In Chapter 1 Aaron was admitted to Templewood, a children’s home, and he met Rebecca, his keyworker, but he did not settle, and on Christmas Day he tried to run home to his mother. If you would like to read Chapters 1 and 2 first, please click here.
There’s a large blank piece of paper on the desk in front of me; behind it are dots of different colours that my teacher Teresa has squeezed onto a palette. She’s reading us a poem about an owl while we think about what to draw. Her voice wraps around the rhymes, going from high to low and loud to soft. It’s almost like she’s singing.
I only get to go out of Sunbeam to go to school. They’re punishing me for running off. Adults now watch my every move. Running off didn’t get me to mum but there is another way. All I have to do is behave. Behave, then social will see I’ve changed and they’ll let me back to mum. Behave, so mum will want me. Behave, so normal school will have me back.
Good boys get to live with their mums.
I realise that Teresa’s voice has stopped and the room’s quiet. I start drawing a vast tree that fills my paper. I paint in the trunk in dashes of brown and black. Up in the branches, I draw an owl. I glance out of the window and see a squirrel running along a wire and a bird drifting in the sky. I start drawing a blue sky then wish I’d drawn the sky before the tree as it’s hard getting the blue to not smudge into the branches. Then I realise that if it’s daytime, my owl should be asleep. In lines of black, I draw eyelids shut down over his eyes. I put grass beneath the tree and a park bench beside it.
I wash the paintbrushes I’ve been using and then clean those of the little boy who’s sat next to me. I wash up the palettes and stack them neatly to dry. I wipe the table clean.
“That’s looking nice” Teresa says. “Now will you come and choose our story for this afternoon.”
I’ve never been allowed to choose the story before. I hope Teresa tells Rebecca how good I’ve been. It wasn’t hard to tidy up. I could do it for mum and help her keep a tidy house. I’d wash the dishes, clean the sides. I’d know now how you’re meant to clean a bath and squirt blue stuff into a loo.
Rebecca comes at the end of the school day and as she looks at my painting that’s now drying on the side, I suddenly see how the owl looks like he’s blind-folded. I shudder and hurry out of my classroom. I hear Rebecca telling Shelby that she really likes his picture.
I have a plan. I’m going to eat my snack, watch only a little bit of telly and then I’ll start to do my reading homework and learn my spellings without any fuss. I might even do extra work, like more than two pages of my reading. I’ll stick to doing this every night. Rebecca’s always speaking to my social worker and she’s sure to tell her how well I’m behaving.
“Want to play football?” Liam asks me as we get back to group.
“You can if you want to,” Rebecca says.
I shake my head, I won’t play. I will stick to my plan. There’s nothing on telly that I want to watch, so I put on some cartoons.
“You’re not watching these again!” Rebecca says.
What does it matter if I am? Nobody else has to watch them, they’re all playing football. It’s only Rebecca and me in group. Rebecca starts setting up the ironing board next to me. I look at the clock, fifteen minutes and then I’ll do my reading. Rebecca lays my blue T-shirt out on the ironing board. She pulls it out then flattens the sleeve by stroking her hand across it. She irons the shirt then carefully folds it until it looks like it’s new. She takes out my trousers, she starts on a leg then stops and fiddles in their pocket. She pulls out an old tissue of mine that’s now scrunched into a tight ball, she throws it in the bin and goes back to my clothes. I yawn, it’s true that I have seen these cartoons so many times before. I start sharpening some pencils that have been left out on the coffee table then I arrange them back in their tin. I clear the shavings into the bin. I arrange the drawing paper into a neat pile. I’m just trying to remember where the Sellotape and scissors go when Rebecca speaks.
“By the way, the cleaner said she couldn’t Hoover in your room again.”
That’s not fair. She’s moaning at me, hasn’t she noticed how I’m tidying up now?
“This time, you’d left Lego pieces all over the floor.”
And didn’t she see this morning how I’d put my pyjamas on the bed and hung up my dressing gown?
I look at the clock, I’m going to do my reading in a couple of minutes. Rebecca’s going to get a surprise. I stretch and yawn.
“Aaron, why don’t you join in the football? Wouldn’t you enjoy it? You can’t just stare at the TV screen every day after school.”
I’m going to switch off the TV soon then start on my homework. Rebecca will notice this, she’ll be so pleased with me. The ironing board creaks. A spray of steam hisses out of the iron, Rebecca looks at its base then picks up my school shirt. She sniffs. Right, I’ll get started now.
