is only the third time we have ever spoken, the second time we’ve met and the first time our wives and children have met. Throughout the afternoon, Garry hardly sits down. He mainly stands in the kitchen behind the breakfast bar, periodically venturing out from time to time to check on the BBQ. Football plays continually on a big flat screen on the wall. It had settled my nerves when I first saw the TV on.

Throughout the day we wander through different topics of conversation. The standards of local schools, growing up in the rougher parts of the city, the gentrification that is swallowing up these same parts, to eat meat or not to eat meat and that documentary about chickens that has scared Clea into part-time vegetarianism. Garry’s daughter Bethany spends most of her time indoors, drawing butterflies at the table. She seems transfixed by Lyla, my baby daughter, and later wears the most beautiful look of concentration as she carefully holds her in her arms. Later still, Garry’s wife Sarah takes Lyla into her own arms, where she falls sound asleep. The boys play together most of the day and only stop to sit at the table in the corner of the garden to eat burgers and talk with each other like old friends. The normality of the day is comforting.

Conversation is easy the whole time we’re there. I’d feared we might quickly run out of words, but we never do. Still, we don’t delve too deep. I remember Garry writing in an email to me that he is not a big talker. “But I’m a good listener,” he had said when we met.

“We have different ages, different backgrounds, different stories… but are bound together”

From our first meeting it was clear we were different. Different ages, different backgrounds, different stories, but bound together by the distance we both shared from our father (when he mentions him he always says, “your dad”). As an adult I have closed this gap. Garry has not seen him since he was 14. But there are similarities between us. Films, music, sport, something in our eyes. I see traces of my dad in him. Some are physical – they flicker in his face. Others are deeper: the quietness they both have, the thinking they’ve both done in silence.

As mine and Garry’s lives start to intertwine, I can’t help but wonder what he is thinking about all of this. His poker face is almost professional, but did I see it slip as he gazed out at Kai and Dylan playing in the garden? Perhaps it’s less about us – more about them. Our two small boys and two smaller girls. That same blood running through their little bodies. Family coming together and building something new with all the normal jagged edges. We’re starting late, but not too late for them.

When we all say goodbye, I feel exhausted and elated. I’m also relieved I’ve not said anything stupid (I think). Hugs and kisses are shared all round. Garry is still not sure about the hugging part, but I make no apologies. He will just have to bear that awkwardness around his little brother. As we walk away there’s a knock at the window. On the first floor, Kai is smiling down and waving. He’s soon joined by Sarah and Bethany. All of us are waving at each other. My brother, I expect, is safely back behind the breakfast bar.



A message from Garry – Part I
July 21, 2016, 9:44 am
Filed under: childhood, Foster care, leaving care, Memory | Tags: , , , ,

 

I scanned the email. Words jumped out at me… ‘LinkedIn… hoping… corporate… personal… 5 mins of your time… coffee… selling’. I thought about deleting it. Clearly it was junk mail. Someone selling something I didn’t want or need. I was used to receiving emails like this from time to time. People selling courses or data sets (whatever they are) or some kind of marketing opportunity, but I didn’t press the delete key. Instead I found myself tapping the keys and moving the mouse and logging in to the LinkedIn website.

Sure enough, a LinkedIn request was waiting from ‘Garry’. I clicked on his profile. A man stared back. Dark suit. White shirt. A purple handkerchief. Seeing the purple I thought of Prince. It still felt raw. The man in the photo looked professional. Super neat. Attractive. There was something distant in that stare. I scanned down his profile: ‘Strategic Change at a well-known bank… private school… university… London Business School… contractor… credit risk manager’. I tried to work out why Garry was contacting me but I could not see our link. What was he selling?

“What do you think he’s trying to sell?”

I flicked back to his original email and shouted across the office to my colleague: ‘Listen to this.’ I read the email aloud. It finished with the line, ‘I’m not selling anything🙂’. Even though I was shouting it across the office I didn’t take in the ‘not’ part of the sentence. “What do you think he’s trying to sell?” I asked my colleague.

