Their Own Words – A Better Man
The story of a boy named Craig
Their Own Words – A Better Man (Part One)
When I lie beneath a clear night sky, gazing up at a million stars, my mind often goes back to when I was a kid, when I was told that each one of those stars was someone who loved us and who was now watching over us.
I now know that what I was told wasn't exactly the truth, but even so it's still something from my childhood that feels nice to hold on to and continue to imagine that it could be just so.
It is the middle of winter here at the moment and quite cold. A few nights ago I had the fire burning, while sitting nearby and reading a good book (John Gilstrap's 'Scott Free' for anyone who may be interested). I was half listening to a talk-back show playing quietly on the radio, which was being picked up by my phone, tucked into a pocket on my shirt. It's something I do often, especially when what is being offered on television isn't really worth watching. I can only take so much reality TV, or re-runs of NCIS.
Glancing at the fire I could see that the flames were beginning to die down, so I needed to get some more firewood from the wood-heap outside. I put my book down, pulled on a jacket and went out into the night, all the while as some right-wing nutcase was berating the talk-back host about the world-wide Covid conspiracy. I could only chuckle to myself as I listened. Some people, eh?
Living in the country provides many benefits, not the least of which is plenty of freedom and room to move. I also love that there is no light pollution, like you get in town, which lets you really see a night sky in all its glory, exactly as it was on this night. Millions of stars shone brightly overhead and as I stood there taking it all in I heard the radio announcer finally ditch the nutcase he had been talking to and switch to a song.
As soon as the introduction started playing a chill went down my spine and I was stopped in my tracks . . . and it wasn’t because of the cold. The song was 'Better Man' by Robbie Williams and in an instant it sent me back twenty years.
After I first started writing and posting my stories online it wasn’t unusual to receive emails from my readers. For the most part these were fleeting contacts, but there were some which developed into much more, with some friendships lasting to this day.
I first met Craig* twenty years ago, after he emailed me in response to one of my stories. Over the next year, as he slowly revealed himself to me, I got to know a young man who had been through more pain than almost anyone I had ever known.
How he became the caring and thoughtful young man he did, I will never understand. How he survived an upbringing which eventually saw him fending for himself on the streets, I will never know. Why he was taken so soon, I will never be able to comprehend.
We shared much in that year, finding it easy to open up to each other about things that each of us had only shared with very few people over the years. Beginning with emails back and forth it wasn’t long before we then progressed to phone calls, which were often lengthy and would last well into the night. What began as a long-distance friendship soon became something that showed promise of developing into more than that, if only we could both tear ourselves away from our busy lives in order to finally meet.
Arrangements were eventually made to do just that, but it would have to wait until his return from an already arranged trip to the United Kingdom, where he was to visit and care for an aunt he had recently reconnected with, who was set to have surgery.
In the mean-time he began to tell me his story, fully aware that it was stories such as his that I had hoped to one day compile into a book of some sort. I have tried several times to put his story into words, but each time I found myself coming up short and unable to complete what I had started. What follows now is the beginning of Craig’s story, compiled from what was shared during our phone calls, online chats and correspondence, with just a small degree of little literary license taken for the sake readability. I think this is a story best told in three parts, with what follows here covering his childhood and teen years.
Craig was in his early twenties when we got to know each other. I would find out that this wasn’t actually his given name, but it is the name by which I have always remembered him. His real name was Christopher, or more commonly, Chris, but from a relatively early age other kids at the orphanage and in various foster care homes had started calling him Christine, which he told me was due to his being perceived as small, weak and somewhat effeminate when he was very young. He wasn’t like the other boys. He knew that from a young age and was accepting of his sexuality early on in life, even if he didn’t fully understand it. He came to hate both of those names, Chris and Christine, so when he got a little older he decided that he wanted a different one, and so he settled on Craig. I don’t know if that had ever been made legal or not, but it doesn’t really matter now.
“I remember very little of my early childhood and even less of my father,” he told me. “What I can remember, though, is noise. There was always noise in the house. It was constant. If it wasn’t my parents screaming at each other and sometimes throwing things against the wall, it was my younger sister crying. I must have only been about four years old but I remember being slapped and hit, by both of my parents, yet even now I find it especially difficult to conjure up images of my father from that time. In my memories he is a shadowy figure, and that is how I think I want to keep it. I don’t have any photos of mum or dad, but my aunt in England says she has some. I’ll see how I feel about looking at them when I visit her.
“My father just up and pissed off when I was about that age and we never saw him again. Good riddance I reckon. It wasn’t too long after that, though, when mum died. I didn’t really know it or understand it at the time, all I knew was that she was gone and me and my sister were taken to a strange place. I was six years old and my sister, Carly, was just three. Nobody actually told us she had died, or if they had I didn’t understand it. For a long time I just thought she had left us too.
