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NO STAMP FOR KIRSTIE

September 7, 2017 Leave a comment

Warning: This novel is being written online daily. It will be raw and unedited and the subject matter is not ‘palatable’ to some. It will not be published anywhere unless someone steals it, and then I’ll sue the Sh** out of them!  COMMENTS WELCOME!

 

NO STAMP FOR KIRSTY.

 

“Kirstie’s missing again.” Margie said.
Kirstie was going to turn up one way or another. Small town. Nowhere much for an eight year old to hide. No one was going to worry too much. They might after 24 hours, or in Kirstie’s case, 48. She was a recidivist. It was a big word for an eight year old to hang a tongue around but she had said it aloud to herself so many times, breaking the syllables down. “Rec id iv ist.” She was not quite sure of the meaning, but it sounded pretty tough. Kirstie could say it just like that bible snake on her Sunday School stamps. A big fat, naughty looking snake coiled around a tree laden with golden apples. “Resssssss id iv issssssttttt!” Just before the pretty naked lady reached up and plucked an apple the snake might have smiled a big snaky smile and hissed comfortingly ‘Resssss iv id issstttt!”

“Come on young lass.” Margie had not been too bothered when she mentioned to Larry that Kirstie was missing again. Uncle John on his red Post Office bicycle knew all the places where kids hung out or chose to hide. It was not as if the town was thriving anymore. It had been going down hill since the railways to seaside towns had been closed down by an unimaginative and thoughtless Minister of Transport in the sixties. Then in the 70’s the last monument to a once beautiful and busy little town had been blinded. The lighthouse once a beacon of hope to hundreds of children whose bedrooms lit up with kindly light every five seconds had outlived it’s usefullness to mariners and the light suddenly ceased to shine one night. That night there were a hundred nightmares. No one complained or protested. It was not a time of protest. The older folk who had seen a war to end all wars, said nothing. It was a time of acceptance. No one protested when the railway closed down. No one protested when the lighthouse was deemed to be obsolete by the faceless people at Trinity House, the guardians of all mariner’s lights. Some have argued that cheap fares to the Continent finished off the tradition of the seaside holidays but cheap holidays on the Continent had not begun when the trains stopped and the town was choked of life.
“Come on lass. You can have a ride on my crossbar.”
Kirstie swiped a sooty hand across her nose, emerging from under the stack of trestle tables that would become market stalls at the weekend. Her skinny arms were bruised where careless hands had gripped. Wrists to upper arms. Blue, orange, yellow. She was only little. Both wrists easily clamped together by a single big hand, leaving one hand free for other things.

Uncle John. He was not really her uncle (but neither was he that other kind of uncle,) no longer questioned her about the marks on her body and clothes. Kirstie was a compliant girl, easily groomed by the men, and easily frightened by her ten year old sister Carol. Carol, plump pretty with a cascade of curly red hair. Kirstie would never know that this kindly old man, brother to her fabulous granny whom she loved in spite of the fact that Jill was not her real granny, cried quiet tears, impotent tears, when he arrived home at his spartan little house which he had never shared with any lover or girlfriend or wife.
“Take good care of your sister.” Frankie entreated each time the girls went out. Always together, always hand in hand. Carol was careful to ensure that Kirstie wore clean pants. The men liked her little kilt and white blouse. And white cotton pants.
A few days ago Carol had cut her sister’s hair. In the absence of a pudding bowl she had used a soup dish, and cut a fringe that just nicely covered Kirstie’s forehead. Frankie was furious but what was done was done. A huge but handy pair of dressmakers scissors had scalloped out the resulting mess, and, covered by a hand-knitted woollen bobble hat it was just about OK.
Carol instructed Kirstie to explain away the stains on her kilt as blobs of mayonaisse exuded from salad rolls bought for her by her always attentive sister. One might be forgiven for believing that Kirstie was a well fed little girl who loved mayo on her salad rolls. There were no salad rolls. Only sweeties doled out by stinky old men who always smelled of bleach and something sweet and awful. Like rotting mushrooms.
Kirstie opened her arms and let uncle John balance her on the crossbar of his bicycle, before kicking his leg over the saddle and pushing off.

CHAPTER TWO.

The twice weekly markets were a treat for the townsfolk. Popular too with the traders who came every week from as far away as Bradford and Sheffield the stalls sprawling over half a dozen acres. Mainly decent honest people, Indian, Pakistani, plenty of old-fashioned spruikers selling their wares with good humour and great dollops of showmanship. Crowds would gather just for the entertainment of watching an expert balancing fifty piece dinner services, faking potential catastrophes whilst their wives, daughters, sons and assistants tossed fresh boxes of product at punters eager to be relieved of their cash. Everything a bargain, always something new from whiteware to impossibly cheap silk-filled doonas for those cold Yorkshire nights. Even in the grip of winter the market traders came. Market stall fish and chips reeking of salt and vinegar. Food of the Gods. Market days, treats for adults and children alike. Some treats – adult treats, were enjoyed and spoken about only by those with special shared interests. Carol quickly learned that her little sister could be the source of a substantial income stream.
Not that any one of the men ever laid a hand on Carol. No way. Carol was a good girl. Her teachers were free and easy with the Blue Elephant stamps that attested to the quality of her school work, and her politeness. Kirstie on the other hand only took notes home asking that the parent might make themself available. Requests became exhortations, exhortations turned to demands, and demands to threats. Kirstie, too afraid to simply throw away the notes, dutifully delivered them to Frankie. Then Frankie would throw a tantrum that gave Carol a sly grin of satisfaction.

CHAPTER THREE

Frankie never did attend a parent-teacher meeting. She was dancing on tables in her local, with roses between her teeth, flashing her bright red knickers and black stockings. No one at the pub thought of her as a violent drunk. In fact, the life of the party. The party could go on long after closing time. Nobody gave thought to the two girls, both under eleven. Carol could cook up a bacon and egg roll. Kirstie ate cold oats with cold milk while Carol slobbered deliberately over her food.
And so it went. Kirstie being a recidivist, living on sweeties doled out to her by men. Small and skinny with arms and legs like matchsticks. Carol, with the long red hair, all wavy and her plump round face and puppy fat.

CHAPTER FOUR
Larry had to eat and run. ‘I’ll have a look around town before I get back to work.’ He said, giving Margie a huggy kiss. Working fifteen hour days in summer at Patrick’s Amusement Parlour paid good money but the good money only came if he could fill up each round of bingo. Spruiking in the customers. ‘Just one or two more and we’ll begin. Come on now, one or two more and we’ll start right away.’ Salting the seats by giving the local youths free games usually got the punters to sit down. He sat high on a comfortable seat, the circular stall could easily seat a hundred punters. Surrounding him, a glittering array of prizes. For each win the punter got a ticket. The more tickets they could collect, the better the prize. An expensive way to buy Christmas presents, but punters are punters and Larry could fill almost every seat with his flirting and the speil as every number popped out of the blower. Old ladies backchatted, and Larry laughed and flirted.
The seats filled up quickly. ‘Just before we begin, I see a few regular faces here. Oh! You pretty ladies!’ No matter that Larry was only 23, and those “pretty faces” were mosly pushing seventy. ‘We seem to have lost one of our little girls. Again!’ He tried to make it sound of no great concern. ‘So if anyone sees her, tell her she should be home now.’
There were some who bent their heads and paid heed to the round tiles that would soon cover the called numbers. Mrs. Silver, who was married to a retired town doctor who had no understanding of retirement, called out. ‘Our Kirstie again?’
‘Give that lady a free game’ Larry laughed, though his laugh was that of a very good actor. The girl who took the money and checked the winning boards handed Mrs Silver an extra board. Swings and roundabouts. You give a little to get a lot. Mrs. Silver would put the word out if Kirstie was not home by the time she left. Mostly, the lifetime residents looked out for each other.
Summer visitors were not as numerous as before the seaside towns had become isolated, but there were still regulars who came year after year. They stayed in the same bed and breakfast homes, and they still brought good money to the town. The markets had been good for business, and the shops all took part in market days. Summer still bustled.

CHAPTER FIVE

Being Friday, most of the market traders had arrived in their vans and caravans. Parked up for the night in the back of the old railway station. They would set up before dawn ready for an early onslaught of customers. Friday was a big bingo day too. A hot July and plenty of visitors. Smart little Carol perfectly well knew where Kirstie had been. Four five pound notes tucked into the hem of Carol’s skirt. Not in her purse, which was empty of all but a few pence.
John, who lived at the “south” end of town sat with his sister, who lived “up north end” munched on a ham and mustard sandwich. He came every day after his delivery round with some acceptable gift. A pound of sausage, or some steak and kidney.
Always a tightly knit family with over two hundred years of occupation in the town. There were brothers and sisters, cousins, and their respective boyfriends and girlfriends. Even when her two boys had ended their summer romances their ex’s still turned up as family year after year.
‘Poor little bugger!’ Jill said, ignoring the quiet tears that John slyly wiped away. He was an emotional man who still kept a picture of his French fiance in his wallet all these years later. She had died in a bombing blitz in Paris while John was serving as a Captain in the army, in Burma. Now, everyone’s child was his child. Everyone knew that he was the one who left a small food parcel in the letterbox when food was scarce and money scarcer.

CHAPTER SIX
When the ‘sweetie man’ was arrested and given eight years for child molesting Margie shuddered. Twice, when “that monster” had been late driving home Larry had invited him to stay over. The thought made Larry cringe, and Margie, smug about her ability to read people. Yes, he was a pale, limp-fish of a man, but Larry tended to be over compassionate in the main. That is why Margie loved him in the first place, but only if her own strict manners were forgiven instantly.
Carol experienced a slight bump in her profits, but they soon bounced back. School had given up on Kirstie.
Two hard winters passed. Kirstie found some boys to hang with on the promenade, and on the bowling green. There, they smoked, fought, did a few drugs, and fiercly protected their own. Those boys and two girls were “known to the police”. The police station was still in operation, but hardly. The two beat police would not be thanked for arresting a ten year old. And would be criticized for not doing. At least Kirstie was safe from her bullying sister who had taken to being physical for non compliance. Carol took to telling on Kirstie for shoplifting. Frankie gave Kirstie a minor talking to and a slap around the legs. She confiscated the cigarettes or canned ham, or cheese slices. There was no question of returning them to the shop and saying sorry.
If the group, (they were never a gang) needed money to play the pinball machines, or buy ciggies or drugs, Kirstie always knew how to get it. Even in mid-winter, in a small seaside town, there are ‘uncles’. She was still small, and thin with a sweet, pretty face, but now she could look them in the eye and silently threaten them with full disclosure. She knew who was rough, and who was kind. In the main she avoided the rough ones unless she needed a larger sum of cash. But now she carried a flick-knife. Only a small one she could conceal under her shoe. One of the boys had offered it up. With a press of a button the blade would pop out. Sharp as a razor but easier to use.
And that is how it started.

CHAPTER SEVEN

Jill rubbed her floured hands into the pockets of her smock. Brother John was lamenting. ‘It’s not the same delivering by van.’ He said, pushing another piece of steak and kidney pie into his mouth.
The kitchen, where they, all the brothers and sisters gathered often to share the labour, was warm. The odour of fresh bread dough, new pies taken directly from the old iron stove, lovingly polished with Oven Black, and piles of jam tarts, still too hot to handle created a warmth through the entire house. ‘And the new regulations. None of us like them.’
Jill laughed. She was used to the grumpy postman. ‘You’ve been riding that old bike through rain, shine and snow for thirty years Jack. You should be happy.’ All the siblings called him Jack.
The new van was Royal Mail red. Far from new. They had started using the little Morris Minor way back in 1953 in the larger towns. Meresea, it’s standing population just over five thousand had never warranted such luxury. ‘It’s not that Jill. You can’t push the van from house to house on the pavement. Now they’ve made us do big parcels as well. It’s not the extra work it’s the regulations too.’ He reached for a jam tart, burning his mouth on the hot jam and grimacing. ‘Strictly no passengers.’
“Uncle” Jack had a reputation for giving any child a ride to their doorstep, or to the corner shop where they would wait expectantly for a Polo Mint. “The mint with hole.” Had it not been for the war John would have fathered an entire brood, like most of his siblings. Instead he lived a solitary life in the big Victorian house their father had built when the farm was sold.
‘Anyway,’ Jill said, ‘The kids will all be back at school next week.’ It was coming on late September, but still idyllically warm.
The doorbell jangled. Jill wiped her hands again on her smock, and went to see. Even before she reached the frosted glass front door she knew who.
‘Can I stay with you for a bit gran’ma?’
Jill, never one to turn a child away from her door, waved Kirstie into the hallway Dishevelled and shivering in spite of the warm evening, Kirstie stood with her back to the wall. Jill had a policy of never asking why. All that inspired, from experience, was dumb insolence. Kirstie would talk when she was good and ready. ‘You’re freezing dear!’
Kirstie’s teeth clattered. ‘ Uncle John is in the kitchen. Are you hungry?’
Kirstie shook her head. No.
‘Go and jump into my bed. I’ll throw your clothes in the wash. You can’t go home like that.’ Kirstie knew where Jill’s bedroom was. Upstairs facing the streetlamp. A huge old fashioned thing with a duck’s down mattress that felt better than any bed ever. It had no springs and made a hollow to snuggle down into. Topped by a light, feather-filled duvet. ‘I’ll bring you a mug of cocoa in half an hour dear.’
‘I better be going.’ Jack emerged from the kitchen. He knew when to make himself scarce. Family sensibilites. ‘I put a pound of bacon on the top of the fridge.’ Tomorrow he would be eating bacon and egg pies. That was the way it always was. Give to get. ‘Should I pop in and let Frankie know?’
‘No!’ A moment of terror flashed across Kirstie’s face, before morphing quickly into defiance.
‘Your mum will worry.’ Jill countered.
‘She’s chucked me out.’ For the first time the little girl hung her head. Unable to look into Jill’s face.
‘What?…Oh, never mind. Let’s get you sorted eh?’
‘Promise you won’t tell me mam? Please?’
Jill had been about to ask what kind of mother would throw an eleven year old… almost eleven year old, out of home. But she knew what kind of mother would do that. ‘Stay as long as you like dear. I need the company anyway since gran’dad died. We can watch Coronation Street together.’ Waving a hand at the staircase. ‘Off you go and jump into bed and get warm. Have a little sleep eh?’
Jack, already at the door, quietly let himself out.

CHAPTER EIGHT.