I wrote back:

‘Hi Garry,

Apologies, but I have not been on LinkedIn lately and missed your request… have accepted it now. Based on your profile/background I am not sure how I can help you, but please fire away…

All the best,

John-george’

My mind began to tick. Perhaps I was being headhunted. It had happened before and it was a bit like this, but still I could not see the connection between this man and me. Our jobs and lives felt too far apart. My mind then, like it sometimes does, slipped into the fanciful. I had just binge-watched ‘The Night Manager’ and for a whole five seconds convinced myself Garry was in fact from MI6 or some other secret service agency. My country needed me. They must know about my work in the Middle East (okay, medical education is a tenuous link, but I ignored that), clearly the UK Government needed a man like me on the ground there. It’s amazing what you can imagine in the space of five seconds. Dark suits, dark glasses, dangerous people, my own gun, gadgets, secret documents, back street dealings, fast cars. The rational part of my mind quickly woke from its temporary slumber and started talking sense: Back in the room pal, you know he’s just trying to sell you something. Come on, let’s go, it’s home time anyway.

I was on the train waiting to leave Victoria Station when Garry’s reply came through.

‘Hi,

Thanks for coming back. Yes, our professional backgrounds are very different. I’d really appreciate 5 mins of your time. Perhaps after work today? There’s a Starbucks on S End Road near Hampstead Heath train station and one on Haverstock Hill near Belsize Park tube. I can be at either from 5 dependent on your route home (assuming your work address is correct).

I’d just like to introduce myself and after that it’s up to you. It takes me 30mins to get there so I’ll just head to the area if I haven’t heard from you. Appreciate you’d be taking time out so please don’t worry if you can’t spare the time. Not really something to share by work mail.

Garry’

My mind searched for something to hold on to. The train began moving. The city outside blurred. Garry, Garry, Garry. The name bore into me, started to repeat like a broken record and then it came to me in a flash and my stomach flipped. Suddenly I was sitting on the sofa with my Dad’s wife Angie, ten or fifteen years ago, with a photo album open in front of us. I turn the page. A collection of pictures. A young boy I have never seen before. Maybe thirteen. In London for what looks like a day out. Crowds, pigeons, a river cruise, the lions at Trafalgar Square. The pictures are all in soft-focus, creating a nostalgic haze. I look at the boy. A long silence stretches and then Angie says, ‘That’s your brother; Garry’.

I have no recollection of knowing about Garry’s existence before that day on the sofa with Angie. I had stared hard at the pictures. Later Angie tried to talk about Garry, almost as if to give life to the little boy beyond the blurred photographs. She didn’t say much, perhaps a few sentences. I cannot recall their content, only the sadness and regret wrapped around them.

“I cannot recall their content, only the sadness and regret wrapped around them.”

I never spoke to my dad about Garry. We were not where we are now. Back then we had our own distance to close, but from that day, whenever people I cared about asked about siblings, I would say I have four brothers, but one I’ve never met.

I did type Garry’s full name in to Google a number of times, but he had since changed his surname to his mother’s name.

When I got home, I called the number Garry had left in his email. ”Hi, it’s John-george, I’m sorry I wasn’t able to meet, but I got your message on the train.” Garry said it was okay.

“I think I know who you are,” I said. “That’s good, that should make this easier,” he replied.

We met soon after in a pub in Tooting. I arrived early and when I walked in Prince was playing. Garry arrived soon after that. I had been nervous. Four hours, a few pints and a meal later, we hugged and said goodbye. It was both strange and really normal. We got on, at least, I think we did.



The Ripple of Care
April 14, 2016, 9:31 am
Filed under: fatherhood, Foster care, Memory, running | Tags: , , , ,

I’ve been running lots. In less than three weeks I’ll be running in the London marathon. Still I haven’t run enough. My body doesn’t seem to want me to. It’s always tired… slowly breaking down. My back constantly aches. My right hip constantly aches. My right leg constantly aches. Perhaps I’m not built for running, but I can’t stop. My mind wants to run. It has to run.

