I’d been in Barnardo’s children’s homes for virtually all of my childhood. Now I’d heard that Barnardo’s were obliged to hand over records and correspondence concerning myself I was excited. Many of the people in this story are dead and gone. Those that are alive have faded memories. So many questions remain to be answered.
Why did my mother hide my birth away from her school and her mother? Some say it was to save her career and protect her from the wrath of her own intolerant and racially prejudiced mother.
Why did my wealthy father return to Nigeria and abandon all contact with her and myself? Some say he had to get married shortly after returning.
Why did my mother never contact me after I was three years old? They say the distance was too far but it wasn’t too far to write.
What was the real reason why having been fostered at the age of three I was dumped back in a children’s home at four? The foster mother said that she was too ill to look after me.
Why did my half brother and half sister end up in public school while I was left alone in the home?
Why did Barnardo’s not tell me I had a living mother until she was dead and I was ten years old?
What did the superintendent of the children’s home write about me when I escaped his care to live on my own? He beat me and was later removed after one girl blew the whistle on him for abuse.
It took a year of anger, MP’s letters, several solicitors’ notes and a medical confirmation of a near fatal illness to force Barnardo’s into agreeing to hand over the files. A call came from their after care worker in Kendal. She would have to meet me and council me before giving me the dossier. I expected maybe 30 to 50 pages with a scant letter here and a note there to give me some clues about my mother and father.
“It’s a big file,” she said, “733 pages.”
733 pages! A grand novel about a little boy! So important! I was happy. Now I’m apprehensive. I thought I could be dispassionate about my enquiries. My childhood story concerned people long since out of my life and their human frailties. I was compassionate enough to handle that. So I thought.
Instead I’m facing a trip into a labyrinth of undiscovered emotions. It’s my emotions that concern me. What angst stalks in those recesses? What anger, sadness and despair?
I’m 45 years old and now this journey through the dark. It’s a journey I have to take to fill those gaps, to answer why and how.
I grew up alone, with no-one, a bleak childhood like a long journey through a rustic winter, a long tedious prison sentence from which I would be released when I was old enough.
Friends came, friends went. Adults came, adults went. I came, I went. I had nothing, nobody. Other children in the home would be taken away to nice families. They had nice families and real brothers and real aunts. They went to nice houses where they didn’t have to eat stale bread and drink sour milk and sneak out to flush their meals down the toilet. They didn’t have tags on their coats and jumpers and underpants indelibly marked, ‘DBH’ – Don’t Bring Home.
In school I’d say my father was a Nigerian prince. One day I would be a prince too. I knew it. Matron once said my father was a savage. That hurt very much. It hurt very much too when I first saw a picture of my dead mother. I ripped it up. They thought that it was because I was angry with her but I did it because she didn’t look like a princess to me.
And now when I read those glossy Barnardo’s magazines with their saccharine sweet tales of the beautiful life and the Doctor’s one big happy family, I think, “Haven’t those kids forgotten hearing the screams from the bathroom as they came down the road, being beaten, being caned, being abused, absconding, brother being separated from brother, sister from sister? Being caught, being told you were the nastiest set of children in the world?”
It only makes me sad and angry. What on earth was the world doing?
And what became of us? Closest to my age were David Bifield and Martin Ellis. Biff loved trains. He died working on the track. The last time I saw Martin was in the hippy sixties. He had flowers in his hair.
After I left the home, I never met either of them again. Martin died last year of an embolism. When I read that he’d been carrying out relief work in Afghanistan and Romania I was proud of him. It was a statement. We may have been young and from ‘broken homes’ and robbed and shoplifted and picked pockets and lied but we weren’t totally without a conscience.
I finished my schooling in a warren of bed-sits by Southport railway station. Me and my Baby Belling and the hoot of the trains – a Camus-like introduction to life.
But there’s another side of the story. From school I went to university, became National Chairman of Labour’s Young Socialists, travelled four continents, met Ministers and murderers, slept in car parks and luxury hotels, with beggars and beauties, cheated death, had two wonderful children, got a house and enjoyed it all.
So I had little to complain about. Which is why I felt that I could be dispassionate about My Life I Never Knew. I could forgive and understand. But this isn’t about cool, rational forgiveness. This is about new questions of the dumb dead, about new questions of me and my unexplored mental labyrinths.
If that wasn’t enough the after care worker has just informed me that, if I don’t read through my 733 pages of files that day and if we don’t ‘discuss’ them, then I can’t have them.
Now I’m going on that train to Kendal, I’m not that sure where it’s taking me. It’s taken me back to the time when the people who fostered and rejected me died. Then I found hurt, anger, love and a confusion I’d never known. Now I’m getting ready to walk another path strewn with explosive mind-mines.
It’s a journey I have to make.
I’d had hardly slept a wink and now I was on the 09:14 train from Manchester to Kendal. I was off to meet a Barnardo’s after care worker to retrieve my 733 page file on the 18 years I spent as a child in their care. The sun shone out of a blue sky easing my apprehensions as to what I was about to discover about myself, my parents and the adults with whom I had been in care.
I was about to discover whether I could cope with My Life I Never Knew. I didn’t know what loose collection of photocopied pages would contain. It was to be a story of racial prejudice, human frailty, bitterness, compassion and sadness.
