Sarah Lewis

Sarah is a work psychologist and successful academic author, moving to memoire.


Chapter One: Nobody told me (working title)


‘Michael I’ve got to go to the loo, it’s just over there, I’ll be five minutes.’  

It’s September 1980 and in Hyde Park our feet crunch the green conker cases, their chestnut hearts exposed under the quilt of brown and yellow leaves. As eight-year-old Michael stomps his feet and swings his arms, the tops of his soldier boots, well-worn black wellingtons, pinch round his chubby legs. 

It’s a rare treat to be out from the children’s home with just one child. A soothing hum of traffic, its honking, gear-grinding discord smoothed out by distance, flows around us.  Michael’s blue t-shirt rides up from his red shorts and his green waist-tied jacket, as he bends down to pluck a particularly shiny conker from its case. I turned twenty-three in June this year.

We’ve weaving our way towards the loos, still a good five hundred yards away. The soldier, though, needs to disturb the all leaves under every tree. He’ll argue, fight, throw himself on the floor in a tantrum. He’s too big to carry. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing if I don’t take him in. I’m hazy on the boundaries of this job, even though I’ve been doing it for five months, but there’s no way I’m pulling my knickers down in front of him. 

His rifle stick sends the leaves spraying, releasing the scent of Autumn walks. ‘Left, right, left, right,’ he says, marching round the tree.

If I take him, he’ll rattle the towel machine, talk to people and ask them questions. He’ll squirt the soap and gush the taps. If I could get him to come. I need to pee. If it was him, I’d send him in the men’s and wait outside, fingers crossed. Big enough to go on his own, big enough to leave for five minutes; no time anyway.

‘Michael,’ he’s hunting for treasure, eyes down and ears closed, I crouch down and hold his shoulders, ‘you must stay by this tree, so you don’t get lost, do you understand?’

He looks at me with his big blue eyes and nods. I stroke his hair, my beautiful, conker-hunting soldier, not daring to name what I feel for we are professional carers; the children aren’t ours to love. It’s a simple enough instruction. 

‘What did I just say?’

‘Stay here.’

‘OK, good.’ My bladder is full, my tampon slippery, ‘stay here and find me the best conker, I’ll be back in a moment.’ That should keep him here for five minutes. I sprint.

In the toilet there’s a queue. I cross my legs, holding the bloody mess in place, waiting for cubicles to empty. Bags thud, zips scissor up and down, toilets repeatedly half-flush, locks click open; the door fights them back but eventually an old woman, or one with small children, struggles out, and the queue shuffles forward. I ferret a tampon out of my bag, holding it concealed. 

In the cubicle I fumble the job and there’s blood and piss all over my hands. Thirty seconds wasted failing to get soap from the dispenser before splashing about under the cold-water tap, then pounding, hands still wet, up the steps. 

Look to the tree where I left Michael. There is no Michael there now. Scanning across the park for a glimpse of a soldier in primary colours. 

Probably just wandered away from where I left him. Young Michael, thrilled to be offered sweets by a strange man; little wavelets of fear wash up against my prayer that all will be well. 

 ‘Michael!’ I shout across to the trees. A middle-aged woman glances in my direction. 

Glance back to the first tree, as if by magic he’ll be there now. He isn’t. Bigger waves of fear leave images of Michael in their backwash, arms stretching towards me. The sucking wet sand is pulling me under. 

Running over to the trees and looking up into the stripped branches, knowing he’s too clumsy to climb that high. Calling his name, hearing the rising edge of panic in my voice. Stupid, so stupid. Should have made him come with me. He would have fought and cried and said, ‘I hate you!’, but I could have made him come. 

Hands catching against bark as I run from tree to tree, feet tangling in fallen foliage. Head roaring. Three seconds, I just want those three seconds back. I’d fight, make him come with me; and now we would be friends again, his fat little fingers safe in mine as we practised fire engine noises, following the call of the squawking ducks hungry for our bread; instead…

There’s a green lump on the ground, half hidden by leaves. His jacket. Breathe in. Breathe out. Children drop things, doesn’t mean there was a struggle. 

Time passes but only this moment exists. Blink away tears, crashing, searching, clutching my talisman of a soldier’s jacket. Panic has me in its jaws when I catch sight of a small figure dressed in red and blue, with black soldier boots, poking leaves with a stick at the foot of a tree. 

A dam burst of tears, a desperate need to run. Nothing but desire to hold him to me, keep him safe and love him forever. I can’t do that. I make myself walk wiping my face, calming my breathing. ‘Hello Michael, you look like you’re having fun?’

He runs at me, dropping his stick. His blonde hair bouncing high with delight, his wide smile tearing my heart. Crouching down I capture him close, breathing in the sweet smell of his sweat, feeling alive from the press of his body. But he squirms, trying to wriggle a hand into a tight pocket. I loosen my grip and he wrestles a glorious conker into view, thrusts it at me, eyes beaming. The sounds of the world return.

