Beyond Caring is the gripping story of Aaron, a boy living in a children’s home called Templewood. If you would like to read the earlier chapters first, please click here: Chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15
Little sparklers go off inside me, bringing me back to life. I want to kiss the card I hold in my hand, but I don’t because Rebecca’s sat right by me. I look at the picture of an elephant, then turn it over to the little child’s handwriting that fills the back.
To Aaron, I hope you hav a happy time. I hav ben to a rock climbening WaLL and I Went to the top of the roof. and I Went to the ZOO and we saw the tiGer was going RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR to find a mate. She wants sum BaBys. I like my tiacher her name is mrs lucas. Love from Kara XOXOXOXOXOXOXO
“Is it really true? I mean honestly from Kara?”
“Kara can write and she’s written to me?”
“But does she know who I am?”
“Of course! This postcard is something Jean discussed with me a few days ago but I didn’t expect you to receive anything so soon. Her foster parents have been wondering about you and Kara meeting up.”
“Meeting up? … I have to see her … I mean is that what Kara wants?”
“Yes. You would like it if a contact visit was arranged between the two of you?”
“Please let me see her. Please.”
“Yes, it can be arranged.”
“I’ll see her? I’ll get to check if she’s okay? … You really mean it?”
“Her letter makes her sound sort of okay, doesn’t it?”
“I think it does.”
“Can I see where she lives?”
“I don’t know where you’d meet.”
“I want to see the house she’s staying in; I want to see where she sleeps.”
“Aaron, I’ll discuss all this with Jean.”
“I’m going to see Kara and nothing will stop us. I need to see her soon.”
“I’ll let you know as soon as a date is fixed.”
“I can’t believe Kara’s grown up enough to write to me … Does mum know about this?”
“No, Jean has not been able to make contact with your mother for a while now.”
“… Does Kara know about mum, I mean the baby?”
“Yes, yes she does.”
“That’s hard on Kara; she was always mum’s baby.”
When Rebecca goes out, I take my letter from mum out of my drawer. I stare at it. Mum never came to visit me but that was no surprise. I put the card from Kara in my drawer. Then suddenly I’m tearing up mum’s letter. I wish I could do more; I want to make mum suffer for all she’s put us through.
A different sound comes from outside. As I walk to my window to look, the noise comes again. I see a brown and white dog barking from below on the driveway; its lead is held by a bearded man in a large, thick shirt. Shelby’s leaping around; the man puts an arm on his shoulder. A few children surround them.
“You never said there was a dog coming today,” I say turning back to Rebecca who stands in my doorway.
“Shelby has a visitor.”
“Shelby? He never has visitors … Are we going to get a dog in group?”
“It would not be practical.”
“We’re never allowed anything.”
“We have to think of what works best for the whole group.”
I look down on Shelby; his head twists up into the sun and the smile on his face is as big as a banana.
“Dogs, that’s it.”
“I said dogs.”
“And I don’t follow you.”
“On the telly they went to this house and found some puppies locked up in the shed; they freed them and found them proper homes; this boy was stroking one. Find me something like that.”
“As my club.”
“You know I could do something with dogs.”
“Well, I suppose so. You mean like volunteer on a regular basis to help look after them?”
I nod; I guess that’s what I mean.
“Are you just saying this because you’re looking down on a dog being enjoyed by Shelby?”
“What’s Shelby ever got to do with anything?”
“Well, had you thought of this before now?”
“Remember on holiday how I fed a horse; I was good at that.”
And now I smile as I remember how mum didn’t even like me saying I’d been near a horse. Fuck her and her hate of animals.
“If I could find you somewhere to volunteer with animals – and I’m not saying I can for sure – it would be hard work; you don’t just sit there stroking them; you have to look after them and clean up.”
“I know all that. Listen; you were on at me before to get out of group and now I suggest something you try to put me off!”
“We just have to be realistic. Actually I do know someone who owns a very small animal sanctuary although her business is providing dog kennels.”