Kirstie was asleep, snuggled warmly into the hollow Jill had left in the mattress this morning. Jill shook her gently, hot cocoa in hand. Lord! She was so little! Kirstie did not stir and that was good because she would not see the tears brimming in Jill’s eyes, and then the two big tears that exploded and washed her face. Beside the bed, Kirstie’s clothes. Her white vest, and underwear blood-soaked. The right arm of her red blouse as well. They’d have to be soaked in cold water before the wash. Poor mite!

CHAPTER NINE
Kirstie had never known “gran’pa”. He had died when she was very little. But his old leather armchair was the best! Wrapped in a warm blanket in front of a blazing fire with hot cocoa. She’d slept and the first one had got cold on the bedside table. But she knew the time because “Coro” was about to start. So it must be seven o’clock. Gran’ma had not asked, but she had assumed that the little one had started her period. Warm and cosy though, Kirstie wanted to tell. There was no good way to start.
‘I stabbed him. In the foot. He hurt me. I think it’s bad. I got your flannel what you wash with between me legs.’
The most old-fashioned word she knew entered Jill’s head. Flummoxed. Perplexed would not be strong enough. Instead of asking, she did what her own mother used to do. Waited.
‘I stabbed him right through his foot. An’ then I twisted it.’ Kirstie never cried in front of people, but now with the kindest gran’ma in the world, the tears began to flow. ‘It was Mr. Blakey.’ She sobbed, taking great breaths, trying hard to hold it in.
Jill waited. ‘He…was killin’ me!’
‘Councillor Blakey? The teacher?’
‘Yeah. An’ I got so scared I got me knife out and just jammed it onto his foot, an’ twisted an’ twisted ’til ‘e let off me.’
Stupidly Jill said, ‘ Drink your cocoa dear. Tell me when you’re ready.’
‘I done me arm though. Me and Elaine. We was cuttin’.’ I went down the bowlin’ green an’ the lads an’ Elaine shown me how.’
Coronation Street, just a noise in the background Jill had to ask. ‘Is that what happened to your arm dear? You cut your own arm?’
‘Yeah.’ Kirstie wiped her nose and eyes with the back of her hand and sniffed. ‘It makes the pain go away. Like being so angry it hurts inside so bad.’
‘Is it bad between your legs too Kirstie?’
‘Yeah. I’m all ripped up inside me. I’m bleeding real bad.’
Jill rarely felt anger. Placidity was a hallmark of her nature. Of course she had chased her boys around the house with a broom a few times, but they had laughed at her and skittered away leaving Jill shouting ‘Come back you little sods!’ They always did, and Jill agreed that her attempts at discipline were not prize winners.
Now though, she felt the rising anger. ‘I suppose you don’t want me to call a doctor? Did you tell Frankie?’
‘I tried. She said I was a slut and chucked me out. So I went down the bowling green.’

CHAPTER TEN
Jill spent a sleepless night. That poor soul! At five in the morning she made the difficult decision. Of course the police had to be involved. Young Stuart Middlecliff had been a rough lad when he was at school but he was a good policeman. He knew the town, and he knew almost all the families. Now that he was the desk sergeant he would take the call if she ‘phoned direct rather than calling the ‘hotline’.
Always up early, she crept from her bed, leaving Kirstie to sleep. The girl had not moved when Jill gently removed the arm from her shoulder and rolled out from the wrong side. She pulled the duvet over, and waited a few seconds to ensure that Kirstie would not wake.
Downstairs, she raked out the white ash from the big old stove and emptied the tray underneath into a bucket. Topping the glowing fire up with cinders. The kitchen was warm still. Always. Soon the old red kettle was whistling and Jill pulled the whistle from the spout, replacing it loosely so that the whistle was just a quiet hiss. On Saturdays she would normally rake the whole lot out and polish the stove with Oven Black. It could wait for a day or two. The range quickly heated up. Sufficient to make toast and poach two eggs in a shallow pan of water. In a couple of hours she would make Kirstie some breakfast. Meanwhile the poor thing could sleep. Jill was of a generation who believed that sleep can cure most things. She ate listlessly at the kitchen table, deciding to call after nine to be sure the station was open. Stuart was not a bad lad. He’d been a problem as a youth, but nothing notable. He would do something, Jill was sure.
‘Hi gran’ma.’ Kirstie stood on the warm tiles, barefoot. Jill’s old-fashioned, and just old winceyette nightie enveloped the child. It had to be sixty years or more ago that Jill bought it at a long-gone Girl’s Wear shop in town. The little brown teddy bears, still bright on the faded material.
‘Good morning dear. I was just making breakfast.’ She wasn’t, but Jill was known to be ever ready with tea, sandwiches, scones or cake for any visitor. ‘Bacon and eggs with some toast?’
‘Can I have baked beans as well?’
Jill giggled casting eyes over the thin youngster. ‘Hollow legs eh?’
‘I’m really hungry.’
The kitchen clock showed ten to eight. Jill’s tummy bred more butteflies as it ticked on to the time she had promised herself she would call the police station. To quell them she busied herself at the stove. ‘You pop on upstairs and have your bath. I’ve warmed your clothes in the airing cupboard.’
How could anyone think this little girl was the wayward urchin they said she was?
‘Can I still stay with you gran’ma? I’ll be good I promise.’
Jill’s heart melted. ‘How is your arm dear? And your..’
‘You’re gonna report me aren’t you?’
‘Of course not dear.’ No. Jill was going to report a sexual assault, and she was going to tell Stuart exactly who, and the state Kirstie had turned up in. ‘We do need to have you looked at though dear.’
‘NO!’ Such pleading in a single exclamation.
Jill fussed with the bacon for a moment.
‘I stole twenty quid out his wallet.’ Kirstie was trembling though the kitchen was warm as toast.
Jill could not help herself. She set aside the frying pan and brought the little girl into her arms. There was nothing of her. As light as a feather. What choice was there? She had to make that call. ‘The water’s hot, use as much as you like. Once you’re dressed we can chat eh?’ It was the best Jill could do off the top of her head. Hopefully Kirstie would wallow for an hour at least. Another thing Jill swore by was the healing power of a hot bath and plenty of perfumed suds.
At nine, Kirstie was still wallowing. Jill called the station. Stuart was out walking the beat, but Jim McKenzie was at the desk. Known to be rough on the “hooligans” in town, Jill swallowed the complaint, just saying, ‘I’ve got Kirstie Hardisty here if anyone reports her missing. She’s, ummm…’ But the words would not come. It felt like a betrayal.
Fortunately McKenzie showed little interest. He knew the name well enough. ‘I’ll make a note of it Mrs. Whitfield.’ Obviously too busy to ask any further questions, he disconnected leaving the familiar beep beep beep. Slowly Jill replaced the receiver. Well, at least someone knew Kirstie was safe.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

The weekend fluttered by. “Uncle” Jack popped in with his regular gift. Sausages and a pound of liver. Still complaining about the compulsory delivery van. He had been the local postie since 1949 and had never considered retirement. Seventy four years old and still looking fifty-five he lamented the broad sweep of technology taking over. Now they had a thing called a computer at the main desk. ‘Mark me Jill, ten years and they won’t even need anyone to drive the vans.’
‘You should be retired already Jack!’ She said, delivering another batch of fluffy scones with jam and butter to his plate.
Being a bachelor and living a shy, hermetically sealed life in his little house, Jack had accumulated a substantial sum. Some of which he had put into a villa with a swimming pool, in Spain. It was occupied by the brothers and sisters more than it had ever been occupied by the grumpy, but kind old postie. ‘Go and get some sunshine!’
Jack chewed slowly, mulling over the idea. Probably not a bad one. The town had taken up much of his life, and before that Burma had not been terrific place. He’d given good service, and his pension plus savings would see him out.
The doorbell jangled, an irritating sound but delberately so. It had been installed when Jill’s airforce husband had renovated the house, installed undefloor heating, retired at fifty-five, and spent his remaining years endlessly recording his thousands of bakelite and vinyl records onto the new-fangled cassette tapes. When he died he had willed the whole lot to the hospital radio station.
Two indistinct shadows framed the frosted glass. Two women, one, obviously in the blue of a police officer. The other, a short, fat lump.
‘Mrs Whitfield?’ The young policewoman. She knew full-well who Jill was. The other, with a clipboard under her fat arm, and a briefcase in hand was a stranger. A social worker. She smelled like a social worker.
‘May we come in?’ The officer asked, with a grim smile. It was not a request.
Jill stood aside and the two women entered the hallway.
‘We’ve had a complaint.’ Again the officer.
Jill, not one to put up with blatant officious manners, least of all from social workers. Though the woman had not spoken, her stance seemed somehow offensive. ‘I called the police station on Saturday. Today is Monday. It’s all sorted. Kirstie is still with me. She’s upstairs.’
‘Call her down.’ The social worker was gruff and abrupt.
Jill, ever one to remain patient said, ‘Let’s go upstairs. She’s watching television poor thing.’
‘That poor thing as you call her, broke into a house, assaulted a councillor with a deadly weapon, and stole money with threats.’ Again, the social worker, who with some arrogance had not bothered to introduce herself. She pushed past Jill, elbows out, and stomped up the carpeted stairs shouting. ‘Kirsten Hardisty! We know you’re up there!’
Jill had no choice, and no opportunity to give any defense or explanation.
Kirstie squealed in pain when the fat woman gripped her arm with excessive force. ‘Gran’ma!’ She cried as she was bundled into the back of the black van.
That was the first time Kirstie was “taken into care.”

CHAPTER TWELVE

Carol, smug and scrubbed sat quietly with her hands in her lap. An angel. Frankie, sober for the time being had promised not to use vulgar language with the authorities. Kirsties case worker had asked few questions. She ticked some boxes, cast an eye around the living room, and asked to see the girl’s bedroom.
Carol enjoyed having a room all to herself. It was acceptably tidy and clean. The truth was that Carol knew the rules. No way was she going into care. She had warned Frankie of the possibility, and Frankie needed someone to clean and cook and do the general housework. Things that cut into drinking time.
Nor was Carol going to rat on Mr. Blakey for the times when he hunkered down in class with his hand conveniently on her thigh. She was getting a little old for Blakey’s taste anyway. There had been some concern when he taught primary school, but Mrs. Avery had taken him aside. The paperwork might have elicited an investigation so she was relieved when he transferred to the nearby High School without argument. Not only was Blakey a Councillor, he was the Chair of the board for the Local Safeguarding of Children.
Because she was over ten years old, Kirstie was found criminally responsible.
Jill telephoned the police station. Out of their hands. She called into the police station and begged. It was out of their hands. She wandered the corridors of the Municipal Buildings beseeching a meeting with a social worker. All too busy to talk to the old lady. A Councillor? Not available at present.
‘How can they do this?’ She lamented to brother Jack. ‘Nobody wants to know me! I’ve known half these people all their lives and no one will tell me anything!’
Jack said, ‘I’ll find something out Jill. I’ll ask around.’
‘The poor dear has to have someone to speak for her!’ Jill rarely felt angry, but now she did. Frustrated too. ‘Who’s going to stand up for the poor mite? Frankie wouldn’t care. That little minx Carol is walking around like she’s a princess. It isn’t fair Jack!’

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Kirstie was given a diagnosis. Before sentencing, the social worker attending was permitted to speak to Kirstie alone and offer up an assessment. It was the “fat bitch” and already Kirstie knew she was screwed. The woman smiled a lot. She seemed to exude empathy. Even so, no one would believe that Mr. Blakey had committed a sexual assault. Mr. Blakey had provided a written statement, and he was a man of “Good Standing”. It was bullshit. So, in the face of his extraordinary fiction, Kirstie simply lowered her head, and tried to be as small as a mouse. Just like she had done when she was seven and eight. If you make yourself really really small, they don’t hurt you as much. They just do their business and push some sweeties into your pocket. There was no one she could call a “responsible adult” to sit in on the interview. Why had gran’ma not come? Everything was so secret. Did gran’ma even know that Kirstie had spent three whole days in a police cell? The cops had said twenty-four hours, but because of her silence they got another twenty-four, and then the “fat bitch” had applied to the court for more time to investigate. So it had been ninety-six hours in a police cell. The lady cop had been nice, and the police guys had been nice, but they did a strip search, and even took fingerprints. The lady cop and another social worker did the strip search, and allowed Kirstie to keep her panties on. ‘No need to humiliate the poor girl.’ The social worker said. Kirstie liked her. She was much younger than the fat bitch and seemed kind. But you never could tell.
And then she was standing in front of the magistrate again. A severe looking woman with blue hair. She took the fat bitch’s formal notes, spending a long time over them. She seemed undecided, sucking on her bottom lip. She turned her face to the social worker and raised her chin without speaking. The fat bitch stood, ready for combat.
‘Explain to the court “Oppositional defiant disorder, which you say is “Borderline severe conduct disorder”. I have to say that some of these terms are quite new to me.’
‘Kirstie is quite young, but it is my assessment that unlike many children of her age, and according to the NHS Guidelines on Child Antisocial behaviour, which you have on your file ma’am, my personal judgement is that she has gone well beyond ODD and, perhaps even beyond SCD.’
The magistrate put on an exasperated face. ‘I asked you to explain, not to beaurocratize, if there is such a word. Just tell us all exactly what you mean by this, because it is all gobbledygook to me.’ She smiled, bleak and frosty. Kirstie hoped it was a good sign that she did not think much of social workers. Trouble was, social workers were all-powerful. They could do what they liked regardless.
The fat bitch had more than two faces though. This one was professorial. ‘The NHS Guidelines are very specific ma’am. Oppositional Defiant Disorder is usually in younger children such as Kirstie. It involves opposing or defying parents or other adults. A severe Conduct Disorder is usually but not always a condition teenagers exhibit. I believe strongly that Kirstie has progressed to the latter.’
‘Which means?’
Now it was time for the fat bitch to turn on her exasperated face. But she was well-equipped. ‘ Aggression towards people or animals, destruction of property, persistent lying and theft, serious violation of rules.’
‘You mean these things are actually real disorders?’ There was genuine astonishment.
‘I have interviewed the parent, and the other daughter ma’am. There are several potential triggers here.’
‘Yes. Continue.’
The fat bitch took some moments to consult her own notes. ‘A harsh parenting style. The mother appears to be somewhat careless in her parenting skills. Parental mental health problems such as depression and substance misuse. I believe the mother has a reputation for excessive drinking. Parental history, such as the breakup of a marriage. The mother is a single parent, never married. She has another child with a different partner, who seems to me to be quite well-balanced.’
A snort came from the back of Kirstie’s throat, fortunately either unheard, or ignored.
‘Poverty. The family lives on benefits. There are also other individual factors which Kirstie exhibits, such as low achievement, and while I would suggest that she is independently assessed while in care, I believe that Kirstie may have other mental health problems. She regularly runs away. She associates with a gang of youths who congregate around the public toilets in Meresea. And now it seems that she has progressed to break, enter and steal, and serious assault with a deadly weapon.’
Kirstie shifted from foot to foot. She so wanted to tell, but nobody would believe her. To her immediate detriment she did break her silence briefly. ‘I don’t run away! You can’t run away in Meresea! That’s bollocks! I stay with my gran’ma!’
The fat bitch gave a cold, satisfied smile. Case won! Just to be sure, she shuffled her papers, knowing full well that there was no notation of what she was about to say.
‘This “grandmother” Kirstie describes, is an old lady in her late sixties, and unrelated. She is frail and most likely a potential victim of Kirstie’s mind-set. I would be concerned should Kirstie be allowed to continue that relationship.’

