It feels strange to write about the family in retrospect. To write without hearing shouting beneath my feet; without perpetually pondering the next day and how to edge the boys closer to politeness; without venting into my fluorescent laptop screen every evening because their currents of chaos and regiment, both gushing in opposite directions, have left me gasping for breath. It almost feels as though I'm gossiping now, not informing. When I started The Au Pairing Files it was meant to be a way to document my time with a family I wanted to help. I often wonder what they would say if they found out that I wasn’t just occupying their children absentmindedly whilst they were working but actually trying to fix the foundations of their world and alter the stale code by which they live their lives. Since starting the posts, many people have asked me:
"What would happen if they searched your name and found your blog, though?"
I always replied with something along the lines of, "Well, hopefully, in the long-run, they'll understand why I did it."
But there is no long-run anymore. My time with them was about as long as an egg's fridge life. Like millions of others, when I leave on my travels, I like to go with the wind. I try to help where I can, have experiences that keep me grateful, make mistakes and witness sunsets that reflect behind my eyelids forever. That’s about it. There’s never a best before date on them. So when March was drawing to a close and the threat of the pandemic was intensifying I decided, rather hastily, to return to the same island as my family and friends. On the train journey back to the UK, I reflected on my final few weeks with them and, as I began to wonder what we could’ve achieved with a lot or even just a little more time, I realised just how redundant the questions were. It doesn’t matter how much of it you have, really.
Note: For the purpose of this blog, I have changed the names of all my host family members. Their frequented locations will never be disclosed.
In the same week as the lockdown in Belgium began, it was Landa’s birthday. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to it. My heart often ached for her. I couldn’t understand how her soul survived in a house full of idleness and grunts for answers - if she was lucky enough to even get one. A few days before, she’d asked Phillip if she could accompany him and Andre on their way to football training. She wanted to go to the quarter of Bascule to buy her favourite perfume.
“I’ll just go buy you it,” he hollered from his armchair.
“No, but that is not the point, I want to buy it myself. I just thought we could, uh, share the journey.”
“That seems impractical.”
My eyebrows met at a peak as I wondered if they realised the parallels that this conversation ran with their marriage.
“Let’s just take our own cars,” he finished.
Landa sighed, standing only a few feet from me. “The point was to spend time together but...okay...”
The fact she didn’t say this in Spanish spoke volumes. I felt like screaming “SHOUT IT, WOMAN!”
I often felt like shouting. Not particularly at anyone, him nor her, but just into the hostile void that lingered in their home, clinging to the ceilings and absorbing into the furniture. Yes, he was ignorant and years of wearing her down had, I’m sure, led her to this submission but for Landa to just roll over every time was something I couldn’t fathom. Especially since I could see how conflicted she was by it. On many occasions I’d witnessed the boys ignore or talk back at her and, instead of drawing her own lines of authority, she’d call Phillip. I’d watch her, holding the phone up to their faces, the loud-speaker ring vibrating through the air. He'd answer, she’d frantically plead with him and, for a few seconds, he’d shout some stern words of discipline at them via satellite. The first time I saw it, it baffled me but the craziest part was that it absolutely worked. The boys just fell into line. I often wondered what would happen if he didn’t receive the call. What would she do? Would she be forced to find her own voice? Even then, would her lessons carry any weight after so long in retirement? Would the boys just smirk and walk away, leaving her words to float like feathers?
The day before Landa’s birthday, I asked Phillip if I could have some money to go buy cake ingredients. I wanted the boys to make it as I dreaded the thought of her not having any gifts or surprises.
“What a splendid idea,” he said earnestly and to my surprise. “Fantastic!”
He gave me 20€, a bag, a rewards card and an Olivier who asked me, excitedly, if he could take his scooter and then spent the whole journey asking me to stop so that he could show me his tricks. I liked spending time with Oli. He was a very different boy when he was alone and away from his games and he’d mellowed a lot since we’d started playing outside in the garden. His favourite thing was the “trampoline game” where you throw balls to him and he bats them away. We could spend hours playing it and somehow I’d never reach the five points necessary to switch places with him. On more than one occasion I suggested foul play but he was certain, as referee, that he was correct. He liked to talk and tell stories and ask questions, too. It’s amazing what you see in a child when they’re not told to shut up. Inside the shop, he took any opportunity to zoom around.