“It means a decent place for animals to live, usually animals that have suffered neglect or bad treatment. I wonder if it might be worth speaking to the woman who runs it; she’s a very special person and I know she has young people in to help out.”
“Why didn’t you say about her to begin with?”
“Because nothing’s certain – her need for volunteers, your commitment.”
I walk past Rebecca and out of my room; leaning over the stairs I see Shelby rushing in leading the brown and white dog.
“Olly, this is Olly!” he squeals.
“You aren’t allowed to bring him into group,” I shout down.
“Olly is so good, he’d never hurt anyone; I’m taking him to meet my puppy.”
“What your stupid stuffed puppy that can’t even bark any more?”
Shelby raises his body and rushes off leaving Olly all alone. I slowly go towards Olly. Watch me mum, watch – I land a stroke on Olly and remember mum’s hate of dogs.
“What’s that funny book with the apple cover you were writing in when I came to the office?” I ask Rebecca as she drives me to the park. “Today’s the first time I’ve seen you use it for ages.”
“Oh, I just make a few notes, only it’s also letters.”
“For your boyfriend.”
“No, sort of for my sister.”
“Aaron, talking sisters – your visit to Kara has been arranged.”
“Really! How far off is it?”
“About six weeks.”
I’m off to see Kara! Me and Kara.
“We’ll take the train.”
“I’ll save all my pocket money up to buy her presents. I think I’ll get her a cuddly toy and maybe some stickers and a book and a T-shirt and a doll and a CD and …”
“It’s you she wants, not lots of presents … Jean will take you to the house where Kara lives with her foster parents.”
“Have you spoken to her foster parents?”
“No; Jean has been making the arrangements.”
“What do you think they’re like?”
“I’m sure they’re very friendly. Jean will be with you when you meet them. It’s up to you whether I actually come into the house as well.”
“Do you want to come?”
“Of course it’d be nice to see Kara and to be there for you but certainly I understand if you’d prefer it just to be you and Jean visiting.”
Rebecca smiles as she parks up. I don’t get out of the car and she doesn’t move either.
“Rebecca,” my words choke. “Rebecca … I don’t think I’ve got any other choice.”
“Choice over what?”
“Any choice for me but a foster family. I mean I haven’t got anything else.”
“Oh Aaron …”
“I don’t know if anyone would want me. Probably not. Why would they?”
“Lots of excellent reasons.”
“I’m not as easy as Kara, not as nice.”
“You’re a very special boy – thoughtful, intelligent, determined.”
“I mean, is there any chance that you lot will find me a home this time where they might have me and know how to deal with me?”
“Through-Care has already been looking for you.”
“Have they got me someone?”
“They have been gathering details on a few potential families.”
“So will I get a family?”
“Let’s hope we can find you a really good foster family.”
“There are some possibilities; there can be no certainties yet. Whatever, you won’t be leaving for several months.”
A foster family? No choice but a foster family? I get out of the car and slam the door shut. Fuck you mum for making me have to do this.
It’s a clear blue day when Rebecca drives me to the animals; she stops by a gate and I can hear the noise of dogs even before I’ve opened the car door.
“Rebecca, I don’t think this is going to work. I don’t want to go.”
“You nervous? … Today’s just for you to look around the sanctuary and see what you think.”
“I’m no good with animals; remember Bramble and my other stick insect and how they ended up?”
“It wasn’t your fault that they died; stick insects never live that long.”
A large woman appears; her hair is wiry white; she’s wearing an old T-shirt with a picture of an owl on it. Rebecca opens her car door.
“Come in, come in, good to see you,” the woman calls out. “Dogs, do be quiet.”
As we walk towards her, she stretches down to pull a plant out of the ground.
“These weeds get everywhere,” she says as she comes back to standing.
A telephone starts ringing through the noise of the dogs; it vibrates across the air like it’s coming out of a loudspeaker.
“Oh dear, better take that,” she says. “I’m expecting a call.”
As she opens the door of her house, I see her step round a pile of old newspapers.
“So that’s Audrey,” Rebecca says.
