Own two feet


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.



The Ripple of Care
April 14, 2016, 9:31 am
Filed under: fatherhood, Foster care, Memory, running | Tags: , , , ,

I’ve been running lots. In less than three weeks I’ll be running in the London marathon. Still I haven’t run enough. My body doesn’t seem to want me to. It’s always tired… slowly breaking down. My back constantly aches. My right hip constantly aches. My right leg constantly aches. Perhaps I’m not built for running, but I can’t stop. My mind wants to run. It has to run.

Rather than pushing my thoughts out of reach, running totally crushes them – grinding them and me down to a point where my mind hardly exists beyond the next step. It feels pure. It hurts, but in a way that makes you feel alive. You’re working at your limits and there is something intoxicating in that. It’s not lonely at all, but more a time of communion with yourself at this real pure base level. It creates a safe space to struggle and puts you in touch with the world. The sky looks different when I’m running. I am aware of the contours in the ground, how it feels – the hardness of concrete, the softness of grass… it’s just a sense of enhanced feeling. However, as the run gets harder and longer, the sensory experience disappears and it becomes more internal.

“I regret it and all day I’m self-conscious”

Some of my suits no longer fit. My weight has slowly drifted as the weekly miles have gone up. I have a couple of jackets that hang large and the trousers fall baggy. I have shirts that blow up like parachutes in the wind. I have bought new suits and new shirts that fit, but sometimes I’m drawn to the clothes that don’t. As soon as I leave the house I regret it and all day I’m self-conscious people can tell. The truth is, it’s hardly noticeable. Like a small stain on a lapel or a speck of blood on a shirt collar, but when you notice something like that about yourself, it screams volumes.

I cannot remember exactly why I stopped talking to my mum. A collection of causes seems like the easiest way to put it, but these all crept up on both of us. I heard their steps and did nothing. Now it’s easier not to talk. The coldness has taken over. I’ve stepped aside and let it take over that part of my life for now. It’s just easier and for too long it’s been hard. Hard to keep that relationship going. Hard to ignore all the long shadows of things that were not said, more than those that were – of things that didn’t happen, more than the things that did.

The ripple of care is always there. In childhood more devastating in its approach. Now slowly corrosive on those familial ties that were cut the closest. My mum and the brother who went into care with me are both drifting away – all of us unable to save each other. Our attempts only seem to cause more damage. Another brother who stayed with my mum clings on. It’s messy, but us two are trying to muddle through.

“There is a light that’s thrown over how much we don’t fit”

Sometimes it’s just hard to make family fit. Nobody has a monopoly on that, but for some of us who are growing or who have grown up in care, there is a light that’s thrown over how much we don’t fit. We’re dragged into that illumination early on.

There are days when I struggle to fit in anywhere, including my own head, but the more other people let me peek into their lives, the more I see how that feeling floods us all. Deep down to the seabed of our being we’re all desperate to be loved, to be wanted, to connect with each other. We want to fit in. We want to fit together. It’s just that we have to find the places and people where we can do that. It is never everywhere.

The hardest thing for me right now is that I don’t want to talk to my mum. There is no bitterness, just tiredness. I have arranged with my wife for my mum to see our children. I want them to build their own relationship together. Something without the fractures. Something new. Something free of our past. It’s important to me for them to have that, but for the two of us, I need space. The history is heavy. I don’t want to wear it as before.

My daughter is three months old. My son approaching five. They fit like gloves. Around them I often forget myself. My thoughts scatter from their usual haunts and playgrounds. I exist more simply. Sometimes stressfully, but always more simply. Right now my daughter is staring over my wife’s shoulder and I wonder at her wonder. I fall into her big blue eyes that have seen so little of this life. They are full of wonder because she has so little to anchor what she sees in the world. So much of it is new and often she just stares at the world pouring in on her and I look in and find myself tipping in, caught in the tide. There is nothing else.

Tomorrow I’ll go out and run and forget most of this, but not my mum. I can’t stop caring and that complicates us all.



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.

 

 



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.



Up in the air

I wasn’t prepared for the Panorama programme ‘Kids in Care’ as it flashed on my television screen.

