Authors: Casey Watson
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs, #General
To my wonderful and supportive family
I would like to thank all of the team at HarperCollins, the lovely Andrew Lownie, and my friend and mentor, Lynne.
If you decide to make fostering your career, there’s one rule you must be aware of. You should always expect the unexpected. I knew that anyway, of course, because I’d been fostering for a few years now. And before that, I’d worked for years in a similarly testing environment, running a unit for challenging teenagers in a large comprehensive school. And it was one of the aspects I most wanted to impress upon my daughter Riley, now that she and her partner David had decided to take the plunge, and had applied to become fostering-agency respite carers. She was excited, having received her application pack in the post that same morning, and was over at ours telling me all about it.
And how ironic it was that, the very same afternoon, she’d have a chance to see the rule in action for herself. I still smile to myself thinking about it now.
It was one of those glorious afternoons in mid-June; an ordinary Thursday that had been transformed by the addition of some properly warm sunshine – so much so that we not only managed to spend the afternoon in the garden, but even planned to have tea outside as well. It was also a precious few hours of rest for Riley, David having taken the afternoon off work to take my little grandsons to visit his mum. My husband Mike had just arrived home from work and was upstairs taking a shower, so the pair of us had gone inside to finish preparing a meal of roast chicken and salad, ready to take back outside as soon as he was done.
‘I think I’ve seen enough, with you and Dad’s kids, to know what to expect,’ Riley laughed, in response to my warning. ‘Probably more than enough. More than most have, I’ll bet.’
Which was true. We’d only just said goodbye to a gorgeous little girl, Abby, with whom it had been a pretty bumpy ride. Happily, however, she’d left us in the best possible circumstances; she’d been able to be reunited with her mum. Such a happy outcome was a circumstance that was unusual in our line of work, though, because my husband Mike and I didn’t do mainstream fostering. We took in kids who had come from particularly difficult backgrounds and as a consequence displayed challenging behaviours. To deal with this, we’d been trained in a specialist behaviour-management programme, with the hope that such behaviours – the sad result of years of psychological damage – could be minimised enough to help them live more settled and fulfilling lives, having hopefully, if not completely banished their demons, found ways to keep them under control.
But being reunited with happy families was mostly a dream for such children, sadly. Ours was very much ‘last-chance-saloon’ fostering, the expectation being they could at best find permanent foster homes.
‘I know,’ I said to Riley. ‘But seeing it is one thing, and living it is another. You need to go into it with your eyes open. Which is why I think it’s such a good idea to do respite fostering first.’
Riley had been keen to press on and apply to be a full-time foster carer, and I still wasn’t convinced she wouldn’t go ahead. But it was important she lived the reality of it for a bit first – which was why I’d suggested she get some experience doing respite care first. It could take quite a toll on your emotions at times, and with Levi and Jackson still so small, not to mention David working such long hours trying to build his business, I didn’t want her drowning under the pressure.
She grinned. ‘So you’ve told me eight million times already, mother – if you hadn’t already noticed. Don’t
.’ She batted her lashes at me. ‘See? Eyes very much open. Besides, once I
do it, I’ll have you around to help me out, won’t I?’ She chuckled. ‘I’ll have you on my speed dial. Rent-a-foster gran!’
‘Cheeky mare!’ I retorted, though I was smiling too. I knew my daughter. And most importantly, I knew
. However much I had on my plate with my own foster kids and grand-kids, and my two adult children, I knew full well that what Riley said was absolutely spot on. I’d be in the thick of it. I wouldn’t be able to stop myself. They say knowing what you’re good at is the secret of a happy life, and I
know. Had known the day I had signed on the dotted line with the fostering agency. I loved kids, loved being around them, loved nurturing them and teaching them, loved watching them grow. And once my own two
grown, I was the classic empty nester. Though my son Kieron had still been living at home with us till just over a year ago, once he was all grown up I was struck by this huge ‘
Is that it?
