Taken: Part 2 of 3
Certain details in this story, including names, places and dates, have been changed to protect the family’s privacy.
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First published by HarperElement 2017
© Rosie Lewis 2017
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The children’s play area was swathed in ribbons of feathery mist, grey clouds swelling above our heads. It really was cold, but several hardy children were playing on the ice-covered equipment, their mothers stamping their feet and rubbing their gloved hands together nearby. I parked the pram near a small scooter propped up against the black metal railings and walked around the front, reaching a hand underneath the rain cover and pulling the blankets up around Nailah’s chin. Megan stretched out her short arms as soon as she saw me, a sight that never failed to melt my heart. ‘Come on then, sweetheart,’ I said, zipping her thick coat up as high as it would go, straightening her hat and then unclipping her straps again. I pulled her to me and planted kisses on her forehead.
She lifted her face and sucked my chin affectionately, her mouth warm on my skin. Her small hands clamped my cheeks possessively and soon she began to gnaw, her gums clamping down with surprising pressure. ‘Hey, you!’ I cried, laughing as I arched my face away. I lowered her into the nearest swing. She gurgled a laugh, two bright red teething spots glowing above the dimples on her cheeks.
I grabbed her blanket from the pram and rolled it up, squeezing it between her and the back of the swing to keep her steady. ‘Ready? Are you steady?’ She bobbed around, answering with a stream of excited babble. ‘Right, up we go then. Whee!’ I pushed gently on the swing and her mouth dropped in a wide smile, eyes shiny and bright. With her hearing problems I wasn’t sure how much she took in, but she was making lots of sounds in response to my own, new ones each day.
‘Mama-mama-ma,’ she said, smiling at me lovingly.
‘Not Mama, R-o-sie,’ I corrected, though my heart stirred at the sound.
‘Mama-mama-ma,’ she said.
I smiled and turned around, my attention caught by a small boy as he charged across the sandpit behind us. He was a stocky little chap around two years old and something in the way he moved evoked memories of Harry, one of the siblings I had cared for years earlier. After years of fostering it was often that way; children floating into my mind, their faces slightly out of focus, like little ghosts. I hadn’t seen Harry since he moved onto adoptive parents with his sister, but I never forgot his special ways and how fearless he was. I always had to make sure the first-aid box was well stocked when he was around. Smiling to myself, I watched as the little boy clambered to the top of the slide then raised his hands in triumph. Without warning he cheered then leapt off, landing on his bottom with a thud and, after a moment’s hesitation, a whimper. His mother shouted at him in exasperation then, but picked him up and gave him a hug.
I looked back at Megan, wondering whether it might really be possible for us to keep her.
At home Megan sat in her high chair sucking on some thin slices of apple while I warmed some milk for Nailah. At the sight of the bottle Megan started to fuss, so I quickly made one up for her as well, though I knew what was likely to happen when I gave it to her. After testing it on the inside of my wrist I offered it to her, but as soon as the teat touched her tongue she pulled a lemon face and pushed it away.
I pulled up a chair and sat in front of Megan while I gave Nailah her bottle. I loved watching her eat; the intrigue crossing her features as she worked her way through the nibbles on her tray. I couldn’t stop smiling as her small hand hovered over a stick of carrot like one of those robotic arms in a fairground machine full of soft toys. With Herculean effort, her fingers descended until she finally closed her fist around the prize. Turning the sliver first one way and then the other, she examined it with exceptional diligence and then stuck it in one of her ears.
I loved the idea of baby-led weaning and had read all about it online, but very little finger food actually seemed to make it into Megan’s mouth, so I could never resist offering her some mushy food as well. After settling Nailah in her bouncy chair I heated some pureed salmon and sweet potato that I’d cooked in a large batch and separated into ice cubes, and put the dish in front of Megan. I gave her a spoon of her own to hold and then offered her a tiny taste of the unfamiliar meal.
She opened her mouth wide and then stared at me with a look of surprise, her cheeks moving rhythmically as she chewed. Unsure at first, she took the first few spoonfuls with a wary eye on me. ‘Yum, yum,’ I said, nodding and pretending to try and nibble some myself.
