I wrote last time about sentimental perceptions of golden childhood; of happy carefree days, the sort of childhood we would wish for every child. But as I said, sadly, in the real world, many children are not so lucky. I mentioned Laurie Lee’s wonderfully evocative Cider With Rosie as an example of the rose-tinted tendency, but in huge contrast here’s another writer who (although happily married with lovely kids) portrays childhood in much less glowing terms.
Chantelle Atkins’ lengthy two-part The Boy With The Thorn In His Side paints a very bleak picture indeed of an unhappy, violent, angry and yet likeable 14-year-old boy who rails against an abusive stepfather and hates his mother, but finds solace and fulfilment in music and his writing. It’s about as far away from the bucolic idyll of Lee’s Gloucestershire as you could imagine, and possibly uncomfortable for those of a delicate disposition to read. But it’s certainly a plea for trying to understand the desolation and desperation that can so easily cripple young lives and lead to disturbed, anti-social behaviour.
Here’s my recent review of book one of Chantelle’s impressive and compelling tour de force.
Gritty, compelling stuff
I agree with a lot of what Amazon reviewer JDemsey says: being an old softy I would normally have regarded this as not my sort of book either. Not, you understand, because I usually consume Mills and Boon, far from it, but this is at the other end of the spectrum and is extremely gritty, edgy stuff. But it’s compelling.
Yes, at times, when Danny is for the umpteenth time angrily rejecting his mum’s clumsy attempts to reach out to him, you feel you want to give him a good shake – or at least a little grown-up’s lecture about seeing the other’s point of view. But at other times, when he’s suffering abuse, you want to cry for him. Either way you can’t be indifferent, and in this alone the author scores a full five stars from me. Involvement, and empathy most of the time, with the disturbed young protagonist is compulsory.
And he’s a well-drawn and utterly believable character. It’s a cliché but in this case it’s true: Ms Atkins’ characters are certainly not one-dimensional or constructed of cardboard. They’re proper, complex, grey as opposed to black-or-white creations. I even found myself feeling a smidgeon (but only a smidgeon) of sympathy for the control-freak stepfather as he reacts in the only way he knows how to Danny’s implacable hostility.
This book will certainly make you think and confront some uncomfortable notions. So kudos to the author for that. And technically it’s excellent, notwithstanding her sometimes relaxed attitude to the use of the possessive apostrophe.
Very well done indeed; it’s a great read!
I made the point last time that some children begin life in the most inauspicious of circumstances and yet still, thankfully, rise above it. Think of Barnardo’s Boy author Leslie Thomas, for example. In my forthcoming novel The One of Us I have twin baby boys starting life’s journey like that. The unwanted result of a night of drunken lust, they are abandoned by their desperate, hopelessly inadequate teenage mum to be foundlings in a public loo.
They spend their first months of life in the Salvation Army’s Strawberry Field Children’s Home in Liverpool (as immortalised by the Beatles; John Lennon played in its grounds as a child). My small collection of short stories, Another Spring, borrows a chapter from The One of Us depicting that segment of their lives. Here’s an extract from it:
It was autumn. A last few russet leaves were still stubbornly clinging to the trees but most were blowing around their feet. Glyn and Sioned stood before the ornate iron gates of Strawberry Field Children’s Home, both feeling extremely nervous.
‘Well this is it, Cariad’, said Glyn. ‘Moment of truth.’
Sioned reached for and squeezed his hand. ‘Yes, certainly is. We’re about to commit ourselves, I think.’
‘I feel terrified, to be honest with you,’ Glyn admitted.
‘Me too,’ said Sioned.
‘Well, come on,’ he said, ‘let’s get it over with. We can always change our minds I suppose if it doesn’t feel right.’
They’d been advised not to bring Lowri for this first meeting. Best to keep things simple. They could see the wisdom of that, knowing their daughter. She’d agreed in principle to adopting anyway. So it was just the two of them ringing the doorbell now and trying to calm their heart rates. Knowing that the home was run by the Salvation Army, they were a little surprised when the door was opened by a gentle-faced woman in her forties dressed in normal attire: a straight brown skirt and beige jumper.
‘Hello, Mr and Mrs Reece is it? Do come in. I’m Captain Price. But call me Susan.’
‘Hello, er . . .’
Their host grinned broadly. ‘Yes, you’re wondering about the uniform, or the lack of it, aren’t you? It’s alright; we only wear civvies at the home. Makes it feel more normal for the children. Not too institutional!’
It certainly did feel indistinguishable from any home in a typical upper middle class Victorian house as she led them into a bright cheerful lounge that would doubtless have been a drawing room in grander times. And as they entered the room, still the impression was one of a normal family tableau, with a small group of children playing happily and a young woman who could quite easily have been their mother watching over them with a benevolent expression on her friendly face.
Susan Price indicated armchairs. ‘Please sit down.’
They sat and took in the gathering. There were five children: a girl and boy of three or so, a solemn little boy who looked to be about two, a girl of perhaps five who was deeply engrossed in dressing a doll and completely ignoring them, and another girl who was possibly around seven. She was sitting on a sofa nursing a baby who had astonishingly red curly hair. Beside her, the young woman was holding what looked like a duplicate, although a little larger by the look of him. And they were dressed differently: one in a tiny pale blue jumpsuit, the other in a lime green one.
