Own two feet


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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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.

 

 



I opened the letter

I opened the letter. It was from a solicitor. There had been a crash. Somebody had been hurt. I was the driver.

Wait a minute.

I was the driver.

I read the words back. There must be some kind of mistake.

Or maybe I was the driver.

I scanned my memory. This was too big to forget, even with my sieve like memory, but still I wracked my mind and kept questioning it. No this was a mistake. The letter stated the accident had happened early in the morning. I never drove in the mornings. It was a week day. I checked my diary. I was at work.

On the phone to the insurance company I was guilty until proven innocent, though they told me not to worry as the insurance claim was going through.

But I wasn’t the driver I continued to protest, and no I didn’t own a Renault Megane. I was then told I also owned a Mercedes.  It sounded great, except parked outside my house was a very boring VW Borra.

The man went onto say that the Megane and the Mercedes had been insured under my name at the address where I was living for almost two years. I continued to protest my innocence and it was at that moment the memory flashed.

The last time I had seen my brother.

Or, at least, almost seen him.

There had been an angry conversation outside my house. “I can’t find you,” he said, “where are you?… Come down and meet me.”
“I can see you… Just park where you are now… you’re right here.”
“Look just come down and meet me on the road.”

I could see him from the kitchen window, but I wouldn’t go down the four flights of stairs. I was always going to him. Always the one trying. Always doing the running. “Well fuck you!” he shouted and the silver Mercedes disappeared.

I called him.  After the denials came desperate pleading. “But I’m your brother…you’ll send me to jail again… just say it was you, come on the claim is going through”.

“Why didn’t you come to me at the time…no way am I saying it was me…you’ve gone too far this time”. I begged him to go back to the police and tell them the truth.

His pleading quickly turned to rage. “You’ve never changed…this is just you rejecting me all over again”. What was his betrayal now became an opportunity to drag up the past and a decision I had made as a 14 year old boy. He threw as much as he could down the phone and then was gone.

As kids we fought. When I say fought, I mean I bullied. It is only in recent years I have been able to accept that. So many memories I have hidden. Not only from other people, but also from myself.

I remember outside our tower block stripping him naked. Other kids on the estate were laughing and egging me on. I wanted to please them more then protect my brother.

I think I was eight or nine, which would make him five or six. Stripping him was not humiliating enough so I forced his mouth open and spat in it.

I could try and defend myself. try and paint a picture of some of the things we had both experienced or seen.  But it doesn’t matter because nothing can take that moment away.

Still as much as we fought, we loved. The love is still the same, I think for both of us. It is a wild, passionate, confused love that wants to belong, but doesn’t know how. It rages that it wants to rest, but cannot sit still in each of our hearts or heads because it never had the opportunity to mature.

It was never nurtured because as soon as we went into care I turned on him. I turned on him because he was my only memory of the lives we had had taken away from us.

His face and presence were a constant reminder of everything we were losing. It is fair to say we needed to be taken away from the lives we had. Mum was very sick and getting worse. We were getting into increasing trouble at school. His dad was non-existent and my dad intermittent in our lives.

Leaving probably was for the best, but it was our home. It was all we knew. It was where we belonged.

I went into care permanently at the age of nine. Some days it’s easier to remember being in care, but other days it’s like staring into a black hole. What is always constant in my memory, however, is the utter shame I felt. That shame was magnified in my brother’s presence. He kept reminding me of home.

I missed my mum and my friends. I knew I had to destroy them all and the hope of ever getting back. My brother was the strongest link so my effort was concentrated here. The fighting and arguing increased. Everything he did annoyed me.

At the time I couldn’t understand why, but now it is all so obvious. I threw all the pain at him, the one person who knew exactly how I felt. When he needed me the most I turned my back on him.

We were finally split up when I was 14. We’ve never recovered. I have moved on from my care experience in so many ways, but this is the one area that has never healed.

Perhaps the damage was too great and too deep for us. Before our most recent split after the car incident it was impossible to escape our past. It was always there in the room with us in opposing corners.

