‘Normality’ – my time in care.

 

My time with foster  parents came to an end. Again the social workers visited and the next thing I knew, I had arrived  at another children’s home. This time it was a council run home,  and this was one of the homes where the infamous Frank Beck was officer-in-charge.

I never recall meeting him and cannot be sure if he was actually working there during my time, but he was employed to run this and other homes from 1973 to 1986,which fits with the time-frame of my stay there.  Beck went on to be convicted and sentenced to five life terms for physical and sexual assaults against more than one hundred children in his care. A further twenty four years for seventeen charges of abuse, including rape, at his trial in 1991.

The fact that I could well have been there at that home during his time and potentially, I could have be at risk of becoming one of his victims is something that sends shivers through me and causes a deep resentment and anger towards Larry, that he may have, albeit unknowingly, placed me at such risk. Sylvie too, for having gone along with his wishes and not protecting me.

Like the holiday children’s home and my time with foster parents, my time at the home was to seem like a great holiday.

The main house was grand and imposing, of brown brick and had a large wood paneled hall with a heavy wooded staircase. An extension extended out from a living room and this was used mainly as a tv area. I recall sitting in there and watching ‘Top of the Pops’ and Suzi Quatro, leather clad and singing ‘Devil Gate Drive.’

I slept in a separate small building from the main house, a more modern building. I was in a large room upstairs and there were four beds in there. Each of us had a small chest of draws with a small hanging space attached. We were expected to make ours beds and keep the room tidy but that was about it. There were four of us girls of varying ages and these would come and go,  as one went home or elsewhere, to be replaced by another. The care staff would sleep in their own room on the same floor.

Meals were eaten in another extension to the main house, a large dining room, with a wide serving hatch type opening through to the kitchen, from where meals where handed out. We were expected to clear the tables after meals, placing used plates and dishes back onto the serving area.

I must have been there for at least part of the summer as I recall playing on the swings in the late warm evenings with girls my own age. There was a purpose built classroom along one side of the garden and children of various junior school age where taught here.

Once again, I was allowed pocket money and we were taken in groups into town and to the market to spend our money on sweets, trinkets, records or anything else we wished, something I had never experienced at home. We were taken swimming, treated to hot chocolate afterwards and traveled back to the home on the top of a double-decker bus chatting and joking.

During my time in the homes and foster care, I felt wonderfully lucky to be allowed what I thought to be great privileges, pocket money, sweets, and the freedom to speak and say what I thought. Not having to spend my days working away in the house, grooming dogs, fearing tongue lashings and head slaps. This time had given me a glimpse of ‘normality’ and a little bit of what life should be like.

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Money would Ooze from their Wallets.

Ooze

The couple who ran the children’s home were quiet, kind and patient and always had time to talk, explain and help me with anything. Whether or not they asked me about my home situation I cannot remember, but they must have been curious.

I wasn’t expected to do anything in the way of work or chores and was allowed the freedom to play in the gardens and even to wander into the sand dunes, so long as I didn’t go far. They had a little terrier type dog called Sandy who loved my attention and would follow along at my heels as I ran through the grasses of the sand dunes.

Although I was there a few months, I find it hard to recall much happening there. Unlike life at home, things were peaceful and calm; I would read books, watch tv, and do drawing and colouring.

The couple, Tommy and Edna,would busy themselves getting prepared for the influx of children in the summer. Tommy would do bits of maintenance or decorating and gardening. Edna would clean and cook and liked to knit.

On one occasion there was a charity evening to raise money for the home and the large meeting hall was filled with people dressed in their finest. Edna had been cooking for days prior to this, little appetisers and nibbles to accompany the bottles of wine and spirits, aimed at relaxing the guests so that donations of money would ooze from their wallets.

My time in the children’s holiday home came to an end after a few months. Two social workers came to visit and within a few days I was packed up and taken back to my home town.  Not to my home but to be placed with foster parents.

I was taken to a house only about ten minutes’ walk from my home and introduced to a couple, a husband and wife, Steve and Sharon.  I would guess that they were aged about thirtyish but seemed very young in comparison to Tommy and Edna.

They lived in small neat and warm semi-detached house and had no children. I was too young to really think about it at the time but maybe they fostered because they were unable to have children of their own. I was only to remain there for two weeks but I remember the time fondly.

Again things were calm and quiet and Steve and Sharon took the time to talk to me, interested in anything I had to say. I was given pocket money for the first time in my life. I remember being in the post office with Steve where he encouraged me to spend my money. Looking at a box of Maltesers , I realised I had enough money to buy them. Never in my life previously had I been able to be so indulgent and I looked to Steve for approval. He laughed saying, “It’s your money, you get what you like”.  I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

It was Steve who taught me how to do crosswords and praised me heavily for the way I had picked it up so quickly. Sharon would wash and iron my clothes and put them in a little pile on my bed, the only thing required of me was to put them away in the drawers.

A Solitary Child.

