There were no tables in our flat in Castle Vale in the late 1980s. Well, there might have been a kitchen table, but it doesn’t feature in any retellings of my early years.
I was too young to remember what happened when I was two, but I am told that my mother Sarah used to feed us kids on the sofa. When you are told something happened that you were too young to remember, your mind does funny things. I imagine she sat us all down on the sofa in order of height, my brother Michael first, on the far left, then Daniel, then Victoria and lastly, me, on the far right. I was told she used to feed us sandwiches for tea, so naturally I imagine her walking from left to right, giving us all a bite and going back to the start of the conveyer belt until it was all gone. My father, Clive, I am told, was largely absent from this mealtime routine; he preferred to go to his mum’s for his meals.
I owe a lot to a figure I can no longer picture: my grandmother. She was the first to alert social services that something wasn’t right, that my parents needed more support. I have been told that my parents got some help getting us ready, taking two-year-old me to nursery just across the road from the flat. It just wasn’t enough. My three older siblings attended a special school and they also noticed that things weren’t right; they were dirty, with matted hair, smelly clothes and ate school lunch like they had never been fed. My brothers said strange things about home life, and this caused the alarm bells to sound.
Not long after this the case went to court to decide our future. October 1989. In true social services style, no one had thought what to do if my parents lost the case, so when this happened, the powers that be hadn’t the foggiest what to do with four children aged from two to seven. The deputy head teacher at the special school stepped up and offered to take us all home with him ‘just for a few days’ until something more suitable and longer term could be arranged. The judge agreed to this, which is something that would never happen now. The deputy head, Philip, gave his girlfriend Linda just a few hours’ notice that he was bringing three, no four kids (I was almost forgotten) home with him that evening. It was a crazy time. Clothes were hurriedly bought from local shops then there was sheer panic when they didn’t fit and a phone call to a family friend led to an evening raid for clothes in sizes smaller than our years.
‘You were a dot,’ another family friend, Steve, told me. ‘That first evening I came round to help and was asked to bath you and you were so small and unused to baths that I had to wash you in the sink.’
Although small, I was a force to be reckoned with. I demanded to be first at everything and everything was mine because I was the youngest and therefore the most important. Sadly, my siblings all agreed that I was the most important; one of them even said that I was the most loved by our birth mother. This makes me sad, even now, to think we were akin to the latest gadget and once a new version came out the older ones were forgotten.
It is always at the back of my mind, that thought that we weren’t wanted by my birth parents, no matter how much I am loved and appreciated now. At the same time, I feel blessed that I was taken out of that life and put on the path to a much better one.
I am lucky to know so much about my early years, although a photograph of me as a baby would be nice. The earliest picture I have seen of myself is aged two, Christmas 1989, still at Linda and Philip’s two months on. Rosy cheeks and big blue eyes with one of my favourite childhood toys in the background – my fishing game. I suspect the game belonged to one of my siblings and I nicked it from them. Butter wouldn’t melt.
A few weeks at Linda and Philip’s turned into a few months, then almost a year before suitable homes were found for us. Social services decided to split us up, girls versus boys, and put us into two separate foster homes. Victoria and I went to live with Keith and another Linda. They had a lovely bath and we also found we had proper grandparents. They had a pond in an immaculate garden and my foster grandad sat in his conservatory reading his newspaper. He was a very kind man, I remember that, and his wife was a very kind woman. I still miss them now.
There’s a stand-out memory from the Linda and Keith days. Vicky and I were home alone with Keith and having a day sorting stuff out around the house. Keith was up the loft and showed us a mask he had found. I can’t recall what it looked like; it was just your average Halloween mask. He thought it would be a fantastic idea to put on the mask so he could go and scare the dog. Vicky and I followed him downstairs to the kitchen, Keith wearing his mask, which I thought was a bit stupid, so I went to the bathroom and Vicky followed me. My first girly gossip in the loo.
‘I miss Linda and Phil,’ I said.
‘Me too,’ she replied. This must have been after we had been there about a year. And not long after that, we got what we wished for.
There were big hugs when we said farewell to Linda and Keith. As a child, you don’t think too much about the emotions of others, but I can appreciate now that it must have been a difficult time for them, to realise that adopting us was not right and seeing us so happy when we were reunited with Linda and Philip.
