Where Angels Fear To Tread — Grace works

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The secretary’s instructions, given over the phone, were spot on. I was to pass the oak tree on the left, you can’t miss it, she said, it was hit by lightning recently, and chard to black. Shortly after passing, I steered my Austin Healey under the impressive stone arch, between the rustic iron gates, secured back with chains, until the tires were crunching over the pebbled drive. I was immediately struck by the vibrancy of the beautifully manicured gardens and then, beyond the two yew trees, the imposing grandeur of a Georgian country mansion came into view.

Mindful of the posted 5 mph speed limit, and a warning sign, ‘children’, I crawled the car onward around the curve, passing a fountain on which a fat tabby was cleaning its face. The magnificence of the building, seen close up, revealed stained glass windows, then reflecting the sun’s early rays and edged in what I can only describe as stone embroidery.

I drove my car up to a clearly marked sign: ‘Visitors’, and climbed out. The forecast was sunshine all day; I left the hood folded down. It leaks like a sieve anyway. I collected up my bulky kit bag from the rear seat, throwing it over my shoulder, and climbed the mosaic stone steps to the porch, entering apprehensively between two large oak doors fastened back by a brass hook.

The lobby’s interior was exquisitely decorated, elegance such as only money can do, bolstered by a plush deep wine-red carpet. In the middle of the room, strong elaborate furniture marked the feel, dominated as it was by a large round black mahogany table, and topped with a white sculptured bust. I didn’t recognize the name on the brass plate. I continued across the lobby, entering into the main hall. A large spit-roasting fireplace flickered with gas lit imitation logs but my attention was called upward, to the high vault ceiling, carved in a frieze of the heavens, constellations and moons in all their artistic glory, offering a palatial feel, and yet a feel of coziness.

The card-mounted notice sitting on a well-varnished fruitwood table instructed visitors to sign the guest book and ring the bell for attention. Both of which I did, and waited. Also on the table, pamphlets on mental health care, child abuse, and envelopes for those wishing to leave donations.

From deep within the building, I heard the tip-tap sound of a woman approaching wearing heels. Her entrance was strong and positive.

You must be Harry, welcome to Red House. I’m Helen Roberts.

Ms. Roberts, with dark hair tied back tightly, was primly dressed in a two-piece tweed outfit, a ruffle of cream chiffon blossomed from a jacket on which a beautifully ornate Victorian style broach completed the perfection. She peered over dark rimmed spectacles, precariously balanced on the end of her nose.

She held out her hand toward me. I accepted its lifelessness into mine. Yes, thank you for allowing me to come, Ms. Roberts.

Not at all, thank you for your offer. The children are looking forward to meeting you. Have you signed the guest book? She asked.

I have ma’am.

Very good — let me take up to meet Grace, she’s our longest serving care worker. This way.

I collected up my kit bag, throwing its weight onto my shoulder, and we ascended the ornate curved staircase side by side. Valuable pieces of artwork hung on the walls.

Reaching the top we turn left along a dimly lit corridor, then right into another huge room, empty, but magnificent.

Two hundred years ago this was the ballroom. It is the only architecture of its kind in the country, though several exist in Germany.

She halted briefly, allowing me to rest, and a moment to take it the beauty of the plasterwork.

Whenever the weather is not suitable for our children to play outside, we play games in here.

This surprised me because the ballroom had three gorgeous crystal chandeliers hanging low from the oval center of the Rococo style ceiling showing the Four Elements.

We continued across the room, passing through large rosewood doors that lead to another fine staircase, this one just as sweeping — though not as grand as the first, but still, very impressive.

We call this the mirror staircase, she said, stating what seemed obvious.

I could well imagine the women of the period loving this staircase, knowing their admirers could view them as they descended wearing their gowns. We reached the third floor.

Grace keeps her children on this floor. In fact, all the children reside on this floor. Not much farther now, she said. I’m sure she could see me buckling under the weight of my kit bag.

We rapidly paced another dark corridor, Ms. Roberts’ obvious passion for vertiginous footwear pattering on the polished parquet floor. I’m cast back to my own childhood, hearing Mrs. Grimshaw parading the red stone school corridor looking for a child to scold. That thought fled on hearing strange gurgling noises mingling with hysterical laughter. We passed the door behind which those sounds emanated and walked several more paces before halting.

Ms. Roberts looked at her watch.

They’ll just be finishing breakfast, she said. Then wrapped a single knuckle three times on the door and entered. I followed behind.

