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, 18,19,20
Rebecca looks at me then looks away. We can’t hug, we can’t say good-bye.
“Well done Aaron, you’ve made the right choice,” Derek says. “All the very best.”
My social worker’s car ticks over on the drive below Templewood; in its boot are my one suitcase and two small bags. In my hand is a bag with my money and four photographs. There’s a photo of mum, another of Kara smiling and a photo of Rebecca and me on the big dipper at the theme park where she took me as my leaving present. Then there’s the photo of baby me with that man in a black and white jumper I once called a stranger – dad. It’s the photo dad always kept with him and mum sent it to me. I don’t know if dad really looks like me; Rebecca says it’s in the eyes. We’ve got the same crooked teeth. How could dad have turned into the dosser who came here? How could he have let himself get so bad? He killed himself for the shame of his life.
I go through the main door and then I don’t take my eyes off the steps. Down, down, away from Templewood. Away from Rebecca. Another step and then my foot crunches on gravel. I steady myself. Behind me are the voices of all I have known for three years.
I love mum; I’ll always love her, though I don’t quite know what that love means for us. My social worker opens the passenger door towards me. I step in. The car drives forward taking me slowly away. Taking me to them.
Hello Cameron, hello Kirsty – and please no good-byes. I did it; I met the foster family that took their time. I saw their house and their animals. I sat on their settee. I stroked one of their dogs. Maybe, just maybe, it’ll work out.
I suddenly turn back and stare at Templewood. Everyone’s moving inside except for one person – Rebecca. She’s just staring out towards me; she’s totally still except for the wind blowing her mad wavy hair. Her figure remains alone on the steps getting smaller and smaller. I close my eyes and it feels like I’m carrying a bit of her warmth around me and in me.
I held it together all through Aaron’s departure and now I’ve collapsed at home. I didn’t want to stop crying. He’s gone. Three years I’ve been pre-occupied by him and now I’m supposed to just let him go. Jesus, bloody protocol, I can’t even send him a postcard until September and the earliest I can see him again is December! It’s so bloody hard to be separated from him.
I mean I do feel positive for his future. It’s fantastic that he’s gone to Kirsty and Cameron’s. I’m still in shock at it all seemingly working out in the end for him. I honestly think we couldn’t have found him a better home; it’s a lovely smallholding with a view of hills. Kirsty’s really friendly and interesting (she’s a writer of historical biographies and teaches on various writing courses). Cameron runs the smallholding.
What’s left at Templewood for me now? Ruby. Right now, I just don’t know whether I can see her through her three years here. It’s sneaky how they gave me another child to keywork before Aaron departed. If I had a gap from children now, I’d be free to leave. And I would leave.
At least I’ve got a holiday coming up soon – mum, dad and I have decided to return to Cornwall, we’ve hired a cottage for a week. We’ll visit all our favourite places and our old house, we all feel ready to face doing that now.
Remember Aaron’s teacher John – we’re going to the cinema together tomorrow. He happened to be at the pub the other night when I went out with Emma. Turns out he’s from north Cornwall. He really has got startling blue eyes.
I look around my room; books line the walls. I’m always reading when I’m not working. The beat of music comes up through the floor from the flat below. I feel tired after a day’s work digging and planting trees. My place is all right but I end up staying with Kirsty and Cameron most weekends; sometimes I look after their place and the animals for them when they go away.
I get up and walk over to look at my painting of Rebecca that hangs in a corner of my room. Rebecca – I’ve given you back your big smile, the sparkle in your eyes … your vibrancy that was even expressed in the waves of your hair. I’ve drawn you in front of a window; sunlight falls from behind onto you. Outside is a meadow of wild flowers.
I like to think that you long ago forgot my first drawing of you.
It was eleven years ago that Rebecca and I first met. I’d always meant to return to Templewood; when I finally did it was as some sort of pilgrimage to Rebecca.
I knew from her Christmas card of a few years back that Templewood was being renovated and turned into a luxury golf and spa hotel. The children had been dispersed into an assortment of family-sized units around town and the special school relocated into a small Victorian school-house.
When I went back to Templewood, all I needed was the hotel staff to be kind to me for a few minutes.
My foot crunched onto the gravel drive, I looked up the same avenue of limes. I remembered first arriving there with my social worker, how it had seemed so big and so strange that day. How I’d met Rebecca.
A black sports car swept past me. My heart was beating throughout my body but I made myself walk on. I was looking at the roof of the school, its detail getting bigger as I got closer. It looked perfect, no trace that there was ever any damage.
