In this fictional account, follow the Caregivers as they navigate the ups and downs of foster care, chronicling a journey full of surprises as they come to terms with their new role.
In this episode, Mrs Caregiver welcomes her first arrival, Jack, to her home. Patrick, the social worker, brings him to his new abode, and Mrs Caregiver officially embarks on her fostering journey. Here's episode two for your reading pleasure.
Ding dong. That would be for me. Through the glass mosaic panel on the front door, I can see two figures; one tall and lanky, the other at least a head and a half shorter. My hand rests on the door knob, and I close my eyes, trying to be steady as I brace myself for what’s about to happen.
Deep breath in, hold, and exhale. I’ve got this. I turn the knob and pull the door open, and there he is, bathed in the rays of the early sun, shoulders slouched, head down, a green canvas backpack slung across his back, faded black and white checkered shirt hanging loosely on his frame, and worn out shoes.
‘Morning Mrs Caregiver, good to see you again!’ the tall man says, extending his hand for me to shake.
‘Morning Patrick, ‘lo Jack!’ I turn to the little boy, whom I have met a couple of times already during the planning meetings. I squat down so that I’m face to face with him, and try peer into his face. He seems more interested in an ant lumbering its way across the concrete slab, his focus trained intently on its every movement. But I’m used to this, he’s a shy boy, and with a little patience, things will eventually begin to show through.
Patrick, Jack ’s social worker, retrieves two suitcases and a soft cyan blanket from the trunk of his car, and the three of us make our way into the house. I lead them right the way through to the living room, and Jack clambers up close to Patrick, covering his face with the little blanket.
‘Cuppa tea, Patrick? Milk and no sugar, right?’
‘Yeah, that would be perfect, thanks,’ says Patrick.
‘And what about you, Jack? Glass of juice? Some chocolate?’
Jack peers up into Patrick’s face, the one familiar face he has grown accustomed to so far. ‘How about it? Some juice?’ Patrick asks. The tiniest shake of the head says ‘maybe later.’
Mr Caregiver is away on Guernsey island, playing stocks and numbers with his clients, and the boys are away at school with their packed lunches and secondary school textbooks. Patrick thinks this is ideal, it gives Jack the chance to ease his way in, rather than being overwhelmed in the company of so many people.
I come back bearing a tray with two mugs of hot tea, and a plateful of homemade biscuits. ‘Thanks Mrs C,’ Patrick says, taking a sip and sighing deeply.
On the glass coffee table, there’s a copy of the little family comic that my eldest son, Jeremy, put together for Jack. ‘Do you remember this, Jack? Want to have a look again?’
Again, he turns to his confidante, and Patrick picks it up off the table, and opens it to the front page. ‘Look, there’s Michael, remember he likes to play football? And that’s Finn, who also likes comics!’
‘And our little hamster, Rudy. You didn’t get to see him because he was staying with my sister the last time. Do you want to play with him?’
He drops the blanket, looks down at the comic panel and points out the hamster. ‘That’s him, do you want to say hello?’ Jack nods, and that’s my cue. Rudy’s cage is in the far left corner of the room, close to the grandfather clock and a window overlooking the driveway. I lead the way, and little Jack follows.
‘He might be asleep at the moment, but that’s what he usually does. That’s why we just wake him up whenever we feel like he could use a little snuggle.’ Jack stares eagerly into the cage, his eyes darting from left to right as he tries to pick out the little creature inside.
‘So, the boys will be back at three?’ Patrick asks, appearing at my shoulder as we both watch Jack craning his neck, searching for any sign of Rudy.
‘Actually, Jeremy’s got football training after, and Joseph’s got play practice, so we’ll go pick them up around half five.’
‘Excellent, I’m sure Jack’s looking forward to that, aren’t you, Jack?’ But Jack doesn’t look up, and Patrick raises his eyebrows at me with a smile.
Patrick stays over for a while longer, during which Jack does not say a single word. But he does show signs of beginning to settle down. For one he has dropped the blanket and has taken to walking around the living room, stopping every now and again at Rudy’s cage just to see if the hamster has emerged, before going off on his rounds again.
At long last, Patrick announces that he will leave the two of us alone, and it is at this moment that Jack stops his pacing, races back to the last bit of familiarity he has in the room, and clings onto his leg. ‘That’s all right, Jack, I won’t be gone long. I just think that Rudy might come out if I leave, because there are too many people in the house.’ He looks up and winks at me.
‘Mrs Caregiver, I’ll ring in again later this evening to see how you’re getting on.’
‘Please do, Patrick, that would be lovely.’
It takes some time for Patrick to leave, assuring and reassuring Jack that he will be back, and that he has nothing to worry about. When the door finally shuts behind the social worker, it leaves a sort of hollow silence in his wake. All of a sudden, I’m nervous again and quite unsure about what’s to come next. It’s the first time Jack and I have been alone since I first met him three weeks ago.
‘Um, do you want to come this way again? Make yourself comfortable?’ he nods once, still staring at the door as though expecting Patrick to come right back through. His feet seem to carry him where his mind won’t go, and the next moment we are sitting opposite one another in the living room once again.
