My Page Forty-Three…
“When Sir Lenny Henry was narrating the audiobook version of Kit de Waal’s novel My Name Is Leon, he had decided by lunchtime on the first day of recording that he wanted to make a TV version happen.”[i]
That was six years ago. The result was Friday night’s BBC2 90-minute one-off drama about Leon, a nine-year-old boy at the mercy of the foster care and adoption system along with his beloved baby brother after their mother (played by Poppy Lee Friar) has a mental breakdown. Lenny said: “I just found myself swept up in this kid’s world. And I found myself really moved by his predicament, being a mixed race kid who’s got a younger brother who’s white with blue eyes, and the threat of being separated from his brother causing him to take certain actions.”
De Waal says she didn’t set out for the book to have an explicit message. “But if people take anything away from it, it’s that there are a lot of children in the care system that don’t get adopted, and whenever possible, siblings should be kept together,” she says. “I worked on the adoption panel and, of necessity, siblings are split up all the time. It still happens today. It’s a phenomenon of children going into the care system.[ii]
Cole Martin, who plays Leon in the BBC adaptation, is exceptional. I had no doubt de Waal’s protagonist had been brought to life. So many layers, Leon’s slow realisation of losing his brother through adoption, racism, and the loss of innocence as he begins to understand the police, he looked up to, are responsible for killing Castro, Tufty’s friend.
Cole’s acting reminded me a little of Khoji in Mike McKenzie’s short film Be-Longing, played by Casey Mckenzie (Mike’s nephew) he brought alive the powerful emotions of what it is like to be a voiceless child in foster care. Casey was Nominated for best Child Actor at the Indie Short Fest. LA. I’m sure there will be many future awards given to My Name is Leon.
I had been looking forward to seeing the TV adaption, but I was also wary, I didn’t want to prod old scars. When I first read the novel, particularly page 43, I had an overwhelming visceral response and found myself buried in an avalanche of feelings. Louise Beech talks about this in Daffodils how the old wounds have scabbed over but underneath the cesspit is still there (though she didn’t use the word cesspit). Louise’s memoir is unusual because it is a family memoir, the voices of herself and three siblings are with her the whole way through. They managed to stay together apart from one period when they were separated from their baby brother, who was put into a foster home. The twins and Louise were sent to their grandmother, but eventually they moved back home and stayed together as a family. Their bond unbreakable, their story full of pathos and humour.
Bits of my story are not dissimilar to Leon’s. When I was six and a half, my mother took myself and my five-year-old and eleven-month-old brothers to the local clinic. In those days clinics were very much a community centre. She said she was going shopping and would be back later, but she never did come back. Five-year-old brother went to stay with my grandparents as he always did in times of crisis, and myself and baby brother were put into a foster home.
Unlike Leon, who was safer with his foster carer Maureen (Monica Dolan in the BBC2 adaptation), the foster home I was sent to was no safer than the house I had just left. The K’s had two children of their own and were brutal and violent, but only to me. Like Leon, I had been a mini-mum to my baby brother, *David even though I was only five and a half when he was born. Our mother often went out and left me looking after both brothers. I remember one day when the baby was crying, I knew he needed milk but I also knew our mum would be angry if I used the milk in the fridge so I made up a baby bottle and topped the milk up in the fridge with water. (She later discovered this and told me I was silly, she hadn’t meant don’t feed the baby only for us not to drink it). I loved David with the passion of a first-time mum and I can remember when my first son was born the familiarity of looking after a baby washed over me, I had done this before, I had cared and fiercely loved before.
A few months after living with the K’s, I went to school as usual, and that day when I came home David was gone. There were no explanations. Reading through my files this huge loss is not mentioned at all. Nobody explained where he’d gone, nobody even bothered to pre-warn me. The only reference I can find is a report by a social worker who wrote: “The K’s told me how Rosemary is obsessed with the idea of having a baby. She embarrassed them by remarking in a loud voice, on a bus, that she will have a baby as soon as she leaves school (not, however, mentioning marriage) and is always talking about it. She continues to be difficult, but the K’s seem very understanding and patient. She does not, however get on with the other children, and often causes trouble.”