I wish our care experience could have bound us tightly together, but it had the opposite effect. What saddens me is that more was not done to support us as brothers.

We needed the adults, foster parents, carers at the children’s homes, social workers, to help us build the bridges we needed to find each other so we could face this new world together.

But the quick fix was always king, and I fear it still is. For years I blamed myself, but slowly I came to the realisation: I was just a child.

My brother and I needed more help then we got and today there are many other children like us in the care system.

In a recent speech MP Edward Timpson spoke about children in care in the context of the new children and families bill., He said ‘How would we feel if these were our own children? We’d almost certainly be outraged. Spurred into immediate action. So what’s the difference with the children in the care system? The truth is there is no difference. They are our children.’

We need to do more.



A race to care
April 13, 2011, 12:14 pm
Filed under: Life in care | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

I stand confused naked in the bath. My dad tightly grips the towel he has just taken off the rail and stares at me wildly.

‘John, YOU are black!’

I look down at my arm that is beginning to shake with the rest of my body and wonder if this is a trick. Is he testing me? I look back at him desperate for a smile, but his silent stare demands an answer.

All I have is confusion, which is racing towards full blown fear. I look down again to check my body and then watch as the last of the bath water drains away.

‘What are you John!?’ my dad shouts.

I look up at him and bite my lip. I don’t want to cry, but the lump in my throat is growing. ‘Come on’. I know not saying anything will be worse than the wrong answer so I just go for what I think is right.

‘I’m not black…I’m cream’, I say with a fractured defiance. I know I have got the answer wrong when his eyes widen. My dad then grabs my wet arm.

‘YOU-ARE-BLACK-John, go on say it, I-AM-BLACK’. I start to cry. ‘No I am not, I am cream’. He wraps me up in the towel, lifts me out of the bath and places me in the corner of the cramped room.

I hold the towel tightly around me with both hands and my dad crouches down in front of me. I remember being scared, but as I think back now perhaps he was more scared than I was. Scared a part of his heritage was slipping away, scared perhaps that I was diluting it and not even able to acknowledge it.

I don’t know, but I do know he was fierce about telling me I was black. But I was maybe seven and back then black was just a colour to me and hadn’t been loaded up with all the labels life would later hang on it.

I don’t think my dad was really asking what colour my skin was that day, but rather he was trying to tell me where I came from. He was demanding I acknowledge my heritage, at least part of it, the part he had passed on to me, that was passed on to him.

But when all the passing of heritage was counted up in the genes that made me, it got quite messy with a motley crew of Scots, Irish, French and Dutch that I know of (it is said a Dutch woman who belonged to a family of slave owners had a child by one of the slaves and together they are my great great… I am not sure how many greats, but great great great grand parents. It was also said she was rejected by the family and given some land for her and my great great great… grandfather. I like to think they grew old together, but I don’t know).

Being mixed race did affect my care experience greatly, as, in the eyes of the system, I was considered black. I heard the phrase ‘one drop of black blood rule’ more than once used by different people and it almost seemed like some kind of contamination had taken place in me.

As I had a black father, one that flitted in and out of my life, I was told I could not stay in foster care with an all white family. Even though I had been brought up solely by my white mother before going into care. This angered me as I knew it restricted my options of finding people to look after me.

My race became a noose around my neck and I went through a period when I turned on that part of myself. I began to hate it and how it was holding me back. This negativity was fed by my experiences growing up and the role black men played in my childhood.

My two younger brothers both had fathers who were black and both had beat my mum. It was men like this that added weight to the racist stereotypes I started carrying in my head and it began to spread through me like a virus. I disassociated myself from the blackness my dad was so keen for me to acknowledge – what had it ever done for me?  