’ feeling. How had the time passed so quickly? Oh, yes – I’d had a huge, kid-shaped hole in my life, and at the tender age of only … erm … forty-something was, by anyone’s yardstick, way too young to take up knitting and bowls. Oh, yes, rent-a-foster gran – bring it on.
And Riley and David would make brilliant foster parents. I knew that too. Although they were still very young, both being only in their twenties, they had recognised there was something of a gap in the market. There were some younger carers but not very many, because, as Riley had pointed out, most people preferred to start their fostering career later in life, once their own children were getting older, or flying the nest. And this, particularly, was why she and David wanted to go into it. They felt that it should be encouraged as a career choice for young couples; with youth on their side, they had just so much energy.
Privately I had absolutely no doubts about them doing it. But that didn’t mean
shouldn’t have doubts; it was a big thing to take on, and not a career anyone should consider lightly.
‘So, what about you anyway?’ Riley asked me, as we finished off the salad and started piling everything up on to trays to take outside. ‘Oi, Dad, keep your hands off that till I say so!’ she admonished Mike, who’d now come downstairs, ravenous as usual. He was a big man – six foot three – and his job was physically demanding, and he didn’t tend to eat much when he was at work. So it was a full-on job trying to stop him grabbing stuff before I’d even begun to dish up. Right now he was trying to get his hands on a drumstick.
‘What, child-wise?’ I asked, as we set the plates down on the table.
‘Yes. Anything in the pipeline from John?’
John Fulshaw was our fostering-agency link worker. He had been from day one, and we counted him very much as a friend now. But he was still a professional, and he cared about the welfare of his carers. He would generally insist we had a period of rest between each placement so we could recharge both our physical and emotional batteries. ‘Not as yet,’ I said. ‘But then it’s only been a couple of weeks since Abby left …’
‘I know,’ Riley answered. ‘But I always get the impression that he gets them lined up in advance for you. That that’s how it works.’
‘That’s probably how it does work. Why wouldn’t it? There’s always such demand, sadly. And yes, he probably does,’ I agreed.
‘He probably tries to, at any rate,’ Mike said, chuckling as he sat down. ‘I thinks he worries that if he leaves me and Mum too long without one, we’ll get too used to the peace and quiet and decide we don’t want to do it any more.’
‘As if!’ Riley chuckled.
,’ Mike said.
‘Actually,’ I said, sitting down, ‘I’ll probably call him next week if we don’t hear from him before then.’ I turned to Riley. ‘Dad’s got a week’s holiday he’s got to use up, haven’t you, love? So it might be an idea to plan something sooner rather than later. Especially if the weather’s looking like carrying on like this …’
And that – that exact moment – was when the doorbell rang.
My first thought was that it might be Kieron. Our youngest son often showed up unannounced for tea. I sometimes wondered if his sense of smell was superhuman, and that he could catch the scent of a chicken roasting from several miles away. Now 23, he lived with his quite long-term girlfriend, Lauren, at her parents’ home. They had a self-contained flat there, which gave them a measure of independence. But not so much independence that I’d be fretting about him all the time. Kieron has Asperger’s syndrome, which is a mild form of autism, and means he’s a little different from most other people. He is very concrete in his thinking, and particularly averse to surprises. And very trusting – he can see bad in no one.
Kieron, too, was dead set on a career involving children; he’d studied sound production at college, and did regular DJ-ing, but in the past year he’d settled on doing outreach work with youngsters, for a youth centre he’d once been a member of himself. He’d even set up a junior football team for them – he was a talented and committed footballer – so that kids from difficult backgrounds could find a sense of continuity, as well as learning a skill. They’d obviously also learn about teamwork, and get some valuable exercise – one of the best ways to work off their frustrations.
But it wasn’t Kieron at the door. I could see that as soon as I entered the hallway. The shape – or rather shapes – though the frosted-glass panel were all wrong.
