None of them would believe me if I told them. So I say nothing. I don’t lie, but I don’t come out with it. Most of the people who teach me assume I come from the same sort of home as all the others. They don’t know who I am and, if they did, most of them would have forgotten the headlines. It was all years ago.
It started with a banging on the door. “Open up. Police! Open this door, please.”
Mum made a mousy noise from fright, and curled herself deeper in the chair, digging out more of the stuffing with her nails. On went the banging. On and on. But there was something odd about the way the voice outside stayed calm. “Open up, please!” It didn’t get louder or angrier. In fact, it sounded almost tired, as if whoever was calling to us through the door had never been expecting any response.
“We know you’re in there, Mrs. Harris. Please open up. Nobody’s going to harm you.”
I do remember thinking that was crazy. What did they think was going to happen to her after Harris came
home, if she unlocked the door? He had his rules, and not letting anyone in was pretty well the most important—apart from keeping quiet all the time, and never fidgeting or asking questions.
The voice changed tack. “Edward?” There was a pause. Perhaps it struck him I might not be called that, because he tried again. “Eddie? Ed? Are you in there with your mother?”
I looked her way. But she’d shrunk even deeper in the chair and buried her face in her arms.
“Right, then.” The voice was still patient. “Mrs. Harris? Eddie? Stand well away from the door because we’re going to have to force it open from this side.”
I didn’t see how it was possible. Every time Harris left the apartment, Mum had to slide both bolts across and slip on both the chains. But almost at once I heard the rasp of metal. Someone was jimmying the door on the hinge side. I knew then they’d be in within a minute. After all, Harris had said it often enough when he was cursing the rattling window frames or closet doors that wouldn’t shut. “Whoever jerry-built these apartments ought to be boiled in oil!”
There was the most almighty splintering noise.
And they were in.
Five of them. That surprised me, for we’d heard only one voice. I suppose the others had kept quiet so that we didn’t think they were some mob from one of the clubs, coming for money Harris owed. Three were police—
two burly men and one tall woman. But there were two more behind: one soft-looking, halfway-to-bald man, and one young woman with bright copper hair.
All of them stared at me. “Well, well!” one muttered. “So the old lady was right.”
I felt peculiar. I wasn’t used to meeting people’s eyes because Mum hardly ever raised hers from the floor, and I would always try to keep my face turned well away from Harris in case it set him off.
They looked around the room. The younger woman with the blazing hair tugged out a fistful of tissues and pressed them to her nose. “What is that smell?” But no one answered her because the officer who had been telling us to open the door was already asking, “When is Bryce Harris expected back?”
The question was directed at me. Not one of them had done much more than glance at my mother, and she had buried herself so deeply in the chair you couldn’t even see what Harris had left of her hair.
I shook my head. I didn’t know when he was coming home. Sometimes we got ourselves into a state for nothing, fearing that someone else’s grinding footsteps up the stairs belonged to him. But often he was back quite soon, as if to catch us out.
The man who wasn’t in a uniform dropped to his knees in front of where I was crouching. “That must have been a bit of a fright,” he said. “I’m sorry if you got scared.”
I didn’t say a word.
“My name is Rob,” he said. “Rob Reed, and I’m a social worker.” He waved toward the woman. “So is this lady here. And I need to explain that you can’t stay here anymore. So, for the moment, we’ll be taking you out with us.”
I’m sure I stared. I hadn’t been out of the apartment since Harris made us move here because some woman from my nursery school kept coming by to talk to Mum.
He peered at me more closely. “Eddie? Edward? Do you understand what I’m saying?”
I must have nodded since, with some relief, he pushed his hands down on his knees to lever himself upright. “You’re not to worry,” he assured me. “Your mother will be coming along.” Unsure, he turned to the others. “Right?”
I realized everyone was looking at the bruises down Mum’s legs. One of the officers muttered, “Too right. Can’t leave her here to get another royal kicking.” He nodded to the women. “Best get her out of here.”
They stepped a little farther into the room and leaned over my mother, who whimpered as they pried her fingers from her face and held her under the arms. One of the other officers turned to me. “Can you stand up, lad?”
I pushed my back against the wall and up, till I was on my feet. I saw him staring at the greasy black smudge behind me on the wallpaper, and realized for the very first
time how many hundreds of times I must have cowered against that wall till, desperate not to call attention to myself, I dared slide up it in that quiet way.
“Got anything to wear?”
I looked down at myself. I don’t suppose I’d thought about the clothes I wore, until that moment. But I watch television, so I knew what he was thinking of the state of me.
“Here,” said the man who’d called himself Rob Reed, noticing my confusion. “I’ll look for something.”
“Don’t hang about,” the elder officer warned. “I’m sure we’d all prefer to get away before trouble arrives.”
I think we all knew what he meant by “trouble.” Already Mum was halfway to the door, stumbling between the women. Her head was down. She didn’t look to see if I was following. The younger officer left as well, but only to see the three of them safely down the stairs because he was soon back. The radio clipped to his jacket was chirping as he came through the door, and I distinctly heard the words “safe in the van.”
Rob Reed opened the door to the small room that used to be my bedroom till Harris said he needed it to store some stuff. I suppose he thought I must have clothes in there. He saw the great black plastic bag and turned to me. “So what’s in there?”
I didn’t see that there was any point in lying. “Harris’s dog.”
I wasn’t sure how to explain. “He said that he would get her out of here when he had time.”
“It stinks! It absolutely stinks!” he said, though I thought Gem had been bagged up so long it wasn’t too bad. And I was used to the smell.
He yanked the closet door open—“Oh, my Lord!”—and slammed it shut again before more bottles could come tumbling out. Then he turned back to me. “Don’t you have any other clothes?”
I shook my head. I mean, I had pajamas, but even I knew they were probably worse.
As if his sheer disgust had made him brave, Rob Reed strode into the room where Harris sleeps. (Mum uses the big chair.) He yanked a shirt off a hook. “Put this on.”
Then he saw my face.
“Listen,” he said, “you’re safe now. He can’t get at you anymore.”
We went back in the TV room. He pointed to the blanket in the corner. “Is this where you’ve been sleeping?”
I nodded. And suddenly you could tell that all he wanted was to get out of there. I think he recognized his own rising anger as quickly as I had. Looking around the room, he asked me almost roughly, “Is there anything in here you want to keep?” But I was back against the wall again, down on my heels, and had no answer.
I watched the two of them through the gap I kept cut in my bangs so I could see when Harris had calmed down enough for me to move. Their eyes met and the
officer nodded toward the door. Rob Reed looked desperately around the room. But it was all spilled ashtrays, empty bottles, and one or two chipped ornaments from when Mum and I lived in the other place—the one with flowers and that stringy rug I liked to pick at. I saw his eyes run over the newspaper Harris had taped across the window—“to stop that nosy old bat across the way prying into our lives”—and past the broken lamp and torn town map. Beside the television was a mess of tangled wires, and all of Harris’s nasty games and films and stuff were out of their boxes, all over.
Rob Reed looked at the table. Empty packets of cigarettes, a few more bottles, and a heap of newspapers.
He reached down. Propping up one leg was an old book—a musty thing covered in dark green leather. Harris had swiped it from a market stall after he had upended the table in a temper one night, snapping the end off one of its legs. The book meant nothing to me. I knew my letters—anybody would who’d watched as much television as I had. But I couldn’t read; and anyway, once Harris jammed it underneath the table leg, nobody in their right mind would have dared touch it.
Rob Reed said, “Maybe this is yours?” and from the hopeful—almost desperate—way he asked the question I guessed that finding something that was mine was part of his job, and we would not be able to leave until he had.
Right then, I heard men shouting. It sounded muffled and far away, so it could have been from any of the blocks.
But I still panicked as I always do, and held my hand out for the book as if I wanted it, so we could all get out of there before Harris came back.
He read the title on the spine out loud before he passed it over. “The Devil Ruled the Roost.”
The police officer cast one last look around the apartment and shivered. Their eyes met once again. Then I heard Rob Reed muttering quietly to himself as he steered me in front of him toward the door. “Didn’t he just? Oh, yes indeed. Didn’t he just!”
I noticed the police car parked across the road the moment I looked out of my window. It was unmarked, but I knew all of them. It was no later than half past six. I can’t think why they thought Bryce Harris might be up that early. If anyone’s a night owl, it’s him. The club he hangs about in doesn’t shut till God knows when, so he is rarely out and about much before noon.
That’s when I used to see the child—before Bryce Harris got up. I’d watch the waif’s face flattened hopefully against the window, longing for something to see, aching for something interesting to happen. That was before that overgrown criminal bastard caught sight of me across the yard one day and stuck that newspaper all over. For just a week or two I’d sometimes see the corner of the paper
twitch, as if the boy was still shoving his face close enough to try to see out, maybe with only one eye. But then one day that side was taped down even more thoroughly. You saw the shadow of the mess Harris had clearly made, doing the job in a temper. And since there were no windows on the other side, I don’t suppose that, after that, the child saw anything except his own thin life.
That’s why I wrote the letter. It was quite obvious he’d get no help from his mother. She was a drab and hopeless thing who’d had the stuffing punched out of her all right. Everyone said so. When she and Harris first moved in to 314B, she used to creep out sometimes to pop down to Ali’s on the corner. I saw her there more than once and always took the chance to peep in her basket. Sausage rolls close to their date stamp. The cheapest cheese and bread. Pies. Cigarettes and cans of beer. It wasn’t much on which to feed a growing child. Small wonder that the small mite’s face always looked pasty.
I wondered why she never took the boy along with her. He could at least have carried back the toilet paper, and he’d have had a breath of air. But then I heard a whisper that the three of them had run off from their last place, and so I guessed they kept the boy well hidden because, once people see a child who isn’t in a nursery or school, tongues start to wag.
I took a lot of care with my first letter. I know how stupid people can be, letting out names, and no one would have wanted Bryce Harris to find out that they’d
interfered in any aspect of his life. And so, although I write as neatly as anyone my age who can still hold a pen, and spell not just better than most, but well enough to have won prizes all through school, I found a grubby sheet of paper and wrote the scruffiest letter, almost along the lines of all those ransom notes you see in films where every letter has been cut out separately from magazines and newspapers, then stuck in wobbly lines across the page.
Theirs a boy in 314B, I wrote. They keep him hiden away, but he needs HELP.
I waited for Thursday, when the woman from Social Services comes in to visit Mrs. McGuire. She stays for twenty minutes every time. Never a moment more or less. So with a minute or two to spare, I stuck it on the elevator with tape and scuttled back in my apartment. I kept my ears pinned back. Nobody else came up or down. So when the woman had gone and I popped out to check, the note had vanished and I knew for sure she must have taken it.
And nothing happened. I tried to be patient, but by then the child was worrying me all day and half the night, and so I tried again. This time I wrote a proper letter, put it in a proper envelope, and gave a nice-looking boy outside the Social Services offices a pound to give it to the man at the reception desk. I even stood there lurking under my umbrella until I’d seen the envelope change hands.
Still, there was no response.
In my third letter I was a good deal tougher. I said that everyone in the apartments was worried sick about this child and knew he’d been reported to them more than once. I said two separate journalists had told us that responsibility for his death would be laid at Social Services’ door if they didn’t send someone to check on him at once. (I had no reason to think the boy was starving or anything, but I did think the threat of it might stir them into action.)
It still took them eleven days to get their skates on. I had been planning to send a different note, to the police this time, to say that guns were kept at 314B. Everyone knows that talking about guns wakes that lot up. We have a story around here that some woman in B apartments phoned the police about a burglary taking place across the way only to hear the lad on the desk replying that he was sorry but no officers were free to deal with her complaint.
“It isn’t a complaint,” she said. “It is a burglary, going on right this minute. These boys are kicking the door in.”
“Sorry,” the lad said. “Saturday’s a busy night. We don’t have anyone free.”
So she just added, “I think they’ve got guns.”
In less than half a minute she was hearing sirens. Squad cars surrounded the place. Megaphones. Uproar. Everyone herded out. She got a serious dressing-down. They even threatened to arrest her. “Why did you lie?”
the officer demanded. “Why did you tell us they were armed?”
“Who was it started with the lies?” she snapped back. “It was you who said that you had no one free. Now look at the bloody swarm of you! Don’t you dare start on me!”
But I’d heard all about how many guns were waved about that night. I didn’t want there to be any accidents. So I held off and, sure enough, finally someone from Social Services took notice of my threatening letter and managed to make enough of an effort to come and look.
And they had clearly done a bit of homework first. A series of unmarked cars sat there all morning, then through my lunchtime snack. They knew enough to wait till Harris had gone. I saw him leave while I was steeping tea, sometime around two. He shambled over the yard as usual, the giant oaf, and less than ten minutes later another squad car cruised to a halt in front of B apartments. I saw the five of them go through the door.
And then I waited. It was seventeen minutes by the clock before two of them led the mother out. My Christ, she was a mess. The woman could barely keep her feet shuffling between them, although they held her up. Her scalp was bald in patches, perhaps from the stress of living with that bully. More likely he had torn it out in one of his famous flare-ups. The car kept idling for a minute or two, and then, as if it had been waiting for yet another squad car that drew up behind, it did a turnabout, and left.
From then on I was sure—sure as I’m writing this—that what I’d see next would be one of the other officers carrying out that poor boy’s body, wrapped in a filthy blanket. I never touched the tea. I just stared, worried that if I even blinked I might miss what was happening.