I don’t tell anyone back at the home about this. It’s unsayable. My heart has a deep shock facture yet continues to beat. When, back in the spring, I answered the advertisement for childcare officers for the London Borough of Greenwich, I did not understand this as the price of success.


‘I see you have a degree in psychology?’ says my interviewer on a crisp April morning six months earlier, as he leans back against the scuffed-leather captain’s chair. 

Somewhere outside his windowless office, Woolwich goes about its business. I’m pleased I got the interview. I like the idea of working with children. It certainly sounds better than working at SOS employment bureau, Oxford Circus branch, a job I’ve been doing since college; long days reciting the mandated script, cajoling the equally bored into lodging their vacancy with us. 


‘Well that should be useful. What other experience do you have with children?’

‘I used to babysit a lot.’ For pocket money, most of the time they were asleep. I smell the wine, taste the cheesy crackers thoughtfully left by desperate-to-get-out parents.

‘Great. Have you been in London long?’

‘About a year,’

‘Any other relevant experience?’ 

Factory canteen jobs, Boots the chemist, petrol station, greengrocer’s, that aborted computer coding job, living in that bedsit so cold I didn’t need a fridge…

‘I helped out at a riding stables when I was younger, before O levels.’ I was there all the time, after school and all weekend, hands lanolin smooth and sweet smelling from cleaning leather, legs itchy from riding barelegged; until exams and boys and my Saturday job drew me away: Boots paid real money.

 ‘It’s just looking after children. Why do you want to work with children?’

‘I want to make a difference. I want to help children who haven’t been as lucky as me.’ Once a week New Society would plop down on our Surrey doormat. Reading it, I envied inner-city children their adventure playgrounds. 

‘I’m sure there’ll be plenty of opportunity to do that. You’ll learn on the job. We’ll put you with experienced staff to begin. Any questions?’ 

‘It said shifts?’

‘The Elmley Street unit is three homes under one roof, it’s more professional than some of our older homes, they still run on the old live-in housemother system. It’s a forty-hour week on a shift pattern, averaged over the month: earlies, lates, some weekends. Occasional sleepovers, you’ll get a small payment, they don’t count for hours. Full conditions, holiday, sick pay and all that. It will all be in the contract.’

No mention of the battering my heart would take.


The home, square, white and flat-roofed, stands out as if spot-lit against the muted reds and browns of its terraced neighbours. I catch my breath after cycling up the hill. Today’s my induction day. I wheel the bike along the side of the building, the pedal catching at my ankle. Through tall railings two white vans flicker with council logos and I see swings and a see-saw. I push round to the front door.

Once I’m inside, Dave, the head of the unit guides me up stairways, along corridors, and through some heavy double-swing doors. It takes a hefty push to open them and they close slowly, but with resolution, behind us. 

‘This is Rowan Group, where you’ll be working’

We’re in a school-like corridor with brown doors off either side. Following Dave still, I glimpse colourful bedspreads with rockets and spaceships. At the end of the corridor there’s a big window and through it I see trees and houses. Just before we reach it, he opens the last door and ushers me in.

‘Ok, here you are. I’ll leave you in Kathy’s capable hands.’ He turns back along the corridor.

I step into an airy kitchen, spring sun streaming through the window. Kathy, older than me, is sitting writing something at the kitchen table. There’s an ashtray with a couple of butts on the table, although Kathy doesn’t appear to be smoking; no tell-tale packet of fags lying around, or smell of tobacco in the air, no lipstick stains on the stubs. The stubs look old, no heat, no lingering smoke. Suddenly I want to. ‘Is it Ok if I smoke?’

‘Feel free. Another nail in your coffin.’

Not entirely sure how to take this, I light up anyway.


‘Yes, that would be lovely. Milk no sugar please. I’m Sarah.’

 ‘Milk and sugar are on the table, help yourself. I know, we were expecting you. Welcome to the team.’ She hands me a mug of tea and sits back down.

A half-emptied milk bottle sits on the table. A trolley is stacked with dirty breakfast bowls and toast plates in uneven piles. Beyond, in the dining-room, I see a toast rack, one burnt white slice left, and an open marmalade jar, its sticky rim grasping a teaspoon. The tablecloth is patterned with spilt milk and cereal crumbs. I feel I just missed the party.

‘So,’ her brightened tone betrays effort, ‘I hear you’ve got a degree in psychology?’

‘Yes, but I didn’t do the children and family module. I know nothing about developmental psychology.’ Pigeons, rats, madness, and a side order of philosophy, that was my degree. It’s not going to be any use here.

