Own two feet


They took me

The place I ran. The place I rode. The place I screamed. The place I shouted. The place I laughed. The place I stole. The place I said sorry.  The place I would not. The place doors slammed. The place footballs flew. The place camps grew. The place I fought. The place I kissed. The place I held. The place I let go. The place of swings. The place of struggles.  The place of scaffolding. My mum. My brother. My friends. The place of games. The place I won. The place I lost. The place I called home.

They took me from that place. They took me somewhere else. From SW15 to SW16. Just a single digit difference, but a world away for a nine year old.

Everything I knew, for good, bad and all else that slips in between, slowly faded behind me. All my roots that cut through the concrete surfaces of the estate and embedded themselves deep into the ground were hacked at, but never severed. As much as I was flesh and bone, I was also the concrete tower blocks and metal railings of the estate I still see when I sometimes drive it. I was still the curly hill I would skateboard down and I was still Ali’s shop over the road and up the slope where mum could buy things on tick. I’m still that place.

The social worker who picked me up from a neighbour’s house was answering the call my mum made. She could not cope. I was put into the state hands and the state did what it thought was best. A family was found via a short stay in a children’s home. A good Christian family. A family with a mum and a dad and sons and a daughter and two dogs. They had two bathrooms and thick carpets. They had a garden with a shed and they even had a basement.

I remember being amazed when I first arrived at the foster home. The quiet road lined with trees. The tiny room when you first walked in to hang coats up in and put your shoes. The red wine stairs that climbed high to the first floor and then kept climbing beyond. The welcoming faces…but this was not just SW16, this was another country.

They spoke a different language. They kept picking me up about my dropping of ‘t’s’ and my use of the word ‘ain’t’. They dressed differently. They ate different food. They went to Church. They prayed. They went on planes. They filled the trolley to bursting in Sainsbury’s. They sat round a table at meal times.

Some of these things I fell into. So many of them brand new. I liked the material things. Things I could touch. Things I could taste. Things I could hold on to. Things I could keep. In my file I would later read that the foster parents questioned my desires to possess things. It was seen as shallow, but if one looked a bit deeper they would have understood when the most precious things are taken away from you, possession of things in itself becomes important.

But what I wanted more than anything was to go back home to where I belonged. Where I fit in. Where people understood me and where I understood them. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have the words to express all these things because we didn’t need words. We just were. In between the struggle we held on to each other and we helped each other. Even when we were fighting.

In the end though my mum couldn’t hold us all together. She was not strong enough. She needed more help and support and unfortunately either it was not there or she didn’t know how to take it.

A decision was taken early on to slowly sever the link between my mum and I and the estate. After each visit I suffered. My temper would flare. I did not have the experience, the strength, the understanding to contemplate what was happening to me. My head was a constant riot. So much noise. At night I would sometimes sit in the dark thinking about everything and it would become too much. I would wake up in wet sheets and just lay in them hoping they would dry and nobody would know. They always did.

The dislocation from where I had grown up hurt me profoundly. It was not just the distance between me and my mum, but it was the distance that was allowed to open up like a chasm between me and my friends and the estate that was home.

I remember once my friend Brian coming to visit me. Both of us just boys. It is a memory that has recently returned to me. I was so ashamed. He was my best friend and I was ashamed. I think that was the last time I saw him in my childhood.

A home is more than what lies behind your front door. It is more than a family. It is the paths you pass through every day. It’s the two steps you always jump over at the end of the stairwell. It’s the bunches of daffodils you hurdle every summer. It’s the pissy lift you help make pissy. It’s the anti-climbing paint on your hands. It’s the concrete pavement slabs you scratch ‘I woz ere’ on. Home is where you lay your life.

It saddens me to read that children taken into care are still placed in foster homes and children’s homes far from the places they once called their own homes. Sometimes this in other far flung parts of the country. I do appreciate for some children this distance is necessary and in their best interests, but ultimately adults need to remember that even a couple of miles can seem like a huge distance to a child.

It took me a long time to accept I was not going home, but I believe the separation could have been handled much better if people had taken the time to listen to me and to ask the right questions. Time should have been taken to help me through that process. It was, and at times, still feels like a bereavement. One day I was running around on the estate feeling like a king and then the next I was in care, in a foster home asking if it was alright to get a drink of water.

I benefited from being taken into care and although my placements did breakdown, as it did with the family in SW16 after the second period I was there, I have understood it was best for me. That is sometimes hard to reconcile because it has hurt my relationship with my mum and destroyed my relationship with one of my brothers. Still, I know the alternative is I would have likely ended up in a place I do not want to look too deeply into.

I just wish the adults that were tasked to look after me could have looked a little deeper, been a bit more patient and tried to stand in my scruffy trainers. 

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