It was around nine o'clock on the same evening as the incident, and I'd spent most of the past few hours sitting on my bed, speaking with my mum on FaceTime. I couldn't help but get emotional every time I thought of Jac's little face. I'd spoken with Landa as soon as she'd come through the door and as I'd expected, she noticed my puffy eyes instantly. However, the conversation hadn't really gone how I'd hoped and so I was feeling even more melancholy than before. Also, to be honest, I still feel hesitant about even calling it a conversation because that word suggests a dialogue of significant length in which feelings, ideas or solutions are exchanged. It actually felt like I'd forced some embarrassment to the surface, which of course I didn't intend. I was also annoyed at myself for letting said "conversation" end so quickly; when I saw that her body-language was becoming stiff, I disengaged and just nodded through the excuses and reasonings and left her with a polite smile. As my bedroom and bathroom are at the tip-top of the three-story house, no one ever really comes up this far (apart from the family cleaner, Julia, because the laundry room is just across the hall). She, however, usually finishes at around 3 pm and so I knew that the light knock at my door didn't belong to her. I opened it to a pyjama-clad, pink-faced, Jacob holding up a plate with a delectable Belgian chocolate eclair in the centre.
"Hello, this is for you."
I don't know what's wrong with me these days but the tears struck my eyes instantly, "Aw, thank you!"
"It's okay," he said, passing it to me far more delicately than I'd seen anything else in the house be handled.
"It looks delicious. Did you have one?"
"I can tell," I joked.
He giggled and wiped at his chocolate-covered mouth only spreading it further. "Oops!"
"Well, thank you, Jac. Are you feeling a bit better?"
"Good. Can I have a cuddle?"
He nodded, wrapping his tiny arms around me with a short squeeze.
After finishing the conversation with my mum, I was about to tuck into the eclair but instead, I heard Phillip's sonorous voice from below. I didn't know he was home already. It sent my mind spinning once more. Usually, he enters through the front door and his hollering hello echos throughout. Then, he makes his way down to the garage to put away his bike and then it's straight back upstairs to tell the boys to change for bed, with a strict (and extremely English) "now, boy!" to the one that trails behind. After he's slipped into his dressing-gown, he makes his way to me who's often cleaning up the chaos-stricken kitchen.
Mostly he asks, "Are you winning the war?"
I'm afraid he doesn't quite know what that war entails, but we'll get to that later. Tonight, however, I'd missed his entrance completely as he was home a lot later than normal. That alone told me it was a busy day and I wondered if to bring it up with him that evening was just asking for defeat. Saturday was a little over twenty-four hours away and I wanted Jacob to have his full attention. Also, truthfully, I think I was scared that he would react in a similar way to Landa. It's one thing knowing that changes must be made, it's another entirely to know that they won't be. However, I knew I was never going to get to sleep with the conversation looming and I felt that by bringing it up and impeding on his evening, it would at least show the gravity of the situation. On the way down, I couldn't help but keep replaying my chat with Landa over and over.
She was met with silence when she walked through the door.
"Hola, chicos! Qué tal?" She asked, in her usual concerned tone.
"Hola, Landa," I managed.
"Ahh, Ashley, hello," she said, placing her things down in the hallway. "Are you well?"
"Em, yeah, I'm just in the kitchen."
"Ah, okay, I'm coming," I could hear her heels making their way towards the room. "Oy, it's been so busy today I, eh, I can't even have a minute to mys- oh my, what has happened? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, I'm fine," I lied, "I, um...can we talk for a second?"
"Of course! Are you okay?"
"It's just Jacob."
"What did he do?"
"No, no, he didn't do anything. He, um," I was losing my voice, "he got upset tonight. Very upset. He, uh, he put a knife to his wrist." I teared up slightly again and Landa put an outstretched hand on my shoulder. Her eyes were so wide but she offered no response whatsoever. My head was doing that thing where waves of hot and cold wash over it in ripples from the distress. "He was really upset, Landa. It scared me, to be honest."
"Oh my goodness, Ashley, I'm so sorry you had to see this."
"What? No," I protested, "please don't apologise to me. I'm just crying because it was hard to see."
"Where is he now?"
"In his room, I think. It's okay, we just finished talking. I told him I was going to tell you."
"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, I'm fine, I just wasn't expecting to see..." I swallowed, "I had no idea he felt like that."
"I think maybe he is, uh," she pondered, looking perplexed, "maybe he is tired. Did one of his brothers upset him?"
"No, they didn't," I said, trying to watch my tone. "He seemed really upset, in general. He told me that he doesn't 'deserve to be here'."
