Beyond Caring is the story of Aaron. On admission to Templewood, a children’s home, 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, met his mother again, and lost his pet. If you would like to read the earlier chapters first, please click here; Chapter1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
“Aaron, you don’t need that many T-shirts.”
“I don’t want them left here while we’re all away.”
“About four T-shirts should last the holiday … and not every pair of socks.”
“I’m taking them all.”
“We can’t take everything and what you don’t pack will be here waiting for you, untouched, when we return.”
I slip the envelope with mum’s hair and the sweet inside it down the side of my bag and tell Rebecca that I need to bring Kara’s photo. Liam says the group summer holiday is okay but I don’t know why we have to go away. The seaside, a beach. I don’t know what we’re going to do.
“Mustn’t forget your pyjamas,” Rebecca says.
“Where will I sleep?”
“It’s bunk beds.”
“Yes, there will be four children to a room; you’ll be sharing.”
“Aaron, I wanted to tell you, about sharing …”
“Sharing! Who with?”
“That is not completely decided; us adults are discussing that tonight.”
No, I can’t share.
“There will be an adult on duty all night, watching over the room …”
Which adult? Ben looking at me while I’m asleep? Derek?
“… Making sure everyone is okay.”
“Where will you be Rebecca?”
“I’ll be staying there every night, and some nights I’ll be the adult on duty. Aaron, I can assure you that you’ll be safe at night.”
“I’m taking my own pillow and duvet.”
“Yes, if you wish to, you can.”
“And my books and my dressing gown and a towel to hang around my bed … I wish I had Bramble to take with me.”
“I know … you miss him don’t you?”
“He came to Templewood with me; we were together … You still getting me another stick insect?”
“Of course; we’ll go and buy one after the holiday.”
“How many nights is it that we’re away again? Will we come back here?”
“Seven nights Aaron, and then of course we’ll come back.”
“Who’ll drive me? What will I do in the car?”
“I’m driving you along with Narinder; it’s a long journey but we’ll listen to music and stop off every now and then. Listen, I’ll look after you on holiday and so will the other Sunbeam adults. We’ll all be there; you’ll be safe. It’s meant to be fun.”
“Does mum know I’m going?”
“Jean does; she may have told your mum.”
Narinder’s spread herself out across the back seat of Rebecca’s car with a pile of magazines. I’m in the front seat with a bag of sweets, a colouring book and some pens.
“Rebecca, you haven’t been on group holiday before have you?” Narinder says.
“She hasn’t been?” I repeat. “Why not?”
“She hadn’t started working here.”
Rebecca hasn’t been on holiday? She doesn’t know about group holiday?
“Listen to this,” Narinder carries on. “My star sign, Gemini … ‘mysterious forces are at work but be warned; summer holiday romances often only last for the holiday’ … I don’t reckon I want a boyfriend this holiday. Rebecca, have you got a boyfriend?”
“I’d rather not answer that; it doesn’t affect my job or my care for you children.”
“Lighten up; it was only a question … When’s your birthday?”
“You want to know my star sign? I don’t think I want you reading out some girlie magazine stuff under my sign.”
“Adults, why don’t you ever tell us anything? I reckon you have got a boyfriend. What’s he like? … Or maybe you haven’t even got one and that’s why you won’t say anything.”
I turn to Rebecca, her eyes are set on the road; her look gives nothing away. She looks less wild today, her hair’s clipped back behind her ears and she’s wearing tiny gold squares as earrings. From where I’m looking, I can’t see the mole on her neck.
“Did you know there’s this wicked cream?” Narinder says leaning forward between the seats.
“Careful, Narinder, I’m driving,” Rebecca says as Narinder shoves the magazine towards her.
“Look, it says it cleans all the dirty bacteria off your skin. Did you know Rebecca that your skin’s covered in bacteria? I mean not just yours, everyone’s. I’m going to get that cream; I’m not having any bacteria on me … Fuck, it isn’t cheap.”
“Don’t swear, Narinder.”
“And Rebecca, can I buy a bikini? I want a purple one with beads on the straps.”
“No, Narinder, it’s better to wear a swimsuit.”
“Bet that’s not what your boyfriends used to say when you were young. Anyway, I need a bikini.”
“You don’t need a bikini.”
“Bet you wore one when you were my age.”
“I don’t think a bikini for you is a good idea and you know that no adult is going to support you in buying a bikini.”
“A bikini’s just a bit of fun.”