“There’s no double cream,” he said after circling the crisp aisle.
“Did you really look?”
His eyes shifted from side to side. “Can’t we just use milk?”
“I’m afraid that’s not how it works,” I said, glancing into the basket behind me. “Hey! Wait a minute...”
His smile, studded with dimples, was cheeky as ever as I held up the pink and white striped pick ‘n’ mix bag.
“For the cake,” he shrugged.
My eyes narrowed. “Really?”
“Nope,” he said, whizzing off again.
Half an hour later, as we approached the front door he lifted the bottom of the bag into the air as if he was about to tip the remaining sweets into his mouth.
“Woahwoahwoahwoahwoah, what are you doing?”
“Destroying the evidence.”
I chuckled, took it from him and hid it inside my jacket.
“Woahwoahwoahwoahwoah... what are you doing?”
“I’m gonna hide them in your school bag, okay? You can have them later. He’ll never know.”
Once I'd managed to rally them all, making the cake was a riot. Jacob tortured himself every time the measurements went over by even .0003 of an ounce. At one point he turned to me, covered in flour, and said, “I am not built to be a baker!”
I asked, “What are you built for?”
He replied, with unwavering certainty, “A meowman.”
(A term we coined for someone who is half-human, half... well, y’know). He also managed to burn two bowls of chocolate which prompted his head to sink into his hands.
“Hey, Jac, stop it. It’s a mistake. We just go again, remember?”
And the third time was a charm. Olivier took great pride in declaring himself the strongest and therefore the most capable of mixing ingredients with the wooden spoon. I begged him on several occasions to refrain from double-dipping utensils, but he definitely snuck in one or two because he wasn't quite able to destroy that evidence without a mirror and a wet wipe. Andre was difficult to motivate and, over the weeks, I’d got the impression that he was getting jealous of my time with Oli and Jac. I don’t know whether it’s because he was becoming a teenager in a few weeks or whether he felt like he was too old for fun, but I could feel his stares and insults getting more intense and, occasionally, he'd resort to pinching or pushing Jacob when he thought I wasn't looking. He didn't do it to Oli because he's a bit of a wild child and I doubt Andre would've got away with it so easily. I wasn’t sure how to else to deal with his moods other than to keep trying to involve him and make him smile. Sometimes it worked but usually only when the topic revolved around him which seemed counterproductive to say the least.
“I’m the best at making cakes. I bet this will taste awful.”
“Well if it does, I can blame you for not helping make it perfect. Right?”
"You said 'helping make it perfect'. That's bad English." Then he sang, "you're so-o shi-it."
It was by no means the first time he'd done this and, generally, his holier-than-thou approach to everything was utterly exhausting. My response, whilst it may sound petty to you, was warranted. It's draining, even for an adult to be questioned and provoked consistently.
"Do you ever get bored of yourself?"
After Olivier responded with an "ohhhhhh!" he sat at the table and scoffed chocolate for a while.
On the evening of Landa’s birthday, and the eve of the official lockdown, we went out for our last meal; a lovely Italian trattoria in the heart of Brussels. During the meal, to the right of me, the boys were peering under the table at their phones. Their attempts to be sly were rumbled by the illuminating screens projected over their faces, however, their parents didn’t seem to care as they were quiet. Jacob kept me entertained because he’d brought along a new joke book. I remembered the content from when I was a kid and wondered if we, as a race, had just run out of new ones. His delivery, however, was so amusing, that I could’ve listened forever. To my left was Phillip, opposite him was Landa’s mother and at the head of the table, the birthday girl. It shocked me that she was given this position but I couldn’t help but feel that it was only a treat given the occasion. It reminded me of only a few days prior when she’d said: “Since it’s International Woman’s Day, Phillip says I don't need to cook!”. During dinner, we did the usual quizzes about history and geography. Scotland was the topic for that night. I winced at every question. The family often had an incredible sense of making me feel so very small and inadequate but equally more accepting and appreciative of myself and my upbringing.