"I'm so sorry you had to see this."
While it's clear that she was just being considerate of my feelings, I was already getting frustrated with that statement which implied I was the only one hurting in the scenario. Landa then placed her handbag down on the kitchen counter and began rummaging through it as if the solution was somewhere at the bottom. Where was the worrier I'd seen so much of this past week?
I tried again. "I think he's really sad. I wanted to talk to you and Phillip about it and see if we can help him..."
"Oh, yes, I think definitely we have to, uh, to figure out what is the best way," she said. "I'm just really sorry you had to see this in your first week, oh my goodness. I hope we haven't lost you already!" She remarked, jokingly.
I tried to hide my uneasiness. "No, really, please, I'm fine," I said, wishing I could stop tearing up because it was almost as though her lack of emotion was ridiculing me - something I would come to feel quite often in this house. "Has he ever done this before?"
"No! Never, never... I will, eh, talk to him and try to understand, okay? Maybe you should just rest tonight," she said extremely hastily, "please, just rest. I think you shouldn't have to deal with these things. I'm so sorry, I will talk to him and, uh, I will talk to Phillip, okay?" She ushered me towards the doorway.
I'm not sure whether it was the dodging, the fact I was drained, new to the family or just mixed up in a whirlwind of it all, but I did. I left. I went upstairs, furious with myself for not standing my ground and fighting Jacob's corner.
With each step down the stairs, I hoped that Landa had already mentioned it to Phillip; I hoped that Phillip would listen to me; I hoped that Landa would feel more comfortable this time; I hoped that Jacob would be the centre of our attention and, Holy Cannoli, I hoped that I wouldn't cry.
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.
The set up of their living-room, and how they use it, is a strange one to me. If the room is an L-shape, the horizontal part of the letter is where a large six-seater dining room table stands in front of a grand, decorated and neglected fireplace. The table is used by the boys and only when they're forced to play three or four of the mountain of well-worn, dusty board games surrounding it - most of which are missing the essential pieces and rules books. The marble floor beneath it leads to a carpeted area at the right-hand side; or the bottom of the vertical part of the letter. A flat-screen TV hangs on the wall and underneath is an incredible collection of art books, history books, and a stack of orchestrated records from the likes of Mozart, Vivaldi, and Shubert which Phillip likes to unwind to on an evening when the boys aren't trying to disturb him with tales of their day. In front of the TV is a green-felt cards table which is also well-used with four unmatching chairs of wicker or pink velvet surrounding it. Although they're a family of five it's perhaps unsurprising that it's Landa who doesn't get a seat at their nightly games. The cards table is wedged between a piano on the right and an armchair on the left. The piano is played regularly, but God forbid the boys ever try to mess around and make their own music. It's also topped with family photos and greeting cards - although I have a feeling that only a handful are from recent years. The grey armchair, including pillows lightly coated in Nagrito's cat fur, is perfectly placed for Phillip to have an unobstructed view of every entranceway; his slippers resting underneath the matching footstool, waiting to be worn around 7 pm. Finally, three to four meters behind the cards table - and Phillip's armchair - is the white linen sofa, where Landa and the boys belong. Even whilst watching movies or television, they all sit in their designated spots; very much a family of habit, I believe. And distance.
After psyching myself up in the hallway, I made my way into the living room.
"Ah, hello, young lady," he said. "How are you? I hear you've had a rough day."
"Yeah, it was a tough one," I said wearily whilst taking a seat on the pink velvet variety.
"I'm sorry you had to go through that."
"Yeah, I mean-"
"I spoke with Landa and with Jacob, you'll be glad to know."
"Oh, good. Did he seem okay when you spoke?"
"Yes, fine. Unfortunately, it's not quite the first time we've seen this problem."
I was taken aback and immediately looked over to Landa who was in her spot three meters behind, rosy-cheeked, smiling slightly and shaking her head as if someone had told her a bad joke. I couldn't quite believe how nonchalant she looked for someone who, just hours before, had assured me that her little boy had never shown signs of mental health issues.
"I- I didn't realise it had happened before, that's qui-" I tried.
"Not many times, no, but certainly enough for us to keep an eye on it."
"I asked him what was wrong and he said he didn't know. I told him that would never sit with me and eventually he, uh," he smirked a little, "he actually told me he'd been watching Jason Bourne a bit."
My face must've been a picture. I really tried but genuinely couldn't find the correlation and asked, "Wait, sorry, so do you mean that that's why he's sad? Or that that's where he saw self-harm reference?"