Grinning, she slapped a flat hand in the food, closing her fist around it. Eagerly, she sucked on her hand, the orange gloop running over her wrists and disappearing up her sleeves.
I laughed, dabbing the dribble from her small round chin. ‘You’re a funny little pickle, yes you are.’
Already I looked upon her as my own child, but the idea of keeping her hadn’t even crossed my mind until Peggy mentioned it. I wanted her to stay with us; there was no doubt about that, but I knew it wasn’t really about what I wanted. What mattered was Megan and, ultimately, what was best for her. And of course, there was Emily and Jamie to think about. They had always enjoyed fostering and, although there had been some difficult times, they had drawn lots of positives from it.
But accepting a child permanently into their family, as their own sister, was something else entirely. I had a feeling they might jump at the chance but it was a big assumption to make and anyway, with Christina’s father still keen to adopt Megan, there wasn’t much point in discussing it with them until we knew more.
The nights shortened and the skies grew lighter, the passing months bringing more changes to our family. Some were thrilling, Megan perfecting the art of crawling and following us around the house at lightning speed, Emily completing her GCSEs, Jamie managing to play the whole first verse of ‘Moon River’ on the guitar without losing patience and snatching up his Xbox controls instead.
But the most shocking event was undoubtedly Zadie going missing. When I first registered with Bright Heights Fostering Agency, my assessing social worker told me that foster carers had to be prepared for anything, and in April, when Zadie didn’t return home from school, her words flew back to me with a vengeance.
Though the little ones were largely unaware of what was going on, Nailah was disorientated by the loss of her mum and I think both she and Megan sensed there was something wrong. Usually smiley and good-natured, their moods changed and they cried easily, staring at me with perplexed, worried frowns. It was a tumultuous time but ended, thankfully, with Zadie’s return a week after she went missing. The family members involved in taking her were arrested and, to our delight, Zadie and her elder sister were reunited with their mother soon afterwards. The teenager left us in July, taking Nailah to start a new life with her birth family.
Megan was almost a year old by then and for a few days afterwards she crawled from room to room with a bleak expression, searching for her missing playmate. I offered her lots of cuddles and tried to explain, but the idea that their lives were continuing away from ours was complicated, way beyond her comprehension.
We spent the quiet days following their departure in the garden, playing with sand and water, arranging Megan’s soft toys in a circle and cutting sandwiches into tiny triangles for a teddy bears’ picnic. I missed Zadie and Nailah, but it was lovely to spend some time alone with Megan.
The whirlwind arrival of Mack, a 14-year-old boy who came to stay as an emergency placement after a fall-out with his stepfather, briefly interrupted the tranquillity, but Megan, at that magical stage on the cusp of taking her first steps, quickly worked her charms on him. She pottered between us with big, dribbling smiles and Mack’s sullen scowl melted instantly whenever she rested her hand on his tracksuit-covered knee. When he left three days later, my heart melted as he swept her up into the air and allowed her to plant wet kisses on his cheek.
Another change to our routine came when Peggy suspended contact after Christina’s repeated non-attendance. All birth parents were regularly warned that the local authority operated a strict ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy, and most were careful to avoid missing any more than two in a row. Since contact had switched to the family centre I had kept a diary, packing it in the bag that went with Megan to contact alongside her milk, nappies and spare clothes. Inside I wrote regular updates on Megan: her latest weight, vaccinations, any new sounds she made, and Christina’s enthusiastic replies showed her interest. Her sudden absence puzzled me. When I spoke to Peggy about it, she shared her suspicion that Christina had relapsed into drug dependency again. On the bright side, there was less running around and, apart from the weekly contact with Jem, her grandfather, which seemed to be going well, our days were our own.
Without the daily reminder of contact, it was easy to forget that I was fostering Megan and with each passing day it became more and more impossible to imagine our lives without her. Once Peggy had planted the idea of adoption in my mind it was difficult to nudge it away and I longed to talk to Emily and Jamie about the possibility of keeping Megan, but I didn’t want to mention anything, particularly as her grandfather’s assessment seemed to be progressing well.
