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.




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