"I guess the brooding nature of the series just struck him."
"Well, whatever the reason it definitely resonated, he-"
"He's a troubled little boy sometimes. It can't have been easy for you to see."
"He seemed to really believe what he was saying earlier though," I said through slightly gritted teeth and looking back over at Landa who was still silent, hanging on her husband's every word. "I did mention that he said he didn't deserve to be here."
"Well, he also said his best friend at school is leaving in a few months."
"Ah," I said, getting irate with the interruptions but mainly not quite understanding why you wouldn't lead with that point in the first place, "and he's worried he'll feel lonely? Maybe that they won't keep in touch?"
"Probably, I mean he's a super kid. He can be quite emotional and certainly, this doesn't help. I think, definitely, we need to keep an eye on him."
"Yeah, I agree, I was hoping-"
"He has a tendency to foster a little storm in his head."
"Well," I sighed, trying again, "I think I'd like to spend some one-on-one time with him."
Phillip seemed to have a habit of interrupting and dominating almost every conversation he ever had at home and I wondered if it was the same when he was at work. He often talked about his ability to manage multiple conversations at once - apparently, that's what makes him such a great linguist. I was skeptical.
"Yes, I think one-on-one time would be very beneficial. We can certainly sit down and figure out the details of that."
"I think it would be really good," added Landa, to my surprise.
"I just think he sometimes needs room to be creative and to learn in a different space from his brothe-"
"Well, certainly, yes, I think that's a great idea."
Shortly after, the conversation came to a halt and frankly I wasn't sure how many more interruptions I could handle without showing my frustration. I removed myself from the room, wondering if husband and wife would share many if any, more words between themselves that evening. As for Jacob, I considered it to be a small victory - but also I decided it would absolutely be the first of many.
The next day, after picking the boys up from school, Andre demanded a bowl of edamame and a glass of chocolate milk, Jacob wanted biscuits and cheese, and Olivier, all the while glued to his phone, climbed up to the top cupboards himself to grab lollipops and chocolate (since he ignored me when I'd asked what he fancied). Then, he went straight onto his PlayStation where Andre sat by his side, lounging back and making constant remarks about how special and clever he is as I unpacked their bags.
"Did you get any homework, Jacob?"
"No. We don't get homework," he said, looking at a book about tropical birds.
"That's odd. Yours must be the first school ever with that rule."
"How would you know what my school is like?"
"I wasn't born yesterday," I said; a phrase I've always feared using myself but, actually, it felt right - like I'd earned it. "What about you, Oli?"
"Don't you raise your voice at me. Stop playing that. Do you have any homework?"
"No!" He barked, going back to his screen.
"Andre?" I asked, opening his bag to a spilled container of nuts, which should have been his morning snack.
"What's this? Why didn't you eat these?"
"Okay, well take it to the bin please and pour them out."
"You do it."
"Absolutely not, go."
"Because I said so."
Instead, he tipped his bag upside down and smiled at me.
"Okay, we'll leave them there. See what your dad has to say about it."
Within seconds he was scrambling for every last crumb. Generally, I don't like to use Phillip as my leverage. It supports the idea that he's the only one with authority, even though it's absolutely true. It's a notion that he himself expresses dislike over, however, I truly believe he has spent a lot of time reinforcing it. After they'd eaten, I threw their schedule to the wind for once and asked them what they wanted to do because I still couldn't understand why children needed such a heavy routine every day of their lives. They thought about it for all of four seconds before admitting that they couldn't think of anything and so we ended up just playing cards and I taught them yet another new game which they'd never heard of. Whilst they were clearly enjoying it and getting invested in the competition, I was still hit with the usual bad manners. In fact, I think bad manners is far too loose a term for what these boys are capable of because it, at least, suggests there are some there to begin with.
"Oh, fuuuck! I'm doing so bad!" said the ten-year-old.
"Please don't swear, Oli."
"Fuck!" He says again, staring at me and screwing up his face every now and then as if he's about to lunge.
"My turn! My turn!" blasts Andre, placing a card down.
"Nope, you can't do that. You've gotta take from this pile remember."
"Shut up, bitch," Andre says. Admittedly, it isn't said with spite but I couldn't care less. He has a habit of calling many women that word including his own mother on several occasions (though I don't believe she's aware).
"I couldn't care less. Don't you speak to me that way again! You are absol-"
"Jacob! GooOo!" Olivier moans, sinking into his chair. "For God's Sake, you're so fucking slow!"
"Oi! Oli, don't shout at him. He's thinking. Take your time, Jacob."