Then this plump, balding, fatherly man led out the boy. The child came through the double doors and startled like a horse. It wasn’t even all that sunny, but he blinked hard in the light. I don’t believe he could have been much more than seven years old. He looked about the sort of height my Harry was at that age, though a little thinner.
Someone inside the squad car swung the door open as the two of them came close. I knew the man who’d taken the boy out of the apartments could not be a policeman because he didn’t shove the boy’s head down as he pushed him in the car, the way they do. (You learn a lot about police habits when you live around here.) The boy clambered in the back as clumsily as if he wasn’t even sure which way he would be facing when he got inside.
The car door shut as one last officer rushed out of the apartments to join the driver in the front. And then they drove away.
“Job well done, Betty!” I congratulated myself and, looking down, reckoned that I deserved a brand-new mug of tea. One hot and fresh, not stewed and stone-cold like the one sitting in front of me.
I put the kettle on again then, trembling, sat at the kitchen table, and wept my heart out with relief.
PC MARTIN TALLENTIRE
I won’t try saying that I’d never seen the like before, because I had. By then I’d been in the police force for eleven years. I’d been the first to reach road accidents. I’d seen boys who’d been stupid enough to tangle with rough-house drunks, and I’d rolled tramps and homeless druggies over in doorways, only to find them frozen stiff. I’d held down the flap on a girl’s bleeding face after a trivial cat fight turned into a full-on duel with broken bottles, and was at Mr. Templeton’s the day the housing officers finally managed to coax him out. (That was an object lesson in how much filth and garbage one madman can fit in a one-bedroom apartment.)
But I had never seen a sight quite like that woman. She was barely human anymore. That bastard had ripped out so much of her hair that she was halfway to scalped. I thought at first the thin, weird keening I could hear was coming from that armchair—as if someone had left one of those joke rubber bags leaking under the cushion.
Then I saw her leg move. I didn’t recognize it as a leg at first, because of the way it twitched. And it was black. Christ knows, I’ve seen some bruises in my time. Nursed some myself, after the odd weekend roundup of
revelers at the far end of Marley Road. But livid flesh like that—green, blue, purple, yellow, black. The woman was a rainbow in herself. That Harris must have gone at her pretty well every night. Small wonder she was just a cowering bag of torn clothes in a chair.
Strange job, this. We deal with all types, all ages. Rich ones who ask you in and patronize you as they make you tea. Loudmouths who jeer as you pass. Losers who hurl rocks at the car from around corners. You have to learn to keep the world from getting under your skin. But every now and again you’ll see a small kid breaking his heart in a doorway, or some poor sap who just walked down the wrong street at the wrong time and had his head kicked in. And you’ll just want to pack the whole thing in, go home, and weep.
That’s how I felt that day. Partly the stink of the place! Hard to believe those two had lived in that apartment, hour by hour, day by day, with that reek up their noses each breath they took. I nearly gagged. I watched that social worker—Rob, was it?—prowl around the poky place, looking for something better than that rank T-shirt and those raggy bottoms to cover the kid from prying eyes. And all I could think was, Get a move on, mate! I just want out of here. You can come back some other time to trawl around for your report.
But no. We had to wait while he peered into every closet. What he was looking for I couldn’t think.
And then he pounces. On a book.
A book! I ask you. In that benighted, stinking hole.
I wonder about these social workers sometimes, truly I do.
Outside hit me in the face, the slap of it against my skin. I had forgotten. And it smelled—oh, I don’t know. Hard, somehow. Almost harsh. Like crystal. I think air shocked me almost more than light, and once or twice since, smelling chlorine as I’ve walked past swimming pools, I’ve been swept back to that strange moment when Rob opened the downstairs door.
I won’t forget the police-car ride: how big and wide the world looked. The road ran through the park, and all I could think of was my old nursery school because there’d been a patch of green there. It was like seeing something half-forgotten. Of course there are trees and grass on television all the time. But seeing half a park on either side of you is something very different. My head was swimming with green.
And sky. Even before Harris covered up the windows, we were far enough down the apartments that I had to twist my head to see even a slice of sky. The window in the car was closed, but if I leaned against it and looked up, I could see masses of blue.
Everything rushed past so quickly. And everywhere was so bright.
Because it was a police car, I thought that we were going to the station. (Mr. Perkins once went to the station.) When the car stopped, Rob Reed said, “We’re here.” And when I didn’t move, he leaned across to push the car door open. After I got out, he let me stand and stare a little while before he said, “Come on, Eddie. Time enough for that later.”
This time I wasn’t so slow because I knew for certain that he meant me. (I know that probably sounds as if I was thick as a brick. But Harris had only ever called me “Stain” or “Jackass,” and Mum used to call me “Sweetie” when she still spoke at all, so I had half forgotten that my name was Edward.)
Rob Reed led me to a glass door that startled me when it began to open before he even touched it. Behind it were more people than I had ever seen in my whole life. And not a single one of them was looking at me.
“Come on, Eddie,” Rob Reed said. “We go this way.”
And then he led me down a corridor so long I thought we’d never reach the end.
DR. RUTH MATCHETT, QUEEN ANNE HOSPITAL
It was astonishing, really, how well he seemed. When I was told, before I went into the cubicle, that the boy had not been out of his apartment for years, I do remember thinking, Here we go. Vitamin deficiencies. Possible stunted growth. And no doubt so mentally impoverished he’ll be halfway to retarded.
There were a few faint bruises on his lower legs, as if the brute who kept on kicking him couldn’t be bothered to raise his foot far from the floor, or put much effort into it. (I heard a different story about his mum. She’d been kicked halfway to pulp and was apparently so addled she could no longer speak.) The child had gotten off lightly. He did have one or two scars. But nothing you could pin down to a cigarette burn, or anything like that. I’ve seen far worse. Indeed, kids come in here looking a heap more battered than that after a rugby match.
He didn’t speak. But he would answer questions, so it was clear his brain still worked. Mostly he shook his head or nodded. But when an answer was necessary, as when I asked him, “Can you tell me your name?” he shot a look at his chaperone—that nice, tubby, half-bald man called Rob—and then came out with it all right. “Eddie.”
I ran my eyes over his clothing. The shirt was huge and close to clean. But I couldn’t even tell what he was
wearing over his backside because it was such a rag. So I just said, “Well, Eddie, I’m afraid we have to take this shirt away from you now.”
Rob muttered, “He won’t be sorry about that,” so drily that I guessed the shirt must have belonged to this Bryce Harris that they’d arrested.
I eased off Eddie’s clothes. That’s when I thought I’d see real damage. These household bullies aren’t stupid. They often concentrate on places no one sees. But there were no marks on his torso or buttocks. Rob Reed stretched out a hand to stroke his head while I did all the private checks that children hate—especially the kids who think they know what’s coming after. Eddie did shrink from my touch. But I would guess that could be simple modesty. And I must say that I saw nothing on his body anywhere to lead me to assume he’d been abused that way.
He didn’t even have lice.
We did take photographs, although I couldn’t see them helping in any court case.
“No paperwork, I suppose?” I asked when we’d gone through the tests. “No medical card or name of a family doctor, or anything?”
“Fat chance,” said Rob. “They will send someone in tomorrow to take a better look. But I’m not hopeful. The place was a dump.”
“If you find nothing, then we’ll have to start his shots again.” I made a note. “He may have had his first few
before his mum took up with Sunshine.” I spoke directly to the child. “Eddie, do you remember a doctor or a nurse ever giving you any injections? Sticking a needle in your arm and telling you that it would only hurt a tiny bit and it would soon be over?”
Either he didn’t understand or didn’t answer. He was staring at the polished floor. So I said, “Never mind,” and peeled off my protective gloves. “I think that’s it for now.”
I wrapped the boy in one of our little furry robes so he could be taken along to the unit for something to eat and a bath while one of the hospital volunteers found him some fresh clothes. But at the door Rob stopped and looked back inquiringly. I shrugged. We do try not to talk about these children over their heads as though they were dead or unconscious. But Rob’s a good man and he takes his job to heart, so I did want him to know that, so far as I could tell, there wasn’t anything he couldn’t see for himself. A few old bruises. That was it. I only wish that all the kids that poor man’s brought in here had been so lucky.
Mind you, it’s not my job to check the damage to the poor child’s mind and sense of self.
That often never heals at all.
When we came out again, the sun was so bright that it hurt my eyes, and I kept blinking. Rob Reed noticed that. (He noticed everything.) “If that keeps up,” he said, “we’re going to have to take you to have your eyes checked right away.”
That seemed to make him think of something else. “Ten-minute break in the park?” He grinned. “Might as well seize the chance to start on the sunbathing.”
He stopped the car. “Don’t move,” he said, surprising me because I hadn’t thought of it. “I’m coming around to let you out the other side.” I could see why. The cars went whizzing by so fast they made me dizzy.
He took my hand and led me over lumpy grass. “Sit facing this way.” He put me with my back to the sun. And when I felt my head and neck get hotter, I thought it was because the nurse who’d put me in the bath and cut my finger- and toenails must have done something odd to my hair when she was washing it. The things I didn’t know back then, or put together wrong!
But I knew one thing. “Shouldn’t I have sunscreen on?”
Rob raised an eyebrow—just a tiny bit; but if there’s one thing I had learned, it was to read a face. I put my head down and picked at the grass.
It was a bit of time before he said, “You think you should?”
It just popped out. “Well, Mr. Perkins said you always should.”
“Who’s Mr. Perkins?”
I recognized the overcasual voice. Seeing my mum with Harris had taught me well enough how one tiny thing let drop could be drawn out, and then blown up and up till even she believed she’d earned the kicking. So I said nothing, hoping he would let it go. But he persisted. “Who’s Mr. Perkins, Eddie?”
Well, now, of course, I know full well what he was probably thinking. So it is almost a laugh to think I felt so nervous about answering, “You know. On television.”
“Yes. His show.”
“I’ve never seen it.”
And of course he hadn’t. Those tapes were thirty years old. I don’t know who had left them in that closet, but there they were, in piles of unmarked boxes. Mum and I put on the first tape one day when I was very young. Harris was still bad-tempered from the move, and he’d stormed out. Mum made me cocoa because I was upset from all his shouting. “Maybe it’s a film,” she said.
But it was Mr. Perkins. Episodes of some old television show. He came in, singing a song about feeling good because it was a new day, and there were all these things that we could do together.
“Happy days, and happy ways
I hope you know how glad I am
To see you here with me today
We’re going to have great fun.”
While he was singing, he was taking off his jacket. It always started like that. Then he’d switch on the kettle and put food into the cat’s dish. (“Here you are, Sooty-Sue! My, weren’t you hungry!”) He’d show us what he’d been making out of toilet paper roll tubes and glue, or paper and string and some old plastic flowerpot, or something. Mr. Perkins could use anything. And after that, we all went on a visit. Each show was different, but it was always interesting things. Mr. Perkins would take us along to the fire station, or a farm, or a pizza parlor. (“Off we go. Jump on the bus with me.”) We met a lady who shoed horses, and someone who drew cartoons. We saw how oranges were picked by huge machines with arms, and visited hospitals and learned how they made spaghetti in a factory. Sometimes I worried that we would run out of people and places to visit, but we never did. And everywhere Mr. Perkins took us, he asked a hundred questions. “Why do you do it that way?” “Do you ever get scared?” “Is it difficult?” “Have you ever burned yourself by mistake?” “How long does it take to cook?”
He never ran out of questions. Sometimes he’d turn to us. “Do you ever help with the cooking?” “Have you ever had bad sunburn?” (That’s how I knew about
the cream.) I’d always answer, even if I had my mouth stuffed full of pie or cheese. But in the end we’d say good-bye to whoever it was we had been visiting that day, and wave, and he would take us back to his house. Then he would sing another song about how we could grow up to do anything we wanted—anything at all. All it would take was for us to want to do that thing enough.
“Because you’re strong and brave inside
But most of all, of course, because you want to,
Want to, want to
Because you’re strong and brave inside
And really, really want to.”
When we had finished watching that first time, Mum rubbed the tearstains off her cheek and pressed a button so the tape slid out. She put it back in the box. “Tell you what, why don’t we put it safely back in the closet, out of sight, so we can watch it again some other day?”
I think, even back then, I must have known she meant “away from Bryce.” (She called him “Bryce.” And it was only after the hammerings on the door began practically every night—“Where’s Harris?” “Harris, you bastard! Open up! You owe me money!’ “I know you’re in there, Harris!”—that Mum got frightened and weird in her head, and then stopped talking, and I almost forgot his name used to be Bryce.)
I put the tape in the box. I was so proud to work
out that it had to go in facing the right way before the plastic case would shut. Mum put the box back on the pile in the closet and dropped one of her blouses on top. I suppose she thought, if Harris saw the tapes, he would record his own stuff over them. And even after Harris brought home his brand-new television with the DVD, I kept them carefully in there and only played them on the old machine when he was out. I don’t think Harris even realized that the box he dumped his six-packs on so they would be in reach still actually worked. If you’re the sort of person who hasn’t moved the body of your own dog out of the apartment in weeks, why would you notice some out-of-date machine still gathering dust in the corner?
