Authors: E. R. Braithwaite
E. R. Braithwaite
S THE UNDERGROUND TRAIN
rocked gently on its way I wondered what would happen if I suddenly shouted to my fellow passengers, âWould any of you like to foster a little boy?' They'd probably think me mad. Even as a joke I wouldn't have the courage to disturb the heavy quiet, broken only by the occasional quick rustle of a newspaper held in such a way that the effect of semi-detachment was continued along the rows of seats. The fact that elbows touched gave no one the right to glance at his neighbour's paper.
The only reading matter I had was the thick file of case-histories in my briefcaseânot appropriate reading for the Underground. I was on my way to discuss one of the cases with a London County Council Welfare Officer at her office in the North London Area. A tough case, but, after all, that was why I was appointed to the job, to deal with the tough ones.
After nearly nine years as a schoolmaster in England, I had been seconded from the London County Council's Department of Education to their Department of Child Welfare, to help and advise on the many problems created by the heavy post-war influx of immigrants into Britain from the West Indies, India, Pakistan and other Commonwealth regions. Although I had had no formal training in Welfare work, I had been rather active, for some years, among many immigrant groups in different parts of London, encouraging their efforts to promote self-help schemes of one sort or another. Apparently, some of these extracurricular activities attracted some notice to themselves and it was considered that I had the kind of experience and continuing contact with West Indian and other immigrant groups which fitted me for the job.
Operating from a centrally situated Welfare Office, I was available to all the Area offices for consultation with the Council's Child Welfare Officers who might need help and advice in their dealings with members of the immigrant groups and their children, and to assist in the search for foster or adoptive parents for the increasing number of non-white children who, for a variety of reasons, and either temporarily or permanently, came into the care of the Councilâespecially the hard-core cases, children who, year after year, remained in the Council's Nurseries or Children's Homes, without any real hope of ever experiencing the warmth of family life. It was hoped that I might have some success with these cases, and though I did not quite agree with the premise on which this hope was based, I was determined to do my best.
Miss Coney was neat; that was the word that came into my mind as we exchanged pleasantries in her office. Everything about her person was neat and orderly; the short, grey-streaked brown hair, trimmed close to her well-shaped head, and the slim, well-proportioned figure in soft tailored tweeds. She was of medium height, her face small-boned, with well-balanced features, and a surprisingly full mouth which would surely have looked sensual with the least touch of lipstick. Her hands were long-fingered, and relaxed, reflecting the confidence she felt in herself, her assured control of whatever the situation would be.
I asked her for some details of the background of Roddy Williams, the young boy whose case I had come to take over from her.
“Ah, yes,” she replied. “Rodwell Williams.” Her voice was clear and precise. I noticed that she said âRodwell'. She took a slim folder from a pile on her desk and went on â¦.
“Not very much on him, I'm afraid. You know about his parents?”
I opened my briefcase and took out the case file on Roddy Williams. Not much there.
Name: Rodwell Clive Williams
Race: Coloured. Half-Mexican
Father: Unknown. Thought to have been a United States Service man, probably of Mexican origin.
Mother: Angela Williams. Present whereabouts unknown. Thought to be a prostitute.
Status: Available for fostering or adoption.
Remarks: Abandoned in Holydene Hospital soon after birth and has since lived in Franmere Residential Nursery. A hand some, intelligent, happy child.
Welfare Officer in Charge: Miss L. Coney. North Central Area.
“It is recorded that his father was unknown, but there's some suggestion that he may have been a Serviceman.”
“We don't know for sure,” Miss Coney clasped her hands together, “but I think the mother hinted to the hospital almoner that he was an American.”
“And the mother?” I said.
“Soon after the child was born she abandoned him in hospital. The hospital almoner got in touch with us and I went round to the address she had given, in Paddingtonâone of those old buildings now converted to rooming houses.
“She had just got out of bedâat eleven o'clock in the morningâand from the state of the room it was not too difficult to guess what she was up to. She claimed that she had been unwell, and promised to visit the child the following dayâbut she never turned up.
“I called again at the address in Paddington, but she had moved and we were unable to trace her. Even the police helped us in trying to find her, but without success. So, the child was removed to the Children's Nursery, where he's been ever since. About two weeks ago she turned up here asking to see me, but I was away on leave, didn't get back till yesterday. Perhaps she'll come again.”
“Did she leave an address or telephone number?”
“Yes, here it is,” she consulted a pad on her desk, “and would you believe it, it's the same place where she lived before.”
“Fine,” I said, “I think I'll drop around there and have a chat with her.”
“That's if she's there. These fly-by-nights are always on the move, you know. I wonder what she wants. Pregnant again, perhaps.” Her lip curled in a fleeting expression of distaste.
I asked if there were any further information on the father. “Nobody ever saw him.” Miss Coney replied. “The mother told the hospital people that he was an American Serviceman and that's as much as we know. It may well be that she merely picked a man at random from the many she knew.”
“But in his file the child is referred to as half-Mexican.”
“Well, when you see Rodwell you will understand. I've been in this job for a long time and I can tell. It has to do with his colour and his hair and the shape of his nose and cheekbones. I know about these things.”
She smiled confidently, secure in knowing about âthose things'. I thought, âYou'd have a lovely old time in the West Indies or the United States trying to sort them out and label them â¦ ' “Has there been any attempt so far to find a foster home for him, or have him adopted?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” she replied brightly. “I've been trying for the past three years to have him placed, ever since the Council became his legal guardians. But with coloured children it is not an easy thing. We have to think not only of today, but what will happen when the child grows older. Now and again people have expressed interest, but they've changed their minds when I've explained some of the problems they would have to cope with later on.”
“What problems?” I asked.
“Well, you know, there is the problem of placing him in a family where there might be girls. After all, the children won't always be young, and we must think of what could happen in adolescence or later.”
