Beyond Caring is the story of Aaron. In Chapter 1 he 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. Since returning he has struggled with his keyworker. If you would like to read the Chapters 1, 2, 3 0r 4 first, please click here.
One morning, I open my curtains to bright sun and see this bird fly up in the sky and then dive down. A butterfly settles on my window and then from behind me I hear knocking and Rebecca comes in. She chats a bit, sits on my bed and then just tells me that I’m going to see my mum at the weekend. Yes, mum!
“Why have you only just bothered to tell me now?”
“I think you’ll find a two day wait until you see her quite long enough… We’ll be going on the train.”
“I suppose I have to go with you?”
“That’s right. Your mother will be with Jean.”
My social worker always hangs around when mum and I are meeting up.
“They’ll come and meet our train.”
Mum will be waiting for me. She has to be. I’m going to wear the clothes she likes and I’ll think of all the right things to say about how I miss her.
“It’s a long train journey; in fact it’s three different trains.”
“What will we do when we get there? Where will we go?”
“Jean and I thought we could all go to the leisure centre.”
“The ice rink, we could go to the ice rink.”
“Is there an ice rink? I wonder if it’s near the station.”
“It’s at our leisure centre.”
“Well then, maybe we could do that.”
“I only want the ice rink; tell my social worker that … please.”
Skating, mum will be really pleased with that. When Rebecca’s gone, I find the special envelope and stare inside it at mum’s strand of hair.
The two days that separate me and mum slowly turn into one and then Saturday comes. I stare out of the train window, our third train of today. We go past the steaming towers of a power station. Will mum be waiting by the train platform? Will I find her as soon as I get off the train? Will she smile when she sees me? Will we touch each other? I have to go to the toilet again, there are lumps of wet paper on the floor, piss everywhere. When I get back, I look at Rebecca’s watch, only ten minutes have passed since I last checked the time.
“Rebecca, you’ll be meeting mum for the first time.”
“Yes, but the day is about you and her.”
I stare at the empty sweet wrappers on the table and our pile of papers marked with endless games of battleships and hangman. I hear a lady calling “Tickets please” from the end of the carriage; Rebecca starts fiddling around in her bag.
“Oh, long journey you’ve got,” the ticket collector says when she comes and takes the tickets from Rebecca. “You’ll be getting through plenty of games I expect. I’ve got two little boys; they’re with my mum. I still miss them every day … But you’re a big lad. You having a day off school are you? … Oh you’re a shy one … It’s OK I don’t bite.”
Then she stays standing by our table like she’s waiting for something. I don’t want her noticing me; can she see I’m no normal boy?
“Thanks,” Rebecca says as she puts the tickets back in her purse.
The lady waits a moment longer then goes off and again starts up her cry of “Tickets please”. I stare out of the window; we go through a tunnel and I see my reflection in the train window. Shit, my hair’s sticking up and I’ve worn the wrong top. Mum won’t like this T-shirt. I should have worn a shirt, my blue shirt; she’d have liked that. I tried out so many different clothes to be right for today. Why the fuck didn’t I think of that blue shirt?
I’m looking at a woman with flat brown hair stood on the station platform holding a child, then I realise it’s mum and our Kara. I don’t like that I didn’t recognise them immediately. I wish mum’s looks would stay the same for each time I see her. Last visit, her hair was blonde and a man whistled at her short skirt and high-heeled boots. Today she’s wearing a tracksuit and trainers. As for our Kara, she’s no baby anymore. Her face is thinner, her hair longer.
I thought I’d be so excited when I saw mum.
Mum’s staring at me. My hair’s wrong; my ears are jug handles; I’m ugly. I’m her problem child.
“I’m Rebecca,” a bright voice from next to me says to mum.
“I know,” mum says without looking at her.
There are too many people around. I step a little nearer to mum. She seems to smell okay and she’s able to hold her eyes still on me and they’re not red, or yellow, or both. I flick Kara’s gold earring but she hides her face in mum’s T-shirt. I wonder if mum still tells Kara she’s ‘everybody’s baby’ because of how we all look after her.
I notice the patches of sweat on mum’s forehead as she leans over to slide Kara down to the ground. She picks up the bag that’s between her feet and holds it out at me. The bag carries on making a slight rustling because of the shaking in mum’s hand.
“Take it,” she says to me.
