Own two feet


Returning home to say goodbye
February 2, 2017, 1:39 pm
Filed under: childhood, family, Foster care, Life in care, Memory, Social workers, Uncategorized

Part One

I am on my hands and knees. Fingers blindly searching under the front seat of my car. All I need is another five pence. Fifty more minutes of paid parking then it’s free for the day. There must be something down here. Coins are forever falling from my pockets with a curse and a clink, finding the most awkward spaces. I often forget to retrieve them. Careless, I lose everything. Money, keys, gloves, phones, bank cards, people’s names, odd socks, important notes, the punchlines to jokes. I find it hard to hold on to anything for long.

This time the floor is bare but for a biro, Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ CD and a blue Peanut M&M. I go to Plan B and reach for my credit card. My so-called smartphone struggles to load the prescribed parking app. When it finally does and I add my details, it crashes. I try again and this time it works. Payment accepted. Car safe. I’ve beaten the wave of vulture like traffic wardens I’m sure are circling in the next road.

But the feeling of victory slowly fades and I’m left standing on the pavement by the parking machine. The thoughts – on loop in my head all day – return once again. Thoughts of Michael lying in the building at the end of the road. What will I say?

I went to live with Michael Hall when I was nine years old. Michael, his wife Jenny, their son Mikey who I idolised, and daughter Rebecca. They had two dogs. Judy the Red Setter with funny teeth and Lily the little Yorkshire Terrier with smelly breath.

Their two older sons, David and Mark, had left home and had their own young families before I moved in. Then there were the aunties and uncles and grandparents and cousins and nieces and nephews. If that was not enough the church was a whole other family – many of them also actual Hall family – it was headed by Michael’s brother Conrad, who led the congregation as its Pastor in his big white house two doors down.

There were always a lot of people around. At home it had only ever been my mum, my brother and me. Towards the end a new baby brother arrived that my mum would keep when we left. Our dads were in and out and the wider family scarce and scattered, it all seemed fairly normal and still does, though my dad and I are now much closer and see each other regularly.

In the Hall’s I saw for the first time another way a family can exist. I loved this new big collective. I wanted to be part of it, part of them and in some ways, I was, but I also just wanted to go home, and a part of me still does. Over time that part of me has become quieter. I rarely hear him calling out like he used to but from time to time I hear the whispers. I listen. I tell him he has a new home now, but he still remembers.

I, and one of my younger brothers, stayed with the Hall’s until I was thirteen, when we left and were moved into a children’s home around the corner. Soon after, my brother and I were split up. The time apart from our mum finally took its toll and turned us in on each other. He reminded me so much of her. It should have bought us closer together, but it only highlighted what we had both lost. ‘He’s holding me back,’ I’d often say. He was getting into trouble. Messing things up for both of us with his behaviour. And it was harder to be placed as two brothers. I had more chance alone. I persisted in breaking us and we broke. A fracture that cannot be fixed. We no longer talk. From the children’s home he was moved on somewhere else. A few months later I returned to the Hall’s.

The final weeks of my second stay with the Halls were sad. Our relationship deteriorated. Blame, once so prevalent, slowly destroying the memories I had of them, has now been laid to rest. It’s a worthless artefact. I don’t even know who was to blame, if anyone at all. The wear and tear of being in care, the confusion of adolescence we all stumble through, old fashioned teenage rebellion and the scream to be heard, their weariness of me, my weariness of them. In the end all of our own personal realties could no longer find a way to mesh together, so we just fell apart.

It came to a crescendo of silly words battered back and forth between us over the little girl from the Cosby show, which ended in the small confines of a Toyoto Space Cruiser as Michael angrily pulled at the scruff of my shirt. I had pushed and pushed and found the edge I so badly wanted to finally leap from and I was going to take them all with me. It was the only time I remember Michael losing his temper, but I have no recollection of being afraid. I only felt sorry it had come to this.

Those times I had sobbed in the kitchen – unable to find the words – he knew and took me in his arms and just let me cry. Now a part of me didn’t want him to let go of my collar because I knew in the moment I was going to run and there was no coming back. His anger was taken over by something else. His grip loosened. The shouting stopped and I took my opportunity to escape. I quickly slid my skinny frame out of the Space Cruiser passenger window, hit the road and just ran into the night. I would not see the Hall’s for another twenty-three years.

In the years that followed I dug deep holes and threw in my memories of the Hall’s. So many memories were silenced. Our painful ending. Not being able to go in the fridge or sit on the expensive sofa. But I didn’t distinguish between good and bad. It all had to go the same way.
I let myself extinguish their love and how much they cared for me. Gone were faint memories of happy Christmases and trips abroad. Fun shopping trips, running around the common with Michael, sitting down as a family to watch ‘That’s Life’ on a Sunday. Playing football with Mikey and his friends, Jenny tucking us in at night, balloon tennis games, staying up late to watch England play the USA. I let the laughter and the silliness go too.

Eventually our ending was just another rejection, another bunch of people who didn’t want me. My pain revelled in its destructive nature and its ability to make things disappear, so I made them vanish. Almost.

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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.



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.




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