“Would you like any more drinks?” the waitress asked.
“No, thank you!” They all chorused as if any more than one glass of prosecco would remove them juuuust far enough from their reality that they’d be forced to look at it soberly.
“So, boys - and young lady,” (I took umbrage with the condescending tone that phrase always carried) “what are the five oldest universities in Scotland and when were they built?”
I still felt as though my answers would be ridiculed the most. Before we returned home, we took a wander through a little night market where Landa bought some soaps. Above the winding streets, she saw the Ferris wheel in the distance and asked if we could go over to it. She was met with moans and groans and, after my glass of wine, I piped up before she could roll over again.
“Hey, wait, no, it’s your birthday! If you want to do it, do it.”
Phillip looked at her like it wasn’t part of the plan and, of course, we all made our way home. I don’t know what I was expecting. Pleasantly, the rolling out of the cake went very well. Andre asked if he could play her favourite song on the piano and Jacob wanted to light the candles, with Oli carrying it. We all paraded into the living room, singing the current song of hand-washing, where Landa sat clapping away, rosy-cheeked and grinning from ear to ear. It was the first time I’d felt warm in that room.
The next day, the lockdown came into effect and, with it, a looming sense of uneasiness. Suddenly, I started to see everything from different perspectives. I knew that with both Phillip and Landa working from home, we'd all be on top of each other. I knew that my skills and I would be under scrutiny, I knew that the routine would be intensified and, most of all, I knew that the boys would behave very differently in front of their father. When he was around the transition was, truly, unlike anything I'd ever seen before. They went from wild, witty, creative, boisterous boys to sheepish soldiers in seconds. Andre, who still frequently called me a b**ch and a c**t and had this aggressive smirk 80% of the time, would stiffen up and the flushed cheeks would drain away.
"Yes, Daddy", "No, Daddy", "Sorry, Daddy".
Olivier was often used to fetch things. He'd come back in milliseconds with outstretched hands like a butler, patiently waiting for Phillip to take the object. With myself or his mother or any of the women in his life, however, it was four to five attempts before he even looked up. Even then, if it was done it was often with a moan and he'd finish by tossing it in your general direction. Jacob's issues were never really with manners or obedience and so there weren't many changes, however, I did wonder whether his newfound creativity would also be on lockdown during this time. I was also certain that the whole situation would change, primarily, how they responded to me. I wasn't having any of it; no charades of kindness and no facades of respect. I didn't know how long this was all going to last. Even if only a few weeks, Phillip would soon return to work and I'd, again, be stranded with their bad attitudes. Even worse, the eventual freedom would probably be like lifting a lid on a boiling pot and letting the mess just spill out over the sides. I decided, finally, to sit down with Phillip and Landa to discuss the truth of my time with them. I'd tried to avoid it for so long, but I was worried that the scientists were absolutely correct. If this lasted until June or July, my time with them would end with it and I feared that they would just act the same way with another Au Pair, never really learning or growing into the humble beings I, and their parents, wanted them to become. I also felt that the time was right, I'd been torturing myself for too long. As mother and father, they needed to know what their children, the eldest especially, were capable of getting away with.
"Hi, Phillip," I started, peering into the living room. "I was wondering if we could talk a little later?"
"Is everything okay?"
"Yeah, well... yes it is. It's just about the boys' behaviour."
"Um," I snuck into the room and closed the door. "Mainly Andre to be honest. But it's okay, I'd like to sit down with you and Landa."
"What's he done?" He said, placidly and completely ignoring my request for his wife to join us.
"Well, firstly I just want to say that they're all great kids. I mean that. Bu-"
"Ashley, please. You have an amazing rapport with them. Don't feel like you have to back up your points with the good. Just out with the bad."
He was right, I knew he wouldn't put up with the pretense.
"Okay. Well, I don't know if you're aware of it... but...," I took a breath. "I've lost count of the number of times that Andre has sworn at me. Actually, never in my life, teaching or otherwise, have I been sworn at so much. I'm not here to be called a bitch or be told to fuck off or be clicked at," I demonstrated with my hands, "every time they want something or dislike what I've planned for them. Frankly, I've had enough of it."
