Hand Me Down
by Evan Carlton
After the funeral service was over a curtain appeared in front of the coffin and we all walked out slowly. I was surprised to see Mr Hembrey, my form teacher, sitting at the back of the chapel. He shook my hand and told me how sorry he was for my loss, and that I would be given the chance to catch up on the work I had missed that week. He also told me I should always feel able to speak to him if ever I needed a helping hand or just a shoulder to cry on. I said how grateful I was, even though I knew he was the last person I would be going to for a helping hand. I was pretty certain he'd known about me being bullied and hadn't done anything about it. 'Character-building' was his favourite word, which is about all you need to know about him, isn't it?
The urn with Mum's ashes was to be buried in a rose garden and a small stone with her name would mark the spot. I was welcome to visit any time, of course. I was given a small map of the cemetery with an 'X' to show where I could find her. I folded it carefully and put it in the pocket of my chinos.
I was nervous when it was finally time to say goodbye to Evan. I didn't know how to say how grateful I was for letting me stay at his house, so I just looked down at my shoes and said "Thank you", which wasn't enough.
"You're going to do just fine, Ben," he said, pulling me in for a hug. "You know you can always come and stay with us if Charlie and Michael are too strict with you. Just kidding, guys. Now go and enjoy your new family."
Then we were alone, the three of us. We walked to Michael's car, a beautiful silver BMW, and a few minutes we were cruising through Napier towards Taradale and one of the wealthier parts of town. Ramshackle bungalows gave way to detached houses with manicured gardens on leafy streets. Eventually, Michael turned off into a side street and pulled up outside a beautiful two-storey house with a small garden out front.
"Welcome home," Charlie said. I stared up at the house and wondered how I could have gone from our shitty little house to here in just a week. Inside, it was obvious that Charlie and Michael had never had kids. The downstairs was immaculate, with polished floorboards and beautiful ornaments standing on colonial-style furniture. Just off the kitchen there was a small living room with a comfy-looking couch and some chairs that didn't quite match. I could tell immediately that this was the heart of the house. Upstairs, in my room, I stared at my queen-size bed with its cool Star Wars duvet. I stared at the TV standing in the corner. A brand new PS4 was still in its box right next to it. I stared at that a lot. On the desk by the window sat an Apple MacBook and an iPhone. I walked over to the desk and ran my finger over the keyboard of the Mac.
"It's too much, Charlie. I can't pay you back for all this. You have to take it back." Charlie was standing behind me. He put his arms around me, resting his head on my shoulder.
"Hand-me-downs, Ben. The computer is Michael's old one. The iPhone used to be mine. The TV was downstairs before we upgraded. The PS4 is new, but it's a gift from Evan and Steven, so you can give it back to them if you want." He turned me around to face him. "A foster parent can never replace a birth parent. But there's a reason we're called 'care givers'. We're here to care for you and we want you to have everything you need to do well at school and to have as normal a life as possible. We're not going to throw money at you and try to buy your affection. But we do want to provide for you, and we're going to, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you. You'll get twenty dollars pocket money every Saturday, as long as you do your chores and keep your room clean, and you'll let us buy you clothes when you need them, and you'll go on school trips whenever you're supposed to. These are the things you're entitled to. You never have to ask, you never have to say thank you and you never have to feel awkward about it. You don't have to pay us back. Understood?"
I nodded. "Hand-me-downs for a hand-me-down," I said. I smiled to reassure Charlie that I was just kidding and that I was okay with the whole situation. I picked up the iPhone and turned it on.
"It's prepaid. You'll get a twenty dollar top-up every month, and then the rest is on you, so use it wisely. The house Wi-Fi is already programmed in, so you'll only need to use the card when you're at school or in town. The computer is wiped clean except for the programs you need for school. You're the administrator so you can install anything you like. There's no filter on it so we can't stop you looking at porn sites, but remember I'm a policeman so let that be a warning to you. I'm joking"
"I've never had a laptop before. I don't know any porn sites." I said. Charlie laughed but I think he knew I was telling the truth.
