“Hello? My name is Samantha Anderson. Is this Mrs Morris?”
“Yes, what is this about?”
“Sorry to trouble you. I’m currently fostering Tobias Cudo. I understand he spent some time with you. I’m just trying to get a little background.”
“Yes, sorry. I’m not sure I can help you beyond what I told the social workers. He always behaved perfectly in front of Mr Morris and myself, but he never seemed to fit in with the other children.”
“It was more to do with his mental health. Was he always so…”
“I understand why you’d say that. No, had you not felt his…sadness?”
“You’ve read his background. Horrorifying!”
“And what impression did you get about what he thought about his past?”
“Frankly, we never saw any sign that he knew about what happened.”
“You never broached the subject with him?”
“Why bring up something so horrible if it’s not remembered. We instead raised him in a positive christian way, to put aside the past and live for today.”
“I…I can appreciate that view, but even if he doesn’t remember it, it has an effect, one that could be at least understood with openness and councilling.”
“Sorry, if that sounds like a criticism…I only meant….”
“It was a criticism…but, I accept it. Maybe we didn’t do all we could for Toby, but we did all we knew, if that makes sense. I was sad to lose him when my husband past, but I just couldn’t keep all the children alone. Out of children I had at the time he seemed the least likely to….the most capable to move on.”
“Yes, he does give that impression. But he hides, sometimes for hours when there’s a difficulty of some sort, and his fingers always fidget with a little black box.”
“Oh? He has always cherished the box. I once gave him a crucifix to put in the box hoping that it would give comfort.”
“I’ve never seen inside. I’ve never wanted to pry.”
“I hear his stay in the group home was not a good one. I’m very sorry for that. But, I’m pleased to hear he has another loving family.”
“Thank you, we try. He won’t speak about the group home. He’s actually very good at putting on a brave face when he thinks we’re watching. He’ll even make up jokes and do silly impressions, but if you ask him for stories he’ll have nothing to say and will put on another show as a distraction or demonstrate one of his magic tricks as a change of subject. But I think there’s real pain there.”
“Life for these children is pain, or at least the part before they come to us. All we can do is help them live with the past, and demonstrate a better way of living.”
“Yes, that’s what I hope to do. Toby deserves that much, the rest is up to him.”
*Silence from both sides*
“Is there anymore I can help you with?”
“No, thank you. Sorry for disturbing you.”
“Not at all. If you think it proper, say hello from me and remember Mr Morris to him, please.”
“I’m sure it will be fine. Goodbye.”
Being smaller than average had its advantages. A sliding door storage space that most people wouldn’t consider, becomes a safe refuge. The linen press that I currently hid was just inside the study where Sam Anderson (she’d told me to call her Sam) had phoned the Morris’ old home in Slough.
It had become a sad house after Mr Morris died suddenly at work. He’d been, maybe not a father, but a patient and giving uncle to me and to many others. In the end, I’d been happy to move just to escape the complete feeling of helplessness and loss.
I must have fidgetted with the box, clicking the secret doors and slides until the first compartment (only compartment I’ve ever opened) revealed and disappeared again.
“Toby?” Sam’s voice rang out clear and startling to both of us I think in the silence of the study. I froze and the clicking ceased. There was a moment of silence and then the shuffle of cloth and the sudden bright light as the sliding door opened.
“Oh, Toby.” She sighed more than said, “Did you hear all the phone call?”
I nodded, there wasn’t any sense in lying, she’d caught me, embarraingly in this secret hiding spot.
“I’m sorry you had to hear that. Sometimes it’s hard to hear things about ourselves.”
I said nothing as I consciously processed her statement. She wasn’t sorry to talking about me with Mrs Morris, to say I hide or make up distractions just so I don’t have to talk about things. She was sorry I’d heard. Did it matter?”
“Look, you must be cramped in there, would you like to come out?” Sam suggested and suddenly I realised, I couldn’t feel my legs. How long had I been in the linen press? Long before the conversation. It was after Max had set off the chinese crackers he’s swiped from the local grocery store’s Luna New Year celebrations. It had been fun, until it hadn’t been. It was then I had to leave.
Carefully, I dragged himself out of my hiding spot and into the well lit study. My eyes scan the rows and rows of books, all dogeared and note flaged, all on child psychology and development. I’d have liked to look further but I could feel the pins and needles running up and down my legs and it made me wince and turn away. Slowly I stood, shakily taking to my feet that were just lumps of lead on the ends of legs that were alive with sensation.
“Toby, do you have any questions about what you heard?”
What had I heard?
Sam asked Mrs Morris about my metal health. We’d learnt at school about iron deficiency, but I didn’t know of any deficiency. There was something to do with my past, and talk about the group home.
Something dark and ugly uncoiled in my stomach, something that sometimes wrapped itself around my heart and made it hard to breath. I must have looked ill because Sam made me sit down in one of two reading chairs.
