I am a terrible mother and a good liar. At least I think that’s the right way around. If not then I’m a good mother and a terrible liar. I’m not sure that I could say which is worse.
Marcus asked me about it yet again this morning, as we sat and ate breakfast. He likes to do that, you see, doing the same thing at the same time of day, every day. It’s one of the things that make him feel secure, in a world that is continually changing around him. I guess it’s just one of those little stitches sewn into his personality, which just determines who he is. I often wonder if having consistency helps him make sense of things.
Would he be like this anyway? I’m not sure. I often wonder whether he’s just that kind of person. Precise and obsessive, with a craving for routine and stability. Childlike, is how I’d describe him in some ways. Not that he’s doing it on purpose to annoy me of course, I don’t think he has the capacity to do that, but he just likes to get assurance that nothing has changed in his little world. At least when a child does it you know it’s just a phase that will eventually pass, but when it’s your adult son then you know you’re pretty much stuck with it. I shouldn’t moan though. I used to go to a support group called Family First, for parents of children with learning disabilities. Some of the stories I heard there were absolutely heart-wrenching, so no, I shouldn’t complain really.
It’s just so draining at times, because here we are again. No sooner have I poured his tea into his Power Rangers mug than he’s asking me the same bloody question.
“Have you heard anything back today mum?” he asks. He stirs his tea, enthralled by the ripples made by his teaspoon, not even looking up to meet my eyes.
“No, nothing yet my love. Come on, eat your breakfast,” I say. And that’s that. Same time, same place, same question tomorrow, no doubt…
After breakfast, Marcus goes to the Willow Centre which is just a short walk from the WH Smiths in the centre of town. He gets the bus from the end of our road. It will take him about twenty minutes to get there on a good day, if the traffic is kind, although Marcus will come home and tell me exactly how long his journey took each day. Sometimes its nineteen minutes, other days it can be twenty four minutes – he records it all, writes it all down.
The Willow Centre has been great for Marcus. Since he’s been going there I have to say he’s come on leaps and bounds, especially with his communication. It’s like he can be bothered interacting with people now. It’s been good for him, and if truth be told it‘s been good for me. I guess you could say it’s been a bit of a life saver all round really. Me and his dad didn’t always know what to do with this reclusive, serious, boy that grew into an equally reclusive, serious, thirty year old. I sometimes look at Marcus and see that same little boy, and then I remind myself that he’s not a little boy - given that he currently stands at nearly six feet tall! Although whilst his body has changed immensely, his mind hasn’t really moved on much in all these years. He still doesn’t say much, apart from the questions of course.
Still, the guys at the Willow are great with him. He’s able to watch films there, and play games, and sometimes they do arts and crafts and things like that, where they make pictures to bring home. Marcus doesn’t make things though; he’s never brought anything home. I’ve asked Janet, his support worker, what he does during these craft sessions when everyone else is sticking pasta tubes and paper shapes to bits of card.
“Oh well Helen, you know Marcus,” breezed Janet.
She half-smiles as she says this, trying to ignore the fact I’m searching her face, desperately hoping for her to say he’s made some new friends, or has been chatting happily to the support workers. “He just loves to read that book about martial arts that your husband bought him. He really likes it doesn’t he?”
Ahhh yes, that book. That’ll be the same one that he’s been reading for the last twenty two years then. The one with the cover so old and faded that it looks like it’s been bought and sold a million times at every car boot sale in the country! The one with the crumbling spine, and exposed corners, and with black and white pictures of lithe, Japanese men in white suits, demonstrating moves and kicks and karate chops and all that sort of thing.
Pete was delighted when Marcus seemed to take to it. It was as if he’d finally found a way to make some sort of connection with him.
“That’s it then,” he beamed one night as Marcus retreated to the corner sofa to read the book for about the tenth time, “He must be interested in Judo and Karate and all that sort of stuff. I’ll pick up some other books and magazines for him this week. There’s a lad at work who reads them, he’s said I can borrow them once he’s finished.”
But the magazines and books went unread for nearly three weeks until Pete eventually gave up, bagged them up and took them back to work. For Marcus it wasn’t really about martial arts, you see, just about that one book. Having it, holding it, smelling it, looking at the pictures, counting the pages, recreating the poses on the diagrams, getting us to take pictures of him doing the poses, getting the pictures developed, carefully preserving them in a book, poring over them. Rinse and repeat for the next hundred years! It’s fair to say that when my son gets one of his obsessions about something then he’s in it for the long haul.