“When I was older I found out that mum was into men, booze and drugs. One of my foster carers told me that when I visited them one time after I was out of the system. I was also told that when I was first taken into care they thought I was backward, or retarded, as I was quite slow, but apparently that was just the effects of what I had been given by mum, tranquilisers and stuff. Apparently, I was a shit of a kid, so even my own mum tried to take the edge off my attitude. Knowing that just made me so sad when I found that out.
“So, with no other living relatives that anyone knew of at the time (we would only find out about mum’s sister in England and another cousin many years later when our aunt managed to track us down through official channels) us two kids found ourselves in the care of the state, living in an orphanage with some crusty old nuns. It was an old place and big, and I remember it was very cold. Carly was there with me, and while we were together most of the time, sometimes we would be sent out with other people on weekends, to foster homes. When we were first separated there was a lot of screaming and crying, from both of us, but after the first couple of times this happened and we realised that things weren’t so bad with some of the people who would take us in, then we soon settled down. Actually, we both grew to look forward to having weekends away from that cold orphanage, where we would sometimes be given treats or toys or be taken to the movies, or out shopping, or to playgrounds. Some of these people we went with also had other kids, mostly foster kids like us, so we weren’t always alone.
“There was one couple that seemed to have taken a liking to Carly, they took her out quite often, and in the end she was adopted by them. They weren’t really young, but they weren’t really old either. I guess it’s hard for little kids to gauge that sort of thing. Apparently they only wanted one kid though, so I was left behind. I hated them for that and would later blame them for everything that happened to me afterwards. I swore I would get even somehow, but I never did. I mean, what could I do anyway? I was just a little kid and I didn’t even know where to find them. I didn’t see them again until years later, at Carly’s wedding in fact, and they apologised for breaking us up. I couldn’t stay mad at them.”
“So what did happen to you afterwards?” I remember asking him.
“Fuck! What didn’t happen? I was told that there would be someone who would want me, and eventually that came true – for a time. In the meantime, I was bounced from pillar to post, spending short periods of time with people, always couples who would say they wanted a child, but somehow I always ended up back at the orphanage. I probably didn’t help myself though. Like I said before, I reckon I was a shit of a kid. I missed Carly a lot. There were lots of tears and tantrums, I remember that much. And sometimes I would get into fights with other kids, either in the orphanage or with kids who were with some of the foster people. Other kids, usually older ones, would call me names, tell me I was a girl, tell me I was a poof, that sort of stuff. That just caused more fights and then they would then try even harder to get under my skin. That’s when they started calling me Christine. Some tried holding me down while another would try to kiss me, or do other stuff, like pulling my pants down and touching me, and I would get even angrier and punch and kick for all I was worth. I even broke a kid’s nose once when I was fighting back.
“The adults back then were a different story, though. It’s a bit hard to fight back against them. What can you do when a man who is supposed to be caring for you puts his hands on you while you are alone with him, ‘helping’ him, in his garage? I’ve tried blocking some of it out, but it’s always there. Even now if I walk down the street and see someone who simply looks like one of those men, it all comes flooding back.
“It was when I was about thirteen that things started to change. I went to stay with a couple who already had two other foster kids, a boy, Dylan, who was about fourteen and a girl, Jenni, who was a bit older. The house was an older one, nothing fancy, set in the suburbs. I liked that it had a large yard with some trees that could be climbed. Early on with this family I chucked a tantrum . . . I can’t remember what it was about . . . and the man, his name was James, grabbed hold of me and just held me, as I squirmed and swore and tried to punch and kick. He held me firm until I eventually calmed down. Nobody had ever done that for me. No one had held me like that since, well, since mum used to do that. It happened a couple of times and I remember I kind of liked it. It didn’t feel anything like when those other men would touch me. I remember feeling safe, and I hadn’t felt safe in a long time.
“For a while everything was good. If I went crazy someone would just hold me tight, until it passed. I especially liked it when it was James or Dylan. They would both do it and eventually I would give up my struggles and just snuggle into them, and then it would be me hugging them back. One night I fell asleep on my bed, wrapped up in Dylan’s arms. It was after that when everything changed, after I woke to the feeling of someone touching me and running their hands through my hair. I opened my eyes to see it was James.”
I guess it doesn’t take a Rhoades Scholar to work out what happened to Craig after that. Over time he revealed to me the intimate details of the events that followed whilst he was in the care of that family.