It was late July and Megan was just over 12 months old when the chance finally arrived. The two of us were in the garden, Megan crouching on her haunches beside me as I pulled up weeds, her little dress ruffling up at the hem. With her own small garden fork in one hand and matching shovel in the other, she dug over the soft earth, fountains of soil spraying the air. Every so often she downed tools and half-staggered, half-crawled over to pick up a plant spray, industriously covering our tomato plants with a fine mist of water. She babbled away as she worked, her faltering words barely comprehensible but adorable all the same. My heart soared whenever I heard a word I vaguely recognised. ‘Dig, dig,’ she said, looking up at me with a proud smile.
‘Yes, you’re digging, clever girl!’
Across the garden, a robin appeared. Megan stilled, captivated by the bird as it fluttered its wings and came to rest on the top of our low stone wall. It skittered along the top, halting every few steps to survey its surroundings. She pointed, one of her latest tricks. Half a second later she was off, her feet carrying her faster than her body was able to go. Losing her footing, she tumbled over, arms flying out in front of her for balance, nappy-covered bottom sticking out from beneath her rumpled dress. ‘Oops-a-daisy,’ I called out, and after a short pause she was on her feet again, smiling.
We pottered for hours, the sounds of summer – an occasional splosh of water from the leaky outside pipe, the companionable chatter of our elderly neighbours, low and soft, from the garden next door, the chink of metal against china as they stirred their tea – conspiring to muddle our sense of time. I only realised we hadn’t eaten lunch when the telephone rang. ‘My goodness, Meggie, it’s nearly half past one,’ I said, patting the soil from my hands and racing to pick up my handset.
‘There’s been a bust-up,’ Peggy said as soon as I pressed the SEND button.
‘A-ha,’ I answered and then waited for the social worker to continue. With Peggy, I had learned to let the conversation flow at her own pace. Asking questions had a tendency to slow up proceedings and make her bad-tempered.
‘The police were called. Jem’s in custody but he’s made a counter-allegation against the partner. It’s all a big mess. No, not that one,’ she added impatiently, her voice suddenly muffled. ‘The white printer, over there. Sorry, Rosie, I wasn’t talking to you.’ There was a tapping sound, an impatient tutting. ‘Where was I?’
Peggy continued with the tale, pausing intermittently to answer a colleague or take a gulp of tea. From what I could make out, there had been a domestic between Christina’s father, Jem, and his partner, Jackie. I sat in my wicker chair and listened, the sun warming my face, Megan doddering busily to and fro. I could hear her twittering to herself. Every so often she stopped, pointing to something of interest. ‘In a nutshell, things aren’t looking too hopeful for them. Well, what I mean is, they’ve effectively ruled themselves out. There’s no way I can take them forward, even if neither of them are charged. So, if you want to be considered, Rosie, now’s the time to put your intentions in writing.’
My heart soared with happiness as Peggy ended the call. I sat for a moment, embracing the phone to my chest. Across the garden, Megan had stopped mid-crawl beside a large shrub. Grasping the leaves, she ran her thumb over the dark glossy folds, small mouth pursed in concentration, cheeks rosy from the sun. Rising on bent knees, she leaned in closer, staring fixedly.
‘What is it, sweetie?’ I asked, moving to kneel at her side. ‘Oh, I see,’ I whispered. About three inches from her nose, a bee was hovering above a velvety white flower. ‘That’s a bumble bee,’ I said. She turned to me, her eyes suddenly snapping shut in a sneeze. She blinked and shook her head, eyes wide with wonder and then her head wobbled as another sneeze took hold. ‘Ah, bless you,’ I laughed, tapping my forefinger on her nose. She giggled and threw her short arms around my neck. My heart swelled at the thought that she might one day be ours.
I couldn’t wait for Emily and Jamie to get home so that I could discuss the possibility with them.
Having spent months imagining how they might react, I felt a tightening in my chest as I waited for Emily and Jamie to come home. If they showed the slightest reluctance to the idea of keeping Megan, I knew I couldn’t possibly even consider the idea again. I also knew they’d be tired – my ex-husband, Gary, and his new partner, Tammy, had managed to get tickets to watch the basketball down at the Olympic Park in London and they’d left before 5 a.m. that morning – but I didn’t want to put off the conversation any longer. With Megan tucked up in bed, I busied myself in the kitchen, wiping surfaces that were already clean and drinking far too much tea.
