Sweet Sixteen

Tasha opened her eyes and looked around. It was beginning to feel more familiar. She had stopped having that ‘where am I’ thought that jolts you when you come too in a strange bed. The rose velvet curtains were slightly open allowing light to gently seep in, dust particles dancing in the glow. She could make out the chest of drawers, the desk piled high with her GCSE revision, the striped duvet fresh and clean and clearly bought to ‘match’ with the room – pink for a girl. She wondered if the foster carers had stipulated the sex to go with the room? Or maybe they had said gay or transgender fine too as we have pink curtains already? She snorted a laugh out loud. No. If she had been a boy they would have gone out and bought new. They were kind and thoughtful and trying very hard to do the right thing.

Tasha pulled on her dressing gown from the back of the door (pink, of course, new for her when she arrived and very fluffy – probably Primark – she kept forgetting to check the label). She went down stairs and could hear that Rob and Sue were already up and busying themselves in the kitchen. On the table were a pile of presents and cards, fresh fruit and orange juice and she could smell croissants warming in the oven. “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Tasha, happy birthday to you” they sang in awkward unison. “Thanks! That’s lovely!” Tasha said, and meant it. She really did appreciate how hard they were trying. It was in stark contrast to the birthdays that had come before – images flashed before Tasha’s eyes – she pushed them hurriedly away. Not today. Not now anyway.

“Start with the cards” said Sue excitedly. She would rather not. The cards that weren’t there were like knives stabbing her heart. Nothing from her mother, obviously nothing from her father. Nothing from her gran, nothing from Jayne her previous foster carer – the list in her head went on. There it was though, Aunt Esme’s hand writing all the way from Inverness – always C/O Social Services but it didn’t matter. She never forgot. Tasha had never met her but she was the one constant thread in the family, and she always remembered birthdays. She imagined her living in a brightly painted cottage like on Ballamory, grey hair in a bun, a flowery apron on as she went about her chores, and freshly baked bread cooling on the table. The reality was probably very different – which is partly why Tasha never planned to track her down.

And there they were. The cards from her brothers and sisters. Ricky and Will who were living with Pam and Dave, Tara, Amy and Tillie who were with Rita and Richard, and the babies, Louis and Harrison who had been adopted but still allowed to send birthday cards and would meet up once a year as part of the ‘plan’. They had all been helped with their cards to some extent – but they were all there. For Tasha it was like counting her chicks. Her social worker had sent a card too. And Rob and Sue of course, and Rob’s mum – which was nice. Sue encouraged Tasha to move on to the presents – all wrapped meticulously in the same paper. A couple of books (‘teen lit’ Sue had done her homework), some smellies from Lush, some pyjamas (from Primark – Tasha checked there and then) and a small package Sue was excited about her opening. It was a navy velvet jewelry box and inside was a beautiful gold locket. “Sixteen is a very special birthday Tasha. We wanted you to have something to treasure forever”. Tasha felt tears prick the back of her eyes. Here it came again, they were so kind and generous – how do you say “thank you but how the fuck do I fit seven brothers and sisters in one locket?” Tasha gave Sue and Rob an awkward hug and left them to interpret the tears in whichever way they wanted.

Tasha was the oldest by five years and had been ‘placed’ on her own when the children had first been removed. Back then it was just her and the boys, an ‘awkward’ sibling group to place altogether. The more babies her mum had the easier the groupings became. Three girls close in age. Bang. Bang. Bang. And then twin boys removed at birth. Bingo! Adoption gold dust. Tasha had moved in with Jayne – a single carer who had fostered for many years and was ‘very experienced’. She liked it there, laid back with no pressure and other kids passing through from time to time. Ideally, she would have stayed until she was eighteen, but after 20 years as a foster carer and some sort of award from the queen, Jayne was packing it in and moving to Spain. In some ways, the social worker said, it’s worked out well. Tasha was bright and could make a real future for herself but Jayne had never really been able to help her academically – she was more of a hippy, a free spirit. Moving to Rob and Sue’s and going to Heathwood High for her last year of GCSE’s would be perfect, and really allow her to focus in on her exams. It also meant she wouldn’t be tempted to keep an eye on her brother – who was about to start at her old school. The social worker saw that as a positive. Tasha had been devastated.