"We want you to feel free to come and go as you please, but if you're going to be out after eight, we want you to call us. All the numbers are programmed into the phone already. Lights out is ten-thirty on school nights, but at the weekend you can decide for yourself. We want you to do your homework before you turn on the TV or the PS4, but we won't be checking. You're old enough to know why homework is important." He took a deep breath. "Any questions?"
"So many. I just can't think of any now," I said with a smile. "Can I just ask you when I think of one?" Charlie smiled and nodded.
I opened the wardrobe and saw my clothes stacked neatly there. In the corner of the room there was a box with my books and the things I'd brought from the old house. I sat on the bed and looked at Charlie.
"I think I need a few minutes to settle in. Is that alright?" I got up and gave him a clumsy hug. He closed the door behind him and finally I was alone in my bedroom in my new house. I lay back on my new bed and stared at the ceiling, scarcely daring to believe that I was here.
The next day was Friday, so Charlie and Michael both went to work. I explored the house for a while, then messed around with the computer, trying to hook up to iCloud and access the schoolwork on my Taradale iPad. In the end I gave up and opened up my Gmail account. There were nine new spam messages. Nobody from school had written anything. I sent Steven an email so that he would have my address too, and he answered back immediately, signing off with 'Hugs, S.'
After that, basically, I was bored.
I made myself some lunch with what I found in the fridge, and then started to take the PS4 out of its box. I'd never owned a game console before. I read all the instructions and got everything wired up, but I didn't have the Wi-Fi password, so I didn't bother trying to configure it. At about four I heard a bus pulling up outside. I watched out of the window as a boy got off and started walking towards the house directly opposite. He was about my age, maybe a bit older. He was wearing a Tamatea High School uniform with red piping on a black blazer. I watched until he disappeared inside the house. There was nothing left to do, so I did the washing up and got the Hoover out to vacuum the living room and the study, then I sat down to watch telly for a bit.
Charlie got home first. I jumped up guiltily and turned the TV off when he walked in. He looked around the house with a smile. "It's not a crime to watch TV, Ben. Relax." He looked around the room approvingly. "Someone's been hard at work." I shrugged and told him I was used to doing housework and that it was no big deal. I waited until he had changed out of his uniform and locked his gun away in the safe in the study, and then I asked him about the boy who had got off the bus earlier.
"That's Connor. He goes to Tamatea in Greenmeadows. His mum Sandra's a good friend of ours, so you'll probably end up seeing quite a bit of him. She's a nurse over at Hastings Memorial. I think his birthday is in March as well, so you two are about the same age. He's deaf," Charlie said, helping himself to a beer. "He got very sick when he was a baby, about two or three I think. He almost died of meningitis. Poor Sandra was a wreck the whole time. He was in hospital for about three months, and when he finally pulled through, he'd lost his hearing. He's a good kid though. Maybe you and he could be friends?"
"How?" I asked. "We won't be able to talk to each other."
"He reads lips and uses NZSL," he said, putting down his beer. "New Zealand Sign Language. This is the alphabet for finger-spelling." He spoke the letters as he signed them quickly from A to Z. "We learned a few signs so that we could speak to Connor when we watched him a few times. He's old enough to look after himself now, so Michael and I are a bit rusty. Most deaf people don't like finger-spelling, but it's useful if you don't know a sign."
I helped Charlie get dinner ready. Michael was a vegetarian as well, so Charlie didn't have to make anything just for me, which was a relief. They asked me about my day and I told them about the PS4. Charlie promised to help me get the Wi-Fi and my account set up after dinner. I told Michael I'd seen Connor and he immediately put his knife and fork down and made the same shapes that Charlie had made before, speaking the letters as he went "C-O-N-N-O-R. It took me a whole day to learn that. I don't think I'll ever forget those letters, even if I can hardly remember any of the signs." I asked him to repeat them and copied him as he formed the shapes, speaking the letters out loud just like he had.