Inside the bag is a remote control 4×4 car; I look at mum, she always knows what to get me.
“There’s more,” mum says.
I feel beneath the car and find a photo of Kara in a party pink dress; her hair’s been curled and there’s a pink bow in it. Mum’s arm suddenly reaches around me and squashes me for a bit and then she lets go. I’m sort of shivering inside, as if I’m cold.
“Mind if I have a smoke?” mum says to my social worker.
“Carry me, carry me,” Kara suddenly starts screaming.
“You know you can’t be near me when I’m smoking.”
Kara twists round mum’s leg, I go to stroke her head but she hits my hand away. I want her to like me.
“Behave,” mum says. “This is Aaron’s special day.”
We begin down the steps and it’s difficult for mum to walk with Kara whining around her, a cloud of smoke drifts around them. Mum turns and I see her look at my social worker, then pull her face into a smile. I see how mum’s walk is steady. I need her to be well today; I don’t want Rebecca thinking there’s anything wrong with her.
My social worker straps Kara into a car seat and I sit in the middle between her and mum. I try to hold Kara’s hand but she won’t let me; that makes me feel sad. Mum picks a ball of fluff off my T-shirt and then rolls it between her fingers. She runs her hand through my hair. She picks up my bag from my lap and starts looking inside it, she pulls out my magazine and flicks through it. She takes a sweet from my half-eaten packet and puts it in her mouth. Then she starts coughing and the sound is like a rough bark.
“You all right? You ill?” I ask her.
“Chest infection,” she says before coughing again.
“You need something for that. Have you taken some medicine to make you better? We can buy you some cough medicine.”
“You hear that? Kind boy I’ve got. My son.”
I’ve said the right thing! Mum spits out my sweet she took and wraps what’s left of it back in its paper. She drops it down on the car floor. When she’s not looking, I pick it up and put it in my pocket.
“Skating for you three?” my social worker asks mum, Kara and me at the ticket desk of the ice rink.
“No, I don’t want to,” mum says.
“But mum, I thought you liked skating.”
“We’ll do something else.”
A while ago mum told me how she wished she had the chance to go skating again. How was I to know she wouldn’t feel like it today?
“Perhaps for Aaron’s sake, you might skate today,” my social worker says to mum.
She shouldn’t try and make mum do what she doesn’t want to do.
“I’ll skate if that’s what you really want me to do,” mum says turning to me. “You know I just want you to be happy.”
“Forget it; you don’t have to.”
“I want to.”
“No, you don’t.”
Now it’s changed to me telling mum not to skate and mum arguing that she is going to skate until finally my social worker just buys us both tickets.
“Mum, you have to put on skates; I’ll show you.”
“I’m not stupid.”
I should have waited, seen if she knew what to do first before I butted in. Mum gets her skates on quickly, I hope she’ll like skating again once we get started. Mum stands watching me fiddle with my laces, I pick at a knot, it won’t come undone. I pull the lace, the knot’s getting worse. Rebecca finally comes over and offers to help, I move my foot quickly away from her towards mum and then mum sorts out the boot for me. Kara’s the one now who’s kicking up a fuss and saying she won’t skate. Then my social worker says she can look after her and Kara seems all right with that. Me and mum walk over to the rink.
“Chase me!” I say to her.
I spin and loop and then mum’s nearly on me.
“Oh my little Aaronee,” she laughs.
Her hand reaches out and touches my arm. She skates backwards and I match her going forwards. We hold each other’s eyes then mum quickly looks away over her shoulder to see where she’s going. I spin round and then rejoin with mum, our legs mirror each other in perfect time.
“You’ll always be my boy,” mum says leaning right towards me so I can feel her breath on my face. “How old’s my Aaronee?”
“And how old’s his mum?”
She rolls her head back as she laughs; I’ve got a sudden smile on my face. Mum winks at me, then skates off. I go after her, I reach out to her and then we’re holding hands. Her hand is so cold and bony. Her thumb flicks a stroke across my palm. It’s like I’m already looking back on this moment as I try to hold on to the feeling of our fingers being threaded together.
Our arms lift, a boy skates beneath and our hands slide apart. The gap between us grows as mum pushes on forward, I stretch towards her but trip on some girl.
“My arm, my arm,” the girl screams as she tumbles on the ice.
