William Stone probably wasn't the name that his mother intended for him: if, in fact, any name ever was. He wasn't very old when he was found abandoned but well wrapped in a blanket, so the name William Stone was selected at random from the telephone directory that just happened to be at hand on the desk of the manager of the children's home that he was taken to.
As he grew older, William became Billy: a sweet-natured child, he soon became a favourite of the care workers who looked after him, together with several dozen other children who, for one reason or another, had no one else to perform the same function. The home and the carers were the only ones that he'd ever known, and the kindness and care that he was shown he also showed to those around him; adults and children alike.
It was during the teatime meal, shortly after the beginning of Billy's sixth year at the children's home, that one of the carers appeared with a little girl who must have been about three. They stood in the doorway not far from where Billy was sitting. The little girl clung to the carer's skirt with one hand, while the other hugged a soft toy animal to her body.
Billy saw the little girl and smiled and the faintest of smiles appeared on the lips of the newcomer. He got up from his seat at the table and walked across to the door.
"Hello, Mary! Shall I look after the little girl for you?" It was just an example of his thoughtfulness that he had demonstrated on other occasions, as if he had a natural empathy for the frightened and vulnerable. He wasn't that much bigger than the little girl, but he knelt down in front of her so that their faces were level:
"What's your name?" he asked, softly. "Karen," the little girl whispered. "Shall we get some tea, Karen?" The little girl nodded, then released her hold on the carer and took Billy's hand. He gently helped her up onto the chair next to his then he sat down again. Someone brought a plate of food which was put down in front of Karen. Billy whispered something and she began to eat. The carer who had just arrived smiled and spoke to one of her colleagues:
"If he was twenty years older, I'd marry him!"
Karen McKinley's mother was unmarried and living on benefits. She had nothing that she cared about except her daughter: unfortunately, she also had a chronic drug addition. With an almost superhuman determination, as soon as she had known that she was pregnant, she cleaned herself up; but when her daughter was old enough to stop breast feeding, her willpower cracked, and then for the next few years she did everything that she could—including letting numerous men use her body —to both feed her child and her habit. One day, however, after injecting the pernicious substance into her vein, she had sighed deeply and then slipped into the deep sleep from which there is no awakening.
For almost two days Karen had stood in the cot that she still slept in, calling to her mother only a handful of feet away from her. Unable to rouse her from her sleep, Karen began to cry out of hunger and loneliness. It was purely by chance that a neighbour, worried by the constant crying, had called the police who entered the flat and discovered the tragedy. After a medical examination, which found the little girl to be otherwise healthy, she was taken to the place which was to have such a profound effect on her future life.
Karen sat next to Billy during her meal, not saying much, but nonetheless comforted by his mere presence next to her. There had never been many men in her brief life, those that visited her mother were kept well away from her until their business was concluded, but in a few short hours she seemed to have transferred all the love that was once bestowed upon her mother onto her new friend.
A bright and capable boy in so many ways, Billy sat on a comfortable chair with the little girl tight against his side, while she sat almost enrapt as he read to her from a colourful book. Billy knew that eight o'clock was bedtime: usually sooner for the younger children like Karen; but because it was her first day and Billy was taking such good care of her, the carers let her stay up until it was time for him to go up to bed, too. When Karen had first arrived she had been allocated a bed in the girls dormitory. It was a large room, with beds arranged around the walls. It was a high room with lots of shadows, and it was the first night of her short life that she hadn't slept in the same room as her mother. The bed, although comfortable, was much larger than she was used to and it was all quite strange and scary to the little waif. She walked quite happily alongside Billy until the time came to part for the night, when the carer said: "This way, Karen—you'll see Billy in the morning!" the girl turned and clung to his waist. He stroked her hair and spoke softly to her:
"Girls and boys sleep in different rooms, Karen, but I'm only just the other side of this door. You have to be brave now, you'll soon get used to it. I'll read to you again tomorrow, if you like."
"—Promise—" he heard the little voice say.
"Yes, I promise!" The girl released her hold on him.