Just as I’m thinking this, Rebecca goes out of the room to put the iron away. I sink back into the settee. No point in starting while she isn’t here. Voices shout out of the telly. Come back, Rebecca. The clock on the DVD player flashes on then off. Come on. Where the fuck is she? This isn’t right, she’s not bothering with me.
I see her; she’s coming into the room.
“Well,” she says as she starts to fold the ironing board. “If you’re going to stay in Aaron, you really do need to do your homework.”
No, you can’t talk about it. Don’t speak. Wait.
“I don’t want a long list of excuses today for not doing your homework. When are you going to do it?”
“No,” I say as a flash of heat rises in me. “Stop talking!”
“Aaron, every night this same performance. You know you have to do it sometime tonight.”
“Don’t fucking make me angry.”
“I’m really getting …”
I leap up, I’m kicking the ironing board knocking it sideways out of her hands.
“Whoa, steady Aaron.”
“Fuck off, witch.”
“Pick up the board.”
“You can’t make me.”
I grab a pillow off the settee and hurl it down onto the crashed ironing board. I leap up onto the settee, I’m taller than Rebecca now. The colours in the room become brighter, their edges sharper. The legs of the ironing board stick up into the air, they shine out. I grab another pillow and throw it at Rebecca. She flinches, I see her eyes shift around. It’s that easy to make her afraid. Me a growing boy – her one scared lady.
One swipe of my arm and I clear the shelf of books. One punch and the lamp shatters. My knuckles sting but I can take pain, I’m strong.
I face the coffee table, one kick from me and it overturns. I can destroy the whole room; I can wreck the house. I charge towards the window with my fist. Suddenly Rebecca’s pulling on me.
“I will stop you from breaking anything else,” she says as I trip back into her.
“Get your filthy hands off me.”
She grips my arms; she shouldn’t be touching me. She needs to get off me. Her smell of damp flour reaches up into my nose; her hair brushes my arm; her flesh is on me. I’ve got to get her away. I find my feet; I steady myself as I take a big breath; I feel myself growing out into the room. I strike down onto Rebecca with my heel, a stomping kick that fires down the side of her leg. She shrieks. Her hands loosen on me.
“Stop that, Aaron.”
“I’ll finish you off.”
I will destroy Rebecca, simple; it’s what I need to do. I hit across with the heel of my hand into her chest, then reach up and grab her around the throat. She locks onto my arms pushing me back. I force free against her thumbs. I smash my elbow up into her face.
“No!” she yells.
I grab her hair and yank her face towards me. She’s trying to break free; she’s cursing. She’s tugging on me.
“Somebody, come!” she shouts.
Her hands fight against mine. My fingers are losing power. She twists me sideways. Her knee is pushing against my guts; my knees are buckling; I can’t fall; I have to beat her. A deep growl comes out of me. My hands strengthen their grip again on her hair.
“Help, somebody,” she shrieks.
Too late Rebecca. The world is quiet; there’s no-one who’ll come to you. You’re mine; I’ve got you. I step back, then pounce forwards spearing my forehead up into her nose in a major head butt. The kiss of a true fighter.
My head is pounding agony but I stop myself from crying out. You’ve got to take pain when you fight and I’ve dished out more than I got – Rebecca is hurting good and proper. I watch how she staggers back, how she swerves, how her eyes are not connected to anything in the room.
“My nose” she whines. “Oh my god.”
“Serves you right.”
She makes fists towards me but then just drops her hands to her side. She’s got no fight left in her. Her face is pale and covered in a greasy sweat. Blood starts to spill from her nose. Blood that at first is mixed with snot. Blood that flows ever faster. Blood that spills over the rise of her lip. Blood that is so fresh and red. She puts her hands to it; blood finds its way between her fingers.
She backs off through the door. She’s learnt; she won’t be back to mess with me. I’ve won.
Things just got worse. Oh god, Aaron attacked me. I’m smashed up and shaken, just like Aaron’s punctured effigy of me. My nose and eye hurt so bad, I can hardly focus on this paper. My head’s ready to split. Christ – how can a ten year old do this to me? I was alone in the lounge with him. I forgot everything we learnt on my induction course about how to restrain a violent child. I hate violence, I’m not used to it. I don’t want to engage with it. I came to this job wanting to work with children, but there’s nothing child-like about these kids. They’re so wild and aggressive. I want to be around children who don’t head butt and punch and kick. I don’t want to learn how to handle a little shit like Aaron. He was so venomous, scarily detached and unreachable. He relished such power in beating me.