He’s just a boy, I think to myself as I take in the nimble frame, the little freckled nose on his tiny countenance, the sandy hair. He is a child like any other; another Rob or David with whom I played legos when I worked at the nursery, another Jeff or Ricky with whom I built sandcastles on a day trip to Whitstable.
Except he’s not just another Ricky or David. His eyes have seen far too much than his years could possibly allow. He has known agony that most of his peers could scarcely begin to imagine, been swept away in the disruption of a volatile household.
‘How about a biscuit, Jack?’ I venture, trying to keep my tone in check; not strained so as to rouse suspicion that I’m trying too hard, not too lax suggesting I’m not trying hard enough. My lips stretch into my best smile, but behind that smile, my heart is thundering madly in my chest.
I reach for the jar of cookies on a side table, but freeze midway as Jack flinches horribly. He covers his eyes with his tiny hands, and his body begins to shake. ‘Oh dear…’ something unpleasant gets caught in my throat, and my heart is wringing itself out.
I want to reach out and hold him, stroke his back and tell him it’s all going to be all right. Had this been either of my biological sons, I would not have hesitated, but I had to recognise that Jack was not, in fact, one of mine. Pull yourself together, Claire! He might not be your son, but he does need a little TLC right about now! Think about the training you received. Remember that conversation you had with Linda last night – she’s done this so many times before. Remember the tips she gave you.
I slowly lower myself in front of little Jack, his hands still over his frightened eyes as they scan me through his fingers. ‘It’s okay, Jack…’ I hold my arms out, effectively asking him if he wants a hug without uttering the words. I am poised for the response, ready for the rejection. I can take it, it’s all right.
The moment is frozen in a capsule of time. There I am, on my knees in front of this defenseless child, who has been torn away from the midst of chaos, straight into a stranger’s house. A stranger in his eyes, at least.
But then something happens, there is a glimmer of hope as he gradually, slowly, lowers his hands. The little pools of blue seem to be registering his new surroundings. I can practically see through them into his mind, working furiously to offer some reassurances that the lady on her knees means him no harm.
I hadn’t noticed just how tense I had been up until then, when my extremely taut shoulder finally relaxed. I must have been gritting my teeth, but my jaw finally came loose. There were no promises, but our eyes had finally met, and it was the first step in this thousand-mile journey that we would be sharing.
Deciding that maybe it is too soon to offer a hug, I slowly lower my arms so as not to startle him, pull back and use the sofa as a support to stand up. My back is stiff, and there are pins and needles in my feet, but with it, there is a sense of relief. He goes back to examining his shoe laces, his feet a foot above the ground, and I recall something that might swing the pendulum more firmly in my direction.
‘Wait here Jack, I’ve got something for you.’ I don’t wait for a response, but slowly back out of the room, never once turning my back on him until I get to the hallway beyond, where I turn and trot to the kitchen. I collapse into a chair and bury my face in my hands.
The tears that had been held behind the flood gates come gushing out without warning. As I weep I feel the release, but the doubts remain. I can’t do this. I can’t. Who am I kidding? I’m not prepared for this.
No! You’re being silly. Do you remember the feeling when you cleared Jamie’s study out? You were meant for this, you can do this, it will take some getting used to, it will be painful, but your heart’s in the right place, and most importantly, you’re not alone! The boys will be back soon, Jamie will be home in a couple of days, Linda’s a phone call away, and Patrick is always there.
They all leant you their support when you announced you’d like to become a foster family, and they will be there when you need them. Come now, the child needs you, even if he doesn’t know it yet.
I hastily wipe the tears away, and shake my head. The pain has somewhat subsided, but it’s no longer in control of my emotions and me. I had no idea that fostering was going to test me like this – and this is only day one! Back on my feet, I reach up to the top of the fridge, where a little wrapped gift lies, and walk back to the living room. Little Jack has not moved an inch.
I lower myself in front of him again, relaxing my face, and reach out with the present towards him. His eyes dart from the wrapped item in my hands, to my face, as though thinking do I dare accept this? ‘Go on, it’s yours,’ I say.
Another glance here, another glance there. For a moment, it seems as though nothing is going to happen, that he will sit in defiance and not move until the end. But I don’t pull back this time, I refuse to go down. I am going to get over this hurdle, one way or another. I remain still, arms outstretched, gift in hands, waiting…waiting.
Little Jack raises a hand to his face, threatening to cover his eyes again, and then lowers it, fidgeting with the hem of his overlarge shirt. His hand shoots up to his nose again, rubbing away at an itch, and when he pulls his hand away, his nose is a brilliant red.
I can’t help but laugh, a nervous chuckle, but it seems to break the ice. The hint of a smile plays about his lips, but the stoic expression swiftly takes over. My arms begin to burn, but I don’t care for it, I am ahead now, and it is a matter of seconds, moments.
At long last, when my arms threaten to fall right off, little Jack reaches out, his tiny hands loosely grasping the wrapped gift, eyes on mine waiting for me to wrench it out of his grip and yell ‘it’s a trick!’
But it isn’t a trick. My grip slackens, his tightens, and finally, he accepts the gift and with it, I hope, my hospitality.
In the next episode: the Caregivers discover something about Jack they ought to have been told about.