“It exposes your body in a way that makes you more vulnerable.”
“I knew I’d never be allowed … all my friends at school will be allowed to wear bikinis … Shit, look at this loser, sad boy or what.”
And then Narinder starts singing along with the radio. I eat a sweet, then take the wrapper off another. Rebecca starts humming.
“Join in too, Aaron,” Narinder says.
We stop at a service station for lunch, I have a double portion of fries and a burger; Narinder and Rebecca get a fussy lunch of jacket potato and salad. I get back into the front seat of the car feeling full and sleepy. I watch the trees and grass outside the window slip past. My back sinks into the seat, my eyes sting and it’s like my seeing is going grey and dirty. I rub my eyes then tip the seat back.
I jolt awake, whipping round as something hits into my neck. I see Narinder’s foot darting away from me. I settle back down but then my neck is tickled and it’s Narinder’s foot on my neck again.
“Get off me!” I grab her toes.
“Oy, settle down,” Rebecca says. “And Narinder, for goodness sake take your foot away.”
I punch back onto Narinder’s leg.
“Behave, both of you.”
“Narinder started it,” I shout reaching round to thump her again.
“Right, I’ll pull over and we can sit and wait for you two to calm down.”
Narinder lets out this big sigh as Rebecca crosses lanes and slows down. I fall back down into my seat with a huff.
“It’s taking forever,” Narinder says. “I’m so bored.”
“Well, it’ll take even longer if you don’t behave and I have to stop.”
“Why aren’t we there yet?” I ask.
“It’s a few hours still to go, now are you two going to behave?”
“Yes,” we yawn together.
“Why don’t you both try and get some sleep.”
“I was until Narinder shoved her foot in my face.”
Outside the rain’s started to come down and the windscreen wipers let out a scraping squeak as they flip from side to side. A sports car races past; I want a keyworker with a decent fast car not the crap I’m always driven around in.
“Here we are,” Rebecca says as she drives past the row of parked cars.
We must be the last to arrive.
“Amazing isn’t it? Look, see the horses … and the stream over there.”
“What is this building?” Narinder says.
“A converted barn.”
I’d been wanting to get out of the car but now I don’t move until Rebecca opens my door and tells me to get out. She pulls my bag out of the boot; we walk around a puddle to the strange house. Through a massive window I see Shelby waving at me; he bangs on the glass and then runs off to turn up again at the front door.
“You’re sleeping above me,” he says.
I look at Ben and he takes me to this room of bunk beds.
“You’re here,” Ben says. “Shelby’ll be beneath.”
“Liam took the other top bunk,” Shelby says.
“No, he didn’t take it, us adults planned where everyone’s sleeping.”
“I’ve got sweets; we’ll eat them in the night,” Shelby says.
“I don’t think so,” Ben laughs. “Now there will always be one of us around on night shift and we’ll look after you all.”
My bed is near the window; outside there’s only a small corridor of air before a thick hedge. On the other beds sit open bags with clothes and toys hanging out of them.
“You sleeping here, Aaron?” Narinder calls from behind me.
“Oh here you are,” Rebecca says. “Nice room.”
“I’ve got my own room,” Narinder says.
“Well, they’re not going to put me in with the other girls are they?”
It’s not fair if Narinder gets a room to herself.
“Want a hand unpacking?” Rebecca says.
“How long do we have to be here for?”
“And you know what?” Narinder interrupts. “The adults are also in bunk beds.”
“Oh sure they are!”
“We are,” Rebecca states.
All the Sunbeam adults sleeping together. Derek’ll be with … with Kate? No Kate’s too fat for him. Maybe Rebecca? But then what about Ben?
“Right, Narinder, out; this is the boy’s room. And Aaron let’s put your own duvet and pillow on the bed.”
As I turn back to my bed I see a flash of blue outside the window. No. It can’t be. Oh shit. It’s the blue of his Chelsea wind-breaker. Him – the dosser! He’s come after us. I can hear Rebecca laughing with Shelby about something and Narinder’s saying she’s got five bags to unpack but their voices sound far away even though we’re all in the same room. Nobody else yet realises the danger right outside the window. My heart is in my throat as I dare to look again for him.
Blue of a dustbin. Is that what I saw? Only a dustbin? I look again to see if I can make the dustbin move in the way I’m sure I saw blue moving before. Maybe that was it. I take a big breath to push down the wave of fear that’s still rising up through my belly. Got to calm down. Come off it, how could the dosser be here? It’s too far for him to have followed us all this way. I’ve got to stop thinking about him; I’m making myself crazy.
