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A Friend Like Ben: The true story of the little black and white cat that saved my son Julia Romp Originally published as Ben’s Gift.The heart-warming true story of a little boy and the cat that changed his life.Nine-year-old George was severely autistic; quiet and withdrawn, he appeared lost in his own world most of the time. His mother Julia despaired as she couldn’t bring George out of his shell. But when a black-and-white stray cat appeared in their garden, everything changed.George’s new four-legged friend, Ben, had a wonderful and unexpected side-affect. George and Ben bonded and George began to open up, making up stories about their adventures together to recount to Julia. Finally, Julia could communicate with her son – and Ben had made it possible.But then disaster struck – Ben went missing. The cat who had coaxed George out of a world of silence had disappeared, and George began to retreat. Determined to reunite George with his furry friend, Julia knew she had to do everything in her power to bring Ben home again …A Friend Like Ben is the remarkable true story about the extraordinary empathy between a boy and his cat, and a mother’s determined journey to make her son whole again. Copyright (#ulink_47e89c75-0372-517f-93d1-e2e580769da1) HarperElement An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk/) First published as Ben’s Gift by HarperCollins 2010 This edition published by HarperElement 2018 SECOND EDITION © Julia Romp and Megan Lloyd Davies 2010 Cover design © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2018 Cover photographs © John Daniels/Ardea.com (http://www.ardea.com) (cat); Shutterstock.com (http://www.shutterstock.com/) (background) A catalogue record of this book is available from the British Library Julia Romp asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the nonexclusive, nontransferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse-engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-books. HarperCollinsPublishers has made every reasonable effort to ensure that any picture content and written content in this ebook has been included or removed in accordance with the contractual and technological constraints in operation at the time of publication. Source ISBN: 9780007382743 Ebook Edition © DECEMBER 2015 ISBN: 9780007382750 Version: 2018-02-15 Dedication (#ulink_16678589-7429-560d-a5fc-3a957e65c4fc) For George, who opened my eyes to your world and what a wonderful place it can be, and in loving memory of my dad Colin, who gave me the laughter that I try to pass on to George every day. Contents Cover Page (#u60008d67-20a5-510a-b645-e7a32cd0ac36) Title Page (#u2828fc0f-8469-591d-ae0b-5c70c193d5f9) Copyright (#ub2393d9d-0a54-5d2a-bf97-e64cf2fd9136) Dedication (#u913e4a30-7a78-5952-9aa8-719a4ac0ed07) Prologue (#u2c9dc49c-bcc4-5334-a7cd-c875d8384bee) PART ONE Before Ben (#u7dc3161d-a0c2-538b-b458-d8db5af33000) Chapter 1 (#u3da93343-3a26-5beb-bcc9-ed24dc221d7b) Chapter 2 (#ubbdb3fb7-d334-517c-a542-32d931b70c60) Chapter 3 (#u0f1d432e-c834-53eb-89b0-04c4be0be067) Chapter 4 (#ud36fd46f-92a4-5a40-869e-8c202d1d9b38) Chapter 5 (#u6a3f2d39-942d-55c8-8f52-7024a3d4353f) PART TWO Finding Ben (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 6 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 7 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 8 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 9 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 10 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 11 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 12 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 13 (#litres_trial_promo) PART THREE Losing Ben (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 14 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 15 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 16 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 17 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 18 (#litres_trial_promo) Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgements (#litres_trial_promo) Moving Memoirs (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) Prologue (#ulink_eb2be922-64ba-511e-81d1-dd4f483df1a8) When it came to first impressions, Ben didn’t exactly shine. He wasn’t a small, pretty kitten with a blaze of ginger hair or even a sleek adult cat with a shining tortoiseshell coat. In fact, his black and white fur was covered in dried blood, his red rump was completely bare and his thin tail looked more like a hairy twig. Thankfully, I couldn’t tell by looking at him that he was also home to scores of fleas and ear mites. But as off-putting as he looked, when the sickly stray started visiting my garden I left out food, because I’ve always been soft when it comes to animals. Even my pet rabbit Fluffy lives in a shed that I painted with bright flowers – it’s like the Ritz for rabbits – so I made up a bed for the cat in a carrier, which I left in the shed, hoping it would sleep there. The stray was looking worse each day and, I thought, once it felt at home in the carrier, I’d shut the door and take it to the vet. Please let him be sleeping, I’d think each morning as I walked up the garden with my 10-year-old son, George, to check if the food had been eaten or whether the blanket had been disturbed. Together we’d peer into the back of the dark shed and see the cat’s eyes peeping out at us. They were light, acid green, like the first leaves on a lime tree in spring, and every time I saw them, they stopped me in my tracks for just a moment. But although the cat was sometimes sitting on a shelf or sometimes next to a flowerpot, it was never in the cage. ‘Boo!’ George would say as he tried to play hide and seek with the cat whenever we went to see it, and I was glad because he didn’t often play games with anyone. Autism made George’s world a very lonely place at times and other children found him almost as inexplicable as he found them. They were afraid of the rage which burst out of him in screams and shouts, while he was just as frightened by the noises they made and the way they jostled him in the school corridor. That’s why it was good to see George take an interest in the cat, even though the cat didn’t take an interest back. Whenever George or I went too near it, the cat would hiss and spit, its teeth bared and fur coat springing to attention. It obviously didn’t want anything to do with either of us. But time and good food can do powerful things to animals, just like they can to people. Slowly the stray got comfortable enough to start sleeping in the carrier bed, and after another few more weeks, I managed to shut the door with a broom handle. When I took the cat to the vet, I explained that I wasn’t its official owner and left the cat in their care, telling myself my job was done. I’d put up posters in the local area with a picture of the stray, and if anyone came forward, I would put them in touch with the vet. But no one did, and a few weeks later came the call I’d been secretly dreading. ‘Would you give the cat a home?’ the vet asked, and I didn’t know what to say. Now, if you knew me, you’d know how unusual that is. My mum says the phrase ‘talk the hind legs off a donkey’ was invented for me and she’s right. But I was lost for words when the vet asked me about the cat, because on the one hand I loved animals, and on the other I’d vowed never to have a cat because my childhood home had been so full of them that there was hardly space for me. Besides, although George had seemed interested in the stray, we hadn’t had much success with animals, because he found it hard to bond with anything. Polly the budgie had had to be rehomed because its noise disturbed George, and he’d quickly lost interest in Fluffy the rabbit. It wasn’t his fault. George just didn’t connect with things the way other children did – however much I wished he would – and I didn’t want to take on anything else, because it was such a full-time job looking after him. But as I hesitated, the vet suggested that maybe we could just pay the cat a visit. ‘He seems sad,’ he said. ‘I think he’d like to see a friendly face.’ What could I do? My heart won over my head and I took George to the vet’s, where we saw a familiar ball of black and white fur curled up in a cage. Then it stood up, and I saw that the cat had a huge shaved patch on its stomach and a plastic collar around its neck to stop it worrying its stitches. It looked even uglier than it had before, but that didn’t seem to put George off in the slightest as he knelt down beside the cage. ‘Benny Boo!’ he said in a high voice I’d never heard before, sounding expectant, excited. ‘Is you feeling better now, Ben?’ George asked. ‘Is you well?’ Again, he spoke in a sing-song voice I didn’t recognise, and the cat miaowed back as he talked to it. ‘I think he likes you,’ the veterinary nurse who’d shown us into the room said with a smile. George immediately went silent. He didn’t like talking to anyone, let alone strangers, and he couldn’t look people in the eye if they tried to speak to him; instead he stared silently past them at something in the distance, anywhere other than in their eyes. But as soon as the nurse busied herself with something else and George knew he wasn’t being watched, he bent down to the cage once again. ‘Benny Boo!’ he said in his high voice. ‘Is your tummy hurting?’ He pressed his face even closer to the bars of the cage and I started moving forward, sure that the cat would claw at him through the bars, just as it had whenever we’d gone to see it in the shed. But then I stopped because, as the cat looked solemnly at George, it stepped carefully forward before turning its body against the length of the cage and rubbing up against the bars. Where had the hissing, spitting, cat we knew so well gone? I thought I was seeing things. Then I decided I was hearing them when the stray started making a throaty, rolling purr as it moved in time with the words George was speaking to it. ‘Ben, Ben!’ he chanted. ‘Is you well now? Is you well?’ The cat sniffed the air and George bent down even closer to it. As his head drew level with the cat’s, it looked him square in the eyes and I was sure he would turn away. But George didn’t. Instead of staring past the cat or hanging his head, he stared right back at the cat. The two of them did not break eye contact for a second as George carried on talking softly. I held my breath, looking at the two of them in shock: George talking to the cat and smiling as though it was something he did every day, the cat staring back with its green eyes full of something I can only describe as acceptance. It looked like an old soul who’s seen it all and is surprised by nothing. Well, I knew what I had to do, didn’t I? Like they say, hope springs eternal. I didn’t know why George liked the cat – maybe it was just a moment in one day or maybe it was the fact that he knew the world would have a hard time accepting the strange-looking animal, just as it did him. But I’d seen a glimmer of something that I’d spent George’s whole lifetime longing to see him show another living thing: love. And the cat seemed to feel just as strongly about him. That was enough for me. All I hoped back then was that the cat might become a friend for George. What I could never have known was that it would change our lives forever – in more ways than I could have ever thought possible. PART ONE Before Ben (#ulink_81b4bdcb-554a-5524-8304-65e55f9cfd5a) Chapter 1 (#ulink_6a45fd22-21ce-51e4-8ec1-d6e616a820ff) London is a global city, but it can still be very small if you are born and brought up there. Away from the royal palaces and parks, sky scrapers and museums, red buses hooting around corners and pedestrians jostling for space on busy streets, are places where you know your neighbours and where the streets you walked on as a child don’t look so very different when you finally grow up. That’s the kind of place I was born in: one of London’s western outer boroughs called Hounslow, where families who had been there for generations mixed with others who’d arrived more recently and where everyone knew each other by sight at least, if not from a chat over the garden fence. London, you see, isn’t just