Coming of Age Fiction

Nora Marks really wasn’t bothered what her foster children called her. There were things she was bothered about, and let them know in no uncertain terms, like bullying or leaving uneaten food under the bed (though being untidy herself, that didn’t over concern her) but they could call her more or less what they wanted. She was fine with being Nora, or Auntie Nora, and though she didn’t really like it, she quite understood why some of the children preferred to call her Mrs Marks. Once you started forcing informality on people, it rather defeated the object. She knew full well that behind her back, and sometimes (as they knew full well) within earshot, some of the more rebellious ones and their imitators referred to her as Nora Bone or Bloody Nora, and each thought they were the first to have lit on it and the first to dare to use it. The only thing that did cause her heartache was when they called her Mummy, as some of the younger ones sometimes did. Because Nora wasn’t going to adopt them. Even if it was long term, she was only going to foster them. The social workers, some of whom had become firm friends of hers, and all of whom meant well, said that she should discourage that, that it was the kindest thing to do. But she couldn’t bring herself to do that, though she did sometimes say things like, “That’s fine until you find your forever Mummy.”

But for some reason, Josie Laughton had to be different. She didn’t call her Nora or Auntie Nora or Mrs Marks or Mummy. She called her Tata. Pronounced to rhyme with data, not with crater. There was nothing else outwardly unusual about nine year old Josie, though Nora firmly believed there was something unusual about every child. She had dark hair and hazel eyes, and Nora was pretty sure she had been a winning toddler, if not necessarily a pretty ones, and would grow into her looks again, but now there was something coltish and awkward about her. She wasn’t really a clumsy child, but somehow it wouldn’t surprise you if she did fall over or drop things. She was generally quiet and self-possessed, but could and did talk well enough, and was doing fairly well at school. She didn’t complain about helping with the household chores, but didn’t offer to do extra ones either. Nora knew that unlike some of the children she cared for, Josie hadn’t been abused or even, really neglected, but she was what Penny (one of Nora’s favourite social workers, a woman you could really settle down to a cup of tea and a natter with) called a pillar to post child.

Nora didn’t have any high fallutin’ notions about what she did. She was no miracle worker and no ministering angel. There were children she just hadn’t managed to “reach” and that hurt and sometimes kept her awake at night. But she also wasn’t one for false modesty or for underestimating the importance of what she did. She had too much respect and, yes, love, for the children she fostered to take it lightly.

She was still waiting to grow into her own looks and wondered if she would ever quality as a glamorous granny. But she pushed such thoughts to one side because there was no point to them. She wasn’t bothered about being glamorous. She had (so folk said) nice eyes and her health and strength, and wouldn’t have spent a single penny on cosmetic surgery even if she won the Lottery. But it did still bother her that she wouldn’t ever be a granny. Some of the children she had first fostered were parents themselves now, and a few of them had declared her an honorary granny, and she saw that as a huge honour and privilege, but a little voice told her it still wasn’t quite the same.

It was something she had lived with all her life, since that terrible accident, that car crash, when she was only ten years old. But it wasn’t something she talked about. Not even to her own mother, who was still very much alive, and to whom she could talk to about most things.

Of course Nora believed in never having favourites, but of course sometimes she did, although she never, ever (or so she hoped) let it show. And in her quiet way, Josie had become one of them. It was natural enough. Nora didn’t foster the very youngest, but had dealt with her share of toddler tantrums, and though she had more than a modicum of sympathy for any toddler for whom life became too frustrating and puzzling, it could still be exhausting. And teenagers brought their own challenges. But nine was, well, a nice age. Old enough to have a conversation with but too young for boys (or girls) and hormones. Like herself, when she found the time, Josie was an avid bookworm (Nora was very liberal on the matter of her foster children’s choice of reading matter, though she had once cautioned a precocious thirteen year old to at least keep her copy of Fifty Shades of Grey out of sight of the younger children). Her face seemed at the same time both rapt and relaxed when she was lost in a book. At the moment she was reading her way through Nora’s own collection of Noel Streatfield novels, and though she wasn’t a ballet-obsessed child (Nora was secretly relieved about that, leotards could be murder to wash without them going out of shape) she was particularly taken with Ballet Shoes. Nora was wise enough not to labour the point about the Fossil children being fostered and then adopted. If Josie wanted to raise the point, she would raise it of her own volition. All the same, she suspected she might be quite relieved when she moved onto White Boots, though she wondered if, like herself, she might find it vastly inferior. She chastised herself for being mean spirited for being grateful that there was not an ice rink nearby.

Nora’s mum, as we have established, was still a presence in her life, and one she very much appreciated. They didn’t live in each others’ pockets, as the saying went, but could talk about most things. Her mum, who was called Sarah, was always willing to offer advice on the foster children if Nora wanted it, but as she said herself, Nora probably knew far more about it than she did. Still, as Nora herself admitted, she had a tendency to out-think herself whilst Sarah could get to the nub of an issue quickly and sometimes a view from someone less personally involved could be very helpful. She wasn’t at all surprised that Sarah took to Josie, though like herself she was determined not to show that she had favourites. She also had learnt to be discreet, but Nora knew her too well to know that something had shocked her when she was talking to Josie, and yet on the surface she couldn’t know why, and was fairly sure that though Josie was a sharp little thing, she hadn’t noticed it. Sarah didn’t need to mouth the word “later” – Nora picked it up by the slightest opening and closing of her lips.