Tea’s a horrible curry made by Derek. I don’t know why our cook didn’t come on holiday with us.
“Derek cooks a curry every holiday,” Narinder says, like she knows everything.
After tea, I’m told to have a wash then we watch a video and all go to bed at the same time.
“Goodnight, sleep well,” is all Rebecca says to me as she walks off.
I want my settling with a book being read to me. The door’s left open and light comes through from the corridor. I’m stuck in a bed right up near the ceiling, the springs squeak as I turn. I bet Narinder with a room of her own still gets her settling. I hear footsteps and voices outside the room. Shelby starts grunting beneath me; someone sneezes; a deep fart comes from across the room.
“Smelly,” Liam shouts.
“Quieten down,” Rebecca’s voice shouts into the room.
Sheets move; someone turns; another bed moans. A knocking, a deep chuckle. I pull the sheets tight around me. I hear footsteps, the bed moves, my ladder creaks.
“Go away!” shouts out of me.
“Got you! I scared you,” Liam laughs.
Footsteps and a figure in the doorway.
“Who’s calling out?”
A scraping sound and then I see a shadow sit down in the doorway; it turns into Rebecca. I lie still curling round in bed so I can stare at her. Shelby’s steady breathing comes from below; Liam’s stopped moving. I’m hungry, thanks to Derek’s tea. I slide my way quietly out of bed and down the ladder. Rebecca’s hand is on my back.
“Back to bed, Aaron,” she whispers.
“I can’t sleep.”
“Shhh … Try and rest even if you can’t sleep.”
I slip out onto the corridor; the floor’s as cold as ice against my feet.
“It’s just strange for you in a new place,” she says following me.
No, I’m used to new places.
“I’m right here, all night.”
“I’m not tired.”
“Look, why not go and get a hot drink and then try to sleep again after that. Go to the kitchen and ask whoever’s there to make you a drink; tell them I sent you.”
I run down the half-lit corridor towards voices and laughter that drift into quiet when I turn up. Ben’s holding a bag of crisps, Kate’s opening a bottle of pop.
“What’s up, Aaron?” Kate says.
She’s taken off her shoes and her bright pink toe-nails look tiny below her fat body.
“Rebecca says I can have a hot milk.”
Ben gets up and puts some milk into a pan; the gas of the stove is now the only noise in the room. My legs twist around each other; Ben pours steaming milk into a cup and hands it to me. As I head back towards Rebecca, I hear Ben and Kate starting to chat again.
“How come you’re stuck out here on your own?” I ask Rebecca.
“Keep your voice down, Aaron,” she says as she puts down her book. “I’m looking out for you lot.”
“The others are all partying without you.”
“Derek is on duty on the other corridor; we’ll all take turns to do one night. Anyway, it’s a chance for me to read.”
I sit down on the floor next to Rebecca’s chair and sip at my milk.
“Can I sleep out here?”
“No,” Rebecca laughs. “You’ve got a bed and you’d get very uncomfortable on this hard floor.”
“Here’s better than that bed. It’ll be best if we both watch out for stuff.”
“No, Aaron. That drink nearly finished?”
“Come on then; drink up and back to bed.”
When I go to bed, I lie down and feel the warm milk passing through me. Each time I open my eyes Rebecca’s still there; she waits on and on and I listen to her staying close by.
“What’s that stink?” I hear Liam shouting out.
I open my eyes to light and everyone getting up.
“Is it you, Aaron?”
“Stop it, Liam,” Ben says.
I close my eyes again and wish everyone away.
“Get up, Aaron, you lazy bastard.”
I groan and open my eyes.
“We’re taking you out on a trip today,” Ben says. “It’s a day worth getting up for.”
I pull my trousers and T-shirt from where they’re hanging at the end of my bed towards me; I start putting them on under the duvet.
“Change in the bathroom,” Ben says. “And how about clean clothes? Something good for the beach but it’s not that warm.”
The beach we go to is different to any I’ve seen on the telly or in books. And the sand’s not soft and fine like that in our sandpit; it’s not even all yellow. Here the sand’s lots of different colours with even bits of black in it. The sea goes out forever until it meets the sky and its white tops keep moving and changing position.
Liam takes off his shoes and rolls up his trousers so I do the same. I sit and dig down into the sand with my big toe and find pebbles mixed in with damp sand.