Good morning, children. Good morning, Grace. I’ve brought Harry to meet you all, she said, offering an open palm in my direction. I nodded and smiled, letting the weight of the kit bag slide to the floor.

The wom an— Grace — rose from the table, pushed her chair back, and walked around the table to greet me. She looked to be in her sixties, greying hair tied back.

The smile on her face was welcoming and warm. None of the children had responded to Ms. Roberts, or my presence. Grace, wiped her hands on her apron as she came forward.

Hello, Harry. We’re all looking forward to spending the morning with you, she said. I clasp hold of a firm, gentle, and sincere hand. She turned her head in the direction of the children. Aren’t we children?

The children showed no recognizable response.

Okay, so I’ll leave you in Grace’s capable hands. Thank you, Harry. I’m sure the children will have a fun time, Ms. Roberts said. She then turned and left, shutting the door quietly behind her.

Come and meet the children, Harry.

We walked toward the breakfast table.

Children, this is Harry. He’s come to play games with us this morning. I want you all to say hello. Susan, let’s begin with you, Susan.

Susan looked up from eating cornflakes.

Aaarllo Arry, Susan muttered, smiling all over her face and seemingly oblivious to the fact her arm was raised, and the spoon in her misshapen hand was emptying its milky content onto the table.

Hello, Susan, I said, and raised my hand in a child-like wave.

Michael — your turn, instructed Grace.

Mmm..uum... he said, inaudibly.

Michael’s head was grotesquely large. He offered no eye contact. Instead he held up his hands, fingers lightning bolt straight, and head gyrated his head wildly side-to-side.

Hello, Michael, I said.

Grace turned to the next child. Okay, Norman, are you going to welcome Harry?

Norman, the bigger of the children, sat looking glumly into his breakfast bowl. He hesitantly picked up the jug of milk with a weakling arm, trembling from his shoulder as he did so, and poured milk over his cornflakes, splashing excess over the tablecloth.

Norman, how much milk do you want on those cornflakes? Grace enquired, sweetly.

Enuf ta fuckin’ ide’em, I really ate’em. We always gits fuckin’ cornflakes, I want toast, he said, then slopped the spoon into his bowl and sat back in his cripple friendly chair, arms folded, chin on his chest.

Now come along, darling, be nice, there’s a good lad. You won’t get anything more until lunchtime, Grace said, no hint of anger or frustration in her voice.

It’s Friday; fuckin’ fish day in’it?

Yes, Norman, Friday’ is fish day. You like fish.

Can’t be any fish left in da fuckin’ sea, I et’m all!

Norman must we have that language every morning? Grace asked, calmly.

Wot fuckin’ language?

That language, Norman. We have a guest today. Harry is going to show us how to play games with a parachute. Simon, will you say good morning to Harry?

Simon was staring at the puddle of milk on the table. Norman spilt milk, Grace. He spilt a LOT of milk.

He did, Simon, you are quite right. Norman was a little clumsy this morning. Thank you for telling me. Do you want to tell Harry good morning?

Good morning, Harry. Thank you for coming to play with us.

Good morning, Simon, it’s my pleasure, I said.

Trudy? Grace nodded, smiling at the smallest of the children strapped into a custom built high chair.

Hi Warrri — wi ou sit neks tto me? She asked. Her four-inch long arms waving frantically with excitement, while a grin, as perfect as any bright day, broke open on her face.

Hello Trudy — I’d be honoured to sit next to you.

I looked around, and pulled a chair between Trudy and Norman.

Grace offered me a slice of toast.

Norman observed the offer.

Da ya want my fuckin’ cornflakes, Harry?

There was an audible tittering around the table.

I think I’ll be fine with toast, Norman, but thank you.

Grace stared electric at the roguish Norman. His chin dropped, but he couldn’t disguise or hide his giggles.

That just leaves Maureen, doesn’t it? Grace beamed with a special affection. Maureen was sat quiet, arms hidden under the table. There was no bowl of cereal in front of her, just a mug with a bendy straw.

Welcome to play with us, Harry.

Thank you, Maureen, and thanks to all of you for allowing me to come and play today.

Okay boys and girls, we all know the routine, bathroom please, Grace said.

But I avent dun wiv me fuckin’ cornflakes! Norman blasts out.

That’s because you did too much talking, Norman, Grace said, whipping his bowl away. She winked at me.

Norman shrank away from the table, making his way to the door, his collarbone protruding like a bent wire coat hanger under his jumper. No boy I ever saw was so bent and misshapen. He stopped, leaned back, turned his head and shoulders and looked directly at me.

