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short story

Table Talk

It was raining cats and dogs. The strategically placed picnic tables and benches in the gardens were empty, and the three or four groups of visitors had tracked indoors. It was my day on duty – a duty I loathed, for I always felt like a prison warder. At the end of the visitors’ lounge Neil and his mother were talking animatedly, and every so often they turned and looked at me. Neil had wanted to go home for the weekend and we had been unable to agree. And judging by their hostile-looking glances it seemed that I was at the receiving end of their disappointment.

What were they saying now? Neill was remonstrating with his mother, and she remonstrated in her turn, both with gestured references to me. Had Mom taken a drink or two? Her voice was at times sharp and raised, so that some of the other groups looked across at her. In such a state she would be a formidable person with whom to have a difference.

Neill was a prickly customer. Big for his age at 14, he gave us a hard time from day one. He had been removed from a troubled home – his mother was an alcoholic and his father was in and out of prison. With little effective supervision, Neill was always out on his own, and had been picked up three times by the police – once for shoplifting, once for being in possession of an amount of dope legally greater that what could be considered “for personal use”, and once for assault.

Our agency was caught in that common dilemma between deciding whether his family was a candidate for “reunification or preservation” or whether we should accept the fact that we would be responsible for the boy’s parenting from here on, seeing him through to adulthood. To focus our resources on the boy in the context of the family, or just on the boy? The father’s continuing absence and the mother’s chronic alcohol problem decided the judge: he placed the boy with us on seven-days-a-week residential protective custody.

One of the immediate by-products of this decision was that the agency staff, being the only visible and tangible “officials”, became the targets for all of the family’s hurt and anger. We were each persona non grata and felt ourselves limited to the role of big bad wolf. Our team’s response to this over the period Neill had been with us had been to disregard hostility, to meet every need, to continue to reach out and always to respond positively.

Today I was the big bad wolf.

Neill had asked whether he could go home for the coming weekend. Our hands were tied and we’d had to refuse. We had suggested a couple of alternatives, for example, having his mother up for a picnic (which we often arranged on a Sunday for kids in Neill’s position), but these were rejected out of hand by Neill. He wanted to go home for the weekend, and we knew this was a non-starter. As did the judge.

As they talked on around their little occasional table in the lounge, I considered our quandary in Neill’s case. We were responsible for seeing that he didn’t get into more trouble, and it was clear that he could outvote his mother, sober or not. As much as we would have loved to give them an evening or a weekend together, we knew it was unrealistic ... and our only remaining option was to act like prison guards.

They were looking at me. Planning an attack, I thought. They were about to come up and challenge me. How could we disallow a mother and her son to enjoy a weekend together? I would have hated myself for every word I uttered in my defence. (I say ‘my’ because I was Horatio at the bridge right now: I represented the callous authority of the court and of the child welfare system and of my agency and of all the child and youth workers on the staff. It was just me.) I ran through how one could say, in the nicest possible way: “We don’t trust you. You are an alcoholic, and you are an offender who has been adjudicated by the court.” There was no nice way. And when a court makes the decision to remove a child, and makes the court order immediately effective, nobody has the chance to “work together with the family” on considering and planning an admission to care. If mother and son were to come up to me and challenge me, I would have to be objective and juristic. I might be able to say how awful this must be for them and how sorry I was personally, but I would have to lay down the law and give reasons where necessary.

They were now really looking at me. Studying me. What would they see? An agonised, indecisive care worker, an easy push-over? Or a cruel and heartless prison warder? I wondered what would happen if I were to agree to their request for leave? If I were to fly in the face of authority and the law and say “Of course you should be able to spend the weekend together. After all, you are mother and son.” That might sound good right now, because the “soft heart” part of me was feeling that way. But how would it sound in the Director’s office tomorrow, where the “hard hats” ruled? “You said what?!” the Director would demand. Or maybe he was a soft heart after all, and would praise me for my considerate decision ... which wasn’t even mine to make!

*      *      *

My God! Neill and his mother have left their table and are walking directly toward me. They don’t look like they’re coming to say “Goodbye” either. They look decidedly uncomfortable yet determined, walking close together. I brace myself, and to my shame try to remember mother’s first name which has got lost in the scenarios which have been playing out in my mind. Of course, it’s ‘Billie’. I can see how I temporarily forgot that.

“Mr Sedgewick,” begins Billie.

“Hello Billie,” I say as warmly as I can, feeling a total fraud as I do. “Call me Richard,” I insist, for we had first met each other under these names.

“Richard,” she replies, as though trying out the name, before reverting to her full formality. “Neill and I have been talking ...”

Neill is looking up at me with great embarrassment, as though it is he who has now been caught in the nutcrackers.

“We’ve been talking,” she repeats. There is a pause. “And we both know that we got ourselves into this mess: me with my drinking, which is a great humiliation to me, and Neill with his behaviour which got him up in front of the judge. I am sure that both of us would like things to be different ...”
I am awed. When one has marshalled an army to oppose the onslaught of an aggressive enemy and meets nothing but disarming humility and humanness, it’s hard to know what to do with all the ammunition one is holding.

Billie continues. “We understand that you can’t allow Neill out for the weekend, and we wouldn’t even ask it. But we do have a request.”

“Tell me,” I say.

“Would you allow Neill to come home for a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon so that together we can prepare a meal, and we would be honoured if you would accept our invitation to dinner with us. You could bring Neill back here with you afterwards. You have been kind to Neill, and you have helped both of us make something out of our situation.”

“Billie, Neill,” I say. “I am honoured. It will be an evening to look forward to. Tell me one thing I can bring so as to make a contribution.”

“I would love to say ‘a bottle of good wine’,” laughs Billie. “Of course I won’t say that! Just bring some chocolates for afterwards.”