“Anyone want to come with me and look in the rock pools?” Derek says.
There are these grey rocks all along one side of the beach and we start climbing across them. I stamp in a little pool and the water sprays up.
“Gently, Aaron, things live in rock pools.”
Green slime is all I can see.
“Look at these fellows.”
I bend down and then jerk back as I see a creature crawling sideways. A crab. It scrambles along until Liam’s hand comes down on it; he picks it up by its shell and its legs move rapidly through the air. Suddenly Liam’s holding it in my face.
“Put it down!” Derek says.
Liam drops it.
In another pool, we see little silver fish darting around and then this weird red thing with lots of wavy bits. We look out to sea and see windsurfers skipping across water. I watch a purple sail spin across and then go off in the opposite direction.
“I reckon you could do that,” Liam says to Derek.
“You’ve got to be joking! I could go on a cruise; that’d be more my sort of sailing!”
A windsurfer leaps up on a wave but then goes nose diving down, sail and man slap into the water. We look back across the beach and see Ben with a large multi-coloured ball.
It’s when we’re kicking the ball around that Rebecca turns up in a black wet suit with blue stripes down the sides.
“Thought it was your day off?” I say.
“Look at you,” Liam grins. “You’re off some soap, like an Aussie lifeguard … only fatter.”
“Charming as ever, Liam.”
You can see every roll of Rebecca’s tummy where her wet suit gathers in tyre shapes around her. I’ve been noticing how she’s definitely got fatter than when I first met her.
“Well, I’ve caught up on sleep, so now I thought I’d hire a windsurfer and have a little play,” Rebecca says.
“This should be a laugh,” Liam says.
Rebecca stands in the sea holding up the sail then starts messing around with her foot twisting the board. I look up the beach and see Kate reading a book.
“Shit, you see that?” Liam says.
I look back; I can’t believe it’s Rebecca on the board that’s cutting through the water. She sails away from us, then somehow flips the sail across and now her board skips over the sea back towards us. When she gets close to the beach, she twists the board through water to head off out to sea again.
“Show off,” Liam shouts to sea and then turns to me. “She is fucking good!”
“No swearing, Liam,” Derek says. “Has Rebecca never told you she’s from Cornwall? She’s spent her life around the sea.”
“I’m going to get her to teach me,” Liam says.
She’s my keyworker and I’ll make her give me a go first. We watch her until she goes so far away that we can no longer tell which windsurfer is hers.
Here I am – the sea, closer to Cornwall, Aaron no longer totally rejecting me – and I feel terrible. I’m sorry to be such a misery.
This is the one week in the summer holidays when Pete could have come away and stayed with me for a whole ten days with no mid-week commitment to his children because they’re away. But missing Pete’s not the heart of the problem.
It’s you. My missing of you is so intense. Are you adrift without me?
I had a day off today because I did a night duty last night. I tried sleeping this morning but I couldn’t in some strange bunk bed, then I thought I’d make the most of my free time and hire a windsurfer. The kids watched me set off then went back to their beach games.
I remembered all our times windsurfing together. I longed to hear the lapping of your board coming up alongside mine. The hum as you raced on. I was so alone, a mere solitary speck of a windsurfer out at sea.
Afterwards, I just got in my car and started driving into Cornwall. I’d always thought a return to our old home would be as some sort of family pilgrimage and now here I was on my own. I sang along to song after song on the radio to block my thoughts of you. Then I got stuck in traffic and the slowing down got me thinking of what I was doing. The place I call home is not ours, it’s the home of another family. What was the point in going to stand on that bit of curved pavement by the dark hedge, looking in at some unfamiliar car in the drive, some different curtains pulled across the windows? I bet even our tree-house has gone. I wasn’t going to find us there. I might even see old neighbours and they’d give me the last thing I want – sympathy.
I pulled out at the roundabout completely forgetting it was priority to the right, a car had to stop suddenly. I could hear the car’s horn following me as I drove on. I just turned down a side street, parked and wept. The nearest shop that was open was an off licence, through its grilled hatch I bought a coke and a big bag of Revels. I ate the lot before I’d even registered what I was doing.
Then I headed back here to this barn of sleeping children and laughing adults. I’m so tired but I had to write to you before trying to get to sleep.
I really need you.
The next day, I go to a beach with Rebecca, Kate and Shelby. The sun’s shining and this beach is huge. There are dots of colour all over it – people, towels, umbrellas, tents. Rebecca bashes this stick into the ground, then Kate opens a blue and white umbrella and fixes it on top of the pole. It’s the Chelsea colours, just right.
