From upstairs, I can hear my neighbour’s 12 year old son swearing: F__k you! What the f__k! Bitch! It is 11 on a warm Saturday morning, and the windows are open. Fifteen year old J is here near me in the flat, on his computer, playing Realm of the Mad God, and killing unicorns in a pink dungeon with a bow and arrow. J thinks upstairs must be playing Call of Duty ‘because that makes you swear’. I don’t know who to turn to for advice about COD, and seek out Guardian online. It is all a distraction from the havoc wrought by urban foxes who have brought another neighbour’s shoe into our garden overnight and have dug up the tomato plants.
J and I live in London, in a small 2 bedroomed ground floor flat, with a kitchen / living room made from two rooms knocked into one, and a south facing back garden. [F__k you! Bitch!]. The terrace was built in the 1890s for the more affluent working classes, but by the early 1970s, a quarter of Kensal Rise’s inhabitants had to go outside to use the toilet, and it was officially slum territory. Many of those houses have since been turned into flats like ours.
J came to me and to Kensal Rise on the first day of the school summer holidays nine years ago. He’d been living in South East London with foster carers for the last four years, in a not dissimilar urban environment. By contrast, I’d been brought up in proper Sussex countryside where you spent much of the day outside, mostly in the rec and the surrounding fields. But I love London, and since I’ve lived here, I’ve known without a shadow of a doubt that I’d bring a child up here. It’s exciting, with lots to see and do. You are part of a vast and diverse multicultural community, and at the same time, you can keep yourself to yourself if you want to. It suits me down to the ground.
J though needs regular access to space and to the great outdoors, and so do I. So…. In the early weeks together, in fact for the entire duration of those first school summer holidays, we visited our local park every single day. A friend with three boys told me that boys needed daily running, like dogs, but it felt even more important than that. J moved around clumsily and everything in the park seemed unfamiliar and uncomfortable at first, but he took to it quickly and it became for us a healing and healthy environment. He woke very early for the first few months and sometimes we were in the park as early as seven in the morning.
Since those days, J has taken part in outdoors football, rugby and tennis. He has joined rural summer programmes and most years, camped five or six times with the Woodcraft Folk. Together, we have walked 40 miles of the St Cuthbert’s Way and we are currently walking the South Downs Way. J is undertaking the Silver Duke of Edinburgh programme. He gets lost, we get lost, but so far we’ve found our way through in the end.
I still sometimes feel I have to run J like a dog…. But these days I am proud that it’s now J that runs a friend and neighbour’s dog three times a week after school, in the same park that I ran him in all those years ago. [Bitch!].
I am linking this up to the Weekly Adoption Shout Out on the theme of the Great Outdoors, #WASO week 71.