made up of the mansions and sky scrapers printed on postcards. These are few and far between by the time you get a few miles out of the centre of the city. There instead are rows and rows of terraced houses battling for space with tower blocks, and while some areas get smartened up, there are a lot that don’t. Hounslow, where I grew up, wasn’t the poshest of places but it wasn’t the roughest either. We lived on an estate built in the 1930s in one half of a semi with my nan and granddad, Doris and George, next door. I was born in 1973, the decade of flared trousers, the Bee Gees and skateboarding – like a more up-to-date Austin Powers film but for real – and while many people say this, I know for sure that mine was a truly happy childhood. There were six of us at home: my mum, Carol, who looked after us all; my dad, Colin, who drove a black London taxi for a living; my older sister, Victoria; and our younger brothers, Colin and Andrew. Not that anyone knew us by our names, of course. Victoria was known as Tor, Colin was Boy, Andrew was Nob (weird, I know; I have no idea where that one came from) and I was Ju. We didn’t ever question why we didn’t go by our proper names, because we didn’t question anything. Our life together was as comfortable as an old pair of slippers. Back then, it was different for kids to how it is today. At weekends and during the school holidays, we had left the house by 9.00 a.m. and we only went back for a bit of lunch or to get a plaster on a cut knee. Tor, Boy, Nob and I played in the local parks with our friends, where there was always someone to keep an eye on us. The worst trouble usually involved falling out over a water fight and the best noise of any day was the sound of the ice-cream van. On high days and holidays, my dad would pile us into his cab and whizz us into town, where he’d drive us up the Mall to watch the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace or down the Embankment to the Tower of London. On more run-of-the-mill days, we’d go in to see Nan and Granddad or up to Mum’s allotment, where she grew all our veggies on a patch of ground behind the local army barracks. ‘Shall we have a cup of tea?’ Mum would ask after what felt like hours of digging, and she’d pour us all a cuppa from the flask she always had with her. If American kids learn to love milkshakes early and French ones like a bit of watered-down wine, British children have the need for tea soaked into their bones from almost the moment they’re out the cradle. Tea was the answer to every one of life’s setbacks, according to my mum and dad, and a cup of tea like one of those I’d had as a child on the allotment, when I’d dreamed of fixing up the shed just as they did in Calamity Jane, was poured once again when I left school at 16 and we all wondered what I’d make of myself. I’d never got on at school because I was a day dreamer, and my teachers had said again and again that I wouldn’t go very far. But just before I left, I did work experience at a flower shop and a whole new world opened up for me: I enjoyed the work, was good at something for a change and was paid £15 for the day. I couldn’t wait to leave school. So that’s just what I did, after a chat over a cuppa with Mum and Dad; and a few years later they poured another when the local vicar asked to marry me. I’d met him when I was working at the flower shop, where I was on the phone almost every day to the local undertaker, Alan, who was on the phone just as much to the vicar, Harry. Funerals, just like weddings, are important business to any florist, but when I made up wreaths I liked to think I was also helping grieving families say a proper goodbye. Then at the end of a busy day, I’d meet up with Alan and Harry, who weren’t much older than me, and we’d go out. ‘Aren’t you the florist, undertaker and vicar?’ people would ask, looking really surprised that three people so used to the sad business of giving the dead a good send-off could enjoy themselves. We were even spotted in the local disco a few times, and we all laughed when people’s mouths dropped open in surprise. I liked Harry more and more as I got to know him. He was kind and considerate, and never judged anyone who came through the doors of the church youth club he ran and where I volunteered. He had all the time in the world for everybody – day and night – and I liked that. Trouble was, though, I was totally unprepared when he asked my dad if he could marry me. I thought Harry was just coming round for tea, but he only went and told Dad that he wanted to pop the question, didn’t he? I was young, about 20 at the time, and couldn’t believe it. I’d always dreamed of having what my parents did, but I wasn’t ready just yet. I burst into tears of surprise when Harry spoke to Dad because I didn’t want to leave my lovely, comfortable home. Most of my friends still lived with their parents and I liked the way things were. ‘Let’s have a cuppa, Ju,’ my dad said after Harry had left. The vicar had got the message that maybe I wasn’t ready to be his wife when I’d started crying, and I wasn’t the only one who’d been surprised by his proposal. Dad had laughed out loud when Harry spoke to him and I think he was almost as shocked as I was that anyone would think I could make a wife, because I was still so young and dizzy. But as I sipped the hot sweet tea, I wondered for a moment if I’d made a terrible mistake, because Harry was such a good man. I didn’t stop to think about it too much, though, because I didn’t stop to think about too much of anything back then. I just trusted that things would work out as I wanted them to; that another honourable man would come along and ask to marry me. I never questioned the fact that one day I would settle down with my Prince Charming. I was such a dreamer back then that my idea of a bad day was getting into work – after moving to a florist in London’s poshest district, Mayfair – to find out they’d delivered flowers to Michael Jackson at a nearby hotel. He was my idol and I was heartbroken that I’d missed him. As I say, I didn’t realise how good I had it. Then came the afternoon when Mum and Dad had to make another pot of tea as I told them I’d unexpectedly fallen pregnant. I was 22 and had been seeing a local boy called Howard for a bit. Having been told I had polycystic ovaries and would find it hard to conceive, I was – you guessed it – young and dizzy when it came to contraception and now had to tell my parents that I was pregnant. ‘Let’s have a cuppa,’ Dad said and we sat down together as I cried. My parents looked stern. They’d brought us up with rules and I knew they’d be disappointed. ‘What are you going to do, Julia?’ Mum asked. ‘I don’t know,’ I wailed into my tea. But I did really. I knew I was going to have my baby, even though Howard was understandably a bit shocked by the whole thing. It might not be quite how I’d planned it, but this baby was mine and I would be a good mother. Howard tried to do right by me and I even moved in with him to see if we could make a proper go of it. But six weeks later I rang and asked Dad to come and get me because neither Howard nor I was comfortable. I felt as if I was letting everyone down as I sat in the cab and burst into tears. When we got home, I ran upstairs to my bedroom and opened the door to find the room had been decorated for me. There was white tongue-and-groove boarding around the bottom of the walls and a wallpaper frieze covered in roses around the top. Once I’d slept in that room with my sister, Tor, and now there was a cot in it. I started to cry even louder. ‘Come on, Ju,’ Dad said, hugging me. ‘Dry your tears now and come downstairs. Mum’s put the kettle on.’ I think most first-time mums have a dreamy image of how it’s going to be but mine wasn’t just rose tinted. It was cerise. As I got fatter and fatter, I dreamed of the little girl I was going to have with huge blue eyes and blonde curly hair like that I’d had as a child. I couldn’t stop looking at babies in prams wherever I went and wondered what pretty clothes I was going to dress mine in. I loved their smell, their smiles, the dimples in their cheeks, everything about them. But when he was born George wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Stiff and red, he screamed from the first moment he met the world, and his cries echoed around the room as the nurses took him away to look at him because he’d swallowed meconium; his head had also been misshapen as his tiny body squeezed down the birth canal. I couldn’t help but feel a little worried. I thought babies came out smiling and smelling of talcum powder. When they brought George back a few minutes later, the nurses suggested giving him a bottle of water and Mum took the baby because I was still so shaky I didn’t trust myself to hold him. But as he was lowered into Mum’s arms George just carried on screaming, and as I looked at them together I could see she was struggling to feed him. I wondered how I was ever going to do it if Mum couldn’t. She was an expert after four children but even she was having trouble. ‘He’ll learn,’ Mum said with a smile as she looked at George wrapped up in his blanket, his face red and blotchy from wailing. ‘These things take time, but it will come naturally. Don’t worry, Ju.’ I didn’t know it then, of course, but this was something I would hear again and again over the weeks, months and years that followed. Mum was only being kind, but hers was the first of a thousand explanations about George. ‘His hips are a bit stiff, so he might be a bit uncomfortable,’ one nurse said as he screamed and screamed in the days after he was born. ‘It was quite a difficult delivery, so he needs time to settle,’ another told me. I’d be a rich woman today if I had a pound for every time I heard the words ‘It will take time.’ Back then I believed what I was told and was sure George would be calmer when I took him home. I’d read all the books and knew that some babies take a while to adjust to life. He’d settle when he was surrounded by love and warmth instead of a clinical hospital ward. But even when we got home to Hounslow and I started giving George warm baths or putting him in his pram, walking him up and down the garden, draping him over my shoulder, lying him on his back or rocking him in a bouncy chair, nothing calmed him. You see, I loved George from the moment I saw him and wanted to do my best for him. He was my baby, a tiny, defenceless creature I had created and would be responsible for forever; a part of me that I would do anything to love and protect. But as the days turned into weeks, I began to feel as if he didn’t want the love and care I had to give him. It might sound silly to say that about a tiny baby, but George would scream even louder whenever I went near him and I just didn’t understand it because I thought babies loved to be cuddled. When the midwife visited, she said that I should take him to the doctor, who referred me to the local hospital, who said George might be suffering from constipation and gave him some medication. But still he didn’t stop crying. Then the midwife suggested that massage might help, but George went rigid the moment I touched him, as if the feel of my hands burned his skin. Later he’d lift his head when my skin made contact with his and jerk the moment I touched him. It was the same if I tried to calm him by rocking him or laying him against my chest. He just didn’t want to be close to me and screamed night and day. Each day I told myself that things would get better, but they didn’t. I hung a mobile over George’s cot, thinking he’d like the bright colours, but he stared past it. I wiggled brightly coloured toys in front of his face, but he turned away and cried. The hardest thing was his sleeplessness, because he would only nap for half an hour at most; day and night, he was awake. I could see my kindly midwife thought I might be being impatient when I told her he didn’t rest. ‘All babies sleep,’ she said. ‘It’s important that they do.’ But George didn’t. ‘He’ll have to drop off in the end,’ Mum would tell me. ‘He’s been fed, he’s warm and he’s got a clean nappy. He’ll go to sleep.’ But George’s screams would echo around the house all night as people tried to sleep. Our home had four bedrooms: Tor was in one, Nob in another, and both had to get up for work every morning. Then there were George and me in the third, and Mum and Dad had the last one with my nephew Lewis, who was three and a half. My brother Boy and his girlfriend, Sandra, had had Lewis when they were only teenagers and were too young to cope when he was born at just 22 weeks, weighing two and a half pounds. Lewis was christened during his first few hours in the hospital because the doctors didn’t think he’d survive, but he did. He came home nine months later to be looked after by Mum and Dad, because he still had such bad lung problems that he needed permanent oxygen, which is why he still slept in their room so that he could be checked every hour. George’s screams meant no one was getting any sleep though, and it’s one thing trying to calm an unhappy baby but another when you’re worrying about everyone else too. So I started staying in my room more during the day, because I thought that at least people would get a bit of a break then with a couple of walls between them and George’s cries. ‘Don’t worry, Ju,’ Dad would say as he opened the door to see me holding the baby, who’d gone rigid and red as I lifted him up. ‘It’ll be all right. He’ll grow out of it.’ On days when Mum could see I’d just about reached the end of my tether, she’d strap Lewis into one side of the back seat of her car while I put George in the other and we’d go out for a drive, hoping the rhythm might send him to sleep. Hounslow is just a couple of miles from Richmond Park, a huge green space where Charles I took his court to escape the plague. It’s a beautiful place and we often went there for a picnic or a walk, so it held many happy memories for me. But all those seemed to fade as we drove through the park with George screaming. ‘He’ll be fine,’ Mum would tell me. ‘Some babies just take a while to adjust. Things always get better.’ But as I stared at packs of deer running across the park with the skyline of inner London far in the distance, I began to wonder if they ever would. Chapter 2 (#ulink_48ce600e-3583-5fc1-a02f-10a3c433486b) Even when you live on £85 a week you can still afford a tin of paint, so that’s what I bought when I moved into my own flat with George, because I wanted to brighten up the place. I had left Mum and Dad’s, because families are a bit like balloons, in that they’ll expand and expand to fit but there comes a point when too much pressure might make them pop. I knew that everyone I loved was getting stressed by George, however much they didn’t want to tell me. So by the time he was six months old, I had decided to put my name down on the council housing list, because our house was packed to the rafters. Mum didn’t just have Lewis to worry about now, either. My dad had developed rheumatoid arthritis when I was a teenager, but I hadn’t known then just how much his illness affected him because my parents never hinted at their problems in front of us. I thought life was perfect as I sat on the sofa watching Superman. But as I got older, I could see for myself just how much Dad was suffering. By the time I got pregnant he had given up full-time work, though he still sometimes had huge steroid injections to stop the pain for long enough for him to get out of bed and into a cab to earn a few quid. But even that had stopped when I brought George home. By then Dad’s hands had curled in on themselves like claws, his back was arched and he had to use a stick to walk. That was why I knew I had to get a place of my own, however much I hated the thought of being a single mother living on handouts, and in January 1997 I was given the keys to a two-bedroom house on an estate a couple of miles away. I arrived with a pram, a bed, a fridge and cooker Mum and Dad had bought me and a sofa covered in blue cord. I was happy to find the house immaculate. The old man called Bob who’d lived and died there had kept it well – if I heard once from the neighbours that he’d haunt me if I didn’t keep his woodwork nice then I heard it a thousand times. But even Bob’s neatness couldn’t hide the fact that there was a bare concrete floor and I could have grown mushrooms in the darkened rooms. I knew what Mum and Dad were thinking when they dropped me off: as sad as they were to see me go, I was an adult and had made my choices. Now I had to live with them, and while I knew they were right, I still wanted to chase after them as they drove off and beg them to take me back home. I just could not believe that this was actually real. It was a world away from all the dreams I’d had. Even though my new house was dark, I could make it colourful at least. Bob might have kept everything neat, but he was too fond of magnolia walls for my liking. So, with my family’s help, I painted the living room yellow, the corridors light green and my bedroom pink. I didn’t go near the wallpaper covering the walls of the back bedroom, though. It was so old it must have been worth something and was covered in huge blue psychedelic flowers. I’d have had to do a hundred coats to cover it up and couldn’t face being trapped in the room while I tried to transform it. The new coat of paint in the rest of the flat definitely raised my spirits, as did the fact that Howard and his mum lived near by. Even though Howard and I were no longer together, I wanted George to know his father and I’d take him to see his dad and grandma Zena. I also visited Mum and Dad every day because I was glad of the company. But although I saw people and tried to make the best of things, life didn’t get any easier with George, and looking back I realise those first few months with him alone were the time when I began learning to hide my worries. You can’t keep moaning, can you, bursting into tears when people ask how you are and all you want to do is cry? I could have told them my life felt like a nightmare: I was alone with a baby who cried day in, day out, and who at times felt like a visitor I could not make happy instead of my own child. But it wouldn’t have done any good, so I didn’t. Besides, I was sure the reason George wasn’t happy was that I was making a mess of things. I could see for myself that other women did a much better job than I did. Watching their babies smile or gurgle at them, I longed for George to do the same. But he didn’t want to shake rattles or be cuddled, and when I took him back to the doctor the answer was always the same. ‘It’s your first child,’ he would say. ‘Don’t worry so much, Julia. You’re a great mum. Just relax a bit and the baby will too.’ So after being told I was worrying about nothing a hundred times, I pushed down the voice inside that was telling me something was wrong; it’s amazing just how much you can kid yourself. Each night when I tried to get George to sleep, knowing it would be hours before he dropped off, I’d tell myself that things would improve the next day. Each morning when he woke up and started crying, I’d vow that I just had to get through this one because tomorrow was another day. Scarlett O’Hara didn’t have a patch on me when she grubbed in the dirt outside Tara. Sometimes, though, after days of George’s crying I’d feel so close to breaking point that I’d leave him in an upstairs bedroom to wail. Closing the door, I’d go downstairs just to be away from the noise, and guilt would fill me that I wasn’t giving George the happiness that I’d had as a child. I knew it wasn’t the same for him to have a mum at home and a dad who lived down the road, and his cries were his way of telling me that I just wasn’t enough. But then I’d go back upstairs, look at George in his cot, so small and perfect with his round, chubby cheeks and puff of blond hair, and wonder what kind of mother I was. Bit by bit, I shut myself away as I started to hide both George and myself from the world, and our tiny house began to feel like a prison. The estate where we were living didn’t exactly help keep up my spirits either. There’s good and bad everywhere, from the Hollywood Hills to the slums of India, but let’s just say there was a lot more bad than I was used to where I was living now. Shouts would echo at night as people argued, and I’d hear the smack of punches thrown in drunken fights. Or there’d be a knock on the door as one of the stream of men who hired out one of my neighbours by the hour mistook my house for hers. The grey concrete estate looked like a jail and some of the people living there knew that from experience. It was then that I also saw for the first time just how much drugs affect some lives. I’d never even had a cigarette, but now I saw people with eyes that were blank and desperate at the same time. Most days there would be a knock on the door and I’d open it to find someone offering to sell me wrinkle cream or baby clothes, whatever they’d managed to steal in the hope of getting whatever they could for it in order to pay for a fix. I hated being in the pathway of all the trouble, and so six months after moving on to the estate I leaped at the chance to swap my house for a second-floor flat in another block. So what if the ceiling was covered in nicotine stains and the front door didn’t lock? I could see blue sky outside my windows and soon made my first friend on the estate – a woman called Jane, who came to introduce herself one day after Dad, who had taken enough steroids to fell a horse so that his hands would work long enough, put on a new front door with Nob’s help. ‘Don’t go answering the bell at night,’ Jane told me as we had a cup of tea. ‘Just keep yourself to yourself and you’ll be fine.’ Jane was tall and slim, and I never saw her without full make-up and a pair of high stilettos. She always looked as if she was about to be whisked off to Harvey Nichols in a limousine instead of going up Hounslow high street. She seemed to like keeping an eye on me and so did her boyfriend, Martin, who was just as kind. Sometimes he would appear at the door with a slice off one of the pig’s heads they cooked in a pot, which I took with a heavy heart because I didn’t like to tell Martin that I was vegetarian. Those were the kind of people he and Jane were: kind and generous, good neighbours who kept an eye on me and did whatever they could to help. Yes, I quickly realised they had a bit of a liking for Diamond White, but it didn’t worry me because who was I to judge? As a single mum on a council estate without a penny to her name, there wasn’t exactly much for me to get uppity about. George was sitting beside Lewis in front of the television at Mum and Dad’s house. ‘Look at the two of them, Ju,’ she said with a smile. Lewis and George were watching Tots TV, just as they always did, because neither of them could get enough of the three rag dolls called Tilly, Tom and Tiny. ‘He’s a good boy, isn’t he, love?’ Mum said as she looked at George, who’d got up to follow Lewis out of the room now the programme had ended. It was 1998. George was two and he’d started walking and crawling just as he should have done a few months after his first birthday. A year on he followed Lewis around like a shadow and my mum and dad were still trying to encourage me with him. I didn’t say too much when they did. I knew everyone was being kind, but I was beginning to feel sure that my problems with George weren’t just of my own making because although I did everything I could to make him happy, it was like living with a stranger. He could change from happy to raging in the blink of an eye and as much as everyone tried to pretend that normal rules applied to George, I knew they didn’t. Take sleeping. At night George would lie awake in his cot for hours, and the moment he learned how to climb out of it, he’d get up every few minutes and scream without stopping if I tried putting him back down. It wasn’t that I was afraid of his temper or making rules. But I could see in George’s eyes that he just didn’t understand what I was trying to teach him. So I had no other choice but to let him toddle around the flat until he finally fell into an exhausted sleep. We must have walked a fair few marathons doing laps of our tiny flat, and even when I did get him into his cot, he often lay awake, chanting words and phrases over and over. ‘Buzz Lightyear, Buzz Lightyear, Buzz Lightyear,’ he’d say again and again, because those were two of the handful of words that he used now, along with ‘Dad’, ‘Mum’ or ‘Batman’. ‘It’s just not possible,’ the doctor would tell me when I went to see him, almost beside myself. ‘Everyone needs to sleep – especially children.’ ‘But George doesn’t.’ The doctor looked at me with a slight smile. ‘I think you must have fallen asleep yourself, Julia, so you didn’t realise that George had as well.’ I knew I hadn’t, but I was learning to keep quiet, and although I still took George to the doctor when something new happened, because I wanted to make sure there wasn’t an obvious health problem, I didn’t keep asking questions when I was told he was fine. I’d been brought up to trust doctors, after all, and everyone kept telling me his behaviour was down to me. That’s why I was doing everything I could to make a better life for us and had signed up to do the Knowledge, the exams that license people to become London cab drivers. I wanted to go back to work and provide for George, so I’d been studying every spare moment for the past eighteen months, with Dad encouraging me. ‘Driving a cab would be the perfect job for you, Ju,’ he’d tell me. ‘You can study for the Knowledge at home and then go to work when it suits you, just like I did.’ But, like a lot of things in life, learning the Knowledge was easier said than done. Driving for a living might sound simple, but if you want to pick up passengers in central London you have to memorise all the streets within a 6-mile radius of Charing Cross station near Trafalgar Square – and there are 25,000 of them. Training for the Knowledge is so hard it’s been proved to make your brain grow, and it doesn’t just end at learning the streets one by one. You also have to know the ‘runs’. These are set routes that get you from any A to any B – lists of streets so long that they fill entire books. I wasn’t sure my brain could fit all that in, and the other big problem was that I hated driving in central London. ‘Faster, Ju, faster,’ Dad would shout when I took him up the Great West Road in his old silver Mustang. But as soon as I pressed my foot on the accelerator and felt the massive old car almost take off, I’d slow down again in fright. I was too slow for central London, so I decided to study for a suburban licence, which would allow me to pick up passengers in the suburb that included Hounslow. It would still mean memorising thousands of streets, though, so after having an interview and being accepted to train for the Knowledge, I began studying for it at home with George. Putting him in a bouncy chair, I’d sit down surrounded by maps and stare at them as I tried to memorise the roads and runs while he cried fit to burst. ‘New Brentford cemetery to Hounslow railway station,’ I’d chant to myself. ‘Left Sutton Lane, forward Wellington Road, left Staines Road, right Hibernia Road, left Hanworth Road, right Heath Road, right Whitton Road, pull up on the left on Station Road. You are now at your destination.’ That was an easy one, mind; there were up to 50 streets in some of the runs. But in a strange way having something else to concentrate on made it easier to cope with George. I’d check that his nappy was dry, he was warm and his tummy was full, and he would still scream; but as I looked at his tiny red face, I’d tell myself that the Knowledge was going to get us out of this life. When I passed it and started working, I would earn enough money to get us a better one. Somehow I had to give that to George, because as he got older, his behaviour had got even more unusual: if someone arrived unexpectedly at the flat, he’d curl up into a ball and rock; when we were out he’d bang his head against the sides of the pushchair so hard that I had to cover the bars with soft blankets which he’d pull over his face to hide. I’d even started supermarket shopping at night because there were fewer people around then to upset him. You don’t know what lengths you’ll go to though, until you’re tested. All I knew was that things had to be a very specific way for George to be anything close to happy, so I gave him what he needed, just as any mother would. Otherwise his emotions were like a boiling kettle he couldn’t control and I had to protect him from them or else he would hurt himself – biting his arm until he drew blood, pulling his hair until his scalp was raw. Even when George was a toddler, I still carried him a lot, because it took only a few seconds for him to hurt himself. Some days it felt as though we were both drowning, and the moments I held on to were when I curled myself around George’s small sleeping body after he’d finally fallen asleep and we lay together – the calm after the storm. It was the closest I got to touching him, and as I gently twisted a small curl of hair on his forehead, I’d look at George, so peaceful, and wish I could find a way to make him feel like that when he was awake. He seemed almost tormented by life, and that’s any mother’s worst fear, isn’t it? Now I watched as Lewis walked back into the room, trailing the long tube that still fed him oxygen from two prongs underneath his nose. They had slipped out of place and as Lewis sat down to play, George kneeled down and gently pushed them back into position. It was something he did with Lewis a lot and whenever I saw him do so, I knew there was love inside George. ‘He’s going to need a nappy change before we go,’ I said to Mum as I got up off the sofa. I walked over to George and took a deep breath before picking him up, knowing I had a split second before his screams started. As I carried him to the changing mat I’d spread out on the floor, he started twisting and turning in my arms. Kicking and biting, he roared with rage as I laid him down with one arm across his chest and used my free hand to take off his nappy. George’s face was bright red with anger, but I didn’t look at him or try to make him laugh with words and smiles. It would only make things worse if I did, because George hated making eye contact with anyone. It was just one of the things I had had to learn: no one could comfort him with a kind look – not even me. One year on the estate turned into two and I carried on studying for the Knowledge. Now don’t go thinking because it took so long that I’m daft. I might not have been top of the class at school, but most people need at least a couple of years to pass the Knowledge and I was no different. Dad had managed to borrow for me an old cab to practise in, instead of going out on a moped as most people do, so a couple of times a week I’d go out and drive the runs, trying to drum the routes into my head. All that practice had to be tested, and for that I had to make what’s known as appearances at the public carriage office in Penton Street, north London. Think of it as what White Hart Lane is to Tottenham fans – the place where everything really important happens. Licensed drivers go there to have their cabs checked or for paperwork to be done, while trainee ones go there to be tested on their runs. You could have cut the tension in the air with a knife as we all waited in a grey room to be called in one by one by two middle-aged men in suits, who asked us to recite runs before grading us on them from A to D. It’s known as calling over a run, and you always knew how well you were doing by the marks you got and how quickly you were called back for another appearance. If it was 14 days you were getting better; if it was more than a couple of months you still had a long way to go. The worst bit, though, was that there was no definite end to it all, no set list of grades you had to get to pass the Knowledge. Instead, you just got called back again and again until one of the men in suits decided you were ready. It was like running a marathon with no idea of where the finishing line was. I went up to London about every month to be tested and it terrified me. If the men in suits had shone a light in my face and told me I had to sleep on a bed of nails, I wouldn’t have been surprised. They really knew how to lay down the law and they wanted to see a good attitude, nice manners and confidence: if you hesitated or got in a muddle as you called over a run, they’d give you a D grade without blinking; if someone’s tie wasn’t straight, they’d tell them to come back another day; and one bloke who swore in the middle of being tested got sent away in disgrace. We were all scared stiff of them, and you could hear a pin drop whenever one of the testers walked into the room where we all had to wait. Some women drive London cabs but not many, and I didn’t meet any when I was studying. It was a world full of men, and those in suits stared at my curly hair, which always had that just-stuck-my-fingers-in-a-socket look however much I brushed it. Sometimes I wanted to scream when they looked at me like that. What did they know? I had George at home, I’d hardly slept and I was doing the best I could. But they didn’t want to hear excuses. Dad encouraged me every step of the way, though. ‘Have you been out to practice, Ju?’ he’d ask when I went round for a cuppa. ‘Are you going up the carriage office soon?’ I tried the best I could, but after more than two years of studying I had almost had enough of the whole thing. By April 1999 my grades had got better and I was being called back more quickly for appearances, but I was so exhausted by trying to study and coping with George that I just wanted to give up. The other thing that was putting me off was Dad’s illness, because he was so bad by now that he was in and out of hospital. All I really wanted to do was be with him, not staring at road maps and trying to get somewhere I was beginning to think I’d never reach. So one day when I was due at the carriage office for an appearance, I went to visit Dad in hospital instead. ‘What are you doing here?’ he asked as he lay on the bed. ‘Aren’t you supposed to be in Penton Street?’ ‘I can’t face it today, Dad. I’d rather just see you. I’ll go another time.’ ‘What are you on about?’ ‘I’m not going in.’ It was as if a bomb had gone off under him. ‘You’re having a bloody laugh, aren’t you, Ju?’ Dad cried as he started struggling to sit up, wriggling around as he tried to get out of bed. ‘Get me up! Get me stuff! Get me tobacco tin! Don’t forget me matches.’ ‘But you’re not allowed to leave the hospital, Dad.’ ‘Well, I am if that’s what it takes to get you to that appearance.’ ‘Don’t be stupid, Dad. You’re in no fit state to go anywhere.’ The furthest he ever went was downstairs to have a fag, and even then I had to push him in a wheelchair. He was never going to make it 10 miles into central London. ‘Don’t you go telling me what to do, my girl!’ Dad cried. ‘We’re going into town.’ There was no arguing with Dad when he got an idea into his head. He wasn’t even supposed to leave the hospital, but he had decided he was going to. We didn’t quite have to dig our way out like they did in The Great Escape, but I still felt like a prisoner on the run as Dad told me to get him into his wheelchair, out to the car park and into the passenger seat of my car. We both knew the nurses would go mad if they knew what we were up to. ‘I’ve got a good feeling about today, I have,’ Dad kept saying when we finally left. ‘You’re going to do it, Ju. I’m sure of it. They’re going to pass you today.’ But no matter what Dad said, I was still panicking by the time we got into central London. I hadn’t prepared myself for an appearance and didn’t know if I could face it. I felt flustered and worried sick as Dad lay beside me in the front seat, which I’d had to push all the way back because it was too painful for him to sit up. ‘I don’t know where I’m going,’ I wailed as I drove towards a massive roundabout. ‘Hold on!’ Dad said. He lifted his head just enough to see over the dashboard and knew instantly where we were. ‘Over to the right, Ju.’ I tried to pull across. ‘Right, RIGGGHT,’ Dad shouted. I pulled the car across three lanes of traffic and prayed for the best. ‘Left,’ Dad said with a puff of exertion and pain. We made it to the carriage office, but I was in a daze by the time I walked in for my appearance. I must have reeled off my runs like a robot, because the man in a suit looked a bit dazed himself when I’d finally finished. I looked up at him and waited to find out when he’d want to see me next. ‘That’s it,’ he said. ‘You’re out.’ I stared at him. I’d done it? I’d got the Knowledge? I could hardly believe it was all finally over as I walked outside to the car. I’d left Dad in his seat, but as I got into the car I saw a livid red burn mark on his chest. He’d dropped his cigarette while I was away and hadn’t been able to pick it up with his crippled hands. He’d had to lie all alone while it burned a hole in him. ‘Oh, Dad!’ I said, as tears rushed into my eyes. ‘All right Ju?’ he replied and smiled. ‘Your chest, Dad. Are you OK?’ ‘Don’t worry about it, love. It don’t hurt.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yes. Forget that and tell me how you got on.’ As I looked at him lying there, I felt so full of love for him. ‘I did it, Dad, I did it.’ A huge smile stretched over his face. ‘I knew you would,’ he said. With a sigh, Dad lent his head down against the seat. ‘Now let’s get back to the hospital. Those nurses are gonna have my guts for garters.’ Chapter 3 (#ulink_d3bc4a58-c7b9-5826-ae91-149bf2378ab0) Now I wish this was one of those really happy stories where I became a taxi driver, gave a lift to a movie star and ran away with him into the sunset. But real life’s not usually like that, is it? At least mine’s not, and what actually happened two months after passing the Knowledge was that my life changed in a way that made me think I’d never be happy again. George was the only thing that got me out of bed when Dad died, because losing him felt like the end of the world. We gave Dad the send-off he deserved – his coffin lying in a glass-sided carriage drawn by a horse wearing black feather plumes and led by a man wearing a top hat and tails, with friends and family following behind in a long line of taxis – but it felt unreal. How do you say goodbye to the person who ties you to the earth and stops you flying away with his jokes, kind words and quiet love? It wasn’t just me who was lost – Mum and Dad had been together since they were teenagers. We all dealt with his death the best way we knew how: by staying close as we started learning how to cope without him. Dad was buried in the local cemetery and I hated leaving him there, cold in the ground, so I visited him as often as I could and would sit with him as George and Lewis ran around together. ‘Can we fill in the hole, Ju?’ Lewis asked me one day when they found a fresh pile of dirt beside a newly dug grave that was waiting to be filled. ‘Just a bit,’ I said. A few handfuls of earth wouldn’t matter, I thought to myself as I watched Lewis laughing while he played. He wheezed at the same time because laughing took all his breath and sounded like an 80-year-old man who’d smoked a pack a day all his life. George silently watched Lewis as he roared, as if he was trying to work out what the strange sound was. Then when Lewis started coughing with the effort of laughing, George bent him over before patting him on the back until he got his breath back. Sometime later I knew George would suddenly stop playing, stand to attention in the silence like a rabbit hearing a fox and listen to the sound of a train that no one else could yet hear until it rumbled past on the railway line running beside the cemetery. George was so sensitive to noise that when we were out for a walk he’d scream each time a car went by, as if a juggernaut was rushing by instead of a Ford Fiesta. A few months passed like that – George and I going up to the cemetery, sometimes with Lewis, sometimes just the two of us, while I sat and wondered what the future held for us now my dream of being a taxi driver had come to nothing. After doing the Knowledge, I’d just needed to pass a driving test in central London to get my full licence, but I’d failed twice while Dad was still alive and I could not face taking it again after he died. He’d always encouraged me to keep going, but I could hear him laughing and see his face every time I got into a cab. It was too much, so I’d given up on all that hard work. I felt like a complete failure. I was no good as a mum and now I was a quitter too. So time went on, as it does, the earth settled on Dad’s grave and when a huge dip appeared, I almost got arrested after deciding to lay some turf on it as the sun went down one day. Within a few minutes, a couple of coppers had arrived – black helmets on their heads and radios crackling – and it had taken some convincing to make them realise that I wasn’t up to no good. But apart being suspected of grave robbing, I liked going to the cemetery because it was somewhere peaceful to go and think. However much I did, though, I still felt as though I was stuck in treacle. As George played, the thoughts would tumble through my head. The life I was giving George was a world away from the one that Dad and Mum had given Boy, Nob, Tor and me as children. And no matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to find a way to make things better. I had been taught to earn my way in life and even had with my own small florist’s shop, where I’d worked seven days a week before George was born, but I’d given it up when I became a mum. Now the Knowledge had come to nothing, I didn’t know what to do. It all made me feel so useless and as the months passed without Dad, I’d sit and wonder whether I was ever going to be able to change things for George and me. But the more I thought about it, the more I knew one thing: I couldn’t let my unhappiness get the better of me. It was time for a fresh start. George was four when he began school in September 2000 and it was one of those days when I looked at him and wondered what I was making such a fuss about. With his big blue eyes and blond hair, he looked perfect as I dressed him in a bright red sweatshirt and black trousers. I felt sure that school was just what he needed now we’d moved on to a new estate, which seemed so much nicer than our last. It was a new beginning for both of us. As I say, I’m a dreamer. It took only a few weeks for me to be called in to talk to the teachers. ‘We think George might have hearing problems,’ one said. ‘He doesn’t respond when we call his name,’ another told me. ‘He can’t seem to understand commands,’ someone else piped up. ‘If we tell the children we’re going to sit down in a few minutes George does it immediately, and when we get them into a circle for story time, he crawls backwards and lies under a bench with his hands over his ears.’ In a way I was almost relieved to hear what the teachers had to say, because they were the first professionals to spend any proper time with George and they could see there was a problem, which was what I’d been trying to tell people for years. But I also felt scared, because however much you can cope with things when they’re hidden at the back of the cupboard, they feel much bigger the moment they’re brought out into the light. As George was referred for sight and hearing tests at a local clinic, I told myself that I could not be fearful: I was 27 years old, a grown-up, and if he really did have problems, the sooner they were identified, the sooner they could be sorted out. Meanwhile, I kept myself to myself on the new estate after all that had happened on the old one and the first thing that needed sorting out was our new home, because the old woman who’d had the flat before us had lived there with 13 cats and the place was crawling with fleas. While the council came in and sprayed the rooms, George and I had stayed with Mum, and then it was all hands on deck when we finally moved in. I might have thought I was Miss Independent but I still needed my family to help decorate. I’d learned young, after all, that you have to make the most of your home. ‘Sides, top, then front,’ my nan Doris would tell me as she pointed at a wardrobe before handing me a massive bottle of polish and a duster when she got me over to her house every Saturday morning to help her clean. Usually I did a good job, but then came the day when I was about 10 and she suddenly hit me across the back of the head without a word of warning. ‘Stay still!’ Nan screamed as I saw stars. ‘Don’t move. I’m going to get your mother.’ She ran next door, came back with Mum and together they peered at my head. ‘Look at them,’ said Nan. ‘It’s those kids from down the road who gave them to her,’ said Mum. ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked. ‘You’ve got headlice,’ Mum told me and I started to cry. I was back to normal after a good shampoo with the nit lotion and Nan let me back in her house to help clean it again. But all those years of dusting had taught me the power of elbow grease, and that was what I used in our new flat. Soon the kitchen was painted terracotta, the hallway white, my bedroom pink and George’s room yellow. I didn’t just decorate the inside, though. Our third-floor flat had a balcony overlooking a field with a willow tree in it, so I made the most of the view by covering the balcony floor in rainbow stripes, painting the walls green and putting flowers in pots. Standing on the balcony blowing bubbles at George, because he could never get enough of them, I’d look at the shed roofs below and wonder if a bit of turf would make them look better. You can’t even grow grass on a roof, but I never know when to stop, do I? Real life came back with a bang, though, whenever I left the flat with George, because some days getting him to school could take up to an hour. He’d bite me or cling on to railings as we walked, screech and shout, or stare at the soldiers standing at the gates of the local army barracks and refuse to be moved. It was such a battle that I often took him in a pushchair, and as I bumped it down the stairs, I began meeting the woman who lived in the flat below ours. I wasn’t quite sure what she made of me, because our walls were paper thin and George made a lot of noise, while the only thing I knew about her was that she loved vacuuming so much that she seemed to be at it all day, every day. The woman looked about the same age as me and had two children: a little boy around four, like George, and a girl who was a bit older. Even though we smiled as we passed on the stairs and she looked normal enough, I didn’t stop to chat because I’d just moved from a place where a lot of people were either falling down drunk or stealing from washing lines, however innocent they looked. But one day, the woman looked at me as I struggled up a step with George. ‘Disgusting, isn’t it?’ she said as she looked at the grey concrete walls of the stairway. They were covered in graffiti and the smell of wee wafted up from the corridor below because people were always peeing in it. ‘Horrible,’ I said. ‘I’m Michelle,’ the woman replied with a smile. ‘I’m Julia.’ ‘Good to meet you. Now, shall we get something done about these stairs?’ That was the start of our friendship. Michelle and I were united in stair rage as we got everyone together and went to see the housing manager. ‘People will only have pride in their homes if you give them a reason to by cleaning up the graffiti and getting rid of the dog mess,’ we told him. The housing manager agreed that if Michelle and I jetwashed the stairs and corridors, the council would paint the walls, and we were asked to pick a colour. So what did we choose? Cream, maybe? White? Blue even? No: pink, pale, baby pink, because it looked lovely with the grey concrete floor, didn’t it? We got so stair proud in the end that we even stuck fake flowers on the walls and would stand on our balconies watching troublemakers walk into the building. ‘Hope you’re not going to let the dog pee in there,’ we’d shout to one man, who we knew let his pet loose in our corridor. He didn’t like that one bit, but Michelle and I did. We’d been bitten by the brightening-up bug and even ended up painting the doors of the storage lockers each flat had on the ground floor to make the place a bit more colourful. But however much Michelle and I got on, I was still backwards in coming forwards about being proper friends. Once I might have longed for a friend of my age, someone to see a film with or do a bit of shopping with maybe. But I’d learned that I was the only person who could keep George calm and because of that it wasn’t fair on him or anyone else to leave him. His needs had to come first and I just didn’t want to go out without him. So while there were bad days when I cried quietly after he’d finally gone to sleep, I soon picked myself back up again and got on with things. I was George’s mum and I’d got used to keeping both of us out of the way of most people. We saw family, of course, but I didn’t want George to be stared at by strangers when he lay on the floor stiff as he had a tantrum or hear a tut as he screamed the place down. I didn’t want to have to explain how I was getting called into school because he got into trouble with the other kids, hitting or biting them when they didn’t play how he wanted, or how I’d asked for his hearing and sight tests to be done again because although they’d come back normal, now George was at school I was more certain than ever that something was wrong. I might have got used to his ways when it was just the two of us, but I couldn’t ignore how different they were now, which is why I wanted the tests to be done again in case there had been a mistake. How could I explain all that to Michelle, whose children, Ricky and Ashley, were perfect? Tell her that George had begun to blurt out things when we were out and just wouldn’t stop, no matter how many times I tried telling him? ‘Fat!’ he’d say as a larger woman walked past. ‘Hairy!’ he’d cry at another with a plait. ‘Moles!’ he’d shout at someone with freckles. ‘Smelly!’ he’d tell just about anyone if they got too close. People looked at him strangely before carrying on their way, but however much I tried telling George not to do it, he couldn’t keep quiet. The school didn’t know what to make of him and had even started keeping a book in which they listed all his behaviours, like refusing to drink in front of people or disappearing for half an hour when he went to the loo because he took off all his clothes before going. There were so many little things that I did not know where to start, and that’s why I was scared of making a friend. Luckily nothing seemed to worry Michelle as we started to spend more time together. Maybe it was because she was a trained child minder, or just that she was really patient, but Michelle took everything in her stride – even the day when we were out on the field and I looked across to see George had pinned Ricky to the ground and was hitting him. ‘Stop!’ I screamed as I ran towards them. George didn’t turn around at the sound of my voice and when I finally reached him, he just looked at me blankly for a moment before hitting Ricky again. ‘George, no!’ I said as I pulled him off, thinking that this time he’d really done it and Michelle would never speak to me again. But she was quietly fine about it. ‘These things happen with kids,’ she told me as I dragged George away. It made me so sad to realise that he could not make friends. As I watched him with Ricky and Ashley, I could see that George didn’t understand how to be with other children. I still wasn’t brave enough to talk to Michelle about it all though, until she brought it up one evening as we sat on the stairs between our flats. We’d got into the habit of meeting there as time had gone on and I’d found myself looking forward to the moment when I heard Michelle’s knock. Leaving our front doors ajar so we were both near enough to hear if any of the kids woke up, we’d sit out together, and that’s where we were the night she turned to me. ‘Is there a problem with George?’ Michelle asked. No one had ever said it straight out like that before. ‘I think so,’ I said. ‘But he’s had his hearing and sight tested and they say he’s fine. I’m at the end of my tether with it, though, because I’m sure there’s a problem and no one seems to want to listen.’ Michelle looked at me with her big eyes. ‘You know, you’ve got to stop apologising for him, Ju. George is who he is and people are going to have to accept that. You get into too much of a state about it all. You shouldn’t care so much about what other people think. I can see how much it bothers you, but it shouldn’t.’ ‘What about when he hits Ricky, though, or tells Ashley that she smells?’ I asked. ‘What am I supposed to do then?’ ‘You do as much as you can with him. I know that. But sometimes you have to let the kids sort it out themselves and know that people are going to have to accept George the way he is because he’s not going to change anytime soon.’ I’ve always thought we meet people for a reason and Michelle was my karma. As we got to know each other better, I’d talk to her about George: how I’d finally get him to sleep each night just hoping we’d get through a few hours without him getting up to wee up the wall or how I’d see other kids playing together and wish George could learn to join in. ‘Let him be, Ju,’ Michelle would tell me. ‘You can’t make George be what he isn’t, and anyone can see what a good mum you are. It’s other people who’ve got to change their attitude, not George. If they can’t accept him, then they’re not worth bothering about.’ Michelle was so understanding that I soon even felt comfortable enough to take George to her flat. It didn’t matter if he wiped cake up the wall there or bashed the head of Ashley’s doll against the wall, because Michelle didn’t flinch. ‘Are you knocking some sense into Barbie, then, George?’ she’d say with a laugh. ‘That’s good.’ And while George still found it hard to get on with Ricky and Ashley, even though they were both really good with him, I knew that he liked Michelle. He’d never hug her, of course, or smile – George wouldn’t even look at Michelle when he spoke to her most of the time or show that he noticed when she was there. But as the months passed, he started doing something that told me he did: he sniffed. Each day when we left the flat, George would take in a deep breath of fresh air and tell me that he could smell Michelle. Because even though her flat was one floor below us, he knew when she had a wash on and to George that smell meant Michelle. Somehow she had got through to him and George showed me in his own particular way that she had. Chapter 4 (#ulink_c6afad2c-b2d2-515e-bf3d-d33ca9a5272b) I stopped still as I walked into the bedroom and saw George. I wanted to scream, but knew I had to be silent. Somehow he had opened the latch that locked the window and climbed outside. He was standing on the other side of the glass with his bare feet on the ledge next to the open window. We were on the third floor. I couldn’t move too quickly or else I’d frighten him. ‘What are you up to, George?’ I asked. He stared silently at a spot just past my head, his hands holding on to the frame. Slowly I reached into my pocket for my phone and dialled 999. ‘I need help,’ I told the operator. A voice on the other end took my details and my eyes didn’t leave George as I put down the phone, praying that someone would get here soon. If he moved an inch he would fall. I should have known he might do something like this. George had no sense of danger at the best of times and didn’t seem to feel pain either. If he fell over, he never ran to me or cried; he just got up and walked away, with his knee pouring blood if he had cut it. But lately he’d been jumping up and down a lot when we went for a walk and telling me he was flying. ‘Are you, my love?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Where?’ ‘Over a big building.’ ‘Really? Where else?’ ‘A tree.’ I’d told myself George had a wild imagination and I was happy that he could dream. But now as my heart hammered and George looked at me I knew I should have kept a closer eye on him. I wanted to scream – knowing I had to stand still, longing to run at him – for what felt like forever, but was probably just a couple of minutes, until I heard the sound of sirens. I had asked the firemen to be ready to catch George if he fell because I couldn’t let them into the flat. If he saw strangers I was sure he’d let go of the window frame. He just didn’t understand that if he did that, he would fall. George thought he could fly like the birds. I took a step forward, ready to rush at him and grab him if he let go with his hands. Then I looked at my watch as if it was any other day and I didn’t have a care in the world. ‘We’re late, George,’ I told him. ‘We’ve got to get to Nannie’s because Lewis is waiting to see us.’ George looked at me, as if he was thinking about whether he wanted to move or not. ‘They’ll be wondering where we are,’ I said, trying to keep the panic out of my voice. Inch by inch, George started shuffling back along the windowsill and my heart was in my mouth with every move he made. But the moment he put a foot through the open window, I gripped it so hard there was no way he’d be able to rock back and I pulled him down into the room with me. ‘Good boy,’ I said, longing to cuddle him, knowing I couldn’t. ‘But you know you mustn’t do that again, don’t you, George?’ He brushed himself with his hands where I’d touched him and looked at me without a shadow of understanding in his eyes. My hands shook as I followed George out of the room and even though I knew that from now on I would lock every window and door in the flat and hide all the keys, I was still at my wits’ end as I talked it over with Michelle that night. ‘We’ve got to show him, Ju,’ she said. ‘George can’t see it himself, so we’ve got to show him what could happen.’ The following morning Michelle arrived at the flat armed with a box of eggs, and we took George to the bedroom, where we opened the window. ‘Do you see this egg, George?’ Michelle asked as she held it in front of his face. ‘It’s you, it is.’ She dropped the egg out the window and George watched as it flew down and smashed on the concrete below. ‘Now you try,’ Michelle said as she handed him an egg. After throwing half a dozen out the window, we ran downstairs to find the concrete outside the flats covered in bits of yolk and shell. George looked around with a blank face. ‘You’ll get broken too if you fall – just like you’ll get broken if you step in front of a car,’ I told him, kneeling down to face him. ‘You’re like an egg, George – you’re fragile. Do you see?’ He didn’t look at me or say a word, but at least we’d tried, and I was learning by now that if you said things enough to George they eventually went in. If most mums had to tell their kids a hundred times, I had to repeat it a thousand to George. How else was he going to learn to fit into a world he didn’t understand? His problems at school were only getting worse and I knew a lot of people thought George was just a naughty child who couldn’t be controlled: he’d climb the fence as the teachers told him to get down, hide under the dinner lady’s sari or push children over. He had to learn, so I’d try to talk to him every time I was called into school, but George just couldn’t see that what he was doing was wrong. He didn’t know the difference between a tap and a grab so rough it ripped another child’s jumper, or even understand how to move around other adults or kids: every time we left school, he’d run through the gates crashing into people, leaving them staring at him. I’d tried everything I could to make him walk with me but he always bolted the moment he got out the school door and as I chased after him, he would roll on the floor screaming the moment I touched him. George just could not see that he was the one who was different, and every time I tried to talk to him about what he’d done wrong, he would tell me that he hadn’t. What I was trying to teach him just didn’t make sense and he was sure it was the other children who were the problem. But although I knew that I had to keep trying to help him understand the way the world worked, it felt more and more as if his school was almost giving up on helping me to teach him that. In the December of George’s second year at school, when he was about five and a half, I was told he couldn’t join in the Christmas concert because it might spoil things if he had one of his outbursts. I knew George wouldn’t notice if he wasn’t at the concert, but I would because that’s what mums do, isn’t it? Teachers don’t spend twenty-four hours with children, though. They didn’t know George as I did and see all the tiny details of his behaviour – the good bits that were mixed