I turn back to the girl but I can’t stop, I must reach mum. Mum? Where’s she gone? I skate past a couple spinning together. Where is mum? I jump over a fallen child, dodge between two women. Right leg pushes forward, then left. I go around the rink looking for mum. Where is she? I speed up my search. No mum. My skates clank against the edge as I stop, my eyes scan left and right. Has mum gone, bored of me already? She can’t have … I have to find her. We should never have come skating. I see Rebecca sat with my social worker and they both seem to be looking at me, Kara’s leaning against Rebecca and eating something. My eyes flick over the crowds, the other tables. I push back out onto the ice. Mum has to be here somewhere.
It’s like I lose my left leg, I sink down, my hand falls against cold, my side slaps into hardness. I put my cheek down against the scratched, cold ice. I see skates and legs going by.
A coughing from above me, an arm touches my back. Mum reaches down, pulls me up to standing.
“What are you doing?” she shouts. “Get up!”
“You’re here; you’re still here; you haven’t gone.”
Mum hurries me to the edge of the rink, pushes me towards the exit to make me get off the ice, then heads me towards Kara.
“Let’s skate some more.” I don’t want coming here to have not worked out. I want to get back on the ice with our legs moving together, our hands held.
“I’ve had more than enough for today.”
Everything was beginning to go well on the ice, then I lost mum and everything went bad. I don’t understand what I did wrong.
Mum sits next to me at lunch. My social worker’s bought me a burger and chips; she just gets mum a burger because mum says she’s got to watch her waist. I look at her waist and it’s too thin.
“How you getting on in your boarding school?” mum asks me.
It’s not a boarding school.
“You making friends?”
I never have friends.
I hear Kara chatting away about some pig to Rebecca; maybe it’s something from a cartoon she’s been watching. I offer mum a chip and she takes one.
“Have another,” I tell her.
She opens a packet of vinegar and soaks my chips with its horrible sharp bitterness. I eat my burger, she’s ruined my chips. I look away from her eating my soggy chips with her mouth wide open. Nobody says much now, not even Kara.
It seems too soon to be in my social worker’s car arriving back at the train station. Kara starts crying and mum pulls a dummy out of her bag then cleans it off in her mouth. There was a baby at my last placement and one time I sucked her dummy clean but the foster mum told me that a mouth’s no place to wash a dummy. That foster mum would never let me do anything for the baby, she wouldn’t let me make up the SMA even though I told her I’d done baby’s bottles when I was much younger.
Mum gives Kara the dummy but she spits it out and it tumbles down onto the car floor.
“All right Kara, everything’s going to be all right,” I say.
Now Kara does let me stroke her hair and it’s all soft running through my fingers. I want to put my nose against it and smell what I know will be a sweet smell.
“Aaron, I miss you so much,” mum says.
Rebecca opens the car door.
“Go on …” mum says.
My legs take me out of the car and I find myself following Rebecca. Mum isn’t calling me back. A wind blows along the platform; a basket of hanging flowers creaks above us. The train pulls in, Rebecca opens the door and I walk past her up the steps. I drop into a seat. As the train moves slowly forward, I look up out of the window. There’s just an old man waving at someone; no mum. Mum’s gone.
I drop the bag with the remote control car down between my legs; I should have bought mum a gift, something of me to take home with her. I think of mum and Kara now in my social worker’s car and heading to some room they call home. Their home. I need to be with them. I want mum to be missing me like I miss her.
I remember mum’s half-eaten sweet that I put in my pocket; I feel it’s shape pushing gently into me. That sweet’s got mum all over it.
I see Rebecca through the corner of my eye taking off her coat, then she spreads it over me. She must have seen the cold I was feeling but I don’t want a coat of Rebecca’s on me, I push it off and it slips to hang round my legs. Neither Rebecca or I remove it and its weight holds me down. Rebecca gets out her ugly apple notebook and starts scribbling away in it. She loves that book.
Aaron’s lying exhausted on the train seat opposite me, we’re returning from a visit to his mum who I’ve now met for the first time. I feel such sudden tenderness for Aaron, I want to scoop him up.
There’s a mother nearby giving such patient attention to her baby but her eyes have a certain distant sadness to them. It makes me think of Aaron’s mum – her aged 17 with a schizophrenic partner who was already having an affair. How could she ever have coped with a baby – the relentlessness, the precious intensity, the vulnerability? His mum is like a child crying out for reassurance herself.