“You need some cream,” Rebecca says to me.
She passes a tube to me, I flip open the lid and squeeze it over my tummy, it makes a farting noise and then a blob lands on me. I rub it in a circle.
“Let me help,” Rebecca says.
I stop still as she rubs down my back and legs but when she touches my front, I move away.
“Want to go in the sea?” Rebecca asks me.
I walk towards the sea then stand back watching the water come up and down the beach in regular waves. I think of the time I went swimming with mum. I walk into the shallow water then I’m suddenly hit by its iciness. Sea is such cold water, ten times worse than any swimming pool. There’s no end to the sea – no clear shallow end, no deep end. A wave slaps up against my legs surrounding me in a white foam, water chases me as I escape back to the beach.
“You okay?” Rebecca says coming back to me. “Stick next to me and don’t go deep.”
She reaches out her hand; I step away from it.
“It’ll be easier, Aaron, once we get past where the waves are breaking,” she calls out at me.
I stop still and feel the sand shifting under my feet. I bend my knees slightly to steady myself.
“That’s it; get used to the temperature and the water’s movement.”
“I have been in a wave swimming pool.”
Rebecca’s fully in the water letting the waves carry her up and down. I walk in a little deeper. A wave crashes into my tummy; I flinch from its coldness. I’ve always loved remembering the waves of that pool as I stood next to mum. Rebecca swims towards me; she smiles. I lift my feet off the bottom; a wave carries me up then down.
“Getting used to the sea now?”
Rebecca dives down under a wave and when she comes back up I dare to copy her. I dive down, glide, then come back up to the sound of wind and rolling waves. I feel the wind against the coldness of my hair.
“You’re doing brilliantly, Aaron.”
“Want to give my bodyboard a go?”
“Teach me to windsurf.”
“It’s easier to learn to bodyboard and I haven’t got a windsurfer here; I just hired that one yesterday.”
She gets her bodyboard and wraps the straps around my wrist.
“What are you doing?”
“The leash is so you don’t get parted from the board. Now we’ll wade out but stay in your depth.”
When the water’s up to my waist we stop and face the beach; a wave hits into my back.
“Next wave, lie up on the board,” Rebecca says. “You need to get the end part level to your waist.”
I throw myself onto the board but it flips sideways tumbling me off. I spin through water; my feet search for ground. I find air but then another wave sprays my face.
“You okay?” Rebecca says from beside me. “You’ve got to get your weight on the middle of the board, hands on the front. Do you want another go?”
Her board’s floating behind me as I walk into deeper water then lie on it again. I’m drifting until a wave slams against me and I topple into the sea again.
“Get on just as the wave comes,” Rebecca shouts as she swims up to me. “… Now!”
A wave picks me up, carries me along then throws me up onto the sand. I nearly crash into another boy on his board.
“Excellent,” Rebecca says from where she’s flopped in the shallow water next to me.
Excellent? I walk back into the water and Rebecca swims beside me. A little wave comes and not much happens when I lie on the board.
“Wait … Now,” Rebecca shouts again.
I pull myself forward onto the board just ahead of a large wave and then I’m suddenly rocketed through the water as I slide down the wave. The board lets out a long deep sound; spray spouts up from either side of it. I’m pushed on faster and faster right up to the beach.
“That is so cool,” I tell Rebecca.
I’m back into the sea then, gripping the board and flying once more along water. Sea air fills my chest, every part of my body tingles alive. Each time I go, the waves seem to get bigger and take me faster. My whole body smiles out.
I wish mum could see me here, on holiday. Sea water wouldn’t ruin her hair or leave a smell of chlorine on her body that she couldn’t get rid of for a week. And she could lie on the beach in the sun; she’d like that. If only she had the chance to come to a place like this, it would make her smile again.
For lunch, Kate buys us all chips. Afterwards she gets me an ice cream with two flakes. My bare legs swing freely and the sun warms my back. I look at the sea and watch its constant movement; I see the bodyboards and then further out the dots of boats sailing past.
Rebecca’s busy building with sand; she creates a boat with a front, back and seats. Shelby sits in it and a boy just comes up and joins him. Rebecca and I make a fort and we decorate it in shells and Rebecca finds a feather to go on top like a flag. We make a pebble path going all the way from the fort down to the sea then watch as the sea gets closer and closer, swallowing up the path.