Rather than pushing my thoughts out of reach, running totally crushes them – grinding them and me down to a point where my mind hardly exists beyond the next step. It feels pure. It hurts, but in a way that makes you feel alive. You’re working at your limits and there is something intoxicating in that. It’s not lonely at all, but more a time of communion with yourself at this real pure base level. It creates a safe space to struggle and puts you in touch with the world. The sky looks different when I’m running. I am aware of the contours in the ground, how it feels – the hardness of concrete, the softness of grass… it’s just a sense of enhanced feeling. However, as the run gets harder and longer, the sensory experience disappears and it becomes more internal.

“I regret it and all day I’m self-conscious”

Some of my suits no longer fit. My weight has slowly drifted as the weekly miles have gone up. I have a couple of jackets that hang large and the trousers fall baggy. I have shirts that blow up like parachutes in the wind. I have bought new suits and new shirts that fit, but sometimes I’m drawn to the clothes that don’t. As soon as I leave the house I regret it and all day I’m self-conscious people can tell. The truth is, it’s hardly noticeable. Like a small stain on a lapel or a speck of blood on a shirt collar, but when you notice something like that about yourself, it screams volumes.

I cannot remember exactly why I stopped talking to my mum. A collection of causes seems like the easiest way to put it, but these all crept up on both of us. I heard their steps and did nothing. Now it’s easier not to talk. The coldness has taken over. I’ve stepped aside and let it take over that part of my life for now. It’s just easier and for too long it’s been hard. Hard to keep that relationship going. Hard to ignore all the long shadows of things that were not said, more than those that were – of things that didn’t happen, more than the things that did.

The ripple of care is always there. In childhood more devastating in its approach. Now slowly corrosive on those familial ties that were cut the closest. My mum and the brother who went into care with me are both drifting away – all of us unable to save each other. Our attempts only seem to cause more damage. Another brother who stayed with my mum clings on. It’s messy, but us two are trying to muddle through.

“There is a light that’s thrown over how much we don’t fit”

Sometimes it’s just hard to make family fit. Nobody has a monopoly on that, but for some of us who are growing or who have grown up in care, there is a light that’s thrown over how much we don’t fit. We’re dragged into that illumination early on.

There are days when I struggle to fit in anywhere, including my own head, but the more other people let me peek into their lives, the more I see how that feeling floods us all. Deep down to the seabed of our being we’re all desperate to be loved, to be wanted, to connect with each other. We want to fit in. We want to fit together. It’s just that we have to find the places and people where we can do that. It is never everywhere.

The hardest thing for me right now is that I don’t want to talk to my mum. There is no bitterness, just tiredness. I have arranged with my wife for my mum to see our children. I want them to build their own relationship together. Something without the fractures. Something new. Something free of our past. It’s important to me for them to have that, but for the two of us, I need space. The history is heavy. I don’t want to wear it as before.

My daughter is three months old. My son approaching five. They fit like gloves. Around them I often forget myself. My thoughts scatter from their usual haunts and playgrounds. I exist more simply. Sometimes stressfully, but always more simply. Right now my daughter is staring over my wife’s shoulder and I wonder at her wonder. I fall into her big blue eyes that have seen so little of this life. They are full of wonder because she has so little to anchor what she sees in the world. So much of it is new and often she just stares at the world pouring in on her and I look in and find myself tipping in, caught in the tide. There is nothing else.

Tomorrow I’ll go out and run and forget most of this, but not my mum. I can’t stop caring and that complicates us all.



Those voices fall silent

Here we are again. Retracing lines. Day turns into night, back into day, back into night. The light and lack of it, the only real contact with time I have. The whole world existing inside the blue curtain pulled around us. Like the first time, this baby doesn’t want to come. We wait.

