Own two feet


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.

 

 

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It all happened so fast.

First an email asking if I would be interested in filming a small piece about fatherhood.

Then there was a phone call. This turned into a mini interview with an assistant producer from Channel 4’s ‘4Thought’ programme – the series of two minute pieces they show after the news.

Then there was some to-ing and fro-ing, over dates and whether the filming would be in London or Manchester.

Then I was on a train heading to Manchester with my girlfriend Clea, and my son Dylan.

If I’m honest, I never really stopped to think through what I was doing properly. My only real thoughts and concerns were for my own parents, especially my dad.

When I told my mum in the kitchen on one of her weekly visits to my flat, she broke down. ‘I’m still so ashamed’ she wept.

‘Mum we’re not those people anymore,’ I said trying to fix the moment. But we both knew we were still those people or, at least, that we still carried those people within us.

The boy who couldn’t understand why nobody wanted him. The mother who was afraid of what she might do to the boy if he stayed: ‘I know you have to do this, I just wish things were different’.

My mum has fought a war with herself ever since she made that decision, twenty five years ago.

I have watched from the sidelines, unable to help her because ultimately this is a civil war, and only she can call the truce that will end it.

I have tried to let her know, while I can never quite understand how she came to that decision, I can somehow, in some way, appreciate it.

I know her story and I lived some of that story and the truth is I think she is amazing to still be here. Scarred and weary, still struggling at times, she is an inspiration everyday.

But she would never accept that.

I didn’t tell my dad about the programme until after I had filmed it. I was afraid. Not of him, but for him. Together, over the last few years, we have built bridges that have become strong.

We have built something brand new together. We couldn’t fix what had passed, but we could make something new and we did. Since my son was born this has only got stronger and, at the same time, he has softened.

He is vulnerable. He is human. He’s my dad.

I wanted to protect him as he is now, but I knew I had to talk about him as he was then.

I knew talking about the past would be difficult for all of us. As I lay in the bath that night after filming, I decided to phone him. He listened as I told him about the programme and how I had been approached.

I felt like I was stabbing him in the back. He had changed. We had changed. It felt like I was digging up the past, but at the same time I wanted to tell a small part of my story and his story: a story of change and resolution.

After I stopped talking there was a pause. ‘It’s ok’ he said ‘we’re all in harmony now’. A weight lifted off of me.

When the programme was filmed I spent 30 minutes in a chair talking about being in care, my dad, how I found Jesus for a bit as a substitute for a dad and then I talked about being a dad myself.

The whole thing was a blur.

Before the interview, I asked that they make sure that they included that my dad and I were in a very different place now, but they didn’t. As expected, 30 minutes was cut down to under 2 mins, but in the edit my dad was left battered and bruised.

Bits and pieces I had said to balance the story were now missing. I felt my story had been twisted, but at the same time I was proud of the piece as a document. At the end they showed my girlfriend and my son, and the experience of filming it together is a memory of now that we can cherish and protect.

I was worried, after seeing the film, about my dad. But he took it on the chin with a joke about how it being an ‘assassination’.

As I sit here now typing this out I think he is completely right, but probably not in the way he meant it.

It was an assassination. The man I talk of as my father in that film is dead. People do change. Families that are broken can be remade different, remade anew.

We still carry all the bumps and bruises and we still carry the people that we were. But I don’t hold onto this past because although that is somewhere I have been, it is not where I am now.

I dedicate this blog to my mum and dad. Thank you for living the change that it is so important for us all to believe in.

The 4thought piece is available to watch online.



HOMEWARD BOUND

I get lost in my mind a lot. Like many other minds, it’s a complex mess stuffed full of secrets and stairwells and bright lights and nights that can reach into the days.

I pretend I have control of it most of the time, but there are days and times when I am just a passenger. It is easy to lose myself and to lose the world around me. I think we all need to lose ourselves from time to time though, so we can find ourselves again, if only for a moment.

I lost myself getting onto the tube at Goodge Street station near to where I work. I wandered off in my mind and by the time I found my way back the train was pulling into Barnes. The change at Waterloo from tube to train escaped me. The hanging clock on the platform told me I was two hours early for a meeting at Roehampton University.

I started walking, slipping once again into automatic pilot and instead of heading for the university, I found myself cutting through Barnes Common and heading for the estate I grew up on before I went into care.

As I got closer my mind spilled screams from summers a long time ago. Water fell from balconies in balloons and tiny hands squeezed blasts of water out of old fairy bottles. I pushed away the stillborn dreams and broken promises. Sometimes the past needs to be pruned if you want to carry it a long way.

I crossed the Upper Richmond Road and my old tower block cut into sight. More memories. Racing our BMXs, bunny hops and wheelies. Cutting the bark of trees with our flick knives and the football kicked about deep into the night. As I walked up the newly paved curly hill I felt the pain only the past can inflict. The echo of lost time and a boy’s life that was once mine, but feels like a stranger’s. This was my home….at least I think it was.