"—Goodnight kiss like Mummy does, Billy," she said. The boy knelt in front of her again and she put her arms around his neck and planted a big kiss on his cheek. Then, holding the carer's hand, she turned, smiled, and waved. Inside his own room, Billy took off his clothes and put on his pyjamas, then he got into the cold bed. He shivered for a few minutes until it warmed up, then he closed his eyes and tried to sleep.
Some time later, he was woken by someone tugging on his pyjama jacket sleeve. When he opened his eyes he saw the pretty face of Karen looking at him. He didn't think about why he did it, but he lifted the covers off of himself and the little body climbed onto the bed and in beside him. She moved as close as she could:
"—Night, Night, Billy!" she whispered.
"—Night, Night, Karen!" he whispered back.
Noises all around them woke them up.
"You've got to back now, Karen; brush your teeth and get dressed and I'll see you at breakfast."
"All right, Billy," she said, then climbed down from the bed and scampered off. Back in the girl's dorm, the carer in charge came over to her and sat on the bed.
"I won't say anything this time, Lovie, but you have to promise me that you'll stay in your own bed tonight." Karen smiled. "—I promise!"
Billy was already seated when Karen came into the dining room. She hurried over to the chair next to his and climbed on. Billy poured milk from a jug onto her cereal and she looked up at him and smiled so beautifully. From that moment onwards they were practically joined at the hip. Wherever Billy went, Karen went too, clutching his hand and every now and then looking up at him, even when he wasn't talking to her. She wasn't quite old enough to go to the bathroom on her own, so although she wanted Billy to take her, he said one of the lady carers had to, but he would wait right outside the door—and he always did.
There were lots of toys and other children of Karen's age, but she only wanted her stuffed elephant that she had brought from her mother's, and Billy. They tried to encourage her to mix with the other children, but she stuck with him. They sat together for hours reading and playing, or just talking. Occasionally she fell asleep leaning against him, only to wake up with a jolt: a little scared look in her eyes until she remembered where she was and her eyes found his face. The children's home staff noted all this, but they weren't especially concerned: she was after all barely more than a baby and she was just reaching out for comfort and security. In time she would no doubt loosen the bonds and make other friends, and in a few weeks time the new school year would be starting and he would be going back to the school, while Karen would be in the home's Nursery.
That second evening after she arrived, he told her, in his usual kindly way, that she would be going to bed before him that night. Karen had frowned a little, but she didn't make a fuss when they came to collect the younger children; she just gave Billy another big hug and a kiss then said goodnight. Some hours later, however, she gave a giggle as she climbed into his bed and snuggled up against him. The next morning the resident carers were talking in the manager's office:
"—Well I don't know what to suggest," Mary exclaimed, "we can't lock the doors because of the fire regulations; we certainly can't tie her to the bed, and I'm not sure that any one of us will want to sit in the dorm all night watching her—besides, what is the real objection; she doesn't really understand and I don't think Billy minds in the least!"
"I agree with you in principle," Teresa added, "but we can't let the kids think that it's okay to get out of bed and wander around at night, and we have a responsibility to them, to know where they are at all times."
"So are there any recommendations?" Cathy, the Manager, asked.
"Well, how about," said Molly, "seeing as how she's only still a wee thing, we give her a bed next to Billy's. If she wakes up in the night she'll be able to see him and she won't want to get up and wander around. She listens to him, so we'll tell him that she has to wash and bathe with the other girls, though. Shall we try it, to at least see what happens?"
And so that plan was implemented. There were still some nights when Karen climbed into bed with Billy; but on most of them from then on, she slept right through until morning in her own bed.
The two of them were still inseparable, and the staff knew that the new school year was only days away. Someone had already had a quiet word with Billy, on one of those now rare occasions when he was alone, and he had seemed to understand and promised to talk to Karen about it.
"Do you know what school is?" he asked her. She shook her head. "Well, when you're a big girl, you have to go, too; all children do. I go to school: it's where I learned to read, so I can tell you stories now. I started last year and I have to go back soon, but you're still too little. So when I go to school, you have to stay here and play with the other younger children, until I come home again."
