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Authors: Casey Watson

Mummy's Little Helper

BOOK: Mummy's Little Helper
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To my wonderful and supportive family

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank all of the team at HarperCollins, the lovely Andrew Lownie, and my friend and mentor, Lynne.

Chapter 1

I love my family. I really do. They’re the best in the world in almost every respect. But sometimes they do tend to gang up on me.

‘Mum, that’s bonkers,’ my daughter Riley said, as I brandished the clutch of paint-colour cards I had collected that morning from the local DIY superstore. ‘You said it yourself. Trust me, I remember very clearly. You said, “The upstairs is just fine as it is.”’

‘Perfect,’ my husband Mike chipped in pointedly. I glared at him. ‘Honest!’ he persisted, ignoring it. ‘That’s what you said, love. That the whole house was perfect. Perfect as it
was
, you said. Remember?’

That was true, certainly. But I chose to pretend I hadn’t heard him. Instead I looked at my Kieron, for support. If I could rely on one person at this point, it would be my son. He wouldn’t let them browbeat me in this scurrilous fashion, surely? But I was sorely mistaken.

‘Come on, you
did
, Mum,’ he said, his face a picture of innocence, even as he threw me to the lions. ‘And we
did
do the downstairs …’

‘The
whole
of the downstairs,’ added Riley. ‘And in a
week
. Look. I still have the blisters to prove it!’

I fanned my rainbow of blues and pinks and fixed them all with a steely glare. ‘All right then,’ I said. ‘I’ll be the little red hen, then. I shall just have to do it by myself!’

Except I wouldn’t. I knew I’d talk them round eventually.

That had been a week back, and true to my prediction I had managed to persuade Mike of the logic of my plan, and with him on board the kids had caved in and helped too. It had been, I’d decided, an inspired idea. With one bedroom for us, and one earmarked for visitors, we had two bedrooms free for our fostering needs. Two bedrooms, to my mind, meant one blue and one pink. That way, I explained to Mike, we’d be always at the ready, whichever gender John Fulshaw sent us next. John Fulshaw was our fostering-agency link worker, and a dear friend. He’d trained us, and had been by our sides ever since.

‘Save time and money doing it this way in the long run,’ I’d pointed out. And I knew Mike couldn’t argue with that. We’d been fostering for four years now and had no thoughts of stopping, so being prepared for anything – and anyone – made sense. Though back at the start, when we’d taken in our first foster child, Justin, I had, I knew, gone slightly overboard. So much so that, when he left us, and our next child was a girl, it was no small task changing our boy’s room to a girl’s room. I’d gone so mad I’d football themed almost everything in it, right down to the border, the carpet, the clock and the curtains – I’d even painted footballs on the bookcase!

And, as ever, the family rallied round, just as they had this time. It seemed incredible to think we’d been in our new home for barely a month. It was the beginning of February now, and we’d only moved in a couple of days before Christmas. If it hadn’t been for everyone pitching in to get the place the way I wanted it – what with the holidays, and having just waved goodbye to our last foster child, Spencer – I felt sure that I wouldn’t have felt half as settled as I did.

But, yes, Mike was right, the house
was
perfect. It had been perfect when we’d viewed it, and was even more perfect now. I could barely believe our luck, really. We’d been eighteen years in our last house, and it had been something of a wrench leaving our children’s childhood home. There were just so many happy memories wrapped up in it.

And it had been a stressful situation that had prompted it, as well. The move had actually been brought about because of problems with Spencer. He’d been a particularly challenging child to foster, to put it mildly, and his antics (at just eight he’d already been like a one-boy walking crime spree) had caused a lot of upset in the neighbourhood. We weren’t exactly forced out, but a great deal of bad feeling had developed, and it had hit home that bringing children such as this into our lives could (and in this case did) have an impact on others, too.

It had certainly forced us to think about the future. And as soon as we’d sat down and considered our options, we realised the timing was right anyway. Not that we’d downsized. Though our own children had flown the nest (Kieron was settled with his girlfriend Lauren, and Riley and her partner David even had two little ones of their own) we’d moved house with children very much still in mind. Our new place was that little bit further out of town, that bit more open and leafy, that bit more suited to serving our fostering needs.

And now, I thought, as I looked around my two freshly painted bedrooms, the house itself was, as well. Now all I needed was a child to put in one of them.