ROBERT REED, SOCIAL SERVICES
It was the first time we’d sat down to chat, there in the park that day. He looked all washed and clean. That nurse had done a brilliant job with Eddie’s hair, disguising the bit he’d hacked away at the front by making the whole cut shorter. Not elfin. It was too much of a mop for that. But cute. (If I had a bit more hair, I’d go to her instead of to Luigi.) They’d put Eddie in a pair of gray trousers and a plain white shirt. I swear that, sitting there in dappled sunlight, we must have looked just like a normal little boy and his grandpa, chatting about nothing.
Except that Eddie kept craning around to look at everything. A bird pecking the scruffy grass; something that rustled in the leaves above us; a toddler on a bike, over toward the swings. The raucous melody that came from the ice-cream van confused him till I told him what it was. (I doubt if any ice-cream vendor in this town is crazy enough to take a van near those apartments.) Even the daisies amazed him.
He just sat quietly and stared. He was a serious little boy, and very wary. Like all too many of the kids I see, he startled far too easily. I’d tried the old tests that we’re not supposed to use these days—slammed the car door behind him, raised my hand suddenly—that sort of thing. And, sure enough, each time the boy went rigid.
Still, there was something inside him that didn’t seem to have been crushed. Of course, we didn’t know how long his mum had been in that pathetic state. (With luck, not too much of the last four years.) But it was obvious we could do something with him.
That’s why I chose the Radletts for that first night. They are the best on our No Notice list. I left young Eddie picking at the grass just like a curious toddler and, pulling out my phone, strolled out of hearing. “Linda? Can I bring you another small gift tonight?”
“Oh, God!” she said. “We’ve only just gotten rid of Gary.”
“I know. But this one’s special.”
“Oh, aren’t they all?”
We shared a cynical laugh. And then I said, “So that’s okay, then, is it?”
“I really ought to speak to Alan. He’s still quite frayed. And he’s not finished fixing the gate after young Gary’s fond farewell.”
“This boy is nothing like Gary.”
“He’d better not be.” There was a pause. “So can you tell me anything?”
“Later. By then I’ll know a little more.”
She sighed. “When should we expect him?”
I looked at my watch. Though I was starving it was only five. “I’ll take him back to the office now to try to get a few things straight. Then we’ll come around. Say around six or seven?”
“We’ll be here.”
Rob kept his eye on me all through his phone call. Then he came back. “Ready to go?”
We got in the car again. I can remember being really surprised because the ride went bumpy. At first I thought it was just holes in the road but then I heard him muttering, “Bloody speed humps!”
The car drew up outside another building with glass doors, just like the hospital. Rob nodded at the man behind the desk, then steered me through some swing
doors and along a corridor. Most of the people who passed us coming the other way nodded, but nobody stopped to talk. He tried a couple of doors, poking his head inside as soon as he’d knocked, only to end up muttering, “Sorry,” and closing the door again.
Finally he came across an empty room and we went in. It had a brick-red carpet and armchairs, and there were toys on a low table and more in a heap in the corner. There was a mirror all along the wall, and as Rob propelled me past it, to a chair, I thought a boy was walking in beside us. I didn’t recognize the sideways glimpse of me.
Rob picked up the phone on the table and punched a number. I didn’t understand what he said to the person at the other end, but someone else came in soon after that and sat down in the chair between us.
“Eddie,” he told me, “this is Sue. She’s a police officer, but she’s a really good friend, and she is going to listen to what we talk about. She might have one or two questions of her own that she might want me to ask. And she’s going to record what we are saying on this little machine.”
I hadn’t noticed the machine. It was so small I’d taken it for some fancy silver cigarette packet left on the table.
“Just so we can remember things. Is that all right?” said Sue.
I didn’t know if that was all right, did I? I didn’t look at her. I just sat tight.
Then suddenly it was questions, questions, questions. What I thought strangest was how much they knew,
but still kept asking about. They certainly seemed to know a lot about Harris, and they knew things I didn’t know about my mum. Rob told me someone said she’d once worked in a dress shop and asked me if she’d ever mentioned that. (I suppose they hoped I would remember its name so they could track down when she left. I couldn’t help.)
They asked about who shopped, who cooked, who paid the bills. I probably looked blank at all their questions. I mean, I knew Mum used to do the shopping. But after she fell down the wall that time, and Harris couldn’t get her standing, not even after he’d calmed down, he had to do the shopping himself. He’d bring the things he fancied back in a box and dump it on the table. Sometimes he’d eat it, but a lot of the time he bought food for himself when he was out. He often came back smelling of curry or pizza. I never knew if he might want the things out of the box to eat himself so I left most of it, just to be safe. But I did know the things that Harris didn’t like so much, so I fed Mum on those till she was able to hold the spoon herself again, without too much spilling. So how was I to know the answer to the questions that they asked? Who did the shopping and cooking? Everything was so mixed up.
I did my best, though. And after a while somebody brought in fries—delicious hot fries with ketchup on a plate. Sue and Rob made a few jokes between them about how they’d invited a wolf to tea and should have
ordered double. But on the questions went. Some made sense, even to me. And some seemed very odd, like wanting to know exactly what I remembered of the way Gem died, and how long it took. (I didn’t know. I didn’t count the days. I just remembered Harris kept on idly kicking at her twitching legs and saying, “Oh, for God’s sake, get on with it.”)
All stuff like that. I didn’t mind. They’d put me in a great big chair with cushions. Rob Reed was there. He’d made it clear that I would never, ever see Harris again unless I wanted to, and that was enough to make it the best day ever for me.
“So do you remember going to any school?”
“Mum said I went to one with little trucks. I think I remember that. You could have yellow or red, but everyone wanted the red ones.”
Sue asked, “Did they have pedals, Eddie?”
I had to think for a while. Then I remembered. “No. You pushed them with your feet.”
Sue turned to Rob. “Nursery school, then? Or day care?”
Rob asked me, “Nothing after that?”
“He didn’t like it,” I told them. “He told Mum people would get nosy if I was going in and out. He said he liked to keep his family to himself, and I was no one else’s business.”
“Family?” Rob Reed leaned forward. “Eddie, do you remember ever being with your mum and living with
anyone else? Some other sort of dad? Sometime before?”
I shook my head.
“Your mother never talked of anyone?”
I didn’t want to tell him that she’d stopped talking. So I just looked at the sneakers they had given me. I really liked them. They were the sort the boys who rode their bikes around the apartments wore all the time.
“Oh, well,” he said, “I’m sure we’ll find out something.” He looked at his watch. “I think we might as well call it a day, unless you have some questions of your own.”
I only had one. “Where’s my mum?”
“Right now, she’s busy seeing doctors,” Rob Reed said.
I felt a stab of panic. “Is she ill?”
“Come on!” he chided. “Think about those bruises. And her head must be sore. We think she needs a few days to recover, then she’ll be more herself, and you can see her.”
“Is she in that hospital? Where you took me?”
“No, not in that one. In another one. Safe, well away from Harris.”
Somebody opened the door. I couldn’t see a face but I heard what she said. “Hey, Rob. Want to wind up for the day? The poor lad can’t be older than seven.”
Rob Reed asked one last question. “Is that right?”
I look back now and find it really strange to have to say this. But out of all the scores of questions I was asked
that day, and all the days that followed, that was the only one I couldn’t even try to answer.
I had no idea.
LINDA RADLETT, FOSTER CARER
I didn’t ask the boy questions. I simply settled him on the sofa alongside Rob and said, “Well, you’re a nice surprise. We were just saying, Alan here and I, that life was getting dull and what we’d like to see most in the world is a fresh face.”
He didn’t know how to respond, so he sat tight, glancing at Alan from beneath that mop of hair he’d clearly hacked at himself. The nurse who bathed him must have had a go at tidying him up. But if there’s one thing that I recognize from all the kids that come through here, it’s the remains of a do-it-yourself haircut.
He didn’t look too worried, though. And I’m not surprised at that. There’s no way Alan and I look threatening. I will admit I have turned “motherly looking” over the years, and Alan is pink, soft, and bald. (One of our kids once said my husband looks like a walking sausage wearing a really tight belt. And, though the description still amuses me, it is so close to true I never bring it up.)
Alan asked Rob, “Fancy a beer?” and Rob said, “Sorry, can’t,” then followed up almost at once with,
“Oh, God, why not? It’s been a day and a half. But just the one.”
“We’ve got alcohol-free.”
Rob looked much happier. “That’s just the ticket. Save my license for another day.”
The boy’s eyes were mostly down. But he was keeping tabs. Every few seconds he’d glance up, fast as a bird’s peck, from beneath his bangs. He clearly wasn’t sure what they were talking about, but he had that same look so many of the children who come to us keep on their faces. Blank, so they don’t set anyone off. If they could make themselves invisible the poor mites would. And watchful, because they’re used to trouble springing out of nothing and nowhere.
Yet even that first night there was something unusual about his wariness. It seemed intelligent—more on the ball than most of the children we get who come from violent homes. Too many of the ones who have been lifted out of that particular sort of danger are so concerned with keeping an eye out for the next blow-up that they don’t have a single brain cell left to use in more enriching ways. The rest of their mind is not just empty for their age; it’s all but frozen.
Not this little guy. He sat there, cautious, vigilant; but he was interested. If he reminded me of anyone, it was Orlando, who was much the same age, and came to us while the police were tracking down his aunt and
cousins after the crash that orphaned him instantly. Until that weekend, Orlando had obviously had the best of everything—a steady home, kind school, a host of hobbies, and a lot of friends. And though he knew the worst, and kept on bursting into tears when he remembered, in between times he had that same outgoing, curious look as if he couldn’t help but think, now this is interesting, about everything that went on under our roof, from the way Alan held his knife and fork to my recycling system, from how I swore when that cat next door got at the robin’s nest to why no one had finished papering the downstairs lavatory.
We’ve done this job so long that most of them remind me of some other child. And Eddie was like Orlando. So I was very tempted to believe there had been good in his life. From what Rob said, it clearly wasn’t that Bryce Harris chap I’d seen on television being led into court under a blanket. And somehow I was doubtful it was his mother, since the first officer to trawl the neighboring apartments for information reported back to Rob that Eddie’s mum had been a fairly pitiful mess right from the start.
The boy was cooped up in that small place for years. Everyone who noticed him on the day the family moved in presumed that he lived somewhere else—off with some parent from a previous relationship, even in care. It never occurred to them that he was still in there. Had it not been for some good busybody who saw his face at the window and poked the Social Services into
action, nobody would have known. He could have died in there, been buried in some ditch, and no one would have been any the wiser. You ask yourself, how can a child become invisible like that? But it is easy enough if, like Bryce Harris, you know how to do a moonlight dash, not letting your downtrodden partner leave any word behind or take a single step toward a new life for herself and her young son.
I followed Rob out to his car. “Do we even know his full name?”
“Not yet,” he said. “There’s someone going back tomorrow, to sort through the crap in the apartment. They usually find something.”
“Can’t you ask his mother?”
He made a face. “Not sure what’s happening there.”
“Nobody asked her when they took her out?”
“Linda,” he said, “you’ve simply no idea what state that woman was in. She was just whimpering flesh. She’s been that bastard’s punching bag for three whole years. Frankly I doubt she knows her own name now, let alone his.”
“He didn’t bring anything away with him? No cuddly toy? No blankie?”
I watched him looking shifty. Then he said, “I didn’t know if I should give it you.” He reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a grubby-looking book.
I turned it over to read the title. “The Devil Ruled the Roost?” I flicked it open. Dense print and narrow margins, with quite a few old-fashioned illustrations tucked
under sheets of tissue. “Oh, come on, Rob. This can’t be his.”
He blushed. “I found it propping up a table leg. But he did seem to want it.”
“I can’t think why. The child can’t possibly read at this level.”
“Linda, we don’t even know if he can read full stop.”
I didn’t hand it back. You never know. But mostly what I was thinking was that, given they’d had the mother and the child all day, they didn’t seem to have gotten very far at all.
I loved both of the Radletts from the start. They were the sort of people that Mr. Perkins visited. I could imagine him coming through their front door and asking them, “Why is the hall painted red?” or “Where did you get this line of wooden elephants on the shelf?”
Linda called me into the kitchen and sat me on a stool. I watched her cut things up and put them into bowls. “Have you done any cooking, Eddie?”
I shook my head.
She showed me how to use the cheese grater, and gave me a lump to start on. I made a bit of a mess. It was a whole lot harder than I thought to hold things steady on the wooden board. But Linda didn’t mind. She just brushed
all the scattered shreds of cheese over the edge of the table into her hand and sprinkled them on top of her big oval dish. Then she went over to a drawer and pulled out some knives and forks and spoons. “Know how to set a table?”
Of course I didn’t, so she showed me how, saying, “You’ll pick it up.”
“Will I be staying here, then?”
She stopped what she was doing and turned to face me. “Remember what Rob said? That we’re not sure of anything yet, not till we know a little more about you. But you will certainly be here tonight, and probably for several days. And maybe even longer than that, if we get on together.” She rubbed her hand over my hair and smiled. “Long enough to get you a haircut, anyhow.”
“Another haircut,” I corrected her.
She gave me an odd look. Then she went back to putting the bowls and plates in place and showing me which chair I was to sit on. “Rob reckons you’ll have ruined your appetite with all those fries. But never mind. Just have a go.”
She called to Alan and we started to eat. I wasn’t sure about the food. I wasn’t used to lettuce or tomato, and all that stuff. I ate the cheesy topping—not just because I was the one to grate it. I love cheese. This had a funny taste, and it felt different in my mouth from any I had eaten before. But I still loved it.