A neighbour, then, perhaps, I thought as I approached the door. Or some Jehovah’s Witnesses … It wouldn’t be the postman. Not at this hour.
But it was neither. I opened the door to find John Fulshaw standing on the doorstep, and whose ears, it crossed my mind, must have been burning.
‘Hello, Casey,’ he said, somewhat sheepishly, as our eyes met. Mine didn’t linger, it must be said, because they couldn’t fail to be drawn to the small boy standing next to him, who was reluctantly clutching the hand of a third person – a tall red-headed woman, carrying a luminous green holdall, who looked to be in her late twenties and who I would have bet serious money was a social worker. You get a nose for these things, after years working with social services, just as I’m sure other people might say I looked every inch the foster mum. The boy himself – who had almost-black hair, cut long and floppy, in a kind of bowl shape, looked eight or nine, and had an expression I’d seen many times. He looked a highly unwilling part of this little tableau. I swept my eyes over him, assessing him as I did so. Grey school trousers with holey knees, creamy-grey polo – once white – and, tied round his waist, a burgundy school sweatshirt, from which two sorry frayed cuffs hung limply.
‘John,’ I said, ‘I wasn’t expecting you! Should I have been? Only you usually call first …’
‘’I know. I do, and I didn’t, and I’m sorry.’ To which there was no other than answer than ‘Come in’.
So I said it. ‘Come on,’ I said. ‘Though you’ll have to excuse the mess. If I’d known you were coming …’
I let the sentence hang and make its point for me. They say a person’s house is always cleanest in the ten minutes before visitors are due to arrive, but this is not true in my case. I am something of a clean-freak, as my mother was before me, so it wouldn’t be a case of ten minutes before a visitor showed – I would have spent
making everything just so. So I was in something of a flap, casting around for signs of mess and clutter.
John’s apologetic expression immediately morphed into a grin. He knew me and my obsessions well. He stepped into the hallway, the small boy and the woman close behind him, and said, ‘Trust me, the word “mess” doesn’t apply here. Marie – Sorry, forgive me. Casey – Marie. Marie – Casey. You are about to step into the cleanest house
If it was an attempt to mollify me, in the face of this unscheduled visitation, it did the job. You couldn’t be cross with John for long. But I was still confused. My mind was whirring, in fact. I looked down at the little boy (though not that far down – I’m five foot nothing) and he looked every bit as dazed and confused as I was. I smiled at him. ‘And you are?’
He stuffed his free hand into a trouser pocket, and glanced up at Marie. She gestured that he should go ahead and answer. ‘Jenson,’ he said finally, eyeing me warily.
‘Well, hello, Jenson,’ I said. ‘I’m Casey. Come on in.’
I raised an arm to usher them all into the kitchen/diner where, from out of the rear window, we could see Mike and Riley tucking into their meal in the warm sunshine – presumably expecting me back, at any moment, from seeing to whoever had been at the door. Which wouldn’t be this trio, I thought, smiling to myself.
‘So,’ I said to John, ‘as you can see, we were just having tea. Not that it can’t wait,’ I added hurriedly, seeing his mortified expression. ‘It’s only salad.’ And it
wait. Roast chicken was just as nice cold. I could feel the prickle of excitement I always felt at these times. It really was most odd that he hadn’t called me, and I knew there must be a good reason. ‘Do you need me to call Mike in?’ I asked him.
John nodded. ‘Yes, I think so.’ He turned to Marie. ‘I tell you what, how about you take Jenson out into the garden? That’s Riley out there that you can see – Casey’s daughter. I’m sure she’d like to meet you, Jenson. Would that be okay?’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘And maybe you’d like a bounce on our trampoline, Jenson.’
The little boy’s eyes lit up, and his answering smile completely transformed his grubby face. Is there a child anywhere who doesn’t love trampolines?
By now, Riley and Mike had become aware of our little gathering, and as Marie and Jenson stepped outside, and I beckoned Mike in, I caught Riley’s eye and grinned at her.
Expect the unexpected