The dogs are barking in waves of sound; a few have their noses pressed against their kennels to look at us; there must be at least twenty kennels of different sizes; the larger ones have more than one dog in them. There are sloping fields up behind the kennels and I can see some goats and a pig. By the house, chickens of all sizes peck at the ground.
When Audrey comes out of the house, she stumbles on a punctured red ball then kicks it away into a bush.
“Sorry about the phone,” she says. “The vet, more bills … So Aaron, I hope you’re going to like it here; you might get used to the noise. These are my boarding kennels, mostly dogs in for the weekend while their owners go away. Now, I was just cleaning out Winston’s kennel, only got a little bit left, do you mind if I quickly finish him off? … Have a seat and then I’ll show you around.”
She opens the kennel door on a huge splodge of a dog, his eyes are open but he looks close to being asleep. Audrey strokes him but he doesn’t seem to notice. I lean against a tree; Rebecca sits on an old crate. Audrey pushes past the black dog.
“Want to help?” she calls back at me.
I shake my head, I pull a leaf from the tree and tear it up. Audrey’s whole body shakes as she scrubs some dirt off the back of the kennel. The black dog lifts his head then sinks it back down again. I stare across into his dark watery eyes; he lets out a deep rumble. I put my hand out towards him. He tests the ground in front of him with a sniff. As he heaves himself up, a dribble of slobber comes out of his mouth. Audrey bangs her head on the roof of the kennel as she twists to standing. The dog sinks his droopy face against my leg; I stroke him between the eyes and he stretches out then flops by my feet.
“That’s amazing,” Audrey says. “Extraordinary. Winston won’t normally let anyone near him except for me, and he only just tolerates me. I tried to get him to live with me in the house but he just keeps coming back to his kennel.”
I stroke along Winston’s back and he switches the position of his head.
“Really is amazing, Aaron, well done.”
Audrey hands me a biscuit to give him.
“I’ll tell you his story, Aaron – this woman came and paid cash for two weeks’ keep for him, that was last year and I haven’t seen her since. I tried to contact her but the ‘phone number she gave turns out to be that of the local hospital and the address doesn’t exist!”
Winston’s eyes close; his bulk spreads across the ground.
“It looks like he’s mine for good now; I just wish I could do more to cheer him up. Anyway, that’s got his kennel sorted, so come on and I’ll show you the other animals.”
As we walk away, Winston takes himself back into his kennel.
“We’ll check for eggs,” Audrey says looking into a little shelter.
I put my head in and on the straw I see three eggs.
“What are these eggs doing in here?”
“This is where the chickens lay them. They’re delicious eggs; you ought to taste their freshness.”
“You’re not going to eat them?”
“Of course I am. Would you like one to take back with you?”
“They’re dirty! We’ve got proper eggs in our fridge back at Sunbeam.”
Audrey laughs as she walks into a storeroom.
“Help by carrying that bucket of feed,” she says.
A bucket handle lands in my hand; I hold its weight away from my trousers. Audrey picks up a large sack and grunts as she throws it over her shoulder. I follow her to a stable where there’s a horse who is so thin that you can make out his bones through his skin. His head looks way too big for his body.
“That’s the ugliest horse I’ve ever seen,” I say.
“Oh Aaron, I’ll have to show you the pictures; Morning Glory this is.” Audrey ruffles her hand between his ears. “A true racehorse, you’d have never said he was ugly if you’d seen him a few years back.”
“He doesn’t look like a racehorse; he looks totally useless.”
“He’s an Arab stallion, won his owners plenty of money when he was young but when he was past racing he was turned out into a field to fend for himself. They gave him no shelter, no rug, no feed. When I met him, he was starving and dirty and he had rainscald all along his back. No one wanted him; no one had cared for him.”
“If no one wants him, what’s the point in keeping him alive?”
“Well, I want him! He should have the best old age possible … Right, let’s make up his feed. Pass me the bucket … now we’ll add a few pellets to that … not too many, his teeth aren’t good … then a few drops of these vitamins. Now we need some water to mix it all up.”