The trees behind the school had been cut back; they had a stark, shocked look. Above the school arch hung a big sign ‘Stable Works’. It was so quiet standing in the courtyard. I stood in a daydream waiting for a door to open and a teacher with a howling child to tumble out. I looked at the door of my last classroom, it was now painted a glossy white, a sign on it said, “Stable Works Reception”. How could it all have changed so much in the eight years since I’d left? I dared to stand longer. Through now-frosted windows, I glimpsed some gym equipment. Was me being stood here trespassing? I thought of how dad as a dosser had trespassed here. Should I just tell someone why I was here?
I was filled with strange thoughts. I wanted to dodge through the bushes playing some game of running off. I wanted to scale the walls of the main house then jump from one roof to another screaming out something crazy like “I can fly”. I wanted Rebecca to come out and hold me and bring me down safely. I wanted Rebecca to be there beside me.
A door opened. Two men came out. They carried rackets. One had a towel around his neck. “Good game”, the older one said. I made my mouth smile towards them but they walked straight past. Then I thought how they hadn’t seemed to mind me being here or recognise me as odd.
I talked myself into being bold; I walked not too fast or too slow. I kept my eyes fixed on the main building. I saw glass in every window; no cracks, nothing smashed. There were planted tubs around the main entrance and they’d made a roof terrace on one side with tables and umbrellas. I made it all the way to the back door of Sunbeam, I even dared to try the door handle but it didn’t move. And then I saw all the area that had been out of bounds, the meadow and the scrub – all now shorn to a golf course. A golf buggy moved steadily across it.
I couldn’t stop to think as I walked up the main steps to Templewood behind three guests in shirts and ties.
The first thing I saw inside was a fireplace filled with a grate of burning logs. I don’t mind fires now and this fire brought some light to the hall which was painted a deep red. Why had they painted it so dark? There was a huge desk taking up one end of the hall with a tall arrangement of lilies on it; I shook off their reminder of funerals. In another corner of the hall was a couple of puffed up armchairs. I thought to slip off towards Sunbeam but my shield of guests broke apart.
“Welcome to Templewood Golf and Leisure,” the woman behind the desk said to me. “How can I help you?”
She was smiling; I almost looked behind me as if her smile must have been aimed through me at some other person.
“… All right?”
“What can we do for you today? … Do you have a reservation? … Sir, how can I help you?”
“… I used to live here.”
“Yes, I even called it home for a bit.”
“It was a stately home wasn’t it?”
I think she really didn’t have a clue about how us lot had lived here. The ceiling, even to my adult eyes, still seemed high but it now had a raised pattern on it that I’m sure was never there before. They’d put statues in what had been empty hollows in the walls. On one wall, there was a large picture of a man holding some sort of helmet and standing in front of a horse.
The woman was now looking down at the diary in front of her and turning a pencil around in her hand. I wanted noise or shouting, some reminder of my Templewood. The woman coughed, her body twitched and then her eyes looked across at her male colleague.
“Sir?” he said looking up and coming to stand behind the woman.
“This man used to live here,” the woman spoke for me.
“You used to live here.”
He looked straight at me; it’s clear he knew the history.
“And how can we help you today?”
“Um, could I, I mean, I just want to take a quick look around.”
“Of course, but that will not be possible.”
I faltered; I suddenly wanted to be far away from there. Why had I thought I could find Rebecca here? Before I could turn and go, a man in a dark suit came through a door; he looked from me to the desk.
“Everything all right this morning?” he said brightly.
“Guests from Room 31 are hoping to introduce themselves to you. And now … this young gentleman, he’s asking to look around.”
“Look around? Personal tour? Of course, which room number are you?”
“No room, just passing through. I used to live here a few years back.”
“You mean …” it was only a very slight movement but I saw the way his eyes shifted. “Live here … as a … child?”
“Yes, three years I was here. And there was an amazing woman Rebecca …”
“So you used to live here?” the man interrupts. “Well very nice to meet you. A child here. Fascinating. Yes, fascinating. All very different now I expect. Must be quite a surprise to come back and find this place. Hope you like the way it’s been done up. Yes, welcome and as I say very nice to meet you.”
“… I wondered if I could have a look around.”
“Of course, I can understand that.”
“I won’t be long.”
“I’m afraid I’m too busy this morning to show you around.”
“No problem. I know my way around.”
“Of course you realise that being a hotel now, I couldn’t just let you wander off alone.”
“I’ll just … I’ll just see Sunbeam, that was my house.”
“Sunbeam? I don’t know what that is.”
