‘What would you think about me taking a posting in Kenya,’ my husband asked one evening when he got back from work.
Why not? I thought. One of the joys of being a writer is that I can work anywhere, our children - who were at university - would have a great time coming out to see us in the holidays and it would be an adventure. So he accepted the posting and off we went.
Although I had travelled extensively in Africa as a documentary maker I was shocked to see the number of very young children roaming around Nairobi on their own, and when a friend told me about a local charity called Immanuel Afrika which rescued, housed and educated street children I was keen to get involved. The director suggested that I come in a couple of mornings a week to help the children to write their life stories. He thought it would help them to deal with some of the traumas they had been through and encourage them to feel that their lives and experiences had value.
I started with a session with three little boys, who shuffled in shyly and took their places at the table. Tiny and well behaved they sat very demurely while I explained that I wanted them to tell me their stories and then we would spend some time together thinking about how we might put what they told me down on paper. One by one, in a mixture of English and Swahili translated by an older boy, they told me, without emotion, how they had come to be on the streets. I remember sitting there listening, making notes and trying very hard not cry. All three of them had been abandoned by young, single mothers but, in a country where there is extreme poverty, no welfare system and no mental health care for people in crisis these women were clearly in as much need of help as their children. One seven year old had been locked in a hut by his troubled young mother and left there for three days without food and water. Eventually he dug his way under the mud walls and crawled out. After a few days he joined some other boys who were living in a culvert that was used to carry away the waste from an abattoir. It stank, but the boys chose to stay there because the stench kept even the most determined of human predators at bay. This little boy had been so wary and frightened that when the director of the centre tried to rescue him he had to spend hours trying to coax him out with a cup of porridge. By the end of that morning I knew that I needed to do something practical to help and I ended up spending three days a week and most of my weekends at the centre, trying to help the amazing staff to give the time and affection that all children need in order to thrive. I also saw how hard the charity worked to continue to support the young adults who left their care because the workers knew how vulnerable young people are when they take their first shaky steps into the adult world.
On my return to the UK I was horrified to discover that many teenage care leavers in this country are left to fend for themselves without basic life skills or support. I read about eighteen-year-olds who were given flats to live in but who ended up homeless because they had no idea about paying bills or managing their money, or whose homes and lives were taken over by gangs involved in ‘County Lines’ drug dealing.
It was this notion of teenagers dropping off the radar after they leave care which formed the basis of the plot of my new thriller A Good Mother. What really happened to eighteen-year-old care leaver Nicola Cahill before she became a mother and turned her life around? What is the terrible secret from her past which haunts her life now that she is married and trying for a baby with her wealthy husband? Why does she refuse to discuss the lost years after she left care, and why does she fob off questions about the identity of her son’s father with a lie about a one night stand with a nameless stranger?
A Good Mother by Sam Hepburn (Bookouture) Out Now
I see my son’s scooter lying in the undergrowth. Time stands still. Where is he? Deafened by my own heartbeat, I keep looking but I can’t see him. This is all my fault. My punishment for the things I did, and the things I should have done. All I ever wanted was to keep my son safe. I married the perfect husband, built the perfect home. I’ve tried to give Finn the life I never had. Everything was going so well. Until now. It’s just small things at first – a punctured tyre, an open gate that I'm sure I locked. But then I see the photograph of two young girls, and a night I’ve tried to forget. I know I have to stop pretending that nothing is happening. I can’t escape the truth. Someone knows my secret. But what do they want from me?
Sam Hepburn read modern languages at Cambridge University and, after a brief spell in advertising, joined the BBC as a General Trainee. She worked as a documentary maker for twenty years and was one of the commissioners for the launch of BBC Four. Since then, she has written several books, including psychological thrillers Gone Before and Her Perfect Life, and novels for young adults and children. She won the 2017 CWA Margery Allingham Short Story award and has been nominated for several other prestigious prizes, including the CILIP Carnegie Medal for her YA thrillers.
You can find her on Twitter @Sam_Osman_Books and follow her on Facebook.