Maggie could see the girl now, kneeling in the grass holding the sunshine yellow flower under her chin. It should have been a buttercup, of course, but at that age she hadn’t known that. She supposed a bright yellow dandelion would do just as well.
She’d been wearing her favourite blue and white checked dress, her auburn hair curled onto her shoulders. She must have been about five when she realised that her family was not like the other families in the village.
That was a lifetime ago. Since then she’d grown up, married a solicitor and had children of her own. She sighed. She couldn’t go back, no matter how idyllic her childhood had been, but it didn’t mean she didn’t miss the happy times at Water’s Edge, her family home.
Standing in the yard she gazed around. It looked unkempt. The dank smell of rotting leaves hung in the air. Pa would have hated to see it in such a state. A layer of dirt discoloured the old oak table and benches where they used to sit on long summer evenings. Her dad would light the barbecue and cook their meal, then they’d eat sitting around the table staying out until dusk fell and the sun spread its amber glow across the sky. A kaleidoscope of memories engulfed her – the kitchen garden her mum was so proud of, which had kept them fed, the barn where they played, the cowshed and the chicken run, all deserted. It would have to be put up for sale.
She glanced up at the house. It looked so different now. Then it had been full of noise and laughter. Tears too. There were always tears – still, she supposed that was what came with fostering – the excitement of arrivals followed by the heartaches of departures. She’d asked her mother about it once. “Don’t you get attached?” she’d said.
Her mother had smiled her magical smile, and said, “I never forget they are other people’s children. I’m just privileged to have them for a while to look after then send them on to bring happiness and joy to someone else. That’s their role in life and mine.”
She unlocked the door and walked into the house. Her footsteps echoed on the bare boards. The wallpaper was peeling and there were knocks in the paintwork where the removers had caught the woodwork while removing the furniture. The overall effect was dark and dismal. Nothing like she remembered. Her mum had moved into a nursing home over a year ago to spend her last few months being cared for. Maggie could hardly believe how quickly the place had deteriorated. Still, it had been a while since she’d visited. As she walked around the memories came flooding back.
The kitchen had always been the heart of the home. She took a breath. The room smelled musty with age. The once bright, colourful curtains hung, faded and torn at the grimy window. The vivid array of pots and jars that used to line the shelves was gone, along with the smells of fresh bread baking, or meat cooking that used to permeate the air. She shivered in the cold. What would her mother think? The only piece of furniture remaining was the heavy farm table in the centre of the room. Around this table they learned manners and how to wash their hands before eating, especially if they’d been out with the animals; lessons learned more readily by some than others. It was on this table Ma used to roll out the pastry for the pies she made to sell in the village to augment their meagre income. If Maggie was really good she’d be allowed to help.
She pictured her mother standing by the old iron range. It was how she always thought of her, busy in the kitchen, wearing her flowery apron which, like her hands, was usually covered in flour. It should have been called her floury flowery apron. The thought made her smile. She could never recall seeing her mum sitting down. She was always on the go, baking, scrubbing, polishing, but always smiling. When Maggie was that small child in the garden Ma had seemed like the font all wisdom. What would she say now?
“Can’t live in the past,” she’d say. “That way you might miss out on a brighter tomorrow.” She was right of course. It was no use wishing your life away or agonising over things you can’t change.
The only bits and pieces left in the house were the things that were too old or too personal to be of value to anyone else. Maggie would have to make arrangements to have them moved. At least the house had value. Life-changing money was how the Estate Agent had described it.
“Sell up and go on a cruise,” he’d said. “Might as well enjoy what you have.”
Maggie walked around the bare rooms. Cold and unwelcoming they felt now, whereas once they were warm and filled with love. Her mind spiralled back to the children her parents had fostered. There must have been almost two hundred over the years. One or two were babies awaiting adoption, but most were older and more troublesome, taken in for varying reasons and differing lengths of time. All were vulnerable and confused, defeated by the difficulties of their young lives but soldiering on because there was no option. Maggie’s parents gave them all the same love and encouragement that Maggie received.
“We both had a poor start in life,” her mother told her, when she asked why they took in so many waifs and strays. “We wanted to give them a better start than we had,” she’d said.
