Is there a future for a boy with a past?
In Chapter 1 Aaron was admitted to Templewood, a children’s home, and he met Rebecca, his keyworker, but he was not going to let himself be easily impressed. If you would like to read Chapter 1 first, please click here.
While the days drift past, they start to fill the house with Christmas decorations. They put an enormous tree in the lounge and cover it in flashing lights and gold balls. They spray snowmen on the windows and hang tinsel across the pictures.
On Christmas day when I go into the lounge, I see the biggest pile of presents I’ve ever seen. They don’t begin to fit under the tree but spread all over the floor. Across the ceiling they’ve hung a net that’s filled with balloons.
“Christmas,” Shelby yelps. “This is a proper Christmas isn’t it?”
Shelby’s like Tigger, always bouncing around and getting excited over something. I pick up a present that’s got my name on it but Derek makes me put it down. It’s Christmas; mum would have let me open it straight away. Derek gets us all to sit down; he makes us wait until everyone’s in the lounge. It’s a good ten minutes before he starts to hand out the parcels.
“For Shelby,” he says. “For Liam … For Narinder … Shelby, another one.”
He’s not giving me anything.
“Look, everybody, look!” Shelby cries out showing us the train set he’s just unwrapped.
I hate model trains. I will never again play with trains. There’s paper being torn all around me.
“These are from my little brother,” Shelby says putting these boxer shorts with pictures of devils on them on his head. “So embarrassing!”
“Liam, here’s a present for you,” Derek says.
Kate comes and lowers herself down between Shelby and me; she’s wearing these gold bells as earrings. Kate reminds me of a woman at a farm where I sometimes stayed when a foster mum wanted a holiday from me. They’re the type of women you don’t mess with but you know they’ll be fair. As Kate sits, the fat of her body rolls up and her thighs widen even further across the floor. Shelby shuffles over until he’s almost sat on her lap but it’s me Kate smiles at as she gives me a present. I open it and find one hundred felt tips, every colour I could ever need.
“And there’s an envelope for you, Aaron,” Derek says.
I see my name written in mum’s round writing that’s as neat as any teacher’s. “Ho ho ho and a merry Christmas to you” the card sings as two £50 notes fall out. As I hold the money in my hand, I think of mum’s fingers touching them.
“Shit, Aaron,” Liam says.
I quickly hide the money away in my back pocket. So much money, it shows how much mum loves me. There’s a note on pink paper.
To my Darling boy
Aaron is cute
Aaron is smart
With all my heart
from mum xxxx
“I’ll keep the money for you,” Rebecca says.
I should have opened the card more carefully and not let anyone see the notes before I put them in my pocket.
“I’ll log the amount in your pocket money book.”
“You have to give it to her,” Liam states.
“Bitch,” I mutter.
I hate having to take the money out and pass it over into Rebecca’s hands. She doesn’t want me to have anything from mum. She looks so stupid; she’s got some green tinsel wrapped round her neck – pull it tight, that would shut her up.
Oh mum, where are you? How are you today? Are you well? Mum, with your tight hugs that fuel me, your brief smiles, your long eyelashes, your powdery skin. Your eyes that can turn in a flash from worn-out to sparkling – and then back again. Your smell of mint, your smell of cigarettes.
My mum – she doesn’t need to be totally perfect to be more than good enough for me.
Oh mum, I’m thinking of you, can you feel me? Try, mum, try. I’m just here.
“Another present for you Aaron.”
Do you miss me mum? Is there a hole in your Christmas from us being apart like there is in mine?
“The present’s from Jean,” Rebecca says. “You going to open it?”
I tear off the paper and there’s this clear plastic box with a punctured red lid.
“A tank for your stick insect,” Rebecca says.
Social have to interfere with everything – Bramble was fine in his jam jar and anyway, I hate red. There’s nothing else from my social worker; she’s bought Bramble a present and not me.
I see some doll’s clothes being opened and it makes me think of my little half-sister Kara. Kara will be with mum today. Our Kara’s never felt like only half my sister; I love her. Everyone loves Kara.
“Who’s this from?” Shelby asks as he rips open an envelope.
“Read it yourself,” Liam says.
We all know that Shelby can’t read.
“Don’t you even know what letter that word begins with?” Liam says jabbing his finger into the card.