"But he's taking forever!" He says, getting incomprehensibly irate as usual.
"We're playing a game, where could you possibly need to be? Why are you always so impatient?"
"You're so annoying!" He says to me, folding his arms.
Jacob takes his turn.
"Ha-ha, that was shit!" says Andre. "You're terrible at every game we ever play."
"Hey!" Jacob stands up and hits his brother with a closed-fist-thump with some might.
Oli then pinches Jacob's back with venom and so Jacob goes for his head.
"Stop it! Sit down - all of you!"
Jacob's face is turning pink again and his eyes are darkening.
"Sit down please, Jac."
"Oh my God, goOo!" says Andre to me because I haven't had my turn. He bangs the table.
Oli clicks his fingers in my face to hurry me, the same way they do when they want a refill or a snack.
"Put your arm down right now. I haven't had a second to look at my hand, you're all so restless. Why don't we go outside?"
"I don't fucking want to!" Oli shouts.
"It's raining you dumb fuuuuuuuu...." Andre trails off.
My eyes meet his and I'm furious.
He grins, a derisive smile. "Do you know what a C-U-N-"
"Andre, you finish that sentence and you'll regret every moment of your life that led you here."
Silence. I'd hit my wall. No more watching, no more learning. Things needed to change.
"Go and sit at that fucking table, RIGHT NOW!" I said pointing to the six-seater by the fireplace. The boys looked quite shocked. I hate shouting. Also, it was the first time I'd sworn in front of them but needs must and all. I should also be truthful and say that they didn't just go easily after that but I'll spare you all the bickering and babbling because even writing it is giving me a headache. At eight years old, Jacob is still pretty obedient so it didn't take me long to get him there. The other two, however, are so very difficult. Andre scuttled off to get another snack and Oli disappeared to his bedroom. Eventually, I got them all into the same place and took a deep breath.
"Now, just shut up and listen to me," I started, with the hope of maintaining a slow pace throughout. "I have been a teacher for close to three years and never ever ever have I met children as rude as you three."
Andre's eyebrows raised, genuinely.
"I'm serious. The way you speak to me is absolutely atrocious and I know for a fact that if I told your father, he'd be livid," I continued, not actually sure how he'd react but the threat was enough for now. "The swearing; telling me to fuck off every ten minutes, calling me bitch and all the rest of it - that stops today. Clicking your fingers," I demonstrated, "when you want something, ignoring me, requests without 'please' or 'thank you', hitting each other, name-calling... It all stops today."
Total silence. It was truly blissful; I wanted to bathe in it.
"I don't want our relationship to be difficult. I'm here to teach you things you wanna know, play games you wanna play and help you with things you don't understand. I don't have to say this, because you're all very aware of it already, but you're smart boys. You're funny and witty. You're talented with sports, art, and music," I said, watching them all jokingly, but smugly smile. "But I promise you now, none of that will mean anything in a few years when you're older and you're still as rude and as cruel and as undisciplined as you are now. Specifically, you Oli and Andre. You two and your father already speak of going to university in England. That's about five years away for you, Andre and it'll fly by. But you'll have to start putting in the work to become a good man, now. Do you want friends and tutors and other support systems? Because I promise, nobody will accept you into their lives if you can't hold a conversation without talking back or swearing at them and getting aggressive," I said, sternly. "I've never had anyone speak to me this way, never mind children half my age and less. So it ends today, okay?"
"Yes," muttered Oli. The other two gave nods.
"And another thing, why do you all compete with each other so much? Why are you so mean? Why do you hurt each other?"
"That was rhetorical," I interrupted Andre before he could start justifying. "I don't care what the answer is; it shouldn't be happening. You're brothers and you will always be brothers so figure it out. I understand falling out now and then and not seeing eye-to-eye with everything but my God, stop insulting each other, stop being so impatient, and stop being violent. For as long as you live, you'll always have each other. So I don't want to see any more of that either, okay?"
To my amazement, they all nodded without protest. Jacob looked bewildered.
"And finally, we're going to do some things that you want to do," I said, handing them each some paper and a pen each. "I'd like you to write down four things that you want to do. And in March, after your holiday, we're going to see how many we can cross off the list."
"What do we write?" Asked Jacob.
"Anything! As long as its free, we can do it together and it doesn't include electronics," I said, looking at Oli with a smile.
"But I might die!" Said Oli dramatically, with an outstretched hand to his chest.
"Without your phone?"
"Well, we'll just have to take that risk, won't we?"
"Hmm, I can't think of anything," said Andre.
