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, 16, 17
Kara sits blowing bubbles down her straw into her drink, her eyes lift up and stare at me. Of course I’d have recognised her but she also looks so strange and big. I’m sat on the front edge of a settee in a small room with a low ceiling. A large woman, Kara’s foster mum, sits on a nearby armchair.
“Lovely house,” Rebecca says from beside me.
In the end my social worker drove us here from the train station but didn’t stay. I don’t think she could be bothered to hang around now that I’ve got Rebecca with me.
There are some china dogs lined up on a high shelf. Everything seems clean and new even though the floor’s a muddle of toys. The teddy bear I bought for Kara lies fallen on his nose in a corner of the room. The stickers I got her, she’s already stuck all over the Snakes and Ladders box. I look at Kara’s brown hair and the butterfly clips scattered through it. She goes over to a bookshelf and pulls out a video.
“Not now,” her foster mum tells her.
“I want to watch this.”
“Why not show Aaron some of your toys?”
“Don’t want to; I want a video.”
“I want TV.”
“No. What do you think Aaron might like to do?”
I stick my hands under my knees, I don’t mind what Kara watches; she should be allowed a video.
“He can see Rolly,” Kara suddenly says.
“That’s her guinea pig; he’s in her room,” her foster mum says and then she turns to Rebecca. “You happy with them going upstairs together?”
I follow Kara along a narrow hall squeezing past coats and a little bicycle. I kick into a plastic ball by mistake and it starts singing the alphabet; I can still hear it as we go upstairs. Kara shows me the room where her foster mum and dad sleep, then she stands in the doorway of another bedroom and tells me that nobody sleeps here. I see a bed covered in an Action Man duvet and behind it a poster of dolphins leaping up out of the sea. We go into Kara’s room; the walls are a pale pink and covered in large stickers of princess-like angels. A mass of dolls and a teddy bear twice the size of the one I’ve just given Kara lie on the bed. A guinea pig scratches around inside a cage. Kara twiddles his water bottle round then wanders away from him. She goes over to a cupboard that’s stacked with toys and pulls out a box.
We play a game where you fit little plastic swords into slots in a barrel until suddenly Kara puts in one more sword and it makes this pirate pop out from the middle. I’m pleased that she wins the game. Kara shows me an electric keyboard and she bashes out some notes. I look out of her bedroom window onto a little garden with a climbing frame and a slide. Kara gets out another game where we have to use hammers to tap bits of ice through a grid. I lean back against the side of Kara’s bed; I hear the voices of her foster mum and Rebecca coming from downstairs. I’m in a house, a house on a street. Could I really do this? Me with a foster family? What will the family they’ve found me be like? The thought of it makes my heart beat too fast. I look at Kara. She looks happy as if there’s nothing strange to her about being here. I wonder if she misses mum.
Kara starts downstairs; I’d like to call her back but I don’t know what to say to make her want to stay up here with me.
“Tea time in five minutes,” Kara’s foster mum calls up.
“Coming,” Kara shouts back.
“You two having a nice time?”
“I won every game,” Kara says, her voice now fading into the distance of downstairs.
When Rebecca comes up to the bedroom, I haven’t moved.
“Time for some food,” she says softly.
I’m the first to sit at the kitchen table and then Kara comes and stands beside me. I feel her warmth. Her arm touches mine as she leans against me; I feel the print of her hand coming through my shirt. My hand drifts above her, very slowly I bring it down towards her, I feel the fluff of her jumper and then my hand is on her. I want to do more – to cling onto her, to hug her and never let her go.
Food is placed on the table and suddenly Kara’s moving to sit down.
“You washed your hands?” her foster mum says.
I almost gasp as I swing round towards Kara but she’s smiling, like it’s so easy to call this woman ‘mummy’.
We sit at a round table in a small kitchen. I can only eat very slowly because I know that when this meal is over Rebecca and I have to leave. The long, long train journey to Templewood will take me far away.
Aaron visited his sister Kara today. It was moving to see his efforts at establishing their bond. Aaron seemed so needy; Kara sociable but more self-contained. Poor Aaron, to have been deprived of all I’ve known. Sibling closeness – our love, our friendship, our fights. We were so entwined. And then …
Then came that day. And yes, I was experimenting at some kind of separation from you. I was pleased to be doing something private. I felt grown up. Individual.
