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
Here it is after all this time – her usual pink paper, the same words.
Aaron is cute
Aaron is smart
I love Aaron
With all my heart
from your only mum xxx
So sudden, mum, you lose your baby and now you come back to me with our rhyme of love; you draw hearts and kisses. And with those hearts, all my bad feelings towards mum dissolve.
Oh mum … mum with this letter I hold you in my hands. Mum who is everything to me. I hadn’t really stopped loving you; I wasn’t really going to leave you for another. Mum, my emptiness is a hole aching for you. Mum, I could help you.
“I want to see mum. When will I visit her?” I ask Rebecca.
“Aaron, I’m not sure you will before leaving here, but I will speak to Jean about this letter.”
“I’ll find my way to mum.”
As I get up and leave the office, I hear Rebecca sigh. I stare into the bathroom mirror. I pull my hair about. Mum, is this a boy you could like? I move along to the next mirror that’s above the second bathroom basin. The same me stares back. I move to the third then the final fourth mirror. Hair to the right, hair forward. How am I supposed to know how to look? How to be right for you?
“Aaron, sit down,” Derek says.
“What is it now?”
“We’ve thought long and hard about this. I know it will muddle you but I can’t keep it from you. The group home is expecting you and wanting you but at this late, late stage, a family have approached us who are very keen to foster you. They saw your details several months ago. They have been fully vetted, I’ve met them, there is an option for you to meet them.”
“Aaron, there may be a foster family for you.”
“A foster family will take me?”
“Yes, Aaron. They live on a smallholding; it’s a fantastic place. There are animals – ponies, cows, dogs – and tractors and quad bikes and …”
“No. I’ve got my mum now.”
“Aaron, don’t be thrown by one letter. Your mum comes back to you after months and then what … ?”
“She’s the best I’ve got.”
“You will not be living with her … Aaron, there is no kind way to say this but I think it needs saying – your mother was finally able to tell Jean that she is unable to care for you or any of her children though she loves you all very much.” Derek pauses and I can feel him looking at me. “You know the truth of that don’t you Aaron?”
I stare out of the window into the distance until the trees blur. I see Bella and some girl playing Frisbee. I’ll soon be surrounded by another set of children and adults.
“I want to see mum.”
“I want to work her out.”
“How do you mean?” Derek says looking at me.
“Let me see her. I want to work out the truth.”
“Maybe it’s not a bad idea, I will look into it … Aaron, I think this foster family is an excellent opportunity for you. It could be just the right environment for you to thrive in. The foster mum is a writer. She’s an experienced foster mother.”
“They heard about me months ago you say? They should have got their act together sooner. Why didn’t they want me before?”
“They were set to foster another child, but that has now changed as the boy is no longer going to be fostered.”
“I bet you haven’t told them about the fire.”
“We have and they want you.”
“They won’t. It’s so easy for me to go back to my badness. There’s not just the fire; you don’t know how I took a pound off a man; I made a boy buy me matches and I stole a bike.”
“You walk a knife’s edge and stability and a good environment keep you safe.”
“No foster family will want me for long.”
“I feel confident about this foster family and their ability to look after you.”
“No … No, I won’t go to them, I don’t want a foster family.”
“No, it’s too late.”
“It’s not too late! You know how being with a foster family could benefit you.”
“I don’t want them; they can never be my family.”
“Don’t throw away an opportunity, and for what? … An unrealistic hope for your mum?”
“She’s all I want.”
“I know and it must hurt that you can’t have her.”
“Anyway, you sold me the option of group living.”
“Is group living what you want?”
“I’ve got my room there. I don’t want a foster home; I don’t want to be shut into some little house, alone, with two strange adults and closed doors.”
“That is a worry for you but you were bravely facing up to those fears. Think about it, please. I don’t expect you to decide here and now; it’s a shock to hear this. Maybe meet the family before making a decision.”
“I won’t meet them.”
“Oh Aaron …”
“Don’t go on about it any more. Please.”
“Aaron,” Derek pauses. “Tell me about those things you mentioned – a man, a boy, a bike?”
And the truth tumbles out and Derek only thanks me for telling him.
