Andrew came to live with my family in 1989. It was around the mid-point of a decade during which my parents hosted dozens of foster children at our home in Bedfordshire, England, each time on an emergency basis. I’ve always remembered Andrew more vividly than any of them. That was partly because he stayed with us for almost six months, which was far longer than any other child. It was also because I genuinely liked Andrew.
Late last year we found out that Andrew had lost his life in truly horrific circumstances. I spent the next weeks trying to piece together all of my fragmented memories of his time with us, wanting to build a full picture. Finally it occurred to me to reread my painstakingly-kept, awkward childhood diaries. (I wrote entries almost every day until I left home for university, but this was the first time that I’d opened them again).
I’d actually forgotten that Andrew had first stayed with us a year earlier, in 1988, along with his two younger brothers. I was 10 years old. Andrew was 13, a lanky teenager with floppy black hair and wide-set eyes. He told us that his nickname was ‘Skin’. I used it proudly, because it sounded cool to an unworldly child. The other two boys were 12 and 6 years old. My parents told us that the brothers needed somewhere to stay because their mother was going into hospital. I don’t know whether that was true, and I also don’t know whether their father was at home.
With four children in my family, that made seven of us. That’s basically a party. We started the first day with a table tennis tournament, and then spent all afternoon playing a wild game of cops and robbers in our large garden beside the churchyard. “It was really excellent!” I recorded.
That weekend we drove to my grandmother’s cottage near the Suffolk coast. We caught 75 crabs at the harbor using bacon for bait, and in the forest surrounding the house we made a bonfire and played many more games of cops and robbers.
Six days after the brothers had arrived, I wrote: “I am absolutely fed up with the boys now. They behave perfectly when Mum or Dad are there, but when they’re not they swear and be rude.” I was particularly upset that they laughed at us all for dressing smartly for Sunday dinner. Still, when they left after three weeks I was convinced that they’d enjoyed staying with us.
Andrew returned at 10.30pm one night in September 1989, now alone. I wrote in my diary: “He is staying for the moment because his Mum won’t have him,” adding casually that she’d “thrown him out”. By now, ‘Skin’ had three earrings. He looked quite different. Still, we all played our old games out in the garden, and that night I noted that he was “okay”, which given my usual tone of lofty cynicism was a real compliment.
Over the following weeks Andrew helped us build our best ever garden fort. Our dens were always pretty good, built from frames of sticks that we bound together with long strands of ivy. This took it to a new level, with double-layer walls packed with grass cuttings. We brought chairs from the house and sat inside, delighted with our woodland hut.
Late that month we all celebrated Andrew’s 15th birthday at the local ice-skating rink. He invited a few friends; I noticed that they all looked much older than him, and they didn’t say a word to my older sister and me.
Most of the time, I enjoyed having Andrew staying with us. I liked the idea of having an older brother, even though I never called him that. He was often kind: he had a lively sense of humor. There was a sort of spark about him.
Aside from the fort-building, my strongest memory of Andrew is him showing me a page from his Viz comic one afternoon. Even now I remember it with weird clarity: it was a mock advert for the ‘Clag-Gone bicycle’. (Warning: Do not look this up unless you really enjoy toilet/potty humor). Andrew thought it was hilarious. I was more bemused, but I definitely appreciated being in on the joke.
For Christmas of 1989 Andrew went home to his mother and brothers for two days. After he came back, everything got harder. Several times Andrew walked out of school. In the evenings he’d go to meet friends or his new girlfriend, and come back very late, of course smelling of cigarette smoke. One night in February 1990 he stayed out until the early hours of the morning, and was driven home by the police. He had a knife with him. He was still only 15 years old.
Soon afterwards, social services moved Andrew away. Later, my parents told us that they’d previously considered adopting him. They’d thought he had potential for a bright future. After the knife incident, they were afraid that he was already using drugs.
Over the years, I wondered what had happened to Andrew. My mother obviously did too, because a few months ago she had been searching for his name on the internet and found a 2014 news story, about a 39-year-old British tourist who’d been tortured and murdered in India. There was a passport photograph: it was definitely our former foster brother.
The details were appalling: Andrew’s body had been found badly decomposed beside a Delhi street market, wrapped in a rug and stuffed in a plastic bag. His hands and feet were tied, and he had cuts, bruises and cigarette burn marks on his arms and face.
Andrew had been travelling alone in India for about two months, apparently looking for construction work. He’d last been seen, apparently drunk, at a nearby guesthouse. A few days after he was found, a post mortem concluded that there were drugs in his body. One local report suggested he might actually have died from an overdose; several Indian newspapers reported anonymous police sources who’d suggested that he’d been trafficking drugs.
Coincidentally, on two separate occasions when I worked as a journalist, I was sent to report on British men murdered in India. My overwhelming conclusion back then was that the local police were overloaded, incompetent and mostly indifferent. I suspect that little had changed.
In any case, it’s hard to imagine a more awful and tragic end to a life.
I know very little about what had happened to Andrew in the twenty years after he’d left us. It hadn’t all been bad: in his early thirties he’d fathered three beautiful children with a woman. But even after that something must have gone wrong again, because he’d ended up living in several homeless hostels while his son was still a toddler. In 2013, one year before his death, he’d been fined for possessing heroin and crack cocaine by a court south-west of London.
I don’t have a good understanding of drug addiction, but I do know that repeated drug use causes substantially alters the brain, and that escaping addiction isn’t a straightforward matter of willpower.
Mostly I feel terribly sad, for Andrew and for his children. I keep thinking back to the boy that Andrew was when he was my foster brother. I wish that we’d been able to help more. I wish that he hadn’t died such an untimely, brutal and lonely death so far from home.
If nothing else, I hope that each time I see someone who is struggling with life, I’ll be more mindful of my ignorance about their past, their hurt and struggles. I’ll try to remember that they too were once a child, perhaps building stick dens in the garden.
Rest in Peace, Andrew.