Our secret carer is trying to cope with the pressures of lockdown
There is an image from The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers, that sticks in my mind. The Ents, attacking Isengard, have broken a dam, and the water is washing away the orcs and goblins and dousing their fires. The Ents themselves are standing in the flow, bending into it, digging their root-like claws into the ground. Here director Peter Jackson is flying in the face of ancient wisdom, which has trees bending with, not against, the flow on the grounds that ‘it is better to bend than break’ – it’s an old Chinese proverb, an Aesop fable from Ancient Greece and Chaucer himself uses it.
Sam is sitting on the sofa and he’s crying.
‘What’s the problem, Sam?’
‘All my friends are out and I have to sit inside. It’s not fair.’
Not fair. Two months of lockdown and the strains are beginning to tell, the cracks becoming yawning fissures. I look out of the window to the nearby park. The sky is blue, the sun is summer-strong and there are groups of people of all ages standing, sitting, lying down, chatting, kicking a football around. It seems they aren’t breaking the social distancing rules, but it’s close. They’ve had enough and so has Sam.
So hard to fight an invisible enemy.
I have tried to bend with this, to give him some space. ‘Can I go outside and play football with Charmaine – just out there, just passing it to each other?’ he says, pointing to the field across the footpath.
I think about it. How long before the ball bounces into someone else’s hands, how long before others turn up to join in, tackling each other, breathing on each other?
How long before he starts going out without my permission?
I extract a promise for social distancing and let him go, keeping an eye on him. Every time I look, he is keeping at least six foot apart and both are showing off their keepy-uppy skills, no tackling required.
As the government moves towards opening up the country again, mixed messages abound. ‘The lockdown is over’, declares Sam, because it said so on some social media feed that makes his phone constantly ping. ‘No it isn’t’, I reply, ‘new cases are happening in their hundreds every day.’
‘Yes, but not here.’
‘They could be, you don’t know. They don’t give local figures.’
I cannot keep the lid on this particular box. He is a 15-year-old boy, and while social media has made lockdown bearable, it has its limits. Now the summer sun beckons, and there is no resisting it.
I could, of course, say ‘hard cheese, mate’. I could lay down the law to protect myself and my family. I could say, ‘Sam, you can’t go out until there is a complete lifting of the lockdown – it’s just too risky for me, an asthmatic.’
And while I know he would understand, his capacity to empathise is limited. He may try to weigh up the possibility of my contracting COVID-19 against his urge to play with his mates, but the former is going to get drowned out by the latter. He will break free.
Already, during this lockdown, he has slipped out in the early hours to meet naughty friends in the nearby park.
I’ve heard his apologies and his promises that it will never happen again, but I know it will happen again, because I can’t help thinking that were I a foster child in lockdown, I too would be out of the door when my carer’s back was turned.
I know from years of experience that this will become a fight – I will have to become ever-more vigilant, I will be telling Sam off every day, multiple times a day. He will grow to resent me and our relationship will turn sour.
So I’ve compromised.
Sam is now allowed out for an hour to the local park. He comes back on the hour every hour. He promises to keep his social distance during that time and when he comes back to report in, he washes his hands. The last time he comes in during that day, he washes his hands, goes straight to his room, puts his clothes in the laundry and has a shower.
This is the thin end of the wedge, the start of the slippery slope. Because already, within a week of the new protocol, I’m expanding his freedom. Now he is allowed out for two hours before each return. But he can’t visit other people’s houses. He can’t leave to the town for neighbouring towns.
It is incredibly hard for foster carers in this position. Before, you could be philosophical – ‘if I let him out and he goes missing, well, I can cope with that – I know the procedure.’ But now if he goes out and breaks a curfew, he may well return carrying a threat to your life.
So I think I have my line in the sand. Two hours and then return. And he certainly can’t go out during school hours.
Like the reed that bends, sands can slip.