"But can't I go with you, Billy—I'll be a good girl?"
"I know you would, Karen, but it's not allowed. In a few years, when you're bigger, you can go to school and learn how to read, and they've got a whole room full of books—lots, lots more than here."
"But can't you teach me to read, Billy?"
"—Mmm—I can try, but I still have to go to school without you." The little girl was quiet for a while, as if she was thinking about something:
"Billy, my Mummy used to tell me she loved me—do you love me, Billy?"
"—Of course—lots!" Karen smiled.
"—I love you, too, Billy! Will you still love me even if I stay here with the other children?"
"—Of course!" he replied, eagerly, "—Just as much!"
"All right, then; I'll stay here when you go to school—but I will miss you, Billy!"
"And I'll miss you as well. Come on, give me a cuddle!" The girl smiled then knelt on the seat next to him and put her thin arms around his neck and hugged him close.
The following Monday the older children all came down to breakfast in their school uniforms, some for the first time. After breakfast the younger ones climbed into one minibus, while the older children, going to secondary school, climbed into another. The children staying behind all waved as they set off.
As Karen got older, she was persuaded to move back to the girl's dorm. But she and Billy remained close, spending much of their free time together. He did teach her to read, which she did quite well, even before she was due to start school.
It is a sad fact that in England, as in other countries of the world, there are children who can no longer live or be supported by their natural parents. It is also true that there are adults who cannot, for whatever reason, produce their own progeny. How simple it would be, then, if both these groups of people could satisfy the needs of the other. But social life is rarely simple, and in the case of parentless children it is not simply because of the simple mercantile condition: that supply far exceeds demand.
It is another sad fact that the demand for children to adopt is largely governed by age: that very young children are desired more than older children; and that as a child ages, it becomes increasingly difficult to place them. Hence there have always been residents of orphanages and children's homes who have spent all or most of their childhood within the institution.
Billy Stone was a baby when he was first put into care, but although a lovable and sweet-tempered child, the longer that he stayed there, the less chance that he would have of being adopted. Not that he really cared: to him the children's home was the only home that he'd ever had and he was happy there. When Karen McKinley first went there she was only three and a girl, which greatly increased her chances of someone wanting her. But she, too, was unconcerned, for she now had Billy.
Two years on she was still quite small for her age and still very pretty, so there was still a chance that prospective adoptive parents might be found for her. And apart from her unswerving devotion to Billy, she had also adopted his kindness and generosity, and she soaked up knowledge like a sponge. She was now on the verge of starting at Billy's school, and she couldn't wait to see him there every day and to be set loose in the roomful of books that he had told her about.
And then one day during the summer she had been taken by one of the carers to see Cathy, the Manager, who sat her on a chair in her office. This was a new experience for Karen: the last time that she was in that room was the day that she arrived. She was still too young to evaluate the implications of her summons, so she just wondered if she'd done something wrong.
"Hello, Karen, I won't keep you long. Karen, there is a nice man and woman who want to adopt a little girl. How would feel about that: you would have a nice room all to yourself, and lots of things that we can't give you here."
"—And Billy, too?" Karen said.
"No, I'm sorry, Love, but they only want a little girl." Karen's face betrayed no emotion.
"No thank you, Cathy," she said politely, "Can I go now, please?"
"Yes, you can go now, Love; but I've invited Mr and Mrs Carson to come and meet you next week. When you get to know them you might change your mind..."
"But I'm going to school next week," the little girl retorted.
"—Yes, well, the Carson's don't live around her, Love, so if you went to live with them, you would go to a different school anyway." The little girl frowned slightly.
"Can I go now, please?" she reiterated. As she left, the carer who had brought her shook her head, while Cathy, who didn't look particularly happy either, shrugged her shoulders.
Leaving the office, Karen ran to find Billy. He was sitting where she had left him, so she took his hand and tugged him to his feet. Now Billy had grown quite a lot in the last two years, so recognising the look of consternation on her face, he stood up as she pulled. When they were outside in the play area and alone, Karen threw her arms around Billy's waist and burst into tears. He was shocked: not since the first day that he had seen her had he ever seen her cry, and to witness it now tore him up inside, too.
