My mother fell for Michael hook, line and sinker the moment he walked through the door. He looked up at her, a skinny kid in dirty clothes, eyes huge and dark in his pale face, and she was lost.
Mum had been fostering for years. I grew up with a constantly changing complement of 'brothers and sisters' and I always thought that was normal. They would come, stay a while and then go, leaving only their photos standing on the sideboard as souvenirs. Mum loved them all, but Michael was special.
He'd been placed with us, short-term, in my first university vacation; after a postman had reported hearing crying in a flat, but that he hadn't been able to get a reply when he rung the bell. Social Services had gone in to discover a five year old boy dressed only in pyjamas, left without light or heat when the electricity meter ran out, shivering amongst a pile of domestic detritus – uneaten pizza, dirty coffee cups, and piles of laundry. It wasn't the first time he'd been left like that, apparently, and most of the neighbours were more or less complicitous, covering for his mother when she disappeared, often for days at a stretch.
"It wouldn't be so bad if they'd actually done anything to care for the poor mite," Abby, the social worker, had said, when she left him with us, her voice cold and embittered, "but they couldn't even be bothered feeding him, let alone feeding the meter. They're no better than the mother."
Mum had nodded, her lips pinched tight together to hold in her opinion of both "the mother" and her neighbours, since the boy was standing there silently, looking bedraggled and forlorn.
"You don't mind taking him do you, Betty? I know you've got two short-termers already, and with Sally home you must be crowded, but it was urgent, and you were the best person I could think of."
"Don't be silly, Abby," Mum was indignant. "You know I've always got room for a kid who needs somewhere to stay."
Abby smiled. "You're a wonder, you know that?" she stood, and said to Michael, "You'll like it here. Betty is the best foster-mother we've got. All our kids think she's great." She pulled on her coat, and bustled to the door. "I have to go, no rest for the wicked, but I'll drop in and see how he's doing in a couple of days. Thanks again, Betty."
Michael hadn't said anything as Abby left, but he lifted a hand to wave and then looked questioningly up at Mum. She put an arm lightly around his shoulders, and smiled down into his face.
"Come on Michael," she said, "lets pop you into a bath, and when you're all clean, you can have something to eat. Do you like shepherds pie, pet?"
He didn't look like he really knew what shepherds pie was, but he responded to the kindly tone of her voice and nodded enthusiastically.
As she led him upstairs she said to me "Sally, be a love and throw a shepherds pie together, would you? You'll have to chuck in a bit of soy to stretch the meat, but we can have peaches and ice-cream for afters." I laughed at the expression of delight on his face when she said that, and said "Sure."
As I was finishing up the preparation Dad came in. "We've got another one," I told him. "A little boy, five. A home alone case. Mum's bathing him now."
"Which explains why you're getting dinner." He hung his coat up and started to set the table, glancing over as I put the pie in the oven and saying with a smile, "I've missed your lumpy mash while you've been at college you know." He was never one for fulsome praise when a backhanded compliment would do, my Dad, but his gentle humour did as much to make the kids feel at home as Mum's warmth and hugs.
"Hello, son," he said, as Mum ushered Michael into the kitchen, closely followed by the other two foster-kids, "I'm Rob, what's your name?"
"He's Michael," that was Kylie. She and her sister Gemma were with us while their mother was in hospital, as her father worked out on the rigs. She was a little madam, that one, but sweet in her way. "He's five," Gemma added.
Dad inclined his head solemnly. "Hello then Michael. Sit up at the table and have something to eat, if you're willing to risk our Sal's cooking."
The girls giggled, and the boy grinned as he clambered into a chair. It was a noisy meal, but none of the noise came from Michael. He ate steadily and smiled a lot, but didn't say anything, just sat nodding or shaking his head when he was offered food.
After dinner, he sat watching the TV with the girls while in the kitchen, Mum washed and Dad dried, and I sat drinking coffee.
"He hasn't spoken at all," Mum said, "but I don't think it's because he can't. He laughed out loud once when I splashed him in the bath, but then he went scarlet and bit his lip, and of course, once Kylie came along, he couldn't have got a word in edgewise, even if he'd wanted to."
"Did Abby say anything to hint there was a problem?"
"Not a thing."
"Well, we'll just have to wait and see what happens, won't we love? He seems happy enough. Maybe he's just overwhelmed."
She agreed, but she looked worried, and after she chased the kids into bed, the expression was set.
"Still nothing," she commented, "although he did give me a hug when I kissed him goodnight."
"Dad's right, Mum," I said, "just be patient. It's probably just all the fuss."
But three days later, when Abby came back, there still hadn't been a peep out of him. Mum asked Abby if he'd spoken to her, and she looked stricken. "You know," she said, "I don't remember. I don't think he did, but there was definitely nothing that the neighbours said to indicate that he was mute."
She looked at him, outside with Kylie and Gemma, laughing and playing catch.
"He looks like he's settled, anyway," she said. "I'll tell you what, Betty, I'll check it out, and as soon as I know anything, I'll call you."
"Thanks, Abby, I'd appreciate it. The way he looks at me sometimes I could swear there was a babble of words just waiting to escape, but he's scared to let them."
The social worker nodded seriously, and promised she would be in touch as quickly as possible.
She was back that afternoon, and she was angry.
"Well, I've found out the problem," she told Mum, her face a livid purple, "you are not going to believe this!"
"Michael wasn't living with his mother, just staying there for the summer holidays until school started in September. She's just a kid, barely older than your Sally. The father's a total no-hoper, doing time for burglary. Until he was four, Michael he lived with the girl's mother, and that was fine, but she died, about ten months ago. Since then, he's been living with his other grandmother, and staying with his mother when she goes away. Grandmother is home now, and not in the least surprised that the girl couldn't cope with 'such an unruly child' she says."
"Unruly? Michael? That's lunacy! He's more like a mouse than a five-year-old, I barely notice he's here."
"Oh yes, according to Grandma Bitch, he's a demon. But – get this – she is very proud of herself, because she said that with 'zealous effort'', those were her words, Betty, 'zealous effort', she was 'at least able to teach him that children should be seen and not heard'! I honestly think he was better off with the stupid girl that sprogged him, and that's saying something."
"WHAT!" My mother exploded.
"She said that his father was in jail because she hadn't been strict enough, and she didn't intend to make the same mistake with Michael. She offered to come and collect him from you, but I said he was in care and, as she didn't have legal custody, his position would have to be decided by the court. But I swear, Betty, that woman will get him back over my dead body."
"If you let him go back there, Abby it will be over your dead body, because I'll kill you."
The case was a priority, and came to court very shortly afterwards. Michael still hadn't spoken. Mum had tried to bring him out, to encourage him to say something, but it had seemed hopeless. He smiled and he would use gestures to make himself understood, and he laughed sometimes, but he didn't say a word.
Then the magistrate had turned to him, in the court, and said, kindly, "It's up to you, my dear. Just tell me whether you'd like to stay where you are, or go back to your gran."
He had stood and looked at her. Silent as ever.
"Your gran is your closest relative, so normally I would send you there…" she started.
Although the word was quiet, everyone heard it. His voice was rough, but my mother beamed like it was the most exquisite sound she'd ever heard.
"No? You don't want to go with your gran?" the magistrate asked him.
"You want to stay with Mrs Rose?"
"Yeah." He turned to look at Mum, and Dad, and me. "Please."
He found his tongue when he needed it. I told you Michael was special.