Shelby thumps his hand away. Kate separates them then looks straight at Liam.
“Don’t make me have to ruin your day, Liam,” she says. “And sit right here beside me … Now! That’s it.”
“The card says ‘Love from daddy’,” Narinder says. “And that’s a kiss.”
“I know a cross means a kiss.”
A kiss from dad; I’ll never even have a Christmas card from a dad. Mum says dad’s best off dead; he was in class A with his drugs.
A piece of wrapping paper lands on my foot and I kick it away, some Sellotape sticks to me and I rip it off. Liam’s laughing now and Ben’s giving him a present. Narinder’s opening some make-up that’s from a school friend – Narinder’s the only one here who goes to a mainstream school; she knows how to behave. Rebecca’s going round with a big black bag collecting all the torn paper.
“Now, Aaron, your present from group,” Derek says.
It’s huge. I unwrap a black skateboard with the words “Yes you can” printed down one end.
“Rebecca chose you that,” Narinder says.
I’ve always wanted a skateboard.
“Aren’t you going to thank her?”
“Wasn’t her money.”
My last foster mum just had this stupid thin red skateboard that nobody would want to use.
“Still you could thank group,” Rebecca says. “And I have got you something from me.”
She puts down the bin bag and fiddles around behind a chair. She pulls out a large envelope and hands it to me. Inside is a Chelsea calendar, a team photograph drops to the floor. I grab the photo towards me. “To Aaron, from all the team”, all the players have signed their names.
“How the hell did you get me this?” I say to Rebecca.
“I thought it’d be something you’d like.”
“I lov…” I stop short, I look at her. “… Thanks.”
One day I’ll get to see Chelsea play live and I’ll take mum and Kara with me and they’ll be smiling. And my half-brother Lee will be begging to come too but I won’t let him. He can stay with our bitch of a foster mum for all I care. She kept him but wouldn’t hold onto me; he didn’t even mind when I left him.
“What other presents have you got me?” I ask Rebecca.
“I think you’ve had plenty already.”
“Why didn’t you get me that gun I wanted for Christmas?”
“You know that guns aren’t allowed in group.”
“It was only a toy; mum would have got it for me.”
The adults are suddenly counting to three, then Kate and Ben pull on these strings and everyone shouts ‘hooray’ or screams as a shower of balloons fall down from the ceiling. They start bashing the balloons at each other. A balloon bounces off my shoulder, another falls from my head to the ground. They should have got helium balloons; they are much better and they wouldn’t even have needed the net to hold them up.
Our Kara loves helium balloons. Once me, Kara, mum and my social worker went into town and there was this woman selling them. Kara was begging at mum to buy her one; in the end it was me who bought it with my pocket money. Kara walked around all day with the Sleeping Beauty balloon tied to her little wrist. Then my social worker made her take it off to put it in the boot of her car. When I was dropped off at my foster mum’s house, I opened the boot and the balloon escaped and I never caught it in time. It seemed like I could still hear Kara crying on and on even when I was back inside my foster home. I didn’t know how to get rid of that sound in my head.
Christmas without you – I miss you. Remember the Christmas we got Rip and Curl and they pee-ed all over Gran’s new jumper? Gran said those puppies were twins and we didn’t need any more twins in our one house. Were we such naughty twins? I guess we were mean to Gran sometimes but she was such a target for getting worked up over very little. And I think we hated the demands she placed on mum.
It’s a funny kind of Christmas here. I feel full of nut roast and greasy roast potatoes and in definite need of this coffee break, having being woken at 4am by Aaron claiming it must be time to start Christmas Day. By 4am, I’d only just got back to sleep after dealing with Shelby at midnight. Shelby bounces around on a nightly basis masturbating and re-enacting the sexual violence of his past. Poor kid.
My daytime action began with Liam charging at me with the broom threatening “I’m going to shove it up your fanny … if you fucking have one”. I flinched and then he hit me. Merry Christmas. Liam’s presence is so intrusive, he is the knot inside my tummy.
Meanwhile, Aaron’s playing the game of smiling at everyone else and ignoring me, unless it’s to be rude. Derek said in supervision that these are good signs – they show that Aaron is recognising me as his keyworker and therefore significant to him. Doesn’t feel so great.