“What is a metal state?” I eventually asked in the stilted English that sometimes came out when I was nervous.
“Mental state.” she corrected, “ How you feel about yourself and as a result, the world around you? ”
“Bit stupid for being caught in the linen press.” I joked and was rewarded by a smile, but Sam would not be distracted.
“Why do you go into the linen press?”
I shrugged, the universal teenage language has so many uses.
“Well, why today? What happened today that meant you ended up in the linen press?”
That was easy. I told her about the firecrackers on the way home from school, but not who’d had them. Then I told her something he’d never told anyone.
“Somethings wake up the dark worms. When they wake up, they eat me and wrap around my heart and I can’t breath. I need to hide until they go back to sleep.”
“Dark worms? Can you tell me more?” She looked concerned and I was surprised how comforting that was. I took a deep breath and continued.
“They’re inside me, all the time. Sometimes they wake up just because, sometimes loud noises, sometimes…gun fights on TV or when the guys play…” I made a pistol with my finger and was surprised to see my hands shake. Quickly I slipped it behind my back.
“No wonder you find a quiet space.” Sam replied seriously after a few minutes, “You can always come into the study, I’ll let the rest know to leave you alone…”
“NO!” I said more loudly than I meant to, “I mean they’ll only think I’m weird or getting special treatment or something.”
“You’re not going to fit in the linen press forever. Maybe there are other things we can do to help make the worms sleep.”
“Really?” Until this moment, the worms arrival was always a matter of enduring, holding out until breath returned, until I knew I’d survived one more time.
“You do some of it already, with your box and in finding a calm space.” She pointed to the puzzle box clutch in my exposed hand. Sam brushed the sweat encrusted hair from my forehead and I felt a giddy thrill at the attention. I wanted it to feel like this all the time.
“You also need to find the quiet space inside you as well. A place where there are no worms.”
A quiet space inside? Like a linen press inside my chest? I must have looked puzzled.
She smiled again and sat square with me so our knees were touching. She took my hands, the puzzle box between us, and closed her eyes.
“Now, close your eyes and think about your box. All four sides, the top and bottom.”
Confused and unsure where this was going, I complied. I knew my box, every chip and scuff. I knew the shiny black lacquer and the bright red of the compartment I could open.
“Set it spinning, slowing so that you see one full side and then it turns, “She took a breath in, “and disappears to show another side.” Slowly she breathed out.
This was harder. I was becoming aware of Sam. Her hands on mine, the dampness between and the smell of her perfume. I started feeling this was stupid, that if someone walked past they’d laugh or worse. I wriggled uncomfortably, but she just repeated the suggestion in the same calm tone and eventually the box spun in time with my breathing.
“Good. Now, if that doesn’t help we can go deeper by opening your box.”
My eyes fluttered open in suspicion. Nothing good ever came from wanting to look in the box. She must have sensed something, maybe a clenching of my hands, a sudden intake of breath. She opened her eyes.
“I meant in your head. I don’t need to know what’s in your box unless you want me to.” She said seriously once more and I believed her.
I closed my eyes, and under Sam’s direction set the box slowly spinning. This time when she suggested the box open in my mind I saw the bolts, switches and slides that opened the first compartment.
“This time the inside of your box is full of light and joy. There’s a cool breeze and plenty of room to run around in. This is your safe place, make it what you want. Expand it until it fills a world, or is as small as matchbox. Fill it with detail or keep it blank and simple, it is all up to you.
I thought about what she said. Light wasn’t hard, the motes of dust in sunlight playing through my fingers always seemed like magic.
Joy…that one may need to wait.
The cool breeze turned cold. I could feel something sticky running down his face and the smell of the fireworks…
No. No worms here.
Warm breeze, like at the beach on a sunny day. Warm enough to melt your ice cream if you weren’t careful.
Now the joy, showing people my latest trick. Making someone smile and laugh. Feeling people around me enjoying my company and me theirs. Yes, that was good. Almost as good as a cool hand brush my hot brow.
It was dark and I was lying down. Outside my window, crickets were starting their evening chorus. I sat up and my lacquered box slipped off the bed and spilt its contents tinkleling all over the floor. I rolled over and looked at the item scattered about. A shiny pebble, the only thing I had to remember Mr Morris, a few shells from the beach, a couple of shiny coins I did his magic with, a button made of mother of pearl and a small silver cross. It wasn’t the one Mrs Morris had given me, that had Jesus all bloodied and broken. This was a simpler cross, and completely empty. I liked it better that way, a reminder that bad things don’t last.
One by one I picked up my treasures just as my body registered the smell of dinner from downstairs. Gently, I placed them in the box and closed the compartment. Maybe later , when the others were busy or asleep I’d show Sam inside the box, then maybe I would ask her what my records said.
But right now it was tea and a boy’s growing can not wait. Jumping out of bed I ran down stairs just as the food arrived at the table.