I wonder if I’ll ever want children.
I don’t know what I expected, but Aaron’s mum looks weathered and over-made up but she certainly didn’t stand out at the leisure centre. In fact, in her tracksuit and trainers with gold zips, she was more in keeping with the place than un-sartorial me. There was a little awkwardness between her and Aaron but she filled in with squidgy girlish sentiments. Aaron looks up to her with starry eyes. If he only allows himself to feel adoration of her then that must leave him feeling responsible for his separation from her.
It seems self-indulgent by comparison to complain at the issues I have with our mum BUT god, she annoyed me when I last saw her. We got off to a hideous start when she sarcastically pronounced – ‘it’s a great honour you’ve deigned to come and see us again over seeing Pete’. Then the phone rang and as she went to answer it she slipped in her knife by muttering ‘not that family’s ever been more important to you than boyfriends.’
How can she be so cruel? It was the most appalling thing to say. She’s still bitter with me for what happened to you. You know I love you and I never wanted to enter the contest of family versus boyfriend. And if I had known that was what was happening, of course I would have chosen you.
It wasn’t unreasonable for us not to be walking home together that day. We were fifteen for fuck’s sake! I still don’t think mum believes it’s the first time I’d ever met with Dave or gone from school with any boy. The first time! It wasn’t like we’d taken many chances. If you and I weren’t twins, we’d have been walking home from school solo for years. Or perhaps not. If there was just one of us, would mum have left us alone so much? Aged seven, eight, nine, ten … would she have come and met us? Would she have worked less?
All her years of working and now – it’s crazy – now we’re not at home, she hardly works at all!
Rebecca left her car at the train station this morning; we don’t speak as we drive towards Templewood. I’m so tired. It’s dark. Rebecca puts on the radio, voices laugh and chat. We come up the hill; we turn into Templewood.
Suddenly I see it – a movement in the shadows. A flash of blue. A Chelsea wind-breaker, a peak cap. We’re driving on; I can’t see more. That was him; it had to be, the dosser, the one who came wandering into Templewood. I’m sure of it. There’s a tight beating in my chest. He’s out there; he’s somewhere in the trees. I glance at Rebecca; she’s seen nothing. It was only by chance that I caught sight of him because I happened to be staring out of my side window. He’s come back, or did he never leave? I wait until Rebecca’s out of the car before I run across the car park straight to Sunbeam’s back door.
I think of the dosser outside; is he there watching our every move? Who does he want? Or will any boy or girl do for him? I rush to my room. Am I making him up? It was only a moment’s seeing. It was dark. But why would I think I saw him if nobody was there? I wasn’t looking for him; I’d almost forgotten about him. I shiver.
I look around the room called my bedroom. My window’s locked; my door will soon be alarmed for the night. The night watchman is downstairs. I shut out thoughts of the man but it brings me back to mum. How can seeing her be over? So soon to be back, alone in this yellow room. The day came and went so fast and now I’m left with months to come with no mum. I unwrap mum’s sweet and look at it, then close it back up. I put it in the envelope that holds mum’s strand of hair. I prop my photo of Kara up on my bookshelf; she stares out at me. She’ll be with mum; maybe they’re watching the telly together and sharing a settee.
I get out the 4×4 car mum gave me; it’s not really remote controlled because the controls are attached by a wire to the car. I switch it on and the car starts going forwards but the wire’s so short it can’t get far. I pull upwards on the wire to reach the car and it snaps and the car drops noisily to the ground. Now it won’t work at all – it’s broken, useless. Mum was cheated by the person who sold her this crap.
I reach above the photo of Kara and bring Bramble down, poor Bramble trapped in a stupid red tank thanks to my social worker. I take the lid off and put my hand towards Bramble but as I push down on a leaf he flicks towards me. He looses his grip and rolls onto my bed. He doesn’t move, I prod him and he only goes forward because of my push. It’s hopeless.
Come back to me, Bramble; come back. You can’t die on me. I never meant to ignore you in your new tank. You can’t leave me. We’re in this together; I’m trying to sort things out.
I hold Bramble in my hands.
“Aaron, what are you doing?” Rebecca says as she opens my door.
I gently cup my hands around Bramble.
“You’re meant to be getting ready for bed … You feeling low after your visit with your mum?”
