2nd Person Perspective – Week 20 of the 52 week short story challenge

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This is for you. Leeroy, Ray, Chris, Nicky, Sarah, Kim and Mark.

In ten years of residential social work I came to know hundreds of children and young people.

The actual list is a very long one.

When I started work as a twenty-one year old volunteer in a small group children’s home, I was very naive.

I learned about bullying.

I learned that the abuse of children didn’t just occur within families.

I learned that whilst telling the truth was important to me, it wasn’t important to others who were older and in positions of power.

I met you Leeroy, and I won’t forget you. You were a small ginger-haired boy whose mother was too confused by her mental health issues to look after you. Plucked from your familiar but disorganised home and thrust into a huge, rambling house full of loud and angry children. You might just as well have had ‘victim’ printed on your forehead.

You bore the brunt of the fury of a family of six children. They aged from four to fourteen and had been taken into care due to their parents drug and alcohol dependencies and chaotic lifestyle. They were very protective of each other and had quickly learned to store up grievances to tell their parents when they visited every other Saturday afternoon.

Their parents were quite happy that their children were in care. They had no food or clothing bills to pay, no having to get up to take the children to school and no responsibility – which left them free to drink and party – provided that they were sober enough to turn up once a fortnight for the visit.

Although I was only a volunteer, I did my best to look out for you when I was in the house Leeroy.

I couldn’t be there all the time though, and I would often arrive to find you in tears having been set upon by your tormentors. I complained to the manager. He was too afraid of the family and their parents to do anything.

In the end I phoned your social worker and told her what was going on.

Of course there was no mention of the bullying in the log book – a work of total fiction.

Your social worker listened to me and a foster home was found for you, possibly because it was easier to move one small victim of bullying whose mother couldn’t fight for him, than to challenge the warped but effective dynamics of a family who had learned to manipulate the system so well.

You were eight years old then and you would be a grown man of forty-four now.

I never found out what had happened to you; I got a real job in another children’s home after three months of being a volunteer.

This job couldn’t have been more different. The home was modern; purpose-built to house up to sixteen boys and girls. The staff – including the officer-in-charge – were young and enthusiastic.

I was allocated two boys  – Ray and Chris – to ‘keywork’. You were rather scary Ray; coming up to your sixteenth birthday and about to move into the ‘Leaving Care’ programme which would see you moved into a bedsit and kitted out with the means to look after yourself. The material means that is. You were always very volatile Ray and whilst I learned quite quickly that you were also easily distracted, I found myself on the receiving end of your anger too many times. I tried to form some kind of a relationship with you but there had already been a family who rejected you and too many earnest key workers by the time we met, and there was a collective sigh of relief when we sent you off into the big bad world.

Oh but Chris, you couldn’t have been more different. You had started at senior school; a sweet-faced tubby boy who could have been another victim if it hadn’t been for a strong and united staff attitude toward bullying. Like Leeroy, you had a mother who couldn’t cope with life and you had been brought into care in order to relieve you of the responsibility of looking after her.

My job was to teach you how to play, to be less serious, to focus on your own needs and to leave others to deal with your mother’s demands.

Whilst Ray taught me about violence and aggression Chris, you reminded me that children in care need to be given the opportunity to be children. We had fun. We went to the Isle of Wight on the ferry, and spent the day on the beach watching the boats and eating sandwiches and ice cream. I introduced you to the library and to Roald Dahl.

I read ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ to you and your two roommates – into the early hours. You didn’t want me to stop and stayed awake whilst the other two were snoring. When I finished the book and left the room I found Ray and another older boy asleep in the corridor outside. They had been listening too.

You did well Chris; at school and in the foster home that we found you. We were never encouraged to keep in touch though, in case it prevented you settling into your new life.

It was one aspect of the job that I found hard.

Turn the time forward ten years; my husband and I are in an electrical store looking for our first CD player. My husband is talking to the manager – who looks a little familiar. Tall, slim and immaculately dressed.

Chris.

Chris who found it much easier to recognise me. Chris who is now the manager of this store, a husband and a father of a baby girl.

So proud of you Chris.

Completely humbled by the fact that you are so grateful to me for doing my job.

And you gave us a very good discount on the CD player.

Nicky, you were the never to be forgotten enigma. A strange boy who had come home from school one day to find that his mother had died, in front of the TV with an empty whisky bottle by her side.

One of the few real orphans I had ever looked after. You were quirky; you had suitcases of your mother’s clothes that you couldn’t be parted from. You were bright – too bright for some of the staff – and I had some of my most challenging moments with you.

Five sets of foster parents did their best to give you a home, and each time you came back to us, more angry and confused.