‘Hmm, well it probably won’t make any difference. Common-sense is the main thing.’ A small heart-sink, I’m not known for my common sense.

Later I’m sitting at the large table with Steve, owner of the cigarette butts. Together we’re in charge of overseeing five children sitting with us for tea. Another four are on a table with Kathy. The trees outside the big plate windows are in bud and Michael has yet to be admitted to our care.

I feel nervous, on show. 

Meal-times memories don’t offer much of a conversational model. ‘Sarah, ask your father to pass the salt,’ and ‘Move that cup, you’ll knock it off with your elbow in a minute.’ scaled the heights of conviviality.  Fortunately the necessary instructions for eating in polite company are scored deep through repetition: elbows off the table, eat with your knife and fork, ask people to pass don’t grab, use please and thank you, ask before you get down, wait for everyone to be ready before you start, don’t be greedy (but do have seconds), clear your plate, don’t talk with your mouth full, and, how many times, Sarah, no reading at the table. 

I wonder if this is what I am supposed to be doing, instilling manners? I patrol my elbows, watching.

The children are in constant motion, their arms cutting across their neighbours’ faces as they make a grab for the salt or the ketchup. They bounce off their seats, wriggling down to get dropped cutlery. Once upright again, and resettled, they launch themselves across the table at the brown sauce. Spoons rattle as four or more sugar lumps are vigorously stirred into cups of slopping tea. I am biting back the urge to tell them to sit still, or to move their mugs away from the table edge. Steve doesn’t seem to notice any of this as he chats with them.

An argument breaks out over the best TV programme and the children express their views at increasing volume. At the far end of the table sits Mark, a pale-faced child of about eight, taking no part in all this. He looks very alone, separate from the rest of us. Suddenly he shouts out ‘Burnt sausages!’ 

But we’re eating fish fingers. The hubbub carries on. He picks up a chip with his fingers. Is this violation enough? 

‘Mark, don’t eat with your fingers, use your knife and fork.’

Without looking at me he pops the chip into his mouth and picks up a fish finger. He waves it in front of his face before tipping his head back and lowering it into his mouth, like a performing seal. Mesmerized, I watch the fish finger disappear. As he brings his head down, to greet the admiring laughter this has provoked, a quick-flash glance lets me know this pantomime was for me. Another boy, a couple of years younger, picks up his fish finger.

‘Come on Jack,’ says Steve, ‘you know better than that. Put it down and use your knife and fork. Ignore Mark, he’s just being silly.’

Mark shouts out, ‘Silly billy! Silly billy!’

‘If you’ve finished Mark, you can leave the table,’ says Steve, hardly looking at him, ‘if you want to stay, you need to behave. Leave and you won’t get pudding.’ 

‘So,’ he asks Jack, who is now using a knife and fork, ‘what do you think, Grange Hill or Animal Magic?’ Following Steve’s cue, I turn to my left to help a young girl cut her fish fingers without them sliding off the plate.  Out of the corner of my eye I see Mark pick up his knife and fork; we’ve been promised ice-cream for pudding. I’m looking forward to it.

After tea the children go with Steve to the lounge to watch Grange Hill. Kathy and I stack the trolley, scraping cold baked beans and ketchup smeared chips into the waste bin as we go. 

‘That went well,’ says Kathy. 

‘Did it?’

‘Yes, the way you got stuck in, minding their manners. You’ll do.’

Is this what learning on the job means?


The first alarm shocks me awake, the second pulls me across the room and I make it for the 7.00 a.m. start. I ring the bell and the door is opened by a woman tethered to her office by a phone line stretched so tight the cord curls have disappeared.  Her free hand invites me in while her mouth says, ‘We won’t have three beds until Monday. No, I’ve only got one now.’ 

Once I am through the door, her eyes apologise as she reels back into her office maintaining that she can’t possibly take three children any earlier and she’s sorry, but they’ll have to go somewhere else, or be split up. Her office door shuts, and I find myself alone in the entrance hall. 

It’s very quiet, apart from the faint sound of the office lady regretting she can’t work miracles. Setting off to find Rowan, I take a corridor off the hall, turn a corner and arrive at the foot of a stairwell.

A delicate, fairy-like girl is bouncing about on the stairs singing softly to herself, a cuddly tiger is lying careless on the third step. As we see each other, she stills. 

‘Hello,’ she says, her voice clear in the stillness. It feels Marie Celeste-like this no man’s land between all three units. Somewhere another twenty-eight children are starting their day. 


‘What’s your name?’ She picks up her tiger and tippy-toes down towards me.

‘Sarah. What’s yours?’

‘Emily. I’ve got two brothers. Are you new staff?’

‘Er, Yes, I…’

‘This is Tigger, he’s mine.’ She offers me her tiger.

