The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

3.A PECULIAR CHILD

Smarties

Karen had always loved Smarties, at least for as long as she could remember. Sometimes she loved the crunchiness of the shell and the burst of chocolate in her mouth as the shell cracked open between her teeth. Sometimes she preferred to suck them and make them last, melting the crusty shell until the chocolate oozed out and filled her mouth, its smooth soft texture and taste taking over her senses.

Karen couldn’t have told you this with all these fancy words as she clutched the tube of Smarties in her hand as she left the sweet shop with her parents. She had prized the plastic lid from the top of the tube and crunched her first Smartie while they were still in the shop. Then, disaster. As she stepped out of the shop she tripped on the small wooden step. Her hands flew in the air and the Smarties shot out of the top of the tube and all over the pavement. Karen stared at the array of brightly coloured sweets laying on the pavement, a whole tube of precious Smarties, even as her parents turned her straight back into the shop and bought another tube.

Karen waited until she had got out of the shop before prizing off the plastic lid and dipping her fingers into the top of the new tube. Walking along beside her parents she relished sucking and crunching her favourite sweets, almost forgetting the recent disaster. It was still quite early on Saturday morning, the streets were busy but not yet crowded with shoppers. Karen was busy concentrating on her sweets, trying to choose which colour to eat next, when it happened. She walked straight into the legs of someone coming the other way. The half a tube of Smarties shot into the air and scattered once again on the pavement. She peered dismayed into the tube, just three sweets remaining.

Seeing her dismay her dad promised she could have another tube at the next sweet shop. Karen brightened up. That would one and a half tubes of Smarties she would have eaten today. Maybe losing some wasn’t so bad after all.

Her dad kept his promise and soon Karen was clutching her third tube of Smarties in less than half an hour. She wasn’t taking any more chances. This time she kept the lid on. She would save these and savour them later when there was no chance of them spilling on the floor.

As they came back out of the shop Karen tripped. The whole unopened tube of Smarties flew in the air, the lid popped off as the tube struck the pavement. Karen opened her mouth and screamed. She jumped up and down in frustration, crying. Shoppers passed by staring not only at this poor child who was distraught at losing her sweets but also at her parents who were almost helpless with laughter.

Her dad went back in the shop but this time he held the tube of sweets and handed them to her one at a time as they walked along.

Three year old Karen never forgot the horrible feeling of her parents laughing at her misfortune.

The last surprises

The front door was at the side of the house but they never used it. The entrance they used was the one that led directly into the kitchen. Technically it was at the side of the house. There was a shed and outdoor toilet in the yard and Karen’s dad had built a porch connecting the shed, toilet and kitchen door, to shelter them when it was raining.

Right now, on her seventh birthday, Karen was sat in the porch on the step that led into the shed, her arms crossed and a stubborn expression on her face.

The dining table was covered in food: jellies, sandwiches, sausage rolls, cakes, and squashes to drink. The old melamine table was disguised with a pretty cloth. Sitting around the table were a group of children her mum had invited, some with their parents. Karen’s mum had managed to secretly borrow some extra chairs from friends and family for this event.

The party was ready to start. The children were struggling to resist the food on the table. But the supposed star of the party was still sitting in the porch refusing to move.

Karen’s mum was perplexed. She could not understand why Karen didn’t want to go to her own birthday party. Karen tried to tell her. But at seven she didn’t yet have the vocabulary to explain the hurt and anger she felt inside. Years later she would be able to put words to these feelings. But for now “I don’t like it when you arrange things behind my back, even if it’s meant to be something I will enjoy, because it makes me feel that you have deceived me”, were words that were beyond her. All she could manage was “You didn’t tell me” and demonstrate her feelings by refusing to go to the party.

A few months later and the taxi was outside, parked underneath one of the big old trees, waiting with its engine running. The family’s holiday cases were packed and in the boot of the car. Karen could see her parents talking to the taxi driver, a family friend, as she knelt on the old brown and cream settee looking out of the window. She couldn’t hear what they were saying.

Her parents came back in and tried to reason with her. As far as Karen was concerned she wasn’t going on holiday and that was that.

“Why?”