Officialdom shut the home down, together with several others, and one last set of foster parents had to be found for you. They were almost as quirky as you Nick, and they seemed to be dealing with your behaviour quite well.

I moved on with my life.

I qualified as a social worker and got promoted.

My new workplace was an observation and assessment centre – short-stay allegedly – and with education on the premises, and a secure unit.

Not long after I’d bumped into Chris in the electrical shop, you turned up at my new place of work.

A new admission they said. You might remember him from your previous place; his name is Nick. He is odd.

So you were sent to us because no one knew what to do with you. There were no other foster parents for you now that you were a six-foot seventeen-year old – who had an interest in hairdressing and whose personality had achieved full-blown camp. I found you delightful.

You were no easier to deal with; age and experience had given you to ability to wind up staff and other young people alike. You went through social workers like a dose of salts – especially the young and newly qualified who thought that they could make something of you.

Only you could do that.

You left us after a couple of months and moved into a boys’ residential home that specialised in settling those who were leaving care.

Years on, and the manager of that home is being prosecuted for abusing boys in his care. I would lay money on it that he didn’t try it on with you Nick.

I came across several Sarah’s over the years, but you were the most important Sarah to me.

Neither you nor Kim were easy to look after but then I always tended to have more empathy with the young people who presented a challenge.

Together with Kim, you came to my engagement party, and were extremely elegant in posh frocks and hats at my wedding. Friends and family were asking who you were and how I knew you both. I didn’t tell them you were looked-after children. You were far too composed and assured for that.

You had become friends.

I have no doubt that you sorted out life for yourselves.

Mark – you marked the end of the line for residential childcare for me.

You were so damaged at ten years old, that no end of therapy and one-to-one work could make a difference. We spent time together; we cooked, repaired an old rocking horse, went for long walks and I read bedtime stories to you but nothing I did could break through.

The other staff tried but found you impenetrable. Some of them blamed me because it was easier than admitting defeat.

I took a great many kicks and punches from you and one day it was all too much.

I was married to a man who loved me and hated seeing the split lips, the bruises, the black eyes.

It was time for a change – because I had to admit that I couldn’t help you – and because I had someone who cared about me too much to see me hurt myself anymore.

I’m sorry Mark.

I remember so many more of you from those ten years of working in children’s homes.

We laughed together; and we cried. We went to Butlins and giggled at the wrestling and the knobbly knees contests. We camped in the New Forest and got soaked, played Spotlight up at the Sports Centre and on one memorable occasion all sixteen children I had responsibility for absconded.

Ah, but fifteen of you came back before midnight, so we watched unsuitable TV and cooked fish and chips to celebrate.

From you, I learned how to deal with my own roaring boys.

How to let them know that they were loved – even if their behaviour was horrible.

I read them bedtime stories; we went to the beach, we camped out and got soaked.

My own roaring boys are in their twenties now and to me at least, seem to be quite well-balanced and confident.

So thank you; Leeroy, Chris, Ray, Nicky, Sarah, Kim, Mark – and all the others who touched my life.

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Rising to the Challenge – Week 2 of the 52 week challenge

My kitchen is a wreck. I am a wreck. Used bowls and every wooden spoon that I own  teeter in a tower of washing up on the draining board.  Flour floats in the air and makes me sneeze violently. The dog, sporting a totally inappropriate white halo, sneezes in sympathy.

Regrets. I have had more than a few today and as I watch the tea-towel covered bowl for signs of life, my anxiety builds.

It had seemed such a good idea at the time. The ideal way to finally get one over on Caroline. Caroline the (allegedly) perfect mother and housewife. Caroline whose smug smirk has been irritating me for more years than I want to remember. Caroline whose hair and skin were perfect, whose dress sense was impeccable and whose children never, ever, ever misbehaved.

Calm down. This is nothing to get anxious about. Famous last words.

I cast an evil glance at the bowl before fighting my way to the sink.

The phone rings and it is my friend Sarah. Like me, she is in her kitchen and about to tackle her washing up too. We commiserate. We compare the mess level but neither of us is brave enough to lift the edge of the tea-towel and peek.

The call refreshes my flagging spirits. Both Sarah and I  are more than aware that our skills are inferior to Caroline’s, and that we are heading for an embarrassingly epic fail, but we are beyond caring now.

I tackle the washing up with gusto, dry it all up and stow it away in the capacious kitchen drawer – ordered specially to accommodate such rarely used but necessary implements when we had the new kitchen fitted.

The fruit goes back into the big biscuit coloured bowl; identical to the one my mother owned but much less used. I really want to take a sneaky peek but I force myself to clean up the worktops first and shake the flour from my ‘Domestic Goddess’ apron out of the back door.