“You want me to bury you in sand?” Rebecca asks.
“I dig a hole, you lie in it and then we cover you in sand – just your body obviously, no sand near your face.”
“How much does it hurt?”
“Oh Aaron, it doesn’t hurt, I wouldn’t suggest it if it did. Try it and see.”
Rebecca starts digging a trench. Near to us a baby is screaming; a group of girls lie in bikinis around a radio; a woman plays Frisbee with a little boy.
“You want to lie in here?” Rebecca asks. “Look, I’ve even made a sand pillow for your head.”
“I will,” Shelby shouts as he leaps up.
“No, Rebecca’s made it for me.”
I rush in front of Shelby and go to lie in the pit Rebecca’s made.
“Shelby, I’ll do you next,” Rebecca says.
“Don’t want you to,” Shelby moans.
“Sun’s in my eyes,” I say, squinting.
Rebecca props her cap against my head to shade me. The sand under me is damp but then Rebecca starts placing loose warm sand on top of me. She covers my legs, my shorts, my tummy. I lift my head and see my feet sticking out.
She carries on wrapping me up in the soft weight of sand and I feel the warmth of the sun coming down through it. Rebecca’s hands pat over me but never touch my skin. I listen to the sound of voices and the rhythm of the sea as it beats up and down the beach. A wind cools my face.
“There,” Rebecca says. “All done.”
I move my left leg and it cracks through sand.
“Aaron,” Rebecca says.
She covers my leg again, when she stops I move the other leg and laugh.
“Aaron, what are you like?”
She presses the sand back down.
“Now hold up Aaron and I’ll take a photo.”
While she shuffles through her bags looking for the camera a boy walks past and looks at me.
“Bury me, bury me,” he says pulling on the arm of the lady he’s with.
“No, play on your own for a bit,” she replies.
Rebecca comes back and I give a big cheesy smile as she clicks away.
“Those are going to be great pictures,” she says.
I look to my side and see Kate and Shelby playing noughts and crosses in the sand and eating biscuits. Because my hands are buried, Rebecca has to feed me a biscuit. She gives me another mouthful and I lie back and let its melted chocolate top and crisp base spread through my mouth.
Near to me a boy is kicking a football around with his dad. I wonder what dad would have done with me if he’d lived. Even if he was useless, he’d have had to do something with me sometimes. I mean, I know we wouldn’t have come to places like this, but maybe we’d have played football in the park. Football was what dad did to get a break at his children’s home from Mrs Beardsley. Mrs Beardsley was where mum and dad met when they were fourteen; they’d both been sent to live there and they both hated it.
“You know what I fancy,” Kate suddenly says. “Did you see those banana milkshakes they were selling in the beach café?”
I shudder and look far away to sea.
“Anyone else want one? Come on let’s treat ourselves.”
Shelby’s full of smiles and jumping up and down with the excitement of wanting a milkshake.
“For you Aaron?”
“Don’t ever, ever, EVER, give me a banana milkshake!”
“Only a suggestion! What’s up?”
“I’m totally allergic to it.”
Shelby laughs, so does Kate. They don’t believe me, but I know how it is. I will never again drink a banana milkshake. Banana milkshake had always been my favourite. Now it’s like a poison to me.
HE sits looking at me, watching my every sip. The milkshake’s in a glass with a straw. I blow down the straw to make frothy bubbles. He tells me to stop. His eyes are beams that drill though the top of my head. I don’t want to finish the milkshake but I won’t be allowed to move until I have. He says I should thank him for buying me special things. He tells me I’m getting spoilt. I have to suck on, through the tightness in my throat. I make the farting vacuuming sound of a straw in an empty glass but then I realise he’s smiling at this so I stop.
He opens a little book. ‘It was a warm, sunny morning. In his small house at the other side of the wood Mr Tickle was asleep.’ How could I have ever liked him reading to me? ‘Tickles are small and round and they have arms that stretch and stretch and stretch.’ He was the first person to read to me. ‘Extraordinarily long arms.’
I leap up from the sand and rush to the sea. Got to lock up my thoughts, slam the lid on them. Rebecca’s following me and I suddenly find I’m holding her hand as we splash into the sea’s coldness.