“Because you didn’t tell me about it.”

“We’re telling you now. It was supposed to be a surprise. It’s a holiday. We’re going to Pontin’s. You’ll have a great time.”

Karen moved from the settee to the large alcove window where she could curl right up on the windowsill that looked out into the yard.

“Well we’re going.”

“That’s OK, I’ll sit here until you get back.”

Karen’s dad’s patience snapped. He grabbed Karen by the arm and pulled her from the windowsill. “You can’t stay here on your own and that’s final. We’re going on holiday and you are coming with us whether you like it or not.”

Karen kept quiet in the taxi and on the train. She stayed quiet the whole holiday. There was no fun on the rides. She followed her parents wherever they went and did what she was told. She was glad when the week was over and they were home again.

After that Karen’s parents were always careful to ensure they at least gave Karen the semblance of being consulted about where they went and when. No more surprise holidays after that one.

Six unborn kittens

The image had been burned into her memory already and Karen thought all day about what she had seen. When the final bell sounded she was eager to leave school. Her thoughts and emotions were mixed. There was a reluctance to see it again, yet this was overridden with a morbid curiosity to see if the images burned in her mind were what she had really seen.

Karen quickly joined the other children in leaving the school, although this was something that was unusual for her as she would normally hang back and be one of the last to leave. Leaving the classroom Karen walked through the school corridors at a normal pace. She did not want to be seen to be hurrying and attract unwanted attention. Among the throng of other children she exited the school gates. A few mums were there meeting the younger children, but mostly the older ones would walk home on their own, or with brothers and sisters. Karen was in the third year (Year 5), old enough not to make her own way home.

Once outside the gates some of the children turned left towards the large council estate that was the main catchment area for the school. The rest, like Karen, turned right towards the sprawling residential area that consisted of a large mix of council housing, privately owned and rented homes.

Karen crossed the road to walk along the outside of the cemetery wall towards the top of the long alley that led down to the main road. The wall was much taller than Karen but she could see the tops of the bushes and trees that lined the other side of the wall. Here the group of children split, half taking the long alley to the left, following the rest of the cemetery wall, half following the school road that continued off to the right.

Most of Karen’s friends had gone in the opposite direction, towards the council estate. She was glad to be able to walk alone amongst the remaining group of children, focusing her thoughts on what she was expecting to see again as she neared home.

At the bottom of the alley the group of children drifted off in different directions. Karen was the only one who turned left to climb the hill. She had first learned to skate on this hill a couple of years ago. To her left were the allotments where her dad grew some of the family’s vegetables. To her right were the backs of the garages that belonged to the houses on the road on the other side. At the top of the hill she could see the lamppost where she knew she would see what she was looking for.

She slowed her pace slightly. She wanted to see this sight again, yet now it was near she wasn’t so sure. She peered ahead but it was gone. She kept looking, willing it to still be there so she could have one last look. She knew it couldn’t stay there forever. As she reached the spot where it had been she knew it was gone. There was no trace of it ever having been there. She began to wonder if she had really seen it. Yet the picture of what she had seen had been burned into her mind. She knew it had been true.

Karen dragged her feet as she covered the last hundred yards to her house. She was earlier than usual. That would arouse some suspicion and questions. Or at least, so she thought. Instead her mum appeared glad she was home, to have been waiting for her, thinking she had rushed home to see her pet cat who had been missing that morning. Karen was concerned; her mum’s face had the blotchy marks and redness around the eyes of someone who had been crying. She seemed edgy and nervous.

Karen’s mum made sure Karen was sitting down before she told her the bad news. Karen already knew that her mum had not walked the first part of the way to school with her that morning because the family cat, Ellie, who was heavily pregnant with kittens, had not come in for breakfast as usual and her mum had delayed leaving in the hope she would still be able to feed her before she left for work. Except that now her mum was telling her that when she had finally had to leave for work she had found the cat lying in the gutter at the end of the road. She had obviously been hit by a car, probably because she couldn’t move as fast as she used to because the kittens were nearly due to be born.