This job is terrible. I have a near constant stomach ache from fear and suspense. I’m useless and disliked by all the kids. It was an awful day from the start. I wasn’t even feeling well and I walked into a morning of screaming children and chaos. Aaron was only just tolerating me. Liam was doing his ridiculous Michael Jackson whoopings and gyrations and telling me I was an ‘ugly bitch’ and ‘a filthy fucking lesbian’. Even the normally compliant and pleasant Narinder moaned about having to sit with me at breakfast. I just wanted to hide myself away.
I’ve just been to the doctor about my nose. I debated over going to casualty but couldn’t face it. As it was, the doctor was running half an hour late, I sat in the waiting room of coughing people feeling like a wreck. Then when I saw the doctor he was a total bastard. One quick feel of my nose and he told me it wasn’t broken and if I’d been sporty I’d be used to such a knock, I should try cricket. Fuck his bloody trivialising joviality. And then he took my blood pressure.
Afterwards I wandered aimlessly around Sainsbury’s but I couldn’t think what I needed to buy. I ended up with brazil nuts, apple juice and chocolate – hardly a sustaining supper.
I came back here and rang Pete. He said I don’t have to do this job, it’s only a challenge I’d set myself. He said there were plenty of other useful jobs I could be doing and he doesn’t want me to end up permanently scarred by this one. He said putting myself in a position of giving where I feel no joy serves neither the children nor myself.
He made leaving sound so simple. I’d be happy to never see Templewood, Aaron or any of these kids again. Conscience – I wish I had none – it’s all that holds me to this job. Why do I feel I have to be different to all Aaron’s previous carers? If I went I’d only be one more in a line of many who couldn’t bear Aaron.
You feel too far away,
Kate’s bottom spreads across the office desk as she leans back against it. I wasn’t allowed to go to town today with the others. I don’t care; I’m so tired I couldn’t be bothered to go anyway. Everything in the room looks grey, like there’s a layer of dirt in front of my eyes. I hear the distant screaming of some child and the bark of their nagging adult. I’d like to sink in front of the telly, but not being allowed to watch telly is another part of my punishment. Their punishments mean nothing compared to those dished out by my social worker; I know she’s added me fighting with Rebecca to her list of reasons against me going back to mum.
“Aaron,” Kate says. “Do you care when you hurt someone?”
Why the fuck can’t I behave? I was wanting to behave.
“Turning your anger into violence against Rebecca is no way of dealing with things.”
Where did Rebecca run to? No-one chased after her. Not Ben, not Derek. She hasn’t returned to Sunbeam since our fight.
“No way at all of dealing with things.”
“It got rid of Rebecca; she’ll never come back.”
“Never come back? Where did you get that idea from? She certainly will be back to keywork you; she’s got a lot more to her than to be put off by one little boy’s anger.”
“So it’s me who’s going?”
“Certainly not. You seem to think you can use violence to make things happen; well I’m telling you it won’t change a thing.”
“It’s got me moving on before.” On and on, further and further from mum.
“You’re not the first angry boy we’ve dealt with here.”
Ten days: that’s the quickest I was ever in and out of a home.
“We can more than handle you … You know it might not feel that way yet, but you’re lucky to have Rebecca looking after you – she’s a great person, she cares deeply. She likes you.”
I look at the locked filing cabinets standing tall and straight; on the table next to me is a doll with her head half ripped off.
“Is using anger how you’re going to deal with things all your life?”
“I never wanted all my anger; I never wanted to be bad.”
“It’s like there’s a switch inside you, you just feel angry and, wham, you flip and hit out. You don’t know how to control it.”
“You know you can learn to deal with your anger, learn to take the steam out of it.”
I shake my head, nothing works. The more I try to control my rage, the angrier I become. I look down at the floor then swivel round to stare out of the window. I see Narinder and another girl having a handstand competition. Shelby and Liam are kicking a football around with Ben. There are people at the sandpit, others playing Frisbee.
“Tell me how you’re feeling now,” Kate says.
I see Derek walking onto the grass with two full plastic bags. People begin to stop what they’ve been doing and rush over to him. Ice creams; Derek’s got ice creams. He hands them out to everyone. Narinder and Liam come and sit on a bench beside Be;, the three of them suddenly shake with grins and laughter. They lick their ice creams. I love ice-cream. They’re leaving me out. I feel a knot inside me, a mist in my eyes. Why am I so stupid? Why did I go and blow it? Why can’t I make myself do what I want to do?