Seen as a ‘refined, cultured and lonely woman’, my English mother received every sympathy from Barnardo’s for her plight to keep her job as a music teacher. Frightened of losing her teaching post she hid her pregnancy from both her school and her mother. Apparently, disapproving of her relationship with an African mining engineer, her mother had written to his college posting in Birmingham and had him recalled to Nigeria.
One of my godmothers, a headmistress, wrote to Barnardo’s saying she also disapproved of the relationship. What chance did my mother have? My father never had a look in. My mother, frightened of her mother discovering the pregnancy, went to stay in a ‘Magdalene laundry’ home for unmarried mothers in Cornwall. There, under the Christian Moral Welfare Society, she did penance scrubbing floors and the like. Not knowing her daughter’s whereabouts, the mother set the police to find her. My mother’s friends blocked the trail.
Within three months my mother applied for me to be taken by Barnardo’s. The Barnardo’s reports say, “Any physical defects or maladies: Half-Caste.” When I was one year old their reports said I couldn’t be put up for adoption because, “He is such a poor specimen of humanity and there are doubts about his intelligence” – a one-eyed golliwog to be buried under the other toys.
My mother resumed her teaching in Birmingham and successfully fought for me to be moved from a home in Devon to one closer to her. “He is all that I have,” she wrote, adding, “I hope to have him with me in a few years.” But by the time I was two years old my mother was reported as saying that she could no longer see me. She was getting married and her husband-to-be was too jealous. Too jealous of a 24 month old little boy! The man who I had tracked down with my half-brother and half-sister 18 years ago had in all the years never told me this.
It was a bombshell. I went outside for a cigarette. The blue sky had turned grey and sleet flopped to earth, Cumberland tears. Did he really put her through that?
At three, I was moved to foster care in Bolton. After my mother died one of my godmothers would tell me that my mother tried to keep in contact but the letters were blocked and it was too far for her to travel. I was angry at Barnardo’s for their callousness. Now I’ve seen Barnardo’s letters requesting my mother to write to me, even visit. Barnardo’s tried after all. In vain.
At seven I fractured my skull in a road accident and spent some time in a coma. My mother was contacted. “I’d rather forget about him” my mother is said to have responded. She had married and nailed down the coffin of her past. Reading that hurt. Like I was in the coffin.
She had swapped the ‘only thing in her life’ for another, tossed the one-eyed golliwog back in the cupboard. The old ones say that it is understandable. A lot of it happened back then, they say. Infanticide is understandable.
Is it excusable?
My mother had had a hard time. Estranged from her rabid, racist mother, abused as a child by her music teacher, she had finally found a chance of happiness with her husband and would have children. What else could she do? The old ones ask.
I read her early letters to Barnardo’s. I could sense her suffering. Do they really think that turning her back on her child stopped her suffering? Can a mother cast adrift her child and forget? She called me Pip but who would be my Abel Magwitch? Who would deliver the great expectations?
I shudder for fifties middle class Britain.
I was shocked and angry but relieved I’d never known the truth as a child. I found out that I was 13 when I was told that my mother had died the previous year. It didn’t concern me at the time. I had never known whether she was alive. It’s difficult to grieve over losing what you have never had.
I felt grief when the couple died who had fostered me at three then put me back at four. They had kept in touch afterwards acting as my uncle and aunt. Seeing them lying unconscious in hospital sorrow and guilt rose up in me. Then came a well of anger. Why had they thrown me back into a home, tossed the one-eyed golliwog back into the cupboard again? They had told me that my ‘auntie’ was too ill to look after me.
So I read through their letters and the reports. She had complained that at four I was a bad influence on her nine year old son, that I talked too much and rose too early. So I was cast adrift again. I laughed at that. I suppose I’ve not changed. I was blamed but I don’t blame her.
Barnardo’s told them that I was happy returning to a home. I hated my new surroundings, the smells of urine, horrible food and ramshackle home in Southport. I’d arrived from a year in a lower middle class home. Barnardo’s reported that I was sensitive about my colour. But then I’d just come from a house in Bolton where the neighbours had a big black dog they called Nigger and I never quite knew whether they were shouting at me.
I would never be fostered again and never wanted to be. The ‘poor specimen of humanity’ would become a ‘very intelligent’ young boy.
The superintendent in the Southport home was a woman. When I was thirteen she retired and would eventually be replaced by my tormentor. He beat me. He said I was causing trouble. At fourteen I left. Within a year he was sexually abusing the girls.
A nurse caught him in the act. She was ordered to leave the following day. One girl complained. She was transferred to another home in Liverpool. Eventually some boys accused him of abusing them and he was removed. I was lucky.
I was lucky to jump the hoops and miss the ditches. Some of us ended up in prison, some are dead and some scarred beyond relief. I don’t apportion blame. I know what happened was wrong and hope society has learnt something.
I left the meeting with my file; my past life contained in a Booth & Co. Grocers plastic carrier bag and headed back to Manchester. I was drained. There were still questions such as what had happened to my father, which remained to be answered but that would be another quest for another time.
I was glad to have filled in many of the gaps in My Life I Never Knew. I no longer had a story with no beginning, with half tales and conjecture. It was not the type of shock I had expected. Instead I felt anger. Then came a numbness and a sadness for all concerned. I’d crammed 18 years of birth, rejection, love, loneliness, guilt and death into four hours. There it was in a plastic bag with a photo of a little boy with a big smile and bright eyes brushing his teeth.
I’ll never know quite what my mother thought of what she did. Sometimes it seems like I caused the pain. Like I was to blame.
But that’s the thing about being a Barnardo’s boy.