I’m glad to see my spirit was not broken by the foster parent’s cruelty. The reality was nothing like it is painted in that social worker’s report. A couple of years later I reported the K’s, but was not believed.
I buried the pain and trauma of losing my brother. Page 43 of My Name is Leon dug it all up:
Wouldn’t you like Jake to be in a family with a mum and dad of his own?…Leon, we’ve got a family that want to look after Jake. They want to be Jake’s new parents. Isn’t that good, Leon? Jake is going to have a new mummy and daddy…Do you understand, Leon? Jake is going to be adopted. That means he’s going to have a new forever family. p.43[iii]
I wasn’t expecting such a strong reaction. All those feelings of losing David resurfaced and I cried on and off for days.
When I first read My Name is Leon, I wrote:
The writing is exquisite, powerful, and realistic. De Waal captures the voice of a traumatised child. Leon experiences what it is like to be nine years old and taken away from a mother and brother whom you love and adore. To be left alone in a strange world where all your belongings have disappeared and living with a stranger whose house rules you have to get used to. As young as he is, Leon finds new ways to live his life without his mother and brother whilst learning to overcome unbearable loss.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was of course writing about myself. Louise Beech says in her memoir Daffodils which is about the consequences of an attempted suicide by her mother and her erratic childhood that all her stories were life writing, all her stories had at their heart autobiographical truths about her interrupted childhood.
After Jake’s adoption, the story follows Leon, and a single summer of his life while he struggles to adapt to life on his own. The story is set in 1981 when a number of momentous things were happening in the UK; IRA bombs, hunger strikes, the riots and the Royal Wedding of Diana to Charles. De Waal wanted to illustrate that while all these big things were happening, one little boy was lost and grieving and going unnoticed. But Leon had a secret plan, one day he’ll rescue Jake and his mum.
Meanwhile, when foster carer Maureen is taken ill, Leon is sent to live with her sister, Sylvia (Olivia Williams in the BBC production) rather than a new foster placement. His social worker gets him a bike and with this, he gains a sort of freedom. On one of his rides, he goes to the Rookery Road Allotments where he meets Tufty, who reminds him of his dad. Tufty (Malachi Kirby) teaches him about planting seeds:
‘…these plants need support. They need to hold on to something strong while they’re growing. They curl round the bamboo and then, couple of months’ time, we get some beans.’[iv]
As Leon gets to know the people at the allotments, he begins to experience a sense of peace and more than that, a sense of belonging. In Friday night’s BBC2 adaptation, the drama comes to a close with Leon busily caring for his plants at the allotment:
‘Tufty’s teaching me about cuttings. You need to keep them warm and watered, and take care of them. Sometimes it takes time for the roots to grow properly, but they’re going to be strong, like the plant they came from. That’s what I think of you and Mum. We’re being taken care of in different places, but we’re cuttings from the same plant.’[v]
Belonging is all about roots, that feeling of putting a plant in the ground, watering it, watching it grow, revelling in the flower or fruit it produces. I imagine that feeling of roots deep in the ground, a little shift here or there, lodged, facing the sun, at home in the earth.
‘…I am aged maybe 6, in shorts and stripy top, on the pink porch of our Devon house. Lillian is there with me, in her yellow patterned summer dress with blue butterfly-wing brooch, sitting, smiling, patiently podding peas into her dented aluminium colander. And as I pick up a pod and help her, I know this is what safety will forever taste like: garden peas freshly picked from the lap of your new mum.’ – Plot 29, Allan Jenkins
Children in care, separated siblings, somehow survive the most excruciatingly traumatic episodes of their life and like all humans, many go on to grow wholesome and fulfilling lives. Leon found a place to belong, I hope you do too.
*David is a pseudonym
Siblings Together is a UK based charity that promotes positive contact between brothers and sisters separated in foster care, kinship care, residential care, or adoption.
[iii] Kit De Waal, My Name is Leon. Penguin; 1st edition (London: Penguin, 2017) p.43
[iv] Kit De Waal, My Name is Leon. Op. cit., p.105
[v] Cole Martin, My Name is Leon, (BBC2 10th June, 2022) https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m00184br/my-name-is-leon