in with the not-so-good ones. For instance, he might not seem interested in most of his lessons, but the one that always made George listen was history. So I’d started taking him to all the places I could think of – Hampton Court Palace and the Tower of London, Windsor Castle and old aristocratic houses – to give him the kind of days out that I’d had as a child when Dad and Mum had told us all about London’s old buildings and I’d learned to love those kinds of places. My favourite had always been Hampton Court Palace; whenever I walked into the huge hallway with its marble stairs, old paintings and enormous chandelier, I’d imagine that it was my house. It wasn’t easy, of course. George didn’t like all the people and I had to work out what he could and couldn’t cope with. Going on the Tube was just too frightening, but we just about managed if we went in the car and I let him hide when the place we were visiting got too busy. George never talked about what we saw but I knew his favourite place was Windsor Castle because his eyes would open in wonder when we went in winter and the castle walls shone as the huge lights were turned on at dusk. Water, shiny things and lights were his true obsessions. So although George wasn’t getting on at school, I knew he was intelligent. He showed that he picked up on everything that went on around him by the things he did. When Mum mentioned in front of him one day that my nan used to throw salt over her shoulder out of superstition, he started doing the same; and when something interested George, whether it was Windsor Castle, trees and birds or water and fishes, he couldn’t get enough of it. But all his teachers seemed to see was a little boy who wouldn’t do as he was told and was disruptive, not interested in learning and sometimes aggressive. In a class of about 40 children, they just didn’t have the time to spend on him and I was worried sick that George would never get any help. That’s why I agreed to see two counsellors when I was asked to go back to the clinic where George had had his hearing tests, because the second set had also come back normal and someone somewhere had obviously decided that George’s problems were down to me. For the first few sessions with the counsellors, George came with me and would hide behind my chair as they talked. ‘What do you do when George lies on the floor and won’t get up, Julia?’ the women asked, all soft voices and knowing looks. What did they think I did? Drag him up by his hair? ‘Do you tell him “No” when he smashes a toy?’ I was asked. Did they think I was afraid to say a word when he bashed up Buzz Lightyear? ‘Why do you think he doesn’t eat with a spoon?’ ‘How is George’s relationship with his father?’ ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ There was one word for those women and it’s this: patronising. All they saw was a single mum with an out-of-control child, and it didn’t matter what I said to try to tell them any different. ‘Why don’t you talk to the school?’ I’d ask again and again. ‘They can tell you more about George and all his odd behaviours. This isn’t about discipline. I know there’s something more.’ The answer was always the same. ‘George is still very young, Julia. This is an assessment and it takes time.’ So I’d go into the school and ask them why they couldn’t do something more for George. ‘You’re being assessed, Julia. It takes time.’ I wanted to bang all their heads together, because the longer this went on the worse it was getting, and I felt even more frustrated when I was sent to a group for parents whose children had behavioural problems. It was the first time that I thought I might go to the top of the class because the advice was so basic. When your child’s been put in the box marked ‘naughty’, it’s hard to get anyone to see past it, and sometimes I wished the school could just let George be a bit. For instance, he was still very specific about what he would and wouldn’t eat, and while he didn’t tell me in words, I realised over time that he couldn’t eat food that touched: he liked eggs, he liked baked beans, but if they were together on a plate he would just stare at them. It was as though George had the Berlin Wall of food inside his head because things always had to be divided. So I started giving him everything in separate bowls when I realised that it was the only way he’d eat. He also had food phases – first it was just crackers, then squeezy yoghurts and then custard creams – and I knew it wasn’t just fussy eating because George got really anxious sometimes as he stared at his plate and breathed deeply. So I gave him what he wanted to calm him down enough to eat. It was during his jam sandwich phase that I wished the teachers might let him alone a bit. George’s sandwiches had to be very particular because he wouldn’t eat them if there was butter peeping out of the side of the bread; and even when I made them right, he often ended up chewing the sandwich before spitting it into his lunchbox. The teachers didn’t like that at all, and although I explained that I’d seen a dietician who’d reassured me that George would be fine as long as he had milk, yoghurt and bread each day and that I would sort out his lunchbox when he got home, they wouldn’t listen. I felt drained by it all. Why did people keep asking questions? Why didn’t they just do something to help? Part of me said I had to keep trusting the doctors, who told me that George was still too young to be diagnosed with anything if there was something wrong with his development, the counsellors, who told me to count to three, and the teachers, who kept saying that children learned at different speeds. Another part wanted to tell them all to just do something, anything, as one year at school turned into two and then three. After going on his first school trip, I was told George couldn’t go again because he wouldn’t sit on his coach seat; when he went swimming – something Howard had taught him to do that he loved and was really good at – the teachers said he didn’t listen and almost stopped him from going until I pleaded with them; and when I picked him up from school and was told he’d fallen asleep in class again because he’d hardly slept the night before, I’d see the questions in their eyes. George spent more and more time out of the class sitting in a long corridor at a small table with a teaching assistant by his side; it seemed as if it was a case of out of sight, out of mind. I couldn’t be sure, of course, but I wondered if George was picking up on it all, because while he’d always hidden away from people, he seemed to feel more and more that they were actually against him. ‘He’s watching me,’ George would say as we walked past a man on the way to school. ‘No, he’s not, love,’ I’d tell him. ‘He’s just walking to work minding his own business.’ Or George would pull down his Pokémon baseball cap and tell me the sun was watching him or the clouds were following us. Getting him to the dentist was so hard that I had to take him to hospital for an anaesthetic when he needed teeth removed and he’d told me that the doctor had tried to kill him when he woke up. I think that’s why I tried to give him as much love as I could when we were at home, so that he’d at least feel safe with me when the world frightened him so much. But however much I gave him, George never expressed any love back, and even though I had a child, at times it almost felt as if I didn’t. I’d find myself staring at other kids running out of school to give their mums a kiss and longing for George to want to hug me, but he never let me touch him or showed any emotion towards me. It was almost as if it was the first time he’d seen me when he woke up each morning and I struggled with it every day, sometimes even wishing I could meet someone and have another baby just to know how it felt to be a mother to a child who loved me back. The only time George would let me touch him was when we rough played and he pretended to be a Power Ranger as we sat together in one of the tents I’d put up all over the flat because he liked them so much. I had even put one up on my bed, hoping he might sleep in it, because George could sit in a tent for hours on end. Most days I’d climb in with him for anything up to three hours at a time and that was when we’d play fight. As George climbed on to me, I would hold on to him for a few seconds as I felt the chubbiness in his legs or his skinny little chest. I loved those moments together because otherwise George didn’t let me touch him. He did not really speak to me either: he still only talked about very specific things like Power Rangers and Buzz Lightyear. Often he spoke just single words or would chant phrases over and over again. ‘Oh and the plane, oh and the plane,’ he’d cry a hundred times before moving on to something else. I tried to distract him with puzzles or pots of paints but George would scream if he got anything wrong, which made it hard to play because everyone makes mistakes when they’re six. One of the few things he liked, though, was playdough, which he’d squidge in his hands as I made things for him to look at. So one day I bought him a plastic figure of a man with holes in his head to push the playdough through to make ‘hair’. At first George smiled as he watched me do it but the moment I picked up some scissors to cut the hair, he started screaming. Throwing himself on the floor, he went stiff with rage as he roared. His shouts were so loud and sudden that I wondered if he’d somehow hurt himself and I knelt down beside him. ‘George,’ I pleaded with him. ‘Tell me what’s wrong.’ But I never did find out because George didn’t tell me how he felt. How could he? George didn’t even seem to know who he was. When I’d stood him in front of a mirror one day, he’d cried so much that I’d had to take down all the others in the house. So how was he ever going to explain emotions that poured out of him in tantrums that still came out of the blue? George was like a mystery I couldn’t solve, a puzzle whose pieces fitted together to make a picture I didn’t quite understand, however much I wanted to. Chapter 5 (#ulink_a4269564-ca8d-53a8-a1f2-f6dbf7abf5a0) Did you know that a leaflet that drops through the door on an ordinary day can start something big? I didn’t when one fell on to the mat about a year after I moved to the new estate. Ever since giving up the Knowledge and getting our new flat, I’d wanted to go back to work, because living off benefits made me feel a bit useless. So after George started school, I got a job in a pub, where I did the cleaning before going into the kitchens to help out the cook. I loved being out and about with people again, but slowly I realised that I couldn’t keep working outside my home because I was exhausted most days after another night without sleep and I kept getting called into school about George. It took more than a year to accept that I needed all my energy to look after him, but in the end I had to give up work because he was such a full-time job. So that’s why when the residents’ association for the flats dropped a leaflet through our doors asking for mums to join I thought I’d give it a go, because I like to keep busy. Now I can’t say the association was the most exciting thing I’d ever done, because listening to someone from the council talk about where they’re going to put speed humps just isn’t that interesting. But something came out of it as I listened to people talk, because I found out that the piece of land beside the flats had once been a community garden. It got me thinking, because ever since moving into the flat and getting a balcony, I’d been growing things with George. He liked looking after plants and throwing mud around so much that our balcony was now full of pots of herbs, tomatoes, sunflowers and hanging baskets of flowers. His favourite thing was watering: George would fill everything to the brim, the flowers would struggle to stay alive and Michelle’s balcony below would get covered in muddy water, which ruined her clean washing over and over. So when I heard that the land by the flats had once been a garden for everyone to enjoy, I decided to see if we could bring it back to life. One of my neighbours, who’d lived on the estate for years, had pictures of