CHAPTER FOURTEEN.
The magistrate was not a mean woman. ‘We are seeing far too many cases in this court. I cannot in all honesty believe that the amount of child abuse or neglect is increasing at such a prodigious rate. An increase of twenty percent a year is, to my mind, beyond belief. It could be that local authorities and their social workers have become more adept at identifying abuse. It is more likely that local authorities have lowered the threshold for intervention.’ She glowered over her spectacles at the fat bitch, who sat smug and unyielding. The fat bitch returned the stare with satisfaction.
‘This child appears today with only the bare minimum of representation. The required responsible adult is a fellow social worker. Her solicitor is one whom I have seen in this room all too often. However, in spite of my misgivings I think that the requirements have been met according to the guidelines.’
The panel had retired to discuss Kirstie’s case. Alan Blakey, his hand heavily bandaged, nodded. Sympathy etched into every line on his face. There were many. As a member of the Youth Offending Team it was apparent that he took his role seriously. His standing in the community, and his commitment to young offenders was unquestioned. The immediate role of the Young Offenders Team was to work with young people that get into trouble with the law.
They might look into the background of a young person and try to help them stay away from crime.They also ran local crime prevention programmes, helped young people at the police station if they had been arrested, helped young people and their families at court, supervised young people serving a community sentence, and stayed in touch with a young person if they were sentenced to custody. Aside from being a member of the local council, in his role on the panel he would also work with the police, probation officers, health, housing and children’s services, schools and education authorities and charities as well as the local community.
Pausing to sip on a glass of water, she adjusted her spectacles and turned a page. ‘For one moment I am going to digress. Anything I say will remain in this room. I must ask you all to respect.
The fat bitch glared.
‘I am a divorcee with four children and a full time occupation. My children were rude, ill-mannered, and disobedient. My daughter was angry. Her schoolwork suffered as a consequence. On rare occasions one or another other of them was shouted at out of sheer frustration at their behaviour. All left school at the first opportunity. They tried out their wings. They all returned home, and eventually attended university. They are decent adults, not because of my parenting, though in part. It was the strength of my small community. Social workers were not, nor should be police officers. Social workers are servants of the community, not beaurocratic officials. Under the current guidelines, I would not be sitting here making any kind of judgement. My children would be “in care” ‘ She wiggled her fingers to accent the quote. ‘However,’ she returned to her notes. ‘Other than a single outburst this child has refused to speak up for herself. I am not completely satisfied with the situation. I am quite sure that there is more to this case than meets the eye. It is unfortunate that she chose councillor Blakey to rob and assault.’ Looking directly at Alan Blakey.
‘She’s just a little girl.’ Blakey offered. ‘We should all do what we can.’
‘Shall we?’ The magistate said, collecting her papers together. They had made their conferance as short as practicable. After all, “The Court” was much more like a small private gathering ostensibly populated by sincere people who cared a great deal for the difficulties experienced by children.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN
Kirstie made herself very small.
‘Kirstie?’ The magistrate said. ‘Can you look at me please?’
Surprisingly Kirstie unhunched her shoulders and fixed her gaze at the strict old lady. Old to Kirstie, but in fact only just into her fifties. ‘Will you do something for me?’ To the surprise of everyone Kirstie nodded yes. ‘I know you’re scared. But I want you to look around you. This is not a criminal court. Everyone here has your welfare at heart. Sometimes they might appear to be harsh or unsympathetic, but that would be far from the truth.’
One thing Kirstie knew as she looked around, was that there would be no escape from her plight. Mr. Blakey smiled kindly. Everyone looked concerned.
‘You can talk to us in here Kirstie.’ Mr. Blakey said quietly. Not a hint of threat in his voice.
Silence. Kirstie made herself small again. ‘Look at me Kirstie. You managed once. Just once more and you won’t have to do it again. I have to tell you what we have decided. Please?’ She sounded a lot like gran’ma. Otherwise she would not have lifted her head and have that man in her vision.
It was not that easy. Alan Blakey waved his hugely bandaged hand as if to dismiss the magistrate. ‘Kirstie?’ He he said, in a soft baritone. He even sounded sincere. Kirstie tried to bore a large hole through his head, staring at the fake sincerity in his eyes with such force that he broke eye contact and looked down. He recovered quickly. ‘We are going to help you. I promise. ‘Kirstie? Are you listening?’
Kirstie made a decision. She would lift her head proudly and look Mr. Blakey right in the eye.
He smiled. His demeanor contrary to her experience. ‘We’re going to allocate a local authority secure children’s home. You won’t be far from Meresea, but we call it secure because we don’t want you to run away. I know you run away don’t you?’
She wasn’t going to give him the pleasure receiving an answer. She continued to stare.
‘ I won’t be far away, and it is my responsibility to ensure your care is a benefit to you. So I will be a regular visitor to help you with your schooling.’
Kirstie knew exactly what Mr. Blakey was saying and she could not help herself. As she was escorted from the private room to begin a new life, she knew from then on there was nothing to lose.
‘You bastard!’ She screamed. ‘You rotten bastard!’

CHAPTER SIXTEEN
At least it was not a police van. Nor was she in handcuffs. Kirstie had no idea where she was being taken. Nor why it took three blokes, one to drive and two in the back seat with her. ‘Fancy a burger?’ Bloke left asked.
‘I could use one.’ Bloke right said.
Kirstie said nothing. Unsure if either of them were speaking to her or to each other. They had kept up a steady stream of chatter, involving her in all their conversation.
‘Better make your mind up quickly.’ Bloke left looked at Kirstie. So he was talking to her. ‘It’s just around the corner. Quick, make up your mind young lass!’
Kirstie nodded. She had never had a proper hamburger. Meresea only had a Chinese takeaway and some eateries and restaurants. And they were too expensive.
‘Does that mean yes?’ Bloke left asked with a grin. ‘The food’s all right where we’re going, but it’s not fabulous greasy, drippy junk food.’
‘Yes. Please.’ She could tell these two were not that kind of people. They had kept their hands to themselves. She could not tell if they were cops. They didn’t act like cops and they were dressed in neat casual wear. Kirstie had not eaten since yesterday. There seemed to have been some trouble getting her into a secure home.
‘What kind of burger? Do you want fries with that?’ Bloke right chuckled. ‘But we call them chips here. I don’t like those American terms coming into our good old-fashioned English.’
Kirstie shrugged.
‘So, a huge triple stacked greasy burger for Kirstie. With chips, and a coke.’
Kirstie wondered if they were going to charge her for it. She had no money, so saying nothing was the best bet. She was starving. Bloke left, ordered from the drive through. He did not leave the car. The order was passed through the car window. Kirstie had considered diving through the car door, but there would be no chance. The men were nice, but they were careful. ‘My Lord!’ Bloke right exclaimed. ‘You’ll need hollow legs to get that lot down you!’
Bloke left chuckled. ‘How tall are you Kirstie?’ Kirstie was busy trying to get her mouth around the monster burger. ‘Never mind,’ bloke left said, opening a thin file. ‘You’re, umm, four foot and a half and you weigh umm, about five stone. They measure and weigh you in centimetres and pounds these days.’ He looked at Kirstie, munching with gusto on her meal. ‘That makes you about two thirds the size of my German Shepherd!’
Kirstie swallowed hard and took a gulp of her large coke. Surprising even herself she retorted. ‘I’m only little, but I have a big heart. That’s what gran’ma says.’
‘Well Kirstie,’ bloke right grinned a genuine happy grin. ‘When we get there you get to make a phone call. Just one mind, but is it your gran’ma you want to call? Not your mum?’
‘Gran’ma.’ Kirstie puffed. She was going to finish this meal or be damned! ‘Mam doesn’t want me. She’s got that bitch Carol.’
Neither man commented on the word “bitch”. ‘But I can’t call gran’ma ‘cos I don’t know the number.’
‘Worry not young lady. I’ve got her number in this.’ He patted the file. ‘But just in case, let’s bend the rules a little. Seeing as you’ve decided we’re not so bad.’ Amazing how a little food can encourage a child to talk. ‘I’ve got a pen. Give me your arm.’ He pulled up her sleeve before there was any chance to snatch it away. Had Kirstie looked into his face instead of trying to hold on to her meal she would have seen the pity. He was too much a gentleman to make any comment on the mass of cut scars on her upper arm. Instead, he gently twisted so he could write on the underside close to the elbow. ‘They’re not too careful when they search you and make you change clothes so just find a way to bend your arm briefly, after that just put your arms behind your back like a soldier. When we escort they don’t do much of a search. We’re tough guys!’
‘Bet you’re not so tough. Not if I’ve got a knife or something.’
‘You haven’t got a knife have you Kirstie?’
‘Nah!’ Bravado had a nip at her. ‘But I could knee you in the knackers!’
‘Alright, that’s enough. From both of you!’ Bloke left chuckled, pleased that Kirstie had bonded at least a little on the long drive to wherever. They were used to these kids. A bit safer than Iraq and Afghanistan, and they had been picked for certain qualities. Those of not being psychopaths.
By the time the car arrived at the boom gates where security checked their credentials, Kirstie felt for the first time that she was with friends. At least, adults who were not going to hurt her. There was a big sign outside the long driveway. G4S, whatever that meant. She tried to work it out in her head, but nothing came.
It was a big old house made of stone, a turret with windows high up.
The driver exited the car and pushed a button on side jam of the door. It was a long time before anyone came. The door looked like old wood, but much too heavy to be just wood. Most likely like a prison door but in disguise, Kirstie thought without even realising that she was thinking.
Bloke left exited the car first. Then Kirstie shuffled her way across the seat. Bloke right got out then, and flanked by two huge men, who had looked a lot smaller sitting down, they escorted her to the open door where a large woman with a pretty face waited.
‘Hello! You must be Kirstie. You’ve been expected.’ She said. Kirstie turned before crossing the doorway. The two men waved, both with a casual flick of the wrist.
‘We’ll get you sorted and then you can meet everyone in the dining room.’