They got back at twilight; the sun softening as it lowered itself over the garden. At the sound of Gary’s car I kneeled up on the sofa to peer outside. Gary climbed out of the driver’s side, gave Emily a hug and ruffled Jamie’s hair. Tammy, red-haired and pretty, stayed where she was but lowered her window and called something out as they crossed the drive. I couldn’t hear what she said but the pair of them turned in unison and burst out laughing, Emily stopping to give them a friendly wave as they drove away. I felt a tiny pang in my chest at the sight.
‘How was it?’ I asked, meeting them in the hall. I forced a jolly tone, trying hard to suppress the niggle of envy in my stomach, the childish part of me feeling left out of what had clearly been an enjoyable family trip. It felt odd to know that, even though I had acknowledged years earlier that there would be no chance of reconciliation, there was now no way back to the nuclear family I had always hoped to be part of. I had often worried about the effect our divorce might have on the children in years to come and I felt a stab of resentment towards Gary for putting them through the awkwardness of meeting another new partner. At the same time I knew it wasn’t reasonable to feel that way. He had a right to make a life for himself.
‘It was so cool!’ Jamie cried, tossing himself onto the sofa. ‘We watched some diving as well as the basketball. And we went to the velodrome as well. There wasn’t any cycling going on, but Dad got talking to one of the trainers on Team GB and he showed us some of the bikes. They’re amazing!’
I summoned an even bigger smile. ‘Fabulous! Ems, did you enjoy yourself?’
She eyed me cautiously. ‘It’s a beautiful place, Mum. The only downside was all the sport.’ Jamie rolled his eyes at that. She jutted her chin, threw him a look. ‘But I loved the park, and lunch was nice.’
‘What did you have?’
‘Oh, nothing special really,’ Emily said, averting her gaze. She was being kind, bless her, but my heart twisted; I didn’t want her to feel it was her job to protect my feelings. I reminded myself of the time I was asked by a birth parent to stop taking her child swimming, ‘’cos she’ll expect to do that sort of thing all the time when she gets back home and I don’t want her spoilt’. Going to the Olympics was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I knew I should have been pleased that they’d been able to go.
Jamie raised his head. ‘What? Yeah, it was. Tammy’s got this huge picnic basket with proper glasses and knives and forks and stuff. She brought chicken wings and pork ribs and wraps and so much salad.’ He bunched his fingers together, kissing the tips noisily as he smacked his lips. ‘It was like being at Nando’s.’
I felt really bugged then. ‘How about that?!’ I said, raising my eyes minutely in Emily’s direction. Jamie carried on raving about his day, but Emily met my gaze and put the back of her hand to her mouth, stifling giggles. Somehow, that tiny acknowledgement of my feelings made them seem misplaced and ridiculously overblown. I laughed back. My heart felt lighter.
A bit later, after they’d showered, I sat between them on the sofa and readied myself to broach the subject of Megan. ‘I’ve been thinking,’ I said tentatively, resting my head back on a cushion and running the tips of my fingers over the inside of my palm in an effort to look casual. ‘What would you think about Megan staying here permanently?’
Emily, who had been curled up against the armrest, swung her legs to the floor and sat up. She looked at me, brow furrowed. ‘Permanently? How could she?’
I lifted my head. ‘Well, we could ask to adopt her, if you both think it’s a good idea.’
‘Oh, my God, really?’ She clasped her hands. ‘Can we? Really?’
I nodded, smiling. ‘Peggy seems to think so.’
‘Oh, wow! I’ve always wanted a sister!’ She looked across at Jamie, who, less excitable than his sister, took longer to react.
‘Well, Jamie?’ I prompted, although I could already tell by the curl of his lips that he liked the idea. ‘What do you think?’
He shrugged. ‘I’m already outnumbered. What difference will one more girl make?’
Emily clasped my hands. We stared at each other for a moment, then leapt from the sofa and jumped around the room like excited five-year-olds.
The next day, when Emily was in her room, I sat beside Jamie on the sofa and asked him to pause the online football game he was playing so that we could have a chat. ‘What’s up?’ he asked, one eyebrow half-cocked.
‘Did you mean what you said about Megan? You’re not just saying it because you think it’s what I want to hear?’