"Rubbish, c'mon. We can bake, we can draw, we can paint, we can play sports, we can go outside, we ca-"
"We can go outside?" Questioned Oli.
"Are you crazy? Of course, we can."
Suddenly, the three boys looked at each other like cartoons. The excitement surged out of them like steam and they began to scribble. Tongues hung out of their mouths; they conferred, making sure not to double-up on ideas; they congratulated each other on some of the more intriguing suggestions. To literally see the locks on their imagination just pop open and for everything they wanted in that moment to spill out onto the pages in front of them was incredible. A miracle. Once finished, I properly condensed it all onto a sheet, recruiting Jacob to help me with some of the colouring. During that time, we sat around the table talking; each of them was asked to tell me one good thing, one bad thing, and one funny thing about their day. They obliged, albeit with some struggle as I believe it may have been the first time they were directly asked. I decided, then, to make this a daily duty. Truthfully, they did speak over each other often but mainly out of excitement and so I couldn't (and wouldn't) complain at all. They also respected the rules when I did ask them to wait their turn which was a huge relief. Olivier willingly told me a story of how he almost choked when he was younger and then Andre chimed in with his own tales. He assured me that they do sometimes support each other as siblings because in the past he'd been in fights to defend his brothers. Jacob, in his own little creative world, just listened intently, scribbling away at his own drawings and giggling often. When finished, I went to put it up on to the door and he said:
"Wait! Can I draw a lightning bolt?"
The following week it was like living in a totally different house, I couldn't believe it. It was the beginning of the penultimate week of February and on Friday morning the family would be leaving for a trip to Costa Rica, returning a few days into March - hence the prematurely made list. I, too, was off to Amsterdam on a short break and so I knew I'd be relaxed imminently. Whether or not our holidays played a part in the change of atmosphere, it was clearly so much more blissful. Occasionally they did swear, but it was never aimed at me; it was mostly when they were playing games and said with no anger whatsoever. I wasn't thrilled about it but it was a start. I received pleases and thank yous; they told me many of my dinners were tasty; we laughed and joked; they rarely ignored a question and were quick to apologise if they did. Andre had even begun to sing around me, often opting for Frozen tunes which I lightly teased him about now and then because it made his cheeks turn ruby red and his sweet brace-full smile appear. At one point he even claimed that he could sing better than Freddie Mercury. I can confirm this is a lie, but I didn't mind because at least he was expressing himself. He played me some pop songs on the piano, which he said usually wouldn't be allowed because they weren't classics. Olivier was still glued to his electronics sixty percent of the time but he was socialising simultaneously, radiating positivity every day with his cheeky dimples and funny faces. Although he was attached to his phone, he had begun to show me the games he spent all of his time playing. One was about a zombie apocalypse and the main character had a dog that Oli creatively named "Paul". He even asked me to take part in a Fortnite competition at one point but I still have no idea what that game is about because I spent the whole time being told off for not picking it up fast enough. Finally, Jacob and I had our first few one-on-ones together. One day we invented a new game called "Unnatural Nature" where we count down from three, each saying an animal and then separately drawing what we think the hybrid would look like. He asked a lot of questions about my life and about the UK and he answered all of mine, enthusiastically. He showed me more of his artwork and I introduced him to Spike Milligan, hoping to get him into writing nonsense stories. We also began reviewing basic English skills because Phillip's comment a few weeks before about possible dyslexia constantly circulated in my mind. One afternoon, we came across an exhausted and confused bee on the ground outside the house. At first, Jac laughed when I suggested we get it some sugar and water to replenish its energy levels. Minutes later, however, he had plucked what he believed to be the juiciest pollen plants in the house and garden and laid them around the bee as a banquet as we sat on the ground, too, waiting. He even decided to make a ladder to help the bee get onto the spoon with ease. Each model just kept blowing away with the wind but it didn't deter him whatsoever. It was lovely how he giggled whilst just trying his best.
As we all spent the week preparing for our travels, I was perhaps a little too optimistic about the future. Reflecting on this time, which was only a little over three weeks ago, I hadn't even contemplated the effects of the incoming pandemic. The lockdown we would all eventually be placed under hadn't crossed my mind and, if it had, in all honestly I'm not entirely sure I would've stuck around - even then. The quarantine alone would turn the place into a bit of a madhouse and have me scratching at the walls many nights. On the final evening, before their flight across the Atlantic, Phillip walked into the kitchen to find me reluctantly battling with the carcass of a roast chicken, in order to give the scraps to the cats.
"Are you winning the war?" He asked.
"I think I am, yeah!" I replied, completely naively.