After two days and two nights she arrives in a crowded room of smiles and dedication. Two of the nurses cry as she is held up for me to finally reveal the surprise. I keep looking for it because I am sure we’re having another boy. It must be hiding. I keep looking and then slowly the words start to trickle from my mouth: “It’s a girl… it’s a girl… it’s a girl…” My wife lets out a kaleidoscope cry of joy, relief, exhaustion and a love that will forever resist any attempts to define it. I now have a daughter and a son. I can’t believe it. I sit behind my wife as everybody continues to play their role. I watch them in awe. This operating theatre worthy of its name – I’m watching a play of talented actors and I feel like a spectator until the midwife brings my daughter to me, wrapped in a white blanket, and places her in my arms. My legs swing from the chair unable to reach the floor. I look down at her. I still can’t believe it, yet it feels like the most normal thing to be holding her. It’s like she has always been here.

“How could they give you up and put you in other people’s places and other people’s lives?”

I know they’re coming. Pushed back by the occasion and the effort and the pouring out of love that floods in with the birth of a child. At times I feel as if I could drown in it. Yet they do come. The feelings with voices that pick at me. All the sentences leading to the same question – how could they have let you go like that? How could they give you up and put you in other people’s places and other people’s lives that were not their own? Over the years I have come to terms with the answers. I have made my peace and wrapped a rationality around it that keeps everything together, but every now and again there is an unravelling.

People are forever keen to tell you about their own experience of having children and to give you advice. How to get them to sleep through the night, the merits of breastfeeding, games to stimulate their brains in the hope of creating a little genius, but nobody ever mentioned the porthole that opens up that leads back to your own childhood or how you are thrust into your parents’ shoes and start to see your past anew. No longer just looking up at the world as child, but now looking down as a parent and seeing all you had known to be solid and true start to breakaway. The things you were so sure of, people’s personalities and decisions, start to slip because you now see the world through the worn in eyes of a parent and that changes everything underneath the surface of memory.

I have at times struggled with this. With these new eyes turning parts of the past on their head. I have understood more than ever why my mum took the difficult decision to put my brother and me into care. I can become her and take on my shoulders her pain. I can take on the violence and the abuse and the drink and the damage and then imagine how I could distance myself from my own child. I feel the hopelessness in myself and the hope that somebody else can provide my child with more than I have to give. But then cutting through this, especially when I look into the faces of my son and daughter now, is my certainty that I could never do that. I could never let them go like that. No matter what happens in my life, I know that I would dig as deep as was needed and fight any foe to hold onto my children and keep them close. There is anger at my parent’s weaknesses. There is pain that they didn’t have enough for me, but as my thoughts start to settle and the landscape starts to colour in my children, wife, friends, career, home, places I’ve been and the experiences I’ve had, those voices that whisper from the darkest places fall silent. Still, even though what my mum wanted for me, when she made that difficult decision to leave my brother and I with a neighbour for social services to pick up, has in some sense happened, it has come with a price.

I pay this price, as do my parents in their own way. We carry this experience, and the price more recently has been hefty, as my relationship with my mum has fallen apart. I get tired sometimes, holding it all together for her. She is very fragile and although I love her dearly I find this fragility hard to witness. For too long I felt like I was the adult and she the child, even when I was a boy. Now I really am a parent and sometimes I just wish I could be more like her son.

“To watch them with him, then and now, is like witnessing a resurrection.”

My dad and I went many years without seeing each other and when we did get back in touch I didn’t mention the past and neither did he until we came back from the pub and stood, in the early hours of the morning, in the kitchen, finally talking. I was standing by the sink. I looked up at him and said, “Why did you leave me out there?” It was a conversation that was hard for both of us, but all I ever wanted to hear was that he was sorry. I just needed to hear that. I understood why in my own head and could imagine how different events led to him walking away like he did. He did try and we kept contact here and there throughout my childhood, but there was a space where both he and my mum were missing. After we talked, everything between us felt so much lighter. When I had my son, my dad and his wife looked after him one day a week. To watch them with him, then and now, is like witnessing a resurrection. I cannot get back my childhood, but I see – now – how that time is enriching my own children’s lives.

