In the old days (the mid-eighties) when I was in a kids home, they were often run by married couples who had a team of care staff underneath them. In the home I was in, these staff were called aunties and uncles. My main memory of them, probably unfairly, is they were a group of middle-aged women who used to sit around, watch TV and darn socks (yes really).
Today a home will have a care manager, maybe a deputy and/or team leaders and the staff will be called some letters – TCW, RSW, CCO, CCW or similar. In the home I work in now, the care staff who have been there longer than a year are, laughably, called: child care experts. The kids refer to everyone simply by their first names. Despite taking in my darning mushroom and needle every single day – I never seem to find the time.
I lived in a big Georgian house on the coast with, roughly, 12 other children. There was a modern annex attached in which the married couple, Uncle Cecil and Auntie Ethel, lived (those names are fictional but generationally accurate). I was the youngest (six years-old when I moved in) and was seemingly their favourite. This meant I got to go out in Uncle Cecil’s big, brown Mazda and help with the shopping – choose a pudding at Marks and Spencer’s and feel really strong lifting catering tins of beans at the cash ‘n carry. At 7.30 each evening I would be taken to the annex flat by one of the carers, to say goodnight to the couple, kiss each of them on the cheek and, if I was lucky, be given a sweet or biscuit.
One Christmas I returned, after a visit to my dad, with a toy catapult that I was very excited by. A few days later it had mysteriously vanished. I asked Auntie Ethel if she had seen it. She said she had not: “you must have lost it somewhere”. Something didn’t feel right – I knew I hadn’t lost it “somewhere” because I hadn’t taken it anywhere. And why was she being so dismissive of my plight? That catapult was the most important thing in the whole world – surely she knew that?
I cried and shouted in distress and accused her of lying to me. I can’t remember exactly what I said but I am pretty certain it would have contained the words “fucking” and “bitch”. Auntie Ethel grabbed me by the leg, flipped me upside down and hit me repeatedly on my backside. She was very angry and shouting things of the “How dare you?” and “after all I have done for you” variety.
Sometime later I moved to live with my Nan for a few months. I was delivered there, with all my posessions, by Uncle Cecil in the Mazda. He said goodbye to me and handed my Nan a paper bag containing a catapult. He said: “we didn’t want him playing with this. It’s up to you what you do with it.” He walked back to his car and I never saw him again.
It was inexplicable to me then, and remains so now – why did they lie to me? I can completely understand why they didn’t want a seven year-old boy running around a children’s home with a catapult but why not say that? Or let me use it occasionally, supervised by staff, to shoot targets? Or, if you are going to lie, throw it in a bin and carry on with the “you must have lost it” blag. Don’t beat me because you feel guilty.
So I was absolutely certain when I started looking after children – I would never lie to them.
30 years later, an 11 year-old girl I look after, Sarah, is due to see her mum for the first time in over a year. Myself and a colleague will be supervising it. The arrangement is – I will collect mum from the station and talk to her about the expectations around the contact then take her to see Sarah – who will be waiting in a park with my colleague. We are meeting in a different town because the mother is not to know where Sarah lives. Mum is not dangerous but the father, who Sarah definitely cannot see, is.
A couple of days prior to the visit I have an anxiety dream in which the father turns up with the mother at the station. I mention this to my colleague and, so real does this possibility become for us, we discuss a plan for what to do if it happens. We agree I will text her to let her know and she will immediately take Sarah home.
‘What will you say? To explain why you’re leaving, to Sarah?’ I ask.
‘I will tell her the truth’
I immediately veto this idea but she insists she never lies to the children. I tell my colleague, who I am senior to, not to be sanctimonious. I explain that there are hundreds of reasons why it might be necessary to do so and avoiding the potentially catastrophic risk of Sarah running off to look for her dad was certainly one of them.
About a week later, the same colleague was handing over to me. Roley had been asking about his roller blades – she had taken them to be fixed – she told him they were in the shop but they were actually still in the boot of her car.
“It’s the third time I have lied to a kid this week”, she said.
Sarah’s dad did not turn up at the station. Her mum did not turn up on the agreed train either, or the next one, or the one after that.
I walk across the park towards Sarah, she see’s me in the distance and must know. I don’t gloss it, there is no worthwhile lie.
‘I am so sorry sweetheart, your mum didn’t come.’
Sarah shakes, breaths deeply and runs off. I am writing this nearly three years later but still tear up at the memory of her anguish. It is the worst truth I ever told.