The blur quickly fixed itself in the eyes of ‘Connor’, an angry fourteen year old in care. In the short clip, no doubt shown to jack up audience numbers, Connor is shown attacking his social workers car and leaving its window smeared with blood (at least I think it was blood).

His rage caught me off guard, not out of shock, but more from a forgotten familiarity. I remember that rage and then I remember the vacuum. The hole in my childhood that screamed out to be filled. I often reached for rage. 

When I sat down to watch the full documentary last week I armed myself with a pen and a pad to create a little distance. I spent the whole time scribbling… recording statistics (seventy thousand kids in care, a forty per cent increase of kids in care in the last two years – there has been no increase in the number of foster carers). I scribbled down names and ages, older Connor 14, younger Connor 3, Shannon 14, Hezron 15, the social worker Chris Rogers 21.

I took down why the kids were in care; drugs and alcohol, a murdered father. I wrote how long they had been in care; 5 years, 14 years… it started to become a form filling exercise, an exercise I have criticized in this blog before and yet here I was doing it myself. It’s easy to create a gap with ‘facts’ and keep young people in care at arms length.

But kids in care have to be more than what Connor called ‘just a name on a list’. Underneath the screaming and shouting, the blood and the spit, the drinking and the drugs, the swearing and the ‘I don’t cares’ they are screaming out for understanding. They are screaming out for love… they are not screaming out for adults surrounding them with forms and clipboards and stupid questions.

They’re screaming out for more.

It’s the same scream we all scream out into this world at times, but most of us are able to fall into the arms of mums and dads and brothers and sisters and aunties and uncles and other family members and friends for kisses, cuddles, comfort and understanding.

This goes for children and adults alike. If this support is missing and there is nobody else ready to hear that scream and catch them as they fall, then they will keep falling.

As Jacky, the children’s home carer, says we just need a lot of love and a lot of trust and when kids know they’re secure everything starts coming together, without that it often feels like its always falling apart. Trust isn’t easy to get, it takes time and it takes consistency and kids being constantly moved destroys any chance at gaining this trust. The system is broken and has been for a long time regarding the number of moves young people are involved in care.

We need more from help and drive from those in the higher echelons of our political system. Connor said ‘we are second class’ and it hurt because I remember feeling just that and it’s a hard feeling to shake as you get older.

We deserve more. We need more. My words feel like a broken record spinning round and round and it’s a record that has played during both the times of the Conservative and Labour Governments. Can this new coalition Government spin another tune? Or will they comfortably settle into a blame game of who didn’t do what?

A good start would be a real push for recruiting foster carers that goes beyond a poster campaign and an advert on a cheap cable channel. We need something like the recruitment campaigns rolled out for the army and the teachers because this is just as important. Is there anything more important than feeling safe and secure, loved and wanted? Shouldn’t everything else come after this?

I also think there must be other models of looking after young people in care than we currently have. Are there any pilots currently happening? Help me out there, or does anybody know of any other countries doing it different, doing it better?

The above was pretty much written the next day after the programme aired. I’ve now had a few days to think the whole thing through. There is no doubt the programme was important, but I do fear that whenever kids in care are on television it’s always the same kind of story…dysfunction in all its guises. It almost feels like exploitation.

Maybe I’m part of that in some way with this blog telling my own dysfunctional story, still I think it’s important that rather than always perpetuating the stereotypes we need to see more of the other side to life in care. We need to see how life in care has been positive for many people, both children and carers.

I remember standing in the playground as an eight-year-old boy staring at planes as they left their vapour trails in the sky. I dreamed of one day being on one, but never thought I would. I never cared about being a pilot, I just wanted to be as high as those planes and look down on the world.

I remember my first time flying to Majorca on Britannia Airlines with my foster family the Halls. I remember how amazing it was to get plastic blue cutlery and food on a tray in little compartments. I remember take off and everything shrinking as we climbed. I remember flying through the clouds and I remember looking out of the window into the darkness and seeing a storm rage in the darkness.

It was beautiful and is still one of the greatest moments of my life… can’t say I remember much of Majorca.