Karen said she already knew; she too had seen Ellie lying in the gutter that morning on her way to school. Immediately Karen realised she had made a mistake. Her mum looked shocked and started asking her difficult questions. Had she really seen Ellie? Had she cried? Had she told anyone at school, a teacher maybe? Had she gone to all her lessons? Had she done all her lessons? Had she had to spend time in the sick room or office because she had been upset? Had she been upset?

How could Karen answer all these questions? The sight of the white, black and tan mother cat lying on her back in the gutter, with her belly split from neck to tail and the bodies of about half a dozen fully formed kittens spilling out of her, had been burned into her memory. Yet she had not cried. She had not told anyone. She had sat through all her lessons. She had been disappointed to find when she came home past the point where she had seen all this that the body had been removed, although she now understood that it was obviously her mum who had done this task.

Somehow Karen got through the interrogation with her usual shrugs and noncommittal answers when faced with emotional questions. Then she stored up the experience of the questioning in her memory bank for future reference. Clearly her mum had considered her reaction to not only learning of her cat’s death but of actually seeing the body and the destruction of life had not been what was expected of her. She would not make that mistake again.

Atishoo!!

Even before her eyes were open that morning Karen knew she had a cold. She could feel the pressure in her sinuses, blocking her breathing. Her throat felt scratchy. Her eyes still closed she lay in bed planning her tactics. Even though her bedroom was right up on the second floor and her mum was probably far away in the kitchen she didn’t want to be heard, so she spoke quietly to herself, checking out how her voice sounded. Was it obvious she had a sore throat? Was it obvious her nasal passages were blocked?

Eventually she had to get up and face the day. Normally she would say “morning” when she greeted her mum when she got up. But today she would say “hello”. It was all part of using words that didn’t contain the dreaded ‘m’ and ‘n’ sounds, the ones that would give away her blocked nasal passages. It didn’t work of course, her mum always noticed the strange change in words, mutterings instead of real words, averting head or looking down so her mum wouldn’t see if her nose or eyes were a bit red, but she had to try. Anything to delay her mum realising Karen had a cold and might not be well. Anything to delay having her mum fuss around her trying to look after her, asking her questions about her symptoms and how she felt.

Karen hated being ill. It was a vulnerability. It meant she might need looking after. Or at least it meant her mum would want to mother her all the more and she hated that. Her mum took every opportunity she could to mother her and Karen was always at pains never to give her an extra excuse. Being ill meant a loss of independence.

Mum’s run off

“Where’s mum?” Karen asked as she entered the kitchen. Her mum was usually in the kitchen cooking or doing some kind of housework when Karen arrived home from school.

The reply was matter of fact. “She’s run off with a black man.”

In the 1960’s attitudes to discrimination and anti-discrimination were very different to what is acceptable in the 21st Century, when television programmes such as ‘Love Thy Neighbour’, with its trading of racist insults, was still informing public views on race relations.  The inclusion of this statement is because that is what Karen recalls was said at the time, and is in no way intended to show approval of such language.

Karen took on board the information she had just been given. In her mind she registered that it was shocking that a white woman would have a relationship with a black man. Yet it also fitted the strange circumstances. It was not yet four in the afternoon and her dad should still be at work. Obviously he had come home early because her mum wasn’t there. That couldn’t continue. And there was no sign of dinner being prepared. They would have to find some way of managing the cooking and housework.

Mentally and emotionally Karen moved into a new era. No looking back to when her mum was there. No concern as to when she would see her again. Just fact – an inconvenience as they would need to manage their lives with just the two of them and she was only nine – but a fact nonetheless.

Karen shrugged off her coat and joined her dad sitting at the table. She started to voice her ideas. She could go to a friend’s house from school, until he got in from work. She would learn how to cook so she could help with making dinner. Perhaps they could get someone in to help with some of the other housework, jobs that were too big for her and her dad wouldn’t have time to do. She was actually enjoying planning how they would cope.

Then Karen heard the toilet flush. At first she was puzzled. Who else could be in the house if her mum wasn’t there?

Her mum came into the kitchen. She had heard the whole conversation. And there was pain in her expression. Her words were a mix of questions and accusations. “You didn’t sound upset.” “Did you really believe I’d gone off and left you?” “You sounded so cool planning how you’d cope without me.”