Gently disentangling her arms from around him, he sunk to the ground. He then pulled her down onto his lap and wrapped his own arms around her so that she could rest her head against his shoulder. She sobbed gently, but the tears stopped flowing.
"Whatever is the matter! What's happened—why are you crying?"
"—They want—they want to send me away, Billy. They want me to go and live with someone else—they only want a little girl. I can't go to school with you. I don't want to leave you, Billy—they can't make me go, can they?"
In the seven years that he'd been there, he had seen several of his friends leave to live with a family; but they had usually been happy and excited to go, and they were usually children who'd had natural parents, like Karen. He knew, too, that some children were unhappy living in the children's home and would like to live with a family. The last two years had been the happiest for him ever since Karen arrived, and he didn't want her to go any more than she did: but such was his nature, that if it would make her happier than she was, he wanted her to go. She had stopped crying altogether and was sitting quietly on his lap.
"Are you sure you don't want to go, Karen, you might like it." She slowly tilted her face up towards his.
"Don't you love me any more, Billy?" He felt his own eyes fill with tears. He held her a little bit tighter without hurting her.
"Of course I still love you, Silly!" he said, then lightly kissed her brow. She smiled. Billy sighed. He had become aware that the playground was emptying.
"Come on," he said, releasing his hold on her, "We'd better wash our hands and faces before tea." Karen stood up and waited until Billy had, then she took his hand and they walked inside.
They had an hour or so after tea, so they sat together reading. Karen now went to bed at the same time as Billy and they always hugged and kissed when they separated at bedtime. "—I'll come back later," she whispered as she kissed his cheek, and as soon as it was quiet that night she crept into his bed for the first time in ages.
They were both still quite small children, relatively speaking, despite there overall demeanour. But young as they were, they talked and they both agreed that they must live together: and if they couldn't live together in the children's home—well, they would just have to live somewhere else! Billy knew, perhaps better than Karen, that it wouldn't be easy, but she was quite adamant.
They had devised a plan, such as it was, that they intended to follow. Billy said that if they were going to run away it had to be at night. Each child had a set of drawers near their bed where their clothes were kept, and late at night they were each to take a sheet off of their bed and wrap their clothes in it; Billy would come and help her tie hers up, then Karen would drop them from a window where Billy would catch them. And even though it was late summer, they would both wear coats and hats and their strongest shoes.
It would be dark and they had no money and they mustn't be seen by any grown-ups, but they would get as far away as they could and then hide during the day. Billy said that it might be scary and cold, but Karen said she'd be all right as long as Billy was with her.
So on the night that they decided to go, they said goodnight outside the dorms then went to bed as usual—although of course both of them were much too nervous to sleep. Billy had a little backpack that he used for school, so after dressing and making his own bundle, he crept into the girl's dorm and tied up Karen's. On warm nights there was always windows open, and they had made sure that they knew which ones were which.
"I'm going downstairs now," Billy whispered, "—don't forget your elephant!"
Billy didn't like stealing anything, but he knew that they needed food and drink, so before he slipped out of the building he went to the kitchen to see what he could find. In a pantry he found packets of biscuits and other snacks, together with a large bottle of orange drink. While he was looking, he also found a torch and a large box of matches, and he also took a large kitchen knife, which he wrapped carefully in a tea-towel before putting it into his pack. He was actually quite sorry to be leaving the only home he'd known, but he now had to think about looking after Karen.
He knew sometimes doors had alarms on them, but as the door to the playground always had the key in it, that was the way that they had to go. He had even found a gap that they could both get through. Looking up at the window, he saw Karen's anxious face; he waved that he was ready and one, then a second bundle fell to earth. A few minutes later the little girl joined him outside.
"—Ready?" he whispered. She nodded. Another five minutes and they were out in the street. There was no time for dithering, Billy tucked both bundles roughly under one arm and took Karen's hand in his other. She had her favourite toy elephant in her free hand as they scurried into the night.