When Audrey gives Morning Glory his feed, he kicks into the bucket then turns away to the back of his stable. Audrey takes his head and tries to lead him towards the bucket but he’s still not interested. She scoops the black feed into her bare hand and offers it to Morning Glory; his lips stroke across her hand. Audrey starts chatting softly to him and slowly he begins to take the food. I watch the bones along his back hinge in and out as he breathes.
“You want to feed him some Aaron?”
I look at her hand covered in flecks of food and horse’s spit and shake my head.
“Rebecca told me you rode a horse a couple of times and enjoyed it. I’ve got another horse that you might be able to ride sometimes if you want; I could lead you. If you’re going to do jobs and help me, I’d like to give you something back like horse riding. Also, you can walk the dogs another time.”
Audrey shows me some goats and a couple of donkeys. I’m just looking at a pig when Rebecca comes over.
“How’s it going?” she says. “Time to get back to group soon.”
“Will you come again, Aaron?” Audrey asks.
“I don’t mind.”
“So I’ll see you next Saturday.”
I walk away down the slope back towards the dogs. I stop by Winston’s kennel and look at him; he doesn’t move. I go to the group car and find it’s been left open so I climb in; I hoot the horn and that brings Rebecca away from chatting to Audrey. Audrey waves from a distance. I might buy Winston some special dog biscuits; maybe he’ll like that.
Rebecca comes to pick me up from school and I tell her about the goal I scored and how our team won at football.
“Sorry, what?” she says looking confused and with her eyes shifting around.
John tells her she can look at the pictures that I’ve been painting but Rebecca just flicks quickly through them.
“Very nice,” she says even though they’re mostly an ugly mess of black lines.
She picks up my coat then drops it.
“Aaron, I’m taking you to town for tea.”
“To town? I don’t want to go to town.”
“We’ll have a hamburger.”
“I don’t like hamburgers.”
“Since when? … Just come, please, I’ll explain on the way.”
“What’s this all about? You got me my foster family?”
“Oh no, Aaron, but things on that front are progressing.”
“Kara? Don’t tell me I’m not seeing her?”
“No, Aaron, you will see her. Please …” she says holding open the passenger door of the group car which is parked up by school.
“What then?” I demand as she turns the key in the ignition.
“There’s a new girl coming to live in group; her name’s Ruby.”
“I want to tell you that I’m going to be keyworking her.”
“You can’t be; you’re my keyworker, I mean … Jesus, nothing ever stays the same.”
“I’ll still be your keyworker of course.”
Now I’ve said I won’t fight against going to a foster family she can’t wait to get rid of me and keywork someone else.
“I know that this may be difficult news.”
“Do you like her?”
“Aaron, I have been chosen to keywork her.”
“Are you happy about it?”
“Aaron, my concern is with your reaction, the timing of this and how you will feel about me keyworking both you and Ruby.”
“Me? Why should I care? I’ll be off soon anyway.”
“My keyworking Ruby doesn’t mean I won’t still be very much around for you, but you might find it hard.”
“Keywork who you like.”
“Aaron, I like keyworking you.”
“If it’s too much for you to do us both, I don’t mind if you stop keyworking me.”
“I would mind very much! I certainly won’t stop keyworking you.”
“So I still have to have you as my keyworker when Ruby comes?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“So you taking me to town for tea is to tell me about this Ruby?”
“Yes, I want to talk it through with you.”
“Forget the tea, take me back to group.”
“No, Aaron, we are going out to tea.”
“I’ll only eat if we don’t have to talk.”
“I won’t accept a condition to our tea.”
“If you talk to me about some new girl I won’t answer you.”
“Aaron, it may be hard for you when Ruby comes; you may feel all sorts of things but I want us to stay close and to keep talking to each other. Nothing will stop my care for you.”
When we arrive at the cafe, we get our food from the counter and I rush to sit down at the nearest free table. I lean over my meal and start eating fast while Rebecca goes back for napkins. When she finally settles down, she tries to pass me a napkin but I don’t need it. I shove in a last mouthful of chips.
“I’ve finished; let’s get back to group,” I say as I stand up.
