At the top of the leafy street I listened while Karen talked quietly. My thoughts were taken by the beautiful house in front of me, a tiny sign on the gate said ‘The Vicarage’. I had never noticed that sign before, but I had noticed the large, quirky, house. “The Vicarage?” I thought “Well, where’s the church?” My mind continued to wander until Karen interrupted my thoughts with a slightly louder tone. “Carly! Are you with me?”
“Oh yes! Sorry, I’m tired. What was that last bit?”
“I’ll check in on you tomorrow, after school. Would you like me to meet you there?”
“No here’s fine” being picked up by a Social Worker would look great.. “I’ll see you then.. And.. Thanks for the lift.. And everything..” I made steps to let myself out of the car. “Bye then!” I said as I closed the car door. Karen laughed and shouted “Hang on, I’m coming in with you! Just for a minute, I need to have a quick chat with Mrs Blake. You really are tired aren’t you!”
“Sorry..” I smiled, and waited while she got out of the car turning my attention to my new home. I could see Mary’s shadow in the kitchen. She seemed busy.. Nestled in the shadow of The Vicarage, this house was very different. It was lovely, but very small, a ‘three up, two down’ as people liked to say. I was not relishing the thought of sleeping on the couch for three weeks, but it was kind of Mary to take me in so I was not about to complain.
With Karen sorted we walked the short distance round the hedge and knocked on Mary’s door. Cindy, the whippet started to bark from inside. The door was opened in an instant, as wide as Mary’s smile.
“Carly! Come on in!” She opened her arms and I gave her a hug.
“Thanks Mary. Erm.. This is Karen, the..”
“I know, I know!” Mary released me and shook Karen’s hand. It dawned on me that they had already spoken. They chatted away as Mary guided us into the kitchen. She could have been an usher, before I knew it I was sitting at the kitchen table armed with a glass of squash and a sandwich, and not a word had been spoken. I heard a strange noise coming from the living room. It sounded like a fire engine, but on helium. Having finished their chat Karen made her departure with Mary seeing her to the door. I heard the front door shut, then the living room door with its slightly squeaky hinge open. I heard the strange fire engine noise get a little louder and Mary’s voice talking loudly over it.
“You OK Sam?” I heard a childlike murmur to which Mary replied “Good, we’ll be in, in a minute” as she reappeared in the kitchen and sat down at the table. “That’s Sam, he lives at The Vicarage. You know.. The big house over there?” She gestured towards the house I had been pondering minutes before. “I’ve been his childminder for two months now. He’s a good kid! Anyway.. Less of me! Are you ok? We’ll just think of this as a little holiday, ok? You don’t have to worry about anything, ok! Oh.. I’m doing it again.. Talking forEnglandand o-k-ing everything!” She sat back against the chair as I laughed, agreed, and finished eating my sandwich. We chatted about nothing until the food on my plate was replaced with my crumpled kitchen roll napkin. “Bring your drink through, but put it out of Sam’s reach. Little fingers, you know!”
I drained the glass and put it in the sink with my plate, following Mary into the living room. As I passed by the stairs I noticed one of our suitcases, partially hidden from view, underneath in the little hallway. “I have clothes” I thought hesitating at the doorway. “Mary? Is that mine? Can I get changed? I feel like I’ve been wearing this for a week!” I pulled at my T-shirt dress as if to emphasise some point.
“Of course, sorry, silly me! Let me help you upstairs with it. Just a minute Sam.” I waved my hand in response “No, it’s fine, you stay here, it’s not that big.” I pulled the suitcase from under the stairs and pulled it up the stairs. As I got to the top Mary shouted up “Put your case in Simon’s room, you are going to sleep there.”
“OK!” I replied, wondering if Mary got the joke. In Simon’s small single bedded room I undid the case. Amongst my school uniform and nightwear I found some underwear, jeans and a T-shirt. “At least they remembered my wash bag and towels” I muttered as I grabbed them and headed for the bathroom.
Ten minutes later I felt somewhat better as I entered the living room. Mary sat, chatting away with a small boy in a policeman’s helmet. He was indeed playing with a toy fire engine, and it sounded like it was on helium. Mary looked up and gestured toward the boy. “Carly, meet Sam! He’s four!”
“Hi Sam” I smiled as I sat down next to Cindy who was curled up, sleeping. I gave her a stroke and she trembled softly. “That’s a very nice fire engine! So do you want to be a fireman or a policeman?” Sam considered for a moment before answering “Both probally. I’ll do one in the day, and one in the night.”