I turn him over in my hands, distracted by small pricks of anxiety, I’m going to be late for my first shift. ‘He’s lovely. Can you show me where Rowan is?’

  ‘Yes’, she says, and slips her hand into mine. 

I’m not at all sure about this this level of friendliness and trust by a young child, seven at a guess, with a strange adult, it doesn’t seem right. But she is the only person around to help. 

‘What are you doing here?’ 

‘I’m waiting for my forever Mummy and Daddy, but they never come.’

Ten minutes later we have pushed our way through several sets of double doors, gone round quite a few corners and now we’re walking down yet another long corridor, or maybe it’s one we’ve already been down. All these corridors look the same, their shiny cream walls split by a dado rail at rib-height, bright red fire extinguishers blossoming out from the walls.  I worry gently that I don’t know how to use a fire extinguisher. 

Emily is telling me all about her pony. ‘Beauty is all white, he is the most beautiful pony you ever saw. He loves me. I ride him every day,’ she does some cantering to show me, ‘He eats sugar lumps and carrots. He’s my best friend.’ She cocks her head and thinks, ‘and Tigger.’ She’s delighted to have an adult in tow, and wherever we are going it’s not a direct route to Rowan.

‘Emily, are you sure this is the way to Rowan?’

‘Do you like ponies? I’m going to have lots when I grow up.’

Just as I’m beginning to understand how Alice in Wonderland felt, a door opens and a young black woman appears in front of us.

‘There you are Emily, we were wondering where you’d got to! And who’s your friend?’ Emily transfers her hand from mine to this new person. I’m still holding Tigger.

‘I’m Sarah, I’m trying to find Rowan.’

 ‘And Emily’s been helping you?’ 

‘Yes, er, we’ve had a lovely time.’ I pause, ‘I’ve been hearing all about Beauty. And Tigger.’ I hand him over, ‘I’m a bit confused.’

‘Thank you. By Emily? No problem, welcome to the madhouse. You’ll get the hang of it. So, I’m Nuala and this is Linden group, where Emily lives. You need to go back down this corridor, turn left when you reach the front of the building, up the stairs, right at the top and you’ll find them all along there. See you soon I ‘spect.’ They disappear back through the door.

What was that all about? Was Emily deliberately leading me on a goose chase or is she too young to know her way around? What about Beauty, could that be true? I push through the double doors into Rowan corridor.

Cautiously I put my head around a door that’s ajar and find myself peering into the Rowan group kitchen, where Kathy is cuddling a cup of coffee.

‘Ah, there you are! I was beginning to think we had put you off yesterday!’

‘No, I, I met Emily on the way in.’


‘Well to be honest, she led me on a bit of a song and dance. Sorry about that.’ 

Kathy looks thoughtful, ‘Emily’s been here longer than most of the staff, since she was a baby.’

‘I thought babies got adopted?’

‘You’re right, usually they’re snapped up. Emily’s one of three and they didn’t want to separate them, then. They’d all had such a bad time when they were found, they wanted them to have each other.’


‘She was a beautiful baby, but the boys were toddlers, and very disturbed. No chance.’

‘What happened?’ I ask over my shoulder, filling the kettle.

‘You name it, sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, the lot. Really bad.’

‘So, what’s happening now?’

‘Now they think their needs are so great they all need separate families.’

 ‘She’s waiting for adoption?’ I sit down with a cup of hot tea; I’m not used to being awake this early.

‘That’s right, they go to Linden when they’re “ready for adoption”, to wait for a new family.  She’s been there four years already.’

‘What’s the other group for?’

‘Holly? They get them ready for new families, when we know they won’t go home. Sort of iron out the wrinkles, make them more adoptable.’ Rowan I know is for short-stay and emergency admissions.

‘She talked about a forever Mummy and Daddy.’

‘That’s what they tell the children, that they’re looking for a forever Mummy and Daddy for them.’

‘Will she get one?’

‘It’s getting harder now she’s seven, and she’s still got issues. Drink up, we need to get on.’

There’s no time to discuss it further as we need to get the children through breakfast and ready for school. We give the ones that have wet the bed a quick bath. I make five packed lunches while Kathy makes sure everyone is up and dressed and eating breakfast. She takes the younger children to the nursery on the ground floor. Then we go with older ones to assemble around the backdoor, waiting with them for the van for the school run to be ready. The van drives around all the local secondary schools and the more distant primaries. It’s a long route, so it leaves a few minutes before eight o’clock. 

I watch Kathy prepare to give Mark, who doesn’t have a packed lunch, his lunch money, just moments before he gets on the bus. She holds it high while talking to him. His eyes are locked on the bag of coins.

‘What have you got to remember today?’

‘Sports bag! Sports bag!’

‘Good boy,’ she hands the money over and, released, he runs towards the bus shrieking ‘Burnt sausages!’