how things once were and I wanted to try to make the land like that again. There were four blocks of flats on the estate with 50 families in each, so there should be enough of us to get something done. When I asked the residents’ association for a grant, I told them that a gardening club might do a lot of good, because our estate had a bit of a past and maybe doing something that everyone could join in with might help. Things had changed over the years on the estate and ours, like many others, had become a real mix of nationalities. But the difference was that a few riff-raff white people hadn’t liked that and before I arrived an Asian family had been harassed. I didn’t know for sure, but I thought that was why people had put up barriers to protect themselves from each other. Everyone kept themselves to themselves and didn’t encourage their kids to mix, which wasn’t exactly good for community spirit. Now some might say I’m simple, but we’re not alive that long, so what’s the point in fighting with each other? We’ve all got the same heart, whatever our differences, and while there were some bad types on the estate, most people weren’t like that. There’s always much more good than bad in any neighbourhood and I was right about the gardening. When I got the grant from the residents’ association people were ready to help. Dads came up to do the heavy work and clear the bit of grass next to the willow tree that we wanted to plant, while mums and kids helped Michelle and me with the planting. After getting enough money to buy four benches, some equipment and a few rose bushes from the local pound shop, the gardening club soon became a weekly event. Old people arrived for a chat while children had a go with a trowel as I showed them how to dig in a plant and pack the soil down tightly around the roots to encourage them to grow or water the roses and take off the dead heads so that more buds would flower. As time had passed with Michelle, Ricky and Ashley, George and I had started to go out a bit more with them. The kids would ride their bikes as Michelle and I chatted or we would go out to play on the green. So when George came with me to the gardening club, I was secretly hoping it might encourage him to mix a bit more. Although he stayed on the sidelines watching, I was glad if he just picked up a spade for a minute because it was a start and at least the gardening club was something for us to do together every week through the spring and summer. Most important, though, it sparked something inside Michelle and me, for we soon started thinking about what else we could do. Once we’d had stair rage; now we had community spirit fever. So the next Easter, we decided to do an egg hunt for all the kids. I thought it was a great idea because one of my most fantastic childhood memories was a hunt I’d done as a kid. It was at my cousin Sally’s house, which had a garden backing on to the River Thames, and Mum had put me in my best dress for it. It was magical to be there with all the posh boats going by as we hunted for eggs in the shrubs. My Aunt Rita was a very educated woman who’d done well in life and I remember thinking what a different life Sally led compared to mine. Even though I cried after finding so many eggs that Dad had told me to share them out, I never forgot that day, and those kinds of memories were what I had always tried to give George, because they’re the ones that make you feel loved, aren’t they? If some of the kids on my estate didn’t have the best kind of life, maybe an egg hunt might give them a good memory. Michelle and I didn’t get any money for the Easter hunt from the residents association, but we saved up a bit to buy some chocolate and make posters letting everyone know about it. The hunt was fixed for midday, and so many kids turned up that as Michelle and I sent them off two by two I hoped there would be enough eggs for everyone. All sorts came: the good ones and the ones who were a bit naughtier. They all got as excited as each other – even Georgia, a girl with great big glasses and beautiful blonde hair who ended up jumping up and down underneath a tree turning the air blue with her swearing as she tried to get an egg down from the branches. Community spirit can be in short supply these days, but I learned when Michelle and I did all those things on the estate that while you might not be able to change the adults who want to sit in their flats drinking and watching TV, you can encourage their kids out a bit more. In the years that followed, Michelle and I carried on doing things, and although she used to tell me that half the people thought we were stupid and the other half were sure we wanted something from them, I didn’t care. That’s just how I am and I think my mum and dad made me like that. You have to break down the barriers if you can – just as we did after causing uproar when we decided to take down the washing lines outside the flats for a few hours one day to put up badminton nets for the kids instead. ‘What are you up to now?’ people cried when they saw what Michelle and I were doing. ‘Our whites need airing.’ ‘Won’t be long,’ we shouted. Their smalls could wait a few hours. I’d played badminton as a kid and Dad had held my hand to help me. Now Michelle and I did the same as we got the kids to bat the shuttlecocks. As we played, I saw a little girl standing on one of the balconies. She was only about six and I could tell from looking at her that she’d been told not to come down, because she kept looking away when I tried to catch her eye. So the next time we played badminton, I knocked on the door of the flat where she lived and told her mum that I didn’t have any certificates and I couldn’t take her child all day but I hoped she’d let her girl come down. The mum didn’t say a thing and I was a bit worried she might think I was a busybody. But she obviously didn’t, because after that the little girl was sent down to play with us. The best thing of all that Michelle and I did was starting up a bats and balls night – although it got off to a rocky start. We’d got a bit cocky by then, what with the gardening and the badminton, so we decided that we wanted everyone to join in our bat and balls evening – even mums and dads. To spread the word, we used our secret weapon: the local gossips. You know the ones? Mouths like the Dartford Tunnel and the time to stand around chatting for hours. I casually told them about what we were planning and knew they’d spread the word. But on the first night of our new club, Michelle and I took George, Ricky and Ashley down to the green and found just our friend Sharon waiting for us with her kids and a couple of old ladies. The gossips hadn’t done quite as good a job as we’d hoped, but we had to carry on because people were watching from their balconies, staring at us and wondering what the nutters were up to now. After that, we had to think of something else if our games night was going to work. We had to have a big plan. So Michelle and I decided that the best way to advertise the bats and balls was to have a family fun day on the green to let people know what we were about. After talking to my family, who agreed to help us out with money, we bought a cheap paddling pool and hired a bouncy castle for the day. We were so excited by it all that it was only as we stared at the paddling pool on the morning of the fun day that we realised it was going to take more than just a few buckets to fill it. The pool could have been used for Olympic laps. ‘We’ll have to use our kitchen taps,’ Michelle said. So we hooked up hoses down to the pool, and that day turned out to be one of the best of my life. Loads of people arrived, and the kids jumped in and out of the paddling pool or on and off the bouncy castle, with Michelle keeping an eye on them all, while I started up a game of rounders to get people playing. George had come out and kicked his football as he watched lots of people play rounders. Even the man from the end of my block, who was so drunk he could hardly see straight to hit a ball, joined in. ‘Now I know you like a drink, and I do too,’ I said, even though the most I ever had was a brandy and Coke and he must have had at least eight cans of beer inside him. ‘But I’m not sure you should have lager in your hand as we play games with the kids. It sets a bad example, doesn’t it?’ The man looked at me, cross-eyed, before throwing his can up in the air with a smile. Later we talked and I found out his parents had died, and he’d become homeless and gone on the drink. Just shows that you can’t judge what’s on the outside, doesn’t it? There’s all sorts in this life, and I think the man had fun, even if he couldn’t focus on the ball. We all had a good time that day, and the only bit of trouble came when the water tank on the roof burst because we’d left the taps running. As all the old biddies started moaning because they couldn’t get a drop out of their taps, we had to phone the council to send someone out. ‘What’s been going on here?’ the man asked as he stared at the massive paddling pool, loads of wet kids and sopping grass. I had to tell him, but thankfully the man just laughed and went up on to the roof to fix things. I always look back on that day with a smile. There were loads of us from all different flats, all different ages, who’d never really spoken to each other before, and the fun day broke the ice. After that more people started coming down to play bats and balls. It got so popular in the end that old people would come to sit on a bench and chat, and kids would be waiting for Michelle and me when we went to unlock the shed where we kept everything. I loved doing all that stuff and learned from it that behind every door there’s a different story: the old woman I thought had lots of family was in fact lonely; an Asian family who’d always felt a bit unsafe on the estate were now comfortable enough to come out with their kids because they’d realised that most of us were friendly. Most of all I learned that when you do something for other people, you do something for yourself too, because as George and I got to know our community it felt as though we were beginning to have a place of our own. Maybe the world was opening up for both of us. George’s school was a real mix of kids. As well as all the ones who learned at an average pace, there were children who found it harder because they had special learning needs. By that I mean things like attention deficit disorder or physical disabilities that meant they needed more help than average kids. Some were taught in the special needs unit, while others had the help of a teaching assistant who sat with them for anything from a few hours a week to all day every day, giving them one-on-one attention during regular lessons. Ever since seeing the counsellors and doing the parenting course, I’d felt as if George was being forgotten by school, as I’d gone in and out almost as much as he had – either because he’d got into trouble again or to ask for something to be done – and it had felt as if I was bashing my head against a brick wall. Poor Mum had almost had her ear chewed off about it all as I talked to her about it over and over. But something finally happened when George moved from the infants part of the school, where children spent their first three years, to the juniors, where he would be for another four until starting secondary school at 11. The school decided that from now on he was going to get some help from the special needs unit because he wasn’t learning properly. Now that was more than a bit of an understatement: George was seven, couldn’t read a word or write one, say the letter ‘A’ if you held an apple up in front of him or recognise his own name when it was written down. I was glad something was happening because I can’t tell you how it had all made me feel: some nights I’d lock myself in the toilet and cry into a towel because I didn’t want George to hear me upset. I felt lonely one day, sad the next, and then I’d try to be hopeful on the third. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/julia-romp/a-friend-like-ben-the-true-story-of-the-little-black-and-white/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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