Author’s Notes: This begged to be
written. Literally. It sat there in my head wanting desperately out, so I wrote
it, most of it on one day. I hope it gives you a better understanding of
Connie’s character, and of Charlotte’s past and decisions – it has certainly
done so for me!
Chapter 1: The madwoman who won our hearts
We had had a particularly bad start of the
year. Three children who, after years and years of searching, had finally been
found foster homes in November and December, all came back to us in the first
few months of the new year. Explanation: not compatible. I had to say I wasn’t
exactly surprised in George Lonston’s case, since he had always been a stubborn
and disobedient kid - which was why his return added to our worries. And
Henrietta Enderleigh’s foster parents had seemed odd to me from the first day,
though I'd never been able to nail it down to anything particular; and – I'm
ashamed to admit – convinced myself that it was just personal dislike from my
Kate? Shy, sweet, attentive little Kate? What was wrong with her? The Carltons
would not give us a more concrete answer, so we were left wondering what had
gone wrong. I couldn’t imagine for the life of me that it had been Kate’s
fault; and while I told myself that, obviously, there must be something wrong
with the Carltons, and that it was better for Kate not to have grown up with
such a screwed up family, it still wasn’t easy hearing her crying herself to
sleep every night.
again, our number was up to thirty-two. It had seemed like an achievement – if
only symbolic – to finally have reached a number below thirty. Now, naturally,
our morale wasn't very high. The return of George, Henrietta and Kate seemed to
lie like a bad omen over the whole year that had only just started. And the
children were similarly discouraged.
had given us all a talking-to two weeks before. I loved Steve. I had loved him
ever since I had started working at the children’s home, and everybody besides
him knew. Even the kids knew. It was so embarrassing whenever one of them,
unaware of the effect, made a casual remark referring to my obvious distraction
whenever we were in the same room. But Steve had to be the slowest, thickest
guy I had ever met; I was positive he had no clue at all, and I had never been
the kind of person to openly show my feelings.
But while he was the most clueless man I
knew, he was also the most caring and active. He had been director of the
children's home for the last six years, and had done all the fundraising
himself – grants were few and far between from the council. One of the things I
liked most about him was the fact that he had given up a successful career as
an engineer to work for the Plymouth Children’s Home, despite the low pay and
long hours that care workers had. That man...
As I was saying. Steve had given us a talking-to, thanking us all for our
perseverance, and asking us not to be demotivated by this turn of events.
Doubtless this speech also had to do with Oliver’s sudden departure at the end
so we’re back to where we started,“ Steve had said, pacing through the room.
"It’s Connie, Mark, me, and Dorothy on weekends. We’ve managed before,
haven’t we? And we’ve got Leticia now. Admittedly there are slightly more kids
than there were six years ago. But hey, where’s the difference between sixteen
and thirty-two?“ He had grinned, knowing full well that our situation was much
worse than it had been, and not caring one bit. God, how I loved this man. And
he had said my name first.
things didn’t improve as the year progressed. Leticia, a care worker who had
joined us in December, returned to Barcelona in April. The strain had been too
much for her, she had been too delicate. Secretly, very secretly, I
wasn’t too sorry. She was whiny and ineffective, and moreover, she was very
we were really getting desperate. We were just three people now, three people
for thirty-two insecure, bitter kids. Dorothy had a full-time job as a dentist,
she lived in Oxford – and she was pregnant, so she would soon have no time at
all. It felt as if we had been putting up advertisements all over Britain, even
all over Europe, looking for care workers and for cooks to support Teresa, but
the pay was bad – have I mentioned how bad the pay was? The council
granted the children's home just enough funds to cover all expenses and give
the children a comfortable home, but they didn't seem to think that the job we
did was very difficult.
a particularly depressing Saturday at the end of April, I was just setting out
the dishes for dinner, thinking darkly about the snobbish family I had visited
in the morning, and about George’s latest prank on poor unsuspecting Dave, when
there was a knock on the door. I made my way to the tiny entrance hall, expecting
someone from the government, a reporter, or – worse – a new arrival, and pulled
the door open.