Sioned looked at them, fascinated. They must be the ones. They’d been shown photos. Six month-old identical twin boys; both at present available. Glyn had remarked jokingly that it was a bit like choosing from a litter of pups, before she’d thumped him for his pains. They’d said, when declaring a tentative interest, that they didn’t feel they could take on two, but their contact at Social Services had said, trying to stifle a look of slight disappointment, that that was fine; she understood, particularly as they already had a biological child of their own. Most would-be adopters said they could only take on one child, and whilst it was a pity that the brothers couldn’t be placed together, with there being fewer adopters than adoptees they had to grateful that they could find enough suitable ones at all.
Susan walked over and took the larger twin from Tracey, the young woman, and brought him to Sioned. Glyn left his chair and came to kneel beside her.
‘This is Wayne. Say hello to the nice lady Wayne!’
But the baby was having none of it. As he was handed over his bottom lip began to tremble, he screwed up his eyes, paused and bawled, astonishingly loudly. Shocked, Sioned tried pacification. ‘Ah, come on Bach; it’s alright. Shush! There there!’ She tried cuddling but the baby wouldn’t be comforted.
‘Let me try,’ Glyn offered, and leaned to take the howling baby. He came to him, but was no more impressed than he’d been with Sioned. He could make an extraordinarily loud noise for such a little person. Glyn’s baby-mollifying skills were no more effective than Sioned’s. After a minute or two of this, with no cessation in sight, Susan took him back and returned him to Tracey. The cure was almost instant. He buried his face in her ample bosom, put a thumb into his mouth and quietened, peering now and then with great suspicion at the alarming strangers.
A pall of embarrassment fell. Susan had a plan though. She left the room, returning with several tiny tubs of pink yogurt and plastic spoons, which were distributed amongst the children but not the babies. ‘This usually works,’ she said, ‘hasn’t failed yet anyway’.
No, I’ll bet, Sioned mused. It worked pretty well with our Lowri too.
Susan had given two of the yogurts to Glyn, and he peeled the foil top from one. She said, ‘Do you want to try with Tommy this time?’ as without waiting for an answer she took the other baby from his minder and brought him over to Glyn.
‘Give him a mouthful to try,’ she commanded, holding the baby down to him, chubby legs dangling, as Glyn spooned some of the bright pink goo into the tiny rosebud mouth. It worked wonders. This baby’s reaction to a stranger was quite different from his sibling’s. His facial expressions shifted in rapid succession from surprise, to delight as the sweetness hit, to determination as he stretched for the tub. Susan plonked him on Sioned’s lap as Glyn quickly fed him another spoonful, and thus the connection was made, between culinary gratification and these strange people.
As Sioned held him, remembering the cuddliness and sweet baby scent of a six-month-old, Glyn fed him the rest of the yogurt and then gave him the tub to messily play with. Of course it went into his mouth too, and spilled the remnants onto her blouse, but she couldn’t have cared less. On the basis of this intimacy, she would have chosen Tommy above Wayne there and then. But she and Glyn had to be fair minded and give the other baby equal consideration, and so Tommy was reluctantly handed back and the process repeated with his more timid sibling. But it worked with Wayne too. Even in his tiny unformed mind he was aware, vaguely, of missing out on something, and when he too was tempted with yogurt he quickly overcame his fear. Now he too sat confidently in Sioned’s lap and received the ambrosia with alacrity.
Susan handed Tommy back again, this time to Glyn, and for the next half hour they nursed and played with a baby each. Sioned looked at the other children. They were eying her and Glyn with, what, envy? Did they have a sense that they were simply spectators in this curious game of choose-your-baby? Had would-be mothers and fathers visited and apprised any of them, but found them not to their liking? Certainly, none of them were as beautiful as the twins – not that that mattered of course. Well why should it? They were all children who needed every child’s birthright: love. She wondered what sort of backgrounds they had to their short lives that had led them to be spending an interlude in the care of authority. Neglect possibly? Or inadequate parents? (or parent, singular?) Or even cruelty and abuse? Duw; she’d rather not even think about that. Poor little mites.
Their hour’s visit quickly passed (there’d been tea and biscuits half way through, during the consumption of which they’d had to content themselves with just watching the babies), and Susan gently signalled its end by taking the twins from them. She showed them out. They hovered on the doorstep, reluctant to leave.
‘Well there they are then. Fine little chaps aren’t they?’
Sioned and Glyn nodded in fervent agreement.
‘I expect you’ll be in touch with Social Services now, when you’ve chosen one, although I don’t envy you. It’ll be a hard choice I would imagine.’
‘Yes, it certainly will be,’ Glyn agreed. ‘It would be tempting to say we’ll take them both, but we don’t feel we can commit to that. It would be even more of a responsibility. And there’s our daughter to think about.’
Susan nodded. ‘Yes; you’re quite right. I do understand. Anyway, if or when you’ve come to a decision, we’ll arrange another, longer visit. There have to be quite a few, a process of getting-to-know-you, as I’m sure you’ve been told. They have to be as sure as they can be that you’re right before they’ll release a child.’
Glyn promised Susan they’d be back in the near future, hopefully bringing Lowri if that was alright, (to which Susan affirmed yes; absolutely), and they took their leave. Driving home they talked it over. They must consider their choice carefully; not be too starry-eyed about it. It was an important decision, with a lot at stake.
‘Duw, it’s difficult to choose,’ Glyn said.
‘Yes,’ said Sioned, ‘of course it is. But going on first impressions, which one would you go for?’
Glyn glanced at her and smiled. ‘Really tough, isn’t it? They’re both great. But I suppose Tommy just has the edge, perhaps. He wasn’t at all shy about coming to us’
Sioned laughed. ‘Yes, but that was partly the lure of the yogurt you know.’
She briefly covered his hand resting on the gear knob. ‘But yes; I agree.’
My mini-anthology of short stories