A part of the family

I remember so clearly the first time I ever spent the night at my best friend’s house. In the middle of the night we crept down four flights of creaky stairs, slipped into the darkness of the front room and found what we were looking for. We were all loud whispers, giggles and excitement.

The room flooded with light as I turned on the TV while Lee put in the video. Earlier in the evening we had both been attracted to its ‘18’ certificate. Lee’s mum had rented the Mickey Rourke video to watch with her then boyfriend when she was safe in the knowledge we were both tucked up asleep in bed. When we had first seen the video we had already started planning.

‘Did you see the video your mum got?’
‘Yeah, yeah.’
‘Anything with Mickey Rourke is bound to have sex in it or at least some violence.’

We both settled onto the sofa as the video began. After five minutes we soon became bored. ‘Shall we fast forward it a bit?’ I asked Lee. He already had the controls in his hand at the ready. ‘Stop stop!!!’

Mickey began to undress his beautiful co-star. We both watched in silence hoping for more than we got. A flash of breast, some inside thigh, but not much more. We watched the rest of the film in fast forward with brief stops here and there.

As we crept back upstairs we were both a little disappointed in what we had seen (or not seen), but I loved the adventure of the night. I loved being at his house, I loved the creeping about, I loved the flash of breast and thigh (I took what I could at that age) and I loved the fact that I almost forgot I was in care.

As I got older my placements in care became more difficult. I can sit here and give my biased reasons, and will, but others given the opportunity would probably throw a few more in.

At 15 I had been in the care system for six years (I had been in more than once on and off before this also) and it was beginning to take its toll. All the hiding your background and hiding even from yourself begins to wear you down.

Then you have puberty and adolescence kicking in. Hormones were racing, but I was also finding my own feet and voice in the world. All the things I wanted to scream about were suddenly finding a vehicle in words and some people didn’t like that.

I clashed with children’s homes workers and was moved on. I kept my mouth shut in the next home. I was a very small fish in a big pond.

I was then moved back to some former foster parents, but I had changed from when I was last there. They gave me so much, but they could not give me the space to grow, or the understanding to mess up, with the knowledge that that’s what you sometimes do as a kid. Mistakes I made were rammed down my throat and towards the end we were locked in what was nothing less than trench warfare.

One night it all fell apart and I found myself escaping from the clutches of my foster father, climbing out of a car window and running down the street. I had lived with that family for more than three years. They gave me so much and that was sadly the last time I ever saw them.

At fifteen I ended up back with my mum for the first time since I was nine. Disaster. We fought and fought and fought. We said horrible things to each other we did mean. The hatred for ourselves and each other spilled out and flooded that flat for the two weeks I was there. We were drowning.

One day I was at Lee’s house. I had stopped going to school. Lee’s mum was sitting at the table and began talking to me.

‘Why have you stopped going to school?’
‘Can’t be bothered with it.’
‘Why not?’
‘It’s a waste of time.’
‘You know it’s important.’
‘I can’t be bothered, its too far now anyway.’

The conversation ended with an offer. At this time mock exams were approaching and Lee’s mum asked if I would come and stay with her and the boys (Lee had a younger brother) for the two weeks that the mocks were running – on the condition that I went to school and completed all my exams. Can you imagine such an offer in my position, actually in any position… come and live with your best friend for two weeks. That’s fourteen sleepovers!!!

Those two weeks were filled with fun and football and laughter, and even a night here and there with school books spread across the kitchen table.

I knew that the end was coming. But I’m used to ends so I buried it. I would deal with it when it happened. But before it came Lee’s mum sat me down.

‘Look, I don’t want to promise anything because I know people have made and broken so many promises with you… and I don’t know how this will work, but how would you feel about staying another two weeks and we’ll just see how it goes. I can’t promise more than that, I want to, but I can’t. I know that’s not easy for you and you’ve had enough instability, but I want to be open with you’.

I remember the moment so clearly. It was one of the few times somebody had been truly honest with me. There were no clauses, no rules, no statutory this and that, no words hiding behind other words, forms to be filed (though those would come later)… This was somebody speaking to me and telling me what they could do and what they possibly couldn’t.