Mary laughed and asked “When will you get to sleep?!”
He wheeled the fire engine up and over the coffee table, looking fully absorbed in the task at hand, but he was listening. “Firemen and policemen don’t need sleep, they are spe-shul! Oh.. And ambalance drivers don’t need sleep either..”
We all chatted away for some time. Sam really knew how to hold a conversation, which was impressive for a four year old. The doorbell silenced us for a second. Mary stood and gestured to Sam “Come on Sam, that’ll be your mum”, as Sam collected his things we said goodbye and I stayed while Mary answered the door. I heard a very bubbly voice greet the little boy, and a sing song laugh in response to Mary who ended the conversation with “Right Sam! I’ll see you on Monday, thank you for looking after me today!” The reply was lost as the door closed and Mary reappeared. “Simon will be home soon. Probably not for long, he wants to be out with his friends. So difficult getting him home for tea! He knows you’re sleeping in his room, and he’s going to bunk in with me. Just don’t tell his friends, he’ll be mortified..!”
Simon came and went, then reappeared at dinner time. He was quiet, but popular amongst his peers and friends. ‘No trouble at all’ Mary always said. We didn’t really talk about my situation, probably because of Simon, but I also knew Mary was good at just getting on with it. It was as though I was a permanent fixture. I felt strange, but they didn’t make me feel strange. We had a simple dinner, and watched television. Simon went to bed at 8.30 and then at about nine I said goodnight and went to bed myself. The last day had been tiring, and full of people. I relished the thought of being alone for a while. In the bedroom I left the door ajar while I busied myself getting night clothes out of my case. I heard the door open further and turned to see Cindy standing there. “Hello you!” I said as I reached over and stroked her little face. “I’m going to the bathroom, but you can stay here if you want.” Five minutes later I was in my nightie and ready to get into bed. Cindy was still visiting, so I pushed the door almost shut and put the corner of my case near, so the door wouldn’t open too wide. “There, you can get out if you need to but I don’t mind if you stay!” I liked these one sided conversations, no one to disagree with me. I pulled back the duvet and got into bed, at which point Cindy jumped into bed with me. I lay for a second then decided she wanted to be there so that was fine with me. My hand rested on her warm, trembly little body under the duvet. Apparently the trembling was a whippet thing, but it was sweet. She was like a living hot water bottle, and I instantly relaxed.. Then slept..
After the initial curiosity at school from classmates who had ‘heard’ about my appearance the other day, things quietened down and my first week consisted of a weekend where I got to see my friend, Social Worker, and having quite a nice stay at Mary’s. It was very relaxed, which wasn’t what I was used to. I returned from school one day to find a dark haired, slim woman, sitting in the living room with Sam. I hesitated at the doorway. “No, come in Carly, this is Anne, Sam’s mum.” I looked at the woman with the great smile and friendly eyes as we greeted each other. I didn’t say much after the greeting, clearly she was talking about schedules with Mary and I didn’t want to interrupt. Ten minutes later she and Sam were gone, with cheery goodbyes and smiles and fire engines.
My second week consisted of the same, relaxed activities. I enjoyed school, when I was there, so I accepted the chore of trying to sell raffle tickets on its behalf. I wasn’t sure who I was going to sell them to, Mary? Simon? Cindy? All of my friends were selling their own. I voiced this concern to Mary when I got back after school. “Why don’t you try the vicarage?” She suggested “Anne might buy a couple.”
“I will, as long as you think she won’t mind?”
“I’m sure she won’t. Go up now, she’s not long picked Sam up. She should be there.” I got my tickets and left the house to walk up the driveway to the vicarage. It was quite a big drive leading to the quirky house that had gardens all the way round it. There were kids’ toys all over the lawn and a big estate car in front of the house itself. I reached the large front door and gave it a tap, apprehensive at the cold calling. Eventually the door was opened by the friendly face, Anne, with two identical young girls in tow. They looked at me curiously. I smiled at them and then at Anne.
“Hello Carly” she smiled “What can I do for you?”
“Erm.. Hi.. I just wondered if you wanted to buy some school raffle tickets? The prizes are quite good. There’s a weekend for two at a hotel..” I stopped as she replied “Of course! How much?”
“A strip is £1” I pulled a strip and waited while she grabbed her bag off a table nearby and pulled out some money. Swapping the money for the strip, she made small talk for a minute, and as I walked back to Mary’s I thought how nice she seemed.