I go into the lounge and there sat in the green armchair is a figure with her body slumped in an apology of herself. It takes me a moment to realise her as mum. I only found out yesterday that she was coming. She looks older. She’s dressed in a tight pink T-shirt that stretches in lines across her hunched back. She hasn’t crossed her legs properly and her skirts so short that I can see the thick black web that’s at the top of her tights. It’s like a magnet for my eyes even when I don’t want to keep looking at that area. I hate that Rebecca will have also noticed this web. Realising that I’m sucking my thumb, I quickly pull it out of my mouth and then go and sit on the settee.
“Nice to see you, Aaron,” my social worker says.
The lounge seems so big and quiet without the telly on and other children around. I hear the ticking of the wall clock. Mum’s fingers twist a strand of her hair round and round. She’s so thin, there can’t have been any space in her for a baby to grow.
“The baby …” I start and then don’t know what to say.
“I’d been carrying a dead baby around inside me,” mum says looking down at her knees. “She was so small.”
I pick up a broken CD case that was hidden between the cushion and arm of the settee, there’s a picture of an electric guitar on its cover. How small is a dead baby? The CD’s top just needs slotting back, I try to get it in-line. Mum keeps on taking sips from the steaming cup of tea that Rebecca’s given her, though from her wrinkled frown I can tell she finds it too hot. I push on the CD case and it suddenly snaps back into place.
“Aaron, your mother is here for two hours. Take your time to finish off your drinks and then you can take a walk together out the front. It’s a lovely sunny day. You can go out for about half an hour but don’t go beyond the school.”
“Don’t worry; we won’t run off,” mum says and her giggle moves through the room’s silence.
I show mum out through our kitchen into the main hall.
“Don’t you find this place odd?” mum says. “So big.”
“I got used to it.”
“I wouldn’t have. It’s spooky.”
“Why did you come today?”
“I didn’t have much time to think about it.”
“You’ve never made it here before.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
The heels of mum’s black boots tap down the stone stairs then plunge into the gravel drive. She stumbles and then curses that her ankle’s twisted.
“Walking. I never thought I’d have to do this. Why have they sent us out here? I tried to dress smart for today.”
Still mum carries on down the gravel drive. Adults here would never wear clothes and heels like hers.
“Bet you’re pleased to be leaving. Looking forward to a break from Rebecca?”
“I’m going to live in a new group.”
Nice! What the hell’s fucking nice about that?
“Tell me all about the place you’re going to.”
I need mum to tell me how she wants me with her and this time I was going to stand up to her and tell her she’s talking lies to me, that I know what she said to my social worker about how it would never work out for the two of us to be together. I want the chance to be cross at her for always stringing me along.
Mum reaches into her bag and pulls out a pack of cigarettes, a sweet paper falls to the ground and she doesn’t pick it up. She puts a cigarette to her lips.
“Smoking isn’t allowed here,” I tell her.
“We’re outdoors. No-one can stop me. No-one owns the air outdoors” she laughs.
“Just don’t, mum.”
My words cut into her laughter. She curses me as she puts the cigarette back and takes out some chewing gum instead. Her fingers shake as she hurries to unwrap the stick. I see her mouth starting to work round and round the gum. She doesn’t offer me a piece. I stop walking and end up pointing back at Templewood to show her my room.
“Which room?” mum says.
“Up there, third line up.”
“Fourth along from the drainpipe.”
“Don’t know where you mean.”
“I can’t see it; all the windows look the same.”
I kick an old ball that I spot in the hedge. A teacher walks towards us down the drive. He notices us and starts his smile for me far too soon; when he finally reaches us, he adds a “Hello” to me and another to mum. Mum doesn’t even answer him. Her arms are sort of crossed and she’s rubbing her left elbow on and on with the palm of her right hand. I can hear someone shouting over by the school; is it Bella?
” … Over there is the school,” I tell mum. “That’s where we’re allowed to walk to. It’s that funny brown building with all that scaffolding.”
Mum swings round towards me and stops still. Her face is set hard; I suddenly feel my heart beating in my chest.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“How could you be so stupid?”
What have I said now? She’s just turned on me; this isn’t fair.
“You’ll never be good will you?”
I haven’t done anything!
“Don’t think I don’t know all about you burning the school.”
