|Hidden in the bottom of one of her carrier bags was her teddy bear; delicately wrapped up in kitchen towels from her previous home. There were worn marks where she had gripped and stroked it. Stains and bald patches were all over the tattered toy; I could see how much it meant to her and how this nylon fake fur had been her one avenue of consolation. Of course, I wasn’t properly introduced to Sarah’s teddy bear until two weeks after she first came to live with us. That’s how long it took for her to start trusting us, and learning to trust is something I know all about.
I wanted to write about the first foster child that came to live with my family and me. I could have written about my first morning with this same family. All the anxiety, the fear of them disliking me, wondering nervously how long they would let me stay. To be honest, seeing Sarah come through the door reminded me of how I had been feeling in her same position. It was as if my mind was showing me a projection of my earlier childhood, which had rewound to me as an eight year old. Helping and watching her gain confidence over the time she spent with us had the most decisive impact on me.
I always thought our stairway was gloomy and uninviting. As you open the front door, you are met with a thoroughly uninspiring greeting which seems to mark and plant a bad omen in new arrivals. The door also gets stuck and sticks when opened from the inside. It has to be pulled sharply whilst the knob is turned, so the first few attempts leave you trapped in the house. On the way in, the door has to be slammed shut, or it won’t close at all. The dreary stairway new arrivals are greeted with does not help first impressions. No matter how many shades of creamy yellow Nicole paints on the lacklustre walls, the oppressive portrait of our stairway remains the same. This is especially so in the mornings, where the sun rarely manages to seep through the tinted side windows. Maybe it’s only me who sees it that way; I do tend to have a rather pessimistic view on life. We hoped that a warm but unobtrusive welcome would make up for the bland interior Sarah would be met with.
Nicole had gone to meet Sarah at the hospital. Her hands had been scolded and burned when she had been playing in her former foster carers kitchen. Whilst skipping, she had tripped. Putting her hands out to stop herself from falling, only for her palms to land on the hot stove. The foster family, no longer able to cope with her disruptive, hazardous behaviour, would not be picking her up. Children in care react in different ways, I was always painfully shy to begin with, and I even went through a shoplifting phase. Sarah would mostly set fire to waste paper baskets. It’s difficult to articulate why we do these things. Rejection mainly. Once you’ve lived and said goodbye to one family, two families, you want the inevitable rejection conversation to be on your terms. You’ve consciously made them make that choice, instead of them making you feel you’ve done something wrong that you haven’t realised. There was something else controlling Sarah’s actions so we were told. Her actions unlike mine were not planned; they were impulsive, her thoughts flickering from subject to subject, colourful fairy lights that never dimmed.
She stood at the door for a long time. She didn’t have much; just two bulging ASDA carrier bags filled with an assortment of laddered tights, worn out jeans and hand me down shirts and jumpers. Apparently she liked to break things, especially toys that didn’t belong to her. She had with her some wax crayons and a crumpled notebook that had so obviously been stuffed hurriedly into one of her carrier bags. You could tell how unsure she was. Every household has its own rules its own sort of unspoken code and values. She didn’t want to cross them.
I didn’t know what to say. Which made me feel ridiculous. All I had to remember was how Nicole and Jerome had welcomed me and made me feel safe. It’s different though when it’s you tying to coax them out. It’s you who has to decipher the map and figure out how to find them. When it’s reversed all you have to do is stay put and make sure you don’t turn backwards.
I decided to act as if I didn’t know anything about her. It makes you feel suspicious of families when they seem to know everything about your history before you’ve even spoken a word. Not just suspicion does it unearth, but an uneasiness, even a disappointment. How would you feel if a group of strangers had read your diary and then set about reciting extracts to you, patronisingly asking you “and how did that make you feel?”
Nicole had been tentatively showing Sarah around the house while I had been mulling this over. She was to share a room with me. “Won’t that be exciting?” Nicole tries to enthuse. The little room had just enough room for a bed and a chest of drawers with mini wardrobe underneath it, a desk and a mattress on the floor that would be my bed. This was one point about Sarah’s arrival that I wasn’t able to build any enthusiasm over. Sarah was invited to sit down on the sofa opposite me. She did so, placing her carrier bags on her lap that she was still clinging on to. So I spoke to her.
“I’m Bethany, what’s your name?” she answered by sucking her thumb. She needed time and I understood.