While I was eating, they were talking the whole time, the two of them. Not to me, but to each other. He
chatted about someone he’d met that morning in the supermarket, and how she seemed to be doing really well after the death of her husband. And Linda talked about a phone call she had had from someone called Alice. They didn’t talk about me, and they didn’t really talk to me, except that Alan kept saying, “If you’re not eating that, I’ll have it, if you don’t mind,” and Linda told me, “Alice is one of our daughters. She’s grown up now.”
I think that they were pleased at how much cheese I ate. Then Linda brought out ice cream. Ice cream was something I knew all about, because of Mr. Perkins. “Ice cream is made from eggs and cream and then a flavoring that can be anything—anything at all,” I told them. “Even a combination like, for example, coffee and toffee pecan.”
They did try not to stare, but you could tell they thought that what I’d said was really weird. So when Alan asked me, “What’s your favorite, then?” I kept my head down and I didn’t answer. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. I’d only ever seen ice cream on television. And I don’t think I even knew what “flavoring” meant.
The moment passed and they went back to talking about Alice’s new job. I ate the ice cream. Then I ate some more. Then Linda said, “I’ll let you skip the bath, since Rob says that you had one at the hospital.”
I wasn’t sure why she said that. Back then, I didn’t know about routines and such. But I could see she was expecting me to get up and follow her, so I did. We
went upstairs. She showed me where she and Alan slept. “You just knock and come in if you need anything. Promise?” She pulled pajamas out of a pile on a shelf, and I remember being really surprised at how tidy everything in the closet was—even the hand towels were folded. She pushed me in the bathroom and gave me a toothbrush and a lesson in how to brush my teeth. (It was the same way Mr. Perkins said, but using a brush with bristles that stood up made it feel different.)
Then she turned down the light till it was just a glow and sat on my bed.
So she read one or two. I don’t think I was listening. I was just looking around the room. I felt so high up in that bed, and worried that I might fall out. And I was wondering if my mother had had a bath as well, and if the nurses in the hospital had a closet with pajamas and a toothbrush.
“Do you think my mum’s all right?”
She broke off reading the book and leaned her face down close to mine. “You know she’s in the hospital. And you know she’s safe there. No one can get at her. So we’ll just cross our fingers and hope your mum’s already starting to feel better.”
I crossed my fingers hard.
“And no one can get at you, either,” she told me. “You are just as safe here. We lock the doors really well
at night. So you sleep sound. And we’ll start thinking about everything else tomorrow morning, shall we?”
I must have nodded.
I don’t know why I shook my head. I used to like it when Mum hugged and kissed me. But she turned at the door and blew a kiss from there. (I didn’t understand what she was doing till the next night, when she did it again.)
She left the door half-open. I slid out of bed and listened through the gap. Linda was going into the kitchen. Before the door closed behind her, she said, “Alan, remind me to phone the dentist tomorrow. Did you see his mouth?”
I wasn’t scared. I’d visited the dentist with Mr. Perkins. If I felt anything, it was excitement. I shut the door, then pulled the comforter off the bed to heap it in the corner. It was a whole lot puffier than the blankets I had shared with Gem. But still I couldn’t sleep for a long time.
PC MARTIN TALLENTIRE
For all the fuss in the papers, we knew we couldn’t keep Bryce Harris locked up for long. He’d barely touched the boy. And when I phoned the hospital to see if I could get to see the mother, they told me that they’d given her some knockout drops, and she’d be no use for a day or two.
Or even then, I thought, if I know her sort. We see them often enough, these women who’ve been eased away from all their friends and family, their jobs, and anyone who might support them in the business of leaving a thug. It happens in all sorts of families. Sometimes it’s simple intimidation: threats, bashings, and the like. In others, the way it works can be more subtle. Everyone’s friends and relations get up their noses now and again. Most people let it be. They just back off until they feel a whole lot less annoyed, and then they pick up the threads. But when one of these grim control freaks gets involved, you’re in big trouble. You are so much easier meat if you’ve no one to turn to, no one to say to you, “Excuse me? He did what?” “He hit you where?” “Christ, I would not put up with that—not for a single moment!”
And so the bully gradually and deliberately pushes all of these people out of your life. Your mother: “The old cow hates me! I can tell! You’re going to have to choose. It’s me or her!” Your sister. “She’s a bitch! Look how she didn’t even speak to me when she was here last time. This is my house and I don’t want her here!” Your friends are easily frozen out. Even the girlfriend you have known for years stops calling for a while because her child’s sick, or she’s distracted or depressed, and in the bully steps. “She can’t be much of a friend.” “I never mentioned it, but you should hear the things she says about you behind your back.” On it goes. “Well, you can visit your aunt Sue, but I’m not taking you. I’ll need the
car for work. You’ll have to get to Scotland on the bus.”
Throw in the sulks and tempers, and the occasional stray fist let loose to put you right (“That was your fault, that was. You were provoking me!”) and keeping in touch with anyone you liked or loved becomes not worth the effort. Your friends begin to take the hint and drop away. Your family tries to tell you a few home truths about your choice of partner, and that’s more grist to the bully’s mill. (“See? They’ve had it out for me right from the start!”) And soon your world is him, and only him. And after that you gradually begin to see everything around you through his eyes because you’re so run-down, and on your own, and standing up for yourself is so much harder than not arguing back. And if that makes you just a bag of worthless trash, because he tells you so, then you believe it. Add a few hard thumps and beatings, and it can take no time at all to turn an upright cheerful person into the sort of sniveling muppet that we police officers bail out time and again.
So best of luck to Mrs. Bryce Harris, or whoever she was, with her long hospital sleep. Better off out of it, since all the woman has to wake to now is a child taken into care and one big mess.
But it was up to me to find out all the details. So while we had Bryce Harris under lock and key on suspicion of grievous bodily harm, I went back to the apartment. One of our locks was on the damaged door to keep the neighbors out. In I went, hammering open windows as
I walked through because of the stink. I was quite glad to see the dog was gone. I figured I owed someone from the council offices a pint for that. Now it was my job to go through the place with a fine-tooth comb, looking for anything that might give rise to tracking down the past.
I was allowed to shift things about. They’d already taken all the photographs that one or two of those buffoons in Social Services might need to see a second time if they went all soft-headed and talked of sending the child “home.” I would have thought the bruises on the mother’s legs would be enough. But Martha had photographed all around the apartment as well. (“Got some quite arty ones of all that dog poo.”)
I spent an hour or so opening drawers. Anything that was useless—the special offers, packs of cards, catalogs, porn—I threw in a pile on the floor. I kept the bills because you can track down a host of aliases and previous addresses from some of those. Crushed in a drawer were several anonymous letters about the noise the dog made all the time, and one warning Harris that if he didn’t cough up what he owed, he’d get a visitor he didn’t want. That, too, was left unsigned. The place was knee-deep in receipts, some three or four years old. Cigarettes, beer, and groceries mainly. I must say, that surprised me. I would have had Bryce Harris down for the sort that lets the receipts for anything he hasn’t shoplifted drop in the street because he can’t even be bothered to stuff them in his pockets.
Then I went through the big closet in the bedroom, tossing the bottles behind me onto the bed so I could get to the back. Christ, there were some horrors in there, but I pressed on. I found a discount card to some toddlers’ play center called Hurlabout. (Result! Name of child: Edward Taylor.) I found a hairdresser’s card tucked in a tampon box: A Cut Above. The salon’s address was in Sunderland. No time or date, but we were definitely getting somewhere. I found a first-birthday card from somebody who’d signed herself “Nana,” but with so doddery a hand I figured she was probably out of it by now, all these years later. A postmark might usefully have pinned down Eddie’s year of birth, but the envelope was gone.
Then, at the back, I found the tidy little tower of unmarked tapes, with an old shirt draped over. I counted eleven of them and hauled them out because I hoped we might get Harris for distributing porn—though it was most unlikely that any charge would stick, videotapes dating back almost to the days when showing a little bit of you-know-what was seen as daring. Most of the people in these blocks are broke, but if there’s one thing they spend money on, it’s fancy electronics. The only people with machines that could still play these things were all those middle-class old folk on the other side of town, hoarding their old boxed sets of The Forsyte Saga and I, Claudius.
Still, any chance to get that bastard under lock and key was worth the effort, so I heaved the tapes into my evidence box and kept on, poking through the closets
till even the rubber gloves I wore disgusted me. The kitchen was a greasy pit. Revolting. I couldn’t even face the garbage can. I swear if Eddie’s birth certificate had been on top of that, in a clean plastic bag, I wouldn’t have picked it out.
Last came the bathroom. There was a stash of drugs inside the toilet tank, as there so often is. Good. One more possible charge. I didn’t bother with the mess of slimy bottles or the sodden towels. I just kicked them aside to check that there was nothing underneath except more filth and mess. I broke the catch to push the window open and check the outside sill for yet more drugs, but all there was out there was heaps and heaps of ancient bird shit.
I picked my box up and walked out. When I got in the street the fresh air hit me in the face.
That poor boy had lived in that foul stink for four whole years. And no one had noticed. Christ alive! Sometimes I hate this country.
LINDA RADLETT, FOSTER CARER
I have to say that he was one of the easiest boys we’ve ever had. More of them than you’d think are good as gold—often from gratitude at feeling safe. But they still worry you with their haunted eyes and inability to concentrate, as if the only thing inside their heads is trying not to upset you.
Eddie was different. The way he responded was extraordinary for a child who’d come from a place like that. On the very first morning, Alan said to him, “You’re doing a fine imitation of a concrete mixer, chomping away on that egg with your mouth wide-open.”
“I’ve seen a concrete mixer,” he said. “On television.” And you could almost watch him processing the memory to work out what it was that Alan had meant. And then he giggled with delight and shut his mouth! And after that, we only had to turn to each other and say, “Is someone round this table mixing concrete?” and he’d clamp his lips together. He learned fast.
The bed-wetting too. Obviously for the first couple of nights we thought it might just stem from tension and exhaustion. But soon it was obvious that it was a regular thing, so I persuaded Eddie to settle for a bed protector over the heap of folded blankets on the floor that he felt safer on, scared of the “too-high” bed. But then, as soon as we got into the routine of leading him through for a pee before we turned in ourselves, presto! He was practically dry.
And he asked questions all the time. Intelligent questions. “Why do you do it that way?” “Why do you keep it there?” “How does it work?” It was a little like having a seven-year-old toddler trailing after us.
And there were odder questions too. “What’s a blood family, Linda?”
That stopped me in my tracks. I bustled around a bit,
pouring my coffee. And then I ran my arm around his thin body to pull him close. “Have you heard someone saying it?”
“Can you tell me who that was?”
“Not sure,” he told me anxiously. “Might have been Rob. Or Sue.”
“Oh, right!” Well, that was a relief. He’d clearly had the little speech I’d heard some social workers give a dozen times. So I knew what to say. “Most babies are born into families, Eddie. Some people call them ‘blood families’ because the baby’s made out of the same sort of skin and bone and blood and stuff as their mum and dad.”
“They’re not covered in blood.”
“No. They’re not covered in blood.” I gave him a moment to digest this before pointing to the raised veins on my hand. “See those wriggly blue lines? That’s all my blood rushing around my body, doing its job.”
“Not really. Yes, the lines look blue, but if I cut myself, it would bleed red.” I took his soft little paw. “And you’ve got blood in there too. It’s just your skin’s so fresh and young that we can’t see it going round.”
I let him leave his hand beside my battered old one for a while, and then I said, “The blood in me is the same sort my mum and dad had. And the blood in you is like your mum and dad’s. That’s why some people call your mum
and dad and brothers and sisters your ‘blood family.’ ” I pulled him closer. “And mostly families work well and babies grow up there. But sometimes things go wrong, like they did for you, and then people like Rob and Sue decide it would be better if you come to stay with people like us. Just for a while.”
I felt him stiffen at those last few words, so said it yet again. “But you will never, ever go back to Harris.”
“I already did. About a hundred times.”
“Not a hundred,” he rebuked me. “Not nearly a hundred. More like”—he counted on his fingers—“nearly ten?”
Oh, he was bright enough.
He didn’t go to school at first. I reckoned if we kept him home, I could teach him to read a little quicker, one-to-one. (I used to be a teacher.) And so we started off with all my old staged readers. He knew the names of the letters, but still had to learn the phonic way of saying them. Then we were off. I bribed him along with little things he needed anyway. (I’d never seen a child with less in his personal box, and I was not sure when he would move on.) But after a while, as he began to get his confidence, the tiny treasures that I handed out were less important. He was on it in a flash, reading road signs to me whenever we went out, and almost incapable of pushing a shopping cart past a sign without proudly reading it aloud to anyone around.
That supermarket. The first time we went, his
mouth dropped open and he followed me around quite mesmerized, like a small zombie. On an aisle end where they sell stuff really cheap, close to the expiration date, he whispered excitedly, “I know them! We ate them a lot!” Once we were home and unpacked, I asked him what it was he’d liked so much about the place. First he said that it was the great long lights. Then that it was “so huge.” Then, “So much stuff, but all in places.” In the end I reckoned what struck him so forcibly was the sheer order of the shop. And after that, neither Alan nor I could do the shortest supermarket run without him begging, “Can I come?”
I took him to the dentist, thinking that things were far worse than they were. Angela said to him, “Open your mouth for me, pet,” and I expected to hear the usual cascade of clicks on the assistant’s keyboard as she flagged up each rotten stump and cavity—the usual stuff.