"They swear at you?"
"Not they. Jac is an angel. His bad habits sometimes reflect the older two but, specifically, that's where the problem is, I think. Oli's also stopped since I spoke with them a few weeks ago, but still, he ignores me and can be painfully rude. It's Andre that swears and hurts his brothers when he doesn't get his own way..." I looked at Phillip to see his eyes wide. "I'm sorry to bring it up out of the blue but I thought maybe I could fix it myself. Now that we'll all be together, though, I don'-"
"Look, I know that my language isn't exactly perfect," he interrupted, unsurprisingly, (and it definitely wasn't), "but I absolutely, categorically, do not want my children doing it, okay? So we'll start fining them again."
"Right, like a swear box?" I asked, ignoring the "again" part of his answer because it didn't shock me whatsoever.
"Sure, £50 per swear word."
I lost my breath. Ah, money. Money, money, money. It turns out that they all have accounts for their pocket money. Bank accounts. For pocket money. Eight, ten, twelve. I didn't dare ask how much they got monthly for fear that it was even more than I was getting. But for boys who never did chores or helped round the house or even went out to places that money was required, I couldn't understand it.
He continued, "Okay, so no more swearing, absolutely none. Feel free to fine them whenever you feel it necessary. Secondly, the finger-clicking and general disrespect. I think it's atrocious. They would never do that to me and-"
"I think that's the problem," I began, not quite realising that's what I was going to say. "I, um, I just don't think they have much respect for me. And I don't think it has anything to do with my age."
"You think it's because of your gender?" He asked with an assuming tone.
"I do," I replied, standing my ground. "I only bring it up now because you're going to be at home with us. I know they respect you and listen to you and so they won't step out of line for the foreseeable future. After this is all over, though, they will keep doing it. Do you see what I mean?"
"Look, the last thing I want is to raise a bunch of misogynistic pigs," he said, daringly.
I wasn't quite sure how to respond.
"I think it's a real shame that you have been treated this way. I know we're quite a traditional household but we do share responsibilities. For example, I do know how to cook, it's just that I tend not to as I'm always so busy," he proffered, ignoring that his wife also had a full-time job. "Why wouldn't you say something before?"
"I was trying to change it myself. And they have improved since I-"
"Well, you're a wonderful Au Pair."
"Thank you, but I mean tha-"
"Our last three Au Pairs weren't very good at all."
"Oh.. Well I bet they had a diffi-"
"In fact, one of them was quite good. But she wasn't fro-"
This time I interrupted, "I just think that given the fact that all your previous Au Pairs were female, too, they might not have really been given a fighting chance." He looked at me. "I've lost all my nails since I've been here. My gums are bleeding from how often I bite them. I've got stress hives on my arms and I barely sleep. The boys always ask why I'm not waking up until late in the morning and it's because I'm not switching off until close to sunrise. I just think that the previous girls probably submitted to it and I take pride in my gender. Equality is very very important to me and I think that-"
"I'll speak to them."
I sighed and we locked eyes. "Equality is very very important to me and I think that it needs to be important to them as well. To everyone."
"You're right. I'll speak to them tonight."
Victory. I thanked him and left the room. I felt conflicted. On one hand, hallelujah. On the other, the boys had improved since we spoke at the playroom table a few weeks before, when I'd asked them to write down a list of what they wanted to do. Though, the bottom line I guess, is that it wasn't enough and at least if the parents knew, they would feel equally responsible for their progress; a task that was weighing on me more and more each day. Later that evening Phillip had already managed to chat with the boys as he'd promised. He told me that they were all aware of the fining, that they understood the new rules and that they'd all told him, when prompted I'm sure, that they enjoyed having me around. He also asked if I'd mind changing my hours during the quarantine and adding in separate daily English classes with them all.
"I think it could be good for them to practice their writing skills. I know you said you like to write. What is it that you enjoy writing?"
"I do," I said, ignoring his question for fear for where it might lead. "I'd love to help - as long as we still get time to play?"