As she walked around Maggie recalled the children’s faces and their voices, so many children. She thought of them, playing in the yard, often squabbling and fighting, but she also remembered the laughter and huge affection.
She wandered into the front room. This was the room where they’d gather around the fire blazing in the grate when it was too wet or too cold to out. They’d sit reading or watching TV but only if they’d finished their homework, done on the dining room table under Maggie’s dad’s watchful eye. He had a heart a big as the barn. Always jolly and easy-going, he was the sort you could talk to if you had a problem. He’d stroke his chin and help you sort it out, never making any judgement; just helping you decide what you needed to do. He was the one made sure they all had a good education. No skipping school or not doing your homework. After school, those old enough helped out with the animals. Animals could get through to the most diffident, awkward or sullen kids where adults failed. Maggie recalled one boy in particular. Tommy his name was. He was a rumpled child with wide blue eyes and tousled sandy hair. He was twelve when he came to them – fifteen when he left. Tommy didn’t speak for a week after he arrived. Slowly and surely Ma and Pa drew him out but only with the help of Horace, the dray horse that pulled the cart.
In the downstairs back room a pot of lavender had been left by the french windows. Her mum used to put lavender in all the rooms for the children, “to make them feel at home,” she said. Her mother’s rickety old desk stood in the corner. It was obviously too fragile and decrepit for the removers to take. On it she saw a pile of photo albums that had seen better days. They’d also left a chair and several boxes of papers on the floor. These were the things she’d have to sort out. She’d take them home with her and go through them. It would take time, she was aware of that. Everything else had gone; the Estate Agent had taken care of it all.
She sat on the chair and lifted the album off the top of the pile and ran her hands over the soft red leather cover with ‘Photographs’ embossed in gold. It smelled musty. She opened it and gradually turned the pages. Ma had kept photos of all the children they’d fostered. Seeing their pictures now, some over thirty years old, Maggie’s heart fluttered. These were the living reminders of her childhood – the people she’d grown up with, her family. Each page brought a fresh wave of memories flooding over her. Here was little Billy, always in trouble in school, always getting into fights. How well she remembered her parents being called up to the school on numerous occasions to defend him. “One more chance,” they’d say. “Just give him one more chance,” and the headmaster always did. Billy grew from a troubled teenager to a fine young man. He joined the army and wrote to them from his postings all over the world. He’d come home to Maggie’s dad’s funeral five years ago. “He’s the only dad I ever knew,” he said.
Then there was Stephen, a bright lad pictured with Maggie’s dad. His eyes shone with pride as he held up the cup he’s won at the May Fair. He’d arrived when he was nine, stayed until eleven, then came back again at thirteen when his mother couldn’t cope with him. He was a Barrister now, one of her parent’s success stories.
Not everyone went on to avoid a life of crime but a great many did. There was Jack, a difficult boy, a bit backward with his speech and learning. The bewilderment in his six year old eyes when he arrived would make the hardest heart crumble. He didn’t speak much either but their collie Dusty adopted him and would follow him around. He was the only one she’d settle with or allow to pet her. Jack could have ended up in prison like his dad, but he went on to discover a passion for carving. He married a local girl and found work in the stonemason’s yard. They have three children now and a clutch of Dusty’s puppies. He was at Maggie’s mother funeral too. In fact the church was crowded with faces she remembered from the past.
One in particular had stopped and spoken to her. His name was Jimmy and he loved to play football, joining the local team when he was just fifteen. He spent so much time with the social workers it surprised no-one when he became one. Jimmy was a success story. He could so easily have been drawn into a life of drugs and alcohol that bedevilled his parents.
Maggie recalled all the boys and girls who’d passed though on their way from somewhere dreadful to, hopefully a better future. Maggie’s parents said it was their job to get them fit to make the most of what life might offer, and that’s what they did – every day of their lives.
Looking through the pictures that spanned a lifetime she wondered when her mother’s hair turn into that cloud of white around her head and her face soften into the smiling granny face she had when Maggie saw her last.
Her dad too had turned grey and shrunk into the bones of an old man, but their hearts were as big as ever. They’d left the world a better place than they found it, that was for sure.