But, no. “Well,” Angela said when they were finished. “It’s not too good. But let’s be fair, it isn’t that bad, either. We can deal with that.”
His eyes were wide. I’d no idea what her words meant to him, but she says that her tack of treating all the children like adults and all the adults like children has worked so far, so she keeps to it, even with my strange brood.
She turned to me. “Most of that rather weird-looking mess is normal. Things falling out and others growing in. There are some cavities I’ll fill next week. But”—here
she smiled at Eddie—“someone around here has clearly been looking after his gums and using his toothbrush. So, well done!”
Eddie looked pleased. He lapped up praise. It made him almost radiant. “I didn’t always use the toothbrush,” he confessed to me on the drive home. “But Mr. Perkins took us to see a dentist and he told us that, in an emergency, like if we went camping and forgot to pack it, we can do a pretty good job using a finger.”
By then I had become accustomed to what Alan had begun to call “The Wit and Wisdom of Mr. P.”
After a couple of weeks, I dared take Eddie swimming. He’d never been, and one of my jobs is to ease these children into normal life. They have to know the things the others know, or there’s no hope of ever making and keeping friends. So I did what I usually do—borrowed a smaller child to give us an excuse for keeping to the toddler pool.
We took Marie, from next door. She’s only two years old, but she is sturdy. And watching Marie gave him confidence. Again, you could see Eddie thinking, If she’s okay . . . And after he had sat for a while scrunched in a ball on the side, getting used to the echoing noise and the splashing, and the sheer height of the glassed roof, he dared to slide his feet into the water and stand up. I think he was astonished it only came halfway up to his knees. He paddled farther down the slope, survived his first splashed drops from two more toddlers having a water fight, and made it over to me.
Marie reached out for him, but it turned out to be more of a push than a clutch. He staggered backward, losing his balance in the shallow water enough to have to sit down. But once he realized that the water still came up no deeper than a bath, he was away. Before we left, even on that first day, Eddie was spending most of his time on his stomach, ferrying himself across the baby pool with his hands, pretending to swim.
I didn’t know how long we’d have him. Sometimes that can depend on when the child sees a psychologist. And if there’s any possibility of giving evidence in court, that often gets delayed in case the defense starts arguing that ideas have been put in the child’s mind. So I was really waiting for Rob to let me know. I’d used the standard grant to take him shopping for clothes. He was entranced. Usually we encourage them to make their own choices, but that didn’t work with Eddie. He only wanted things like Thomas the Tank Engine shirts, and other baby stuff that would have had him teased mercilessly at the local elementary school. He hadn’t learned that pink is social death for boys. I had to be quite firm.
So in the end we compromised with suitable stuff for daytime, but Thomas pajamas. He loved the things so much that I went back the following week to get another pair. But even in the largest size, they were too short. “You’re soft, you are,” said Alan, when he saw me sewing extra strips onto the legs and sleeves to lengthen them.
But I’d have sold my soul for Eddie. I had fallen in love.
(They warn you about that when you sign on.)
The first time Linda mentioned it, we were sitting at the table, the way we did every day. Her hand had closed round mine to make sure I was holding the pencil the way she said was best—“No, Eddie. Like that. And now make me a capital S, just like a lovely curled snake. Yes, that’s right! Perfect!”
I was so happy. And then she suddenly made her voice go all casual, and out it came. “By the way, I was thinking about your mum last night. The bruises on her leg must have gone now. Maybe she’s feeling better. Would you like me to talk to Rob about setting up a visit?”
I didn’t trust myself to answer, so I shook my head.
She kept on, trying to persuade me. “She’d probably be really pleased to see how well your writing’s coming on.”
I knew that Linda didn’t really think that. I knew what they all thought because I listened all the time. Up on the landing. At doors. I acted good. I was good. But I still had two ears that worked, and wasn’t stupid. From the day of that first hammering on the door, I’d overheard all sorts of things that people said about my mum, whispering in corridors or talking quietly on phones—“in
no fit state to defend the child,” “probably too scared to testify,” “under that bastard’s thumb”—until I knew full well that everyone thought that she was useless. Useless.
But I could remember back when we played the first tape. I know when Harris stormed out, Mum was a little nervous. There was a tremble in her voice when she said, “Never mind! Moving house makes people ratty. When he comes back, he’ll probably be in a better mood.” She rubbed the red mark round the wrist he’d held too tightly and too long. She told me it was called a Chinese Burn, and that the girls in her class when she was at school gave them to one another. And then she tried to laugh, and said, “We’ll make some cocoa, and then see what’s on those old tapes in the corner. Maybe there’s a film.”
She slid one in the old machine the other people hadn’t bothered to take away with them. (“Leaving their crap!” said Harris.) We waited, and then the music for the song came on, and Mr. Perkins came through the bright red door, took off his jacket, and began to sing. And I remember Mum looking at him, then saying, “Perfect. All I’m bloody fit for!” and giving this weird little laugh. And then she squeezed me—almost too tightly, like a giant Chinese Burn, and I was in her lap, all warm and comfy.
But she hadn’t been like that for ages and ages and ages. So I didn’t want to go and see her. Even if the bruises had gone.
LINDA RADLETT, FOSTER CARER
He picked things up so quickly that it was easy to forget his childhood had been so strange. But every now and again he’d freeze, or look uncertain about the most straightforward thing, and we’d be reminded that, however sensible and caring his babyhood might have been, everything had been sent off track in recent years.
Take mirrors. Mirrors fascinated Eddie. He stopped in front of them the way that other children do when they are at a fair and find themselves facing distorting glass. “Look, Mum! I’m fat as a barrel!” “See, Dad! I am the rubber boy!”
Eddie just stared. Most times, I think, he took himself at first simply for some other child his age passing a window. His double takes stemmed more from simple spatial puzzlement—how can someone be walking there?—than recognition of his own reflection. As soon as he had clocked it was himself that he was looking at, he’d stop and stare—gaze at himself in wonder. “Is this me?” Of course we realized at once that, since he was too young to notice, he had never seen himself. Still, Alan and I couldn’t work out quite what it was that so astonished him. Was he surprised he looked so tall? So clean? So grave? Did he not realize children looked like that?
Because he’d pass for normal almost anywhere. He was a helpful, easy-going child.” Lord knows, we have
had kids through here who’ve acted out so badly that we’ve recoiled from taking them anywhere in public. We have had children who’ve been, to use the jargon, “challenging in the extreme.”
Eddie was not like that.
It was as if he knew a lot of all this social stuff already and simply hadn’t had the chance to practice it. And then we realized who we had to thank for that. Isn’t life strange? A quarter of the way across the world, in Canada, and thirty years ago, some sweet old fellow in a cardigan called Mr. Perkins makes a series of television programs for children. Someone else bothers to record them, but doesn’t throw them out. And Edward James Taylor is saved for life. If this sort of thing could only happen a good deal more often, I might be able to believe in God.
Alan and I tried not to ask the boy too many questions. But Rob did. One of the bones I’d pick with Social Services is that they can be too much like our dentist, treating small fries like adults where sometimes I believe it’s best for people like ourselves, who have been parents a long while, to use our intuition about what should be said, or what should happen next.
Rob came a lot, sometimes just for a chat with Eddie, sometimes with news. “Guess what I’ve just found out. It seems you have a great-grandmother.”
Eddie looked baffled.
I heard the sofa sigh from Rob’s weight as he dropped
on it. “That’s your mother’s own granny. She’s really old now, but she sends her love.” Wearily he shook his head. “Maybe one day I’ll drive you up to visit her. Would you like that?”
I wondered if Eddie had a vision of this great-grand-mother up somewhere in a cloud, or on a star.
“In Tyneside,” Rob said. “Quite a long way away.” You could tell he was dreading the drive. We sat in silence for a moment or two, and then, as if his mind was drifting far away, Rob added, “Her feet are terrible, she says. Like sponges.”
I watched poor Eddie trying to imagine this. “Sponges?”
“Never mind that,” said Rob—a little irritably, I thought, considering that it was he himself who’d brought the matter up. “The other news is that the apartment you used to live in has now been re-rented.”
“Rob!” I protested. (I mean, a home’s a home, however grim it’s been.)
“He has to know,” Rob muttered defensively.
Re-rented? What sort of language is that for someone of Eddie’s age? “What Rob is saying,” I explained, “is that the apartments where you lived belong to something called a housing association. And since Harris definitely won’t be going back, they have decided to clear out all his stuff, paint the place till it looks new, and put another family in there.”
“So will I live with them?”
At last, Rob was ashamed. I think he must have panicked momentarily because he said the worst thing he could say. “Of course not. You’ll be staying here with Linda and Alan.”
Eddie was on it in a flash. “Forever?”
Rob looked so miserable I couldn’t even give him my see-what-you’ve-done-now look. I had to rescue him, so I said reproachfully, “Come along, Eddie. You know better than that. Alan and I have told you plenty of times that we only look after children for a little while, till Rob here and the people he works with find them something that will work better.”
(I won’t use their expression, “a forever family.” It is such baloney.)
I left the two of them together for a while. When I came back, Rob was just leaving. I made some excuse to send Eddie down to Alan in the shed and turned to Rob.
“A great-granny, eh? But no one who could take the boy? No grandmother on that side?”
“The police tracked down some hairdresser in Tynemouth who knew the family. She said the grandmother died some years ago.”
“No father hiding anywhere in the woodwork?”
He shook his head. “My money is on Harris. It seems the mum was managing fine till he showed up. My guess is that it wasn’t for the first time.”
“I hope no one is going to rush to tell poor Eddie
that.” I sighed. “So. One great-granny. No future there, I suppose?”
“No,” Rob agreed. “She’s bed-bound in a home. The staff aren’t even sure she was on top of what they told her.” He glanced around to check that Eddie hadn’t crept back to eavesdrop. “I have some better news, though. There won’t be a court case.”
“His mum won’t testify?”
“She’s quite unfit.”
“What about a video link?”
He leaned toward me. “Linda, she’s hopeless. Harris could come into court swinging a rusty mace, and any jury would still hesitate to convict. None of the neighbors will say a thing. And Lucy Taylor’s such a mess in the head it’s hard to imagine that she wasn’t always some sort of basket case.”
“So is he going to get away with it?”
“Of course not,” Rob said hotly. “They’re nailing him for drugs, and common assault and stolen goods, and animal cruelty and numerous shenanigans inside that club, and God knows what else. They’ve rustled up a list an arm’s length long.”
“You know as well as I do that, without bodily harm or kidnapping, the man will be out within months.”
“I know.” He studied the ends of his fingers. “He was a sly one to take care to lay off the child. But, on the bright side, Eddie can see someone now.”
He meant a therapist, though in my experience
with damaged children, that isn’t always a bright side. “Anyone in particular?”
He looked embarrassed. “I thought it might be Eleanor Holdenbach? Sometime next month?”
Eleanor Holdenbach. It could have been a whole lot worse. And I was just relieved it wasn’t Otto Weeks. Otto’s so young he still has hobbyhorses. Most of the rest have worked for the council long enough to realize the job is just to tidy up what chunks of the child are left and brush as many of the splinters as they can out of sight, out of mind. Otto’s so full of beans he still believes that you can focus on exactly what went wrong and make the poor little buggers whole again.
So, “Eleanor,” I said. “Nehxt month.”
LEWIS TANNER, INVESTIGATIONS DEPARTMENT TECHNICIAN
We ran the tapes Martin brought in. God, that was a laugh. There we were, all of the other screens slopping over with what my grandmother calls “the bits no one should see in places they shouldn’t go.” And there, in the corner, on the old video player, this middle-aged goody-goody in a cardigan is asking some other codger how to make ice cream.
We sat and roared. I gave Martin a call, but he insisted that we did a thorough job and played every tape
through. And he is right that all too often underneath this stuff, you catch a glimpse of something that sickens you so much you want to pack in the whole caboodle—move to some other section where you don’t feel, when you go home at night, that you’d prefer a single bed.
Don’t tell my wife I said that!
Anyhow, we followed orders. Jawohl, mein Kommandant! For six days in a row, we slid in these old tapes. There were five programs on each. We got to know the songs. The two of us began to sing each time the show began.
“Happy days, and happy ways
I hope you know how glad I am
To see you here with me today
We’re going to have great fun.”
We even sang it in the canteen once. (Fat Terry said he thought it sounded rather familiar, but he’s a hundred years old.) Then we went back to shove in the next tape. This was the visit to the fire station. (The officer was tactful. He didn’t mention that they call dead bodies “crispies.”) Then came how Play-Doh is made. How people engrave on glass. We learned it all. It was a very educational week.
I thought that Rob had already asked me every question on earth. And Sue had often come along as well, sometimes in uniform, and sometimes not. They’d kept it up between them, tiptoeing around Linda and Alan. (“We’ll be all right in here, will we? Out from under your feet?”) They’d tried to keep it light, cheering me up along the way with cookies, and offers to take me along to the playground. (“All of us need a breath of fresh air. Want to kick a ball around for a while?”)
But they’d kept at it. “Eddie, what did you do all day? How did you pass the time?” “Did you ever have the little bed? Or did you always sleep along with Gem on that blanket?” I told them that the little bed was mine until one day he’d tipped me out of it, saying he needed the room to store a few boxes he’d brought home, and Rob said, more into Sue’s tiny silver recording machine than to me, “To clarify, Eddie, can you tell us who you mean by ‘he’?”
