Tobias stood outside the office after the funeral. Mrs Morris was on the phone to someone as Mr Morris’s wake happened elsewhere.
“…I just can’t cope…no…no there’s no problem with the children…no…I’m all alone now and …I’m not saying I don’t want to foster anymore, but it was more Robert’s vision than mine…look, I just wanted to organise a talk about what happens next…that’s right, I won’t be able to keep all three…I don’t know…I don’t know, look I need to get back to the wake…yes…let me know when you’re available…okay, thank you…yes, I actually don’t know what I’m going to do without him.”
Mrs Morris hung up and sat alone behind her big wooden desk as Tobias looked on from the hallway. He couldn’t have said why he was there. Certainly the wake held no interest, but Mrs Morris’s grief caused him pain. He rubbed his chest now, his heart raced under his hand and he wondered, not for the first time, if you could die of a broken heart.
Mr Morris died at work ten days before. They’d been no signs of illness, nothing to show anything was wrong. In one sudden moment, the light and life of the Morris’ house had gone out. Now all that was left was Mrs Morris’s stoic coolness and a hole where Mr Morris had been.
“Toby?” Mrs Morris was standing in front of Tobias, a damp handkerchief in her hand, her eyes red rimmed and unpainted. “Toby, why are you just standing there?”
Why was he standing there? That’s right…
“Grandmother said it as time for speeches and to look for you.” He replied. Mr Morris’s mother had always told the foster children in their care to call her grandmother. Never nanny or Grandma, she was Grandmother. Having no family, Tobias was glad to have someone he could call anything familial.
“Of course.” Mrs Morris replied dully. It seemed she wasn’t enjoying the wake anymore than Tobias. “Will you accompany me, Toby?” She offered her arm like the ladies on the historical television shows she liked and Tobias took it gratefully.
The autumn sun was warm and inviting after the cold interior of the house. The wake was being held in the garden as it was the only place that held all the people. Late blooming flowers and the turning leaves made a backdrop worthy of a good man’s send off. And if the crowd was an indication, Mr Morris had been a very good man.
Over twenty years he and Mrs Morris had taken children into their large sprawling home. They had provided safety, stability and love for 82 children and supported 67 families. It seemed all of them were there with their spouses, children and extended families to pay their respects.
“…Mr Morris, Robert, didn’t tell me how to be a better person. He showed me through his quiet ways.” Said one of the ex-foster kids now an adult in a dark suit, “He always had time, though there were five of us then and none of us were exactly ‘house-broken’”
The crowd laughed companionably.
The speaker dug into the pocket of his pants and pulled out a small polished stone, creamy white, blue and grey.
“He shared his passion for geology and lapidary. And much like his rocks, he took us in and carefully smoothed out the rough edges, showing us how to rub-along together.”
Tobias thought of his puzzle box and the piece of polished petrified wood warm and smooth. He scanned the crowd and noticed quite a few others also with small polished stones mounted on chains or just in their hands.
“So here’s to Mr Morris, assuredly in heaven. May the many pebbles he left behind follow in his legacy.” The glass of wine, beer or soft drink rose and the group roared their agreement startling Tobias.
“Toby, go find the other children, will you, I have to talk to our guests.” Mrs Morris let go of Tobias’ arm and straightened herself. Now the host, Mrs Morris walked into the crowd and was swallowed up by the well wishers. Tobias put his hands in his pockets and stalked around the outside of the adult group looking for the other two.
Tim (called Tam because of his half Scottish heritage and love of the chocolate biscuits ) had found himself a quiet spot in the garden. Tam had acquired a pile of treats from the table and was currently working through a small meat pie when Tobias sat down beside him.
“Want something?” Tam offered from his pile of sweets and savories. Tobias’ stomach lurched and it was all he could do to keep his mouth closed. He shook his head.
When he thought he could speak without being sick, Tobias said in a low voice only for Tam, “She’s going to send some of us away.”
Tam’s mouth dropped open and his half chewed pie fell into his lap.
