Dave was a foster dad. He was quite a young and inexperienced dad. But he walked tall and he talked the talk and he had a few lessons in household management in a very big unhouse-like building far away from real people…
So he knew all about families, didn’t he?
He spoke with authority about mortgages and nappy economics and floated on his back on his enormous lilo in his swimming pool in Tuscany while revising for his big “How-to-bring-up-children-on-a-budget” exam.
He had lots of foster children but he didn’t see much of them. He preferred to hang out with uncles and aunts and nannies and teachers and doctors at meetings in restaurants and talk to them over lunch about how the children were doing rather than ask them in person. He invited lots of people to these lunches who had never seen a child before but could talk confidently about how to discipline a child. Dave remembered how convincing these people had been on the school debating team – even when they’d been talking rubbish and he respected their authoritative air and talent for quoting statistics (and he understood their accents a lot better than he did the poorer people’s).
One day Dave popped his head round the door of the playroom and was surprised to see how many children there were. He knew there was a number but he hadn’t really visualised them or bothered to see them as individuals before.
“Oh, that’s not all of them,” said one of the carers. “There are more children in the building, but some of them can’t find a space to play because there’s not enough room, others can’t find any toys because there are not enough to go round. And some…” the carer sniffed sadly… “some can’t make it downstairs because they need help getting here and there are not enough carers working hands on, on a daily basis, for that to be possible. Only the pushy ones that hoard all the toys are managing to enjoy themselves. I think it’s even possible that some of our children may have slipped through the safety net.” She pointed to a trampoline in the garden with a holey old safety net. “You promised us a good safety net, remember?”
“Get rid of that net!” ordered Dave. One day there will be a new one, but for now, make do with the ground.”
The net came down. The children that were outside sat on the ground and stared at the trampoline.
“No. I’ve changed my mind,” said Dave. “No net. It’s too costly and it’s more important that the brass numbers on the front door are replaced. What will the neighbours think? It’s crucial that our numbers look at least as good, if not better, than the neighbours’.”
A small child with tatty, over-sized hand-me-down clothes came running over whispering, “Daddy, Daddy,” in small, poorly voice. “Want an apple, Daddy, want an orange, Daddy.”
“Call me Dave,” he answered.
“Charlie needs more fruit, Dave. They all need more fruit,” insisted the carer.
But Dave had glazed over. He wasn’t listening. He was reading the bank statement. “We must cancel the music lessons. Surely their parents can pay for those. There’s not enough money left in the bank. And you’ll have to spend less money on food,” he said helping himself to another croissant and opening the mortgage statement. “Oh! Look – this house is costing us money!” he gasped. “Right. You need to pay off the mortgage. We can’t be owing people money – it doesn’t make me look powerful enough!”
“But we were paying the mortgage when we all had jobs,” protested the carer. “And anyway – it’s not your house to sell. What we really need is another house and more carers and then everyone can look after each other prop-”
“I’m in charge!” interrupted Dave. “In order to pay off this mortgage you must stop the children getting poorly, you must make them share nappies and beds and make sure they say goodnight to me on the phone so I don’t have to physically see this going on. And make them do sums instead of drawing pretty pictures then we can save money by buying only grey pencils and not coloured ones. Sums are more useful than pictures anyway. Now, pass me a clean child and a nappy and take a photo of me pretending to change a nappy and give it to the local press.”
One of the older, brighter children walked past, straight out of the front door with a small suitcase. “Bye,” he said, “I’m going to live somewhere else where there’s more food, books, toys and creativity and I will read stories to the children there. I’m sorry to leave. I love my little brothers and sisters but I’m just so hungry and bored. I hope someone else can read the bedtime stories now that I’m going.”
Dave waved him off “Never mind about stories. Books are expensive.”
Another child came towards Dave that looked familiar.
“Is this one of my own? Is this Jack – my flesh and blood?” Dave asked, “I need to get him out of here. Fetch him some clean clothes and I’ll take him to live in my London flat.”
“Won’t you stay?” asked another carer. ‘There are children that want to talk to you.”
“No. You didn’t really think I was going to live here with you lot? Anyway I’ve got expensive heating and insulation plans to cancel for this place. Come on son,” he said to Jack. “Lets get you a new blazer for school.”
“But I thought we didn’t have any money…?” The carer was confused.
“No. You don’t have any money. I do. Must go. My driver’s waiting.”
The croissants were filling. Dave loosened his belt, sighing heavily.
“Are you alright, Dad?” asked Jack.
“Yes. I’m alright, Jack.”