‘So is there anything in the pipeline?’ Riley asked me, having admired both the makeovers. It was Tuesday lunchtime, and Levi, my eldest grandson, was back in nursery full time now, so she’d brought baby Jackson over for a sandwich and a natter before going to pick him up. It seemed impossible to me – almost like the blink of an eye – that my first grandson was three now, and that Jackson would be one year old next month.

Impossible but true. Where had all the time gone? I shook my head. ‘Not as yet,’ I told Riley. ‘Though when I spoke to John last week he seemed to think there might be another little boy coming up. With mainstream carers at the moment, but they’re apparently struggling to cope with him. Multiple issues,’ I went on. ‘And some really entrenched disturbing behaviours, by all accounts. John’s kind of put us on standby while they decide what to do.’

Riley laughed. ‘I bet your ears pricked up straight away,’ she commented. ‘Multiple issues … disturbed behaviours … Sounds right up your street, Mum.’

Which was true; it was exactly why I’d come into fostering. I’d already been thinking about it when I first saw the advertisement for the agency – back when I’d been working as a behaviour manager in a large comprehensive school. An ad seeking people who actively wanted to take on challenging children, the children the system was failing to cope with. ‘Fostering the unfosterable’ had been the slogan. And it had gripped me straight away. It was what I did at school. It was what I felt I was best at. Oh, yes, I thought, challenging was
right
up my street.

I nodded. ‘But that was last week,’ I said, as we headed back downstairs. ‘I thought I might have heard back by now. I might call him later, as it happens. See what the score is …’

Riley rolled her eyes. ‘You just can’t do it, Mum, can you?’

‘Do what?’ I asked her.

She burst out laughing. ‘Do nothing!’

I didn’t call John in the end. After all, if he had a child for us he’d have called me about them, wouldn’t he? But there was no denying I leapt for my mobile when I heard it buzzing at me the following afternoon. Riley was spot on. I was no good at doing nothing. And since I couldn’t take a job – that was a stipulation for our kind of intense fostering – without a child in, I’d soon be climbing all those freshly painted walls. There was only so much cushion plumping a woman can do and stay sane – even a clean freak like me.

And it wasn’t just through lack of an occupation that I was bored. Now we’d moved house, Mike, who was a warehouse manager, had a slightly longer journey to work and back every day, and with us new to the area, filling the day was itself a challenge. I needed to get out and about, make new friends and get to know the neighbours. But all of these things would take time.

It was also still winter, the days short and mostly murky, not really conducive yet to ambling round the neighbourhood, striking up conversations with strangers. And though our new garden was delighting me almost daily with tantalisingly unidentifiable green shoots, I’d never been much of a one for sitting around. I might be a grandma, but I was still only forty-four. A new challenge was exactly what I wanted.

I was in luck. I picked up my mobile to find John’s name on the display. ‘John,’ I said. ‘How very nice to hear from you. Are we on?’

‘Yes and no,’ he said, piquing my interest immediately. ‘Though, if you’re up for it, it’s going to be something of a change of plan.’

‘Oh?’ I asked, intrigued, pulling out a kitchen chair to sit down. He sounded a little tired and I wondered what he might have been up to. His wasn’t an everyday sort of job, for sure.

‘Well, if you and Mike are amenable, that is.’

‘You already said that,’ I said. ‘Which sounds ominous in itself.’

‘Not at all,’ he was quick to correct me. ‘Not in the way you probably mean, anyway. I mean as in we’re no longer planning on lining you up with that lad we talked about. Got something of an emergency situation on our hands. It’s a girl. Nine years old. Rather unusual scenario for us. I’ve spent most of the day at the General as it happens.’

‘The hospital?’

‘Yup. Got a call from social services first thing. The mother’s quite ill. She has multiple sclerosis –’

‘Oh, the poor thing.’

‘Yes, the whole situation’s pretty grim, frankly. Collapsed this morning, by all accounts, while out trying to buy her daughter a birthday present – she’s going to be ten soon. The little girl’s called Abigail, by the way – Abby – and she’s obviously terribly distraught. Looks like Mum’s going to have to be hospitalised for a period. And there is no other family, which means they have no choice but to …’

‘… take her into care?’ My heart went out to her. The poor child. Not to mention the poor mother. Having their lives ripped apart so suddenly like this. ‘No family at all?’ I asked.