Today for me is further practice in the art of playing jolly at Christmas, and at least I don’t have to do that with mum and dad this year. Telling them I was working was a totally legitimate and readily accepted reason for not seeing them. (They were relieved, though they’d never admit it.)
You wouldn’t believe the mountain of presents the children got – those wily manufacturers really have thought of every conceivable toy. So much plastic. (80% useless, 50% already trashed by our kids.)
I tried calling Pete just now but there was no answer. He only gets to see his children for two hours today, that’s hard on him. Four years of living apart from them has caused him a lot of pain. I get to see him tonight – I’ve got a 5pm finish. Funny how I met Pete just before starting this job – talk about the timing of finding a boyfriend when one isn’t looking. He’s gorgeous. Such honest, soft brown eyes. I think I’m really falling deeply for him. I need to tell you this because I don’t want to hide anything from you. I want you to like Pete. Please. I’m scared. Every day I have to face the consequence of my first ‘boyfriend’.
(Mum’s taken against Pete before she’s even met him because he’s divorced and a dad – it didn’t help when I told her he isn’t divorced because he was never married though he lived with Natasha for eight years.)
Love and hugs,
When I go into the office, I notice how Rebecca’s just staring into space and then when she sees me she rushes up to standing and pushes this notebook with a pattern of red apples on it into her bag.
I tell her it’s time for the carol service and we go out of Sunbeam down all these corridors to this light blue room which is stuffed full of people from all the different Templewood groups.
“Let’s show how well Sunbeam children can behave,” Derek says.
“Look at that tree!” Shelby says jumping around and clinging onto his new toy dog.
The tree’s enormous, it goes up and up, making even the one in Sunbeam seem small. It’s covered in white lights. Candles burn on the window ledges around it. An older boy hands me a bit of paper and then we sit ourselves down and people start Christmas singing.
“Words are on your sheet,” Rebecca whispers as she leans over me.
I move away as her warm breath that smells of coffee fogs my ear. I look down the row and there’s Shelby humming and Liam singing. I look again, Liam’s leaning towards Ben, their arms are touching … linked. Liam’s arm suddenly looks small next to Ben’s muscled one. Ben’s dark eyes are set ahead, his legs are planted slightly apart. I try to look at the words on my sheet but I keep thinking about Liam and Ben’s skin meeting together. Ben is Liam’s keyworker. Liam doesn’t mess up when he’s with him. What is between them?
Ben and Liam getting along – does that make it more or less safe for me?
I don’t like it in here; I want to be outside. I try to step away from people but they surround me, there’s no space. It’s hot in this room. I see the tree. Candles. White dots. Flames. So many. How many matches were needed to light that lot? The dots gather together in front of my eyes; I think of the heat of fire. I hear a drum, a crackling.
I remember how we were walking downstairs together when …
… when HE pulls me back then stops totally still. I smell something’s wrong then I feel the heat and see a massive bonfire burning in my bedroom. I stare at it. A fire in my bedroom? We were coming downstairs to go out; he had told me that he’d take me out for an ice-cream; he had never bought me one before.
A sudden movement, a stranger in a black and white jumper. I hide from the stranger, then dare to peep out through the banister. I see the flames leap up. My favourite tractor book is lying open with fire eating into the picture of farmer Hill. I watch as my snakes and ladders box curls into ash.
HE steps away from me; he’s shouting at the tall, thin stranger. HE goes over and punches him. I know that I’ll never get my ice-cream now. A smack into the stranger’s chest sends him flying back into the fire. I hear the stranger’s yelp, then see him struggle to standing.
HE blocks the stranger from running out of the room. The stranger leaps up onto the window ledge then for a moment he is totally still, as if he’s suddenly realised his pain. He hugs around himself; he looks like he wants to scream or cry. He’s different to other men. His jumper is too baggy, too woolly, it’s like it’s made for an outdoor life. He glances in my direction but I’m sure he doesn’t see me. He looks almost like he’s just a boy. His light brown hair falls in soft strands over his forehead; his stubble is no more than a hint of soft hair. His eyes are watery with dark creases lined beneath them. There’s dirt on his cheek and his teeth are crooked. I hate men but I’m not afraid of this man.