"Of course. I think it's really helped them, being outside."
"So do I," I said, a little surprised that he'd also noticed a difference.
"Excellent, then it's settled."
Even now, sat at home in Britain, I feel a twinge of guilt every time I write about Phillip. He often comes across as the villain of my stories, but really I think he's just a complicated character. He and I did have very good conversations during the lockdown; chats that I was grateful for, and he did do his best to make me feel welcome. We mostly spoke of the UK and it's politics, both agreeing that the system didn't work for our current society. He spoke many times about how he just couldn't understand why anyone would vote Conservative and, whilst he categorically detached himself from Corbyn and socialist ideals, he wasn't at all the Oxford boy I'd pegged him for at first impressions. He was progressive in many ways. As children unfortunately do sometimes, the boys would often shout things like "Ha, you're so gay!" to each other and before I could even get in there, Phillip would immediately shut down the casual homophobia with a lecture about accepting everyone. His job was demanding and he took great pride in being a mediator and a great linguist and, though I often felt that he thought these were the only transferable skills he needed in family life, he was a loving father in his own way. It came sporadically and in bursts but when they began playing outside more, he'd join them for football. He'd chase them up to bed at night time and make them giggle with giddiness. His idea of one-on-one time included academic quizzes, yes, but he was trying to teach them what he knew. And what he knows isn't necessarily physical. Like I said at the beginning of my posts, how do you teach what you don't know? You listen and learn. I believe Phillip's main problem was that he felt he was too old to learn, reflect and grow when, really, nobody should ever stop.
After Phillip's intervention with the boys, things were a lot calmer than I thought they'd be. It's almost as though speaking it all into existence meant that there were no more secrets to hide. Over the next fortnight, with the new rules in place, the boys refrained from swearing and began to moan at each other when someone did slip up (but even on the slip-ups I didn't fine them). They never clicked again and instead, they learned to ask. If they didn't add manners, I pretended not to hear them and after only a few days, their pleases and thank you's naturally acted as full stops. During the lockdown, Jac was creating so many of his own games for us to play and most of them were outside. I thought back to when I suggested crab-football in our first week together and he said: "but what if I get dirty?". Recently, from watching him play outside pretending to be a potion-making wizard or baking mud pies every other day, I was so grateful that his knees were damp and his hands were coated in dirt. His reading was improving in our English lessons, too. I thought back to when Phillip made his comment about possible dyslexia and how much it had got to me. Who wouldn't want to know if their child was struggling? Anyway, it turns out, he doesn't have that. Not in my opinion, anyway. After a few weeks of reading out loud and countless hours of playing Boggle, he had learned to sound-out new or difficult words on his own, he was breathing into the fluency and pausing in places of punctuation. He was writing his own poetry now, too and, most importantly, it made very little sense. His imagination was in full swing and, with that, he was finally adding little bits of colour to his drawings.
Olivier was a very enticing reader, putting on voices and adding his own sound effects to the Alex Rider novels I picked out. He had also begun writing his own short stories to the prompts I gave him during our lessons and he often got so carried away that the time flew for us both. Being inside wasn't for him, though. His bones were coated in adventure and his brain always wanted to discover more. When Landa wasn't sticking her head out of the window screaming at them to be safe and stop what they were doing, I encouraged Oli to climb trees, scale walls and helped him learn how to do backflips on the trampoline. When I first met the boys, both he and Jac had a habit of crying as soon as their bodies hit the ground. It made sense, given that their mother panicked herself silly every time they did something remotely exciting.
"Owwwwwww!" They'd exclaim, clutching at random body parts.
"Hey, hey, look at me," I'd say, putting my hand on their back. "Does it really hurt?"
"Yes!" They'd often start, with attitude.
"You landed on the soft grass, you fool. And you're not even hugging the correct knee!"
"Oh..." Olivier said one day and then started giggling and never fell down for the sake of it again.
Now, they were a whole lot more resilient and their games didn't end in tears and arguments (well, not as much anyway).