In social services’ eyes they were clumsily attempting to protect what they saw as my cultural heritage. But when you’re in bed alone in a house that is not yours, on sheets that are not yours, sleeping in a room that is not yours, while in the next room a person is on shift and is probably not going to be around for too long and who you can not really build a relationship with because if they’re not gone soon you probably will be, then it is not the colour of your skin or where your parents were born that rattles about in your head.

What rattles is that deep dark sense of loneliness. The night is especially difficult; the isolation in it is the loudest. Why doesn’t anyone want me? You move beyond your family and you get to a point where you just want someone, anyone and to have had a whole lot of people cut off from helping you hurts.

But they say times are changing and new guidelines are in place to stop this happening. It is important to note the word ‘guidelines’. I worry that perhaps guidelines will not be enough and that old behaviours will persist and some social workers and those with sway will hold on to a status quo that has proved pretty strong over the years.

I remember when Labour came into power and similar words being spoken about allowing young Black and Asian children into white families, but limited progress seems to have been made. I think this issue further highlights the lack of Black and Asian foster carers. We need more. Of course we need more foster carers and people to adopt from all backgrounds.

Ultimately I believe we live in a fragmented world and are ourselves very fragmented beings whose lives are sliced and diced in many ways. We are children, we are parents, we are brothers, we are sisters, we are followers, we are leaders, we are joggers, we are teachers. We are poets, we are loners, we obsess about weight and are part time stoners. We are angry, we are hopeful, we are at the backs of crowds and we are boastful. We are gang members, youth workers, some time deserters and police just trying to do a job. We are victims, we abuse, we are good at everything and some of us always seem to lose. We are all shades, all heights, full of truth, with just as many lies. We are vegetarians and some of us love steak. We are dreamers, we are doubters, we are silent and we are shouters. We are iPoders, X-boxers, PS3ers and some of us just like walking. We are many things in the world and to be defined so tightly by the colour of our skin seems naive, in this day and age, more than ever.

In secondary school things changed and I began to celebrate what I considered my ‘Jamaicaness’. I also went to Jamaica with my foster parents, which turned out to beginning of the end of my relationship with them (will save that story for another blog) but I fell in love with the country.

I loved the mad crazy driving, the beaches, the diving off rocks, downtown and the ‘soup man’, I loved the ocean and the food and the sun and the security lady who used to let me sneak in the hotel club at night and the music, I had always loved the music.

At school when people found out I was ‘half caste’ (a term now almost banished and one that when used makes people nervous), I suddenly gained a level of kudos I had not had before.

I remember a time hanging around outside the science classrooms at lunch and a group of boys turned up who were ‘rushing’ people (basically handing out a quick beating). I prepared for my beating, but then heard one of them say, ‘leave it, his dad’s from Jamaica you know’ and instead they went off to beat up some other poor unsuspecting kid, but it was a proud moment in the most twisted sense.

Once I became more comfortable with the idea of being mixed race (the idea more than the term), I started to read about people like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Fredrick Douglass and the Black Panthers and I began to celebrate my blackness, probably to the point where I went too far.

Suddenly my white heritage was side tracked and I held more tightly to my father’s roots (with a slight American detour, as the above paragraph shows!). But I was simply trying to find an identity, my own identity and not one I needed to be taught or that was thrust upon me. I was picking and choosing for myself. Now I have managed to find a much better balance with things, but I guess I am still sifting through the identity labels and trying different ones on for size.

As I get older, more and more things are being thrown into that mix and I am becoming more and more happily confused. But this confusion is life and anyone who tells you it is supposed to make sense is either lying or has lost their mind.

Ultimately young people in care are looking for somebody to love them and protect them and give them a chance at having a successful and fulfilling life. Cultural heritage, or racial heritage, or whatever you want to call it is of course important. We are the echo of our histories, but if we are to give young people growing up in care the best possible chance in life, we must keep as many doors to families open to them as possible, regardless of skin colour, sexual orientation or whatever other labels are currently doing the rounds to divide us.

I can’t remember how the bathroom scene with my father ended. I am sure he was frustrated and I was still confused. Perhaps I will ask him when I see him next week.



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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