“Mum? What’s mum got to do with anything?”
“It’s hard on you …”
“Look I saw mum; I’m not going to see her again for ages. I’m used to that – that’s my life.”
“Whether you’re used to it or not, it can still be very painful for you.”
“Don’t go on about mum.”
“Sometimes talking can help.”
“Yap, yap, yap. Talk, talk, talk. No help, nothing’s changed.”
“Aaron … What’s in your hands?”
I slowly uncurl my hand; I was so careful but still Bramble looks squashed.
“Oh Aaron … When did he die?”
“I don’t know; I didn’t do it. I just found him that way.”
“Poor Bramble. I’m sorry. Let’s bury him tomorrow.”
As we go out in the morning to bury Bramble, I look around for signs of the dosser. Now on this cold, clear morning it seems like I must have imagined him. If he’d been out here all these weeks, surely someone else would have spotted him, or he’d have struck out by now? Rebecca scrapes at the earth under a tree with her hands. I tell Rebecca that she’s getting dirty touching the earth but she says it doesn’t matter and she wants to make a good site for Bramble. Rebecca likes to do things properly. Once my foster mum’s goldfish died and she just flushed him down the toilet; she didn’t know I was watching.
“What do you reckon to that hole?” Rebecca finally says.
I take the lid off the tank then tip Bramble and the leaves out. They drop down missing the hole and Rebecca touches death as she nudges Bramble in.
“Rest in peace,” she says.
Gently, she starts putting the earth back on top of Bramble. Does the earth break his body; is he snapping?
Rebecca straightens up and stands back.
“Good-bye, Bramble,” I murmur.
I start back towards Sunbeam; I throw the tank into the outside bin as we walk past.
“Aaron, do you want another stick insect?” Rebecca asks.
“You’ve seen how I couldn’t look after Bramble.”
“You did look after him; we both did; it’s not your fault he died. I think I’ve heard that stick insects often just suddenly die. I could buy you one; I mean I know it won’t be the same as having Bramble.”
A new stick insect? Do I want a stick insect from Rebecca?
“Would you like me to? I’d get it for you after we’ve been away on holiday.”
“… Will you choose him a proper tank, one with a blue lid?”
“I can do that for you.”
“… And then with the bit of pocket money I’ve got, you can buy yourself something.”
“Oh, how sweet! No, don’t get me anything.”
When people die, they dig holes like Rebecca made for Bramble, only bigger. Once I saw men digging at the big cemetery that was near one of my old foster homes. It was easy to run off to there.
The graves are all in rows but no two are the same. “In memory of a beloved sister” “To a beloved Husband and Father”. There are graves with no flowers, graves with dead flowers and a few with bright, fresh flowers. “May you rest in peace forever my Son and bask in God’s holy light” – it’s a grave to a little boy – he was four when he died. His flowers are alive. There’s a photo of him in a Man United shirt and beside it a coloured windmill spins round. The woman standing by the next grave doesn’t look up as I walk past. A Peter Wick, a Mary Wright, a John Parson – I read all the names on the gravestones. I’m looking for dad – for a Paul Stein. I know his name; I know he died when I was two. I’ve asked mum what my dad did and she’s told me he was a loser who didn’t do anything but drugs … and cause her pain. But I know he was a hero once – he saved this little boy from drowning in the canal, jumped right in after him. Mum says that’s the only good thing he ever did. Mum hadn’t seen him for months and then it was his step-mum who told her he was dead.
I go past a man but he’s too busy thinking about the person who died on him to bother with me. I start on the next row. “Our beloved father Justin who left our lives but will never leave our hearts”.
I walk the final row of graves. “The bonds of love cannot break”. “In God we trust”. “Sadly missed by his loving wife”. I can’t find dad. I walk out of the cemetery gate. Even if dad had a grave and it was here what would be the use of standing there? I’d be no nearer to knowing him.
I don’t even know if dad’s in that graveyard. Mum never went to his funeral; she doesn’t even know if there was one. I asked her once where they buried dad and she said that was a creepy question and anyway she hadn’t a clue what they did with him.
Maybe graves are just for families with money. Or for people who were loved. Was there anyone to bother with a grave for dad? I think you can get rid of people when they die by burning them; maybe that’s what happened to him and mum didn’t want to tell me.
Chapter 6 will follow next month.