“I heard her, on the phone to the agency.”
“She wouldn’t. Where else are we supposed to go?” Tam had now completely forgotten his food and they both sat in the Autumn shade in communal misery.
“Who do you think she’d pick?” Tam asked after a while. He was a very fast eater, but not so fast at thinking.
“Staying, of course, what did you think I meant?”
“Who’d she’d pick to go.”
“Oh God, that’s even worse.”
The two boys looked over the wake, spying Jancy and her school friend who’d been invited so she’d have someone to talk to. Both had set themselves up under the food table and were taking it in turns to sneak out and find something tasty to share.
“Well, it won’t be Jancy for sure. Her Aunty lives nearby and you know how Mrs Morris always prefers the girls.” Tam scowled, not his usual kindly expression, but dire times called for dire expressions.
“I wouldn’t be so sure, ” Tobias thought back a time before Tam when Jancy had been caught lying by Mrs Morris. Jancy and Tobias’s relationship had been complicated after that.
“Oh man!” Tam sat up in realisation, “That means me, they’ll get rid of me!”
“How do you figure that?”
“Well, I have both my parents, though they’re bums. You have no one.”
Kind hearted Tam had noticed last Christmas when no one came to see Tobias, didn’t even send a present or a Christmas card. He’d given Tobias one of his presents, though he hadn’t opened it or anything. Tobias hadn’t forgotten that kindness, and was more patient with Tam’s melodramas than Jancy or even Mrs Morris.
“You have family nearby. That I have no one make it more likely I’ll be the one to go.”
That made Tam cry and the two of them sat in companionable silence as he wept and Tobias decently ignored it.
Days went by and it was clear the heart of the household had been cut out by the loss of Mr Morris. Mrs Morris treated the children as she always had, but without the tempering gentleness of Mr Morris, she came across as a school principal and not the head of a mix-matched family. Tobias found he couldn’t get comfortable anywhere. When he was at school he thought about the empty house. When he was at home spent his time aimlessly roaming the house peering into echoing rooms looking for somehting that wasn’t there anymore.
When the day of the meeting with social services arrived, Tobais asked to see Mrs Morris in her office.
“What is it Toby, I have to get ready for this meeting and you know that…Mr Morris was always better at dealing with these people than me.” She looked stressed and tired and for the first time Tobias realised she was just like him, missing the comfort of Mr Morris.
“It’s about that I want to talk to you. You shouldn’t have to pick which of us has to go.”
She stared at him like she wanted to cry. Instead she sighed and ushered him around the desk to her side.
“You heard that phone call didn’t you?” You don’t have to hide it, Tam’s be walking around here like the world is going to fall down on him.”
Tobias nodded and so did Mrs Morris
“I probably won’t get much of a say, the department will probably determine whose best to stay and who could go somewhere else.”
“Well…you can tell them I’ll go.” Tobias blurted out in a rush, “I mean, I want to go.”
Now he thought she would cry and that was somehow more disturbing that being yelled at.
“Don’t….you like living here, Toby?”
“Yes. You and Mr Morris…you have been my only parents…” He was going to say ‘ I remember’, but thought better of it, “…here in England. You taught me everything, but…”
“It’s not the same anymore, is it?”
‘“No.” She repeated, placing her hands on the desk.
“Thank you, Toby. I’ll let them know.”
In the end everyone agreed that to relieve stress on the family one of the children would be relocated to a suitable family. As Tobias had no links in the community, had no serious friendships and had volunteered he would be the one to go.
Tam was inconsolable and even Jancy showed distress at the family being broken up. Mrs Morris was beside herself with guilt over the decision and spent many hours either talking to the social workers or working on her private finances to somehow afford to keep Tobias. Only Tobias seemed calm and philosophical about leaving. If anything, now that the decision had been made he was almost looking forward to the move.
Eventually, due to the distress it was causing on the household as a whole, it was decided to move Tobias to a group home for a week or two until a place could be found in foster care.