“I feel … I mean … I’m afraid of me.”
I choose some clothes then head to the shower; it’s only on weekend mornings that I’m allowed a shower. I let the water flood over me. They tell me that Rebecca’s coming back to work today. I pee and feel the warmth soak through my pants. I turn the dial of the shower much hotter but the water temperature doesn’t change. There’s a scrubbing brush been left down in one corner. I pick it up and it smells of cleaning and swimming pools.
Mum took me swimming once. I don’t know where Lee was that day. It was a pool with a sloping edge.
Mum holds my hand as we walk down the slope into the water. Slowly it gets deeper. It’s neither hot nor cold. The water comes up to my chest; mum bends down and her face is floating right by me. She pulls me close and I drift easily into fitting around her; my arms are on her shoulders; my legs wrap around her waist. I can feel her warmth and the lightness of being surrounded by the soft water. Mum kisses me on the forehead. She holds me under the arms and swirls me around. Mum sits me in the shallow water and tells me to watch her. She bobs down and then all I can see are her legs sticking straight up in the air. She swims back to me. Streaks of make-up run down her face; her hair’s flattened to her head. She’s laughing. She’s happy. She says she used to swim lots when she was at one of her children’s homes. The water strokes me as she pulls me through it. Mum says they’re going to turn on the wave machine. The water starts moving and we hold hands and jump over the waves. We go deeper together and I let the waves crash into my tummy.
I wanted to stay in that pool forever. Me and mum never went swimming together again.
I look at the scrubbing brush. It feels sharp as I bring it down against the little cuts that surround my nails. I work it up my fingers then start on my arm. I scrub round and round in circles. I put a line of strawberry shower gel along the brush then carry on making the brush scratch away at my skin. I move it in hard lines up and down my chest until streaks of red dots appear. I watch the water and shower gel swirl down the plug-hole, I wish I could just wash away with it. I open my mouth into the shower water and feel it passing through me. I squeeze shower gel into my mouth and swallow that down with the water. I slip down into the base of the shower. I scrub at a bruise on my knee. I let the water flush on and on over me.
I suddenly realise that the noise is people after me. They’re going to break in – through the bathroom, through the shower curtain. I uncurl from the base of the shower. Bare body, just a pair of pants. I fumble to turn the shower off.
“You must come out,” Ben’s voice says. “We’re just outside the bathroom door now.”
A thin door between my naked skin and Ben. I stretch out a hand to grab a towel then quickly put on dry pants and clothes. I burst out of the bathroom so suddenly that I come face-to-face with Ben; he had no time to step back from his spying against the door.
“You have been so long in the shower,” he says.
“And you’ve been creeping around right near me.”
“Aaron, I was here out of concern for the length of time you have been in the shower … also, Rebecca’s back.”
I hear her voice talking to Shelby; she really has come back. As I go to my bedroom, she follows me carrying two steaming hot chocolates on a tray. I know she’ll have put a blob of ice-cream in mine. I’ve never been allowed a hot chocolate so early in the day before. But when Rebecca puts the drinks down, I don’t take mine. She rustles around in a bag that’s looped over her arm and produces some leaves for Bramble then without asking me, she lifts down his tank, takes out the old leaves and puts in the new.
“Aaron …” she says turning to me and resting against my chest of drawers.
Then beneath a pat of pale powder I see it – the swirls of bruises around her eye. So ugly. She should cover a black-eye with dark glasses.
“I don’t like seeing your eye.”
“Nor do I if I look in the mirror … I think black eyes tend to go a bit dramatic. Do you want to talk about what happened between us in the lounge?”
“Anything you want to say to me?”
“I hear you’ve been very quiet these last couple of day.”
I can feel the scrubbing brush all over me; it burns me with stinging itchiness. I bite my lips and don’t scratch. I can smell the sweetness of the hot chocolate. Rebecca starts sipping at her chocolate. My ice-cream will be getting too melted.
“It’s nice to be back, nice to see you again.”
I look at her and she’s holding my hot chocolate out at me.
“Oh, what on earth’s that rash on your arm?” she says.
I look up at her.
“Shall I get some nice cool gel for it?”
She’s looking at me through gentle eyes that are surrounded by violent bruising. Her lips turn up into a little smile – she’s hurt, she’s come back and she’s smiling at me. Slowly my hand reaches forward and Rebecca meets it with my mug of hot chocolate. She’s worrying about my arm – what about her eye? I wonder if there’s a gel to make that better.
Chapter 4 will follow next month.