It was the end of the school day 11 years ago. A bright blue November day. The air seemed cleaned by the previous two days of rain. I was only going to get a hot chocolate with Dave, I’d never had a boy I liked giving me any attention before. You wanted me to come home with you, I told you I didn’t want to. I told you to give me some space. I had to walk away from you trying to trap me with some inane chatter. I was cross with you – it was already embarrassing enough for Dave to walk out of school with me and now you were keeping him waiting.
Dave and I went to the Cove. I wasn’t in a good mood and I blamed you. He said he could tell me and you apart, he said I was usually more cheerful. I didn’t like him criticising you even though that’s what I’d just been doing. It was sudden the way he took my hand. We walked on in silence. His hand was warm and firm. There was nothing to say. By the old lifeboat hut, his lips came against mine. I felt the warmth of his body leaning into mine.
We never did go on to get a hot chocolate. Dave’s friend must have known where to find us, he was yelling across the beach. Dave looked at me, it was my name that was being called.
When did you decide to dash across the main road and not go to the crossing? Was your recklessness a reaction to my going with Dave? At what exact moment did the car smash into your side? Oh the time was 3.50pm, but what was I doing then? Was it when I was complaining about you to Dave, or was it when I had my first kiss with a boy? I did not feel the moment of your death – for years, I’ve told myself I should have felt it. Were you in pain for long? Did you try to live before dying in the ambulance, or did you succumb easily?
Did you know the torture you’d cause me? How my every successive day would be permeated by the loss of you?
I’m so afraid to let go of grieving you.
I love you so much,
The perfect day of being with Kara is over. I miss her so badly. I go to the office and ask Rebecca for my photo of her; I’m going to put it up in my room. Rebecca slides open a filing cabinet drawer, flicks through it and then pulls out the photo. In the photo, Kara’s barely more than a baby.
“Are you all right, Aaron?” Rebecca says as I start to walk from the room. “Hang on, Aaron.”
“Aaron, you okay after the visit with Kara?”
“When will I get to see her again?”
“In a while I’m sure another visit can be arranged, probably once you’re settled into living in your next home.”
“Why not next week?”
“Aaron, you can write to her.”
“Writing’s not the same.”
“What did you think of where she’s living?”
“All right, yeah she seems all right … I’ll get my own family soon. When am I visiting them?”
“My foster family.”
“Your foster family? I suppose you mean the family Derek told you about.”
“Am I seeing them this week?”
“I don’t know.”
“Tell me, when am I seeing them?”
She remains silent.
“I said ‘When?'”
“Aaron, there is more than one family possibly interested in you.”
“I don’t need more than one family.”
“Aaron, trust in Through-Care to find you your next home.”
Derek walks into the office, he nods at Rebecca, but she does not smile back; he walks to his desk and her eyes are fixed hard on him.
“Rebecca won’t tell me when I’m seeing my foster family,” I tell him.
“Aaron, there are several families where you might potentially live.”
“Urggh, just sort it out and tell me when I’m seeing them.”
“Aaron, there will be no visit to the family I mentioned.”
“What do you mean?”
“We have only just found out that there were some things that had happened with that family in the past that mean they are unsuitable as foster parents.”
“Yes, I’m afraid they turned out to be not that suitable … I can’t go into specifics.”
I walk from the office swiping a plant down off the top of the filing cabinet. Dodgy foster parents, is that the best that can be found for me? I kick a pair of trainers out through the door.
“Fuck off,” I shout spinning round to Rebecca.
I kick a trainer back at her.
“Cut the violence, Aaron,” Derek shouts from the office doorway.
I run from him to my room; I blast my music onto loudest. I kick the wall then punch into it with my fist.
The music’s turned down; Derek looks at me.
“I take responsibility, Aaron. I probably should never have told you about that family; I should have waited. After chatting to Through-Care and meeting the family, I let enthusiasm and a desire to encourage you get in the way of patience.”
“Fuck you; this is my life you’re playing with!”
“Aaron, there are more chances for a foster family.”
Audrey goes in through her front door to get our snacks and today, for the first time, I follow her. She kicks off her muddy boots and only then does she notice me behind her.
“Oh, Aaron, you coming in?”
I copy her by taking off my shoes.
“You’ll have to forgive the mess, not that I can pretend it’s ever any different. What a lovely morning it’s been; I really enjoyed our walk with the dogs. And thanks for your help with the goats.”
