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Open Features: The Key

Linda McLean tells of the fraught day when a teenager lost his way after being given the key to “freedom’’.

It only happened because Ken gave Darryl a key to his house.

It was a glorious day in July, and we were on holiday. Cath and Ken, our friends had suggested that we go to a lake, where we could swim safely. It seemed such a simple idea. They had two young sons. We had two teenagers we were fostering - Ivan and Darryl. It would give everybody a day out, and the kids some fun.

That was the plan. What happened was something completely different.

We were on holiday from Scotland, passing through England en route to France. We did not know Essex well, but decided to contact old friends who had gone to live there. Ken was now thoroughly versed in his new area. He would show us the sights and take the lead.

For no particular reason, and without explanation or discussion, as we left the house to drive in separate cars. Ken gave Darryl a key to their house. It was an astonishing if well intentioned gesture. He was trying to get Darryl on side by demonstrating that he was a mature young man. Darryl was going to be in our company all day, so he believed this was a fairly safe bet.

Darryl had attractive dark curly hair and slightly tanned skin, blazing white teeth and a smile that would melt your heart. Think of Lewis Hamilton and you won’t be far away. However he had a very difficult background.

Now 15 years of age, he had been brought up in a succession of foster homes until he was six, but proved unmanageable to all carers. He therefore took up residence in a children’s home, where he learned many things. He became street wise. He learned how to start fires. He learned his rights. He learned that if you continued to get Social Work to look after you, it was your RIGHT to receive £5 per week pocket money. (This was twenty five years ago.) Many adults were not that well off. However, rules are rules. He must receive this amount every week. We questioned this right to no avail.

No, we could not withhold it as a punishment if he misbehaved. It was his by right.

If we had to withhold it, we could put it into an account for his holiday, but it remained his money.

The boy had absconded from school. He had lied, stolen and on one occasion required six teachers to hold him down.

And now he had a key.

I was appalled at the amount of power that had potentially been given to Darryl. Phil, my husband, was speechless, and we remonstrated gently with Ken to get the key back.

“No need,” he laughed at us. “He’s a lovely kid. Just wants a bit of confidence shown in him. There’s nothing like an adult trusting a kid to bring out the best in him.” Changing the topic he said: “I’ll stop at a nice place I know for lunch where the kids can stretch their legs a bit too.”
There was nothing to be done. We knew if we asked Darryl for the key, he would refuse, arguing, quite correctly that it had been given to him. Ken did not know that Darryl was not ready for this, and it was such a difficult thing to explain.

We stopped for a pub lunch. Again, during the meal, we challenged Ken. Again, he scoffed at us. Meanwhile, to add to the complication, the kids played boules, and Ivan won. He was insufferable, bragging, in typical teenager fashion, about the opportunities he had taken, where he had knocked Darryl’s ball out, how he had generally picked up the game better than Darryl.

Not earth shattering stuff? You were not acquainted with Darryl. When he lost at a game, all his attractive features were overshadowed by the depth of anger in his dark brown eyes. His very skin seemed to darken with his mood. His mouth twisted downwards. Surliness was all that was conveyed.

However, we were in the company of friends, and he knew better than to let his aggrieved feelings show in public. This had required to be gone over very many times, but at long last he had got the message. He may be angry, he may be livid, but the time to show his feelings was in private. Then it could be talked about and discussed, wrongs righted and oil generally poured on troubled water. Feathers that had been ruffled were made smooth. But it took time and work to achieve this state of calm.

We watched in trepidation as Darryl was wound tighter and tighter. Ivan, at 13, with his mop of unruly red hair and constantly sunny disposition, had not yet learned a sense of propriety. The warning glances and covert phrases that we used probably went right over his head. Although it would have been enough to alert the tuned in teenager, we had only had Ivan for six months.

“Well, let’s get this show on the road,” Phil eventually said to our friends, sensing an international incident approaching. It would spare them the full horror of witnessing this smouldering volcano erupting.
It would not be a pleasant drive to the lake, and I did not envy my husband the task of driving with the equivalent of World War 3 raging behind him. As everybody headed for their vehicles, Darryl suddenly stormed off.

Ken waited in front, with his car idling while Phil tried to reason with Darryl through his driver’s window.

“Come on, pal, get into the car.” said Phil.


“It was only a game. It won’t matter tomorrow,” offered Phil.

No amount of cajoling would move Darryl however.

“Get lost, all of you!” Darryl eventually yelled so loudly that it was heard by our friends in their car.

Ken switched his engine off to come and see what the problem was. I went out to meet him.

“It’s okay. We’ll be with you in five minutes. Give us a little time to sort this one out. Can you wait round the corner for us? If Darryl thinks you have gone, he may realise he is missing out on something.”