“I know that the events that took place in that house were wrong, but to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t traumatised by them, that’s probably why I didn’t react like I had with those other men. As strange as this might sound these days, it was actually a loving environment. I think in the end I just figured that because these things kept happening to me, no matter where I was sent or who I stayed with, that maybe this was just what happened in all foster families, so I simply accepted it, however wrong that might have been. I know different now, though, but at the time, like I said before, I liked those feelings of being held close. It awoke feelings within me that I still didn’t quite understand at the time, but mostly it felt . . . nice.
“It lasted almost two years, I think, but then it was all over, just like that. I was whisked away from that house by the people from DoCS (Department of Community Services) and I never saw any of them again. I guess word got out somehow. I don’t know. I think about them sometimes, Dylan and James, and wonder what happened and where they might be now. Especially Dylan.
“Of course, no adult should take advantage of a kid, or kids, like James did, but trust me, I’ve seen worse situations. Hell, I’ve lived through worse situations. After I was taken away from that house I ended up back at the orphanage and after a while I was back in the cycle of foster care. I was going on fifteen and had seen more and knew more about life than most kids my age ever would.
“Not all the foster carers I went to were bad, of course. In fact, there were some that I really liked and would go back and visit when I got a little older once I was actually out of the system. Sadly, though, there was never any shortage of carers for whom a small, and by now obviously gay, kid would appear to be fair game. These were mostly just weekend placements and I quickly learned to recognise the types of people who saw me as other than just some poor orphan, and though I tried my best to avoid situations where they could take advantage of me, that wasn’t always possible. I suffered at the hands of some of these people, but I made sure that I dished out as much crap for these monsters as I possible could . . . while often paying the price for my attitude.
“I quickly came to be known as being a troubled teen. Not many people wanted to take a chance on me so I ended up being stuck in the orphanage many weekends, along with the other kids nobody wanted. That was a disaster waiting to happen. There were lots of places inside that cold old mansion, or on the grounds, where kids could hide out and get up to no good, and I made sure that I took full advantage of that. After all, I had a reputation to uphold.
“I became friends with a fellow trouble-maker, a kid named Toby. He was seventeen and I think he, too, saw me as fair game at first; younger, smaller and an easy target. Yeah, I was easy alright. There was a crawl space under the old house that we used as our space. You could almost stand up under there. We dragged some old carpet in there and fashioned a nest for ourselves, a place where we could hide away from the world with at least a few comforts. Apart from the obvious things that two horny, trouble-making teens would get up to we would also talk about the future, about missing our families, and about running away from this prison we were in. We made plans, which we never seemed to follow through with, but what I liked most, apart from the sex, was when he held me, and hugged me and whispered sweet things to me. At least I felt wanted by somebody again.
“But then he, too, was gone. Just like that. I didn’t know that once you turned eighteen you were turfed out onto the streets to fend for yourself. One day he was there. The next he wasn’t. He didn’t even say goodbye, which I have to admit really pissed me off. After that I used to look for him whenever I was downtown, thinking he might be still around, but I never saw him again either. He could have run away to join the circus. He might have died. I have no idea. It seemed that every time I found someone I cared about they just up and left me, one way or another. All I ever wanted was someone to love me, someone to hold me, and from the time I was a little kid all I ever seemed to get was the exact opposite . . . everyone would either beat the crap out of me, use me, or leave me. Little wonder I’m as fucked up as I am!
“After Toby left I had a lot of lonely weekends in that orphanage. I wasn’t really interested in the company of any of the younger kids still there, I think I always had a leaning toward seeking out the company of people that were older than me, so when I wasn’t hiding in the crawl space under the floor boards, jacking off and reading the now dog-eared magazines with pictures of naked people in them that Toby and I had swiped from the local newsagency, sometimes I would even hang with the gardener, just to have someone to talk to. He was a cranky old bugger and I’m sure he was annoyed by having this kid hanging around all the time. At one point he even put me to work . . . probably just to get me out of his hair for a while. I would sometimes mow the lawns for him. I didn’t mind, really. In summer it would be good to be out in the sun, shirtless and getting sunburnt. At least I felt alive. I grew to like the grumpy old bastard. His name was Dick and he had worked there for years apparently, but that’s about all I ever found out about him. The one thing I will thank him for, however, was giving me an interest in working outdoors, mowing lawns and gardening. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be something that would help me later on down the track.
“From the time I was about seventeen I noticed that the nuns and the community services people seemed to lose interest in me and weren’t always checking up on me like they did when I was younger. My guess was that as it wouldn’t be too long before I would be cut loose they weren’t so worried about me anymore and so I was being given an opportunity to stand on my own two feet. That could have just been my over-active imagination, I don’t know, but that’s just what it seemed like to me. Not sure exactly what they expected me to do and how I was going to survive once I did leave their care, but I guessed I would cross that bridge when I came to it.”
To be continued…..