Karen backtracked, hid her disappointment at seeing her mum, and said that of course she didn’t know where she was but she didn’t believe she’d gone for good and knew she’d be back sometime, knowing and resenting all the time the fact that her dad had been playing her for a fool.

Tears of a clown

It was one of those days. Her mum was yet again pestering Karen, asking her questions, trying to probe into her innermost thoughts, trying to tease feelings out of her like winkles from a winkle shell.

Karen always tried to bat away her mum’s enquiries with “I don’t know” or “I don’t care”. Still she kept coming back at her. And it had worn her down a little. And she had said something stupid, trying to shut her mum up, trying to get her off her back. She’d said something she shouldn’t have said, and now her defences were up on high alert again.

What had her mum said? Was is that Karen always seemed happy enough when she was younger, or that she seemed unhappy. Whatever it was Karen had used the phrase “tears of a clown” to describe herself. And now her mum was trying not to cry, thinking her daughter was really unhappy inside and pushing more and more to know Karen’s thoughts and feelings.

Karen thought fast. She denied really knowing what she’d meant when she said that phrase. Denying it meant anything at all. Turning it round to blame her mother for pushing her into saying something when there was nothing to say. It was just a phrase she’d learnt and it meant nothing. And her mum backed off in the face of adamant denial.

Was it really true though? Karen wasn’t sure. Maybe she had spoken a truth under pressure. She put on a front, a cover all the time, her guard was always up, trying to behave in a way that adults would consider normal without truly revealing what she thought and felt. Did she cry inside? Not really. But then she never laughed inside or outside either. She wasn’t unhappy and covering it up. But then neither was she happy. She just was. She just existed. And that existence was all about keeping her thoughts, her feelings, everything that might identify who she really was, absolutely and entirely to herself. There was no fun in Karen’s life, no real friends, no laughter, no relaxation. She was a loner and that was the way it was.

Meeting the Ed Psych

The room seemed large. There was a big desk on the wall to the left of the door where they had come in. It was made of old brown wood, like a teacher’s desk in school. The window behind the desk looked out onto the gardens outside. The trees were in full leaf and flowers were in bloom.

As they had entered the room ten minutes earlier Karen had scanned the room. She had seen the various toys and play equipment strategically placed: toys that might interest younger children in particular. There were a couple of hard chairs and a small play table in the middle of the room. In the far right hand corner was a small desk with a few papers and a telephone on it. Next to the small desk stood a tall filing cabinet. Even Karen could see that was the real work desk. The big desk she now sat facing was clearly the ‘meeting new people’ desk.

Karen had sat in silence while her mum had talked to the tall thin woman behind the big desk, telling her what the school had been saying and why they were there. Now the woman was showing her mum out the door again, telling her the secretary would bring her a cup of tea in the waiting room.

Karen waited, still sitting at the desk, still facing the window. She appeared to be doing nothing but just waiting, but she wasn’t just waiting, she was alert and listening, assessing the situation, working out what was going to happen next, trying to be prepared.

The woman came back into the room and picked up the chair Karen’s mum had been sitting on a few minutes earlier and moved it a little away from the table, nearer the centre of the room. The woman invited Karen to bring her chair a little closer. Karen did as she was told.

The woman began chatting to Karen, asking her about school and home, her favourite toys and TV shows, games, all innocent sounding stuff. But Karen was careful. She knew that whatever she told this woman would be immediately relayed back to her mum. She was going to reveal nothing, absolutely nothing, of her real thoughts and feelings to this woman who was official and absolutely not to be trusted. She kept her answers as uninformative as she could, maybe one or two words only. TV was OK but she didn’t really have any favourite programmes. School was OK, she didn’t like or dislike it there. Home was OK. Permanently alert to make sure she gave nothing away, nothing that would lead to another question and another question and another question. When necessary she would just shrug or say she didn’t know or didn’t care when the woman tried to slip in some ‘real’ questions from time to time. Eventually the ordeal was over and she was allowed to rejoin her mum in the waiting room.