“Aaron, give me a chance to eat!”
“Eat then; I’ll wait by the door.”
I go and stand by the doors; a man across the street is pulling a grey shutter down over his shop. People come into the café; a group of girls push past me; a man asks me to stand out of the way.
Rebecca comes beside me still chewing on a mouthful of food and holding her tray of half eaten chips. She sips at her drink while standing then tips up the tray through the mouth of a bin so that all the cups, boxes and wasted food tumble in.
There’s been a seismic shift in Aaron away from his previously steadfast allegiance to his mum. He’s now starting to accept the idea of going to a foster family. I’m so optimistic for him. We have to find him the foster parents and home he deserves. He asked me whether his foster family would like him, which led me on to ask him if he was worried about whether he’d like them. He said no, he would like them because this was his last chance for a mum and dad. What a bold and resilient thing to say.
He’s begun to help out a local animal sanctuary and that’s working out really well. The woman who runs it, Audrey, says he works hard and she trusts him.
Well my big news is that I’m about to embark on keyworking another child – Ruby. I’m trying to get enthusiastic about this but, if I’m honest, I slightly sigh at the prospect. Have I the energy for another child’s problems? And it does feel like some kind of abandoning of Aaron.
I get out of the car at Audrey’s to the same sound of dogs barking. I go through the gate and Rebecca shouts ‘good-bye’ through the car window and then drives off. I go over to Winston’s kennel and ask Audrey if I can give him the bone-shaped biscuit I’ve bought for him. She smiles a nod, so I hold the biscuit out to Winston; he takes it and starts eating it without looking at me.
“I’m just about to walk some of the dogs,” Audrey says. “Will you come? Perhaps you could be responsible for Winston.”
Winston doesn’t need a lead; he walks slowly beside me. I feel him brushing against my leg, I lean down and stroke my hand along the softness of his back. Ahead of me, Audrey’s holding five dogs on their leads; they’re barking and pulling her in different directions. I watch a bird as it climbs high into the air, then plunges down twisting like a falling aeroplane. I pick up a stick and throw it for Winston but he doesn’t run after it. I throw another onto the path just ahead but when Winston reaches that stick he just sniffs it for a moment then pads on. A couple of the girls in Sunbeam asked me about this place and I told them about Winston – how he came up to me and how he liked me. I didn’t say how Winston’s old and slow and that his owner doesn’t want him.
When we get back to the sanctuary, I put on some old blue overalls; they’re like the ones the maintenance men wear at Templewood. I take a wheelbarrow and go to the stables. I breathe out against the smell of horse shit as I shovel some up and then drop my stinking load into the wheelbarrow. I rush outside the stable and gasp in clear air. A few loads in and I’m used to the smell; I almost begin to enjoy its strength.
“You’re doing great,” Audrey says from beside me. “I thought after this maybe we could lead Tilley around the paddock. She’s a well trained pony who was ridden a lot.”
I scoop up another load.
“Aaron, you really are so helpful and hard working.”
I’m Aaron, in his overalls, working hard. I want Rebecca to see me, and Derek … and my foster family that’s out there somewhere. Dad could never have worked hard like this; he’d have never come to a place like here. I’m already getting different to him.
The wheelbarrow’s filling up as I shovel in yet another load of shit. No. I let my shovel clang against the wheelbarrow. No. This is no job to be proud of in front of mum. She’d be the one to laugh at me now – it’s shit I’m dealing with, she would see that.
“Put the wheelbarrow to one side,” Audrey says.
She doesn’t ask me why I’ve stopped working she just goes and leads Tilley out of her stable. She starts tying some straps around the horse’s head and then puts a saddle on her.
“I’m getting her used to a saddle again,” she says.
Audrey leads Tilley up to the paddock and they set off down one length with Tilley walking right beside Audrey. I lean on the gate and they come towards me, when Audrey stops, Tilley stops next to her.
“You want a go at leading her?” Audrey says as she pats Tilley’s neck.
Tilley’s lead is placed in my hand, Audrey stands right next to me. I walk forwards but Tilley does not move so I pull on her lead.