Oh – the school, the fire – this is what she’s all cross about now. I feel a light sweat of panic. I feel small. I see mum looking down on me. Is the fire why mum agreed to come today? Has my bitch of a social worker set it up so I’d get a good telling off from mum?
“You hate fires. When I heard I was so upset.”
I see mum’s angry eyes.
“Your fire brought it all back.”
“What back? … Did it make you think of the fire years ago that burnt all my things?”
“You could have died.”
Has mum just finally admitted that there was a fire?
“A whole room gutted.”
“Why did you always tell me there wasn’t a fire?”
“You and your mouth, we didn’t want the whole world coming nosing around to see about a fire.”
“… Stephen, the bastard, he started it.”
“No way, it was his house!”
“… The other man? … No.”
“What other man?”
“Black and white jumper man, mousy hair …”
Mum’s legs start folding towards me, she wobbles and then I realise she’s bending down. She looks awkward down near my height but her face is softer again.
“He had funny old teeth,” I tell her
“That’s your dad,” and mum nods as she says it.
Dad! No. Dad doesn’t look a thing like that.
“I only just found out myself; of course back then I had no idea he was even still alive at the time of the fire.”
“Dad nearly killed me? Dad filled my life with fear?”
Mum’s risen back to standing.
“Turns out that your dad ended up burnt – he scarred and ruined his hands for life.”
Mum’s heel pierces into the drive as she steps forwards. Dad? How can that man from the fire be dad? Dad, my toys. Mum’s saying it’s a dad who burnt my stuff and burnt himself. The stranger had the dirt of fire on his hands and flames reflected in his eyes but I’ve never wanted to believe he started the fire. Dad? I dart forwards to catch up with mum; I have to find out more from her. I slip my arm through hers; I feel the cold of her hand. She always used to like it when I held her hand. Mum’s other hand is tugging at her ear.
“Mum … how can that be dad at the fire? … I saw dad here.”
“He couldn’t spot you.”
“I saw your dad in prison.”
“I know; you should have taken me with you.;
“What kind of mum do you think I am? I wouldn’t take you near a prison! It was such a shock to see him; I mean it had already been a shock when Stanley told me your dad was alive.”
“Stanley? The man whose son dad saved?”
“He’d only found out himself about a year or so earlier that dad wasn’t dead. He’d promised your dad he wouldn’t tell me but then dad suddenly wanted to see me. Stanley went on and on at me until I finally said I’d go. Fuck, I hate prisons.”
“Prisons are for bad people.”
“When I saw your dad, I didn’t know it was him at first.”
“… He looked so bad … thin, old. Pus and spots all over his face. His breathing was all wrong. He scared me but then he spoke and he made me laugh. Suddenly there was no-one but him and me again. Two kids ready to fight back on the world, just like when we met.”
“Mum, did you ever like dad?”
“Oh course! He was my first love.” Mum laughs. “He wasn’t always ugly you know.”
Mum’s talking of love not hate for dad? Mum sniffs and slides her arm away from me to rummage in her bag. She pulls out a crumpled tissue and dabs it at her eyes. It’s odd because she’s still sort of giggling but with the tissue she’s acting like she’s crying.
“First love, that’s a true love.”
“Mum, did dad have gentle eyes?”
“He’s such a gentle man at heart.”
“Did Stephen know that was my dad at the fire?”
“Stevie never wanted to talk about the fire … no … no, he wouldn’t have known that that was your dad.”
“The window, I mean … can dad fly?”
“What the fuck are you on about?”
I know that the stranger – dad? – flew from a window. It all makes no sense; he jumped and then went on to live. How can the stranger at the fire and the old dosser be the same person?
When we reach the school, mum and me both just turn round to head back without saying anything to each other. The stranger was okay; the dosser wasn’t. Mum takes her chewing gum out of her mouth and I see the crumpled grey lump that shines with her spit held between her thumb and finger. She looks around for where to put it then throws it into a flowerbed. She takes out another stick from her bag and her mouth draws it in.
“It’s getting cold out here … I’m going to miss my train if we don’t hurry.”
I look at mum and she’s in a separate pocket of air far away from me. I see Rebecca and my social worker standing on the steps of Templewood. They’re looking at us and we walk in silence towards them.