Andre was relaxing occasionally and he loved to read so I took our lessons as the one-on-one time he needed, and that I could afford. He'd talk and talk about his novels, often quizzing me on the vocabulary.
"Do you know what 'obscure' means?"
"Yeah, it's when something isn't quite clear or it's unknown."
"Wait, sorry, I thought you were asking because you didn't know."
"Of course I know, I was just checking that you did."
"Andre, that's not how this works. Enough of the cheek. Read."
And then all of a sudden he'd be moody again. And, boy, were his moods hard to shake. He'd also occupy as much space as he could during the swings. I mean, physically. He'd greedily try to absorb the atmosphere as if it was all his and everyone else was leasing it. After Jac and I spent three hours building paper airplanes from Youtube videos one day, I witnessed Andre change his direction and step on one of Jacob's favourite models, crushing it into the ground just because I'd helped Oli fix his scooter for fifteen minutes, instead of play volleyball with him. I went absolutely ballistic. I can't stand greed and I don't tolerate spite. I wanted so much to help him, mainly because I was worried about his future but dare I say that he was perhaps too far gone for one person to change. Especially one person that he didn't respect.
But hey, two out of three ain't bad.
My decision to leave came as a shock to everyone. When the UK government said that they were asking travelers to return home or risk being stranded, it resonated. Now, I know Brussels isn't far. In fact, it takes less time to go from London to Belgium than it does to get from Manchester to my mum's house in Dorset. However, it's a scary time. Who knows what might happen? A few things went through my mind. All I could think about was that if anyone in my family got sick I wouldn't be close by. If I got sick, I'd be in a house without comfort, familiarity or emotion. Mainly, I thought about my mental health. I was spending eighteen hours a day in a 9x9 ft room because, whilst the house and garden were spacious, there were people everywhere. The cleaner had cut down her hours to only three days a week (clearly breaking lockdown rules but I had bigger fish to fry) and so the house was a warzone. I was never asked to, but I found myself cleaning up after them all because I hate mess. Add that clutter to the chaos and I was losing my mind. It was a time to slow down and assess how we usually live in everyday life, but they never seemed to put the brakes on. Everything was done in one breath and on the exhale that breath was added to the everlasting whirlwind. One day I came downstairs and coughed.
"Are you feeling okay?" Landa asked, kindly.
"Yeah, I'm okay, thank you. Felt really warm when I woke up this morning so I'm a little light-headed now but I'm just tired, to be honest," I said and, as I did, another tiny cough surfaced.
"Oh my goodness, Ashley, do you have de coronavirus?"
"No, no, I just feel a bit under the weather."
"Are you sure? I think maybe we should get you tested."
"No, really, I'm fine."
"Who's getting tested?" Phillip chimed in, entering the room.
"Ashley, I think she is sick. Do you have a fever?"
"Don't be ridiculous she does not have the virus. And we are not getting her tested."
"We could call the emergency services, at least, to ask?"
"The country is in meltdown right now, we do not need to use the emergency services!"
"But Phillip she is asthmatic! Can you breathe?"
"Here, take a thermometer," she said rummaging in a drawer.
Jesus, I only came down for some tea.
"Do you have a fever, young lady?"
"No, no, I was a little warm when I woke up but I am wearing a jumper."
"Yes, but Phillip don't you think maybe it's best to check? We could take her to the GP."
"Nobody is calling the services!"
I tried with a finger in the air. "Sorry, can I just-"
"Bloody ridiculous, coronavirus. Only a few hundred people have it in this area anyway. She's fine. Are you fine?"
"There you go."
Also during the lockdown and on an evening when cooking for the boys, Phillip would often sit there too, waiting to be fed. I made scrambled eggs once and he snapped at the boys for taking too much.
"Phillip, sorry, I didn't know you were joining us," I said, knowing fine well he was joining us.
"Oh, I didn't, um, that's fine, I'll just have some, uh..." he muttered.
I heard Landa in the other room and said, pettily, "Landa, I'm sorry, I didn't know you wanted me to feed Phillip, too. What shall I make?"
"Oh, no, Ashley, that is not your job, please. Phillip, I will cook for you later. Unless you are hungry?"