I stare out of the window as he waits for his bus into town. I can just about see him if I raise myself up on my tippy toes and look past our hedge. I see him there, with his dark grey coat and his baseball cap, his dark hair just a bit too long because he has a meltdown if anyone tries to cut it. I see him waiting for that bus like any other commuter, with his frequent glances at his watch and his battered rucksack slouched over his right shoulder. My beautiful boy, he makes my heart ache.
It aches even more deeply when I think of all the things in that big wide world that could hurt him. Not just physical things like car crashes, or viruses, or being attacked. I think of words that could hurt him – words that maybe have hurt him – that time he came home from an otherwise uneventful day at Willow and asked me three days later whether he was a “spaz” because that’s what some boys on the bus had said. Did those words hurt him? I’m not sure really. I asked Marcus did he know what that meant? Asked him was he upset by it? He just shrugged and said it meant he was a very special boy – something that I’d always told him from him being a toddler. And then just like that, he asked when dinner would be ready. My heart broke into a thousand tiny pieces that day.
I made a mistake though. I underestimated my boy. Who knew he understood so much more? Not me anyway. And certainly not the doctor, who came to talk to us a few days before the May bank holiday last year.
We sat in that doctor’s office - a small, washed out room that smelled vaguely of disinfectant and oranges. I don’t know if it was actual oranges or air freshener but the scent was one that settled on your clothes and your skin and seemed to take weeks to fade away.
He introduced himself as Doctor Callaghan and asked us to sit down. He offered us coffee. I accepted. Marcus asked could he have tea. I told Marcus that it wouldn’t be tea like at home, in his Power Rangers mug, made with milk and a tea bag. This tea would taste different and a bit funny because it would be from a machine. He wouldn’t have liked the change. I wanted to avoid it all kicking off really, I couldn’t cope with that, and certainly not on this day of all days.
“Why not teabags?” Marcus asked solemnly, and frowned, as though the bloody tea was what we were here to talk about, rather than the fact that my seemingly healthy husband, who I’d kissed, and waved off to work only a few days before, was now lying in the morgue in this hospital.
Nothing was unusual about the last time I saw Pete. You always think that fate will try and send you some signs or give you a warning that death is on the cards don’t you? Did he look any different? In his eyes? Was his face different? Paler somehow? Thinner? Were there any unusual songs on the radio that day? Any signs? I’ve looked back a thousand times to search the script, but I’ve always returned empty handed and clueless.
It was Phil, his shift supervisor, who’d found him. He went into the break room at 11 o’clock or thereabouts and Pete was slumped against the vending machine, as though he was having a “little sit down” or at least that’s how Phil described it to me at the funeral. Pete’s coffee, black with two sugars, was still in the machine, piping hot, waiting to be lifted out and enjoyed as it was every morning with a KitKat and a skim through the Daily Mirror. Bizarrely, I often think of that coffee machine, beeping away to remind everyone of its freshly prepared wares, whilst a first aider from the warehouse team tried to revive my dead husband. I think of it beeping in the background while someone else called an ambulance, and I’ve often wondered whether it can be heard in the background of that 999 call. Anyhow, the ambulance came within minutes, but they can’t magic people back from the dead, can they? He didn’t seem to suffer, they said.
So all a bit of a mystery really, up until we went into the oranges room. Doctor Callaghan told me about something called Marfen’s Syndrome. Had I heard of it (no) and did my husband ever make me aware that he had it (also no) and then – was I aware that this was hereditary?
He thrust a leaflet into my hands, called “Living with Marfen’s Syndrome” which was purple and had lots of bullet points and cartoon pictures on it. I stared at it silently, wondering why someone would use cartoons to animate a leaflet about a very serious condition. I suppose it seemed a good idea at the time, to try and make it all a bit light hearted. Or maybe the person responsible for getting it copy cleared was working to a tight deadline, who knows?
Anyway, it was all a bit much to take in at the time, but I told Doctor Callaghan that Pete and I didn’t have any children, well no natural children anyway. I laughed then.
“What does that even mean anyway, natural children? As opposed to what? Artificial ones?” I chuckled, making a stupid joke at an even more stupid time. It was the shock, I think.
His gentle, serious eyes darted over to Marcus, who was staring at the floor, lost in thought. We could’ve been anywhere in the world at that moment as far as Marcus was concerned.
“So your son here…..” Doctor Callaghan began. I felt relieved that he’d chosen to ignore the earlier bad taste joke.
“Isn’t biologically Pete’s son,” I jumped in.
“In fact he isn’t biologically mine either. You see doctor; Marcus is adopted, so there’s no risk of him inheriting this…this Marvin Syndrome thing from my husband.”
“I see. OK, well that’s good,” said Doctor Callaghan after a long silence.