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN
Thor was thirteen and Fleur was twelve and three quarters. ‘Pull up a seat titch’ Fleur waved at an empty seat at the table. It was lunch time and Fleur was head of the table. Her job to say grace, and pass the tureens of mashed potatoes and boiled pumpkin. There was fried chicken, and gravy. And then treacle pudding and custard.
Kirstie still felt heavy from the huge meal she had wolfed down in the car. She twisted her head this way and that, taking in the big sunny dining room. There were six tables, each with six seats. The only empty seat was the one she now occupied. Full house.
‘You and me are bunking in together.’ Fleur said, passing the tureen of potato mash. Kirstie made an attempt at refusal but the already very curvy blonde girl explained, ‘You have to put some on your plate. If you don’t you’ll get an interview.’
Fleur did not seem like a bully girl. Kirstie knew the tells that bully boys and girls gave. Their faces were full of threat, and their shoulders hunched. They were fist clenchers too. ‘I had a burger and chips already.’
‘OK, put some on your plate anyway, and when I say “now” swap with Thor. ‘I’m Fleur by the way, and the lad sitting next to you is Thor. Thor was without doubt the biggest youth Kirstie had ever seen. Fleur laughed, her pretty face lighting up with genuine mirth. ‘If you haven’t noticed, he’s black too.’
Thor grinned, raising both of his huge hands and wiggling them. ‘Yo mama! But I got white palms!’
‘We’re going to call you Titch.’ Fleur announced.
Thor comically turned his massive frame around and looked down at Kirstie. ‘Whatever Fleur says. Titch it is.’ The fake “black American” accent disappeared. In it’s place a refined English. ‘It’s not too bad here.’ Thor said. ‘Just don’t learn the hard way. They use spit hoods and restraint chairs.’
When Kirstie looked confused Thor explained. ‘They fasten you into a chair and stick a hood over your head.’
Fleur butted in. ‘I haven’t had it. But Thor has, and he was a mess for ages after.’
‘Aw! Leave it out Fleur. Shit happens.’
Fleur was not going to “leave it out”. ‘Thing is, Titch, Thor might be bloody huge, but he’s epileptic. When he fits he’s all over the place.’
Thor sighed, exasperated. Fleur was in one of her protective moods. ‘Alright,’ he said, thumping an extra large serving of pumpkin onto his plate and smothering it in salt. ‘I was not there, so get it off your ample chest!’
‘You wasn’t there because you was having a brain splurge! And they even know you was having one when you pushed your dad out the window!’
‘I did not push him! I would never have done that!’
‘Well, you did, and that’s why you’re an open-ender like me. And I bet Titch is one too!’
Kirstie had no idea what an open-ender was.
‘Did they tell you how long you was going to be here Titch?’ Fleur asked, deviating from the subject. Kirstie shook her head. She still had not said much, except to nod and shake her head. Telling that she had a burger and chips did not count for much.
‘If you’re an open-ender it means they can keep you here until they decide you can go. It’s like this. This place is sort of nice if you behave, but it’s pretty shitty if you don’t. They do all kinds of shit to you. They call this an SCH, that means it’s a secure children’s home. If you play up or don’t do your lessons or if… well or if just about anything, when you’re fifteen they send you to an STC. That’s a secure training centre, or worse still you could even end up in a YOI, a young offenders institution. In the end it all depends on your social worker, or your case manager. Us girls have to be seventeen before we get sent to a YOI, but the lads can be sent when they’re fifteen.
Thor was smirking. He nudged Kirstie with his elbow. Just in amusement, and it was not a hard nudge. ‘Fleur’s a swot. She bones up on all this kind of shit. Like, she’s got an IQ of like a hundred and sixty or something.’
‘A hundred and thirty and it’s not my fault. It’s my “extreme curiosity about the world” is what the social worker says. But she’s a twat anyway. She’s never once given me a good report. Even if I pussied the old leso she’d still complain. But that’s because she’s batshit stupid.’
‘Now you see what she’s like Titch! You can set her off like a match dead easy!’
Kirstie could not help herself. She giggled.
‘You wait ’til I’m a barrister one day!’
‘That’s all you’ll be. Making coffee all day for Gen X’ers in suits.’
‘That’s a barista you loonie!’ But Fleur was laughing.
There were three other kids at the table, all quiet and listening to the conversation. Nothing was said, but there was some kind of silent implication that if you chirped up, you’d be told to shut your gob. The other possibility was that they were so busy shovelling food into their mouths that the banter between Fleur and Thor was just background noise. A way to make the little stranger comfortable.
‘Now!’ Fleur whispered. It was a second or two before Kirstie registered that she should push her plate over and swap it with Thor’s empty. None of the supervisors were looking. Too busy gabbing. Thor quickly did the switch. Clearly he’d done this before.
‘Anyway, Thor thinks he’s diverted me, but I’m still going to tell you about the restraint chairs and the spit hoods.’
‘Shithead!’
‘Blackhead!’ One thing Fleur was not, was politically correct. Not that Thor seemed to take any offense. Robust as she was, Thor could easily have wrapped his huge hand around Fleur’s throat and still be able to touch the heel of his hand with his fingers.
‘Thor was having this fit. He didn’t start having them ’til he came here, except just the one before he came. That one didn’t count. But he was having one anyway. Upended the scrabble table, and starts swatting all the kids. Not on purpose like, but two big old goonies suddenly come in. Like they were just waiting for some shit to go down. He was foaming and moaning, and one of them just pushed a black bag over his head, and he was choking I swear!’
‘Gilding the lily.’ Thor backchatted.
Kirstie had no idea what gilding lillies had to do with anything, but she stayed quiet, not wanting to appear as stupid as she felt.
‘He doesn’t remember much about it. But I do. The word went ’round that he caused an affray.’
“Causing an affray” sounded bad to Kirstie, but she was getting the gist of things.
‘We didn’t see him at dinner for two days. And he was all la la too. It’s like he was talking in double dutch. Then the supervisors were all over him, stroking his back and whispering sweet nothings in his ears like he was some kind of special dude or something.’
‘They said I had to be good and not make waves.’ Thor said with a mouthful. ‘Then they just took me to the infirmary. The whisper was that I’d gone too far and no one better even think about. Or else. One minute it was Monday, and the next it was Friday. I missed fish and chips on Friday dinner.’
Fleur lowered her voice. ‘There’s kids here that shouldn’t even be here. They got taken into care because their parents or one of them slapped them. But they can torture us here. Not fair eh?’
Now she waited. Kirstie understood that she was expected to reply. Until now she had only answered when asked. ‘That sucks lemons.’ She said quietly, hoping that the comment would be taken with humour. It was, and even the other three kids laughed. They were not laughing at Kirstie. They were laughing because the first words out of the little girls’ mouth that meant she was opening up to her new mates were “That sucks lemons.”
Encouraged, Kirstie looked up at the enormous black lad. ‘Do you still? Like, are you still elpilectic?’
‘Ep-il-ep-tic. Epileptic. Yeah. I am. But I had these brain scans, called ECG’s. They fit you up with what’s called electrodes. Damn! I thought they were going to electrocute me! I was so scared! Man I was scared! Then this woman doctor, a psychiatrist came along and told me what was going on. She said I was having an electrocardiogram that measured my brain waves. It was actually quite cool. You get to watch your brain waves wobbling about on a TV screen. It’s like a TV but not. And when you think they go all spikey, but if you get all calm you can force the lines to go dead straight. It’s so cool!’
‘So they don’t torture you any more?’ Kirstie seemed genuinely afraid.
‘Nah! But they still have it on my report that I caused an affray, and that went to my social worker, and to the local authority. Mum and dad don’t want me back. They can’t find a foster home for me because I’m too big to handle.
‘Did you kill your dad then?’ Kirstie had suddenly found her voice with these two chalk and cheesers.
‘No. He’s in a special flat with wheelchair access, and a lift that goes upstairs. They get a nurse to visit twice a week. But there’s no room for me. It’s just one bedroom and a sitting room.’
‘Do they come and see you?’
‘Used to, but it’s too far from Ipswich. Anyway, I reckon they’ll just let me out when I’m seventeen.’
‘That’s four more years Thor!’ Fleur admonished. She was always well pissed off when Thor took things so calmly. He had been treated like shite, and still he accepted it all. ‘They just want to be sure I’ll grow out of it. Anyway where would I go? It’s bloody paradise in here compared to what’s out there.’
‘Rapists and kiddy fiddlers don’t get that much time!’ Fleur was mad, but she whispered in a practiced way that made her easily heard from a short distance. ‘You were eleven for Christ’s sake! You’ve already been in for two years, and then at least another three! And what for? Having an effing fit!’
‘Aw! Stand down Fleur. Except for the overcrowding it’s not that bad.’
‘Well Titch is bunking in my room. I could use the company so long as she stays quiet while I’m studying.’
‘She thinks studying will get her out of here before too long.’ Thor huffed. ‘She’s on a mission.’
Fleur chuckled, and looked at Thor with an invitation. They had seen an old movie “The Blues Brothers” One of them was that dead guy John Belushi. Both of them had watched the movie twenty or more times on the old VCR in the rec room. And both loved the same bits. The church and chubby Belushi doing flick-flacks down the aisle. Then in unison they both spoke ‘We’re on a mission from God!’
Thor continued. ‘The Oldsmobiles are in early this year! That’s the bit when they’re getting chased and drive into the big shopping centre!’
Kirstie felt the tension drifting out of her. She had expected prison, and guards with batons and stun guns.
A bell rankled, stopped, rankled again, stopped, and rankled once more.
Before the bell, everyone had ensured that their plates were clean, and that their cutlery was put neatly together. Then everyone sat back on their chairs, arms straight down by their sides. At each table a supervisor collected the sharpware, counting each piece. Ironically, plastic knives and forks had been more of a problem than metal. It was just too easy to break small pieces off and fashion an effective weapon from the bits.
‘I’ll show you ’round after clean-up.’ Fleur reached out and tousled Kirstie’s lank, dishevelled hair. It had grown out since Carol’s attempt at mutilation. But it was still lank, it was still dark, though wisps blown in the air looked dark red, most of all, it was still dishevelled. ‘And we’ve got to do something about that haircut.’ Fleur added.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN.

The children were wandering off in twos and threes in different directions. Supervisors were everywhere, keys jangling from their hips. They wore smart casual wear with logos on their right breast pockets. ‘The rec room is down there.’ Fleur pointed over her shoulder. ‘But you must be knackered. We’re overcrowded like always. There’s only supposed to be twenty eight kids, but a couple of places have been shut down for investigations. Don’t mention that though. We’re not supposed to know. Right now there’s thirty six of us. It goes up and down. Most of us here are a bit off our heads. Like, we’re uncontrollable, or we got smacked out or messed with. Just pretend you don’t see shit. It’s not our business.’
Kirstie realised suddenly how tired she was.
‘Here we are.’ Fleur walked through the open door. The room was sparse but clean and tidy. Bunk beds with three inch white mattresses, and blankets and sheets folded military style at the head of each bunk. From the corridor the room door looked like plain old white-painted wood, but when Fleur pushed it shut, it closed with a heavy clunk. The room sported a proper flush toilet, and a wash basin. ‘It’s only supposed to be for one so you’ll have to piss and shit in public. They said they’ll bring us a curtain when they get a spare one. There’s no seat by the way. They don’t want us taking any screws and bolts out or using a seat to brain someone with. They’re more careful when there’s two in a room ‘cos we could collude or something. I mean, they tell us we’re in care and not in prison, but whatever they want to call it, it’s still a prison. It’s a business so they make a profit from us being here. I expect they’ll give you the talk tomorrow morning. We have to be up at six, then brekky and school. After that I’ll show you ’round the whole place. Mostly there’s CCTV, but not in the rooms, and there’s some places around where there’s no cameras. Come on Titch. I’ll help you to make up your bed. Then you can help me make mine up and get into your PJ’s.’
‘I haven’t got any.’ Kirstie whispered. ‘I only got these clothes.’
‘I’ve got a shirt you can wear. I reckon they’ll give you some stuff tomorrow.’
‘They said I can call my gran’ma when I got here.’
Fleur gave that same huff she had given Thor. ‘That was just bullshit to stop you freaking out. They do that.’
Kirstie, overwhelmed, burst into racking sobs.
‘Good job I got my tits early.’ Fleur tried to make light of the little girls’ upset. ‘Come here doll. I reckon someone’s got to give you a proper cuddle. Don’t worry, I’m not a leso.’
Fleur engulfed the little girl in her arms. She held Kirstie’s head against her breast and let her cry, and cry, and cry, until there was nothing left to cry.

CHAPTER NINETEEN
Thor was considered to be too violent and uncontrollable to be held in the SCH area, and besides, there was simply no room for any of the boys. But they had Social Time together either in the dining room or in the rec room. Sometimes Thor was quiet and intropective. He might look tired. Other times he slurred his speech, but Kirstie put that down to his ep-il-ep-sy. Those times, Fleur was extra protective, and worried her bottom lip a lot. Everything considered though, the three were left to their own devices on their own time, which was not a great deal. Kirstie was introduced to the secret spots outside in the grounds where most of the kids knew there was no CCTV. They could sit around in the little rock garden, depending on who was rostered on. Some of The Mothers were cool. They were probably bone idle, but to the girls and Thor they were actually pretty cool. Just out of sight of the cameras they could smoke “bumpers”, cigarettes not fully smoked by kids who had managed to get some smokes smuggled in. Whoever those kids were they never knew, and never asked. It was the polite thing to do not to say anything. In case someone, one of The Mothers, found the loose rock where “bumpers” were stuffed to stop them getting wet. The Mothers probably knew anyway. They did their own sneaky smoking around there sometimes. The kids, always vigilant, wandered away whenever one appeared around the corner.
The small building where Kirstie and Fleur lived was attached to the larger building by a short ‘bridge’. The larger building housed the boys who were considered to be a danger to society. Or to themselves. The smaller building was home to just half a dozen girls.
The two stuffed out their smokes, and wandered back into the main courtyard. It was almost dinner time.
“You have a visitor Kirstie.” This woman, a supervisor was always nice. She treated everyone the same, and always with a smile.
‘It’s my gran’ma!’ Kirstie almost squealed. She had been able to telephone her gran’ma, but though she could tell the old lady that she was OK and that the place was nice, she had no idea exactly where it was. Gran’ma said she would find out, and try to get permission to visit.
‘It’s not your granny’ The supervisor said quietly. She touched Kirstie gently on the shoulder in an attempt at friendly comforting. ‘It’s a gentleman.’
Kirstie’s face fell. ‘Oh, OK. Where do I go?’
Fleur tipped her friend on the elbow. ‘It’ll be an interview or something. Don’t get your hoped up. They do this shit.’

CHAPTER TWENTY
Kirstie was led to the interview room. With a mix of trepidation and excitement, she stood before the door to have it opened for her. The second she stepped inside, her heart wanted to push itself through the roof of her mouth. The door closed with a quiet clunk behind her.
‘Sit down Kirstie.’
Alan Blakey waved at a wooden chair. His own was placed a foot or so away. There was a table, but the chairs had been pulled away so there was no barrier between them. Kirstie sat. ‘I understand they call you Titch.’ Blakey’s manner was smooth and quiet.
She glanced quickly around. The room was bare, painted cream. There did not appear to be any cameras here either.
‘No camera’s Kirstie.’ Blakey grinned. One side of his mouth curled, but it was hard to tell unless you knew that smile, that it was predatory. ‘This is not my area. I’m just a visitor with a little more authority than most other visitors. We couldn’t find a place for you near home, and besides, the council did not have any budget for you. So we found this nice place for you. It’s a long way home.’ He inched his chair until their knees touched. Kirstie hoped the shudder that rippled through her was not noticeable. No way was she going to show Blakey any fear. A few weeks ago she would have hung her head and made herself small. But she had met Fleur, and she had met Thor and a few other kids. She had learned very quickly that justice is not for kids.
Blakey leaned forward, putting his face close enough to touch hers with his mouth. His hands grasped her thighs. Not hard. She could feel the rotteness in him as his hands smoothed up and down her thin dress. Scared though she was, she looked directly into his face. ‘You’re a lying liar!’ She spat, her voice no more than an angry hiss. The anger rising until it hurt.
Alan Blakey smiled a little more. Kirstie was so easy to wind up. He enjoyed it. ‘Now why would I lie Kirstie? We’re here to help you. To put you on the right track and make you into a decent human being.’
Now the anger was swelling in her like a boil that needed to be lanced. The feel of his hands stroking through her dress, the smell of his sweet aftershave in her nostrils. ‘I never touched your hands! You had them round my neck you bastard!’
‘Oh that!’ Blakey laughed. It was without humour and full of sarcasm. Designed to elevate Kirstie’s anger. Successfully. It was humming through her veins now. ‘A few weeks ago you were such a little thing. You’re still little but I can see you’ve changed. A crutch and a few extra bandages, that was all it required. It’s such a shame that I could not get you into a local home. I would have visited sooner. And more often.’
‘In five seconds I’m going to scream.’
Blakey pushed up her dress.
‘Four, three, two.’
Blakey stood and pulled away his chair. He walked to the door and knocked with his fist. Obviously it was locked from the outside. It opened immediately. He turned to Kirstie, kindness and benevolence turning his face avuncular. ‘I don’t want you to worry Kirstie. We’re all working very hard for you to be closer to home.’
There were no tears, just raging anger boiling in her brain, through her veins. Trying to burst from her eyeballs. She had made friends, gone to school and started to enjoy learning stuff. The staff were nice to her. She had a routine. Food. She had been given nice clothes, and she had Fleur. And Thor when he was not sick or looking sad. The other girls in her section were pretty nice overall, though she had not yet had much to do with them. If they had just let her stay with gran’ma everything would be all right. She could help gran’ma. They could watch Coronation Street together. Gran’ma looked after everyone.