Wots a game wiv a pareeshoot anyway, Mr Harry? Da we need a plane? He said, giggling at his own joke.

If we did need a plane, Norman, would you be brave enough to jump out with a parachute?

Nuffin to it. I wanna do dat sky divin stuff. Anyone can do pareeshooting.

How old are you, Norman? I asked.

Fifsteen, so wot?

No reason. Just wondered. Maybe you’ll get a chance to do the easy parachute jump one day.

Norman grinned like a bewitched boy.

There’s a lot about Norman that reminded me of myself. If you can’t do it….pretend. That was always my motto as a kid.

Norman left the room. Grace raised her eyebrows, then moved toward Maureen. She plucked the little girl from the chair. Maureen wrapped her feet around Grace. Having given the child a kiss, Grace set Maureen down. The little cherub bounced and scurried toward the door.

Michael, hands pressed hard to his ears, let out a piercing yell. His fingers fanned and straight, trembled with rage. Grace moved closer to the young man, who immediately sprang up, the chair falling, and made his way to the door, which he slammed shut.

Waiting outside, I heard Norman say: Michael, you’re doin’ me fuckin’ ed’in!

Grace explained to me that Michael was not officially a candidate for this room, but unfortunately, with all the cutbacks, young adults such as Michael were diluted into different programs. Michael was twenty-two years of age, at eighteen he should have left the home, and taken into a different program.

Grace moved to the table and commenced clearing the breakfast dishes.

With the children gone, I looked around, seeing many pictures of children on the walls; children of different nationalities, various problems, some obvious, and many not so obvious. Grace came to stand at my side. She looked lovingly, and with great pride, at the pictures.

Barnardos was willed this house in 1968. Every child you see on these walls has spent time in our family.

I stepped closer, looking at each picture. There were no names.

That’s Jeremy, Grace said, anticipating my question, he was here between seventy-nine and eighty-four. He was a lucky one — adopted.

I continued to browse. Grace returned to the kitchen area. She continued with washing the dishes.

Can I help? I said.

Grace threw me a tea towel.

I’ll always take help, Harry. You’d be best advised not to offer! She laughed.

I loved her bubbly nature, yet, somewhere, I detected a strange look of heartbreak in her expression.

Grace was a woman of a different kind. Beauty was more than skin-deep, and her real essence lay very deep inside. Her clothes were practical, with clunky shoes, and her gray hair tied back in a ponytail with an elastic band. She had a pear-shaped posterior.

Ms. Roberts told me you’re her longest serving worker?

I came when the house opened. My own children had left the nest. I just loved kids I suppose.

I can see that, Grace.

She laughed, rubbing soap bubbles off her nose with the back of her hand. No, Harry, you can’t see such things. Homes like this protect the public from understanding how to cope with such children in our society. We are these kids’ last hope. From here it’s institutions.

I thought such things were dead and buried?

Well, you’d be wrong. True, not as obvious as these homes once were, but we have them, sure enough.

As each bowl was washed, she racked it in the drainer.

Throughout the eighties, it was politically correct to be seen shutting down institutions. It became fashionable for politicians to encourage their own communities to accept the mentally challenged and physically disabled into their midst. All well and good, till the ‘safe houses’ that were purchased, happened to be a house next to you! All kinds of community resentments figured into the collapse of such ideals, and by the late nineties the government was leaning back toward institutions; even if the word is never used, Harry.

She rinsed the sink, then immediately removed the tablecloth from the table, placing it in the washing machine that was tucked neatly under the work surface.

Politicians failed to understand that people, the vast majority anyway, like the idea of our mentally challenged children being integrated into communities, provided, of course, it didn’t happen to be THEIR community.

She slammed the door to the washer and began to put away the dishes when the door opened. Trudy bounced her way back into the room. She was holding a hairbrush in her teeth.

Ah ha, said grace, here’s our first clean child.

Harwweee..wi ou bwush my hair?

It was hard for me to resist the plea in her eyes. I smiled, stepping toward her.

Grace, seeing what was happening spoke up: Trudy is fourteen, Harry. Don’t you think a big girl of fourteen can brush her own hair?

I hesitated- then understood.

I would like to see you brush your hair, Trudy. Can I watch? I said, winking at Grace.

The little angel chuckled with glee. Trudy held the brush between the only two fingers on her right hand. Then let the brush fall along the long length of her hair.

Just then, the door burst open. Michael entered carrying a cup. He seemed obsessed. In a flash he dashed forward, hurling its contents at me. I heard Grace let out a scream — No, Michael!