On the last day of the holiday, we all get taken to the ‘Silver Horseshoe’. There are lots of horses poking their heads over stable doors. Three dogs yap away at us. There were often dogs in the houses where I lived with mum; mum hated that. She says dogs are dirty and they make too much noise with all their barking. I’d pet them sometimes when mum wasn’t looking. I got bitten once but I never told mum how that cut happened. I look at the dogs here, I think I’d get bitten again if I tried to stroke them.
“Oh my god,” Shelby shrieks.
“Nobody has to ride,” Derek says. “But we will be in good hands; we’ve asked for gentle beginners’ horses and someone to lead each of you.”
This woman in muddy tight trousers comes over calling out “Hello” and telling us to go into this little shed to find a riding hat. I try on lots of hats until one fits.
“All right, Aaron?” Rebecca says.
“Look at you!” I chuckle because of the way her hair fans out from under her hat.
“And at you,” Narinder says to me.
A huge brown horse is brought out into the yard, Liam steps forward from where we’re all stood and darts his hand into the horse’s side. The horse shoves its head towards him and scrapes a front leg along the ground making Liam run backwards.
“Liam’s scared!” I say to Narinder laughing.
“And you aren’t?”
Rebecca just leaps up onto the brown horse and sits on top.
“This is your horse,” a girl says to me. “Honeyball, he’s as soft as they come. Come a bit nearer, lift your arm slowly, you can stroke him.”
I go towards him and smell earth and old mushrooms. I put my finger into his skin and a shiver passes down his neck. The girl’s hand strokes him and I copy and remember the warmth of petting friendly dogs. The girl moves Honeyball to this block of steps; she has me climb up and then over onto Honeyball. Honeyball moves, tipping me off balance.
“Feet in the stirrups,” the girl says.
She guides my feet. I want to get off; I want to feel still ground. Honeyball’s huge body wobbles beneath me; I grab the front of the saddle.
“You okay?” Rebecca says from beside me.
“You want to get off?”
“These are the reins,” the girl says. “Take them and you can also carry on holding the front of the saddle.”
Rebecca’s horse moves forwards; Honeyball’s weight shifts under me.
“Who’s leading you?” I call out at Rebecca.
“I’ll be okay without; I’ve ridden quite a bit before.”
“Is it all right?”
“Yes,” she smiles. “And it looks like you’ve got a kind horse.”
Shelby and Kate are walking away from the horses; they’re not going to ride. I see Derek on a huge white horse; he looks all uneven and slumped. Ben’s on a black horse; he’s grinning over something and chatting to the girl leading him.
My body is being moved around by Honeyball as we all start to make our way along this path between some bushes. Honeyball flicks his head and all these flies move out and then go back to buzzing around him; I wish they’d just go away and not upset him.
“Aaron, lean back a little,” the girl leading me says.
Honeyball’s staggering from side to side and toppling me forward as he goes down this hill. He skids; my body jerks.
“There, there,” the girl says stroking him.
Don’t fall, Honeyball, keep steady – please. The path’s getting flatter; I breathe out. I turn to see if everyone’s staying on their horse; I see Liam and he does not look comfortable.
“That’s it, Aaron,” Rebecca says coming beside me. “Sit up tall.”
“Do you like this?” I ask her.
“Yes, if you relax a little, you’ll start to get used to it.”
A group of walkers stand back and smile up at us. I begin to feel how Honeyball’s walk takes my back in circles. We make our way along by the edge of a stream.
“Who’s for trotting?” someone at the front calls out.
“I wouldn’t mind,” Rebecca says.
“Me too,” comes out of my mouth.
“Yeah, can I?”
“You trying to get me fit?” the girl leading me laughs.
And then she’s stopping Honeyball and letting all the other horses past.
“We’ll trot to catch back up with the others.”
It’s just Rebecca, Narinder and me staying back.
“Now, Aaron, hold onto the saddle. It’s very bouncy and you need to go with it, rising up and down. Just shout ‘Stop’ if you don’t like it.”
The girl sets off; Honeyball follows. I’m suddenly chucked up in the air then crashed down.
“Up, down, up, down,” the girl shouts.
The saddle stabs up into my back, pushes me away and then hits me again. My legs flap up and down. My foot comes loose; I’m sliding. I need this to end. I’m leaning to one side. I need Honeyball to stop. I grip the saddle. I’m going to fall. I tighten up to try and hold on to some sort of balance. I’m shaken forwards.
There are horses right in front; we’re about to crash into them. Honeyball suddenly stops, I shoot forward and end up lying around his neck. The girl leading me is leaning over and panting.
“All right, Aaron?” Narinder asks. “You enjoy that? I did.”