"What's the sign for 'hello'," I asked. Charlie showed me a very simple sign and I copied him. "So if I want to say 'Hello Connor', I would do this
"That's right," said Charlie. "But he also has a sign just for his name." I copied Charlie as he made the sign for Connor.
Once we'd got the PS4 set up, I told him I was going to practice my sign language and he left me to it. I opened up a web site with videos of the NZSL signs and started to learn a few basic ones. By the time I was ready to go to bed I had learned the whole alphabet without having to look at the screen, as well as the signs for 'Hello', 'My name is', 'How are you' and 'I'm sorry I don't sign'.
The next morning, when I went down to breakfast, there were two ten-dollar bills next to my plate. My first ever pocket money. I got out my battered old bus pass holder and stuffed them in the back, a bit embarrassed by my sudden wealth. After breakfast, Charlie and Michael wanted to take me to the shopping centre to pick up some stuff I still needed. They'd noticed that my school trousers were about an inch too short. I offered to pay for some new ones, but Charlie's exasperated look was enough to shut me up. Just as we were about to get in the car, a woman came out of the house opposite us, followed by Connor. It was the first time I'd seen him properly. He was a bit taller than me, with short reddish-brown hair with a curl above his forehead. His face was sort of round, but he wasn't fat at all. He had a few freckles across both cheeks just under his eyes. I had a feeling he must be my type, because I thought he was really cute. Sandra walked over to us and greeted Charlie and Michael with a hug, then looked at me with a big smile.
"I heard that the stork had been last night," she said with a laugh. "This one's a bit bigger than usual, but he's certainly handsome." I blushed when she said that. Only my mum had ever called me handsome before, and I think mums have to say that by law. She beckoned her son over, signing and speaking at the same time.
"Come over and meet Ben, Connor."
Connor scowled at her and rolled his eyes before he walked over to join us. Hello Connor I signed and spoke at the same time. My name is B-E-N. I'm sorry I don't sign. I used finger-spelling for my name. Charlie and Michael looked at each other in surprise.
Connor rolled his eyes and signed hello before he looked away as if he was bored. I could tell Sandra was a bit embarrassed so I kept talking to her, saying how happy I was to be fostered by Charlie and Michael, how much they had already helped me. While I was talking, Connor grabbed his mum's arm and yanked at it, signing something that looked really angry.
"In a minute, love. Ben was just saying that he is happy to be here."
Connor's hands flew into a series of signs and Sandra looked at him sadly.
"We have to head off," she said apologetically, signing at the same time. "The master is impatient." Connor glowered at all of us when she signed that. He got into their car and slammed the door angrily. "The dramas of puberty," Sandra said with a sad little smile. "Only four more years to go, then he'll turn back into my precious baby. If I don't kill him in the meantime, of course." Charlie and Michael laughed and looked at me. I could tell they were wondering if I had a nasty side waiting to erupt at the slightest notice. I gave them my sweetest smile to reassure them.
"Well that didn't go very well," I said as we drove to the shopping centre. "I don't think he liked me at all."
"Give him time, Ben," Charlie said. "He was probably just in a bad mood. You'll win him over, I'm sure."
When we got home, exhausted from shopping, I put away my new clothes in the wardrobe and stretched out on my bed to read. A few minutes later I heard my phone chime. I saw Steven's name in the display.
GOOD REALLY GOOD
GREAT SO PLEASED FOR U
AMAZING AS EVER
WHAT U DOIN?
READING RICK O'RIORDAN
COOL WELL JUST WANTED TO SAY HI
OK SEE YOU AT SCHOOL TOMORROW?
BYE FOR NOW!
I put down my phone and went back to reading. Instantly, my phone chimed again. 'Steven must have forgotten something', I thought. The number at the top of the screen was different. I didn't recognise it. The message made no sense
SORRY ABOUT EARLIER
WHO IS THIS?
ANYWAY MUM SAID I WAS A BITCH SO SORRY
YOU LEARNED TO SIGN JUST TO SAY HI?