I’ve lost time by looking at the stranger and now the fire is getting even bigger. Now I realise that the whole fire is made up of my stuff. Nothing of mum’s or Lee’s. Or HIS. It’s my mattress that burns, my trousers, my cuddly rabbit. I see Teddy fall down deep into the fire, smoke twists around him.
I sway; a sweat slips across my body. My legs empty, leaving me crashing back into the chair behind me. I cough.
“Aaron?” Rebecca says.
A warmth floods into my face.
“Bit stuffy in here,” she says. “Let’s go out and get you a drink.”
I shake my head, blink. The swirls of colours and shapes come back into focus – I see legs, chairs, children. I hear gentle singing. I look at the tree and around the room – nothing’s burning. I follow Rebecca, tripping over feet as I go down the row. A man opens the door to let us out, cold air falls over me and helps me breathe again.
“What happened?” Rebecca says.
“I just didn’t feel right.”
“Let’s get you back to Sunbeam.”
“Will they blow out all the candles?”
“Oh yes, maintenance men are right there making sure all’s safe. Were you afraid of the candles? … It’s not often you’ll see candles around here and when we do use them we’re very careful.”
We go into Sunbeam and I head for the lounge. Fire – a stranger – all so real to me. Social, who seem to know everything about my life, say they don’t know anything about a fire. And mum’s told me there was no fire; she says it’s all some crazy thoughts of mine and that if you tell a lie too many times it can sometimes start to feel like it really happened to you.
“Aaron, do you want a drink?” Rebecca says.
She leans forward to pick up a scrap of wrapping paper that’s by the leg of the armchair, it’s all that’s left from this morning’s present opening. The lights on the Christmas tree are off; the snowman on the window’s smudged.
“Shall we put Bramble in his new tank and get him some fresh privet? … Let’s do it together.”
In the end it’s Rebecca who goes upstairs to fetch Bramble and the tank. As she goes out of the room, the green tinsel that she’s been wearing all day falls from her shoulders. I flick on the telly and it’s this ad with a perfect posh family sitting around a fire eating perfect mince pies. The mum’s smiling, the girl’s smiling – even the dog looks like its fucking smiling.
Suddenly I’m leaping up. I’m running down the back stairs, on past the art room, through the laundry room and then to the back door. It’s such an easy latch and a light door to push open. I step outside; the door slams shut. I’m stood in shocking cold.
I haven’t got a coat on, or even a sweater. I look back at the shut door, the closed windows. I try the handle but the door won’t open. For a moment I long to slip back indoors, race to the lounge, sit quietly on the settee and have nobody know I’ve even come outside.
No, this is my chance. Mum, I will make it to mum. I swore to myself last year that I’d never have another Christmas without her. I can’t just sit indoors missing her, letting Christmas day pass by without her. I hurry down the muddy path under the cover of trees. I make my way over the carpet of fallen needles. I glance back at Templewood; no-one’s coming after me. I think of everyone stuck inside and stick my fingers up at them. Goodbye Rebecca, goodbye Liam … goodbye to the lot of them. I’ll never have to see any of them ever again. With every step I’m getting further away from being trapped in Templewood.
I dash past Templewood’s school out onto the road. I’m at the hill. All journeys away from Templewood start by going down this hill. I look at a home dotted in Christmas lights. I can make out a Christmas tree and the outline of people in the next house. On and on I rush, past window after window of family homes filled with Christmas decorations.
Christmas Day. Christmas is being with the ones you love.
Mum, I’m coming. One step, another. Mum, everything will be okay this time. And you know I can help you with Kara, I’m good at that. How many miles away are you? One hundred? Two? Three? No problem, you’ll see how I can keep going when you are my aim. I’ll just keep walking; it’s not difficult. It might take a week but then we’ll be together. We’ll have another Christmas, we’ll eat turkey nuggets and chips and watch a film on a massive television with stereo sound and our Kara can sit with me.
I like the cold breeze around me; it feels fresh and clean and I’m warm inside as I walk on. I double back from a side road; it wasn’t the right way to mum. The next turning will probably be the one I want. A dog barks from the other side of the road; the man with him calls “Hello” and nods his walking stick at me. A woman steps out of a car and says, “Merry Christmas”. I’m just a boy out on a Christmas stroll to them. I stand tall; I’m a boy returning to his mum, to where he belongs. Social won’t rule my life any more.