I sit up and try to get my foot back in the stirrup. I push my hat back on top of my head, pull my T-shirt down.
“Well, did you like it?”
“You ended up in a bit of a muddle.”
“They should have given me a race horse.”
We walk on through the trees and up a hill; Narinder’s horse is next to mine.
“You were brave to try trotting,” Narinder says. “You ridden before?”
“I used to go lots at my last home.”
I sit up letting my weight go down onto Honeyball; at the same time my whole back seems to open out like there’s more space inside me and I’m lighter. I breathe in and out slowly. Honeyball rocks me forwards and back with his walk. My fingers loosen around the saddle. I look out from a height over the hills. I see the purple and yellow of small flowers and a single tree with its branches all growing sideways like a wind has blown them. In the distance on top of a hill there’s a pile of rocks laid down in sagging layers. We go up a slight slope and see ponies standing on a patch of dry, cracked mud under a tree with broad branches. Honeyball lets out a big sneeze and I brush my hand along his neck.
“Well done,” the girl leading me says when we get back to the stables. “Come off by lifting your leg across and sliding down.”
I land next to her and then see Derek hobbling across the yard.
“You did really well for a first try,” the girl says to me. “You from around here?”
“… Maybe see if you can go riding again when you’re back home.”
I walk with her to put Honeyball in his stable and she shows me how to take off the saddle. I bury my face into his neck.
“Time to go,” Rebecca says from behind me, “you enjoy that?”
I give Honeyball a long stroke right the way along his neck.
“Say good-bye to Honeyball now.”
“No,” I say quietly.
“Time to go.”
“I’m not coming.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it … Come on now, everyone else is going over to the cars.”
“No, no, no,” I speak into Honeyball’s neck.
“Hey Aaron,” is shouted from behind me by Narinder.
I turn and see her coming over with a big smile.
“Aaron, everyone’s saying how you and I were great. You should ask; maybe you can go riding again. I’m going to try and go when I finally get my new family. You’d go again wouldn’t you? … Derek says he’ll never ride again; he’s done his back in.”
Then she walks off to the group car.
“I like horses,” I say to Rebecca.
“I know,” she says as she puts her arm through mine. “It’s hard to leave, isn’t it, hard to end our holiday. You’ve had a really good holiday, behaved so well.”
“You never rode,” I hear Liam shout at Shelby. “Too scared were you?”
“Liam, leave Shelby alone,” Rebecca calls over.
“Yeah, leave him alone,” Narinder adds. “You weren’t so great yourself.”
“Didn’t you see me go?” Liam says. “I’m the real jockey.”
“Right,” Narinder laughs.
“Enough,” Rebecca says. “As long as you all enjoyed yourselves, that’s what matters. It’s been a fantastic holiday, hasn’t it?”
No one answers her. Shelby and I get into the back of her car and Liam sits in front.
“Seat belts on,” Rebecca says.
Then Rebecca’s struggling with the handbrake; it won’t budge. She pushes and shoves it.
“Can’t you even drive?” Liam says.
“Don’t be rude.”
“Well, can’t you?”
“Just a thing that happens sometimes with my old car.”
“You drive a pile of shit.”
“Don’t …” the word comes out of me; I just want Liam to leave off Rebecca.
Rebecca tries again; there’s a click and the brake moves.
“Well fucking done,” Liam says as we finally move on from the car park.
“What do you get if you cross a pheasant with a duck?” Shelby suddenly calls out.
“That is such an old joke,” Liam sighs.
“Look there’s no need for you lot to get silly now,” Rebecca says.
“Rebecca, what are your shits like?” Shelby says.
“Shelby, stop it.”
“Well, what are they like?”
I punch across into Shelby; he gives a feeble hit back.
“Enough, you two,” Rebecca says. “Shelby, you’re being rude because you’re having difficulty ending something good.”
Shelby kicks the back of the seat.
“… And because it’s the last day of holiday.”
“Well, who’d want to go back to Temple-fucking-wood?” Liam says.
“Let’s think what there is to look forward to when you get back there – your bedroom, your toys … um, school. We’ll go on fun trips out; there’s that new adventure park that’ll be opening soon.”
“You can’t make us want to go back.”
“No, but I can try.”
“What was the point in showing us all this?” Shelby says with another kick to the seat.
I follow his stare out of the window and see some gulls and a sparkling blue sea.
“You bring us here and then we just end up having to leave.”