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
Dinner was over. Blakey was a slimeball. He had probably made sure that his “interview” had been perfectly timed. Kirstie had four hours of school this afternoon with Helen Brecht. Helen was nice. She let the kids call her Helen because Ms Brecht was too difficult for the others to get their mouths around. But it had to be “Ms” Helen. Kirstie put up her hand. She could not concentrate on geography, though it was the subject she enjoyed the most. ‘Can I sharpen my pencil please Ms Helen?’
Helen beckoned. With only seven children in the class Helen was happy to give up some of her free time to problem children. Classes were mixed, boys and girls together. No one ever played up with Helen. She had endless patience with her flock. Kirstie was the youngest, soon to be twelve. Everyone else was twelve to thirteen. Helen knew them all by name, what their weaknesses were, and their strengths. They were schooled according to their abilities. Kirstie enjoyed classes. Last time they did geography they had traced a map of Australia and Kirstie had carefully gone over the lines into her neat notebook. She liked that no one had ‘phones to cheat with, or brag about. She loved to write words onto the lines and keep them neat. “Proper” school was full of bullies and braggers. Kirstie got flustered when teachers just rushed ahead, not noticing or caring about the little kids put at the back because they were too dumb or too noisy, or just disruptive. Not that she went to proper school much. If she did, Carol and her friends laughed and ragged her on the school grounds, and other kids smacked her around because she was little and a slut. Carol had said Kirstie was a slut, and though half the kids did not know what a slut was, they knew it was a bad name to call someone. Even though Carol had found money to buy her own phone, she had never once called. Nor had Frankie. Maybe they didn’t know where Kirstie was. Maybe they did not even care.
‘Kirstie. Now don’t spend all day sharpening that pencil. We need to get along.’
Ms Helen had beautiful long dark hair that broke into waves down her back. She never tied it back. Kirstie liked when Ms Helen bent over to help her with something or other. Her hair always smelled so good. ‘I broke my pencil Ms Helen. Sorry.’
It was the anger. Still roiling around and bumping in Kirstie’s head. She quickly sharpened both ends of the broken pencil, and one end of the other half. One day she would grow her hair just like Ms Helen’s. It was just the same colour too. When the light shone through wisps, it was a deep red and not just dark hair at all.
Kirstie took her seat.
‘All right. Quickly, let’s see how much you managed to learn about Australia last time. Open your notebooks. This is my tried and tested memory test. There are no points for getting everything right. And no punishments for getting everything wrong. All we have is a stamp. Get one hundred percent and you’ll get a stamp.’
‘A blue elephant?’ Kirstie could not help herself. She had not put up her hand. Blurting was not supposed to be allowed.
One of the boys, a trouble maker and a thug by all accounts, grumbled loudly. ‘No. It’s a fat cow!’
‘Well that’s not me then!’ Kirstie’s temper moved her mouth.
‘That’s enough!’ None of the kids had ever retorted, and Ms Helen had never had to resort to raising her own voice. ‘I’m sorry.’ She said, dropping her head and looking at her shoes. ‘We don’t fight in my classes. I’m so sorry.’
The ruse, if that was what it was, worked. The boy mumbled ‘Sorry Ms Helen.’ That was probably a first, but there was no triumph on Ms Helen’s face.
‘Kirstie?’
‘I’m sorry too Ms Helen. I’m a bit upset today.’ How easy it was to just say things to this teacher.
‘I’ve got some time after class if you want to tell me about it.’
Kirstie, caught with her guard down just for a moment almost said yes. ‘No Ms Helen. It’s just… nothing really.’ Spragging might make things worse.
Helen turned to the blackboard. No whiteboards or computers in this classroom. It was quite literally “old school”. She chalked up the names of all the Australian State Capitals. ‘Remember, one of these is a bit tricky.’ The chalk plunked and clunked against the surface of the board. Adelaide. Brisbane. Canberra. Darwin. Hobart. Melbourne. Perth. Sydney. ‘When you’ve filled them all in in the right places you can hand in your notebooks. There are no points for being first, and no punishments for being last, so just think carefully.’
Kirstie bent to the task at hand, pushing the anger away until later. First she wrote in the “tricky” one. Canberra, and underneath she wrote ACT. She remembered Ms Helen telling them that the Australian Capital Territory was the seat of government. The rest was easy, although she had to think hard about Perth, and Adelaide. Even so, she was the second to hand in her notebook. Mr Blakey still inhabited her mind like a parasite. Something bad and awful crawling through her veins.
Impatiently Kirstie waited for the slowpokes to finish. Two boys from the training centre. They would be walked back to their unit by a pair of male staff. Even they, in a surly kind of way behaved well for Ms. Helen. Their slow efforts were not because they were dumb, but because they always wanted to drag out the time in the classroom to the limit.
At last they were done, and Kirstie scooted from her chair, hellbent on getting outside to some fresh air. The anger made her breathless. As if her chest were about to explode.
‘Don’t run in the hallways!’ Ms. Helen called after her. Kirstie had no idea that she was running. She stopped, took a deep breath, and doggedly put one foot in front of the other until she reached the automatic doors to the courtyard.
At the rock garden she sat, and moved away the rock. There were half a dozen bumpers, and a matchbook. A quick glance around, and she lit up the largest, inhaling until her chest hurt. When it was gone, she replaced the matchbook, buried the filter and sat for a moment.
Then Kirstie stood, lifted her skirt and pulled down the regulation blue cotton knickers. She pulled hard at the wide elastic waistband until it broke. Now she was able to pull out the long piece of elastic.
For a long moment she stared at the pencil stub, sharply pointed at both ends. She closed her eyes. Soon the anger that hurt so much would seep out. Placing the point high on her thigh Kirstie pushed and dragged as hard as the pain would allow. When the point broke off she turned it around, and repeated the act with the same result. As the blood flowed she dabbed, anxious not to leave any traces on the rock garden. Soon she felt better. Wrapping the wounds with her knickers, and tying it in place with the elastic she dropped her skirt, scrabbled around for another bumper and sat smoking for awhile.

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO.

‘Hiya Mr. Dunn.’ Yvonne greeted Larry. She was coming home just as Larry was leaving. Yvonne and her dad occupied the lower floor of the big Victorian house. Being the owner, Frank Marshall kept the first two storeys of the old house for himself. Margie and Larry rented the top floor which had once been the servant’s quarters. Nicely modernised it was plenty for them. Just a single bedroom, kitchen and living room. On the second floor, now unused but kept scrupulously were three more bedrooms and a living room facing the street.
Born and brought up in the same house Frank had bought the place from the family when his grandmother died. They had had plans for it. A brood of children. Frank had also inherited the old farm just out of town. The ancient farm labourers cottage was rented to a woman who’s husband had been less than loving. She had made a nice home out of it and the peppercorn rent, subsidised by her daily work in the chicken sheds ensured her welfare, and consequently her happiness. Frank was easy going, and not “short of a bob or two”.
Even those with fortunate lives endure tragedies. The rest of the family had their own lives, spread across England and Wales and, other than sometime visits Yorkshire was not on their regular itinerary. The last time he had seen any of them was at Gails funeral four years ago. Yvonne had been eight. Now, a serious-minded and very grown up twelve year old she was in a particularly talkative frame of mind.
‘You’re a bit chipper today.’ Larry said. He had plenty of time to walk to work, and it was a nice day.
‘Dad’s singing in the kitchen. At least, he was when I went shopping two hours ago. And he’s baking bread.’
‘Ah! So that’s the delightful smell that has been wafting up the stairs all morning!’ Larry laughed. ‘I hope there’s some for us. Margie was never good at bread and cakes.’
‘He’s probably baked for the whole street! Last time he baked it was before mum got killed.’
Larry did some quick math in his head. Over three years. ‘So what’s the celebration? And when do we get our buns, or cakes or whatever?’
‘Is Margie upstairs? You guys are always so quiet we don’t know if you’re out or in. Except when you come in the front door.’ The front door was the only entryway, and for reasons known only to history the original bell jangled whenever it was opened. Like so many of these old Victorian houses the front door opened directly onto the hallway, and a staircase which dog-legged at the first landing and continued again after a few steps along the second storey hallway.
‘She’s writing. I expect she’ll be at it until dark. And then some.’ Larry said without rancour. Margie wrote textbooks. While she would have preferred to write romantic novels, her BA in literature gave her a qualification that kept her not only occupied, but very well paid. Unlike romantic novels.
‘I’ll tell dad to send me up with some then.’
‘You didn’t answer my question.’
‘Oh! Yeah. I mean, yes. Dad just got the news that he can be a foster parent.’
Larry knew that Frank had been fussing and fretting over the applications and interviews for the past year. They had heard nothing more for several months so considered that the whole idea had been shelved.
‘I’m so excited!’ Yvonne babbled. She was not normally a babbler. She liked books, and 60’s psychedelic music with names like Tangerine Dream, and Cream, and Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. ‘I had to be interviewed as well. They wanted to know all sorts of stuff about me, and about dad. Well, he got a phone call this morning early to say that we’re being granted. He’s waiting for some paperwork and some other stuff- I don’t know what.’
‘So I bet that means you’re going to finally open up the second floor.’
‘Yeah! Yes,’ Yvonne corrected. Her dad insisted on speaking properly. ‘I get to be able to use grandad and grandma’s old things. There’s still all their things in the rooms. There’s furniture and, oh all sorts of stuff! It will be like making my own home. But I bet it’s really dusty and horrid right now. Dad has never been in there since I can remember!’
It probably was not dusty and horrible. Larry had seen Frank surreptitiously entering and exiting each of the rooms with feather dusters and buckets of hot water and sponges. Not that Yvonne ever noticed. She was either at school or huddled down in her room reading terribly interesting volumes of encyclopedias and dictionaries with publication dates going back to the mid nineteenth century.

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE

Kirstie was looking glum at dinner. Thor was uncommunicative. Being the mother hen, Fleur worried about both of them. Afternoon yesterday Kirstie had been called in for an interview. She returned grumpy. Prising out any information was even worse than pulling hen’s teeth. The best Fleur could get was that Frankie had slammed her door on a social worker and when the social worker returned with a lady police officer she slammed it again.
Truth was, Kirstie had no idea about what had happened at her “interview”. At first she had been spoken to kindly, and was told that she could speak up for herself. There were two social workers. One of them was no better than the fat bitch, except that she was stick-thin and thin-lipped. The other was quite pretty, but deferred to the thin one. Then there was an “advocate” from the local authority for Meresea and lots of papers being passed hand to hand from a thin file. Every time Kirstie was asked if she had any questions or anything to say, she wagged her head from side to side. It was all just big words from big people. One thing she did understand was the constant commentary about the “cost of keeping this little girl in this facility far from her home.”
At the end, the local authority had shown that the court had decided that a special guardianship order was the most appropriate order to make in the best interests of the child. To Kirstie’s mind the whole thing was already a done deal. Frankie was not going to be involved in any way. Another truth was that Frankie preferred to stay drunk and do the pub crawl every night. One thing that Kirstie did gleen from the conversation was that Carol, obviously pissed off with being mother, daughter and housekeeper, had taken off to who knew where? When asked what steps had been taken to locate the missing daughter, thin-lips replied that with over one hundred thousand children under sixteen years of age running away each year, the task could be impossible. Kirstie hung her head and smiled a little to herself. That was something to remember. If she knew how to run away properly no one would ever find her!
‘It’s some kind of foster care.’ Kirstie told Fleur before resorting to monosyllabic answers.
‘Wow! You’re going home!’ Fleur, not feeling the love, put her brave smile on. Titch had become a good loyal mate these past months.
‘Yeah. S’pose.’
‘You must be excited!’
‘Yeah. S’pose.’
‘When are you going?’
‘Dunno.’
Eventually Fleur, understanding that this conversation was going nowhere, put in her earbuds and blasted her head full of rap while reading a textbook on tort law.
Now, she was worried about both of her friends. Word had come back on the whisper line that Thor had backchatted a “Screw” in his unit. The screw, always one to entice Thor into insubordination had forced Thor’s head into a bucket of ice and held him there. Thor had finally fitted, and instead of calling the infirmary, the screw had a colleague help him to fit Thor with restraints.
Only the intervention of a female supervisor with a threat of a written report, had Thor released to the infirmary where he had slept right through until eleven in the morning.
‘You have to eat something Thor.’ Fleur cajoled. But he was not really with them. Fleur tried again, putting her average sized hand over his huge one. ‘Come on mate. You can’t let them get you! Listen! Kirstie’s going home. I’m going to need you more.’
‘You know what Titch?’ Fleur announced. ‘It’s never going to change unless we change it. If you’re too little, like you, or if you are too big, like Thor, or too..umm, well, too pretty and curvy like me, the bullies will always get at you.’
Kirstie reached over and put her hand over Fleur’s which remained on top of Thor’s. ‘Yeah.’ She said. ‘I s’pose.’