So began our next chapter. Michael and Daniel’s adoption into another family was going through and our adoption was on the cards. I was getting to be a pretty good talker and catching up with my peers after being behind for so long. This was with the support of a language unit and the advantage of having a speech therapist as a foster mother. In late 1991 or early 1992 I joined a mainstream primary school, Leighswood. The teacher commented on how much Linda and I looked like each other. It was year one and I was the new girl. All the other children had known each other since reception, and I felt a little lost and struggled to fit in. Children can be very mean, but at Leighswood they were mostly nice, and I settled in quickly enough. I had extra help in class which I enjoyed. I picked things up so much quicker working one-to-one.
Maybe it was because I was late to talking but I just didn’t shut up. One of my foster grandad’s nicknamed me ‘Nelly Natter-trap’ and I certainly lived up to the name. I used to make up stories and re-tell them animatedly which often landed me in trouble!
By Year Three I was in Mrs Cobley’s class and still being fostered. There were meetings with social services, and it was all going through. I think I was pretty smart for a six-year-old. It must have been early 1993 and the social worker lady was coming round to see us again for a visit, but this time it was going to be me and Vicky separately to Linda and Philip.
“We’ve got to make them sound really good,” I said to Vicky, or something along those lines. I had been in the system long enough to know how it worked. If we showed any doubts or any hesitation then our adoption might not go ahead. We were both happy there but for some reason I thought saying anything negative, however trivial, might knock the balance. So, there I sat on the sofa in the lounge at Linda and Phil’s in Walsall with the social worker sat between me and Vicky. My little legs stuck out over the edge of the sofa as she asked us lots of questions, like were we happy there? Did we like living with Linda and Phil? I took the lead, saying yes and nodding and smiling in all the right places. I was an adult then, planning our future and hoping that soon I could be a child again.
You guessed right if you thought the adoption did go through. Vicky and I spent a very exciting day in Birmingham with Linda and Philip and Nanny Margaret where we got to go to the courts and sit before a man in a silly wig who asked what we were going to do to celebrate. “Go to the pub” was my prompt reply; obviously the right one as he whacked the hammer and made it all official. In February 1993 we were officially part of the family. I became a child again, reading Dick King-Smith, debating Enid Blyton’s attitude to girls in the ‘Famous Five’ books with my mother (why should George have to act like a boy to get to do the fun things?) and writing stories of my own.
I’ve been asked countless times whether I want to track down my birth parents. Some ask out of curiosity and some with urgency, as though they feel a great injustice has been done. When I respond that no I don’t want to find them, I get varied responses. Most people nod in an understanding way and agree that my adopted parents are my ‘real’ parents, but some people fire up. They say that I was probably taken off my birth parents against their will, that they really wanted me and weren’t given a chance. Obviously, my knowledge of my very early years comes from what I have been told by others, most notably Linda and Philip, yet I don’t think for a second that I should have stayed with my birth parents. I don’t hate them, quite the opposite actually. I pity my mother who couldn’t cope and had mental health issues and I am quite indifferent to my dad as he didn’t appear to care. For me, I have learnt that actions speak louder than words and if they really wanted us then they would have done anything they could for us. We weren’t the first children to be taken from them as both my birth parents had children by different partners and the fact they lost custody of them too speaks volumes.
Let me bring you back to that sofa with Michael, Daniel, Vicky and myself, all sat in a row eating a sandwich, one bite and on to the next. Poverty might have played a part in this pitiful image but I’m not buying that completely. If you really love someone you take all the help you can get and make it work, through all the tough times. I hope I would do that if I had children. When we were taken from Clive and Sarah, we got to do things like brush our teeth, say please and thank you and learn how to behave without being too angry, too fearful or too clingy. We had clean hair, free from the lice and cradle cap we had before; we were given Christmas and birthday presents, and, most importantly to me, we got to eat a hot dinner around a table with people who cared.
Some names have been changed to protect identities.
Dawn works in mental health, supporting people to find and maintain employment. She is both a member of and publicity officer for Walsall Writers’ Circle. She writes mainly fiction and poetry but is keen to try her hand at more life writing!