I walk down another road; I can feel mum ahead of me. A long way ahead, but if I keep thinking of her and feeling her, I’ll know the way. A light rain starts up; I catch its drops on my tongue. I walk past a locked playground.
Somehow I end up in town. Chains of Christmas lights weave around the shop fronts and trees but it seems so quiet and empty. I see a bin bulging with rubbish; I stamp on a fallen burger box; I like the way it cracks and how ketchup splatters onto the pavement.
I find the town map that’s up on a brown stand near the bus stops; I looked at it with Rebecca last week. Now I study it for clues to reaching mum. I find the ‘You are here’ sign. Is mum straight north from here? Then I see the words ‘Train Station’.
That’s it. A train will get me away from here and nearer mum much faster. I’ve ridden a train before for fun; me and this older boy were going to hide in the toilet but it stank so we took a seat and no one even came to ask if we had a ticket. This time I’ll stay in the toilet all the way no matter how much it smells.
I stand in front of the frozen automatic doors at the train station. I’d already seen the dim lights inside, the shutters over the counters and how the Christmas tree lights were off. I try a side door even though I know it won’t budge.
I make my way up a muddy bank and look through the railings. I watch a bit of trapped rubbish flapping in the wind; I hear the rain falling on the train tracks. I feel how my wet T-shirt clings to me.
Is mum in that direction up there past the signal box, or down there past the blocks of offices?
Train tracks running on and on. Dark tunnels. A shudder passes through me, I’ve drifted into thoughts of train sets and model trains. I wish I’d never come to this station.
I go through the car park past the rows of empty spaces; there’s just one old blue car parked under a tree. Night’s coming; the air is foggy grey. Two women are stood on the pavement chatting; if only I could just ask them the way to mum. I go past them in silence. I follow a footpath stamping over dirty stinging nettles. I kick a blackened pine cone looping it up into the air and its pieces scatter ahead of me. I feel the wet coming through my trainers. I step around the base of a tree trunk that spreads like giant claws across the path. I look up the tree and see a monster’s face in its bark, a fist in a shortened branch. A man suddenly lurks ahead. I run all the way back to the car park. I hurry towards the lights of houses. There’s a house with a giant Father Christmas on its roof and through its curtained windows, I can make out the glow of a television. Music and voices pour out of another house.
A woman follows me; I dart across the road. The door of the house ahead of me opens. A car moves slowly past. Who is looking out at me from its darkened windows?
A tapping of heels behind me.
“You all right?” a woman’s voice calls out.
I see the edge of an umbrella as she catches up with me.
“You okay? You far from home?”
I break into a run; I don’t stop until I reach a wasteland at the back of some warehouses. There’s only one working streetlight for the whole area. A thin layer of tarmac covers the ground, in places it’s cracked open and weeds grow through it. I see a dead pigeon; I prod it with my foot; I kick harder and it rolls over.
I suddenly remember Bramble; I can’t believe I haven’t thought of him before this moment. Poor Bramble. I shouldn’t have left him behind; I need him here with me.
I’m cold and wet; I want to be properly dressed. I want food. I want to close my eyes and magically fly to where mum is. Where are you mum? Come to me mum. Call out and I’ll find you.
It hits me suddenly. £100. Mum was that my way back to you? I should have hung onto that money; I could have eaten and travelled far on £100. Those notes … Rebecca robbed me; mum I’ve lost your money. How can I return to Templewood to get the money and Bramble? If I go back, I might never get away again.
A man calls me back. My name, he uses my name. I bolt into the gap between two warehouses. Feet are behind me, catching up with me. Arms land around me. My scream fills the night air.
Ben, it’s Ben.
“Police, us, we’ve all been looking for you,” he states. “Have you any idea of the danger you’re putting yourself in?”
You are danger. Rebecca steps out of the shadows behind him, she looks straight at me. I pull against Ben; I need to get away. He drags me forwards.
“Come on, back to the car.”
“Let go of me!”
“To the car.”
” … Make him stop,” I beg of Rebecca.
Ben pushes me on towards the car; I can’t fight against his strength.
“You need to get in the car,” Rebecca says. “We can talk later once we’re back at Templewood.”
“Don’t take me back … Leave me here … You have to pretend that you never caught me … Please … I won’t let on that I saw you; you won’t get into trouble.”