I have not slept much lately. My daughter is now five weeks old and she has exceptional lungs. My wife says my son was the same, but I’m not so sure. You’ve just purposely blocked that part out of your memory, she says. Perhaps I have, we can’t carry everything that has happened to us, but we can make the most of that stuff we do carry.



I still see those faces

I am starting to catch moments in the mirror where I don’t quite recognise my reflection. Small lines creeping around the eyes, grey hairs flickering through the dark crowd, the sharpness of it all slowly slipping loose. Age painting its familiar pattern.

I still play football on Sunday mornings, though I can’t run as fast as I used to. It feels like a death that nobody else will ever notice. Many of my happiest childhood memories involved running. Chasing and being chased on the estate. Racing in the school playground on breaks. Sprinting across football pitches to win a ball and across an athletics track to pass a baton or dip for a finish-line. I will never run like that again.

My muscles mutter and moan on Monday mornings. They threaten strikes on Tuesdays. But by Wednesday they have forgotten and it’s back to work as usual. My wife sometimes says I should stop playing, but I’m holding on.

I feel bits and pieces of what has been my life breaking away. There is only so much you can take with you as the years tick by. It is a bittersweet feeling in the context of my childhood. For a long time I felt like its prisoner. Ashamed and scarred. As time passes and people pass through your life, you can surprise yourself with the distance you travel if you head in a direction and keep on going. Being a survivor was never enough for me. I had to go beyond that. I’m still going.

People are a great help in this journey, but nobody else can do your healing for you. That took me a long time to understand. Mine has been a broken path. Almost untraceable. But I’m here and there is no shame now.

You have all left your marks on me. I found myself in the arms of somebody who said I will never leave you, I found friendships in different continents that sometimes lasted moments and other times, years. All helped me heal and grow. I remember the night we spent sitting by the beach with the bottle of port, pouring out our lives. The stories shared over games of Backgammon, on the rooftop in the breeze. The mixtape that included ‘Protection’. The letter you saved from the bin and stuck back together. Dancing our legs out in Kuala Lumpur and you letting me stay in your home. The times you carried me home. The times I carried you home. Singing to Madonna songs. Lives lived in Eversleigh Halls. Misfits finding a place to fit. Giving me a chance. Giving me a life. Sharing a life. Making a life. I still see those faces.

I have been able to take this difficult time of being a child in care and shine a new light on it. I have wandered for a long time in these memories. I wander in the new ones I made after that time. I’m not sure if all the memories are my own and if any are imposters, but I don’t ponder this for long these days. The only thing I can rely on is how I feel about my childhood, especially the time I spent in care and how this affected me. It was difficult and at times painful. I remember a strong sense of never being able to truly express myself outside of anger, though it was not always like that. I feel protective of this period. I feel protective over the memories where I see myself smiling and laughing. I also feel protective over the pain that cocooned itself deep within me, but time has passed – and as I have changed through the years and collided with the lives of others, my childhood has taken flight from much the pain and lifted me with it.

As I become more forgetful, dark spots drift across my recollections of the past – my childhood partially obscured by them. Where once I would have been glad to forget, now I am trying to hold on to the memories.

For the last thirteen years I have been writing about my care experiences. I have a cardboard box in my bedroom full with writing. Lined pads, small notebooks and scraps of paper. Memory sticks scattered around the house full of files full of more writing. Stacks of sentences all about that time in my life. I am desperately trying to keep that boy alive.

I love that little boy and I am so proud of him. I want to tell him he is going to be alright. I want to tell him he will be loved beyond his imagination and he will learn to give away his love. A love so powerful it will sometimes scare the man he will become.

