Our secret foster carer shares what happened when his blood family encountered a new boy and his Christmas present.
Christmas Day, and 2pm, and the family is gathered around the breakfast bar, all chirruping away to a background of carols and yuletide tunes, each of us tucking into salmon slivers, all lemoned and peppered alongside the annual pigs in blankets, with flutes in hand, champagne popping in the background.
Such is a typical Christmas here – a day of steady excess that kicks off with this late breakfast starter of ‘nibbles-n-fizz’ and which gradually expands, like our collective bellies, into a full-scale, all-day, late-night party.
Hic, chatter, burp, chortle – ah, that Christmas Day Chorus; not a carol, but definitely festive.
In the background, over the choral crescendo inviting us to Come Let Us Adore Him, the whining of a furious insect also grows in volume. It is, in fact, a mechanical toy, a four-inch, blue-and-white drone, controlled by Jason, 15, my recently-arrived foster child, who is spending Christmas here because none of his family can handle having him there, and even if they could, the courts would stop them in a New York minute.
The flashing, flying Christmas present is zipping about our heads, earning me – not Jason who is flying the damned thing, but me – hard, Paddington stares from my three elder sisters. The drone zips away – unlike my sister, Jason at least possesses a surprising level of control, given that it is his first drone and he’s only had it for a couple of hours.
‘Jason, mate, can you keep that thing away from us?’ I ask, looking up from my peelings.
‘I can’t control it’, comes the smiling, lying reply as the drone flies under the table, up the window and back across the ceiling, upside down.
‘You so can!’
‘I can’t – it’s really hard.’
‘And you’re really good at it, so please – keep it away from the breakfast bar.’
But Jason is himself keeping away from the breakfast bar. He’s watching, from the outside, this alien family with its convivial bonhomie, laughter, chatter and in-jokes that only we can understand because we’ve shared more than 60 years of love, hate, rows, disasters, hilarity and near-misses, all largely and loudly happy family stuff between adults and their grown-up children that Jason has never witnessed except in the briefest of doses, and even then only to see it smashed to pieces by violence and abuse. There are no children of his age at the party. He is, despite our warmth, alone.
What are we to do? Ask him about his Christmases? I already know how awful all of them have been and have already briefed the family not to go there. Tricky. Even his Christmases in his various previous foster placements have not gone well – last year he threw a total grump and insisted, on Christmas Day itself, on being driven from London to Southampton to visit an approved relative – all this under threat of a day of screaming violence and abuse if it didn’t happen. ‘If you don’t take me I will f*** up your Christmas!’ was his awful promise. He had refused to go the day before, the day for which the visit had been arranged, because he ‘hated them’. So, it happened – what else could the foster carer do but drive, on Christmas Day, from London to Southampton, leaving her family and the dinner waiting for four hours?
Sitting in the corner of the lounge with his drone remote control, Jason is the battered Dickensian streetboy with his nose up against the bullseye windowpane, nuzzling a glass breast while looking in upon a Christmas party in a dreamy sweetshop, the jars and the coloured candies warped and distorted by his special, detached perspective. He wants to be part of it and we want him to be part of it, but he knows he cannot, not really, and, in truth, we know it too for all the feigned attention from my well-meaning relatives or my efforts to abandon my family and spend time with him, an action that draws attention to him in a way he doesn’t like and which he roundly rejects. He hasn’t been here long enough to have any sense that this, somehow, is his family, and he may not be here long enough ever to feel what we are feeling, and enjoying, in front of his love-hungry eyes.
So he sits away from the merry group, dive-bombing us with his toy drone, his way of joining in. More cries of protest and more spectacular aerobatics with his new toy.
We do involve Jason as much as we can. He has chopped some yule logs for the fire that morning with me, wielding the axe with a practiced skill despite so recently being taught. He has helped lay the table and will join in the table tennis games – a staple of Christmas days here. He has laughed at the sight of me emerging from the stairway dressed as Father Christmas, and delighted as I have thrown out the presents to their named recipients.
He has unwrapped his remote-controlled motorboat (£35 from Amazon) and already started assembling it. And he loves the Nike tracksuit from his mother, which he hugs. He even reads the card from Affinity. And now, to aid his concentration and to make his mark, Jason changes the music by barking instructions at Alexa. Eminem is not exactly seasonal fare but it is tolerated because I have a foster child – no child of ours would be allowed Eminem on Christmas Day, even for just one song’s worth. We change it, as soon as is polite, to The Pogues and ‘Fairytale of New York’.
At the meal table, he chats away to me, and the others – Jason is as sharp and he is witty. By now we are genuinely laughing at his comments, laughing with him, and he loves it. He eats a mountain of food, and delights in being allowed to light the brandy on the Christmas pudding – the darkness and the creeping blue flame is a new ritual for him.
At the moment Jason is still feeling excluded from the gathering at the breakfast bar and is buzzing it once more with his airborne attack craft.
Fiona, mid-story, turns her head swiftly, a dramatic gesture that makes her long brown hair fly out. Brrrpppppp! A strand is caught in the spinning rotors and the whole drone rolls into her head at fantastic speed.
You haven’t heard my sister scream. Perhaps the best way of imagining it is to picture yourself sitting on a bridge out in the countryside, above the exit of a railway tunnel, this on a still, quiet, summer’s morning. The bit that’s like Fiona at the top of her lungs is when The Flying Scotsman thunders out of the tunnel a few feet beneath you, its steam-powered whistle blasting into your face. Much like this:
Only much louder.
As a family, we’ve heard The Fiona Shriek many times before and are used to it – Fiona makes similar noises when exiting, pursued by a wasp. Spiders? Well, don’t even go there. But even so, everything was dropped as the family descended upon her to get the immobilised drone out of her hysterical hair.
Which is when Jason steps up to the mark. Loud screams didn’t bother him – he’s heard it all before and much worse. It is all his fault, he announces, and he is so sorry, he hadn’t meant to, and he would be happy to spend the necessary time untangling what is, to continue the classical theme, a veritable Gordian Knot.
Jason’s offer is welcomed by Fiona who was viewing with alarm my wielding of the kitchen scissors – yes, I had barber-ous intent. (Well it’s a Christmas story – gotta have a cracker joke…)
And so here we have it, the fairytale ending to this Fairytale of a New Boy: Jason spent the best part of an hour sitting at the breakfast bar, in the middle of our conversation, slowly and carefully untangling my sister’s hair, removing it from the rotors pretty much strand by strand. She was so impressed. True, he wanted to save his drone, but he also had the gumption to spot the opportunity.
This most original of ice-breakers brought Jason into the bosom of the family, into our collective hearts, and gave him a Christmas, as he would later tell me, so much better than he had ever had before.
So, seasons greetings, one and all - but watch out for the drones. Great presents, but they have their downside – and, it turns out, their upside too.