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Groomed: Danger lies closer than you think

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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‘I honestly can’t understand it,’ I said to Mike as we chatted on into the not-so-small hours. ‘Surely it would have been better to allow them to see each other. Better for all of them, too – not just Keeley. That must have been terrible for them. It’s borderline barbaric. Maybe not so much the baby, bless him, but for the others … I just can’t believe they’d do that. It honestly beggars belief.’

I had, of course, raised the question with Helena. I’d had personal experience of children being denied access to one another, after all. In that case because the older child, who’d been horribly abused sexually, had started behaving inappropriately towards their sibling because they didn’t know any different.

But this didn’t appear to be the case with Keeley, who’d apparently done her best – at least as far as what Helena knew of the record went. But decisions sometimes get made based on instinct and experience as much as anything. But whatever the full picture, Keeley’s care for her little brothers and sisters had been repaid by being taken away from them. That’s how it must have seemed to her. No wonder she hated social services.

‘They must have had their reasons,’ Mike said. ‘And don’t forget, that’s often how it goes with long-term fostering and adoption. Maybe for the new families – the ones who ended up with the others, that is – it was part of the deal. A complete new start, with no reminders of or links to the past. Maybe that was it? To give the best chance for four, at the expense of one? These must be hard choices to have to make.’

‘But should they even be allowed to stipulate that? I mean, why would knowledge of an older sister hurt a child? Surely it would be a comfort to them to know they had blood family to call their own?’

‘Or maybe, given how little they were, it was decided it would be less complicated for them psychologically, easier for the parents, not having the spectre of a complicated older sister, social services involved in their lives, and –’

‘But what about Keeley? What about her happiness? It just seems so wrong.’

Mike touched my arm. I was raising my voice now. ‘How do we know they didn’t think it best for Keeley too? I know it seems insane to you now, but maybe at the time they felt she’d become too much the carer –’

‘But to deny all contact – why?’

Mike shrugged. ‘Love, I honestly don’t know. But what I do know is that we don’t live in a perfect world. You of all people should know that.’

I did know that, and maybe he was right, but still my heart ached for the poor kid. She’d been removed from everything she knew, and the siblings she loved, and was now just another kid in care, forgotten by wider society, and, after five long years, was deeply embedded in the system. How heavy must be the emotional weight she carried. And none of it her fault.

Most depressing, however, was the knowledge that her placement with the Burkes must have felt like the best outcome imaginable. She’d been placed with emergency carers first, where she’d spent a wretched few weeks, by all accounts. Thrown into emotional chaos, she’d apparently been described as a ‘nightmare’. Then moved on, to an interim placement, with specialists like we were, before the Burkes, who fostered for the same county council, said they’d be happy to take her in long term.

‘To complete the adoption illusion for them too,’ I said to Mike, my voice bitter on the poor girl’s behalf. ‘Helena read me a little bit of a looked-after child review she had. You know, Keeley actually said that she felt she had been brought in as a playmate for Jade – can you imagine that? How it must have felt? To fill the gap as the couple couldn’t have children of their own. Like a toy ordered off the flipping internet for their existing child to play with, almost. Well, that’s obviously how it felt to Keeley. She said she never felt part of the family, not really. Oh God, Mike, what must her mind be like?’

‘I don’t know, Casey,’ Mike said, ‘but I have a feeling we’ll probably find out pretty soon, don’t you?’

And that had been his last word on the subject. And, after finally dropping off at around four in the morning, he was already gone from the bed when I woke up. Which didn’t surprise me that much – Mike was an early riser both of necessity and by choice. He managed a big warehouse, and it was physically demanding work. He’d have to catch up with a power nap on the sofa later.

As would I, I thought, yawning as I pulled on my dressing gown. Well, if I was allowed the opportunity.

I crept out of the room and tiptoed downstairs, so as not to disturb either Tyler or Keeley, and eventually found Mike out having a coffee in the back garden. I pulled my dressing gown closer, feeling the nip in the morning air, glancing up at the sky and squinting at the brightness.

‘I see you’ve found the only sunny patch left to sit in,’ I said, pulling out one of the cold, plastic chairs, and checking it for cobwebs. For all its beauty, autumn was a horribly spidery time of year. ‘Looks like it’ll be a nice day, doesn’t it?’

‘Seems that way,’ Mike said, looking up at the sun as well. ‘But let’s cross our fingers that we don’t have a storm to contend with in the house instead.’