I fear that by writing all this, I am using that little boy. I fear exploiting him. That fear is always there, but I keep writing because I want to give him and me a voice that was missing for a long time. I also want to celebrate him, and anyone who has been in care. Together with those that look after us, we are an exceptional family, even as our memories fade and our reflections change.

 

 



Reflections – Part 2
August 14, 2015, 11:06 am
Filed under: Foster care | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

(Reflections – Part 1)

I rarely dwell on the past these days. Increasingly it feels like an old house I have almost moved out of. The walls and floors bare. The furniture gone. The last of what is left in cardboard boxes waiting to be taken away in the final load.

The older memories that make this past are slowly slipping away. Making space for the newer ones. My son navigating the assault course on sports day. Arms and chest pumping. My wife’s face as she takes my hand and places it on her belly, ‘can you feel it?’. Newer books. Newer songs. Newer surroundings. Slowly being in care is getting away from me and I don’t know exactly how to feel about it.

Growing up in care has dug itself deep into my DNA, but increasingly more is pouring into that space. It is getting crowded. Older parts unfamiliar. Lost on the fringes. A part of me says I should be happy about that. The time was hard. Lonely. Incredibly lonely. But it was also giving. Giving of people who wanted to care. Giving of new experiences. Giving of the opportunity to do something different with my life.

There are malignant memories I cut out long ago. I needed to so I could keep going. Other memories I wanted to hold on to, but they had to be edited. A trim here, some extra light there. Characters cut from a scene. New words for old. We all do it, mainly unconsciously. Tinkering and forgetting. Rearranging our own life story. A constant reboot. Unfortunately there were casualties.  I lost some of the smiles, cuddles, laughter and silences where I was happy to be there and nowhere else. I know this because after seeing the Halls again after twenty one years they started making their way back into me.

One of the hardest things about writing this particular blog (I have been writing and changing it constantly for the last 11 months) is it forced me to reflect on my memory and question its authenticity in parts. It led me to question my own authenticity as a person. Where do I fit in all of this? I found the whole thing disorientating.

Over this period I found myself accepting that these memories would never sit still. They would always be on the move. Always changing. Something in them would remain solid, but like clouds they would forever be shifting shape.

I think back now to my meeting with the Halls. Driving in the car and my wife asking if I was ok. I felt as if I hardly existed. Like a stick figure scrawled on a blank page. The markets Jenny Hall and I had once shopped in for my school uniforms and that silver suit I wore at her twenty fifth wedding anniversary with Michael blurred past outside we drove the short drive from my house to the Halls house. I stared ahead not wanting to look at my wife. I didn’t want to feel. I feared her eyes would unlock my own. We moved quickly through clear roads until the sat-nav announced the last turn and suddenly we were outside the Halls’ house. I stopped the car and just sat still for a moment. An emptiness and then a gushing of feelings. I felt like a big man. I have a family, my own home, a job and a car. I can do this. I felt like the small boy on their door step with all his belongings in plastic bags waiting for the door to open. Every part of my body felt heavy. I couldn’t move. I was scared. Excited. Sick. Proud. Alone. Protected. Vulnerable. The man. The boy. Both wrapped up in each other.

“Shall I get Dylan?” my wife asked. Our son sat nervously in his car seat in the back. His big brown eyes darting between me, my wife and outside the window. This new place unfamiliar to him too. “No I’ll get him,” I said, getting out my seat. I walked around the back of the car and felt the heaviness in my limbs leaving. A lightness taking its place. I reached into the car and lifted Dylan out of his safety seat. We grabbed onto each other and held on tight. His little arms and legs flooding me with strength. I remember words running through my mind like ticker tape ‘This is my son and I am his dad,’ as I walked towards the Halls’ front gate with Dylan in my arms. ‘This is my son and I am his dad’. My wife opened the gate and together we all walked down the path.