woman standing in front of me was slightly taller than me, with blond curls, a nice smile, and – yes, that was a
did she pop out from, I thought, and said, "Can I help you?“
"Charlotte Merlot,“ she said, and I
instantly liked her voice. "I read the job advertisement, and I’m
interested in working here. I was in the area so I thought I would come round
and see what it was like.“
course, come in,“ I said, beckoning her in and cursing myself for my closed
tone. She had an odd name, but her accent didn’t sound foreign, so there was no
excuse for her attire other than that she was a bit eccentric. Great.
led her into the dining room and continued setting out the dishes, which she
offered help with instantly. I had never belonged to the proud sort.
director will be here in a minute,“ I said, as I was handing her forks and
knives, "as will everyone else. Have you got experience with childcare?“
one year of teaching in the US,“ she said. "And I used to babysit my niece
when I was young. But I’ve always known that I was meant to work with
smiled. Never judge people by their appearance, Connie. This woman is what we’ve
been looking for. Now, don’t mention the money aspect just yet...
we’re desperately short on carers,“ I said instead. "We’re three and a
half, so to speak, and thirty-two children; so a new addition would be more
than welcome. Are you looking for full-time?“
agreed. I studied her; she looked very young. Probably just out of university,
I thought. Seven or eight years younger than me, I guessed. Young and
enthusiastic, and I realized she looked much like I had when I had been her
age. She had a very open face, and her eyes seemed to be everywhere. She, too,
was studying me interestedly.
Constance Jennings, by the way,“ I said, realizing in the awkward silence that
I hadn’t introduced myself. We shook hands, Charlotte Merlot smiled again.
There had to be some sort of catch to this, I thought.
not quite sure what Mark put on the adverts,“ I continued. "Do you realize
that this is a children’s home for physically disabled children?“
my relief, she nodded, not looking scared at all. So now there was only the
money aspect to be frightened of. But to my utter surprise, she brought it up
case you’re wondering,“ she said, smiling at me mischievously, "I also
realize that this sort of children’s home is never well funded. I’m not looking
for a well-paid job. I’m looking for a job where I can help people, and this
seems the ideal place.“ She grinned. "If all of the staff are as nice as you.“
grinned back, relief now flooding over me in big waves. Thank you, God,
wherever you’ve been lately. "I certainly think they are. Please excuse me
for my wariness, it’s a habit you will take when you’ve worked in this field
for as long as I have.“
cocked her head and smiled, as if to say: Just you wait till I’ve filled the
children’s home with a bit of young spirit. At any rate I hoped that that was
what she was thinking, since we could all do with a bit of new hope and energy.
If anyone were to bring that, it would be her, I thought irrationally – I had
known her for ten minutes, but somehow I felt I had never met anyone so
idealistic, so enthusiastic, so active. Nice change to Señorita Leticia, in any
A month later I still couldn’t believe our
luck. Charlotte Merlot had moved into the children’s home – or rather, invaded
it. Never before had our children trusted somebody as quickly as they trusted
her, and (not to brag or anything) that was saying something with me alongside
her, whom they all called Auntie Connie. Steve and Mark also got along with
Charlotte extremely well, even though Mark had initially been slightly sour
that much of the children’s attentions were now focused on her – he had always
been Attention Whore and Drama Queen in one. However, Steve‘s and my worries
about two extroverted and dominant characters clashing soon disappeared. After
Charlotte had made some efforts to ask for Mark’s advice here and there, and
put emphasis on the fact that she didn’t know half as much as he did, he
suddenly declared that he 'luuuurved‘ the woman.
enthusiasm, as I had hoped, gave us all new energy, and we suddenly saw new
possibilities and new paths open up in front of us that we had thought were
lost. Charlotte seemed to fly around the country, finding foster parents here,
finding sponsors there, giving press interviews, finding a new cook... The
woman was energy in its concentrated form. However, sometimes I wondered how
she managed to get so quickly from one place to another – interview with The
Sun in London, talk with the Martins in Edinburgh, and she was back in
Plymouth for afternoon tea? Whenever I asked, she said that she had been using
the 'aeroplane‘, so possibly her parents had given her a lot of money to live
on. But that inability to use normal words, and her speed in getting around the
country, just added up to a lot of other oddities I soon noticed about
example, the woman couldn’t cook. At all. And I don’t mean that she wasn’t very
talented for it – she just had absolutely no clue about basic procedures, like
cooking potatoes, making sauces or even boiling water
in a kettle. When I asked how she had got along until now, she smiled
sheepishly and claimed that she absolutely lacked talent for all practical
things, but I didn’t believe one word. And I thought that her other excuse
about having grown up in France was rubbish, too. Or was she going to tell me
that the French just went to restaurants all the time, and the French cooks
learned to cook in England? (Now that would have been sad...)
