A good friend, a church social worker, had asked us to help out. Cathy’s mother had no family in the UK and Cathy’s father, long departed, lived somewhere in the Middle East. Cathy had no brothers or sisters. If we did not take her in she would have to go into care. Her mother’s fear was that with the sort of company Cathy might meet in an institution, her unsettled school career would suffer terminal damage. Having been expelled from local schools, for swearing at teachers in one, then assaulting a teacher in another, she was on the books of the local sin-bin. Cathy’s face when she was introduced to us and learnt that we were both teachers and that she was going to stay with us for six weeks was something to be believed.
But we managed, better than we thought we would. An important part of this was the innocent role played by our own children, then around three and five.
When this fifteen year-old girl arrived home from school each afternoon they would be waiting for her and would climb all over her to cuddle her and show their childish delight that she had returned. Only a monster could have pushed them to one side and Cathy was no monster; a better side of her could not help revealing itself, to our children, to us, and, I suspect, to Cathy herself. In other circumstances I have known of children learning to form relationships from having first taken charge of pets, vulnerable creatures that depended on them for care and attention. Our children became Cathy’s pets, adoring and asking no questions.
Jean, a full-time house mum, was a natural foster mother for Cathy, but also an older sister and they talked about boyfriends and sex as well as school and her troubles with teachers. Beneath Cathy’s rough exterior Jean found the beginnings of robust common-sense: no, Cathy was not going to throw herself at any boy just because her mates all had boyfriends.
My role was in the background – a busy job and part-time study. Tellingly, a concerned Cathy once commented to Jean that seemed I tired when I returned from school in the early evenings.
Cathy spent six weeks with us. Then her mother had recovered from a major operation and rushed her home. A few days later they returned to collect a case-full of her things which Cathy had left behind in her haste. Cathy’s mother followed her into the house and we showed them into the front room. We talked, about her mother’s rapid recovery and about Cathy’s progress at school while she had been with us. Then it was time for them to go, and Jean led Cathy upstairs to the guest room where she had made herself at home.
We had both noticed immediately the red shoes which Cathy was wearing. They had plain open tops and small heals, which were shaped with four slightly concave surfaces, beautiful heals, neither round nor square that seemed to reach up under the girl’s ankles to support her weight, elegantly and comfortably.
The shoes Cathy was wearing were Jean’s. She had bought them in Rome a few years before and they were quite unlike anything she had seen before, here or in Italy. Away from Cathy’s mother, Jean challenged Cathy who was adamant that she had been given the shoes, that they were hers. Cathy was still wearing the shoes when she came back downstairs with her case. I caught Jean’s eye but by then Cathy’s mother was on her feet and they were gone.
We missed Cathy. At the outset we had wondered whether Cathy’s mum might have intended to dump her and we made enquiries of the local school in case we found ourselves looking after Cathy for more than six weeks. Jean, instinctively, backed down over the shoes, not wanting Cathy to leave with her mother at the end of a row. It was as if we were keeping the door open for Cathy, in case she ever needed to return. I suppose we preferred to lose, to be seen to be losing in the girl’s eyes, rather than destroy the beginnings of a friendship with a damaged girl who in her disturbed way might be reaching out for help.
There was just one question that haunted us; why did Cathy wear the shoes when she returned for her case? Why did she want to show us that she had taken them? She could so easily have worn another pair of shoes for her visit but for some reason she deliberately wore Jean’s beautiful red shoes right under our noses. Could she have anticipated Jean’s refusal to row with her, her determination not to shout and scream at her as they came down the stairs and alarm her mother?
Cathy was, we were reasonably sure, anticipating a row, a row that would have enabled her to ditch what she had begun to pick up during her stay with us, her affection for our small children, her growing trust of Jean and her awareness that teachers were sometimes human. Had there been a row about the shoes, Cathy could so easily have abandoned her growing sense of adult responsibility which told her to show the same care and consideration for others that they showed for her.
We did not talk about self-harm then. This was not physical self-harm, not a severing of veins, or wild over-dosing. It was an attack on her own psyche; had we turned on her about the theft of Jean’s shoes she would have been able to justify in her own mind her anger and hatred of the world. Furthermore, a row in front of her mother would have enabled her to challenge any sense on her mother’s part that we had treated her daughter well, further entrapment on the side of the angels.
That was the last we saw of Cathy, the only child we ever fostered. We never discovered whether she was able to shrug off the beginnings of trust and friendship that she had found growing within, or whether anything had taken root and eventually flourished.
What do you think was the most important difficulty in Cathy’s life?