I leave the front door open then follow Audrey into a warm kitchen.
“We’ll do the stables after our drinks.”
The kitchen walls are covered in a muddle of things – there are postcards, a calendar with a picture of some lions, a poster labelled ‘herbs’ and some shiny orange pots. Audrey puts on the kettle, then washes up some glasses from the muddle of dirty plates and cups in the sink.
“Sit down if you want to, Aaron.”
She pushes old magazines and letters away from a corner of the table and pulls out a chair for me. She pours me a juice and gives me a little bowl full of dried apricots. Suddenly the door bell rings and a boy’s voice calls through the house. Audrey goes to the front door.
“Have you come for your fleece?” I hear her say.
I take a handful of the apricots then walk away down a brightly lit corridor. A half open door shows off a bedroom; it’s strangely tidy. I step round the door and into the room. There’s a bed with a pale blue bedspread, a small telly on a round table and a cream-coloured armchair. Sunlight comes in the shape of a wafer through the large window. I close my eyes and let the sun’s gentle warmth fall on my eyelids. I breathe in this bedroom. I sit on the edge of the bed. I stuff all the apricots into my mouth and let their sweetness fill me. I hear footsteps; I rush to standing. Audrey’s there in the doorway looking straight at me.
“I, I …”
She lets her face smile.
“I was looking for the toilet.”
She shows me to the bathroom at the end of the corridor; she says nothing about finding me in that room. When I go back to the kitchen she’s stood leaning against the sink talking to the boy.
“Aaron, meet Hugo. Hugo’s another of my helpers; he comes on Sundays.”
Hugo hovers in the centre of the room; he has not been given a drink or a seat. He’s thin and pale; his jeans hang off his waist. I bet he can’t work as hard as I do. He looks down at the floor but his tallness still lurks above me. I go outside and put on some overalls, I find the big shovel and wheelbarrow and go over to the stables; I know exactly what needs doing. When I stop for a minute’s break, I look back on the house and try to work out which window belongs to that quiet bedroom that’s so different from the muddle of the rest of Audrey’s house.
It’s a while before Audrey comes out and by then I’m filling up the water trough in the field.
“I can come more often to help out,” I tell her.
“You like it here, Aaron?”
“You could have me on Sundays.”
“… Aaron you are very helpful, I so enjoy your coming; I look forward to our Saturday mornings together. You do so much I don’t need you on Sundays as well.”
“You let Hugo come.”
“Yes, Hugo comes on Sundays.”
The woman from Through-Care sits there behind her big desk. She leans back in her chair and looks down at me.
“I need my foster family now.”
“I hear what you’re saying.”
“Have you got me a family?”
“Nothing is definite.”
“You said you’d find me a foster family.”
“I can never promise that.”
“I’ve done everything, I’ve been good, I’ve changed, I’ve even … mum … split …” Yes, I’ve even split up from mum.
“I hear your mother is pregnant.”
“Where’s my foster family? Do something for me!”
“Aaron, I have been and I am. I’m pleased to hear your enthusiasm for a family. Tell me how would you feel about a family with a foster mum but no dad?”
“Or if there were other children?”
“We must not lose hope; things sometimes sort themselves out at the last minute.”
Is this the best she can do for me?
“Also we must think broadly; foster families are not the only option for you.”
Shit, I could do a better job than her. I charge out of her room and she doesn’t bother to call me back.
Ruby’s reading from the Guinness Book of Records about two brothers covered in hair. Rebecca’s sat on the settee right beside her. Ruby makes no mistakes in her reading. Rebecca laughs when Ruby describes the amount of hair on the brothers’ backs. Rebecca’s never let me do my reading practice from that book. I sit on the arm of the chair, Rebecca carries on listening to Ruby.
“Reading’s not difficult,” I say.
“Aaron, don’t interrupt.”
“How long do I have to wait to do my reading?”
“Just pause a second, Ruby … Aaron, Emma’ll be here in a minute, why not ask her to listen to your reading?”
“You’re my keyworker.”
“Yes and you want me to hear you reading but for now I’m with Ruby and then I’ve got a few jobs I have to do. I’ll make sure I sit with you at tea though.”
I wander from the room.
“Where are you going, Aaron?” Rebecca asks.
“Just getting something from my room.”
“Okay,” and then she turns back to Ruby. “Now where were we?”