I sipped my coffee, enjoying the warmth on my face, as we sat and chatted through our thoughts following the previous night’s revelations, and, in my case, observing that a fine sunny morning always made everything seem so much easier and nicer. Because, despite my sulks, I did enjoy the garden at this time of year. Not least because we still had lots of flowers in bloom, but the wasps had mostly buggered off to wherever it was they went in the winter, so I could enjoy it without being dive-bombed.

‘All may be well,’ I said resolutely. If my night-time reflections achieved one thing, it was a much more positive mindset. Now I knew what Keeley had been through I was even more determined to do my best for her, however much teenage attitude she might sling my way. And, right now, her behaviour had only been as expected. She was fifteen. She knew her stuff. She was a child of the system. Nothing I couldn’t deal with standing on my head.

I was about to say so when Mike nudged me and mouthed ‘shush’. I followed his gaze. ‘Would you look at that?’ he said, grinning.

Both Tyler and Keeley were standing at the kitchen sink, and it appeared they were already chatting away to each other. They certainly weren’t looking out, seeing us looking in.

‘That’s nice,’ I said. ‘Nice to see them chatting already.’

‘No, but, Tyler? Up willingly? Before half eight on a Sunday morning? Incredible. Come on,’ he said, rising. ‘Let’s go and join the party, shall we?’

Which was a cereal party apparently. Tyler had the cupboard open and was bent down running through the various options.

‘Hello you two,’ I said, as Mike and I joined them. ‘You’re both up bright and early for a Sunday. Did a bomb go off upstairs or something?’

Tyler had something of a self-conscious look about him, I decided. But then, Keeley, in her nightwear, was quite an arresting sight.

‘Oh, morning, Mum,’ he said. Then, glancing at Keeley, ‘We just met on the landing, both wanting to use the bathroom. So I thought I’d come down and show her where everything was and that.’

‘Yeah, awks or what?’ Keeley added brightly, grinning at him. She looked like she’d slept well, at least. ‘I’m just going to have some breakfast if that’s okay – I’m starving – before I get dressed and stuff. By the way, have the social given you any spends for me yet? I’m going to need some new clothes. Apart from some bits, I’ve only got what I had on yesterday.’

I took in ‘bits’ – by which I presume she meant undies – and also took in the way she clearly knew all about the financial arrangements that social services would put in place.

But not yet. ‘No, they haven’t, I’m afraid,’ I said. ‘And I doubt they will yet, either. In fact, a social worker will probably go and collect your things from home for you, and bring them here – well, assuming you’re still not going back home.’

Keeley made a kind of snorting sound. ‘It’s not home,’ she answered, reaching to take her chosen cereal from the cupboard. ‘And like I was just saying to Tyler, I wouldn’t hold my breath, Katy. Zoe and Steve have probably already put my stuff out for the bin men. They’ll have done it as soon as they knew I wasn’t coming back. That’s what they’re like.’

‘Casey,’ Mike corrected her. ‘It’s Casey, not Katy.’

‘Oh, sorry,’ she said, having the grace to look abashed.

‘No matter,’ I said. ‘Lots to take in last night, and you were tired. Anyway, I’m sure that won’t have been the case, but let’s see what happens tomorrow, eh? Who is your social worker, by the way? Might be someone I know.’

‘Danny,’ she said. ‘Danny Kemp?’

I didn’t know of him. I said so.

‘He’s quite new? Maybe that’s it. He’s only been my social worker for a few months. He’s really nice, he is.’ She glanced at Tyler again. ‘Not like my last one. She was a right bitch.’

I raised my brows. ‘What, bitch?’ Keeley said immediately. ‘Is that a swear word here? Really?’

I could see Tyler smirking out of the corner of my eye, so I glared at him. I could read him like a book. He could see she was going to be good value for money. ‘Swear word or not, it’s not appropriate, love, okay? So I’d just rather you didn’t. Anyway, I said,’ reaching up for bowls for the pair of them. ‘Why don’t the pair of you pour your cereal and take it into the other room, so you can watch a bit of telly while I make something cooked, yes?’

They did as instructed and soon trotted off into the living room. ‘So, what d’you reckon?’ Mike whispered once they’d gone. ‘Storm force ten? Or just a squall, you think? She’s certainly got some attitude.’

Entirely expected for a child of the system. ‘Persistent drizzle,’ I decided upon. ‘Nothing I can’t handle.’

But it was something that looked like I’d be handling on a fairly regular basis, if the events of the morning were anything to go by.