According to my watch I have only used up twenty of the allotted sixty minutes. How on earth do the professionals cope with such fettered curiosity?

Shutting the kitchen door firmly, I sit down on the sofa next to the dog, and try to lose myself in a banal quiz show on TV. Either the questions are very easy or I am the unofficial Brain of Britain. Either way, the contestants are making heavy weather of it and my tolerance for their stuttering replies has vanished.

The dog and I return to the kitchen. I pick up the grimy pieces of paper so recently printed off from the Internet. The rules stated that certain ingredients had to be used and both Sarah and I have spent hours researching recipes that contain them. We are using different recipes however, in the hope that one of us will have found the definitive way to finally vanquish Caroline.

Caroline always wins our Bake Off. It is only a small competition; open only to a group of women whose children have grown up together, but whether it is a Victoria Jam sandwich, profiteroles, apple pie or – this year – a wholemeal loaf, Caroline always wins our Bake Off.

The kitchen timer rings and startles me from another memory of crushing defeat at Caroline’s ever-competent hands. Her children were always the most imaginatively dressed – whether it was for the Christmas play or a children’s fancy dress party. Nothing ready-made; no straggly tinsel wings or halo, and definitely no tea-towel head-dress for the shepherds.

Tea-towel!

I gingerly lift the tea-towel’s edge and gasp at the dough-monster filling the bowl. It is HUGE!

According to the recipe it is time to give this beast another thumping before it can go in the oven.

Oven!

The cooking times and temperatures on my recipe sheet don’t include those for a fan oven!

Calm down. You have already managed to convert the American cup used in the recipe to ounces – grams were too complicated.

You could just use the ordinary oven but then why did you buy an oven with a fan if you are too scared to use it? You love it when Mary Berry says ‘170 fan’. It makes you feel as if you are a member of her exclusive club.

You decide to risk things and go for the fan. Mary would – wouldn’t she? Caroline undoubtedly has a fan oven in her squeaky clean kitchen.

Oven on. Baking tin lined and ready.

Ten minutes of dough kneading and the beast is subdued enough to be put into the oven.

Timer set. Time to clean the worktop again and wash up the bowl before the remnants of dough set hard and have to be chipped off.

The dog has his head cocked to one side and gives a small but heartrending moan because I have forgotten his dinner. He can hear the sound of the six o’clock news and knows that I should be feeding him rather than messing around in the kitchen.

Thoroughly penitent, I give him his food and add a few treats to make up for my negligence. We sit down together to watch the news.

As time ticks on, the smell of freshly cooked bread creeps round edge of the kitchen door; an irresistible odour that reminds me of my childhood. I should have made two loaves, then we could have eaten one and used the other for the competition. This thought sparks a fear that someone may creep into the kitchen in the night and ravage my bread before it can be presented.

It will have to be hidden; not from my husband who can be relied upon not to touch it or the dog who is locked out of the kitchen at night, but my children…

The scent of my bread is being overthrown by a horrible acrid smell of smoke. I rush out to the kitchen and peer through the oven door. The loaf is cooking nicely. The smell is coming from outside the house.

Making sure that the dog is safely indoors I go into the garden where I can hear sirens and see a thick pall of black smoke on the horizon. The phone rings and I dash back inside.

It’s Sarah again and she isn’t checking on the loaf’s progress.

‘Did you see the fire?’

‘See it! I can still smell it, and I’ve been deafened by the fire engines. Where was the fire?’

‘It was at Caroline’s.’

‘What?’

‘Caroline’s here at mine. She went out to fetch some butter from the corner shop and her oven exploded. The fire brigade got there very quickly and put the fire out but the kitchen is totally gutted. So is Caroline.’

‘What was she cooking?’ I ask this although I know what the answer will be.

‘Bread.’

‘Oh dear.’

‘I think we should cancel the Bake Off – I’m ringing round to see what everyone else thinks?’

‘I totally agree. It wouldn’t be a Bake Off without Caroline’s contribution.’

There is a moment while Sarah has a quick conversation with Caroline. I take the opportunity to don an oven glove and remove my handsome brown loaf before it burns as well.

‘Caroline’s going back to the house now – a rather lovely fireman just came to get her. I’ve just taken my loaf out.’

‘Me too. How does yours look?’

‘Gorgeous. Too good to eat really. Not that I’ll be stopped by that.’

‘Me neither. I have plenty of butter too.’

‘Damn! I’m all out.’

‘Come round then Sarah, and we’ll compare loaves. We met the challenge anyway.’

‘I’ll be round as soon as I’ve made these calls.’

‘Sarah?’

‘What?’

‘Make sure the oven is turned off…’