As a child in care there are a lot of words that come up again and again, but as meaningful as they might be to the system and to the social workers and to the law, they are generally meaningless to the child. Sometimes we want words that cut through all that and are just for us. I wish I could have had more words for me that were just for me.

I jumped at the chance of another two weeks with Lee and his family. Both my mum and I knew I had to leave the flat I had spent my early years in, for the sake of any future relationship we might have.

My then new social worker pulled strings and got into some serious form filling and soon I was living with Lee’s family officially.

Lee’s mum refused to take any money other than what it cost for my upkeep, she was offered more but refused it. I tried to get her to take the extra but she wouldn’t. I think it’s important that carers are paid a wage for upkeep and more, but if money is the prime incentive for getting involved then it’s likely these people will contribute to hurting the children in their care. They won’t even know its happening at the time. Children are great bullshit detectors, so don’t think you can pretend you want them there when money is your driver.

Every two weeks Lee’s mum and I would have the ‘I can’t promise anything long term, but…’ conversation and the ‘two-week stay’ would stretch out further.

Lee’s parents were separated. His father lived only a mile away with his wife and young family. Initially Lee and his brother would spend five nights out of fourteen at their father’s and I would stay in the house alone with Lee’s mum.

Soon Lee’s father and his family also took me on and I began moving between the two households. There were times when I felt like I was put on them a bit and they may not have had a choice. But I was never made to feel like that by them – these thoughts all came from my own head.

I wanted this piece to highlight what makes a good care placement and I don’t feel I’ve done that yet… so maybe I should just jump into that a bit here.

I think the first thing is being made to feel wanted. I spent much of my childhood not being wanted, or if I was wanted it was not for the reasons I would have hoped. Not being wanted, or only being wanted for financial gain, kinda sticks with you. It’s a monkey I’m forever brushing off my back even now, but he’s a pesky so and so and is always climbing back on. I’m getting used to him these days. We have an understanding.

One of the things that sticks with me more then anything about my time with Lee and his family is conversation. I spent hours talking to Lee’s mum about anything and everything. No topic was off limits… drugs, sex, politics, music, books, family, school, love… the list goes on.

I didn’t realise on how many levels this was helping me and was a real positive influence on my life. I was learning so much and I was soaking up the attention. I was loving the opportunity to express myself and to develop this skill of expression. And, ultimately it was beautiful to sit and talk and just as important to learn how to really listen too.

There were times when I felt different in the household because I was. It felt like people were tiptoeing around me and I was doing the same around them, but that all changed one evening.

Lee’s mum had asked us to clean up and we hadn’t. She was stressed after a late night at work. We were laughing and joking when she came in. She began by shouting at us… all of us equally.

We stopped laughing. We sat still on the sofa and just took what we deserved – and then she stopped and began to cry. After that day I felt I was part of the family. I had seen my mum cry a lot, but it had been a long time since I had seen real vulnerability like that from an adult looking after me.

In children’s homes and foster homes people often locked away their most extreme emotions. They were for private. But to feel part of something like a family, you need to see it all. That was an important moment for me… and we did clean up after the tears!

I need to wrap this up because I’ve talked way too much… I want to tell you about the holidays we all had in Greece and how even the extended family took me in. I want to tell you about Christmas in the Cotswold. I want to tell you about the battles between me and Lee’s mum’s boyfriend and how he was teaching me and testing me and I didn’t even know it at the time. I want to tell you about two of the happiest years of my childhood, but I don’t have the space here.

In the end Lee and his family loved me. They gave themselves to me and I gave myself back. We had our ups and downs as any family does, but we’re still here. I still spend hours talking to Lee’s mum when we get together. I go to family and friends’ parties at Lee’s mum’s house where I sometimes drink too much and have to stay over (although not in my old bedroom because it’s now a toilet). We are all still family.

The day Lee’s mum drove me to university was a special day. Two weeks had become two years. My GCSEs had gone well and A-levels had been scraped through. We walked into the empty house I would be staying in for the first year of my studies. Nobody else had arrived so I got to pick the biggest room. We looked around for a bit and then it was time for her leave.

I don’t remember what our last words were on that day, but before she left we held each other tightly.

That’s a nice place to pause.




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