The morning of the move, Tobias was packed and ready, standing in the front door. His worldly posessions fitted into a suitcase (his clothes) a box (a few books, including those for school) and his backpack (snacks, drink bottle and puzzlebox). He scanned the street for the social workers car as behind him Mrs Morris ushered Tam and Jacy foward to give their goodbyes.
Jancy looked bored, there was no love lost between Tobias and her, but for his part he was willing to forget their differences. It’s not as though they were ever likely to meet again.
“Bye Jancy, don’t give Tam a hard time, okay?”
Tam started crying again. His eyes were already red rimmed, the skin around them puffy. He’d wiped his nose on the back of his hand so often there were shiny snails trails. Jancy looked at him in disgust.
“I wouldn’t touch him.”
“Tam, come with me for a moment.” Tobias took Tam’s damp hand just as the social workers card drove up.
“I’ll put your things in the car,” Mrs Morris said, picking up his box and suitcase, “You two take your time.”
Tobias led Tam down the path away from Jancy at the front door.
“I don’t want you to go.” Tam said quietly, he had no energy left for wailing, “Everyone always leaves.”
“Well, remember I’m not leaving you, they’re moving me on.”
“Does it make a difference?”
“All the difference in the world. Adults make stupid choices, what are us kids going to do? Cry? Get angry? Na, I say make the best of it…” At that moment he stomped down on the head of a garden rake he’d placed there for just this moment. The rake handle lifted, hitting and turning the garden hose tap. The hose jumped as the water pressure ran along its length to the nozzle held in place by two bricks behind the rosebushes.
A jet of fridget morning water sprung out of the garden bed beside the front door and drenched Jancy. Tam looked from Jancy to Tobias and back to Jancy his mouth moving but no sound came out. Suddenly the tears were forgotten and he roared into uncontrollable, well needed laughter.
All this took but mere seconds. When Tam turned, laughing at the screaming Jancy flailling at the high pressure water, Tobias quickly bent down, turned off the tap and pressed the button that automatically wound up the hose. The water stopped with one last gout and slithered backwards through the grass to nestle safely in its plastic nest of hose reel.
Mrs Morris, who had her back turned talking to the social workers, swung round to the screams and laughter. There was Jancy soaking wet, there was Tam no longer crying but laughing outrageously, and there, of course, Tobias looking on at the chaos, the slightest smirk on his angelic face. But how? There was nothing to show, but a rake and a few bricks in the garden?
“Jancy, go in and get changed, you’ll catch your death. Tam that’s enough, thank you. Tobias…” She gestured for him to join her at the car. “…I probably should be glad that I wasn’t at the door with Jancy.” Mrs Morris said low enough for only the two of them to hear.
“I don’t know what you mean, Mrs Morris.” Tobias relpied, his face the image of innocence.
“Hmm…well I think you have guaranteed that you will never be forgotten.” She put her hand out, her fist closed. Tobias put out his palm and Mrs Morris dropped a small silver cross, one with Christ still nailed to it. It hit Tobias’ palm with a solid ‘thunk’.
“Mr Morris and I always tried to show you the hope found in Christ. This is for you in rememberance of that.”
If there was hope in Christ, why are you sending me away? Tobias thought bitterly. Christ isn’t a symbol of hope but an example of how the world treats the good. He folded his fingers around the image and nodded, saying nothing.
There wasn’t much more to be said after that. A few hugs, especially from Tam who was still giggling and then Tobias took his seat in the car, all he owned laid around him. Tobias tried to think back to the time he’d been brought to the Morris’. That time his entire possessions were a few changes of clothes and an illustrated English dictionary. He’d had almost no language, no idea of where he was or what was going to happen to him.
The Morrises had given him that and more.
He rummaged through his backpack until he found his puzzlebox. He flipped it open and placed the cross with the other pieces he’d collected during his time in the house. The car drove off and he waved goodbye, now not with a sense of loss, but with a sense of purpose.
Okay, let’s go and see what the world has to offer.