I wandered the estate for a long time. We had both changed. The pit where I played football was gone. It had been filled in and paved over. The new bushes and trees that have been scattered around the place looked like refugees. The brightly painted metal railings and empty playgrounds looked like cheap make-up on a worn out face. This was not the place I remember.

Not so long ago, my mum finally moved off the estate, at least physically. She had stayed longer then she should have in the hope her daughter, a sister I have never met, would find her waiting. ‘Do you think she will come looking?’ my mum sometimes asks me. ‘I  have so much I want to say’.  But she has not come looking yet. I wonder what my mum would say.

Growing up in care often makes it hard to put down lasting roots. We hold onto the old roots, no matter how damaged they may be, because they are ours. Sometimes we have to change the story of those old roots. We forget what we need to and remember what we want to. But although our history is important, it is what makes us, it is also important to be able to say goodbye to parts of the past to make room for the future and for the laying of new roots.

Before I left the estate I went by the off-licence. ‘Hi John, this is surprise, how have you been keeping?’ Ali the shop owner was still there. A little older, a little heavier and more smiley. ‘I’m really well’ I replied.
‘And how’s mum?’
‘She’s really good’ I said, hoping I was right.

The estate faded as I headed off to my meeting. Fab lolly in hand, I thought of my girlfriend and my son and the home we are always making together. The bricks come from every place I have ever been, but we’re building something new, and this construction never ends.



Pattern cutting
January 18, 2011, 12:04 pm
Filed under: Moving on | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I reach for my girlfriend’s hand, squeeze it tight and stare into the darkness of the hospital monitor. A flicker, a flash and then a head, a big head.

I can feel the pressure of my girlfriend’s hand and I already know she’s crying. I stare into the darkness. I see a tiny leg kick and then a bright white hand waves across the screen. I feel a thousand clichés pour out of me and I want to stand up and hold the monitor close to my chest.

I turn to my girlfriend and tears are rolling down her face. She is smiling, the midwife is smiling, and I can feel the happiness silently screaming out of me. I swallow it back down and stare back to where my baby is growing. ‘Everything is as it should be’, the midwife says.

As soon as we both get home I change into my running stuff and head back out into the night. I run harder than normal in the hope that if I can tire out my body I will also exhaust my mind. But my mind runs faster than my legs and I run to the flashes of my own childhood and the imagined childhood of the baby growing inside my girlfriend’s stomach, oblivious of what is waiting outside.

I cannot help but remember. The past more present than ever.

I remember all the spaces where my mum and dad should have been but were not there. I think of that helpless child and cannot understand how my parents let me slip away from them. My baby is not even fully formed, but I love it like crazy. This love is so pure that it doesn’t need explanation and it is the same love my parents felt for me, but yet it wasn’t enough to make them keep me.

It is when I start to think a little bit deeper and remember a little bit more that I am able to understand that what happened to me had nothing to do with how much my parents loved me. They both came from upbringings that were hard. My dad’s I know little of, but whenever I go to see him sing with his band, I can hear an echo of something darker  that lies behind the smiles and showmanship.   

My mum I know more of. I know she was abandoned by her own parents and was later picked out from a sea of faces in an orphanage to be adopted by an elderly couple. Her life from there was one of abuse, secure units, drink, drugs, exploitation and confusion. Her own parents, a drunk and a not very good bank robber, set a pattern, a pattern that she continued.

Patterns are hard to break. They link families for generations for good and for bad. When you grow up in care that pattern is deep and strong and breaking it takes a mighty effort. Sometimes you just accept it because when you hurt so much and have been through so much it is all that you know. Sometimes you reach out and there is nothing there. You come home after a bad day at school and you’re surrounded by strangers on shifts at a children’s home, or foster carers who you know are only short term.

The pattern weaves itself into your skin and your behaviour. Your parents’ problems, insecurities and bad habits become your own, and it is hard to find a way out. But chains break and we are not slaves to the blood that courses through our veins. Nor are we slaves to our childhoods. We should never forget our heritage and where we are from, but those things are not our masters, we always have choices no matter where they may hide.

I understand that for some, the weight of the past can be too much to bear and if there is not the support of others to help carry it, then people can be crushed by their pasts and all the insecurities they breed. But, as I’ve said before, if people can get a hold of their past and be able to explore it with support and guidance, that can become their ultimate strength.

My mum’s past for many years left her broken. She fell into a trap all too familiar and did not want to take me down with her. So she gave me up. She wanted more for me then she could give. I can’t say I have ever escaped living in care or the pain that it brought me, but I have got a hold of these demons and now they work for me.

Now it is my turn to become a parent, though I still feel like a child, and to help bring a new generation into the world. Now I get a chance to smash a pattern that has run through my family for many years and perhaps many generations.

I know I will make mistakes, loads of mistakes, but I will keep trying. A part of me is scared, but a bigger part of me is excited because I believe now I will truly see that my time in care was a real success.

Sometimes it is important to reflect on the past and to look through all the rubbish and the tears and the rejection and the pointless meetings and the social workers and the Christmas’s and Birthdays when you missed home and think I am still standing here after all that… now I want more.




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