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR.
‘Will you write to me? Or phone?’ Fleur asked the question to break the several hours of terrible silence from Kirstie.
‘You want me to?’
Fleur had kept silent about the self inflicted wound that had swollen and bruised. She had gently washed it in warm salt water for the past three days. The graphite point was still lodged in Kirstie’s flesh. It must have hurt like hell. Fleur had once done it with a box cutter but it was just the once. Cutting herself had not been the answer for her.
‘Of course I do Titch! It won’t be the same without your miserable little mug staring at me. Anyway,’ She continued in case Kirstie had taken the comment seriously, ‘you’re not a slut, and you’re not a slag. One day, when I’m a barrister I’m going to make them all listen! No one listens to us until it’s all too late!’
‘You really going to be a barrister? I mean really really?’
Fleur, her serious face firmly in place said, ‘Damn right I am! They have to let me out when I’m eighteen. I’m a danger to others, and maybe myself. That’s what they say. They have ways to keep me in the system until then. Look!’ She stood up and sashayed around the room, trying to make Kirstie laugh. ‘I’ve got the tits of a glamour model. I’m all currrrrvy,’ running her hands down her body and over her bottom, ‘and I’m a genuiine blondie. By the time I’m fourteen I’ll pass for twenty. No one’s going to foster me! I’m a freak!’
‘You’re not a freak. You’re,’ Kirstie hesitated before saying it. ‘beautiful.’
‘Why thank you ma’am.’ Fleur bowed and grinned. ‘I’m serious Titch. Will you phone or write?’
‘Course I will. I never had a friend before. Not really.’
‘You going to stop cutting?’
‘Dunno. I get so mad. It’s like, it’s, the worst pain ever!’
Fleur beckoned Kirstie from her mattress. ‘C’mere. I need a huggsy.’
Kirstie loved Fleur’s hugs. There was nothing meant in it except the warm feeling of being enveloped. She put her thin arms around Fleur’s ample body and being so small, rested her head on Fleur’s bust. ‘What’s going to happen to Thor?’
‘Well.’ Fleur thought for a moment, still hugging Kirstie and talking over the top of her head. ‘He’s big. And he’s black. That makes him a freak’s freak. They’ll wind him up and get him all stressed. They’ll make him have fits and probably thump him around. Probably end up in jail I suppose. ‘
‘Really?’
‘Probably.’
‘That really sucks lemons!’
‘Maybe he’ll just grow out of the epilepsy. Some people do. It just goes away. I swotted up on it.’ Fleur went silent for a moment, thinking. ‘He’s such a gentle kid. I really love him.’
‘Like in LOVE him?’
Fleur chuckled. ‘Well. Maybe. He makes my tummy squirm. I hate that they do shit to him. I bet he’d be a great dad if he ever got chance.’
Kirstie broke her hold. ‘Will you look after him? I mean, like, he’s my mate too. He never rags on me nor anything.’
Fleur stepped away, looking sad. ‘Not much I can do. I’m just a kid like you. He’s just a kid too. We don’t get justice, that’s just for grown-ups with lawyers. But I’m going to try anyway.’
‘If I have to just go. Like when they just make you go. Will you tell him I’m still his mate?’
‘Silly bitch! You know I will!’
They both knew that soon, maybe in a month, or a week, or tomorrow, Kirstie would suddenly be gone from here. Then she would have to go back to school in Meresea. At least Carol wouldn’t be there with her gang. School was good here. Teachers were cool. The routine was pretty neat. She knew where she had to be at what time. Dinner time and rec time, and time in the library with newly discovered books and nobody ragging on you. Nobody touching you up and smarming with stinky breath over you. She could read pretty well now, and the big atlases with pictures of people in different countries were really really very cool.
‘Can I ask you something Fleur?’
‘Depends what you want to ask. Ask it and I’ll tell you if I want to answer it.’
Kirstie’s face lit up into her widest grin. When she smiled like that, rarely, she was no longer the shy little titch. She still looked more like ten than twelve, but that smile could disarm a mongol horde. ‘You’ve never said what you’re in for. Will you tell?’
Fleur sat on her bed and leaned back on her arms. That was a good sign. When she was being defensive she folded her arms over her chest and jutted her chin.
‘My dad. He started coming into my room when I was nine. Getting under the covers with me. Telling me about my nice new titties and such like that. Then he. You know.’
‘Not your real dad!’
‘Yes. He’s my real dad.’
‘Aw! Fleur! Shit! Honest you don’t need to tell me. It’s OK.’
Fleur did not flinch. ‘I got this box cutter and thought I’d make it go away. Cut myself once and then I knew it was never going to be for me. It didn’t take it away. You know?’
Kirstie nodded. She knew all right. It goes away for a bit, but then it all comes back.
‘I’m not sorry.’ Fleur said. ‘I’m not even a little bit sorry for what I did. After a year I felt so dirty. Horrible. Honestly Titch, I got online and read about how to do myself in.’
‘I’m glad you didn’t. I can’t imagine not having you as a mate.’
‘So that means you’ll phone. Or write me a note? Let me know how you’re going?’
‘Course I will. Absofrickinglutely!’ One of Thor’s words. Kirstie liked the sound of it. Just like she had liked rec-id-iv-issssst! ‘What happened with your dad then?’
Fleur repeated. ‘I’m not sorry. I’ll never be sorry. I wish I could do it twice!’
‘You gonna tell me then?’
Fleur bit down on her bottom lip. She did not like to really talk about it. Not what she did, but what had been done to her before she did what she did. ‘I didn’t kill him. Thought about it, but didn’t.’
‘So? You gonna tell me? You don’t have to, honest. Just forget it. Forget I asked. It’s OK. Honest.’
‘OK. But I’m not going to do details Just what it was. OK?’
Kirstie dropped her head and stared at the floor. She did not want to put her best friend on the spot like this. Best that she hadn’t said anything at all.
‘I used the box cutter and castrated him. I threw his balls to the dog. That’s what I did. And I’m not sorry. I am NOT sorry!’
Kirstie shivered. Suddenly realisation hit her. She was going home to Meresea on some kind of foster thing. Then she would have to see Alan Blakey, and there was nothing she could do about it. Nothing.

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE.

‘Are we getting her today dad?’ Yvonne, unable to contain her excitement. All week she had been fussing and faffing since Frank had given her a set of keys to the second floor. ‘Kirstie is her name, young woman, and she’s not a puppy. Sit down will you and stop hopping from foot to foot. You look like you need the toilet!’
Since her mum had died, Yvonne had grown up fast. Taken on responsibilities without being told to. At first missing her mum had been a lead weight. Crushing, squeezing her heart. Then when she thought she had gathered it all together, it came swooshing in great waves, and like those great waves, sucking her soul out with it as it receded. She had for a while, taken to walking along the cliffs on wintry windy days, when the sea was red with clay. Watching the waves huff up and roll in to smash against the cliffs. The spray raining down on her. She watched massive chunks of clay drop away, sometimes as big as a house, and the biggest waves drew back as if a great hand had pulled them far, far out. Until the next one came. As she watched she tried to make sense of how she would describe it. Drawing her top lip up, exposing her upper teeth and gums. That’s what it was like.
At home, Yvonne would fill notebooks obliquely telling her grief in stories of nature. The sea, the landscape, the clouds and the mad seagull’s cries.
Now, the second floor landing had new fluorescent tubes. Each door had been opened and aired. The old magnificent furniture polished and gleaming.
Yvonne sat down.
‘Kirstie Hardisty is coming to live with us. Not as a guest and not as some poor girl being rescued from the nasty system. You probably know more than I do with the gossip that gets around school and around the town.’ Frank sipped on his pint mug of strong milky tea. ‘It’s our job, mine and yours, to give Kirstie a stable home environment. I don’t want to tell you not to become too attached, because in a way I do want you to become attached to her. She might be a handful. She might be difficult, or shy, or lots of things. I just don’t know. I only know what the local authority has told me.’
‘Dad!’
‘No.’ Frank waved his hand in dismissal. ‘Let me finish first or I’ll forget what I was trying to say.’ His eyebrows raised. Yvonne always found it comical but knowing what it meant she curbed her enthusiasm. ‘Just remember that fostering is temporary. The courts have ordered a special care order, and honestly I don’t know the ins and outs of all that stuff. I was thirty-five when I married your mum and you came along pretty quickly afterwards. She was ten years younger than me and we planned on brothers or sisters, or both.’
‘You could always get married again. I wouldn’t mind.’
Frank smiled at his too-grown-up daughter. Wistful. ‘That’s unlikely darling. I’m creeping up on fifty now, in a few years. Besides…Oh, never mind.’ He was going to say that he did not want to be thought of as a “cradle-snatcher” around town. Enough eyes had turned when he married Julia. ‘Kirstie needs a home where there are people that she knows. In the town she comes from. I think we can do that. Together. She’ll be one of us and equal to us. What you have to understand and remember is that I can promise to be a good parent, but in the end the courts and the social workers have the final say. That’s to say, it’s de facto. You know what that means?’
Yvonne too a few moments. ‘It means that you can be a parent but not really. Or something.’
‘Close enough.’ Frank laughed at the way his daughter had delivered the answer. With a cynicism far beyond her years.
‘It means that they can walk in and take her away from us whenever they like because they can!’
This time Frank did not laugh. Or even smile. Yvonne was like her mother in so many ways. She could fire an arrow and hit you straight in the heart.

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX

Alan Blakey wore a dark blue suit and a neutral expression. The administrative staff were full of admiration for his commitment to the care and welfare of his local authority charges. Kirstie waited in the rec room. One of the supervisors had packed her a sandwich and an apple for the trip back to Meresea. Breakfast was yet an hour away, and by that time she would be gone. Fleur had rolled half asleep out of bed to give her friend a long hug. Kirstie could always tell when Fleur was upset. Those times Fleur could not speak. The hug was as much for Fleur as it was for Kirstie. ‘I’ Fleur found the words sticking in her throat. Wanting to say ‘I am going to miss you.’ It was not going to come. Anything more than ‘I’ would break her up. Never, in the months they had shared a room had Fleur shown anything but stoic. Kirstie expected nothing less. Her friend was her rock.
That Kirstie was scared took no words. No questions. Her little body quivered like telegraph wires in a wind. Then Fleur broke the hug, and threw herself back into bed. She pulled the sheet over her face. Kirstie knew enough about this place now not to make things worse by an attempt at comfort. Fleur would do her sobbing to an empty room.
There would be no chance to see Thor. At least after Kirstie left, they would still have each other. Two unlikely souls.
Paperwork done, hands shaken, compliments given, the door to the rec room opened and Kirstie stood waiting until instructed to ‘Come along Kirstie. You have your very own chauffeur!’
Alan Blakey smiled, extending a hand. Expecting Kirstie to wrap hers into his and be led to his waiting car. Alan Blakey, like some caring parent, hand in hand with his child.
‘I’m not going with YOU!’ Exploded from Kirstie’s mouth and she had no idea where the words came from. It was all she could do not to spit in his face, but he was not close enough. But words could spit. She had read in her geography books that in Mozambique there was a cobra that could spit their venom straight into the eye. Now she wanted to be a snake. A rec-id-iv-issssst! And spit venom right into his eye.
‘Oh come along young lady.’ Blakey demanded. ‘You’ll be home in three hours if we get on the road now. We’ll miss the commuter traffic.’
A million words bustled around in her head, all competing for precedence. Kirstie wanted to make the words fill the air. To call him the names that would set the world ablaze. Pedo, pervert, molester. No one was going to believe that. Not from a little truant with a drunk for a mother. Not from a child who hung with a gang around the promenade toilets smoking, doing drugs, and who knew what.
Alan Blakey dropped his hand, and pushed it into his trouser pocket. Ever the chameleon the smile morphed from one of welcome to one of everlasting patience.
The supervisor on roster held out her hand. ‘Kirstie? Will you come with me? I know how hard it is to leave your friends here. And I know you feel safe here. You’re a good girl, and I know you like routine.’
Yes. Routine. Breakfast, school, recreation, walks in the courtyard. Forbidden smokes. Evenings with books and Fleur. Scrabble in the rec room with Thor. Dinner with Fleur as the table monitor and Thor bantering when he was not being vacant and silent. Safety. Even the other kids who greeted her with hi’s and high fives, and stopped to chat about nothing in particular. Kirstie dropped her head and shrugged.
‘I don’t want to go with him.’
‘You can’t stay Kirstie. Not many get the opportunity to be fostered back in such a small town. People have worked very hard to get you this placement. And Mr. Dunn has a daughter your age.’
‘I don’t want to go with him.’
Alan Blakey’s smile morphed again. Impatient. Frustrated. ‘Don’t be difficult girl.’ He pushed up his sleeve and scanned his watch. ‘I don’t have time for this.’
What would he have time for? Would he just stop in a layby and do what she knew he enjoyed? Not that he would dare bruise her. That would be too obvious.
Outside Alan Blakey opened the passenger door. Waited. Kirstie planted her feet. If she was going, if she had to go, it would not be sitting beside the monster.
‘All right.’ Blakey conceded. ‘Let her sit in the back seat.’
Kirstie scooted into the back of the top of the range Lexus. Its vast interior swallowed her up.
‘Don’t worry Kirsten.’ Blakey said once the window was rolled up and the car in motion. He chuckled and it sounded more like a pig snorting. ‘You’re too old for my tastes.’

CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
Helen Brecht arrived early to prepare her classroom. The warm July weather made her long to have the children outside for their lessons. She had been saddened to hear that there might be difficulties with that. A classroom could be locked down if necessary, and given that several of her young students came from the secure training unit, no outside security could be spared.
A small pile of exercise books sat neatly on her desk. Helen had encouraged each youngster to decorate and cover their books. Only plain brown paper had been provided but she had suggested that they sketch their own designs onto each cover. By this, Helen was able to identify each child without even checking the names written on the inside covers. She could identify the potential tattoo artist. The angry anarchist. The hurt betrayal depicted by an almost comical, but intensely disturbing sketch of a Christ, crucified upside down. A soldier with a spear and a massively exaggerated erection standing close to the suffering Christ.
Helen would not be scolding the boy. Her devout Catholicism wanted to. It was not her position to give lectures on religion. Faith came with age and maturity. These children were young, and far from mature. Some were here because there were those who ministered and had corrupted faith. It took a lot of courage to hang onto faith. Abuse of faith was anathema.
The sketch had disturbed her.
Three boys and two girls hurried in, herded by a supervisor who would stand outside the door for the duration.
‘Only five today?’
Lenny, who’s sketch had disturbed, put up his hand. He did not bother to wait for permission. ‘Kirstie Hardisty got fostered Ms. Helen.’
‘Oh?’ For a split second Helen was disappointed. Then she was pleased. ‘Thank you Lenny. I’m sure we will all miss her. Won’t we?’
Murmers, the tone of which, taken as a whole seemed to agree. Helen passed around the exercise books without calling out names, and without reference to the inside covers.
‘Geography.’ She announced. ‘Last week we made a good fist of writing in all the State Capitals. Remember that I said that one of them was a bit tricky? Well, you all did very well. Only one of you found the tricky one, but all in all every one of you did an exceptional job. Well done.’ She smiled and it was not the grim smile of a seasoned and cynical schoolmarm. Helen Brecht, when she smiled radiated warmth. As radiantly warm as the July sunshine outside the window. Lenny the sketcher raised his hand again. This time waiting for permission. ‘Yes Lenny?’
‘You’re a good sort Ms. Helen.’
Helen waited. The boy had nothing else to say so she said ‘ Thank you Lenny! I’m truly flattered!’ She was.
On her desk, one remaining exercise book. Kirstie would not be coming to classes any more. Helen would, as she did with all the children who left for one reason or another, keep the book in her growing collection. Each one reminding her of a child she had perhaps had some small influence on.
She felt just a little sad that Kirstie would not be around to open her book and see the little blue elephant stamp.

CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT

Kirstie refused to engage with Blakey. In the end he gave up goading and drove in silence. She huddled into the corner on the passenger side. The Dunns lived at the south end of the town. An easy walk to gran’ma’s place at the north end. The south end was where the houses were nicer. Mostly big Victorian terraces. Only the houses on the promenade were grander, most of them now converted into bed and breakfast establishments.
Blakey dropped her at the gate. ‘Now don’t go getting into trouble young Kirsten.’ He said. His tone dry and uninterested. He pushed the lever into drive, and very slowly moved off, turning left at the corner bottle shop.
Just like that. One day subjected to a routine which she had begun to quite like, if not actually enjoy, the next, left standing on a doorstep alone. She pulled the old handle, presuming it was a doorbell. Inside, the old bell jangled. She waited. And waited. If she pulled the handle again would it seem like impatience?
Kirstie turned and slowly walked down the short pathway to the gate. Maybe she would wait a minute or two more. Still no one came. They must be out.
Gran’ma would be home. She only went to the shops, or to the ATM on pension day. If she had a phone she could call, but she had no phone, and no money. It was only a mile from one end of town to the other. It would be a nice walk, but not down the main road. School holidays. Which choice? Walk down the main road and risk being seen by some parent, or along the prom where there would be loads of kids riding their bikes and kicking balls around? Just by listening it was clear that the sea was calm. Mind made up, she headed towards the sea at the end of the street. Sure enough the sea was calm, and better still, the tide was far far out. Some kids were digging for sand eels. Some were pushing home-made shrimping nets made from broom handles, and netting for the scoop.
Kirstie took the first set of concrete steps down onto the sand. To show that she had been there, her little bag of worldly possessions had been left on the doorstep at the Dunn’s place. It was a long walk over the sandbank to the gently lapping seashore. On days like this, they said, when the tide was at its fullest ebb, you might hear the bell on the old church that had fallen into the ocean more than two hundred years ago. She shed her shoes, feeling the warm sand between her toes.
Even though she walked slowly, enjoying the sunshine. She tucked her skirt into her knickers and paddled knee-deep in the warm water. In no time at all she realised how cold and oppressive the home had been. Wondered how Fleur and Thor were going. Feeling guilty that here she was, and there they were. Soon she was at the north end of town where instead of sand the foreshore was thick with round stones. The kind they used, to make cobblestone roads and pathways. Her bare feet felt good on them. Now that she was near gran’ma’s Kirstie gave herself a hurry-up. Up the steps, across the road, around the corner. That’s all.
Head hung staring at the pavement, mainly to avoid seeing or being seen by anyone she knew. That would freak her out right now. Then, not more than fifty paces away, she stubbed a foot against a wheely-bag being pulled by an old lady. ‘Sorry! Sorry!’ She said, wanting to hold her big toe because it ached. ‘It’s all right dear…’ The old lady started, and then stared. ‘Kirstie? Kirstie!’
For a long second Kirstie was confused Caught! Then, ‘Gran’ma? Gran’ma!’ She could not help herself. She threw her thin little arms around the old lady and hugged so hard that Jill grunted. Then she put her hand gently on the back of Kirstie’s head, and held her to her chest. They stood for a full thirty seconds before Jill broke away and pushed the little girl to arm’s length. ‘You didn’t… You haven’t…You didn’t run away did you dear?’ Her face a mix of emotions.
‘They let me out in foster care. But if I’m bad I have to go back. Don’t tell on me!’
‘What on earth are you doing here?’
‘There was no one in when I got there. I came to see you, and maybe you can phone them and tell them I didn’t run away or nothing.’
‘Oh! My dear! My little darling! Come on. Let’s go home and I’ll make you a nice cup of tea and you can tell me everything! Oh my!’ There was no point in telling Kirstie how many times Jill had visited the Municipal Buildings, pleaded with social workers, made telephone calls, and even asked the police to try to intervene. All she had wanted was to be able to foster the dear thing.’ But no one cared. No one ever called back. No one explained anything.

CHAPTER TWENTY NINE
The kitchen was warm and sunny. Kirstie sat at the kitchen table munching on cheese and watercress sandwiches. ‘Is uncle Jack coming today?’
Jill bent to open the stove door. Summer and winter the old Aga kept the big kitchen warm and cosy. Jill had whisked up a batch of scones, and there was butter and jam on the table. ‘Uncle Jack.’ Jill cleared the back of her throat. ‘Uncle Jack died dear. I think he just had enough.’
Kirstie did not process the words at first. Uncle Jack? He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. Why would uncle Jack die? That meant that gran’ma had no one now in town. Brothers and sisters had married and left long ago. Scattered to the winds. They sent birthday cards, postcards and Christmas cards every year, but uncle Jack was a constant.
Jill sat down at the table. She reached out and put her wrinkled old hand over Kirstie’s. It was as if she could read Kirsties racing thoughts. ‘You mustn’t be sad dear. I didn’t want to worry you. I hoped I could tell you personally.’
‘But. What about the kids? Like, he, umm, he always watched out for the kids!’
‘It’s a different world now dear. Not like it used to be. It’s the system that has changed, and uncle Jack never really got used to it. You know, he was ever so shy and it hurt him a lot sometimes about what people said.’
‘What was people saying? I thought everyone loved uncle Jack! He was kind.’
‘Well, he never got married. Before he went to Burma during the war he was engaged to a French girl. Anilise. He kept a tiny little photo in his wallet all those years. He’s gone now. I think he’s with Anilise.’ Jill gave a strange little smile. It was a hopeful little smile that maybe a God really did exist and that it might be a happy place to be. The war and the aftermath, all those years had taken a toll on uncle Jack.
Jill took on a wistful look. It was as if watching a slide-show in her head. ‘No one said it openly but they whispered. They said he liked little children.’
‘Not THAT way!’ Kirstie exploded. No one knew more about men who liked little children than Kirstie. No one.
‘Everyone who knew uncle Jack knew that, Kirstie. He was the one who left little food parcels on doorsteps because he could not abide empty stomachs.’ Jill too had been a co conspirator a hundred times. More. The old feather bed had slept so many wet and bedraggled urchins who, caught up in their play, had been given a crossbar ride on the old red Royal Mail bicycle. Whose clothes had been washed and dried so that angry fathers and mothers, easy with their belts and slippers had no inkling. ‘Did you know that he was a Major during the war? It wasn’t the fighting that broke his heart, and he DID break his heart dear. He never was quite the same when he came back.’
Kirstie had finished her third scone with jam and fresh clotted cream. ‘Was it his girlfriend?’
‘No dear, he hadn’t found out yet. They were in a little village. It had been set afire, and all there were left were the young women. All the men had been taken away. And then he took some men into the jungle and they found the children.’ Jill chewed down on her bottom lip. She squeezed Kirstie’s hand. ‘The Japanese soldiers had chopped off all their heads.’
‘Really?!’
Jill huh hummed again. She took a sip of tea, collecting herself before she continued.
‘You’re getting to be a big girl Kirstie, and I know you had horrible things done to you. Uncle Jack worried so much when you were missing from home or from school. I don’t think he would mind me telling you now. These past months, just the two of us. He kept worrying but kept telling me not to worry because I tried so hard to have you come to live with me. He said you can’t fix up a broken system. We used to look after each other. Now it’s all social workers and forms to fill in. They kept visiting him and asking questions like they had every right to walk into his house and just question him like policemen!’
‘Because of me? Bastards!’
Jill did not admonish the little girl. Had she been brought up differently she might have uttered the epithet too. ‘Not really. People said things, and there’s no police in town anymore. They only come for murders and such. It’s all social workers now. Or what they call themselves anyway.’
Kirstie lifted her left hand and placed it over Jill’s wrinkly one which remained on top of Kirsties other hand. She squeezed. She did not feel just twelve at all. She felt grown up and equal. And grateful that gran’ma was confiding something held secret for so long.
‘They just chopped off their heads! That’s… that’s,’ She could not find a word. Something like “sick” but now “sick” meant “brilliant”. So, not sick. Something else.
‘But he did something, something special. Every soldier was given a uniform repair kit. They called it a “housewife”. It had needles and thread, and patches. That sort of stuff. Uncle Jack went to his tent with a tiny child, and he spent all night sewing the poor mite’s head back on to its body. Then he presented it to the mother, all swaddled in his uniform vest and jacket.’
‘Oh!’ Kirstie’s eyes went wide.
‘I don’t know why. He never said. But the upshot was that after he did it, all his men did the same and gave over their uniform jackets to wrap the poor things in.’ Jill’s voice began to crack and seem old and frail. ‘I think he just couldn’t bear to see those poor children not being whole. He couldn’t bring them back, you know. But what he did saved all his men too. The women hid them and brought the food and water when the Japanese came back. ‘He would never. Not ever ever hurt a child.’
‘I know gran’ma.’ Kirstie said.
‘Fifty years he was the town’s postman. And then they gave him that blessed van! And social workers every five minutes knocking on his door.’

CHAPTER THIRTY.

‘Oh goodness! I haven’t even asked who you are staying with? How long? Do you know? No one tells me anything dear. I’m just a silly old lady now.’
‘You’re not silly gran’ma. I’m ever so sorry about uncle Jack. You remember Yvonne Dunn? I’m going to stay with them down south end on Prince’s Street.’
Jill’s face lit up in delight. Even though no one had bothered to answer her questions, or allow Kirstie to come home to stay with her, Jill was well acquainted with the Dunns. Small towns and generational ties.
‘Shall I call Frank for you? I have his number.’
It did not occur to Kirstie how it was possible for Jill to have Frank Dunn’s phone number. ‘I left my bag on their doorstep.’
‘Well dear, Yvonne is probably at school, and after school she has violin lessons, so Frank stays on the farm a bit late. That’s where he’ll be. Shall I call him?’
‘Yes please.’ Then, ‘Can I stay and watch Coro with you.’ Coronation Street did not start until seven-thirty.
‘That will probably be a bit late dear if you have to be there and settle in.’
Kirstie’s face dropped into a frown. ‘Can you ask him? Please gran’ma!’
‘It’s only ten past three dear. We can chat all day if you like. But I’ll ask him.’ Jill reached for her phone. She was still learning about these new-fangled phones. Jack had bought it for her but she rarely used it. When she called the council, or wanted to make enquiries about Kirstie’s welfare she used the old handset in the hallway. The little block, with all kinds of things they called “icons” or “apps” did not feel like a telephone. Maybe people would not call her back on such an odd little thing. ‘I know the number off by heart dear, but, well, I’m not sure how to make the call. Can you dial it for me? Or I could use the telephone.’
Kirstie giggled. ‘Gran’ma! It IS a telephone. It’s just not like that big lump in the hallway. It’s a mobile phone. Don’t you use it?’
‘Not really.’ Not at all, but that was too big an admission. Jack had bought it but he knew about as much as Jill did when it came to actually using one. He’d never bothered to keep one for himself. ‘Uncle Jack got it for me because he said that if I’m in town and if I had a fall or something I could use it to call 999. And I didn’t want to seem ungrateful dear.’
‘How did he die?’ Kirstie realised that with everything going on, and her excitement at seeing gran’ma, and all the news, she had failed to ask the most important of questions.
‘He was in that silly van. They gave them big parcels to deliver, and you know uncle Jack. He would never admit some of them were too heavy for him. He had a stroke.’ Jill thought for a moment. ‘I don’t think he knew. I think he just died.’ Unlike modern generations, death was not an unnatural thing. During, and after the war, people died. Even in this little town. Now, they could cure so many ailments with their medical miracles. It was not that Jill was thoughtless. Just that she was accepting of the cycle of life. She shrugged off the momentary lapse into self-pity. ‘Now, let me get you that number and then I’ll tell you a story.’
Kirstie liked gran’ma’s stories. Gran’ma was a writer. Even back in the old days when she was in the war, she wrote stories. ‘Is it a true one? Or one you made up?’
Jill pursed her lips, and pushed a hand through her beautiful auburn hair. Kirstie thought it was beautiful, though she was sure that gran’ma kept her natural colouring with the help of L’Oreal or something like that.
Jill recited the number while Kirstie tapped it into the phone. As soon as it began to ring, she handed it to Jill who promptly put it to her ear upside down.
‘Gran’ma! It’s wrong way up!’
Jill smiled and turned it the other way around just as Frank Dunn answered.
‘Frank? It’s auntie Jill. I just thought I’d ring and tell you young Kirstie Hardisty is with me.’ There was a long pause. ‘Tomorrow? No dear. They left her at your door this morning. That will be all right. I’ll enjoy the company. Will you pick her up? Eight o’clock? Yes, all right dear. We’ll be able to watch Coronation Street together. Yes. You too. I’ll see you at eight. Oh! How is your little girl? I haven’t seen her for ages! Oh that’s good dear. Thank you.’ Jill hated talking on the phone. Even the landline in the hall. She could never wait to get off the damn things. She handed it to Kirstie to press the red button to disconnect, and gave a big sigh. ‘I’ll make us some more tea. Would you like to help me to bake some bread? They told Frank that you weren’t supposed to be there until tomorrow. They were going to send two social workers to bring you back.’
Kirstie shuddered. She had never told a soul about what Alan Blakey had done to her, and probably a bunch of other little kids. She would have been in big trouble to sprag on him. He had probably fixed it just to scare her with his authority. Or something at least. He would never have driven three hours there and three hours back just for her. Anyway, no point in worrying gran’ma. But for gran’ma, she now hated being back in Meresea. She would have to go to school, and Alan Blakey might be teaching them maths. Her worst subject. He might breathe down her neck with his smelly breath. Or he might make her do things she didn’t want to do. Not with her because he had already said that she was too old for him now. Too old at twelve and a half! He might make her do what Carol had done without remorse or care. No. If he tried to make her do that she would stab him in the other foot. Or maybe right in his belly where it would hurt most. What if he tried to make her bring him little kids?
‘Yeah! Let’s make some bread! Am I allowed to stay and watch Coro with you then?’
‘Oh, we can make bread, and perhaps some crabapple pies, and some jam tarts too. Let’s go mad shall we? Frank is up at the farm cleaning out the chicken sheds. The trucks from the chicken factory are there today. He has to get all the end-of-lay chickens out of the sheds and the new ones in. That’s why he arranged for tomorrow. Yvonne is staying at her friend’s for a sleep-over.’
‘Do I have to see my mam?’ The question was asked with trepidation. ‘I don’t want to! And I don’t want to go to school.’
Jill, bent over and busy taking flour and sugar from the pantry, managed to pause to collect her thoughts. Not long enough to make it suspicious. ‘If you have to see your mum I’m sure they will have one of those bloomin’ social workers handy. After all, they’re everywhere with their forms to fill in and their silly questions to ask. You’d think people had better things to do than all that.’ She tried not to mention school. That bridge could be crossed when they came to it.