It was all bull shit. No one moves school half way through their GCSE’s. It was hilarious (in a not funny kind of way) how they always tried to make the story fit as though it was the plan all along. Jayne moving to Spain had been gutting – there was no way around it. She was ‘retiring’ from her job of ‘caring’ for Tasha and the other foster children who had passed through. Tasha had been ‘well looked after’ by her (well enough in a “there’s a chick pea stew on the hob help yourself if you’re hungry” kind of way) but the ties could be cut. Blood is thicker than water (even if it’s being splattered on your face from a fist fight) and even Aunt Esme who she had never met had sent her a birthday card. She tried not to take it personally with Jayne. Hippies didn’t do birthdays very well. But they did do open doors and Tasha knew deep down that if she pitched up in Spain, at any point in her life, Jayne would welcome her in and she could help herself to some veggie paella from the hob. That counted for something.

Anyway, ironically, it was working out ok. And Tasha really did want to do well at school even if her primary aim was to earn enough to take care of her brothers and sisters when the time came. The first day had been foul. For any kid starting at a new school it’s horrific. When you are a foster kid, starting half way through GCSE’s in a school where everyone knows each other and has done for years, it’s in the ‘blank off all feelings, out of body experience’ category of foul. The groupings are set, the in crowd know who they are, the geeks know who they are, the sporty kids know who they are, and the bitches smell the blood of new prey before they have even checked out what shoes you are wearing. But somehow Tasha got lucky. She ended up in the form full of waifs and strays with no clear identity other than they always lost in competitions and took great pride in it. They united in being the losers and weirdos and even made a thing of it. She was sat next to Abigail – confident, kind, and pretty in a not a scrap of make-up kind of way. They instantly bonded over a Fall Out Boy pin on Abigail’s ruck sack. One of many ranging from Harry Potter to a Gay Pride rainbow. Abigail didn’t hedge her bets – she liked what she liked and couldn’t care less what anyone thought. She also had lots of friends in the form – simply because she was nice. Tasha realised she would be just one of many and never the ‘best friend’ – but that was way better than she could have hoped for in the hell hole that is friendship groups in comp.

Best of all, Abigail’s birthday was the same week as Tasha’s. “Let’s have a joint sweet 16” she had declared. Tasha felt the panic rise – that sounded horrific. “Not in a fake tan short skirt tattooed eyebrows kind of way” Abi rushed to clarify. Phew, thought Tasha. “In a bake lots of sweet things to eat kind of way”. She loved how Abi could turn things around, and make what everyone aspires to, the ultimate selfie at a drunken party, sound boring and mainstream compared with the alternative idea. “We will do it at my house, bake all day. We can take the left overs into school.” Fun, inclusive, and most importantly safe. How did Abi manage it? “It will need to be on the Sunday – which is your actual day – is that ok?” “It’s fine” Tasha said. She was relieved she would be doing something and not having to choose a restaurant and a film to go to with Rob and Sue. She could do that on the Saturday, and meeting with her brothers and sisters at the contact centre in case her mother showed up would be on a week day anyway. Sue was a bit stung when she told her, but also relieved that the whole responsibility for her birthday didn’t fall to her. Rob was genuinely pleased for her, grasping at any straw that Tasha was settled and happy.

Abi’s house was just like her – not trying too hard to be anything, but confidently stylish as a result. She had laid out recipe books and ingredients and mixing bowls in readiness. Her mum checked they were ok and then left them to it. “I’ll be in the front room if you need me” she said. They poured through the books settling on millionaire short bread for the complicated thing, chocolate chip cookies for the easy thing, and a Victoria sandwich for the centre piece. “We don’t need a recipe for that I know it off by heart”. Abi said “I’ve made hundreds with my mum from when I was really little.” They worked together, the mess mounting as the delicious smell of sugar and butter baking permeated the house. Eventually they were finished – their achievements proudly displayed on china plates and cake stands – it looked amazing. They took photographs and Abi posted one on Instagram with a simple “Sweet 16” and tagging them both. Abi’s mum came to see. “Wow that is fantastic girls!” She declared. Tasha felt so proud but also a bit sad – it was only that good because Abi knew what she was doing; and she only knew what she was doing because her mum had taught her. There it was again, that gaping hole.

They tried a piece of everything they had made with a cup of tea before sharing it out into cake tins ready to bring to school the next day. Tasha saved some sponge for Rob and Sue. It really was delicious; and Sue declared it the best Victoria Sandwich she had ever tasted. “Abi knows the recipe off by heart and didn’t even set the timer on the oven – just kept an eye on it through the glass” Tasha told Sue, sharing some pride in her friend’s skill. “Wow that is impressive; but it just takes practice” Sue said. “I can teach you if you like. Shall we have a go next Sunday?” Tasha nodded, feeling that familiar prick of tears behind her eyes.

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