In the kitchen, I take Ruby’s special yoghurt drink from the fridge and gulp it down in one go. Upstairs on the boy’s corridor, I listen carefully for any noise from above; hearing only quiet, I dash up to the girl’s floor. I put my ear to Ruby’s door then tap gently on it. Certain that no one’s around, I push down on the handle of her bedroom door. I freeze at its moan. I strain to hear sounds above the pulsing in my ears; I think all’s clear so I push the door open and step into her room. Ruby’s bedroom – plain walls, plain brown carpet, plain white duvet cover and pillow. No Tom and Jerry painted specially by Rebecca, no posters, no rug, no lamp. I open a drawer and see a neat pile of pink pants, the top one says Thursday. There are perfectly folded T-shirts, socks matched in pairs. And then my eye catches sight of a tiny red box, I let my hand run across its raised velvet lid. The lid snaps open easily, a red stone sitting in a lump of gold shines up at me. I pull it out and find a rolled note under it, ‘To Ruby, with love, Daddy xxx’. The stone is cold and hard in my hand as I turn from the drawers.
On a shelf, I see the ‘Welcome to Sunbeam’ card I gave Ruby sitting alone with just two others. No, not alone. There behind those few cards is a silver framed photograph. I stare at the photo of Ruby stood between a man and a woman. I see how the adults eyes shine as they look at her, how their arms rest around her with fingers softening onto her. The woman looks like an older Ruby.
I go back to the drawers, I find the velvet box and put the note and the jewel back in it. They could never be mine; nobody would send me such a thing. I’ve never had anything like that from a daddy, never ever. I’ve never had a photo of me held between a man and a woman. A mum and a dad. I kick into Ruby’s bed then run from this room.
Rebecca’s not in the lounge; Ruby’s now playing cards with Emma. Nobody notices me or bothers to think I’ve been anywhere but my room.
I find Rebecca alone in the laundry room folding some washing. She stops and looks at me with a smile that wraps a sudden warmth around me. She stays quite still. She knows Ruby will never truly need her, that Ruby doesn’t even belong here.
Yes, so obvious, it could work. It could work.
“Rebecca, do you like me or do you just put up with me?”
“Oh, Aaron, of course I like you!”
“You can … you can foster me.”
The words spoke out. Now Rebecca slowly puts down a towel and looks away. A future is lost in her second of silence.
“I was only kidding,” I fake a laugh.
“Aaron, if I was a foster parent, you’d be my first choice of child. I understand you asking; if I’m totally honest it is a fantasy I have entertained but it is not reality for where I am at the moment in life. I don’t have the set up; I don’t even have my own house.”
“Don’t take me so seriously.”
“I think you meant it.”
“Fuck off, I told you I was joking around. As if you and I could live together. Can you imagine it? We’d drive each other mad.”
“I said forget it.”
Rebecca picks another towel out of the drier; I knock the basket of folded laundry down onto the floor, all the folded clothes tumble out. I run over them and out of the back door.
Oh fuck. Those foster parents for Aaron – I visited them, I thought they were nice. I thought we were so close to a good future for Aaron. And now the truth – the mum is known to social services in Tower Hamlets. Why did she waste our time and hopes? Did she really think we wouldn’t find out? There’s several files on her noting her episodes of violence towards her own daughter. I don’t understand why we didn’t have this information sooner.
No foster family now Aaron wants one so much. Does every door have to slam in his face?
And then today, oh god, Aaron asked me if I’d foster him. It’s heartbreaking. How could I say ‘no’ to that kind of plea? And yet I did. That boy, it’s as if sometimes he’s psychic. Does he know how I’d been thinking about fostering him, how I approached Derek about it? I had images of us living in Cornwall – swimming and surfing together and seeing the joy in Aaron’s face.
Derek was so dismissive saying it’s a common fantasy for keyworkers to harbour ideas of fostering especially at points of despair. He told me that becoming a foster parent is a gruelling process, his sister had fostered and every detail of her life was examined and scrutinised. And at the end of all this and with all the changes in lifestyle I’d have to make, I wouldn’t necessarily get Aaron to foster. And if I did, Aaron would have been in limbo for a good few years in the time it took to get me approved.
Derek told me not to feel guilty, my place is here with a commitment to my other keychild Ruby. Ruby is driving me insane. While Aaron gets rid of unwanted emotions by exploding, Ruby festers and infects everyone else.