A couple of weeks later the process was repeated. Her mum said how things had been at home and then left the room. And that was it. She was never taken back there again. Perhaps the woman had given up. Karen didn’t know why and she didn’t really care. She was being left alone to carry on with life as before, just how she wanted it.

Love is …..

… what? Karen eagerly read every one of the cartoons she could find. Sometimes this was in one of the national newspapers her dad brought home. Other times she would walk into the local W H Smith and browse the bookshelves for the Love Is cartoon books, reading a few pages before moving on. She tried to understand, really she did. But it was a genuine puzzle to her. What is love? How is it defined? How did anyone find out what it was? She hoped the Love Is cartoons might help her find the answer. They didn’t. The pop songs she listened too often referred to this strange state, love. But they didn’t tell her what it was either.

Little did she realise then that to understand the cartoons and the songs you first had to know how to give and receive love. In other words you actually had to know what it was.

The teenage Karen didn’t know it yet but she had spent most of her life rejecting the love of her parents. They loved her. Or at least they told her they did. But the habit of refusing to receive that love was already ingrained. How could she know the meaning of love, how could she understand the cartoons and the songs when the force shield she had erected to protect herself from their love was so strong?

“I did what?!!”

Monday morning. It was the spring term of the fourth year of senior school (Year 10). Some of the more adventurous girls at school had already begun experimenting with alcohol at the weekends. And that weekend had been no exception.

Karen had sat at the back of the classroom listening to her classmates. She had listened carefully to the descriptions they were giving about what had happened at the concert on Saturday night. Who had been sick in the alley at the side of the concert hall. Who had been seen kissing certain boys; boys they wouldn’t be seen dead kissing sober. Who had fallen over and had to be carried home.

One of the girls clearly had no memory of most of these events. She listened with horrified delight when told what she herself had done. Karen had listened in horror. And vowed there and then that she would never be in a position of not knowing what had happened, she would never be dependent on others to tell her what she had done.

Tears in the bath

Karen had only ever lived in the old house she had been brought home to when she was 10 days old. In those days there was no indoor bathroom and no electricity upstairs, but now one of the bedrooms on the top floor had been converted into a bathroom. Karen’s bedroom was next door to the bathroom.

The only other room on that floor was a spare bedroom that had been turned into a kind of den where Karen kept her records and the orange and white record player and stand she had been given three years ago. Sometimes her mum would come and join her in the den and listen to Karen’s pop music, bands like The Sweet and T-Rex, Elton John or Donny Osmond, an occasional Motown song. Karen wasn’t really a fan of any one group or singer. She either liked a record or she didn’t. There were a few old toys in the den. The hideous doll baby in its yellow outfit she had been given when she was three. Some of the more popular dolls of the time, such as Cindy and Barbie, that she had only ever played with about twice a year and had not played with for ages now. A Monopoly game she loved to play with. Her parents hated the game so she always played alone. Karen would set up the banker and six players, taking the turn of each one separately. Although she liked some of the pieces that represented the players better than others she always tried to play fair. As she moved the play around the board she would practice cutting off any emotion from the previous ‘player’ to ensure each ‘piece’ had an equal chance of winning. Karen would do the same with multi player card games, Scrabble, Ludo, and any other games she had.

But now Karen was lying in the bath. She felt fairly alone and safe up here on the top floor of the house. Apart from when her mum joined her in the den her parents only came up here when they needed a bath. And for now she was occupying that space.

Karen lay back in the warm water. She looked around the tiny room. There was just a bath, a sink and a big cupboard with the hot water boiler. The council had refused to put in an indoor toilet because her dad had put a porch in the yard and that encompassed the toilet. As far as the council were concerned that counted as an indoor toilet now. It was January and cold outside. The house didn’t have central heating or insulation so it was pretty cold inside too. The electric wall heater was glowing red on the wall furthest from the bath.

Karen slid her shoulders under the warm water. She had just split up with her first boyfriend. Actually, that was a bit of an overstatement. Steve had been a friend but not really a boyfriend. What blurred the definition was her decision to investigate sex and choosing Steve to seduce so she could experience this act. Karen had always been quite happy to hide behind being under age but now, at 15, she had changed her mind. To her, the law didn’t matter any more.