I wanted to push him out of my way. Or maybe scream out ,“Just take me to Sunbeam, take me to Sunbeam”. I thought of pounding the floor. I wanted to go into a full blown tantrum.
“Sorry, sir …I’m sorry.”
“Have you come from far? Of course if you wish to come back as a hotel guest you’d be most welcome.”
I realised I’d let my hand go to his; I was shaking his hand. Then his arm reached out towards the door and I just followed its direction. I saw the next guests, a man and a woman with arms linked together; I stood aside to let them glide past.
“Welcome to Templewood Golf and Leisure,” I heard the woman at the desk say to them.
I felt ashamed of my tufts of hair, my raw tan. My body felt clumsy and heavy. My clothes suddenly seemed a failed attempt at looking smart.
I walked away, down the steps of Templewood. One, two. Away. Away from everything so unfamiliar. My past there still felt so present to me but it had been replaced and sanitised.
As I think back on that day, I find I’ve cupped my head in my hands and let my coffee turn cold. I get up and go over to my drawer. I take out Rebecca’s last letter, I’ve read it so many times you can see the imprints of my thumb on one side.
I don’t know how to start this letter. Should I plunge straight to the point? It seems trite to dwell in niceties or ask how you are – though as always I want to know. Aaron, there’s no easy way to tell you this. I was diagnosed with breast cancer eighteen months ago. I know, I didn’t tell you, I was determined it would be discreet lump that could be neatly sawn away. I’d be among the 95 percent treated for breast cancer who’d be cancer-free after five years. Instead tumours have spread stealthily though me and now I can feel the steady daily weakening. Aaron darling, I’m sorry, god I’m sorry to be telling you this. Upsetting you and others is what I hate most about this illness; I feel I’m letting everyone down. Don’t worry for me; in some ways during the last months, life has never seemed so beautiful or so precious. It appears, as you know too well, that change is our only constant.
You’ve sometimes asked about my memories of us at Sunbeam and I know you have been accessing your old files. I’m now sending you my ‘diary’, it’s written as occasional fantastical letters to my twin sister Louise. Do with it what you will, I no longer feel protective or private of my own life experiences. Some of the letters may be painful for you to read, of course I struggled at times, but then you were always far more to me than a day’s job.
To this day, I feel enormous emotion at saying ‘no’ to you when you asked if I would foster you. Please don’t tell me you don’t remember asking or it was an insincere request. Throughout the years since then, I’ve often yearned to have you with me. That doesn’t mean I’ve wanted to take away all the wonderful things from when you lived with Kirsty and Cameron, just see it as an expression of how much I care about you.
You once thanked me for all I did for you – now I want you to know how much you helped me. And how much I hold you in my heart. You have been a seminal part of my life.
As with the difficulty of starting this letter, I now struggle with its ending. I want to send you kisses, hugs and my love. And an acknowledgment of my deep admiration for you. You are one of life’s true warriors.
Write to me if you’ve got any questions or want to share feelings.
Rebecca’s diary, written in the notebook with apples on its cover, sits on my desk. I’ve read it again and again. It was exactly four weeks after I received it that Rebecca died.
When I went back to Templewood, it seemed like we’d all been erased. No reminders of us were wanted. When I got home that night, I began writing. I wanted to bring my Templewood back to life. I felt I owed it to the place, to us children, to our adults … to Rebecca. I wanted the hotel staff to know Templewood’s history; I wanted their guests to understand where they stayed. That night, I also knew that I wanted to use Rebecca’s letters in memory of her.
I never told Rebecca how much I appreciated her; I want that to be known. The odds were stacked against me ever functioning in life; she helped me break that cycle. She began the slow process of me facing up to my past.
Sometimes now I stew in self-pity; sometimes I still rant in endless rage. Any mention of child abuse and I find myself crying for all the needless grotesqueness and cruelty in humanity.
I spent some time trying to track ‘Stephen’ down. Dark hair and blue eyes. The bastard had vanished. For my sanity’s sake, I gave up looking for him though I might go back to it. I feel guilty – left as a free man is he still fucking up little boys?
I don’t see much of mum nowadays, we live so far away from each other and she never travels to see me. Last time, I went all the way to meet her and she didn’t even turn up. I’ve got no time for being messed around like that anymore. I often send Kara little presents and notes; I know family love in my feelings for her.
I had a girlfriend once, I was nice to her but it only lasted a week.
One thing I do know is that if I ever have kids myself, the lineage of abusive Barratt-Steins will stop with me. I will be accountable. I will end the dissolute inheritance passed down through generations of my fucked-up ancestors.