“No way! I’m so pleased we’ve found you in one piece.”
I’m in a thousand pieces.
Forced to Sunbeam, forced to my yellow bedroom, I rub a towel over my wet hair then put on my pyjamas. Rebecca brings me warm milk and a Weetabix. After I’ve eaten, she tells me to get into bed; I haven’t even brushed my teeth.
“Christmas is a difficult time for you, isn’t it?” she whispers as she pulls the duvet up around me.
I turn away from her. She puts on my night-light then goes out, closing the door. I lift my head from my bed. Where is Bramble? He must be here. I can’t find him. Where is his jam jar? Then I see the red tank. Someone’s touched my Bramble and put him in that stupid new tank where I never wanted him. Someone’s given him shiny green leaves to eat. He’s mine; he’s mine! Nobody else can fucking touch him and move him about – someone, that fucking Rebecca, has. And she’s piled my presents up on the chest of drawers and hung up the Chelsea calendar.
If only mum filled the calendar’s days.
Why didn’t I make it to mum? Why the fuck had I stopped at the warehouses? I should have kept going. I should have run all the way. I should have hid away.
I pull my empty Chelsea calendar down off the wall. Boxes of blank days to be spent here. I bring the team photo close to me. All my favourite players. Suddenly I’m tearing the calendar up. The pieces fall down onto the floor. I stare down at the jigsaw of torn bits of faces, legs, blue and white tops, signatures. I grab my mug and chuck it at Rebecca’s painting of Tom and Jerry laughing at me. I stare after the mug as it breaks and some milk splashes down the wall and onto my bedside table.
Christmas day is over. Another Christmas with no mum.
Shit, shit, shit. Tonight as I tucked Aaron in, I noticed this bit of paper sticking out of his mattress. It had to be a picture of me – my ugly, ugly mole drawn the size of a fist on my neck, my hair even madder than reality. That might be insulting in itself, but it’s nothing compared to the defacement my image had undergone. Shocking enormous breasts were drawn on my shirt, detailed to include nipples. I’d been given a vampire collar and fangs with blood dripping from them. And then there was an attack of stabbed dots to my eyes and whole face, some so vehemently done that they’d punctured the paper.
Aaron tried to grab the effigy from me, he wouldn’t tell me when he’d done it. I showed the picture to Derek who just said to file it. I’m trying to be rational, just because a ten-year old’s picture of me has taken a blasting it doesn’t mean I will. But the intent behind it, the hate.
As for the rest of today – Aaron ran off. He and I were the only ones back in group after he’d been overwhelmed at the carol service, I popped upstairs to get his stick insect leaving him alone in the lounge for all of three minutes. When I came back – no Aaron. I called for him, I checked the loos, the other lounge. I looked outside – a grey day with no sign of anybody. I didn’t know the protocol for a vanished boy. I delayed disturbing anyone at the carol service thinking Aaron would probably turn up at any moment. By the time I went over to the main hall, everyone was coming out. I told Ben and Derek what had happened, I felt so culpable for Aaron’s disappearance. Was it reckless of me to leave him alone in the lounge after he’d been upset at the carols? I felt shown up as inexperienced and ineffectual. Ben told me to look outside for Aaron, I scurried around with no real search strategy. It was hopeless. When it got dark and there was still no Aaron, I started to panic. Ben rang the police to report him missing while I left a message with social services for Jean. I tried to convince myself that Aaron was okay – he’s run off many times before in his life.
Ben and I went driving around town looking for him once the other children were in bed. It was then that the mobile rang – an off-duty policewoman had reported seeing a boy at the old industrial estate. When we found Aaron, he was wet, cold and non-communicative. I felt such relief at finding him and he looked so miserable but all my sympathy soon turned to anger.
Thanks to Aaron running off and dealing with filing the effigy, I finished work at 11pm instead of 5pm (a 16 hour shift on top of being woken at midnight and 4am!) And thanks to Aaron I hardly saw Pete who’d come all the way to see me. And when I did finally get home to Pete, I was no fun – grumpy, then tearful, then zombie-tired. So, zero quality time with Pete who’s now raced back to his home for a Boxing Day afternoon with his children.
I won’t complain at a Christmas with mum and dad next year – honest!
Missing you so badly,
Chapter 3 will follow next month.