there was something fishy about her past. I suspected that her parents had
never so much as let her move a finger while she had lived with them – but
then, how had she survived during that one year in the US? And that was another
weird thing. When asked what kind of school she had taught at, she said it had
been a private school in Massachusetts, and changed the subject.
thing. Her sense of fashion was extremely odd. She kept coming down to
breakfast dressed in things that just didn’t fit together, like, one day, a
large yellow skirt and a purple jacket. I’d attributed that to eccentricity at
first, but she didn’t even seem to know that what she wore was unusual. (Or is
that normal for eccentrics?)
there were other things, like her being unfamiliar with money – well, it was
her first time in Britain after all, but when one of the kids asked her to show
them some Francs, she claimed she didn’t have any with her, and never
brought it up again. And she wasn’t familiar with the public transport
system, with financial issues, even with popular music, literature... It all
tied in with my theory of her parents having isolated and spoilt her rotten.
She just seemed to have no clue at all about the real world.
she learned quickly, and also seemed to get my hint about her clothing (I
wouldn’t have said anything, but I just didn’t want her representing the
children’s home in odd clothes); and within a few months, she had almost
developed into a normal person.
five months after Charlotte had joined us, another, much more pleasant
Saturday, we were all sitting outside in the sun, watching the other children
play in our small garden, when suddenly little Kate shrieked: "It’s
sure enough, it was Dorothy coming around the corner, holding her baby in her
arms and grinning at everyone. Mark jumped to his feet at once, whether to stop
the children from jumping on the young mother, or whether to reach her first, I
didn’t know. In any case, he gave her as exhuberant a hug as he could without
squeezing the baby to death, and exclaimed: "Oh, she’s lovely, dear!“
all stood up, grinning, hugged Dorothy and gave her our best wishes. She sat
down with us for tea, and the children, suddenly uninterested in playing,
grouped themselves around her and bombarded her with questions about the baby.
name is Hermione,“ Dorothy said, beaming, "and she’s very smart. She
doesn’t cry very much at all, and she’s really curious, look how she’s eyeing
all of you! I bet she’s going to be a scientist or something.“
adorable,“ said Steve, and my heart jumped. Oh, don’t be silly, Connie, you
know he likes kids. Why would you be close to fainting over him admiring a
when the kids had – very reluctantly – gone to bed, Dorothy stayed around for a
cup of tea. We exchanged all of our news during
the last few months, and Dorothy seemed very happy to hear of the upturn our
children’s home had seen lately. She was just in lively conversation with
Charlotte when it happened – and it happened so fast that, afterwards, none of
us was sure what they had seen. Hermione, who had been fixing Charlotte with
her interested stare, dropped the dummy she had been holding in one tiny fist.
She gave one loud wail, and Dorothy was just bending down to pick it up, when
it was suddenly in Hermione’s hand again.
what was that?“ exclaimed Mark. "Did you guys see that?“
shook our heads disbelievingly and blinked. "It must have bounced off the
floor right into her hand again,“ I offered, not very convincingly. I looked
around. Everyone was looking stunned, but nobody as much as Charlotte, who was
fixing the child with a mixture of astonishment and excitement. When she
noticed my look, however, she smiled and shrugged. But I couldn’t quite shake
off the feeling that she had a different explanation.
had completely forgotten about this when it was recalled to me in the most
peculiar fashion, months later. It was the first of November, and we were still
busy cleaning up the remnants of the Halloween feast the night before – always
a highlight for the kids.
had left the feast abruptly the night before. A letter had somehow found its
way to her – how, we didn’t know, since it was Saturday night – and she
explained that it was an urgent letter from her parents and that she would be
back the next day. She had seemed very excited, which was strange considering
the many comments she had dropped about not getting along with her parents
was in the dining room with Steve, rearranging the tables and chairs, as we always
did since this also served as our common room. We didn’t talk much. This was
also normal. Either he didn’t have much to say to me, or he was always
distracted, or he had finally got wind of my attraction. As for me, I
would have had a lot of things to say to him. But as it is, I was and I am not
an extroverted person.