“Later” wasn’t that much later. Nora’s neighbour Susan was a great favourite with many of the children, and was thinking of fostering herself. Nora felt confident letting her try her wings by looking after them for a while. And when she came round with home baked almond and raspberry slices, Nora issued strict instructions to “hold a couple back for the grown ups!” and she and her mother set out for a walk in the nearby park. It was one of those September days when summer seemed to have gone on hold at its mellowest. “Okay, mum,” said Nora, as they strolled up the alley where scarlet and gold were just beginning to intermingle with dream in the flanking trees. “What is it?”

“It gave me a turn, I’ll admit,” Sarah said. And she wasn’t the kind of woman who was prone to turns, not even figuratively. “Josie – what she called you …..”

“I’ve still not fathomed that,” Nora admitted. “But I’ve been called worse.” A look at her mother’s face reinforced what she already knew. This was serious.

“We – haven’t talked much about that terrible accident,” Sarah said, “and I still maintain that was probably for the best. Maybe not,” she shook her head. “Perhaps there’s no right and wrong for these things. I – well, your father and I, but you know he never much liked a row, bless him – had a serious falling out with the doctors and the therapists about that. But I said that the fact you had amnesia about the time just before the accident and the accident itself was a blessing and it would be cruel to try to “cure” it. I know that’s against the current fashion for not letting anything stay suppressed.”

“Whatever you and dad did, it was because you loved me,” Nora said, unsteadily.

“Well – now the time has come to tell you more. And – my dear, yes, it will be painful. You weren’t alone in the car, Nora. A friend of ours, Tom Prentice, was driving, and his little girl Amy was with you in the back of the car. You and Amy were great friends. You lived in a little world of your own a lot of the time. The way children do, and I hope they always will. You had this fantasy that you were really Russian princesses – I don’t think you really believed it most of the time, but you did give each other Russian names. Amy was called Natalia and you were called Tatiana. Maybe some of it was because you were at the ballet stage and had heard of Russian ballerinas, maybe it was because of some fairy tales you’d read. But often you used to shorten the names – to Nata and Tata. Amy – she didn’t survive the crash, love. We thought you might not, you were so terribly injured, but you did, thank God.”

Nora sat down heavily on a bench. She didn’t exactly feel faint, but it was as if the weight of her swirling and throbbing thoughts pushed her down. She had always been open minded on such matters, and said there were things that were “hard to logically explain” but had not chosen to probe any further than entertaining but undemanding television programmes.

“I’m not saying this proves anything,” Sarah said, “There have been far stranger coincidences.”

“Does she – look like Amy?” Nora asked, still unable to summon up any memories of her childhood friend and torn between longing that she could and being relieved that she couldn’t.

“Physically no – not at all. Amy was small for her age, and Josie is tall, and her colouring is completely different. But – I don’t know – something about the way she puts her head to one side and wrinkles her forehead when she’s thinking. But I suppose a lot of children do that. I’m sorry if I did wrong telling you this.”

“You had to, Mum,” Nora said, and meant it, though that still didn’t mean a part of her wouldn’t have preferred to be in ignorance. One thing she did know was that Josie must have no inkling that anything was different or that this conversation had taken place. And that wouldn’t necessarily be easy. But you didn’t become a foster parent if you wanted things to be easy.

Josie had never shown any sign at all of being scared of travelling by car, and of course that didn’t change now. Nora had noticed that unlike some of the children she never showed any reluctance or rebellion about child restraints, but put that down to her simply being a sensible and mature child. On the surface all went on as normal. Sarah, at Nora’s request, told her more about Amy. She had died just two weeks before her tenth birthday. And Josie’s tenth birthday was approaching. Like all the children, she was offered a party, but only if she wanted one. Rather to Nora’s surprise she asked to have one at the local fast food restaurant, but only with a couple of her closest friends and one of the slightly younger foster children, Dawn, whom she had taken under her wing. “But it would be nice if Susan made us all some biscuits,” she admitted.

“I’m sure she’ll be delighted to,” said Nora, relieved all ways round. She could cook and bake well enough but had to admit she never really hugely enjoyed it.

Nora couldn’t help those fluttering moth thoughts, but was pretty sure none of the children suspected a thing. The party went well, and as she loaded Josie and Dawn into the car, she said, “I hope those burgers haven’t spoilt your appetites for Susan’s biscuits!”

Nothing could do that!” Josie exclaimed. “You could eat two thousand elephants and still have room for Susan’s biscuits!” Though not the most talkative of children she had a colourful turn of phrase, and it certainly made Dawn chuckle, though Nora suspected that in the next few weeks she might just tire a little of hearing the phrase “two thousand elephants”. Dawn scuttled into the house as soon as they got back – both wanting biscuits and needing the loo! But Josie lingered a while in the car. “That was a lovely day,” she said. “Thank you – Nora.”

“You’re very welcome,” Nora said. She never did ask Josie why she had stopped calling her Tata. But inside, she knew.

January 06, 2021 09:10

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Deborah Mercer
09:11 Jan 06, 2021

Hi, all, just to say I'm back! I had some personal and health issues and my writing tended to dwindle to bad poetry and diary entries. But now I'm delighted to be here again and looking forward to writing and sharing writing, and wish you all as happy a new year as possible, given the temporary abnormal!


12:46 Jan 06, 2021

I can't say how happy I am that you are back. This is wonderful. I'll be back to read this.


Deborah Mercer
12:55 Jan 06, 2021

Yes, it is SO good to be back and short story writing again. I've missed all you lovely people.


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Jana Diriyeh
14:40 Jan 15, 2021

A great story! good job!


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