Hot today “trees against a white sky. The path's covered in dried mud, some still shaped into round rings where it's dropped off a football boot. A beige triangle in the yellow turf, two untidy mounds of towels, where they've been putting the goals this week. Some front garden “wonder what the neighbours think. They're only kids, but according to Jones next door, they're a cross between a Mafia Godfather and a Lolita.
Key in the door “no, it's already open. Pad across the hall “it's quiet so they're all at school today. Things must have been sorted out between Liam and that maths teacher then.
"Hi, Cath. Good weekend?"
"OK “went to Edinburgh to see that big exhibition. Know the one? It was quite good."
"Want a coffee? Bet you wish you weren't coming straight in to a back shift sleep over “rather you than me."
"So what's been happening then? Liam decided to give full-time education another go?"
"We talked to him for hours last Tuesday. Seems the maths teacher “another new one “didn't know about Liam. When no homework was forthcoming “he'd forgotten his book again “he said, 'It's OK, Liam, I know all about your mother so don't worry about your homework this week.' He 'meant well,' of course. Liam couldn't face all the kids slagging him off about his mum yet again, so he chucked his chair at him and ran out. Excluded. Again. We sorted it out with the school, and he went back on Thursday. OK so far."
"Other news?" Out with the log book, flop it open on the scratched table top. Our voices a dim hum against the heavy midday hush. And so now I know all I need to know.
"Off you go then. Anything you want me to do while they're all out?"
"Ah. Don't forget “Mary's in. She's packing up for the move to her flat. Moving out and up and on. Another one off our hands. Who'll be in that room next? That used to be the 'bus stop' room before Mary came remember? The kids called it that because there seemed to be a different kid in it every night." I remember. Funny that I can remember more about the room's history than about its tenants.
"So Mary's off now. Wonder how she'll get on."
"She'll do alright. Her head's screwed on OK."
A wide smile, rummaging in her bag for car keys.
"See you Wednesday."
Mary. Her room's at the top of the stairs, shaded in a kind of nook near the toilet door. Knock beside a poster of Boy George (why ever does she still go for him?). No answer. Knock again and gently turn the handle. The bed's an explosion of underwear and magazines. She's by the window, standing gazing. One denimed knee bent, foot balanced on the radiator behind, arms folded over a brilliant pink shortcut top, tight to round childish breasts. Taut midriff scooped in under her ribs, navel a smudge of shadow “vestige of sharp separation from a distant mother “a harbinger of the future. Blond hair pulled neatly back in a tight knot at the nape of a surprisingly long neck. Three silver bolts adorn the curve of a cream earlobe. So tiny, so young.
"Hi, Mary. Got that packing done yet?" It's obvious she hasn't started. "Want me to help? I'll find a hold-all if you get your stuff out."
She turns her face further towards the window.
"Mary “you OK?"
"I'm not going."
"Mary pet." I sit down on the bed. "You've been planning this for weeks. We've been to see the flat."
"I'm not going. You can't make me, see?" Huge, dark eyes turn on me. Words spurt like bullets. But terror heaves inside the thin chest. "See! I'll trash this place so I will. Kick this window in. You'll see. You'll all see." Suddenly she runs at me, snatches up a pile of CDs, and hurls them at the wall. They whirl like sunbeams through the dust-speckled air. One falls at her foot, and she grinds it vehemently under her heel, furious at its refusal to break.
I wait. And I thought I knew this kid “always so controlled. Able to talk to me about how she wanted her life to be. Able, I thought, to share some of that past agony, to begin to move on. I used to feel a success when she confided her secret story. Toddler days as the shadowy witness of her mother's numerous empty liaisons with faceless men, none the father she would not even recognize if she met him. The abandonment. The promises to return that fixed her for hours at the window, in just that same pose. All that pain makes me feel good about myself? A prickle of shame down the back of my neck.
"Mary has a lot of insight into her difficulties," the review minutes said. I should know “I wrote them. And she agreed with them, was even pleased at the "compliment." "She has come to terms with the fact that her mother is unlikely to play much of a part in her life in the future." Soft words, but a stony road.