It was over in a heartbeat. Michael has thrown a cup of urine over me, soaking my hair and shirt. He immediately sat on the floor, legs crossed; fingers twined together, his body rocking back and forth. He was humming wildly.

I felt a severe stinging in my eyes; tasted the urine in my mouth. Grace immediately plunged at a button on the wall. A bell sounded, shrill and long. She handed me a cloth. Are you okay?

I didn’t answer. I was in a state of shock. The urine somehow embarrassed me. I felt humiliated.

Michael remained cross-legged. He was staring at his fingers, which he twisted and twined together in front of his face.

People were hurrying down the corridor. Two large male residential care workers entered.

Grace quietly explained how Michael had carried out an attack. I understood, by what was being said, that such attacks were not unusual. Michael seemed terrified, his face was contorted, and he hummed even louder.

Ted, take Harry to the staffroom. Show him where the overalls are kept. Get him to the shower, please?” Grace instructed.

Sure thing — you okay, Harry? he asked. Come on, pal, we’ll get you sorted out.

I still could not utter a word. I felt myself trembling. I thought I could cry.

I willingly followed Ted, passing over Michael’s legs as I did so. He was shrieking. It seemed and felt like mayhem. Norman met me at the door — I want to give him a wide berth, almost fearful something else might happen.

Is yer goin’ fer yer fuckin’ plane, Harry?

It felt strange, but hearing his voice, the fear subsided and normality took hold of my senses.

I’ve just got the parachute today, Norman. We won’t need a plane to play together.

He leaned his twisted body to one side to let me pass.

Ut oh, Michael, ya fucked up good dis time! Evry’uns goin ta be moighty pissed at ya! Norman said, seeing Michael screaming and vibrating his body.

Michael’s had a little set back, Norman, that’s all.” Grace said, her hands on Michael’s shoulders, soothing. Why don’t you go to your room, Norman. I’ll come and get you shortly.

I ain’t goin’ ta ma room, Grace. Michael fucked up, not me. Can I turn telly on, you knows I like to see telly.

Of course, Norman. Pull yourself a chair up and keep out of the way, please. Not too loud now.

Michael scuffed his way across the floor, toward the TV set.

I gots to ‘ave it pretty loud, Grace, all da fuckin’ noise Michael’s makin’!

Richard, the second of the care workers, knelt beside Michael. He smoothed his hand over Michael’shead. Grace encouraged Michael to stand up.

The door closed. I followed Ted.

The staffroom was brightly coloured; children’s paintings and drawings decorated the mustard shaded walls. Two women sat at a desk reading newspapers. One looked up. Hello, she said, my name is Teresa. This is Linda.

I couldn’t bring myself to hold out my smelly hand. What I wanted to do was make a quick exit from their gaze.

You ran into Michael, I see, Linda stated, most of the time it’s hot drinks.

Hot drinks or urine, I thought to myself. The rank smell of cold urine had me favouring a scold.

I’ll make you a cup of tea for when you’re cleaned up, Teresa said, assured I would want one.

The shower stream was steaming hot. I stood beneath the pelting water and tried not to think about what happened. Nothing made any sense. I didn’t even know what I felt about Michael — it was a kind of numbness. The boy was dangerous, why would someone like him be allowed to have the freedom of the house? The soap rinsed down my body. I stood motionless, letting the hot water cleanse my pores.

There were freshly laundered overalls and a shirt on the bench. They were warm. They fit close enough.

Feel better now? Theresa asked.

I do. Thank you, I said.

Linda handed me a cup of tea. There’s no sugar in it, help yourself.

I held up my hand in a gesture that none was necessary.

You look good in overalls, Linda said, an obvious kindly remark to settle me; have me feeling better about myself. Grace called down to ask if you were okay. I explained you were in the shower still.

Thanks, I’m fine…really, I said.

The anger I felt had subsided to something resembling sorrow.

Good, I’ll call up — she’s worried.

Linda picked up the phone and dialed an extension.

Hi Grace, Harry is just having a cup of tea. He says to tell you he’s okay. She looks over at me and winks.

Okay, I’ll tell him. She replaced the receiver.

Bad news and good news I’m afraid, Harry. Norman is asking Grace where the fucking plane is? But to tell you Michael said sorry. He’s never said that before, Harry.

It was a remarkable thing to watch. The brightly coloured partitions of the parachute rose and fell over the children. Play went on in the lush grounds of a Georgian mansion. To the outside world looking in, it must seem like heaven.

Who’s to say that such a place isn’t?

For it is where angels work, unseen and uncomplaining.

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