She put the album down. There were several more she could have gone through but outside the sky was darkening. She’d have to go home and get her husband’s tea. Gazing out of the french-windows across the yard she could see the sun setting just as it always did, year after year, unchanging. This would be last time she’d be able to watch from the home she’d grown up in. Soon someone else would be enjoying the view.
She picked up the albums and carried them to her car, parked at the side of the house. Then there were the boxes lined up again the wall, boxes containing papers, letters and cards Ma had collected over the years. Maggie loaded them all into her car. I’ll go through them at home, she thought, recalling all the letters, cards and flowers she’d had when her mum passed away, enough flowers for a May Day parade she’d thought. People were so kind.
As she locked the door behind her sadness filled Maggie’s heart. She felt as though she was leaving her past behind and wished there was something she could do to preserve her parent’s legacy and keep their memories alive.
Driving home Maggie thought more and more about her childhood. How different it was from many children’s. Not everyone was blessed with a childhood bubble-wrapped in happiness. She thought of another child. One she’d shared her room with. Her name was Sarah, but everyone called her Princess. She was pretty as a princess with a riot of blonde curls that resisted all effort to tame them, a porcelain, doll like face and startling blue eyes. She followed Maggie’s mum around like a lost puppy.
“I don’t think I’ll be here long,” she’d say twenty times a day.
Maggie’s mum would smile and say, “I don’t suppose you will love, but while you are here I’m delighted to have you. Should we bake some cakes?”
Princess would smile and say “I might just stay for tea.”
She was Maggie’s age and in her class at school. “I don’t think I’ll be here long,” she’d say every day to the teachers. After four years she stopped saying it and she and Maggie went on to senior school together. Last year Maggie saw her reporting the local news on TV, full of confident professionalism – a world away from the shy uncertain girl who arrives all those years ago.
When Princess did eventually leave she was replaced by Jenny, a much younger girl. Jenny didn’t stay more than a few months, but Maggie saw her at her mother’s funeral. She said she was training to be a doctor. Maggie wasn’t surprised.
At home Maggie unloaded the boxes and carried the albums in. It would take some time to go through them and sort out the rest of her mother’s estate. Hard to believe she’d been gone for over six months. Still, Maggie was in no hurry to pack away a lifetime of memories.
The next morning she called in at the Estate Agents to drop off the keys. She couldn’t help but notice the brightness of the lights, the thick carpets, glossy brochures and smart, comfortable furniture, a stark contrast to her mother’s house. She was greeted by the Agent’s ever-smiling face.
“Are you ready for us to put it on the market?” he asked.
Maggie hesitated. Apart from the albums and boxes of papers it was all she had left of
her parents. “No,” she said. “I’m not quite ready yet.”
“Well, don’t take too long. A property like that – it needs work. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.”
Over the next week Maggie went through the boxes. Every letter, card or photo brought another jolt of memory. Surely there must be something she could do to keep these memories alive.
The next evening she cooked her husband’s favourite beef bourguignon and opened a bottle of wine.
“Are we celebrating?” Tom asked.
“I want your help and advice,” Maggie said.
He frowned. “Go on.”
“It’s about Water’s Edge. I’ve made enquiries. There’s a desperate need for a safe place for troubled teenagers. I was wondering…”
“If we could restore it and open up the farm again as a respite centre?”
“We’d need to raise a bit of capital to fund it, pay for staff etc.” He stroked his chin, just like Maggie’s dad used to do. “We could set up a Trust I suppose and run it as a charity, but it would be huge undertaking, Maggie. You could be setting yourself up for a lot of heartache.”
“That never stopped Ma and Pa.”
Tom smiled. “I know. If it hadn’t been for them I wouldn’t be where I am today. It would be like giving something back, a worthy tribute too.”
Maggie’s heart leapt. She knew she’d made the right choice marrying Tommy, the fostered boy. He understood her passion for compassion.
Tom raised his glass, his wide blue eyes sparkled. “Let’s drink to Water’s Edge and a brighter tomorrow,” he said.
Maggie clinked glasses. “A brighter tomorrow,” she said, and her head filled with memories of all the children her mum and dad had fostered who could now work with her find that ‘brighter tomorrow’.
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