"Mary." I change my tone. No cheery style. Realism. "Mary, how long have you been here now? Remind me. I think it's three years “is that right?"
Still, so still. Time hangs in the hot air, immobile. Suddenly she reaches out, her fingers “thin, blue-veined “whiten round a coffee mug on her bedside table. I prepare to dodge.
Still, so still. But brittle as an empty sea shell. I wait, and my heart aches for the child still in her.
Her eyes suddenly close. She whirls away, flings her forearm against the wall, she crushes her face against it.
"It's no' fair. Y're all the same."
When I reach out a hand to her shoulder, she doesn't shrug it off. "Did it begin to feel OK here?" No denial. I venture on again. Risks have to be taken sometimes. "Do you feel we're leaving you like your mum did?" She squirms round and thrusts her face up to mine. "You don't know. You'll NEVER know. I can handle her. At least she'll always be me mum. I'm like her, you know. Just like her." A mixture of pride and despair.
"You're like yourself. Just yourself. Not anybody else. That's what I like about you. I do like you, you know. I know you're scared right now, and so would I be." She's breathing heavily, brow puckered, and a little patch of sweat under each nostril. "I'd be scared because it's scary to grow up, and be on your own in the world, and let's face it, you've not had too much luck in life so far."
I pause, let her choose the time. She draws the webs of her dignity around her thin shoulders, and half smiles. "I'll be OK. I've got "a lot of insight into my difficulties," isn't that right? I suppose I'll cope. I'll just have to." I squeeze her arm. And I genuinely envy her strength. And I wonder if she'll ever be allowed to be weak, and if she'll be blamed for it if she is. A wave of fondness swamps me for a moment. "Mary “I'll miss you so much." She stops on the stair. Her jaw tightens in anger, then softens. "I'll miss you too. Visit me?"
"Let's go downstairs, have a cup of tea, and talk it all over. Some of the things I can probably sort out. Others will be easier if we share the worry."
Best to be practical. We run down the stairs together.
Her face emerges from behind an immense mug. "But Anne, sometimes I don't think I can do it. I'm too young to be on my own."
And she is. She knows she is. I know she is. There are no automatic indicators, no time clocks for competence, or emotional strength. And anyway, when did I leave home? Competent, emotionally strong me. Twenty-five I was, and even then a mum and dad to go home to with mountainous bags full of washing and worries. Where will Mary go home to with hers?
* * *
Some scenes stay vivid in your mind for years, and this one did for me. Many other scenes, more dramatic, more emotional, more hilarious, have been forgotten, but still I remember Mary, carved in shadow, standing by the window.
I did visit her, of course. But soon other kids “the walking wounded of adult wars in living rooms and bedrooms city-wide “claimed all the time and feeling I had. She soon lost her flat, of course. Her loneliness couldn't close the door on "friends," who spent her cash for her, and alienated her new neighbours. Nowadays she might have got more support “maybe. The system is changing. The system. She needed more than a system. And why does the system leave me to feel it was I who failed her?
So here I am, still at the desk, another hot summer day, another staff roster to wrestle with.
Look up through the window “someone coming up the dusty path. A young woman, plump blond child on her slim hip. And I recognize her. Mary. Older now, and confidence has filled out her face. She grins. "It's me alright. This is Gemma. Thought you'd want to meet her. Anyway, time I said thanks to you."
She looks down, coy.
"Whatever for?" I take the sticky baby and kiss its soft warm cheek. "Oh, just for missing me. I suppose. I never forgot that you said that. It helped somehow."
Meg Lindsay, OBE MA MSc Dip. Applied Social Studies, has been in social work since 1971, working in many settings, 10 years at various levels in residential care. She is now Director of the Centre for Residential Child Care, Scotland, which supplies information, advice, and consultancy to thefield of residential child care.
Journal of Child and Youth Care, Volume 13 Number 2, 1999