Walking through their foster mother’s kitchen, I could hear them in the next room: the girls who were about to become my daughters. Having taken my boots off, I was padding barefoot towards my future; conscious that these were the last seconds of an old life and that a new one was sat close by and straining for its first glimpse of me.
I found them on the sofa, scanning the doorway nervously. P was ahead of me and let out a long “hello” which was part greeting, part sigh and part exultation. “Hi” I said, my tone a rough approximation of that of a Children’s TV presenter. I heard the foster mother ask “Who’s this, girls?”. The younger child who (in the interests of preserving the necessary anonymity) I shall call “Little S” replied “Mummy! Daddy!” She then pointed to the television. Until that moment we had been for her two mugging characters in a DVD, made to introduce ourselves. I stood, stunned, my head ringing as if from a blow. Two months later I am still staggered. Perhaps that is the permanent condition of the parent.
Time, having grown bored of standing still, rushed about like a toddler and we got drawn in to playing games, tickling and hugging; parents and children doing what felt like it needed to be done to draw between us the first fragile strands of a new bond. Very soon it was time to go and we retreated to the farmyard holiday chalet the Social Services had booked for us. It was a place with no landline, no internet and no mobile phone signal. It was as if we had dropped from the face of the Earth.
The next few days involved our taking the girls out -at first for short walks, later for trips to shopping centres and parks. We fed them in McDonalds (as “Big S”, the older girl, demanded) and fended off the grumpy turkey that confronted Little S at the petting zoo. By the middle of the week we had taken on the responsibility of putting the children to bed; bathing them and then reading them a story. Reading stories to the girls was such an immediate and unqualified pleasure that it seemed somehow wrongful – as if every act of parenting had to involve some inconvenience or sacrifice.
When it came time to go on the first night that we saw them to bed, P picked up Little S to put her in her cot. Little S stared at P momentarily and then began to howl. Meanwhile, Big S had thrown her arms around my neck and was shouting “I don’t want you to go. I don’t want you to go! Please don’t go.” I tried to reassure Big S and when that did not help started to prise her arms from round me. I plainly couldn’t stay all night but I was terrified that leaving her so upset would destroy whatever bond we had formed. P, unable to calm Little S, looked at me and said “I don’t know what to do, I am not sure I can cope with this. I am feeling out of control”. The foster mum appeared: “I think you need to leave them now. They will be fine. They often cry when they are put down and they need you to be firm.” We escaped, rattled, from the room and by the time we had reached the foot of the stairs, the girls were quiet.
I reflected overnight and decided to talk to Big S about how she was feeling. As soon as I levered the conversation towards the topic, she disengaged. she did not want to talk about what was scaring her and who could blame her?
P had brought with her a small glass heart that I had given her as a gift. I asked if I could have it. That night I gave it to Big S telling her that if she missed us during the night she should squeeze the heart to let her know we loved her. Foster mum (FM) immediately confiscated it, reasoning, correctly, that allowing a 4 year old to take a glass heart to bed was craziness. Nevertheless, Big S’s positive reaction left me convinced that I was a natural at the parenting game. I had noticed that Big S liked us to read a particular page of a book called “Spot Loves his Mum”. On the page, Spot’s Mum is putting a plaster on his knee. Spot’s Mum, the book says, makes Spot feel “all better”. Big S looked up at me and asked “Will you make me all better when I am upset?” My heart ached.
Spot and his plaster gave me an idea. The next day P took one along, sat Big S down, rolled up her trouser leg and went to put the plaster on her knee. “I promise I’ll make you feel better when you are hurt” said P soulfully. Big S stared at her and said “But my knee ain’t hurt! I don’t think I need a plaster”. My vision of writing my new bestseller: “It’s like a spoon only wider: Using metaphor to become the perfect parent” evaporated away like … like … well I should probably give up the similies as well.
The following day, sat in a cafe trying to persuade Big S to finish her sandwich, she grabbed me by the ears and pressed her face to mine. “You won’t leave me will yer?” she asked. Heart shards scattered across the tiled floor.