A knock at the door, maybe the ring of a bell. A curtain flickered to our right and then was pulled back. Jenny on the other side looking out at us. Our eyes meeting. Smiling. Surprise and a softness that I had not remembered she had spreading across her face. The hardness I had always remembered already fading. The door opened and we all hugged each other before sitting down on the soft chairs in the front room. I scanned the unfamiliar room, its contents quickly forgotten. We started talking. I don’t know who or where. Much the hour or so I spent with the Halls is a blur, but what anchors deep in me about seeing the Halls is that a part of me was home, but completely at peace with the Halls. I had left on the worst terms, but now my leaving was just a tiny piece of something bigger and better then I had been remembering over all these years.

Jenny, Michael and Rebecca are part of a fragmented family I carry inside me. A rich tapestry that I am forever patching together. A fabric, as strong as blood. Carers in children’s homes like Leonard and Carol that gave me more time than just their shifts; friends and their families who have shared their tables and Christmases with me; Ken who went from being a work colleague to a mentor to my hero because he loved me unconditionally; my wife’s family who have always embraced me, even though for a long time I found this hard to accept, but they were understanding and I love them more for that.  I look at this beautiful, complicated, messy tapestry that is my life and I see the Halls and my heart hurts in that good way.

This was supposed to be the end of this blog entry, but it didn’t feel quite right. It needed more, but I had lost the detail, so I asked my wife, whose memory is far better than mine, about the day we met the Halls and what she remembered.

I remember the glazed look and then the smile of recognition from Michael when you first walked in.

I remember the yapping dog running in between all of us as we sat awkwardly on the sofas all facing each other….Dylan and the puppy were the focus for about 20 minutes whilst everyone eased their way in.

I remember Jenny was sat next to you and kept on looking at you with a big smile on her face. Michael was regal in his comfy chair to your left, and flitted between benign smiles to glimmers of recognition and joviality with you and Jenny. 

I remember it was you who started the reminiscing game. You would say a name of someone you all had known, some I recognised, some I didn’t, and Jenny would fill you in on what they were doing, who they were married to, what trouble they were in. The conversation seemed stilted at first. You jumped from person to person to keep it flowing, and then slowly it became about you all. First all of the good memories. Some of the films you watched, you mentioned Christmas and the pork you would pickle in jars for days before. You talked of your memories of the extended family, and the house itself. You talked about your brother and you all laughed about him and the trouble he got into. Michael came alive when he heard his name. He would look at me across the room and smile and occasionally said “they always take the mick out of me”.

I remember the one cup of tea we both had getting cold, and Dylan getting restless. I remember feeling like I was an outsider looking in, but for once not feeling annoyed that you didn’t help me penetrate the conversation.  I remember Dylan outside running around their beautiful garden, and Jenny standing by the back door watching him, saying what a lovely little boy we had.

I remember there being mainly laughter… I don’t remember any bad stuff being spoken of. I remember the glint in your eye when we left, and squeezing your knee in the car driving home. I remember thinking you might cry with relief, and I remember wanting to cry myself but holding it together for you.

I remember taking the picture in the garden of you all, and thinking you all looked like a family. I remember your very long and lingering hug with Jenny, and thinking that it was almost medicinal for you and the darkness you had felt about the Halls when you and I first met. I remember being moved by the intensity of the goodbye. 

I do remember you walking on air for a few hours afterwards. It was a lovely sight.

I also remember Dylan eating crisps but that does not seem important.



Reflections
November 4, 2014, 3:45 pm
Filed under: Foster care | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I stare into the full length mirror. Thirty-six years rewinding to reveal a fifteen-year-old boy. This echo I still collide with from time to time. This is the same boy who slid himself out of the back window of their Toyota mini-van and ran. I blink and twenty-one years pour back into the mirror. What will they think of me now?

I have not seen Jenny and Michael, the Halls as I would refer to them down the years, since that night. Since the argument about the little girl from The Cosby Show dancing and singing in her first music video.