“Walk on Tilley,” Audrey says.
Tilley throws her head back away from me, the lead cuts roughly across my hand and slips away. I see her size above me, her teeth, her open mouth. I dart backwards stumbling against the fence. Tilley lets out a trumpeting neigh.
Then I see mum as if she’s watching me. No one’s going to catch me being frightened of a horse. I dive in to grab the lead back from dangling off Tilley’s neck then yank her towards me.
“Shove it, Tilley.”
“Gentle Aaron, give her a chance to trust you. If you get cross with a horse, you’ll ruin them. Also remember, Tilley is stronger than either of us.”
Tilley should fucking get it together and behave.
“Now come closer, right beside her, pat her. Go on.”
My hand touches Tilley’s skin.
“Talk to her, tell her it’s okay, stroke her and then with confidence tell her to walk on. Remember she’s a trained pony but she’s easily scared.”
Tilley’s head stretches out, her weight shifts.
“Walk on,” I say.
She wobbles then one leg goes forward; I’m beside her as she settles into walking down one side of the paddock. At the end, she swings round to come back along a diagonal. The sky begins to darken and suddenly I’m walking at an uncomfortably fast speed on the edge of needing to run.
“You okay, Aaron?” Audrey says from next to me.
I look down at Tilley’s legs, see their movement and imagine myself dragged between them. I start to run as Tilley pulls me on ahead.
“Steady up, Tilley. Gentle pull, Aaron,” Audrey’s hand is on mine. “Whoa Tilley, whoa.”
I’m panting with my heart beating too fast.
“That’s it, Aaron … urge her back to walking … good, good control. Walk, Tilley.”
“Walk,” I repeat but my voice is soft.
I feel drops of rain and hope they won’t bother Tilley. I realise I’ve been holding the lead so tightly that the rope has dug into my palm. As I let go slightly, I breathe in Tilley’s smell and it takes me back to our summer holiday of purple hills and streams.
“I trotted when I rode before; only a girl called Narinder and I did that,” I tell Audrey.
“Did you? Well done.”
And then I realise that Narinder would like to see me here; she’d think good of me. I wonder what she’s up to now; maybe her foster mum takes her shopping or swimming at weekends because that’s what Narinder really likes to do. I don’t know what my foster parents will do with me. And then I think of Kara; she might like to see her big brother here. Maybe she likes animals; I could bring Kara here when we get another visit. Yes mum, I could. Look mum, here I am; right up close to a horse.
“This rain’s turning heavy; let’s get Tilley back and then I’ll get a drink and a snack for us,” Audrey says.
“What does Tilley have?”
“I’ll find her a something.”
“What does she like?”
“I’ve got a carrot.”
“That’s a treat for her. Did you enjoy leading her?”
It’s beginning to rain more heavily and I walk away from Audrey to go and stand under the big tree in the middle of the yard.
“Let’s go inside for a drink,” Audrey calls over and then starts walking towards her house.
I look at her house and its small front door, and I shake my head.
“Come inside,” Audrey says turning back to me.
“No, I’m okay out here.”
She walks away then disappears into her house; she comes out with a juice and a strange chewy bar for me. I go and wash my hands under the cold water of an outside tap. I feel the rain coming through the overalls. After I’ve eaten, Audrey gives me a carrot for Tilley. I snap it in two then hold it out carefully on a flat hand towards Tilley; her mouth tickles me as the carrot’s scooped up under her top lip. I wipe the trail of slobber she’s left on my hand onto the stable door. Tilley’s head nudges into me and I stroke her neck. I feel the rain going down inside my T-shirt.
“Aaron,” Audrey calls out from the shelter of the stable. “There’s Rebecca coming. I hope you’ll come each weekend; I’ve enjoyed you being here today.”
Rebecca walks towards us under an umbrella and Audrey calls over to her.
“He’s so good with animals and getting on with things; thanks for letting me have him here.”
Me and animals, actually it is okay; it’s turning out all right. And it’s much better here than trying to fit in at some diving group.