When it was just the two of us he often dropped the cool teenage persona and morphed into someone younger. He leaned into me, bestowing the most affectionate hug he was able to give while clutching his gaming handset. ‘Course not. I love Megan,’ he said simply. ‘I’ve always wanted more brothers and sisters.’
‘You’re sure? You wouldn’t just say that?’
‘Nah,’ he answered, but he already sounded vague. I studied him for a few seconds, the new angles to his chin, the leanness of his cheeks. Time passed so quickly.
‘Because if you’re trying to please me …’ I started up again. His eyes drifted from me to the TV screen and slowly, reluctantly, back again. ‘Or Emily, or you think it might sound mean to say you’d rather not keep her –’
‘Mum,’ he cut in, resting the handset on his lap with a long-suffering sigh. ‘I’m not being rude, but can you stop talking now? Cos I didn’t get to play FIFA at all yesterday and every second we deliberate over this is another second I lag behind Ben. And if that happens my game plan is wrecked.’ He raised his eyebrows. ‘D’you really want that on your conscience?’
Thrilled by their reaction, I called my mum later that day to see what she thought. ‘But you’re on your own,’ she said, sounding a little scandalised, although I sensed a frisson of excitement there too.
Soon after I separated from Gary I dug up the small garden in our first rented house with the intention of installing a lobster farm to make ends meet. Standing in a boggy mess after three days of digging, my fingers dotted with blisters, I found my enthusiasm waning. Ever since then Mum seemed to hold the view that I was wild and flighty. She still had kittens whenever I told her of one of my plans and seemed to feel the need to rein me in, playing devil’s advocate to make sure I’d thought through all the many ways good ideas can turn sour.
‘That doesn’t matter apparently.’
There was a pause. ‘No, I suppose it doesn’t. There’s nothing to stop anyone doing anything nowadays,’ she said, with a trace of disappointment. ‘If they’re going to let transvestites and what have you adopt I don’t see why you shouldn’t be allowed. They do, you know,’ she stated insistently, as if I’d argued the point. ‘I saw it on a recruitment poster on the back of a bus the other day.’ A traditionalist and loyal reader of the Daily Mail, Mum was still struggling to come to terms with the installation of self-service checkouts in supermarkets. And the arrival of a gay couple in the maisonette above hers very nearly blew her mind. ‘They’re civilly partnershipped, you know,’ she told her every visitor with a sort of confused pride, as if she were the first person in England to be able to make such a claim.
‘Not that I’m against it,’ she said now. ‘Your grandmother would turn in her grave, but I’m not one to judge, you know me.’
I couldn’t suppress a snort at that.
‘What?’ she demanded, sounding injured. ‘Each to their own. What people do in the privacy of their own home isn’t any of my business. I just think it must a bit confusing, that’s all. Coming home from school and finding Daddy on the sofa, wearing a dress. Imagine!’ She gave a little titter. ‘You wouldn’t know whether you were coming or going, you really wouldn’t.’
‘So, anyway, Mum, what do you think about Megan?’
‘Oh goodness, someone else to worry about? Another mouth to feed? I love the little dot to pieces but haven’t you got enough on your plate?’
And so it was decided. I sent Peggy an email that evening and told her that I’d love to be considered to adopt Megan. She responded enthusiastically, saying that she was thrilled for all of us. I knew several foster carers who had been flatly refused when they asked to be considered as adopters for the children they were looking after, so I was heartened by her reaction. A few months earlier a fostering friend of mine, Jenny, made an application to keep Billy, a four-year-old boy who had lived with her for over a year. The local authority, fearing that Jenny might abscond with the child, had hurriedly arranged another placement for him.
‘Don’t tell me, I know,’ Mum said with mock exasperation when I called her the next morning. ‘Honest to goodness, I can’t keep up with it all,’ she added, but I could tell she was pleased.
The possibility of keeping Megan began to seem all the more real.
The following month, at the beginning of September, Peggy surprised us with an unexpected visit. ‘I won’t stay long,’ she said without preliminaries, heavy rain beating down on the path behind her. Megan had followed me along the hall with the sweet little hum she always made when she crawled around – it was like being stalked by a large bumble bee – and clasped a fist around the leg of my jeans. With a loud oomph, she hauled herself to her feet and peered up at Peggy with a beaming smile.