Go on, just tell him to make something himself.
"No, it's fine I'll just have some bread or something."
And with that guilt-tripping comment, Landa slipped on her apron and was off.
Anyway, I felt like the next two, three, four, five months were going to grind me down and put me in the dark place I'd been in only a year before and I was not going to let it happen. After all, I'd spent so long trying to claw my way out. So on the eve of the UK government's announcement for travelers to return, I went to the living room and told them that I was doing just that.
"Oh, right. Well, I can't say it's come as a shock. Landa and I were discussing the possibility of you going a few nights ago. I think you should. You should be with your family."
"Thank you for understanding. I'm sorry that our time's been cut short but-"
"Yes, it's a real shame. I think you've been great for the boys. And a true breath of fresh air around the house. It's rare to meet people with such patience. In another life, perhaps. You always have a place to stay if you'd like to come back this way. I mean that." And I truly believe that he did.
The next day was to be my last with the boys but I decided not to tell them until the evening meal. However, Jac and I had been in the garden all day and for almost an hour we'd been playing the TV game where I pretend to watch and change channels and he acts out whatever I say is on. With the warmth of the sunshine, I watched him using his silly voices, running around, using props, getting dirty, using his imagination, feeling creative and thriving in his own skin. He was finally growing up to be a little boy and I couldn't help but think of how proud I was of him for everything he'd achieved. As I went in to make dinner, he shouted after me.
"Tomorrow it's your turn to act and I finally get to sit in the chair!"
Out of nowhere, a stone got lodged in my throat. "Uh, Jac, come sit for a sec."
His little body sat beside me. "Why?"
"I'm going to be leaving tomorrow."
"Where are you going?"
"Home. To my family. This virus is quite scary and I need to go to make sure they're okay."
"Are you coming back?"
"I will do, one day. But maybe not as your au pair. I'm sorry."
His gaze hadn't shifted from me. "Oh..."
Even now, writing this, my heart breaks. While people have been kind and told me that I haven't let him down, I truly feel as though I abandoned him in some way. I can still see his huge brown eyes staring up at me. He ran off inside and I cried on the steps.
Later that night, he came running up to me with a piece of paper in his hand.
"Okay, you're not allowed to laugh," he said, flipping over the sheet to reveal, for the first time ever, a picture he'd drawn in full colour. "I spent a lot of time on it."
"Jacob, that's incredible. I would never laugh at you for anything you created, you know that. Are you going to put it on your wall?"
"No. It's for you. I've spent hours making it."
I gave him such a tight hug I thought he would pop. I decided to return the favour and so before I left, I wrote all three of them a letter each and slipped them under their pillows. They were all personal and so I wouldn't want to add them to this piece but here is the gist of each:
For Andre, I asked that he protect his brothers, understand that knowledge isn't power and that, as his thirteenth birthday was in two days, to remember that a great man is always willing to be little.
For Olivier, I explained to him that he won't remember his time on the consoles, but he will remember making memories in nature. I asked that he never stop telling stories and smiling because he oozed the colour yellow whenever he did and we needed more of that brightness in the world.
For Jacob, I reminded him of the boy I first met and the boy he was today. I reminded him of his greatest traits and promised that if he clung onto them, he'd always be surrounded by people who would love him unconditionally. I willed him to make as many mistakes as he could, to ask for help when he needed it and show emotion whenever it felt right - and, above all, to never apologise for any of it.
By the time I got back to London, Philip had already sent me a text to say that they'd found my letters and that Jac had cried and said: "I'm going to keep this forever." And that was all I needed. I will see them again, I know it. They will all hold a place in my heart, anyway, as my first Au Pairing job. It was a whirlwind of emotion and exhaustion and all the while I was at the mercy of the breeze. My bottom line is always going to be Jacob though. After only eight weeks, I saw the change happening right before my eyes. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done but honestly, I'd do it again and again if it meant that someone gets a fighting chance at happiness.
Don't give up on people, especially the young and especially the vulnerable. Be patient in this life, be kind on your journey and, no matter what, try to save as many people as you possibly can.
Life isn't black and white; let there be colour.