Except things had gone a bit wrong. Not anything as disastrous as a pregnancy but her mum had immediately known what had happened. Karen couldn’t understand it. She asked how her mum knew. “You walked differently.” What did she mean? “With a new confidence and knowing.” The result was a big family row, a confrontation between Steve and her dad and Steve getting scared off.

Karen theorised that she should be upset about this, yet she didn’t really know what upset felt like. She was more concerned by being under the spotlight of her parents’ attention. The questions about why she had done it, what exactly had happened, had they taken any precautions, what if she got pregnant (she didn’t). Why is it OK for parents to expect their children to answer their questions about their private life and feelings but not the other way round?

As Karen lay in the warm water in the bath she thought that maybe if she cried it would help her understand what she should feel. She lay in the bath trying to sob. It didn’t really make much difference. It wasn’t real grief. She didn’t think anyone could hear her. It was years later she learned that her mum had heard her but not disturbed her. Perhaps her mum thought it was a normal reaction and that’s why she left Karen to her grief and privacy. Little did she know.

Gail and Vera

Karen’s greatest horror was to have her life turn out like the characters in the soap opera Coronation Street. Gail’s life in particular. The thought of living in the same road as her mum, popping round each other’s houses several times a day for tea and a chat, having her mum knowing the ins and outs of everything she thought and did, telling her mum the ins and outs of everything she thought and did.

Perhaps that was the root of beginning her plans to leave home as soon as she could. Karen drove her mum mad with questions about how much it cost to run the house: rent, electricity, gas, and other expenses.

Her mum tried to put off Karen’s questions, telling her it was impossible to compare the costs of running a big house to what it would cost Karen to live in a small flat. Karen would reply she knew that but it was the only information she had easy access to.

Karen’s parents offered to turn the old den on the top floor into a living room for Karen, so it was like a flat in their house. Karen saw through this immediately. She would still be in their house, using the same front door, sharing the same kitchen and the same bathroom. It was not the same as living truly independently.

Her parents puzzled about why Karen was so determined to leave home and live independently. There were none of the usual teenage arguments or rebellions. They were fairly relaxed for their generation and Karen seemed to have as many freedoms as she wanted. They weren’t experiencing the teenage traumas other parents seemed to be going through.

Eurovision Song Contest

It was one of Karen’s favourite programmes. Originally it had been because it didn’t finish until 10.00 pm and it always meant once a year she had been allowed to stay up late to watch it on a Saturday night. Now she was 16 she stayed up until that time anyway, but by now she also enjoyed following the music, hoping Britain would field a decent song and stand a chance of winning for once.

As usual Karen had followed the preliminaries, when the final act was chosen to represent Britain. Then she had looked forward to the final show. As usual she had saved the listings of all the countries, their singers and their songs from the national newspaper that day. During the show she had made notes of the songs she liked and the ones she didn’t, the ones she thought should win, and the ones that were no good.

Right now it was 9.30 pm. The voting results were coming in from around the world. The judging panels from each country were being asked one at a time who they wanted to give points to. First they allocated the lowest number of points, one, to a named country, increasing the number of points until they reached their favourite singer and song and to whom they were awarding the highest number of points available, twelve.

Throughout the whole show Terry Wogan had been quipping along with background information and jokes about the presenters, the singers, the songs and the accompanying videos from each country. Actually, although it wasn’t cool to admit it she quite liked Terry Wogan, he could be quite funny and had a dry sense of humour she liked.

Karen had sat through the whole show until now, the crucial voting stage. She began to fidget, getting up on the pretext of going out to the toilet, making a drink, finding some absolutely essential distraction. She so wanted to know the results of the show but she absolutely could not sit still through the trauma of listening and waiting for the results to come in. She was in and out of the room like a yo-yo, driving her dad mad with her fidgeting.

Karen was like this with everything that involved anticipation and excitement. Sports results, TV shows and films where something unexpected might happen. At the climatic conclusion of TV soaps she would leave the room so she didn’t have to watch. In the middle of a film she would close her eyes. If she was on her own she would cover her face.

Anticipation and excitement in any situation was more than Karen could bear.

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