Solitary

It seems ironic that after Sylvie’s and Larry words about how lucky I was, that I would end up staying at the children’s’  holiday home for several months. How they arranged for me to stay there, just after Christmas, I’ll never know,  as children only stayed there over the summer months. Did they know somebody associated with the home, was there any social services involvement? These are questions I never dared to ask and they were never spoken about.

At the time, the home was run by an older couple, I am guessing in their late fifties. Their married daughter, her husband and two daughters, similar in age to me, had been staying for Christmas. They were to stay for about another week, and I recall running the length of the long dormitory bedrooms and playing in the gardens and on the sand dunes with them. It was the days of the Osmonds and David Cassidy and I recall us all being love struck, singing along together to their songs and belting out ‘Long Haired Lover from Liverpool’ at the top of our voices.

After the week was up, the grandchildren went home and I was left, a solitary child, rattling about the big building with the older couple. The bedroom dormitory was too big for me to sleep on my own in there and so my bedroom was the sick bay, a normal sized room with two single beds.

I was still there after a few weeks, but again I don’t know what arrangements were made in regard to me staying there. I don’t know if Sylvie had been in touch or what attempts were made to contact her or Larry.

The few clothes that I had arrived in needed supplementing, and so the pile of spare clothes, stored for use in a big cupboard,  was searched for something appropriate. Several suitable outfits were found and among them one immediately became my favourite; a purple polyester type material with bell bottomed trousers , a long sleeved top with a flared bottom, and turquoise laced edging to the hems, neck and sleeves. So much so was it my favourite that, in my head, when I recall my time there, I am always wearing this little outfit. There must have been other clothes as I couldn’t possibly have worn it every day for the several months I was there.

Sent Away, – including previous post ‘The space under the Stairs.’

Larry was a bully,  he liked to be in control and could use his physical size to get his own way, as well as psychologically terrifying me.

Under the stairs in the house was small cellar type space that went down some stone steps to a small, thin room. At the end of this area was a hole in the wall that went only a small way under the house. This space was used to store food cans and other bits and bobs and it was cold and dark.

There was a light in there but the switch was on the outside of the door. A punishment Larry frequently used was to shove me in there, kicking and screaming, lock the door and switch off the light.

It was probably the punishment I dreaded the most and I would much rather have endured a physical beating than be placed in that dark, cold room, with a gaping black hole, from which I was convinced that all sorts of monsters and ghosts would emerge and tear me limb from limb.

No matter how many times it happened it was a fear I was never able to conquer and I would sob, weep and scream to be let out but to no avail. When eventually I would be freed, often after several hours, I would be reminded “That’s what you get when you think you can do what you like, you stupid bleeding Yank!”

Larry and Sylvie would continue to argue, the financial stress and upkeep of the house increased, six children and mounting tension meant something had to give.

The day after Boxing Day, when I was aged about eight, I was told I was going away for a couple of weeks. I don’t remember the words said but I was made to understand that it was because of my behaviour, that I was causing too much trouble for everyone.

I have the overriding memory of it being a punishment but didn’t know what I had done. Years later I was to discover that Larry had given Sylvie an ultimatum, either I went or he did. I don’t know why it came to this: surely I couldn’t have been that badly behaved or troublesome?

I was put in the car, we traveled for a couple of hours and arrived at the Children’s Holiday Home,

I knew of the holiday home as we had often had day trips to the coast there, all piling into the car in the days before seat belts were the law,  and there would be four or five of us in the back. We would set off in the early hours of the morning when it was still dark, arriving there early to make the most of the day.

It seemed as though the weather was always good on these outings and we would spend a long day on the beach, returning home late into the night, tired and sun-kissed. We even had the odd short holidays there, staying in the small chalets or a caravan on a few occasions.

We would walk to the beach and the sand dunes close to where the home was located and would often see the children staying at the home. They would be in large groups, with group leaders,  playing games or walking along in a like snake like pattern.

Sylvie and Larry liked to point them out to me and remind me how lucky I was, that I didn’t need to go to the children’s home for my holiday.

In my young head, it seemed to me, that far from being unfortunate, they were having a whale of a time, laughing and playing along, chatting and singing songs. I was too young to consider any of the circumstances they may have left at home and would have to return to.

She had to have the last word!

Bury

Sylvie always had to have the last word, no matter what.

As it turned out, this even was to be the case when it came to her death.

It was a cold Thursday evening in mid January and I had popped in to Sylvie’s to pick up my daughter on my way home from work.

On the stove was one of Sylvie’s lovely stews, bubbling away and smelling delicious. As I was helping myself to spoonful, Sylvie was trying to get me to have a bowlful of another of her specialties – a treacle suet pudding. I laughed and said no, I just wanted a taste and that dinner would be waiting for me at home.

Sylvie followed me down the hallway to the front door to see me out. As we opened the front door, a freezing cold blast of air swirled in and we shivered, pulling our clothes tight around us.

I gave Sylvie a peck on the cheek saying, “See you tomorrow,”  and adding, “Get yourself inside out of the cold and keep the heat in.”

Looking up to the sky, Sylvie replied, ” I reckon we’re going to get some of that bloody snow from America.”  (The east coast of America had suffered heavy snow falls that week.)