Was it? Good, I mean? I supposed it was in one way. My baby boy had already been dealt an unfortunate card in life’s unpredictable game of gene poker, so at least wasn’t going to develop something else. Something that might one day kill him.
I thought back to the day that Pete and I went to collect him from the adoption agency. How we arrived fifteen minutes early and sat outside checking our watches, worried that showing up too early would make us look too eager and that they’d turn around and tell us that it had all been a big mistake and we couldn’t take him home with us.
We weren’t really allowed to know much about his birth parents at the time. It was all different back then. All we knew is that they were very young, and they didn’t feel that they could give the best life to a baby with learning difficulties so made the decision to give him up. He was called James when we collected him, and on all his papers, but I think the agency gave him that name. His birth parents didn’t bother naming him.
He reminded me of a little Roman Emperor when I held him for the first time, swathed in white, hair and eyes as dark as the night sky, and shaking his tiny clenched fists as he wailed out to have his requests obeyed immediately. We decided to call him Marcus, after the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. It just seemed to fit somehow. Baby James belonged to someone else, but baby Marcus belonged to us.
“What’s adopted mum?” he asked me in the car on the drive home. Pete’s watch, and clothes, and hospital tag were all in a clear, plastic bag on the back seat. I needed a press officer. To tell people, including my son, that I wasn’t ready to take questions just now.
“Oh Marcus, can you see those cows?” I said brightly, nodding towards a large muddy field just to our left.
“They’re lying down. It might rain,” he mused.
“Yes Marcus, it might,” I said. And then I cried silently the entire way home, but I tried not to let Marcus see. I used the stops at traffic lights to get out my tissue from my sleeve and dab my eyes quickly and quietly. No sense upsetting him, even though he was oblivious. He was still looking out for cows.
When we got home from the hospital that day, I tried to be stoic and put up some more sympathy cards that had arrived in that morning’s post and, of course, made tea. Power Rangers mug for Marcus.
But I couldn’t escape the fact that I’d failed at the first hurdle. Me and Pete always talked about whether we should try and explain to Marcus about where he came from. Pete felt strongly about it, as usual. Pete felt strongly about lots of things.
“The boy needs to know his roots, love,” he’d say to me sternly but always kindly, although it was rarely on the table for discussion long before I’d get up, make a cup of tea and put the BBC news on – anything to try and get off the subject really. And each time, Pete would tighten his lips, and say “You’re a good woman Helen, but I do wish you’d talk more about things rather than hiding away from them. It’s not healthy you know. Some things need talking about.”
Did his illness need talking about? This ticking time bomb that he had, but hid away from me? This thing that killed him in the end? I’ve never been the sit-down-and-lets-have-it-all-out type of person; some things are best left unsaid in my view. Maybe this is what happens when you have too much tea and not enough talking.
OK Pete, this one’s for you, I thought, as I handed Marcus his cup of tea and prepared myself for the biggest and most significant conversation of my life.
“In the car you asked me what adopted was,” I began. This would be hard. I wanted to look into his eyes and tell him that yes, he wasn’t my child by birth but that never mattered to me. I have always loved him more than anyone in the world, and would never let anyone hurt him. I wanted to tell him all of that, with my words and with my eyes, except he didn’t look up from stirring his tea.
“The thing is Marcus, adopted is when another family love a baby so much, that the baby comes to live with them because that baby will have a happy life. Do you understand?”
“Not really,” he said, eyes unmoved from the swirls inside his mug. Christ, can he see the bloody future in that thing? Why was he not looking at me?
“Well, before me and your dad, you had a different mum, you know. And another dad as well, to be honest….” I was falling into a hole, not sure where this was going or what I’d say next.
I was woefully aware that I was making a real hash of this explanation. Maybe I could try again, bringing in something that was relevant to him. I thought that maybe wrapping an element of his familiar little world around him like a comfort blanket would help him to grasp it somehow.
“So…you know your martial arts book? You know the kickboxer in there?”
“My favourite,” Marcus said, still not looking up from his tea.
“Yes, your favourite. Well your first mum and dad, they…..they were kickboxers,” I fumbled, tapping my fingers nervously on the kitchen table. “They were kickboxers who had one chance at competing in tournaments all over the world, but they couldn’t take a tiny baby. So they asked us to look after you while they went around the world and now they live far far away in a different country,” I said hopefully, searching his face for signs of any emotions or understanding.
Safe to say I saw none of either.
Suddenly he looked up, his brown eyes locking directly with mine and holding my gaze for what felt like an eternity. Did he believe this? Did he think it was plausible? I felt instant shame for this lie.