I looked at the woman aghast as the penny dropped, setting up its discordant clanging in my mind. Good Lord, under this neat, controlled exterior there lurked all the frightening prejudices which so often made us âhelpers' our own worst enemies, and baulked our best efforts and intentions. Among her equipment was the huge crystal ball of prejudice into which she looked for guidance every time a case involved a coloured person. I could feel the sudden anger rising inside me, making it difficult for me to be reasonable; but I had to be reasonable, and even patient, so that I might learn how it was she approached this case, and with what results. She seemed so nice, so professional.
“I don't quite follow you,” I said, purposely not understanding.
“Well, you see, I've had a great many years' experience working among coloured people, and there's not much I don't know about them,” she said, calmly.
âLucky you,' I thought. âI'm one of them and I know damned little about them.'
“I've had to work among Asians and Africans and West Indians in London and before that in Cardiff, and I know how they feel about things like sex, quite different from the way we English people feel.”
As she spoke I wondered where I fitted into this picture. Did the same thing apply to me? Or did my status as a Welfare Officer somehow emasculate me and render me more acceptable?
“In this profession we need to be extremely careful,” she went on, her voice cool and easy. “You must forgive me for speaking so frankly to you, Mr Braithwaite, but I think you know what I mean, and considering Roddy's background and everything, we cannot afford to take any chances.”
It all came out so smooth and plausible. She must have made up her mind a long time ago about coloured people, and now the ideas had jelled, hardened, ossified. Was there any hope at all of budging her?
I couldn't resist trying. “Well, Miss Coney, being coloured myself, you're making me feel rather awkward in this situation.”
“Oh, no, Mr Braithwaite,” she exclaimed, her aplomb jarred slightly off centre, “you're different. You're an educated man, and I understand you've lived in England for many years. But â¦ ”, with a deft twist she had regained her assurance, “thinking of Roddy, I'm sure you will be able to do something for him. You might know some nice coloured family who would be willing to have him so that he can grow up in his natural background. I do hope you understand that I have no prejudice of any kind. Some of my best friends are coloured people, but at the same time one must be realistic about these things, and I'm sure you'll agree that the child would be far better off with people of his own kind.”
His own kind. The white part of his origin was not to be considered in this context. I was nettled, but hoping to find some tiny chink in the tight armour of her assurance, I said: “But where do you suppose I shall find foster-parents who have a half-Mexican, half-prostitute background?”
She laughed softly, unperturbed. “Well we must have our little joke, mustn't we?” she replied. “But I'm sure you'll find a place for him. And now I'm afraid I must throw you out, as I've piles and piles of stuff to get through.” She stood up and walked around her desk to show me to the door.
Well, that was that. The next step was to see the boy, Rodwell Clive Williams, half-Mexican, half-prostitute. Mix thoroughly for four and a half years. Result should be a cretinous gargoyle at worst, a problem child at best. What was all this talk about a handsome, intelligent, happy child? Maybe that was only the nymph stage and one day, as Miss Coney obliquely predicted, he would surely break through the camouflage and emerge as a fully-fledged sex-motivated problem.
I telephoned the Children's Home where Roddy lived, told the Matron who I was and explained that I would like to visit the boy; she agreed that I could call later that day after the children had had their afternoon nap.
This gave me time to have some lunch before I set off. So I thought I'd travel up to Earls Court and have a snack at the Wayang, my favourite little coffee bar in Earls Court Road, then make the short run to Wimbledon by Underground.
I had two ham sandwiches and was idling over my second cup of coffee and a cigarette when she came in. She hesitated, half-turned as if to leave, then turned again, a picture of indecision in skin-tight black jeans, thin, flat-heeled shoes and a soiled, tan-coloured duffle coat which hung slackly on her thin frame; long, uneven fair hair half-curtained her face and fell loosely about her shoulders. She took a few steps into the room, looked languidly about her, then walked towards where I sat, somewhat apart from a lively, argumentative group of art students who had apparently discovered the secret of stretching a cup of espresso to last two or more hours. There were several empty seats around the room, and, observing her approach, I hoped she would sit as far from me as possible, but she moved purposefully towards my table, sat opposite me and casually began unbuttoning her duffle coat, the clear, grey, long-lashed eyes, surprisingly large in her pale, narrow face. She wore no make-up and without it her small pointed chin and well-shaped mouth looked absurdly childish and immature. The skin of her hands and face was very pale, even transparent looking, and this effect was heightened by the dark, coppery smudges under her eyes.
“Will you buy me a coffee?” Her voice was low and clear, each word spoken separately as if it had been well rehearsed. Somewhat surprised by this direct request I looked into her eyes, met her cool, level glance, and signalled the waitress. I asked for two coffees.
“May I have a cigarette?” Without waiting for reply or gesture from me, she took my cigarette packet from the table and carefully selected one, placed it in her mouth and waited until I got the silent message and hurriedly struck a match for her.
“I hope I'm not making you nervous?” she asked.
“No, of course not, it's a pleasure,” I lied.
“Do you mind about the coffee?”
“Oh, no, you're very welcome.” I looked around me, wondering whether we were attracting any attention. It must look very much like a rendezvous to any casual observer, and I prefer the women I am with to be, at least, tidy looking. She must have observed my uneasiness.
“I suppose I am embarrassing you,” she said. Suddenly she laughedâa sharp, brittle noise which somehow brought no change to her face.
“It'll only be for a little while. I suppose you can stand being embarrassed for a little while?” She rested her elbows on the table, and cupped her face in her hands. She had a trick of letting the smoke slip through her half-open lips in a thick, slow ascending curl, then lazily inhaling it again through her nostrils. Now and then she would tilt her chin upward and blow a thin spear of smoke over my head.