LOL OK U GOT ME - SO U LIVING WITH THEM NOW?
YES THEY FOSTERED ME
YES!!THEY R GREAT
I KNOW I REMEMBER
WELL THANKS FOR TALKING TO ME
U PLAY PS4?
U WANT TO COME OVER TMRW AND SHOW ME I'M CRAP
LOL SURE AT 2?
OK 2 BRING A GAME I ONLY HAVE 1
I was a bit nervous when Sandra and Connor came over the next day. I had learned a couple more signs so I greeted Connor with a grin and signed
He rubbed his tummy theatrically and replied with some signs I didn't understand but he mouthed the words at the same time and I understood.
-ready to get your butt kicked?
-in my room
We left the adults to chat. Connor walked around my room looking at everything. When he saw the MacBook he nodded and gave a thumbs-up sign. Nice. I tried to make the sign for not new but somehow it didn't come out right. Connor came over and grabbed my hands and made the sign for me. It was like an electric shock when he touched me and I almost jerked my hands away. It felt like being kicked in the stomach and I think my balls disappeared completely into my abdomen. I breathed in deeply and told myself to get a grip. He led me over to the mirror and we did the sign again together. Connor gave me a thumbs-up to show I'd got it. He put a disc in the PS and it started to download the update file. Connor mimed a yawn when he saw it would take half an hour. He pointed at my laptop and then at his chest, his face looking like he was asking a question. Can I? I nodded and he opened it up and started Facetime. He typed in a username, pointing to his chest and mouthing mine. I opened up a text file in Notes and we started using it like a written conversation.
-I can show you signs better if you can see them. Just remember, they'll be back to front.
I typed a question mark and he led me over to the mirror and signed hello. I copied him. He mouthed 'same'. Then he turned to me and signed it again. I understood what he was trying to say. I went back to the computer.
-It's a mirror image. But I can still learn the signs. I just need to work it out in my head
-Why do you want to learn them at all? I can read lips
-Why do you have to do all the work? Anyway I like NZSL. It's easier than German.
Connor grinned and made a wheezing sound. I realised he was laughing. It was kind of infectious and I burst out laughing as well, which made him laugh even more. After that, just about everything seemed hilarious. I hadn't been lying when I said I was crap at games and I could tell he was going easy on me. We chatted the whole time in a jumble of signs, mimes and Notes.
-I never had a game console before. Or an iPhone.
-My mum didn't have much money
-she died? D-I-E-D
-yes last week. Last week. Thanks
-drug overdose. That's too hard. Stop please.
"You two seemed to hit it off," Michael said over dinner. "There was a lot of laughing going on anyway."
"He's cool," I said. "He's going to teach me some signs."
"You know, if you're serious about this, there's an interpreter who works at the Aquarium. He gives guided tours for groups of deaf people sometimes. I can ask him if he could tutor you after school a couple of times a week."
"That would be amazing! Can I tell Connor?"
"It might be better to wait until Tamati says yes. He might be too busy."
I booted up the computer as soon as I was in my room. Immediately an iMessage popped up.
-hey thanks for today it was fun
-you left your disc here
-it's ok keep it I'm done with that game
-so what u doing tmrw?
-want to hang out?
- sure if C and M say its ok
I yelled down to Charlie and Michael and they said it was fine as long as Sandra was okay with it.
-they said no probs
-cool. 2 again?
-hey Ben you mind if I ask u something?'
-isn't it weird living with 2 gay guys?
-I mean do they like kiss in front of you?
-no but I wouldn't mind
-cos they're cool
-don't say that Connor they r the best they really look after me and they r helping me lots
-please don't say anything else or I will get mad
-okay okay I get it
-forget about it
-sorry didn't want to upset u
-forget it - I already did
I shut down the computer and sat thinking for a while. It was true that Charlie and Michael had never kissed or even hugged each other in front of me. I wondered if my being there was stopping them. I wandered downstairs and stood staring at them. They looked at me expectantly.