I couldn’t work out what he was talking about, so I’d kept quiet. I mean, he knew that I meant Harris. Why was he asking?
And I remember Rob had tried again. “What did you call him, when you spoke to him?”
I probably looked blank. I’d never called him anything.
Sue tried. “What did your mum call him?”
She hadn’t, much. But still I said it, just to keep them off me. “Bryce.”
“So did you call him ‘Bryce’ as well?”
They waited. Maybe they were thinking that I was trying to remember.
“Well, did you call him ‘Dad’?” persisted Sue.
“Harris?” She tried to hide it, but she was watching me as if she thought I was pretending to be thick. “Or ‘Mr. Harris,’ even?”
“I never called him anything.”
“What if you wanted to call him over to look at something?”
Did I look frightened at the very idea? Who’d want him looking? I found a ladybug once, and he pulled her legs off, one by one, in front of my face. Then, holding me tight between his knees so I couldn’t get away, he crushed her tiny body slowly between his big fat thumbs. But in the end I couldn’t see for crying anyway. So I won there.
“Right, then,” I do remember Sue saying very firmly into the machine. “For now, we’re going to refer to Edward Taylor’s mother’s partner as ‘Harris’ on this tape.”
And on we’d gone. “What did you eat? Did you have to tell them when you were hungry, or did they feed you anyway?” “Who gave you food? Was it hot or cold?” “Were you allowed to take food out of the cupboards by yourself or did you have to ask?”
Next time, they’d take another tack. I look back now
and I can hardly believe that I had no idea what they were fishing for, with some of their questions. “Eddie, I must ask, did you see anyone apart from Harris and your mum? Did he have friends in ever?” “Eddie, did Harris ever hit you?” “Where on your body?” “How often, Ed—can you tell me?” “How hard? I know it isn’t easy to explain, but”—Rob slapped a hand on his own thigh—“this hard? Or was it harder, more like this?” His hairy hand came down with such a thwack he made himself yelp.
After we’d giggled at that, it was Sue’s turn to lean forward. “Did your mum ever try to stop him from hitting you?”
I tried so hard to hide the answer. But they were waiting. Waiting, just like Harris did.
Maybe I panicked. Anyhow, I must have nodded.
“So what happened then?”
And when they’d finally dragged that answer out of me, and Rob had held me tight, and I’d stopped sobbing, he’d said, “Sorry, Eddie! God, I am so sorry! I had no idea!” And I looked across at Sue and she was scarlet in the face and scrabbling on the carpet on her hands and knees, picking up hundreds of tiny bits of gray foam rubber.
I hadn’t meant to rip that cushion into shreds. I didn’t realize I’d been clinging on to it so tightly. “We will tell Linda it was not your fault that it got torn,” Rob promised me. And he made sure he did, as they were leaving. He even called me back so I could hear.
Linda looked down at the carpet, which was still speckled gray around my chair. “Never you mind. We’ve had far worse than that.”
I couldn’t understand what she was saying. What, I was worried, could be worse than what Harris did to Mum that time she tried to stop him?
That was the end, that day. But Sue and Rob came back again, and I remember being mystified at how some of the very same questions got asked over and over. I couldn’t understand why. It felt to me, back then, as if Mr. Perkins had asked one of the people we visited, “Do the pancakes you’re tossing ever end up on the floor by mistake?” and then, after she’d answered, kept asking the question again, but just in a different way. I do remember worrying that they hadn’t listened, or they hadn’t believed my answers. Why else would they ask things like, “Was Harris ever nice to you?” when they knew that he wasn’t? Or, “Did he ever come home with presents or promise you special things?” or, “Did he or any of his friends ever put their arms around you or hug you—anything like that?” I had already told them that no one ever came, and Harris didn’t touch me—no, never laid a hand on me, so long as I was crouched down quietly against that wall, gripping my legs so tightly to keep myself steady that I made bruises on myself, trying to stay safe by keeping what Harris called my “dirty little pink snout” well out of it.
Being as good as gold so he wouldn’t get ratty.
CHARLOTTE NEXT DOOR
Linda came round some days to borrow my baby sister. It was usually for swimming, but after their new boy came, sometimes it was for her to go next door and sit with him in their sandbox. (Dad got rid of ours after I stopped playing in it. Marie came years after me. She was a big surprise.)
Linda and Alan keep their old sandbox covered so the cats can’t poop in it. Marie really likes it. I thought at first their new boy would be only two years old, like her. But then I saw him. He was nearly as old as me! And he was wearing Thomas the Tank Engine pajamas. I didn’t want to play with him when I saw that, and nobody suggested it. I don’t know why.
I don’t know either why the boy—his name was Eddie—would want to sit next to Marie, mucking about with sand. He did, though. She would crawl about, grabbing the spades and shovels, and bashing the tops of buckets. He just sat jammed against the edge, scooping up handfuls of sand and watching it trickle away between his fingers. Over and over. Whenever Marie got upset because she couldn’t see her favorite yellow scraper, he’d push it back in view. And sometimes, when she was chattering her nonsense, he’d nod as if he might be listening.
He didn’t talk, though—except to say to Marie things like, “There it is,” and, “Over there.”
I watched quite often. Usually Alan was gardening somewhere near, pretending not to keep an eye on things.
I asked Linda once, when I’d been sent there to tell them that it was our teatime, “Why do you put him in there with a baby?”
She looked at me. I could tell that she was going to make up some excuse. But then she didn’t.
“I think he finds it soothing,” she told me. “And some days, when he’s had his visitors, it calms him down.”
I knew who she meant by “his visitors.” She meant the dumpy man and the smart lady they called “Sue.”
You cannot say I wasn’t used to questions. But Eleanor. She had braids wrapped around her head, gray hair, and dangly necklaces. Her spectacles hung around her neck when they weren’t on her nose. I couldn’t stand her—well, not her exactly, more the way she made me feel, because that awful waiting that we always did reminded me of being near to Harris. It made my heart thump, knowing that she’d be saying something any moment, but not knowing what or when. I’d try so hard to keep still, and then I’d look in my lap to see my hands squirm. Or I would notice red and realize I’d gnawed a fingernail so far down that it was bleeding again.
She wasn’t horrible. It was simply horrible being there,
feeling like something she was studying. She’d sit me in the chair, give me a good long look, and then she’d say, “Today, I thought that we might talk about . . .” And it would be this or that, and all those horrible long pauses after I’d done my best. And it was such a cheat because Linda and Alan had told me so often when I’d woken at night, “Those days are gone. They are all over now.”
And here was Eleanor, just going on about it all, over and over and over. “How did that make you feel?” “Did you feel scared, Eddie?” “Perhaps you felt very sad.” “You probably felt . . .”
Linda would bring me home. I’d beg her, “Read me a story!” and she would pull out Frog and Toad, or Up the Faraway Tree, or The Smugglers’ Secret. Anything that didn’t have to do with me and how I felt. I loved the way even the words on the page began to make sense. More and more often, Linda would drop her finger to the page and say, “You read this line,” and I would find that I could do it. “No! Stop!” or “Frog said, ‘Yes, Toad.’ ”
I read it properly, as well. She said I put expression into it right from the start. I knew how to do that because Mr. Perkins often read to us. Never a story, though. We’d come back from the day’s visit and he’d say, “Now, that reminds me of a poem I learned at school when I was around your age.” He’d go to his yellow bookshelf with the talking bookends and run his finger along until one of the bookends squealed, “That’s right! That’s the right book!” He’d pry it out, flick through the pages, and read
us a line or two. And he would always make it sound as if it mattered.
So even if I was just reading something simple like, “ ‘Yes, Toad,’ said Frog,” I put my heart in it. And soon I found that Linda was pointing at the page for me to read not just a few odd words, but a whole sentence. It would be something like, “I won’t go there!” or, “He is a fool!” or, “You go home right now!” And after that, I just took off. (Well, that’s what Linda said.) And almost all of it was suddenly easy-peasy.
I could read.
And then, I don’t know why, I wanted to tell Mum. I knew that Linda would be very surprised. She had kept asking and I’d kept shrugging my shoulders and saying nothing. So after I changed my mind, there was a bit of a silence. Then Linda asked me, “Do you really want to go? Or is this Eleanor’s idea?”
“I want to go.”
She squeezed my hand and said, “All right. I’ll talk to Rob. He’ll probably be the one to take you.”
I overheard the phone call. I made sure I did. I played the usual trick of thumping around my bedroom, then crept out onto the landing.
“Rob, is this such a good idea? He’s been so settled. . . . Yes, I know. But does it have to be now, when he is doing so well? . . . No, you’re wrong there. I don’t believe he thinks that anymore. . . . Oh, God! You social workers and your bloody guidelines. What about Eddie?”
ELEANOR HOLDENBACH, CHILD PSYCHOLOGIST
I’d seen the headlines, of course. WILD CHILD. OUR TINIEST SHUT-IN. BLUEBEARD BRUTALITY. MONSTER!!! The usual mix of noisy hysteria and sentimental wallowing. Every front page featured that grainy photo of the boy blinking so fiercely as he shuffled into the light. And, just like everyone else, I’d seen the television footage of Bryce Harris’s hand slipping out under the blanket covering his head to flip the bird at the baying crowd.
I never for a moment thought the child would come to me. I naturally assumed that this would be the sort of court case—kidnapping, false imprisonment, grievous bodily harm—that meant that Eddie would have to testify. Don’t ask me the ins and outs of how Harris wriggled out of facing such obvious charges. I know it was something to do with the fact that young children are seen as unreliable witnesses. And it did certainly seem odd that this man should have had the self-control to keep his hands off the boy while he was beating up the mother.
Which led to the next problem for the police, for Eddie’s mother was deemed to be incapable of giving evidence. The bruises on Eddie’s legs turned out to be self-inflicted. He’d gripped himself so hard that he’d left marks. So who was to say it wasn’t Lucy Taylor herself who’d stumbled hard into the furniture, pulled out her own hair in chunks, and, in her seriously addled brain,
decided for herself her son was better off kept hidden in the apartment? Admittedly the rules have changed so, if a child’s mistreated, anyone who’s been present can be held responsible. But Harris had been smart, and Eddie Taylor came out of that apartment well-enough fed, with nothing on his body that you could photograph to show a jury. And though the child was weirdly innocent of life outside, and sometimes very shy, he did appear surprisingly normal. Everyone said so. One keen, persuasive barrister for the defense, a nice new suit, and Harris could have been acquitted.
Nobody wanted that.
So they went at him sideways, since it was obvious the drug dealing and extortion, added to one or two counts of blackmail and intimidation that they rooted out, could clock up much the same sentence. In the end, on the principle of safety first, they went for that, just to be sure he’d be put away.
And after that decision, once it was obvious that Eddie wouldn’t have to tell his story in any trial, he came to me.
There he sat, in that chair over there, his thin legs dangling. He was a serious little fellow, still in the habit of peeking upward surreptitiously, as though he’d kept those ratty bangs we’d seen in that, the first and only photo. (Judges move fast on a child’s privacy.)
I wanted to start off with what he thought about the things that had happened since he left the apartment. I
can’t remember quite how I began, but it was probably along the lines of, “So, how’s it going, Eddie?”
Just an open-ended question.
That didn’t get us anywhere, but over the next few visits the child did seem to overcome his fear of saying anything at all in case it led to trouble. Gradually he became more and more confident about describing the small excitements of his new life with Linda and Alan. And that did offer some sort of a bridge for going back to talk of earlier days.
Then once, when I was asking him if he had visited his mother yet, he told me he was going there the very next day. With Rob.
“It’s been a long time since you’ve seen her,” I ventured.
“When I was little,” he agreed.
That floored me. Obviously my first thought was that he’d conflated the mother who had been in hospital (and possibly, in his mind, cured) with the mum he had known so long ago, before Bryce Harris thrashed her into something else.
That didn’t bode too well. “Do you think she’ll be pleased to see you?”
He nodded eagerly. I will admit, my stomach turned. We’d barely started, and that relentless hope young children specialize in had already sprung up, setting the poor lad up for an awful disappointment.
I said, “She’s been in the hospital for quite a time.”
“She’s in a nursing home now.”
“That’s different, is it?” I asked warily.
“Linda says that it’s better.” He studied his shoes for a while. “We wrote a postcard. I chose it
and it was an owl.”
“What did you say on the postcard?”
“I told her owls come out at night. And they eat mice.” His voice brightened. “Their eyes are fixed. That’s why they have to turn their heads around if they want to see the sides.” He thought for a moment. “They can’t see things near to them very well, though. Only things far away. And they have special sorts of wings so they fly very quietly and don’t frighten off what they were trying to catch. And some owls even eat fish. And baby owls don’t all hatch on the same day.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “You managed to fit all that on a postcard?”
For just a moment, he looked puzzled. Then he admitted, “No. Only the first bit.”
“But you know a lot about owls.”
“Yes. Mr. Perkins took us to see a lady who kept lots of owls. She showed us a baby that was so tiny it weighed almost nothing.”
Even before the sessions began, Linda Radlett had filled me in on this Mr. Perkins fellow. Indeed, she thought that the man had salvaged the child’s life. “If he’s still on the planet,” she’d said to me, apparently quite sincerely, “I’m going to track him down and write to tell him so.”
And it was clear that simply telling me about the owls made Eddie feel a little stronger. So we pressed on. They are short sessions and I wanted to prepare him for the visit to his mother because it was so obvious that any hopes he was harboring were set to crash about his ears.
