We did foster care. We took in this kid. He was eight and his name was Stefan. His dad had recently died, his mum had severe mental health issues. There was a step-dad, we were told. But he belonged to us, for now.
We met Stefan a couple of times before he moved in. He had the kind of hair that sticks up at the crown.
My wife had just bought this house outside of the city. It was about an hour’s drive, near a village: a farm house conversion. The previous owners had done all the work.
It was in a square patch of garden surrounded by fields. The design was open plan, with large windows in the roof and heavy sliding doors on both sides of the house. We’d lived in a terrace flat before, so this was totally different. My memory is of a place that was all white, except for the wooden beams and the furniture. You could sit on the sofa, in the middle of the house, and you could basically see all around you: the sky, the surrounding countryside, the garden. But at the same time you were in this warm, white enclave, and if you pressed a button the shutters would gently hum until they were shut, and you were alone.
We talked about the house, and Stefan, and how it seemed like the right kind of place for him. We only had to work a few hours each day now, so we could give him all of our attention. We’d read lots of books, knew about different parts of the world, and could offer him all this. Once a fortnight we could travel into London, and we could offer him that as well. We could be all these things to Stefan. This is the way we talked at the time. We were very sure of ourselves and our ability to civilise a child.
We did a lot of things, when he arrived, like going on walks and cooking. It felt almost like a performance, and a little bit as if we were trying to sell ourselves. Stefan just looked on quietly.
It’s weird doing all these things for someone you don’t even know.
We changed how we did everything.
We became much more deliberate. Cooking an egg was now an intentional act. We watched television because it was informative.
Sometimes it annoyed me feeling that everything I did had to be something that I could explain. Before Stefan turned up, I’d sometimes just stare at a wall, or sit at the piano banging random keys. I’d never really noticed all the stupid things I did until I couldn’t do any of them anymore.
There was another thing. We started saying stuff. I learnt that my wife knew all these things, that she had something to say about everything. If she took Stefan to the doctors, she’d start talking about free healthcare and how it came about and what she thought of it.
It was clarifying. I felt like the parameters of our understanding were being disclosed to us: everything we knew and everything we could say about it all came into focus.
Of course it was also ridiculous. This sense that we understood things, and that Stefan could also. We lost all sense of our own lost-ness.
I remembered, during that time, the moment when I had myself realised that my own parents were putting it on a bit. I suppose that’s just an obvious thing to say – that everyone’s pretending. The harder thing, maybe, is to recognise that that’s irrelevant.
Anyway, we continued with what we were doing, doing things deliberately, explicably, explaining things on the basis of what we knew about them, or what we could say about them, feeling a faint sense of pride that we had anything to contribute at all.
For fourteen months we had this weird, silent kid in our lives with funny hair, and then he went back to live with his step-dad.
Luke Lewin Davies teaches English Literature at the University of Tübingen. He has written for the Times Literary Supplement, Literary Review and the LA Review of Books. His first full length book will be published by Palgrave later in 2021.