But I could hardly tell him the truth could I? How would I tell him that his birth parents certainly weren’t famous kickboxers? Although I’ve no doubt that they’ve been in a fair few fights between them in their time. How was I meant to tell him that when he turned eighteen, I applied to the agency and they agreed to give me their details? Like I say, things are different now, everyone has more rights and things, but back then it was my son’s right to make a decision on whether he wanted to have any contact with his birth parents.
I think it’s the only time that Pete and I have ever really properly rowed over something. Well, something big anyway. I didn’t want to contact his birth parents at all. I didn’t feel that they had any right to play a part in his life after so long. Where were they when he was a five year old with measles, who scratched his spots so hard that he bled all over every pair of clean pyjamas? Where were they when he started to sprout black, wiry hairs from his face and body and had a meltdown in the supermarket because he didn’t know what was happening to him?
But Pete, the moral bloody compass as always, persuaded me to do it in the end. It’s best for the boy, he’d said. I was terrified of course, because what if they did now want to see him? What if they suddenly wanted to share this young man that we’d loved and nurtured, if not created? What if they wanted to take him away from us? From me?
Well I needn’t have worried so much.
Paul, his dad was called. I never spoke to his mum. They’d long since split up after the birth of their child apparently, and he didn’t have a clue where she was. Hadn’t heard from her in years, he said.
I asked him was he interested in meeting Marcus, and told him a bit about him. About how he likes a particular Martial Arts book, and enjoys watching the birds in the garden, and how he’s inquisitive and asks lots of questions.
“Thing is,” said Paul sheepishly. “I’ve had a few problems lately, been out of work and that.”
There was a long pause.
“I think it’s best if…erm…he stays with you if that’s alright,” he continued. “I’m with a new woman now and I’ve never told her about him. I mean…she’s got some problems as well, she’s a bit of a one for her nerves, like, and she’d be upset. Especially if she knew he was retarded and all that, you know?”
I didn’t know. But at the same time yes, I knew. I knew that he’d clearly not given his son a second thought since the day he was given up. I knew that the prospect of meeting the son that he was so quick to give away probably terrified him. And I knew right there and then, that he would never ever share my amazing, precious boy because – quite frankly – he gave up his rights to this many years ago.
So that’s why the lie I told Marcus was a big one. Not one of those little white lies like Father Christmas, or the Tooth Fairy, that you can all laugh about when your child is old enough to understand.
It was a few days later that it resurfaced, as is always the way with Marcus. He’s what you’d describe as a reflector, I suppose.
He wandered into the kitchen one morning, just like any other day, before he had to leave to get the bus for the Willow Centre. Except this morning he gave me a blue envelope and asked me could I post it for him. I took it from him and glanced at it. Ha - I’d have a bit of a job, seeing as it contained neither a stamp, nor a name, nor an address on it! But I nodded and smiled and told Marcus that I’d pop it in the post that very afternoon. He seemed happy enough with my promise, and hauled his rucksack onto his shoulder in readiness for his journey.
“Excuse me young man,” I chided as he made for the door. “I’d like a kiss please!”
Reluctantly, like a shy little boy, he made his way back across the kitchen and let me plant a big kiss on his forehead, trying to squirm away when I let my kiss last just a moment too long. I inhaled his scent, his dark curls, the smell of soap on his skin…and then I let him go. Off to Willow, on the bus, back by teatime no doubt.
I sat down and opened the envelope. It wasn’t the photo that took me by surprise. This was a photograph we’d seen many times; in fact I think I was the one who’d taken it in the first place. It was one of many photos of Marcus, copying one of the kickboxer’s trademark moves from the book. I remember standing for twenty minutes with a restless, anxious Marcus in the queue at the chemists whilst we waited to get these photos developed. I prayed so hard that day that those bloody photos would turn out ok, and that I had the flash on, or that I hadn’t chopped anyone’s heads off the shot. Life is so much easier these days with all these cameras on phones.
I think it was the writing on the back of the photo that surprised me most of all. Marcus was so precious about his martial arts photos, keeping them carefully preserved in a sealed folder which is presumably why they’d stood the test of time. Yet he’d actually written on this one. Sure enough, there were his words, in large, curly scrawl…
To Mum and Dad
I also do kickboxing
So I did what any good mother would do, and I posted his letter. I posted it into a litter bin up near the butchers on Regent Road. Near enough for me to walk there, but far enough away for me to not have to think about it again.
There’s a new owner in that butchers, but everyone reckons he’s just as good as the last chap so to see if this was true, I picked up some oak smoked bacon on the way back, and made toast, bacon and eggs the next day for our breakfast. Our breakfast which, as anticipated, did not go without questions.
“Have you heard anything back today mum?”
“No, nothing yet my love. Come on now, eat your breakfast.”