Poor little chap.
So we talked about how she might still be poorly. How it might be a much, much longer time before she would be even halfway better. (It was important not to let him go on believing that she would ever be the old Lucy Taylor again.) We talked about how it was Eddie’s job to give her time, and keep his fingers crossed—yes, I said that. I know it isn’t very professional. But he was only seven, for heaven’s sake. And if the Social Services don’t have the sense to tweak their guidelines about children having the right to see an “innocent” parent more or less on demand, then what am I to do? How could I let him go in there thinking his mum was going to spin around, shout, “Eddie!” joyfully, and squeeze him tight when I knew it was far more likely that she’d be slumped in a chair, clutching a handkerchief, and staring blankly at the wall?
We talked about how, if he was upset after the visit, he could ask Linda for an extra cuddle. She would understand.
“She’ll give me cookies,” he said. “And read the story without asking me.”
“Without asking you?”
“To do the easy words,” he explained. “She’ll read it all herself. Till I feel better.”
My watch was warning me that we were almost over time. I led him to the door. “Bye, Eddie.” I squeezed his hand, but gently, since his finger ends still looked a little pink and raw. “And good luck with the visit.”
“Fingers crossed,” he said.
ROB REED, SOCIAL WORKER
I put my hand up. It was a terrible mistake, taking Eddie to see his mum. The problem is, the things children imagine, left to themselves, are usually so much worse than simple fact. The times I’ve driven kids to prison to visit a mum or dad for the first time. All the way there, they’re pale as grubs—can’t answer the simplest question or focus on anything. Can’t even taste the burger I buy them on the way.
Then in we go. All these new family suites have toys and jigsaws, book boxes, beanbags, even bright and cheerful mobiles dangling over the cots for the babies. It’s like a day care center. The volunteers tend to be motherly ladies, pressing the young ones into accepting chocolate milk and fancy cookies. No one is jangling keys or scowling. There are no bars in sight. And when the dad comes in, he and the warden who’s accompanying him are as often as not sharing a joke.
The child I take home is a child I wouldn’t recognize.
So when I heard he wanted to tell his mum how he could read a bit, and show her how well he could write his letters, I was very keen. Her bruises would have gone. The bald patches on her head would have grown out. (And, to be fair, most of them had.)
What I’d not bargained for was her dead face. It was a mask. I wondered if that monster Harris had somehow kicked her into some sort of embolism or stroke. Lord knows, he’d bashed her hard enough to do permanent damage. She seemed dead from the neck up.
The woman who had led us to the room said, “Here we are, Lucy. Here’s your lovely little boy, come in to see you. Say hello to Eddie.”
She put her hand out—even touched his fingers—but her eyes stayed blank.
The minder prompted again. “Come on, now, Lucy. Say hello to Eddie. You’ve not seen him for a while, have you? But here he is, so let’s try saying hello.”
She smiled then. Not a proper smile—the stupefied dead sort you might see on a widow’s face as she thanks people after the funeral. She said, “Hello.” The greeting was so flat you would have sworn she’d not met him before, and wasn’t fond of children anyway.
I’d usually prompt a child to greet the parent back. “Well, say hello, then.” I didn’t, though. I don’t know why. I think I might have been too angry to speak. I know the theory—misery breeds misery. And that is true, and we must understand and try to sympathize all the way up
the family line, right back to where trouble began. But sometimes that is hard. Most of this misery is so unnecessary. If Lucy Taylor had only had the simple wits or guts to walk out on that man the very first time he gave her an aggressive nudge, none of this would have happened.
Sometimes I’d like to punch the parents of my clients really hard. Smash in their faces, in fact.
Oh, God! Don’t write that down.
What happened after we left? Well, that was even worse. I got him in the car and waited while he strapped himself in. (He was still clumsy at that—he’d had so little practice on different cars.) We drove down the narrow nursing-home drive and waited for the barrier to lift. Eddie said nothing, just stared out of the window for a while. And then he broke the silence. “Rob, why did that woman call my mum ‘Lucy’ all the time?”
My heart sank. I could feel it plummeting. I was too down at heart even to pick my way around what I guessed must be coming. Simply to get it over with, I asked the question outright. “Because you thought her name was . . . ?”
“Mum. And Harris always called her ‘Bitch.’ ”
ALAN RADLETT, FOSTER PARENT
It worked out well, in a way. Because Rob took that painful little anecdote, along with one or two more, back
to the panel, and they agreed that Eddie needed more time in a domestic setting, developing his social awareness and skills, before he could be thrown into the bear garden of elementary school.
I didn’t mind, and Linda was delighted. She had been making such good progress with his reading and arithmetic, explaining things, taking him places. She knew he would find school a massive strain, and every month we kept him home with us would pay off handsomely.
In any case, I liked his company. Usually I am quite glad, at half past eight each morning, to see the back of the kids we have and know that, unless they skip school and are delivered back to us, we’re free till half past three. We’re not spring chickens anymore. I need the break. But Eddie was so easy to have around. (In that way, he was like Orlando.) He wasn’t challenging. He didn’t keep tiresomely pushing his luck, or testing the boundaries, like so many of them do. He was a bit like some well-meaning stray who’d had a rotten deal in life, knew it, and had the sense to recognize when he had landed on his feet.
Oh, he was strange. (I know, I know, they all are.) And yet the strangeness didn’t seem to run right through his personality like letters stamped in red through sea-side rock. It just burst out now and again. Sometimes it was almost amusing, like on that blazing hot day I sprawled on the sofa watching Wimbledon for hour
after hour. On the last supermarket run, we’d bought a case of ginger beer, and I must just have taken to the stuff, because I sat there in that dripping heat, sipping all day.
(Amazing I didn’t explode.)
Anyhow, Linda wandered in some time before supper. Hearing the “phut!” as I pried up the tab of yet another can, she said to me, “Blimey, Alan. How many’s that?”
And then, from underneath my arm, we heard this clear little voice. “Seven.”
“Never!” I told him. “Never in your life.”
Linda went off to count up how many cans were left. “He’s right,” she reported back. “You must already have finished seven.”
“You shouldn’t have taught the little beggar how to count.”
“He could count anyway,” she reminded me. “It was the taking away and stuff he’d never learned to do.”
I squeezed him. “Is that right?”
“Yes,” he said proudly. “I could count by myself even before I came.” And neither Linda nor I knew any way of telling him it was an odd habit for a little boy, to keep such close track of the number of times in a day he’d heard a man open a drink can.
Sometimes it wasn’t funny at all. Take that time in the shed. He’d been in with me for an hour or so. “Helping,” we called it. Our damn electric bill had shot up yet again, so I’d been fitting insulation sheets on all four sides,
hoping to save myself from having to use the heater for so many months of the year. I’d fixed all the facing panels up again, and I was hammering back the nails on which I hung my tools.
Getting the last one in where I needed it was proving awkward. Maybe there was a wood knot in the upright behind. The first two nails bent and I threw them in the trash can and tried another. Same again. And then a fourth. I will admit that I was getting testy. I rather pride myself on how I work with tools, and Eddie was standing watching. So I reached out for three more nails, shoved two between my lips, and had another go at hammering one in.
To this day I’m not sure exactly what I said. Clearly I said it from between clenched lips. (Who wants to swallow a nail?) I think it was probably something as simple as, “Now you’re beginning to annoy me.”
I was talking to the nail!
But he had vanished from my side. Melted away. I didn’t think much of it—simply tapped the nail’s head into the wood slowly and carefully. And when I turned to see what he was up to, there he was, crouched in the corner. He had practically turned into a hedgehog ball, his head buried between his knees. You wouldn’t think that even the smallest child could curl up so tightly.
I wasn’t sure whether or not to touch him. Even a gentle hand can trigger such bad memories with some
of these kids that they can go berserk. The place was full of dangerously sharp tools.
I would have gone to fetch Linda, except I was worried he would run off. And so I gradually talked him down. You know: “Eddie, you’re not back there. And I’m not Harris. No one in this house is angry with you. I was getting mad at the nail.” I just kept at it—very much like soothing a horse. (Not that I’ve ever done that.) And finally I must have gotten through to his frozen brain, because I sensed a relaxation in the tiny ball of him.
“Eddie, I’m going to touch you now. I’m going to put my hand on your shoulder and I want you to try to unfold. You don’t have to look at me, but I do want you to stick out your legs and try to straighten your back.”
It took a bit of time, but finally he managed it. I led him into the house. He looked like death. Linda came back from next door, where she’d been arranging to borrow young Marie for the next swimming session. In front of Eddie I explained to her what had just happened. (He probably needed to hear a sensible account of it as much as she did.) She nodded and then led him off. I saw them sitting close together on the sofa. Her arm was around his shoulders. But it was only later, when she peeled off his shirt before his bath, that she saw all those splinters he had driven in his back when, trying to make himself invisible, he had slid down that rough, unsanded joist.
LINDA RADLETT, FOSTER PARENT
After he wrote that postcard to his mother, one of the treasures I bought him was a tiny feathered owl. There was a shelf of them in Tanner’s toy shop—spin-offs from something on television. Each of them had a name on its pottery base. The one I chose was called Olly. (Oh, surprise me!) Eddie was thrilled with it. We had been having quite a time persuading him there was no need to hide the things he valued at the backs of closets. So it was rotten luck that, just a few days later, Dolores came.
Dolores. I ask you. And anyone who looked less like a fancy Spanish dancer would be hard to find. The phone rang in the middle of the night. Less than ten minutes later she was on the doorstep, sturdy and scowling, with a nervous-looking female officer. Oh, she was angry. She had been lifted from her home at two in the morning, trying to intercede in a scrap between her mum and stepdad. It was the neighbors who had called the police as the fight ratcheted up. Both of the adults were, as the police officer put it, “royally wasted” and so Dolores had to be removed. (Guidelines.)
She was dead angry with the officer. And she was angry with us.
We had no choice but to stay up the rest of the night. I didn’t fancy leaving Alan alone with her—she was the sort who’d make up stuff just to cause trouble. And he was worried about leaving me because Dolores looked as
if she could pack a smart punch. She wouldn’t go to bed. “I’m not going to sleep in your stupid, smelly house! Forget it!” She turned a chair around and slumped down in it with her back to us.
So we made tea and listened to her beefing about the fact that it was her business where she spent the night, not anything to do with us or the police. Then the tears started and we heard the sadder side of the story, about not being able to see her real dad anymore because of his mean-minded girlfriend. And how her elder sister had given up on the whole family and run away to Sheffield. Poor Dolores was obviously so lonely, downright terrible at schoolwork, and (as we gathered) pretty unpopular with teachers and classmates alike. She was a car crash of a child.
Alan kept listening while I fetched her a Coke. (She’d been quite rude about the idea of hot chocolate.) And when I took it to her, that’s when I saw the tiny feathers around her feet. I’m sure she hadn’t ruined the owl out of spite. Quite sure. She was just picking at it nervously, the same way Eddie gnawed his nails.
But Olly was now bald.
Someone came by to fetch her at eight the next morning, thank God, to take her home. She went off with a cheery wave (considering) and quite a pleasant “See you! Thanks for the Cokes and cookies!”
I held the fort while Alan waited on the toy-shop step until they opened. Luckily “Olly” was popular, so
Alan bought two more, one and a spare, as if we were the parents of some toddler who always had to have two comfort blankets in case one of them got lost.
We had a chuckle later over our rusty acting skills. “Eddie, you know you couldn’t find your owl at breakfast? Well, here it is. I think that Alan must have moved it out of the way when he was clearing up.”
“Oh, sorry, Ed. It must have fallen down behind the television.”
I thought that we were home and dry. And I was sure I’d picked up every last one of the feathers Dolores shredded. But two or three of them had floated farther than I thought, and Eddie had sharp eyes. It can’t have been an hour before he noticed them, right up against the fender, where the vacuum cleaner misses stuff.
He cradled the tiny feathers in his palm as he inspected the owl for bald patches. Then, “Will I be going to see my mother again?” he asked.
“Any time you like,” I told him. “All that you have to do is say.”
God, what a painful silence. It’s ghastly trying to imagine what must run through these children’s minds. I made some stupid excuse to leave the room in case he thought that I was waiting for him to agree and make a date. And though he followed me a minute later, he never said a word about his mother after that.
CHARLOTTE NEXT DOOR
I was amazed to see him coming into our class. I hadn’t realized he was nearly eight. Mrs. Carlow brought him in. She had her hand on his shoulder and she was steering him, almost as if he was on wheels. She whispered something to Miss Bright, who turned to us and smiled and clapped her hands to stop us talking.
“Class, this is Eddie. He’s new to our school, so I want everyone in this room to help him out until he finds his feet. If you see Eddie wandering down the hall, you’re to ask if he needs to know where he’s supposed to go next. If you see him looking sad, I want to know about it. And if you have room for someone else to join in your game, I want you all to think of Eddie first.”
It’s the same speech she made when Ethan came. And when Skye Lupin was moved down to our class after her stay in hospital because of that thing with her spine.
People were nice to him at first. But then I think that some of them began to think he was a little creepy. He sort of copied people. If we were playing shipwrecks in the gym, he’d pick someone—usually Neil—and follow him around, a little too close behind. If Neil did a star jump, so would Eddie. If Neil scrambled up the bars, Eddie would wait till he’d come down again, then do exactly the same, and hurry to catch up. He did what he’d have done if he were teasing Neil. Except he wasn’t. He was just copying.
