A different kind of Alex
The car was hot and the social worker’s breath smelled of coffee overlaid with breath mints. I felt very small rattling around in my seat as we swooped through country lanes.
Helen, my social worker, flicked a look at me before turning back to the road. She took in my cheeks still pink from the morning’s scrubbing, my shabby but clean skirt and jumper, my neat pink woollen mittens. She had worked hard to get me presentable, so I could tell she really really wanted this one to work out.
“Won’t be long now,” she told me, pointlessly. “Remember to smile and be polite. Mr and Mrs Chapman are a little older than some of the people you’ve stayed with before. They’ll appreciate good manners and good behaviour. If you’re good, things might turn out nicely.”
I didn’t say anything. What she meant was that, if I was good, this older couple, this final shot, this last chance saloon, might actually want to keep me and I’d be out of Helen’s hair for good.
“You’ll stay for three nights and then we’ll see how things are.”
Helen turned off the narrow road and into a neat little village where all of the houses were matching little bungalows, painted white with pretty curtains at the windows. The village school had a painting of a merman and mermaid on one of the walls.
“How lovely!” gushed Helen over-enthusiastically. She eyes me sideways, anxiously, but I smiled to show I was pleased with the place where I might, if I was very good and very lucky, get to live.
As we pulled into a driveway indistinguishable from all the others I had made up my mind. I would try my best to make Mr and Mrs Chapman like me. It wouldn’t be like before. This time I really wanted to stay.
Before we reached the door it had opened and a man and a woman had stepped out to meet us. They both had huge smiles plastered on their faces but when I stepped forward, the smiles faltered and froze.
“Hello, I’m Alex. Nice to meet you,” I smiled and held out my hand. Nobody took it.
“This is Alex?” said the man to Helen, pointing at me.
“Yes. She’s very excited about coming to stay with you. Aren’t you Alex?”
But the man interrupted before I could answer.
“But we thought Alex would be a boy. We were expecting a little boy.”
We stood in an awkward tableaux on the driveway. Mrs Chapman broke the spell.
“Well she’s here now isn’t she. Let’s all go inside for a nice chat.”
In the living room a banner was strung up on the wall: “Welcome home Alex!” It was blue. It had pictures of cars on it.
“It’s nothing binding,” Helen was saying now, speaking too quickly. “Why not see how the weekend goes? We can have another chat Monday when I come back?”
“We can’t send her away now, George,” whispered Mrs Chapman. “Let’s see out the weekend. See how we get on?”
Mr Chapman gave a tight, grudging little nod and Mrs Chapman led me upstairs to see the room that might have been mine if I had been a different kind of Alex.