Having had a breakfast of the cereal, followed by an egg and bacon sandwich, Keeley disappeared upstairs to wash and dress, only to come back down three-quarters of an hour later completely transformed. That handbag of hers must have been from the same place as Mary Poppins got hers from, I decided, if the amount of make-up she’d applied was anything to go by. She waltzed into the kitchen while I was sorting out a pile of washing, with perfectly drawn-on eyebrows, a set of spider-like fake lashes and a generous slick of gothic grey eyeshadow. Foundation and blusher – lots of both – competed for attention with a deep and disarming red lipstick.

Mike and Tyler, both about to set off themselves, to watch Kieron playing football, had painted faces too – with a picture of shock and, in Tyler’s case, awe. I knew my husband’s expression well; had it been Riley standing there, aged fifteen, it would have been the precursor to him demanding that she wash it off immediately, with his usual ‘You are not leaving this house looking like that!’

He didn’t, though, and I stepped in before he did say it, with, ‘You look nice, love,’ followed by what I thought was a reasonable enough comment that she might perhaps want to save such dramatic make-up for when she was off out somewhere.

‘I am going out,’ she said, with a ‘what of it?’ kind of expression. ‘So, do I have a coming-in time?’ then the barest pause. ‘Don’t forget, I’m nearly sixteen.’

A child of the system, I reminded myself. Even though I was pretty gobsmacked. ‘Keeley,’ I answered nicely, ‘it would be polite to ask if you can go out, love. Not just announce that you are. Where are you going, anyway?’

Keeley, who’d grabbed her hoody off the newel post and was busy pulling it on, pulled a face and neatly sidestepped the question. ‘Well, I’m allowed, aren’t I? I know my rights. I didn’t realise I had to ask. Not at my age. I can go out unaccompanied so long as I’m in at a reasonable time. I am being polite – by asking what time I have to be back.’ She looked from me to Mike. Tyler just gawped. ‘So, what do you think a reasonable time is? I didn’t realise I had to tell you my itinerary.’

Oh, so this was how it was going to be, was it? The tension was suddenly almost palpable. And now Mike did speak. ‘Excuse me, young lady,’ he said. ‘Casey was being perfectly reasonable in asking you where you are going. We also have rights,’ he added. ‘Which are also very reasonable. One of which is knowing where our foster children are when not in the house.’

Another face and now a head shake. ‘God!’ she huffed. ‘I’m just off to meet mates, that’s all. I won’t be late and Tyler has my phone number if you want it.’ Oh, really? Already? ‘I just need my pocket money, please, because there’s stuff I need to buy. Cigarette filters and papers,’ she added, as if further keen to challenge us. ‘Is that all right?’

Despite everything I’d reminded myself about Keeley’s awful background, I was only human, and felt suddenly livid. But recognising that had been entirely her intention, and that this was just the first step in a process that would involve lots of boundary realignments, I picked up my handbag, found my purse and passed Keeley five pounds. ‘There you go,’ I said, ‘but you should know that you can’t smoke here, at our house, and that tea will be at six. It’s entirely up to you whether you want to come back and eat with us, but that’s the time the food will be out, okay? And if you don’t want to eat – and, again, that’s your choice, love – then we’d like you to be no later than nine o’clock tonight. I think that’s fair for someone of your age. Is that okay?’

Mike and Tyler were now staring at me as though I’d lost the plot, but Keeley, nodding, took the fiver, stuffed it in her own bag, and made for the front door. Then, as an afterthought – to wind me up a little further, I imagined – she turned back again. ‘I don’t suppose you have a spare bottle of wine I could take with me?’

Mike spluttered into his coffee mug. Actually spluttered, spraying liquid out of the top of it. ‘Afraid not, love,’ I said nicely. ‘We’re all out.’

‘Oh. My. God.’ Tyler said, hauling his jaw up as soon as the front door banged shut. ‘Is she for real?’

‘It’s all bravado, love,’ I said, conscious that my pulse was thumping in my temples. ‘She’s just trying to shock us. Just testing the water. She’ll soon settle down.’

Mike ran a hand through his hair. ‘I hope you’re right,’ he said. ‘I’m starting to hope it’s all a big mistake and that her usual carers will ask for her to be sent back home.’

‘I don’t think that’s going to happen somehow,’ I said, looking towards the hall she’d just swept down, and imagining her strutting off down the road, trying to work out who’d won the first round. Did she even know where she was? Have any idea where she should be heading? ‘I have a feeling that this might just be the start of quite a long journey.’

Tyler still looked aghast. ‘Mum, was I like that when I came here? She’s so cheeky!’
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