He did the same to Astrid when we did painting in wet break. He copied everything she painted, in the exact same colors. Astrid went up to complain, and she and Miss Bright whispered together for a while. Only a little bit later, Miss Bright asked Eddie to help her carry something along to the office. They were away for quite a while. I think I thought that she was probably telling him that he might have been allowed to copy people in that way back in his old school, but he couldn’t in ours.
I didn’t let on that he lived next door. Only to Emma. And I did tell her that she wasn’t to say about him wearing Thomas the Tank Engine pajamas or playing in the sandbox with a baby. I told her twice.
But she was upset because I’d given my last candy to Surina, so she told on me. She slipped out of the lunch line and ran back to the classroom. I followed and I heard her telling Miss Bright, “Charlotte is saying really mean things about the new boy.”
Miss Bright called me in too and said she hoped I would try harder to be kind. I was so mad at Emma that I fought with her and went off with Surina. It was a horrid time till Emma and I made up again. And after that I heard Surina crying in the bathroom, and I felt worse.
I don’t think Eddie ever knew I’d told about the pajamas. Or the sandbox.
Nothing was ever said.
I’d never worn anything that bright and red before. The trousers were gray, but the school top was redder than ketchup. When I was taken in, on that first morning, everyone in my class just thought I’d moved there from some other school. Nobody asked about it.
The work was easy. By then I could read almost as well as everyone except for Priya. Miss Bright said my writing was neat. I had a bit of trouble with the number work because they were doing different things. But after Miss Bright called Linda in for a chat, and lent her the book, then Linda managed to explain that, too, and it was easy as well.
Rob came to check on me, and I think that it was the uniform that made him push me a bit. “I think your mum would like to see it. I think she’d be proud.” He tugged me back to face him when I moved away. “You will feel better afterward, I promise you. We’ll go on Saturday. I’ll fix it up.”
And it was all right, that visit. When we arrived, Mum wasn’t in her room. The corridor was empty, so we just walked along, with Rob peering through the glass panels in the doors along one side, exactly like in school. He found her in a room with other people, sewing some brightly colored ribbons onto a straw hat. Mum smiled as I came in, and when Rob steered me right in front of her, she said, “Look at my bonnet!” and crammed it on her head, and laughed.
They’d cut her hair and it looked darker and redder. And she was in a flowery dress. The lady teacher said to her, “Lucy, why don’t you run along and take a bit of time with your little boy? The hat can wait.”
Mum made a sort of joke I didn’t get. Something about the hat having to wait till Easter. But Rob Reed chuckled and explained to me on the ride home that it was an Easter bonnet, though I couldn’t see why that made it a joke.
But it was really fancy, and my mum looked good in it.
She seemed a little baffled in the kitchen, so Rob made tea while we sat on two comfy chairs out in the lounge. She didn’t ask me questions. She just smiled. I wasn’t sure what I should do, so I just sat there. Then I said, “I like your hair,” because I had heard Linda saying that to Marie’s mother when we came back from the pool one day to find her hair was very different and really short.
Mum didn’t answer, so I said, “Did you cut it yourself?”
She frowned and shook her head as if there was a bit of water in her ears. And then she said, “They did it.”
I told her, “Linda takes me to the place on the corner. It’s called La Mode.”
She didn’t ask about Linda. She didn’t seem to care. Then Rob brought in the tea. I saw him watching us as he went back to fetch the sugar and an extra mug to dump the tea bags in. I think he realized that I couldn’t
think of anything to say, so he told Mum, “Look at what Eddie’s wearing. It’s his new school uniform.”
She fingered one of my sleeves. “It’s very red.”
“Isn’t it?” Rob said. “I think it suits him. Gives him a bit of color.”
“One of the ribbons on my hat is red.”
“I thought your hat was lovely,” Rob said kindly and gently. “After we’ve had our tea, you can go back and finish it if you like.”
She smiled so brightly that I realized that was all she wanted. So I drank my tea as fast as possible, though it was very hot. Rob stood up. So did I.
She stared at us as if she couldn’t work out what was happening. Rob took her elbow and he sort of steered her back along the corridor into the room. They were all packing up their scissors and scraps and ribbons, but she didn’t mind. She hurried in without even saying good-bye.
We went back to the car. As I was kicking at the gravel, Rob told me firmly, “I think your mother looks miles better. She’s put on weight, which makes her face look younger. That was a splendid Easter bonnet she was making. She still finds talking hard, but I think that she really liked your uniform. Don’t you think she looks better and seems happier?”
I liked Rob, so I just said, “Yes.”
A lot of people just don’t grasp some aspects of this job. Take Harry. He leaned over the fence and said he thought that my first raspberries would probably be ready by midweek.
“Shame, that,” I said, “because I’ll be in Tyneside, so the birds will get them.”
“Taking a boy in care to see his great-grandmother,” I explained.
“You get about,” he said. “Were the two of them close?”
“As far as I know, they’ve never met—not since he was a baby, anyhow.”
Harry gave me quite a look. “So what’s the point in taking him all the way up there?”
He snorted. “Your time. Your fuel. Though I suppose that it’ll be Joe Taxpayer who picks up the tab. And all to no real purpose.”
How wrong can someone be? The drive was interesting. (I heard a lot about the way the Radletts run their life.) We stopped at Huddersfield, where Eddie tasted an avocado for the first time—and mango, now I come to think. And when we finally reached the nursing home, the caregiver who showed us where to go told us that Mrs. Lane had been “bright as a button” until a few years
before. “It was her daughter going first that knocked the stuffing out of poor old Dinah. That’s when she came to us.”
We walked along the carpeted hall, and there in a room with a bay window and a spare empty single bed was Eddie’s great-grandmother—propped on a heap of pillows and snoring faintly.
The caregiver leaned over her. “Dinah? Dinah? This is Eddie. He’s your great-grandson. He is Lucy’s boy.”
Mrs. Lane opened her eyes and smiled seraphically.
“You know,” persisted the caregiver. “Lucy. Your granddaughter.”
Mrs. Lane nodded hard, doing her best. “Is it teatime?” she asked.
Eddie was mystified. The caregiver said, “They love their piece of cake at teatime.”
A bell rang fiercely down the hall. The caregiver looked toward the door. “Are you all right for a moment?”
“We won’t stay long,” I said.
But she’d already gone. So I took up the reins. “Mrs. Lane, here is Eddie. He’s come up to visit you and say hello.”
She was still smiling. “Will you be having cake as well?”
“I hope so,” I said politely. And the whole benighted visit went on like that. But she was a member of Eddie’s family and so a part of my job. Everyone needs a sense
of self, and it is up to me to find a Life Story for even the children with the blankest slates. A newborn baby dumped on a street corner will leave the hospital with heaps of cheery photographs of nurses cuddling them, their very first blanket, even their “favorite rattle.” No reason why we can’t do better for someone Eddie’s age. So I took one or two photos of his great-granny smiling benignly from her pillowed nest, with Eddie at her side.
The moment I let him, Eddie moved away and waited by the window, peering watchfully at his great-grandmother. I hovered over Mrs. Lane’s bedside cabinet and the windowsill behind, looking for photos, small mementoes—anything that might give rise to questions that might lead to answers.
On the chest of drawers there was a photo of a woman with a child. I carried it across to Mrs. Lane. She didn’t need to look. She recognized the frame. “That is my Clare,” she said. “With little Lucy. Lucy hated socks. You’d get one on, but by the time you’d forced her tiny wriggling foot into the other, the first would be off.”
So. Eddie’s mother, in his grandmother’s arms.
I plowed on for a while, trying to dig out more about this Clare. Friends? Work friends? Anyone who might have known something about her daughter Lucy’s life before it was derailed by Harris. But it was obvious that Mrs. Lane’s brain ran only in small circles. I could have sat for weeks and heard about nothing but socks and cake.
I’d taken a couple of photos, anyhow. And Eddie had met a member of his family, even if he had taken to pretending he was invisible.
I waved the photo of Clare and Lucy at the caregiver when she came back. “May I take a copy of this before we go?”
Watching her worrying about which tiresome issues of privacy something so simple might raise, I pushed a little. “For Eddie.”
Her face cleared. Blandly she said, “You know, I can’t see any reason why you and Eddie shouldn’t slip out for a while to get some coffee.” She pointed to the bedside cabinet. “And if you’d like to look at some other family photos while you’re gone, peek in that drawer.”
Treasure trove! A score of photographs. And some kind soul who must have sat with Mrs. Lane as she was gradually losing her mind had taken the trouble to inscribe the names of people in them on the back, along with the odd brief note. The careful italic handwriting offered helpful clues to future caregivers: Harry—“He was a devil when he’d had too many beers.” Clare and best friend (Isabel? Elizabeth?) in Scarborough—“Wind bitter. June. Fish supper after at Bertie’s.”
We took the lot. The nearest pharmacy had a copier. I needed to keep the names and notes attached to the right photo, so had to keep altering the controls to darken the lightly penciled notes on the backs enough to read, but keep the copies of the photographs from coming out too
dark. I clipped the printed sheets in pairs while Eddie stood entranced by the sight of paper churning out of the machine.
One of the photos was in a transparent folder, and as I pulled it out a shower of photographs that had been tucked behind fell to the floor.
I picked them up. Crisper, more recent. Had they, perhaps, proved far too painful to be shared? Had they led only to tears? “My Clare.” “My Clare with Lucy.” “Clare and Lucy at Saltburn.” “Me and Clare.” “Lucy and little Edward.” “Edward, aged 18 months.” “Edward’s second birthday.” “Edward on the slide at Hurlabout play center.” “Lucy and Edward.”
At last. At last! Something to shove in Eddie’s memory box apart from that gloomy-looking, moldering book!
ELEANOR HOLDENBACH, CHILD PSYCHOLOGIST
Sometimes a child just walks away from disaster. People in my profession pass our lives with the unhappy and damaged. We spend a good few years reading about the myriad ways in which the psyche can be blighted. We study endless cases, discuss a thousand more, and meet the rest in person. Sometimes I think it stops occurring to us that it is possible to have an impaired childhood and a bruised soul, yet still come out of it close to unscathed.
But I have seen it often enough over the years. A drunken bullying father drives his car into a creek and drowns. His daughter blossoms. The younger brother of a teenage drug addict accompanies his mother to the morgue, where she identifies the messed-up, purple body. They walk away. Within a week the skin rash that’s disfigured him for four long years has vanished, her blood pressure is back to normal, and you see the two of them smiling at one another in a supermarket aisle, discussing nothing more stressful than the coming meal.
And there was something of that sort in Eddie. He wasn’t interested in talking about Bryce Harris or his mother, or anything else in the past. He wanted to leave all that behind like some bad dream, and talk of his new school, his teacher (the aptly named Miss Bright, whom he adored), and after-school club on Tuesdays where, over the months I had my sessions with him, he seemed to learn to play everything from Snakes and Ladders to some sort of slimmed-down chess I never understood.
He sometimes talked about computer games (though it was obvious that Linda and Alan let him spend only enough time on those not to disgrace himself among his classmates). He told me what he was reading by himself, and what the Radletts read to him at bedtime. He talked about the films they let him watch. (A good bit of ground had to be made up there. I’d ask him, “See anything good?” and he’d be telling me all about Dumbo the baby elephant, or Nemo the lost fish, as if he were
the only person in the world who’d ever seen the film.)
So what we mostly did was talk about how he could best cope with others—especially those his own age. He’d certainly grasped the fact that he was different, and understood how it had come about. But he was keen to hide the fact as much as possible. So we explored how he might work on covering up the many gaps in his experience—how he might keep his friends, in short, from thinking him “a weirdo” when he began to tell them things they’d known for years, or rushed into the classroom bragging about the fact that he had paddled in the sea. The real sea! Not even holding hands with Linda! Not even scared!
But he was teased in school, for all that Miss Bright was relentlessly stern with the rest of the class on poor Eddie’s behalf. When he got low, I found our conversations drifted back, always, to Mr. Perkins. He’d been a comfort to the child through those dark years, and it was to thoughts of the man that Eddie clearly turned in times of stress. I had persuaded PC Martin Tallentire to lend me a couple of the tapes still moldering in police stores for want of anyone applying for their return. “A therapeutic necessity,” I’d termed it in my request. And I admit that when I settled down to watch that sweet old fellow struggling in and out of his unstylish cardigan and talking always as if the child watching was his particular favorite, I did feel my pulse settle and my spirits rise.
So there’s still goodness in the world, I thought. Yes,
there is goodness. One human being can help another through a vale of tears.
If there is any way that Social Services can get the timing wrong, we’ll manage it. We’d had Eddie in the school for only a few weeks when things began to move. Lucy’s psychiatrist finally sent us his report (more than three months late), making it clear that he did not envisage it would be possible for her to care for Eddie, even in the longer term. It was the usual highly technical report about effects of trauma, neurological damage—pages of stuff. But the conclusion, written plainly at the end, was that Lucy’s mental and emotional state would offer a seriously impoverished environment to any growing child.
And there was not much hope of things improving.
The panel met the following week and recommended, sensibly, that Eddie should be found a permanent placement.
I wasn’t sorry. It was for the best. The ideal thing, of course, was for the Radletts just to keep him there. But they weren’t licensed for anything more long-term than emergency and transient placements. They were too old to permanently adopt a child of seven.
So we went looking.