I was just battling with myself what would be the best way to start a
conversation, and when I would finally make Steve see that I saw much more than
just a colleague in him, Charlotte came bounding into the room.
you are,“ I said, relieved that the silence was broken on the one hand,
disappointed that I had missed my chance on the other. "Good news from
was positively beaming. Was her brother getting married, I thought stupidly.
But she was holding a newspaper in her hands, unfolded it and began to read out
Prime Minister announced today that the person who has been responsible for the
disappearances and murders reported during the last years has finally been
caught. The man, whose identity still hasn‘t been revealed, was killed last
night in the attempt of fleeing from police, says the Prime Minister’s
spokesman, John Hensley.“
looked up at us, still beaming.
great,“ said Steve. "Those disappearances were getting really scary, and
it didn’t seem like the police were doing anything, not least informing the
"Great?" asked Charlotte
incredulously. "It’s wonderful! Oh, never mind –“, and for some reason,
she seemed to dismiss her own comment with a wave of her hand. "I know
people whose relatives went missing, that’s why I’m so thrilled this person has
finally been caught.“
I see,“ I said. "And were their relatives found again?“
no.“ Charlotte was suddenly looking very bitter. "He never held anyone
it was again. That unmistakeable feeling that Charlotte knew much more than I
did. I studied her intently, but she seemed to have closed the subject, and
moved to help us with the tables.
in the children’s home continued to blossom. Charlotte had found foster parents
for six children by December, and Christmas was suddenly much less crowded than
usual. Kate finally lived with very caring parents, which made us all very
happy, but we would miss her especially around this time of year – the girl had
the most angelic voice.
was at the dinner table on Christmas Eve that the owl arrived. I had just
opened a window because the air was so sticky, when the owl came swooping
through it, landed on the table right in front of Charlotte, and stuck out its
leg, which had a thin roll of parchment attached to it.
had never been such a profound silence in the room. We stared from Charlotte to
the owl and back to Charlotte again, who was looking very embarrassed. Not
surprised, I noticed. Embarrassed and uncomfortable.
had stopped eating. George Lonston, in the seat opposite me, had a spoonful of
plumpudding raised halfway to his mouth, and the spoon’s contents suddenly fell
on his plate with a loud PLOP, breaking the silence. This seemed to stir
Charlotte into action, who raised her hand and carefully took the piece of
parchment off the owl’s leg. The owl, seemingly having waited for nothing else,
gave a hoot and took off through the window again.
looked at us all, an undefinable expression on her face. Then she unrolled the
parchment and read what was on it.
abruptly as the owl had left, she rose, and looking at us all, said, "I
have to leave for the US. I’m sorry, I’ll explain later, it’s very urgent.“ And
without another word, she rushed out.
weeks into February, we got a letter from her (delivered in the normal way).
Steve read it out to all of us at breakfast.
Steve, Connie, Mark and Dorothy, dear children,
must apologize to you for leaving so quickly at Christmas, and for not writing
to you sooner. Please don’t think that I haven’t missed you all greatly. I’ll
try to explain what happened.
Christmas Eve, a friend in Salem wrote to me, asking me to come and see her immediately,
because her brother and his wife had been in an accident. It was a good thing I
came, because when I arrived, she was in tears. Her brother and his wife
haven’t got better, so I stayed with her at first, trying to make sure that
she was all right.
a friend of hers came to Salem and stayed with us. He’s from Colombia, and his
work is quite similar to ours. This is where the bad news comes in, and this is
where it gets very hard for me to explain...
went with him to Colombia to study the situation he had described to me, and I
saw things there... I saw things I would never have thought possible, and I saw
children whose situation is much, much worse than anything we could imagine.
These children need my help.
is why I cannot come back to Plymouth. Although it pains me greatly, I’ve
realized what I’m in this world for, if that makes sense.
you all for this past year – I have enjoyed being with you all very, very much,
and I’m sure we’ll see each other again. Remember – always hold your heads up
high and don’t give up!