January 11, 2017

A Weekend Case

Published in Anarchy Magazine, London, Feb 1965

One blue jersey, ragged, unravelling, full of large holes. One dirty shirt, faded to grey, full of tiny holes. Two separate halves of pyjamas, the top half filthy, the bottom half clean, both the size for a child half this age, both so washed out they might almost be the same pattern, but they aren’t. One filthy shirt, faded to two completely different colours. Dirty, disintegrating clothes, several sizes too small, packed into a broken case by two children, un-helped by any adult, who have for nearly all their lives “belonged” as they would say, to the local authority. No underwear, no toilet things.

This boy and girl do not live as ordinary children do. They live in a large “Home” – that is, an estate separated by large gates from the outside world. They do not nip round to the shop on the corner, they do not jump on a bus, do not greet you in the park, do not climb trees for conkers in the gold of autumn, and hidden in the leaves hear the conversation of strangers. They live only among their kind. What is their kind? Well, these two are children who, ten years ago, screamed beside their father as he hanged himself; their mother had gone off with another man. They were very small then. Their kind runs in this Home to four or five hundred.

But once every three weeks – and this is how I have just seen their unpacked case – they are invited into the outside world. For there they have one person who, for several years, has been constant in their lives, always reliable, always welcoming, always reappearing, always sharing. She is their voluntary “auntie”, her husband their “uncle”. The children have been moved from place to place, the adults who have dealt with them have changed over and over again; but for seven years she has remained constant.

They still marvel at the things that go on in her house – that “uncle” shaves, that he goes to work every morning, that he and “auntie” sleep in the same bed, that they go to shops, choose what they want to buy and pay with money, that vegetables have names like “cauliflower” and people eat them… Her home is a strange and remarkable place, almost eccentric they would think if they had gained the vocabulary to think with. It is the only place where thy may keep individual possessions – a toy, a jar of paint, a frilly petticoat, white knickers, a hair ribbon, a hamster.

“Friendship given to a child in this way should be steadfast”. Says a very pleasant Home Office leaflet on this subject of children in care, and “aunts”. Why is it then that my friend, who to my knowledge gives constant friendship, should be treated by some of the authorities concerned with the children as if she were dangerous? Why is she kept by them at arm’s length? Why, when she buys the children clothes and her friends buy them clothes, and she sends them back to the Home with hand-knitted jerseys, new trousers, shirts, frocks, coats, do they come back three weeks later with different dirty ancient clothes that look as if they had been left a whole battering season through on a scarecrow in a field?

What do such authorities truly think of children whom they choose to dress like this? What do they intend the children to think of themselves? What are they doing to the bond between the children and the steadfast friend? And why are they erasing the children’s identity? When these children have so pitifully little beyond fear, when it has been made determinedly clear to them that they will never have more than pitifully little, why are the gifts, tangible and intangible, that a loved and loving person gives them, to be so wantonly, coldly treated?