“Our train!” mum says to my social worker.
“Plenty of time.”
“We’ll miss it!”
“No. We’ve got another hour here at least before we need to be going.”
“I want to go now.”
“Let’s all have a drink,” Rebecca says.
“What time will I get back?”
“Julie…” My social worker stands close to her, for a moment I thought she was going to put an arm around mum “… Julie, it’s all right. We’ll stick together. We won’t miss our trains.”
“I need a smoke,” mum suddenly says. “Sorry.”
She goes off with my social worker and immediately she lights a cigarette and takes rapid puffs from it.
“You all right?” Rebecca says to me putting an arm on my back.
“Yes,” I say pulling away a little.
“Do you want to show your mum your room when she gets back?”
I shake my head. There’s no point when I’m leaving here soon and anyway I don’t want mum touching my stuff and making all her comments.
“… Did you talk about your future with your mum?”
“I think we need to when she gets back.”
“Please don’t. Please. It doesn’t need saying. I know it’s over between us.”
And Rebecca slides down and her head comes to exactly the same height as mine and I’m suddenly holding her. If mum turns round, let her see me holding Rebecca; I don’t care.
I won’t go to the station with mum; I can’t face our good-bye. As she leaves, mum whispers into my ear.
“Aaron, your dad meant it for the best when he lit that fire. He didn’t mean to frighten you, or make my life sink further into hell. I don’t think he ever knew you were there that day.”
She straightens back up and then I watch her fuss around over finding her coat and bag. Emma’s twisting the car key around her finger and waiting for mum to hurry up so she can take her and my social worker to the station.
In my room, I fiddle with some Lego to try and make a copy of the funny clown man shown on the box. I think of dad. Dad, who can go from being that stranger in a black and white jumper to the ugly man who came here. Dad, the murderer. Dad, the man who burnt all my things. That fire – why dad? Why do that to me? Books, clothes, toys. Teddy, train set.
What does mum mean when she says that dad meant it for the best? Suddenly I sit back. Train set. All those toys. Were they all bought by Stephen? It was his house. Had dad come to destroy all that was from Stephen? Did he know what Stephen was to me?
I was so close to dad when he jumped up onto the window ledge. I could have reached out and touched him. I could have had a moment next to him, feeling a dad, before Stephen would have pulled me away.
At bed-time, Rebecca says that mum told my social worker how we’d been talking about dad.
“Where is he now? I mean what did they do with his skeleton?”
“He was cremated.”
“Yes and his ashes were taken by an old friend of his to scatter in his garden.”
“I don’t know the name of the friend.”
Stanley, I bet that was Stanley.
“Do you think you can sleep, Aaron,” Rebecca says pulling the duvet up over me.
“Rebecca, I just don’t know whether to feel sorry for dad or hate him. I don’t know if he’s ugly or okay. All bad or some good.”
“Perhaps you’ll have to live with all those feelings for him.”
“Mum said something about realising that she loved him and how he was her first love, before she’s always said she hated him.”
“Maybe the pain from the fact that it didn’t work out with your dad could at times have turned to hate, but deep down there may have been love.”
I turn away from Rebecca to face the wall and curl up. She turns off my main light and goes out of the door.
I don’t understand; if dad knew what Stephen was to me, then why did he never return for me? He was weak against Stephen but still he must have been able to find a way to save me. Fuck he can’t be all feeble; he had the strength to kill his own dad. He never came for me; he never took me away. Even here at Templewood, he drifted past without finding me. Why couldn’t he have just asked to see me? He could have explained himself. Jesus dad, why couldn’t you just do things normally? Why didn’t you make yourself known to me? I throw the hot water bottle from my bed.
I remember how dad’s letter said he would have ruined me. Was he really so bad that he had to let me think he was dead? But dad didn’t totally let me go; he kept looking in on me – the fire, here. Maybe there were other times. Was that the love he talks about in his letter? Did he really feel some love for me? It was because of him that mum kept me in her tummy and gave birth to me. And now mum says how she loved him and Rebecca believes that.
If mum and dad loved each other a bit, could I … could I have been born out of some kind of love? Made from love not hate?
The last chapter will be in next month’s issue.