“Who was at the door, Anne?” Anne put her bag back down and walked toward the voice calling from the study. “It was that girl that’s staying with Mary? You know, I told you about her last week, Carly?” Anne turned to Ellie and Pippa “Go and check your brother’s not getting into mischief while I have a word with Dad” The girls chattered in agreement and went in the direction of the living room as Anne went to sit in the study with her husband. “Listen Philip, I know you’ve never met her, but I think we may be able to help if necessary..”
Philip interrupted “You’ve met her.. What? Twice now? For minutes in total!” He removed the white dog collar and undid the top button of his shirt, clearly thinking.
“We have plenty of room!” Anne insisted “Anyway, everything might turn out fine for her, but there’s a week left before she’ll have to leave Mary’s, and I would like to think we could help if need be. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?” She looked pointedly at the dog collar discarded on the desk. Eventually he spoke.
“Look, we don’t know her. What about the kids? What about looking after her? We don’t know anything about 15 year olds. That’s 8 years older than Ellie and Pippa.. Whole different sort of parenting..”
“Mary says she’s a great kid, especially when you think about her background, uses the same tagline as she does with Simon ‘No trouble at all’. The kids will probably enjoy having her here, and she’ll not need much looking after, she’s 15 Philip. She may need a roof, food, and some comfort. We don’t have to get her dressed and actually feed her..”
Three weeks from when I first walked into Mary’s I was wandering around town. The afternoon sun was bright, but my mood was not. Being ‘summoned’ to Social Services was worry inducing. Had my dad and Sally said or done something? Had any one done anything? What would my life be like tomorrow? To add to my nerves, having appeared at Social Services I was brusquely instructed to “Come back in an hour, we’re very busy.” I got no information, or any clue as to what was going on with ME. I felt I normally dealt with things quite well, but today I was not dealing. I stared through the window of a shoe shop, but I didn’t really look. Mary had apologised for not letting me stay indefinitely, but I understood she didn’t have the room, and I hope my hug this morning had shown her that. I also refused the offer of ‘company’ whilst visiting Social Services. “I’ll just catch the bus into town at lunch” I said. “The head will already know”. Now here I was, trying to while away the last fifteen minutes before I had to go back to that dull office, full of people whose lives where in varying degrees of turmoil, and join them. I moved away from the shop and sat on a bench, people watching, until it was time..
Karen Shelton stood in the small office with the head of department. “.. We haven’t had much contact from the dad, and Mrs Priest doesn’t seem interested. I’ve only managed to speak to her once. She knows the deadline..”
“With all of this in mind we need to get her into Spring Vale. It was pencilled in depending on the outcome of communication with the parent. When will she be back?”
Karen looked at her watch, partially distracted by the phone ringing “About 15 minutes” she said hastily before the phone was answered. The head of department listened, and then looked out in the direction of the waiting room “Oh.. who..? Anne Davis? Can you bring her through” She looked at Karen, “On that very subject.. There is a woman in reception who is very friendly with Mary? Apparently Mary looks after one of her children..? Anyway.. She’s offering to look after Carly, even foster her!.”
“Is that possible at such short notice?” Karen looked amazed.
“Well, she’s been unofficially staying with Mary for three weeks. We’ll just do the same here but get the ball rolling with all of the red tape..”
I pushed the door open and walked over to the receptionist. After giving my name I turned to sit down. I noticed Anne, the vicar’s wife, sitting with Sam. She was smiling at me in recognition. “That’s funny” I thought “that she must be having problems” I went over and said hello, then sat and avoided asking anything intrusive, like “why are YOU here?” We sat for a minute as greetings were bounced across the three of us. Then she started talking about me, and my current situation. I nodded and talked in all of the correct places, I listened as she appeared to know more about my predicament than I. Including the mention of a local children’s home, but I was stopped in my tracks as Anne finished “..we wondered if you might like to come and stay with us.”
“But you don’t know me!” I exclaimed “What about your family? They haven’t met me!” I exclaimed again.
“We’ve talked about it and the girls especially would love it!”
“I don’t know what to say. Thank you!”
I sat in the dining room of the vicarage. I sat in the home of four people who had never or hardly met me, and one who hardly knew me. These people had opened their home, and their hearts to ME..
I had a drink placed in front of me on the table. Sam was making ‘driving noises’ as he pushed his fire engine across the table. Ellie and Pippa looked at me with shy but friendly eyes as we tried to get to know one another. Phillip appeared from the office and said something that made everyone laugh. Including me. “This is what a normal family does” I thought. This is nice.