‘Two second cousins, that’s all, both of whom live hundreds of miles away. And they’re not remotely close. Never even met the daughter, let alone know her. So it’s not workable. The last thing anyone wants is for little Abby to be dragged off somewhere, when Mum’s here in hospital, as you can imagine. So she’s had a social worker appointed – Bridget Conley. Have you come across her?’

The name was familiar, but I didn’t think our paths had yet crossed. But I was more interested in how Mike and I fitted into this. From what John was telling me this was a pretty straightforward scenario. A routine foster placement while a care package was presumably put in place for the mother so that they could both go home. Short term. Crisis management. Not the sort of thing Mike and I were needed for. Our speciality involved long-term placements and a defined behaviour-management programme, and was usually for kids who’d been in the care system a long time already and/or had come from profoundly damaging backgrounds. I said as much to John.

‘Ah, well, that’s where this isn’t quite what you might expect, Casey. The mum’s had MS for years. Periods of remission here and there, thankfully, but her condition is quite advanced. The fact that she made it into town at all was something of a miracle, apparently. She’s pretty much housebound and quite profoundly disabled …’

‘So how’s she been managing to look after her little girl, then? You say there’s no family …’

‘Not much of anything or anyone, really, it seems to me. Certainly no care or support in place. She’s mentioned a neighbour, but we’ve already had a clear impression that in terms of who’s looked after whom, it’s been the other way around. Little Abby’s been her carer, pretty much.’

Which was a sobering thought, but still didn’t fully answer my question. ‘But why us?’ I asked again. ‘I mean, we’re obviously happy to step in, you know that. But if it’s only going to be temporary …’

‘It’s not going to be
that
temporary,’ John corrected me. ‘That’s what we’ve been thrashing out today. The medics have given Mum a less than good prognosis, and there’s no way in the world they’re ever going to discharge a sick patient back to the care of a nine-year-old girl. Bottom line is that even if they manage to get her stable and home, and a package of medical support put in place for her, she’s clearly not going to be in a position to care for her daughter, which leaves social services with no choice but to take responsibility for Abby, doesn’t it? That’s the truth of it. Now the genie’s out of the bottle, so to speak …’

And the cat out of the bag, come to that. John was right, of course. Now they knew about it, they couldn’t un-know it. Which left everyone concerned in the worst of all situations. ‘God,’ I said, as the enormity of it hit home for me. I tried to imagine being told I could no longer look after my own children. Having to watch them being taken away from me, when they needed me. It hardly bore thinking about. ‘Poor, poor woman,’ I said to John. ‘She must be beside herself …’

‘Completely distraught,’ John agreed. ‘As you can imagine. But not stupid. She knows there’s no other choice here.’

‘And the poor little girl … how on earth is she dealing with all this?’

‘Badly,’ John said. ‘Which is where you and Mike come in. Because now we’ve met her we don’t think she’s suitable for mainstream care, basically. We’ve had a long chat with Mum this afternoon, and she wants what’s best for her child, after all.’

‘Of course …’

‘And, well, we’re all of the opinion that Abby might be, well, how shall I put it? A little idiosyncratic. I must stress that this isn’t coming from Mum, before you ask. It’s just our assessment, based on what Bridget has seen, and from what we know of how the two of them have been living. I’m obviously not conversant with all the details, but the bottom line would seem to be that this particular nine-year-old is not like any normal nine-year-old. She’s been caring for her mum from a very young age, and has basically had no sort of childhood. I know it sounds daft and, yes, we could be over-dramatising this, but our feeling is that being with you and Mike, and doing the programme kind of back to front, if you like, would give her the best chance of getting back on track. You know, getting her used to living as a child again, basically.’

‘You’ve obviously met her,’ I said. ‘How did she seem to you?’

‘Odd, definitely. Twitchy. Has some pronounced – very obvious – tics. I think that’s how I’d describe it. Anxious.
Incredibly
anxious. Wound up about as tight as she can be, is my feeling. I mean she’s in a state of trauma right now, obviously, but, reading between the lines, there’s probably much more besides. So it seemed to us that the best thing would be to take this bull by the horns. Crazy to slot her into a mainstream placement only to have it break down again in a matter of days or weeks.’

BOOK: Mummy's Little Helper
6.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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