‘You can see what she is going to be like when she grows up’ Jenny says. I have been waiting for this moment. The slow deterioration between the Halls and I had been leading here and had quickened in recent weeks. Breaking point had been brushed while on holiday in Jamaica. Something about a shower. Did I or did I not have one? I said I had, but they didn’t believe me. We all stopped talking for the rest of the holiday. I remember eating pizza with an American couple who were staying in the same hotel as us. They thought it was madness. Did I ever have that shower, I sometimes wonder.

When we returned to London I was asked to apologise for the incident. I refused. Apologise for what? I had had enough. Enough of them, enough of me with them, just enough of it all. This had to be broken. Smashed to pieces. I was good at breaking things.

Jenny’s comment about the Cosby Show Girl hung in the air for a moment. Before I would have stopped myself. Swallowed the sentence. Respect your elders. But elders are not always right. Deep down the fear of being moved again to the unknown often forced me to resist the urge to speak my mind. I had been in other foster homes and children’s homes. They were not all like the Halls’. I may have struggled there at times and that comes with being in care, but I also remember the excitement of Christmas they conjured, Sunday nights watching ‘That’s Life’ with Horlicks and running around the common with Michael covered in dust and dressed in half his work clothes.

Towards the end I constantly found myself tipping over the edge of their many boundaries. The same boundaries I am currently laying for my own son. There seemed to be so many of them.

I had come from a place almost without limits. Here they were everywhere. Boundaries for behaviour (there will be no punching, pushing or kicking). Boundaries for eating (just one packet of crisps and a funsize chocolate a day (and you must eat fruit)). Boundaries for speaking (we will not accept swearing or the use of the word ‘ain’t’). Boundaries for what time you had to go to bed (simply cruel). The most painful boundary of all was the front door.

At home it might as well have been non-existent. Back then, when I got in from school, if I even came home, I was immediately back out through the front door. The estate was my playground. Now I was trapped. I never saw then the dangers the streets sometimes conceal from a mad little boy desperate to climb about building sites and hang out building camps in garages.

My mum had tried her best to set her own boundaries when we lived together, but I never cared. She was weak and we both knew it. The shouting and screaming never made a difference. I just laughed at her. She was struggling to control herself. What chance did she have with a little boy who thought he was already a man.

The Cosby Show Girl’s video had finished, but I was just starting. ‘How do you know what she is going to be when she grows up? What kind of stupidness is that!?’, I said. By now we had walked outside and were heading for the mini-van to drive home.  More words flew between us, but Rebecca (Jenny and Michael’s daughter) had had enough. ‘Just be quiet John!’ she shouted. More ammunition. I didn’t hesitate and shouted back. ‘Shut yer mouth!’. It was a phrase Jenny and Michael hated.

Throughout the argument Michael had kept his silence. We did not call him Mr Miyagi – the calm and wise mentor to the Karate Kid – for nothing. It wasn’t just he looked a bit like him, it was also that he shared his serenity and good nature.

But this was no Hollywood film and Michael had also had enough. He jumped out of the driver’s seat, opened the side door of the van I had just climbed into and grabbed me round the collar. He pulled me towards him and was shouting words that just washed over me. There was a fraction of a second where I just knew I had done it. This was the breaking things part. It was a relief. There was no coming back and in the heart of such an angry situation I felt peace. A couple more tugs and I was back in the real world. I pulled away from Michael, who was already releasing me with what looks like regret in my memory’s eyes, though I could be wrong. I had one last look and then dragged myself out of the back window and ran.

I had arrived at the Halls’ as a ten year old with my brother with just a few bags and a lot of baggage. They had filled my life with so much more than I could have experienced if I hadn’t have ended up on their doorstep. They were human. There were mistakes, but they cared deeply about me. I stayed with them for almost four years over two different periods. It ended with me running away from them in that van. I ran back to my mum’s house, where I would stay briefly before going to live with my best friend for the rest of my time in someone else’s care.

I stare into the mirror. In one hour I will be meeting the Halls again. ‘Are you ready John? I think we should go now?’, my wife shouts from downstairs. I don’t know if I am.

To be continued…




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