"Did you stop kissing because I came to live here?" Charlie stared at Michael and they both burst out laughing.
"We most certainly did not," said Michael. "Where did that come from?"
"I was just thinking I never saw you kiss each other and you probably used to all the time. I don't want you to think you can't if you want to. Just pretend I'm not there."
"We'll do our best to kiss as often as possible if it makes you feel better."
"Thanks. It would." I turned to go back upstairs and heard stifled laughter just before I closed my bedroom door. 'Jesus they must think you're such a freak' I thought to myself.
I was dreading going back to school, but I knew there was nothing I could do about it.
"If anyone gives you trouble about what happened, you let me know, alright?" Charlie said to me as I slung my satchel over my shoulder. "Or you can tell Steven. He'll make sure it doesn't get out of hand."
"I know he will. Don't worry, it'll be fine."
But I knew it wouldn't be fine, and it wasn't. It felt like the whole school was staring at me as I walked through the gates. I sighed and looked straight ahead, making my way to my first class. I did my best to ignore the stupid, snide remarks and the sideways sneers. At lunch two of my teammates from the under-fifteen rugby team, Denny Carr and Kevin Straw, came and sat with me. I waited for them to start talking, but I might as well have been waiting for hell to freeze over.
"It's okay, you can talk about it," I said in the end.
"Sorry about your mum, Ben" Denny mumbled.
"Thanks," I said simply.
"Who do you live with now?" Kevin asked.
"Foster parents," I said carefully. "They're really nice."
"Ian Carter said they were gay." I realised with a jolt that that was why people were staring. Not just because my mum had died, but that I was living with two gay men.
"They are," I said. "They're really nice gay foster parents." My heart sank as I understood that this was going to be it for the next few months at least. The rumour that I was gay had been going round the school for six months before mum died, and now I was living with two gay men. My life was going to be hell. I suddenly wasn't hungry any more. I got up and left the table.
When Connor came over for the third time, it was like meeting a different boy. Every time I signed anything, he rolled his eyes as if I'd offended him. He didn't want to play PS4, so we just sat staring at each other across the room.
-is everything okay? He shrugged and stared at his shoes.
-just in a bad mood
-I just am. Stop asking. You're worse than my mother, Ben
I looked at him, shocked.
-I don't know
-whatever. I should go. This is stupid.
I stared at him as he marched towards my bedroom door. At the last moment, he turned round and stared at me. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and typed quickly. He threw the phone onto the bed. I picked it up and read what he had typed.
-you and me probably won't end up friends
I looked at him in confusion. Why not? Connor grabbed hold of his phone again.
-Hearing people and deaf people are different. You don't know what it feels like to be me. You can learn all the signs you like, but you'll never know what that's like
-so tell me
-it doesn't work that way. You have to feel it. I'm always outside your world. Excluded. You don't know what that feels like.
Suddenly I was angry as well. I typed my response into his phone.
-bullshit. I'm a gay foster kid with a dead prostitute drug addict mother. Screw you.
He raised his eyebrows and typed quickly.
-and screw you too.
I typed furiously
-you think you're an outsider. I get laughed at and bullied every day at school. I could write the book on being an outsider
-well don't tell anyone you're gay
-then don't tell anyone you're deaf
-I can't, weirdo
-neither can I, weirdo
We stood staring at each other for a few seconds. He typed again.
-OK. Hearing people always ask the same shit when they can be bothered to get to know me. If you can ask me three questions that no one has ever asked me before, I'll think about it.
I grabbed the phone and typed quickly.
-One. Why are you so such an arsehole sometimes? Two. Do you hear sound in your dreams at night? Three. What do you want to be when you leave school? And by the way, I'll think about it as well.
He stared at my questions. Without looking at me, he slipped his phone into his back pocket and left.
Later that night, I turned on my laptop and started the chat program. Immediately I saw a speech bubble open next to Connor's user name. He was typing a message. I quickly closed the program and shut down the computer. 'I can be an arsehole as well," I thought to myself as I headed to the shower.
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