Ken agreed and drove out of sight.

“Now, Darryl, you are spoiling everyone’s day. Get in the car.” The cold steel blue eyes of Phil met the smouldering, contemptuous arrogance in Darryl’s.

“Make me,” he snorted, walking off into the distance.

Phil drew the car level with him one last time.

“Darryl.” There was a pause for effect. “This is your last chance.”

“Last chance for what?” he countered. “I don’t need you. I don’t need any of you. Leave me alone!”

Phil decided he had had enough.

He drove off at high speed, tyres screeching on the red gravel, taking me and Ivan, but leaving Darryl in a parking lot somewhere in the middle of Essex.

“You can’t leave him!” I exclaimed.

“Why not?” asked Phil. “Social Workers demand that they have a say in their lives. Well, Darryl’s got it. Let’s see what he does with it.”

Ken was waiting round the corner. Phil arrived, waved, and the cars continued in convoy. I quaked in misery all the way there.

Astounded, astonished, unbelieving, shocked, flabbergasted – all of these applied to our friends when they discovered we had simply driven off and left Darryl.

Cath was terribly upset, and wanted to go back and get him.

Ken knew Phil fairly well, and realised that whatever had been done, however illogical it may appear, had a reason. He also was aware of the various challenges that he had not heeded. He stayed fairly quiet.

I simply could not settle. While I understood actions have consequences, and this lesson had to be taught in spades to the older child, it was still extremely nerve-wracking.

Meanwhile the sun shone, and the younger children seemed almost oblivious and had a great time. Eventually, though, all the adults, including Phil, could stand it no longer and we headed for home.
Phil was absolutely convinced that Darryl would be sitting there laughing at us when we went in the door.


Darryl, meanwhile, was having an excellent day.

Not one to waste money, he decided to hitch a lift back to Southend. Now that the adults had gone, it made everything so much easier. And as for that little twit, Ivan, he would deal with him later. He would simply go back to Ken’s house, use the key that had been given him, and have some time on his own. Nobody would nag him. There would be no rules to observe.

He stood, using his thumb at the side of the road as he had seen other people do. A lorry driver, heading in the required direction, picked him up after a mere quarter of an hour. They set off, and the chatter was flowing really easily. Darryl was thoroughly enjoying himself. Riding high in a lorry, hearing new stories, he was off on an adventure. It was all quite thrilling. There were lots of gears on lorries – more than on cars – and the driver explained how these operated. It looked peculiarly complicated at first, but he soon worked out how it was done.

When they reached Southend, the driver asked: “Where do want off, son?”

Suddenly, Darryl realised that he had no idea. He had no idea at all of the address. He had only been to the town once before. However, he could not let anyone see that he was confused or lost, so he said airily “Just let me off as near the centre of town as you can. I’ll make my way from there.”

He was dropped off, but saw nothing that was familiar to him. He started to walk, and turned various corners in the hope of finding somewhere that he knew, but it all looked strange and foreign. He would have to find a phone box, and look up a directory to find out the name of the street where Ken stayed.

He began to feel a bit of a fool.

However, a phone box was eventually found, and he knew that Ken’s second name was Newton. He searched all the N’s, but there was nothing there. He started again. There was definitely no entry. Not believing his eyes, he went over it a final time. And only then did he accept that the name was not there. He had no idea where he was. The key was no use to him. He was totally lost.

He needed help.


It was seven o’clock before we all arrived back home from the day out. There was no sign of Darryl.

“Don’t worry. He’ll arrive,” said Phil, a lot more casually than he felt.

“I’m not happy,” I stated, rather unnecessarily. “I think we have to call the police.”

“Leave it a while,’’ countered Phil. “There is no point in panicking.”

As he had now been gone five hours, this was the understatement of the year.

“We need to set a time,” I insisted. “If he is not back by 9 pm I think we should call the police.”

“He’ll be back by nine, and he won’t go near the police with his record,” stated Phil.

The clock hands moved ever so slowly round, until the big hand was at twelve and the small hand was at nine.

“Right, that’s it. I’m phoning now,” I said.

Ken and Cath had been occupied with the routine of putting the youngsters to bed, but all their tasks were now finished. Although feeling the strain of events, they let it play out without comment.
The phone at the police station was answered on the second ring, and I told the constable that we had lost a fifteen year old boy.

“Thank goodness you phoned,” he said. “He’s safe and sound. Unfortunately, Mr. Newton is ex-directory, and our lads have been driving him about, trying to find somewhere he recognised. We’ll bring him to you within five minutes.”

So the crestfallen Darryl returned, under escort of two policemen.
Not quite what he had envisaged.

The key was returned to Ken.

Nothing more needed to be said.


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