Chapter 7 – Alfie Opens Up
‘Yay! Grace, look at me… look at me!’
‘No, Grace… I’m higher, look at me!’
Rose and Alfie’s voices were so excited and carefree, I stopped loading the washing machine and popped my head round the back door into the garden, for the fourth time in ten minutes. Their high spirits were infectious. The weather had finally taken a determined turn for the better and they were making the most of the sunshine by playing in the garden. When Amelia was little we had invested in a solid wooden slide and swings and when we started fostering, we added a large trampoline to the set up. Alfie and Rose loved the trampoline, Amelia and her friends colonised it most days after school, and when the children weren’t on it, our cat Gonzo used it as a bird watching command post. The birds, meanwhile, were happy to sit in the tree above and use the trampoline as their toilet.
Now as I looked, Alfie was perched on the trampoline’s side cushions, watching Rose ricochet around the netting like a rubber ball, cackling. I was touched to see him sitting patiently and waiting his turn, hands tucked under his chin.
‘Great jumping,’ I said, after waving to them both. ‘I’ll be out in a minute when I’ve got the washing on. Then you can both show me how good you are.’
‘OK, Grace,’ called Rose, her hair flying up above her head like a white flame as she rose and fell. Alfie smiled shyly at me. He didn’t speak, but he did raise his hand in the ghost of a wave.
As I headed back to the kitchen, I smiled, thinking how normal and happy this whole scene was. I felt relaxed for the first time in weeks. Just being outside, in the sunshine, with the promise of summer days ahead, and with the children occupied and content, this was close to normality.
After I had finished loading the washing and was making myself a quick cup of tea to take outside, I heard the children’s voices again. I smiled to myself – they sounded so delighted. Then I listened a bit more closely to what they were shouting.
‘Fuck head! Fuck head! Fuck head!’ I ran outside again, jumped over Gonzo in my desperation to get to the children and caught Rose mid-shout, her mouth open. In that second, Alfie, who had his back to me and therefore hadn’t seen me coming, joined in, laughing uproariously and bellowing, ‘Shit head! Shit––’
‘STOP!’ I shouted. It wasn’t a normal shout, it was one of those momentous shouts which comes from somewhere deep within your being. I think I can count on one hand the number of times I have had to resort to such a shout – there is something primordial about them.
Rose and Alfie both stopped shouting and moving and stared at me, open-mouthed. Out of the very corner of my eye I saw a streaking silver blur, which was Gonzo leaving the building, sensing my fury.
‘What on earth do you think you’re doing?’ Somehow I de-escalated my voice to normal but still very angry.
‘Jumping,’ said Rose, matter of fact and nonchalant, smiling.
As Alfie looked down, his fingers went into his mouth. He was gone, I could tell. Too much stress here.
‘Yes, I know you were jumping,’ I hissed at Rose, ‘but who were you shouting to?’
‘Mans over there,’ Rose indicated the allotments on the other side of our garden fence, which was thankfully eight feet high.
‘And what were you shouting?’ I asked, hoping I might have misheard.
‘Fuck head ’n’ shit head,’ Rose smiled at me again angelically, twisting a strand of her hair around one finger.
‘That’s a horrible thing to say. Those are very rude words and you shouldn’t be using them. Ever,’ I told her.
‘Mummy say it. She say it all the time, every day,’ Rose continued, smiling at me.
‘Well, I don’t want to hear it again, do you understand? In this family we don’t use those words and we don’t shout at people we don’t know either.’
Rose shrugged at me, laughed and carried on bouncing. Alfie looked up but stared through me, his eyes blank and unseeing. Of course I didn’t dare peek over the fence to see if anyone was standing there, horrified. I just had to hope that nobody had heard the children, and that the language wouldn’t be repeated. For the next five minutes I cringed each time I heard footsteps on the pavement outside our house, dreading that it was someone about to knock on our door to complain.
My mood was a bit spoilt, but time passed, there were no angry visitors and so we stayed out in the garden for the rest of the afternoon. Rose pottered around in the sandpit, although she wouldn’t actually play with the buckets and spades unless I joined in too. Alfie was quietly placing toy cars in lines on the grass and making them drive around clumps of moss and stones.
As I stood watching him, and pondering how to bridge the emotional gap with this little boy, the slope in our lawn caught him unawares and he toppled and fell, tumbling over himself like a ball rolling downhill. Alfie was always falling over – it was something we expected since he was only two – but even so he seemed exceptionally clumsy. As I saw him go down, my instinct was to jump up and run to him. I stopped myself, remembering that he always turned away from my cuddles, seeming to find them more of a threat than a comfort.
Alfie wailed as he picked himself up. When he looked at his hands and saw they were muddy, this seemed to terrify him. He held them out from his body as if trying to disown them, and shut his eyes tight, while the tears trickled down his cheeks. Every maternal bone in my body was screaming at me to go and comfort him. I imagined how unnatural this scene would have looked to anybody watching – a tiny child, hurt and crying, in obvious need of help, and the apparently unfeeling adult sitting and watching.
Just then, Alfie opened his eyes, looked very hard at me and began stumbling back up the bank of the lawn. He kept his eyes on me, while sobbing, and walked slowly towards me.
‘Me hurt, Grace,’ he said softly, standing just out of reach, his hands still held out in front of him. It was as if he was testing me, sounding me out in my reaction. He shuffled a little closer. I felt like someone in the presence of a rare and extremely nervous wild animal. If I did the wrong thing or made a sudden movement I would scare him away but if I did the right thing he might actually start trusting me. I could feel the pressure of the moment like a huge weight on my shoulders and neck. Everything around me seemed to have dropped away – the garden, the sunshine, the birdsong overhead, just me and this little boy and the space between us, the space I was desperate to bridge. I held out my arms to him, slowly, as I had done many times before and this time, instead of turning away, he sank into them.
Three weeks is not a long time but three weeks of sharing a house with a small child who rejects your attempts to comfort him had seemed unending. I tried not to shake with relief, and held back the tears which pricked at the corners of my eyes. This had to be a calm moment, not an overwhelming one. ‘Don’t be a drama queen, Grace,’ I told myself. ‘This is about Alfie, not you. Keep your cool.’
We stayed like that for a long time. Alfie’s sobbing stopped and he began matching the slow, steady rhythm of my breathing.
‘Cuddles are so good, aren’t they?’ I whispered into his ear. ‘They make everything feel better, even bumps and bruises.’ Alfie gave a little nod and snuggled further into the crook of my neck. ‘Sometimes they can even make you feel better if you’re scared… or lonely… or sad too.’
I decided to press home my advantage and sow some seeds in his mind. ‘You know, if you ever feel sad or scared about anything, or if you just want a cuddle, I would love to give you one and so would Andy…’ Alfie didn’t say anything, but stayed where he was and I was sure he was listening. ‘I tell Amelia that cuddles are like medicine. They make you feel all better inside. That’s why she likes having them, and Rose and Andy and me, we all need cuddles.’
Alfie pulled away from my neck and looked at me. He gave me a tiny smile, and then snuggled back against me. This felt like a huge, proper landmark moment. I wanted to jump up and phone my mum, Andy, Neil, and all my friends but I had to stay there and stay still, for as long as Alfie needed me, even if it meant the house wasn’t cleaned and the tea wasn’t cooked. I got as comfortable as I could and just enjoyed the feeling of him being in my arms.