She died suddenly and unexpectedly at Home the next morning.

One week late it was Sylvie’s funeral. She had wanted to be cremated, and so we decided to bury her ashes in her mother’s grave.

As we stood at the graveside in heavy snow, freezing and ankle deep, I looked to the sky and said to myself, “You were right weren’t you, we got that snow from America. – You’d have to have the last bloody word!”

Detonate Something Within Her.

Detonate

The dog grooming obviously provided a substantial portion of the income into the house and was essential to keep things going. Even though Bridget and I would be forced to help with the bathing and drying of the dogs, a lot of the work, and all of the the skill, was down to my second eldest sibling, Lily.

I don’t know that there was ever any proper arrangement regarding payment or wages of any kind, or whether Sylvie ever gave Lily any amounts of cash. Lily didn’t pay any board money, rightly so, given the amount of money bought in from the dog grooming.

Sylvie must have supplemented things in some ways, as Lily always had nice things. She dressed nicely, in fashionable clothes, had lovely shoes and handbags, and the latest expensive perfumes such as Dior, Rive Gauche and Chanel. I am guessing that these were a sort of ‘payment in kind.’

Apart from the short time working in a pet shop after leaving school, Lily had never really gone out to work and was quiet and shy, very much the opposite to Sylvie and her older sister Gina.

Sylvie always put Lily’s quieter ways down to her not getting a chance to speak when she was little. She said that Lily would not get the chance to open her mouth, as Gina always spoke for her. If Sylvie asked Lily if she wanted a biscuit, before she could open her mouth, Gina would pipe up, “Of course she does, what are you asking her for?” It was Gina who would declare, “Mum, Lily wants a drink,” or “Mum, Lily needs the toilet,” regardless of whether she did or not.

For a long time, working at home and grooming the dogs had suited her, saved her from having to go out to find work, hampered by her lack of confidence. Now in her early twenties and still at home grooming the dogs, Lily was immensely attractive and very slim with long brown hair.

At this point, there must have been something that ignited a spark, that was to detonate something within Lily. She had started working a few nights a week, in nightclubs in the town, working as a barmaid. It gave her some independence, her own money, some freedom, friends, and a social life.

From this time, Lily was to date a string of men of various ages and statuses, and so started to live something of her own life. Some of the men were single, some were married, many were ordinary and working class, others were very well off, driving expensive cars such as a Lotus or a Rolls Royce. Regardless, Lily always dressed up to meet them. I would sit and watch her preparing for her evenings out and be spellbound by the glamour of it all.

She would curl her long hair into the heated rollers everyone used at that time, and whilst these were setting her hair into soft curls, she would apply her make-up and put on her chosen outfit for the evening. She dressed tastefully in the latest fashions of the time and being so slim, she could carry off anything beautifully.

Once dressed, she would unpin the now cold rollers, and her long brown hair would tumble down in large, soft curls past her shoulders. After a quick spray or dab with one of her heavenly perfumes, she would be off, gliding out of the door until the early hours of the morning.

A Fading Impression.

Impression

Physically, the wounds of that day remained for weeks but the psychological impact,  the deep impression it left, has always remained and can never be erased. I had already lost respect for Larry, my step father, but this beating bought about something deeper. It changed something within me, and whilst beaten down in one respect, it triggered something, sowed the seeds of survival. There came a realization,  that this was how my life was, but I needed to live it and get through it all.

My head was heavy and ached for weeks, my scalp tender to touch and brushing my hair made me wince and yelp. I had bruises everywhere, especially my forearms, that had taken many of the blows intended for my head and body.  As it was the start of the summer holidays there wasn’t a need to keep me away from school until the bruising disappeared.

The bruises would eventually fade and the aches and pains would resolve, but I continued to shake inside, always nervous, with an anxiety that simmered within me for many years to come.

I would feel sick at the sight of Larry,  but would have to carry out his orders and instructions without question. It became preferable to retreat to the ‘dog room’ and help with grooming the dogs, or to the old back room and tackle a pile of ironing, than have to suffer the sight of him and the wave of nausea that would come over me with it.

Looking back, I can see that with my loss of any respect for Larry, there came something else. I still feared him and had to toe the line, but most of the time, in my head, I had almost disregarded him.

It was still necessary to carry out the numerous tasks and chores, and to suffer the usual physical and verbal punishments, often for little or no reason. However, my overriding memories or this times are of laughter and funny moments, spent with my siblings and, whenever possible, with friends, making the most of every chance to do something I wanted to do.

Even Sylvie’s rages and harsh treatments could often be overshadowed by her hilarious story telling, the mimicking of people, peppering her language with frequent swear words. She would have a saying for everything, commonly known terms, but she would put her own spin on them to apply them to her tales. To this day, I will often smile and chuckle to myself whenever I hear any of these terms, recalling her own unique ways of expressing them.

Larry’s impression on my life has always remained, but thankfully, at that time it was fading, other things were becoming more important, he was increasingly of little consequence, I could suffer whatever he wanted to throw at me.

I just got on with it all and enjoyed the good wherever I could.