‘Hello, trouble,’ the social worker said, looking down at her. She sounded reserved, no trace of her usual gusto.
‘Come here, pickle,’ I said, hoiking Megan onto my hip. Peggy turned and came into the house backwards, shaking her umbrella over the front step and then collapsing it down. I was beginning to feel uneasy. Peggy’s expression was grave as she tipped forward with a groan and rested the brolly against the wall. She looked close to tears. I squeezed her arm. ‘Are you all right? Have you brought bad news about Megan?’ Instinctively I held the toddler a little closer.
‘Oh no, nothing like that. We’re waiting for DNA results on someone who came forward claiming to be the father, but there’s been nothing back as yet. No,’ she said heavily, as she followed me through to the kitchen. She moved slowly, devoid of her usual industrious bounce. ‘There has been a complaint. I’ve been suspended while it’s being investigated.’
‘Oh no, Peggy! I’m sorry,’ I said, feeling guiltily relieved that it was nothing to do with our application to adopt. I lowered Megan to the floor and pulled out a stool for Peggy. She sank down on it with a gasp, the damp hem of her skirt clinging to her brown nylon tights. ‘What happened, or would you rather not say?’
‘Oh, I don’t mind saying all right. These bloody liberals, they make my blood boil. Would you mind?’ she said suddenly, banging her chest and inclining her head towards the kettle. ‘I’m parched.’
I shook my head. ‘Oh yes, sorry.’ As I reached across the worktop, Megan began to complain. Peggy reached down and pulled her onto her lap with another loud groan. Megan didn’t object but her eyes widened at the sudden change of perspective. She looked at me, questioning. I smiled and she relaxed, snuggling back into the social worker’s ample chest. A few minutes later I handed Peggy a mug of steaming tea and Megan some milk. ‘Is that strong enough?’
‘It’s wet and warm, that’ll do me,’ Peggy wheezed, seizing the mug and trying to fend off Megan’s inquisitive hand, which was straying down the front of her blouse. I reached for the toddler and sat her on the worktop in front of me, looping her short legs around my trunk so that she wouldn’t fall off. Megan watched Peggy gulping down her tea with interest. ‘It all came about after I spoke to Christina about getting fitted with a long-term contraceptive device,’ confided Peggy, ‘on account of the fact that if she doesn’t, she’s likely to be pregnant again before the ink is dry on Megan’s adoption certificate. She will, you know, left to her own devices. So anyway, I suggested, gently mind,’ she lifted one of her hands in mock surrender and I bit down on my lip to suppress a smile; it was difficult to imagine Peggy doing anything subtly, ‘that she consider it an option.’
I grimaced. ‘And she didn’t take it well?’
Peggy leaned back and let out a huff of exasperation. ‘Well, that’s just the thing. She didn’t take offence at all. She seemed to think it wasn’t a bad idea. Having Megan really took it out of her, physically and emotionally. I think she desperately wants a way out of the destructive cycle she’s in. She’s just not strong enough to do it alone.’
I frowned. ‘But she complained anyway?’
‘No, she didn’t. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. One of my colleagues overheard the conversation and couldn’t resist putting her two-penneth in, but not to me directly. She reported me to the management. Now I’ve been suspended for inappropriate behaviour. Apparently my advice went against Christina’s rights as a woman. They said I’m trying to, and I quote, “impose my own set of values onto someone else”. She nodded at me fervently, her jaw lowered, as if she couldn’t quite believe what she was saying. ‘I’m guilty of making moral judgements apparently. So I said, “What about little Megan’s rights? She’s going to be a woman one day. And because of Christina’s habit she may very well have hearing or learning difficulties or goodness knows what else. Don’t we have a duty of care towards her as well? You go on about rights, but what about Megan’s rights?” They couldn’t come up for an answer for that now, could they?’ She shook her head. ‘The Americans pay addicts to get sterilised, did you know that?’ I opened my mouth but she spoke again before I could say anything. ‘They seem to have the right idea over there. Where is good old British common sense these days?’ She sighed. ‘I’m used to hearing hogwash in my line of work, I can tell you, but this really takes the biscuit.’
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