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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14
August 8, 2013, 2:46 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , ,

My intention for this blog entry was to rewrite something I had composed sitting in my garden way past midnight some time ago. I had just dropped Daniel (not his real name) back to his foster carers. It was the first time he had been to my house. He met my wife. We talked in the garden, ate lasagne and then spent the rest of the night cracking up to Richard Pryor.

When I got back home I went out into the garden and sat on the bench bathed in the light of the security lamp. I was exhausted. That’s when the feeling comes. It comes from a long long way and drags so much with it. It is part of the deal. I accept that. Right now all that text I wrote without much thought sits under the line I am now watching drag itself across this computer screen. Those words down there feel too far away now, like someone I once knew, but have lost touch with.

As always, the beginning of my writing is a struggle. I often start with a voiceless feeling that aches to be more. It aches into a ripple, a ripple into a tide, a tide of words. Words the last gasp of that original feeling and a poor substitute because what I feel put into words is always running away from what I’m really trying to say. Every word dilutes these feelings. I wish I could paint.

How can I introduce Daniel and our relationship? On the forms I fill out after our meetings they say I am his mentor, which makes him my mentee. Both terms jar in my throat and whenever they leave my lips in conversation an apology immediately chases them down.

I know what I am supposed to say about our supposed roles and I could reel off all sorts of things about what my ‘function’ is supposed to be. But we’re just two people in a strange situation and I am trying my hardest to let him know I am here, and I understand.

But increasingly I see I can’t understand like I thought I could. Everybody’s care experience is different. I can read reports and case studies and study statistics, but Daniel has his own story. Whilst it’s true that we share the experience of being in care, that is not always a bridge. He does not want his vulnerability to be put on show.

When I first met him with his social worker, Daniel sat slouched in his chair and looked disinterested. It took me back. I couldn’t help but remember all the times I sat just like that with my ‘I don’t care face’, all the while listening, watching and processing it all. I felt helpless and so out of control. I looked into his eyes as he sat across from me and I wasn’t fooled by his apparent disinterest.

We have got on from the beginning. Laughed and joked. We have set boundaries, but both creep over them from time to time. He tests me, pushes me and when he asks if I have ever taken drugs or if I smoke or asks about women I stumble through my thoughts of what to say.

He stands at almost 6ft and I have to remind myself he is 14, but I also have to remind myself that everything we build is on trust. At the beginning I avoided some of his questions and fell back on the ‘that’s private, I’m not saying yes or no’, but that has faded as we have got closer. He opens up to me and tells me things that make me laugh, but then also scare me.

But this relationship is much harder than I ever thought it would be. In the training before I started they warned me that it would be tough at times. There would be let downs and the relationship could possibly break up. This is not for the faint-hearted or the fleetingly altruistic.

There are times when you want to give up because you feel you are not making a difference and it can really hurt. You can give a lot and get nothing back, but as Angela (who runs Stepping Up UK who I mentor through) said ‘he keeps turning up doesn’t he? So you must be doing something right’.

Those words carried me a long way. I have to admit at the beginning I thought it would be different for me as somebody who had grown up in care. I thought I could clamber my way through all the barbed wire that I knew would be between us at the beginning. But, of course,there are no free passes. Trust takes time and lots of hard work. Trust is probably the most important thing to somebody in care; trust and time.

I am getting used to long silences and one word answers to questions. I also constantly remind myself he is 14 and this comes with the territory. I am getting good at stealing smiles off him through my own stupidity. He is teaching me to be a better father to my son and also how to listen better.

We both take turns to teach and learn, though I wish I could have more influence on him. He has so much potential. Words that are plastered on all my school reports. I was too busy trying to get through my childhood to realise that potential. I regret that now, but also understand why he rejects school at this stage in his life.

I hope the future will look after him, and give him time and education like it did me. There are people around Daniel that care about him and want him to do well, so he has a chance. He is intelligent, but like so many of us is afraid. I keep trying to tell him we all carry this fear, but what separates people is what they choose to do with it. Again, I have to remind myself he is just 14.

Mentoring is a challenge. Working with young people in care can be incredibly hard whatever role you play, but Daniel’s life has been hard, harder then most. Some of us are lucky enough to fall into our families when we fall. It’s something many of us take for granted. Why wouldn’t we?

But to wake up in another person’s house and to be raised by people that do not share your history or your dark brown eyes can be isolating. Instinctively the reaction is to withdraw. When you’re young, feelings can often be hard to articulate, so we say little or nothing at all. Our care experience can sometimes seem to pollute our identity and corrupt our memory of our childhood.

Of course there are people where the total reverse is true and being taken into care can act as the turning point they need in their lives. It is the breath of air, the ray of light, but even in these situations to be uprooted from what is, ultimately, home (no matter what the outside sees) is incredibly difficult for a child to process.

I have to tell myself these things a lot now. I have to take myself back and remember. So when I sit across from Daniel in a restaurant and I can’t get him to speak I have to think that is ok because in the end no matter what the most important thing is that I am there and he keeps coming. It doesn’t matter if we don’t have the words, as long as we have each other’s presence. There will be time to talk when and if he wants. My role is to be there.

I am, as always when writing this blog, a little bit lost. So I am going to finish it with some text from the original blog entry I wrote, as I feel closer to it now:

‘I care about him. I have told him, but it’s difficult to convey that to a child. I’m tempted to delete that and say ‘young person’ because that would probably be more politically correct, but even though he does go out to all hours and does drink and does smoke, he is still a child and that should be protected.

‘He would hate that, because he wants to escape childhood as quickly as possible, but I feel there is a responsibility to try to let children be children. In care you have to grow up too fast. You see too much. Feel too much. It is hard to see the child in him, but we need to help them hold onto that for as long as they can.

‘I want to do more. Help him more. Sometimes I feel weak and helpless. Sometimes I just want to hug him because I can feel that hurt, but I don’t. It is a kind of hurt that doesn’t want to be hugged. It wants to be buried. It’s taking time, but I’m starting to learn that I can’t fix him. I thought after my experience I could. I was blind. But it’s not about fixing. It’s about presence and being there. Especially when they act like they don’t want you there.’



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.




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