CHAPTER THIRTY ONE.

Gran’ma loved telling stories. She had given up typing because of the arthritis. She used notebooks to handwrite. She had beautiful handwriting. It was heavy on the downstrokes and so light on the upstrokes that it was akin to art rather than writing. She did not need lines on the page to make everything look perfect. ‘It’s the way we were taught at school dear.’ She told Kirstie who was busy reading a new work.
What a brilliant day! Gran’ma had chattered away while they shared the baking, and Kirstie learned how to make light and puffy pastry. She enjoyed kneading the bread dough because gran’ma had told her that you could get all your anger out on good bread dough. You had to hit it, and thump it, and smack it around. That was great because Kirstie silently pretended it was Alan Blakey’s head. Gran’ma never gave Kirstie the time to feel scared about the future. Together they baked far too much to keep, but gran’ma always had a motive.
‘I wish you were my real gran’ma.’ Kirstie said it out of the blue.
Jill laughed. ‘I like having young people around. When you get old your mind doesn’t. Did you know that? In your head you stay the same age you were when you were having the most fun.’ She stopped for a moment. ‘ At least, when you THINK you were. I think I’m about nineteen in my head. Then I look in the mirror and wonder where the time went.’
Kirstie had been about six when she first met gran’ma. Near the old railway station. Kirstie and Carol had just come to live in Meresea. Carol, twenty one months older, had left Kirstie in the main street and gone home.
‘ I’m real, young woman. I might not be your real gran’ma, but I might as well be. I remember taking your hand and bringing you home. You had on a long woollen coat, and a red beret with a tartan coloured pom pom. Uncle Jack spent all afternoon trying to find out who owned you.’
‘I remember that!’ Kirstie exclaimed.
It was too early to put the television on. Jill only turned it on for the seven o’clock news, and never missed an episode of Coronation Street. She closed her notebook and put it on the side table next to her armchair. Kirstie was snuggled deep into gran’pa’s huge leather massage chair. She didn’t remember much about him except that he had been disabled. Jill always let her turn the chair on, then lean back and feel the hard bobbly things inside run up and down her back while the whole thing vibrated. It was cool.
‘I have an idea.’ Jill said, getting up gingerly. She would never admit to having problems with her knees, and her back. And the knotty feeling in her hands. ‘Let’s do your hair so that you can look all grown up when Frank comes to pick you up.’
Kirstie’s hair, dark and lank, had grown out now, and hung rattily over her shoulders. ‘Come and sit on this old chair and I’ll play hairdresser. I used to be quite good at it. But you mustn’t mind if I make a grand old mess of it!’
If Kirstie had known the word “cherished” it would have been how she felt when gran’ma began to run a brush through her locks. The process seemed to be calming to both of them. Gran’ma took an almost new curling wand from the drawer in her ornament cabinet. When it was warm Jill carefully waved Kirstie’s hair and in doing that, made it shine. Jill snipped with a pair of long, sharp scissors at the split ends. Only a little.
‘Are you really Frank Dunn’s auntie? I heard you say auntie Jill.’
‘Oh yes.’ Jill began. ‘It’s a small town but a long story. My mum was a Dunn, and my dad was a Harries. He was Welsh. Dad came from a family who were quite wealthy, but he went to sea on those big tea clippers when he was thirteen. The Dunns were very wealthy landowners. They built worker’s cottages in a little village called Dunnsville near Doncaster. But when mum and dad got married, they were disowned by both families and it was agreed to give them a house, the farm, and the shop in town where they sold their produce. Do you know that the house you will be living in was once the house that my mum and dad owned? The farm is the same farm too. If you like, I have some very old photos of uncle Jack, and my brothers David and Edward standing outside the old shop. Before they went off to the war. Nobody knows exactly where all the money went, but everyone has a story that it ended up in Australia with some Dunn family members. Maybe on another day I’ll whisper all the secrets to you.’
All Kirstie could say was ‘Wow!’
‘I think you’ll like young Frank and his daughter. Yvonne is a sweet girl.’
‘Well how old is young Frank?’ Kirstie, puzzled.
‘Oh, we always called him young Frank, but he must be over forty five now.’ Jill giggled, and it sounded girlish from behind Kirstie’s back.
What a fantastic day it had been. Even if it had started scarily. Together they watched Coronation Street, and just after eight, a car drove up and parked under the street lamp outside. It was big, and looked to be blue under the bright street light. It had a long front and a leaping tiger or something on the very front. A very tall man, with broad shoulders wearing a brown leather jacket got out. He walked around the the passenger side and opened the door. A tall, willowy girl with long wavy blonde hair edged her way out. Jill did not wait for the doorbell to ring. She was downstairs in a flash, hugging both the man and the young girl one after the other.
‘Kirstie!’ Jill shouted up the stairs. ‘Come down dear and we’ll have a cuppa before Frank and Yvonne take you home.’
Home. Just a little word, but it sounded good. It sounded great! Tentatively Kirstie went down the stairs and through the hallway into the kitchen.

CHAPTER THIRTY TWO
Yvonne, tall for her age and full of self confidence said ‘Do I call you Kirsten or Kirstie?’ In spite of her never having left Yorkshire, her accent was not broad in the least. Nor did it sound as though she was putting on any “airs and graces”.
They sat around the table in the warm kitchen, drinking tea and devouring home baking.
‘Kirstie. But in the home they all called me Titch.’
Frank laughed. ‘I can see why. Are you supposed to be the big bad attacker who maliciously wounded councillor Blakey?’ The smile that lit his face said that he was dubious.
Kirstie nodded, not sure how to react to the question.
‘Don’t worry about dad.’ Yvonne jumped in, ‘He’s not politically correct. You’ll soon get used to him.’
‘You’ve got beautiful hair!’ Yvonne. ‘With all those interviews and stuff no one said you’d be so pretty. Now I have to look out for my boyfriends.’
‘Boyfriends?’ Frank questioned. ‘Since when?’
‘Well, if I had any I’d have to look out for them.’ Yvonne put a deliberate coy face on.
Kirstie felt both pleased and embarrassed to be the sudden centre of attention.
‘Gran’ma did it. My hair.’ She said, her voice small.
‘So, malicious wounder of large men with delusions of grandeur,’ Frank glared benignly at his daughter, ‘there’s word around town that you are trouble with a capital T.’
‘Stop it dad! You’re just being bad now!’ The admonishment sent Frank’s face into a frauduent pout. He pushed out his bottom lip like a naughty boy and even gran’ma laughed.
‘We better get a move on.’ Frank looked at his watch. ‘It’s almost nine and it’s a five-thirty start in the morning. We’ve got to have the sheds empty and restocked over the weekend so it’ll be all hands on deck. I want to get as many people as possible into the strawberries, and there’s some early potatoes.’
‘Take some of the baking with you.’ Jill waved an arm at the array of goodies. ‘ You’ll need to feed the workers.’
Yvonne needed no further invitation.
‘Just leave me a couple of breadloaves.’ Jill said. ‘Take the rest.We made far too much.’
Kirstie was certain that they had baked all that on purpose. ‘Can I have some jam tarts gran’ma?’
‘Well, you made them young woman. You might as well.’
Kirstie felt good about being called a young woman. She did not feel like one. Probably not until she had her period. Some kids at the home had theirs. Fleur had. She wished Fleur was here. It did not seem fair that Kirstie was out and being fostered, and Fleur not even getting a chance.
‘You coming with us in the morning then?’ Yvonne glanced at Kirstie with a questioning look.
‘Where to?’ It was all too confusing. Everything happening fast now. It was OK when it was just gran’ma and her, but now Kirstie felt shy with these two ebullient characters. They were both so happy and together. ‘To the farm. I can teach you how to drive the tractors, and you can eat as many strawberries as you like. And I’ll show you the hay shed, and where we dry the grass for bagging for feed.’
‘Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!’ Frank stopped Yvonne dead in her tracks. ‘Slow down oh daughter of mine! You’ll scare the horses!’
‘Dad!’ It sounded, even to gran’ma’s ears, more like a plaintive ‘Daaaad!’ But Jill had known these two their entire lives. Frank had been no different as a boy. Always one to be up early in the mornings and into the hay sheds. Summer evenings tinkering with some old engine or inventing some weird and wonderful machine to make the farm a more efficient place. Of course his father before him had done the same. Now it was Yvonne’s turn to push the boat out. On the farm she was a regular tomboy in her jeans and shirts. Just like her mother had been. With the same attraction to fast cars, preferably red ones, because, she liked to joke that red ones went faster.

CHAPTER THIRTY THREE

‘I don’t want to go to school.’ Kirstie told Yvonne as late September beckoned. There was nothing Titch had not had a go at. When someone was needed to crawl into the long tunnel of the grass drier, Kirstie was the first to volunteer. Raking out the hot embers in the tight tunnel was not something most of the farm workers relished. The space was narrow, and on hands and knees with a small raking tool Titch had no fear. She hefted baskets of potatoes, one on each arm, and each one half her own body weight. Yvonne started Kirstie learning to drive the old little grey Fergie. The little tractor was older than Methuselah according to Frank, who then had to explain that Methuselah was the oldest man described in the bible. Within a few weeks Kirstie, almost invisible on the seat of the big John Deere, was churning up long rows of potatoes, being followed behind by gangs of pickers who turned out their baskets into a big trailer which Yvonne carted to the bagging shed behind the wheel of the little grey Fergie.
Farm work began before daylight and ended just before dark. Yvonne was a good teacher, and Frank left the two girls to do their thing. Kirstie learned to drive all three of the old cars on the farm too. Tearing around the horse paddock in a scarred and beaten-up Austin A40 pickup was just the best adrenaline rush.
At home, with the entire second storey of the old house to themselves the two girls became sisters. Each with their own bedroom and sitting room. It was where Yvonne was teaching her little sister to be girlie.
It was the most golden of golden summers for both of them. Yvonne would never forget her mother, but she had someone to talk to about it, and the hurt that she would never mention to her father once or twice spewed out. Then, Kirstie was the comforter absorbing the snot and tears onto her own shoulders.
‘Can I tell you something?’ Yvonne’s silky blonde hair slipped like water through the brush. Kirstie did not wait for a reply. ‘I’m glad they closed down the markets. And I don’t care if Meresea sinks into the sea and just gets gobbled up.’
Yvonne had been instructed by her father how to be a good listener. She said nothing even though her stomach rolled at what Kirstie had to say. She had never told anyone the whole story. Or even one tenth of it. ‘And I’m not going back to school.’ She finished, ‘Not even if they tie me in restraints and put a spit hood over my head!’
‘But what if they send you back? Then you can’t be my sister anymore.’
‘I’m frightened ‘vonnie. Even if I can see gran’ma whenever I want, and even if you and dad are the best on the planet I’m still so frightened.’ At first Kirstie had been a little afraid of Frank. Ever since she was little, men had “done stuff” to her. There was no longer uncle Jack to take her to gran’ma’s.
‘Dad’s never been so happy since mum got killed.’ Yvonne said. ‘He’s totally getting his shit together.’
‘And Larry’s pretty cool too.’ Kirstie said, but without much humour. ‘He calls me “tyke”, and I really like Margie too. Gran’ma told me she used to live here when she was a little girl. She said it was a happy house.’
‘Do you know all this furniture and the dressing table and even the hairbrush and hand-mirror belonged to your gran’ma’s mum?’
‘It’s still a happy house.’
‘It’s happier since you got here. What if I tell dad?’ Yvonne questioned.
‘No!’ Kirstie stopped brushing. ‘Please don’t tell on me. He’ll get in shit. Anyway they’ll just say I’m a slut and a slag like always.’
‘You can’t be a slut when you’re only little. You have to be like, fourteen or something don’t you?’ Yvonne, so grown up in so many ways still naieve in so many others.

CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR
Yvonne’s mates gathered together around the bicycle sheds, and for the first time in her life Kirstie felt included. No one called her names. She had been kitted out in a brand new school uniform. Blue blazer with the school badge on the right breast-pocket, white blouse, and blue pleated skirt that came down to just below the knee. While not as busty as some of her bigger friends, she had sprouted small but conspicuous breasts and Yvonne had taken her bra shopping. The day before school started Kirstie got her period. The two girls celebrated with sponge cake with icing and hundreds and thousands sprinkled on top. Kirstie’s hair no longer thin and lank, was full and wavy and almost the same colour as gran’ma’s. Still small, she had come to terms with the fact that most likely she was not going to grow much bigger. In fact being called Titch by the other girls felt good. Carol’s old mates still scowled when they walked past in a gaggle, muttering, but no one wanted to take Kirstie on. They had all heard stories about Alan Blakey’s stabbing, and the stories were so much bigger than the truth.
She was in 3C, the below average class. Not that she cared that much. It was early days, and the first week she had busily covered and decorated her exercise books. She would work hard and maybe next term she would be elevated to a B. Frank had purchased both girls new pencil boxes and really cool geometry boxes with a metal compass and mechanical pencil. Ruler and two set squares, a protractor, mechanical pencil and eraser. With an extra set of pencil leads all in a neat see-through container.
In the evenings, Frank drove her up to gran’ma’s and they would watch Coronation Street together. She had saved her money, her wages from the daily farm work during the holidays. Frank had paid her the same as the adults got, and though she had spent a little on a new purse and pretty handbag, the money was neatly tucked away in the purse.
On weekends, she would take gran’ma’s arm, and with the other hand, pull along gran’ma’s shopping bag. First to the ATM where gran’ma put in her card and drew out her twenty pound notes. Gran’ma always gave Kirstie twenty pounds for herself. ‘For helping me so much and for keeping me company.’ Gran’ma said. For her part, Jill felt both safe, and protective of the youngster. ‘You’ve turned out grand!’ She would say when Kirstie offered to carry the heavy bags.
Then without any warning it all went wrong. Kirstie suddenly understood that no matter how hard you tried, you can never beat the system. Alan Blakey had a hand in it, no doubt. During her first math class Blakey hunkered down, his fingers probing under her skirt and into the leg of her knickers. ‘Now haven’t you turned out a pretty one.’ He said. ‘I have a few friends who might like to meet you Kirstie.’
For a split second the anger rose into her throat. She swallowed hard, staying her hand from grabbing at the steel-pointed compass to push into his nasty little eye. His breath stunk of mints. Her little body quivered just as it had when she was just a shy and bullied child. No! Not any more! Now she had Yvonne. And Frank. And gran’ma. She had Larry and Margie and a bedroom and sitting room all to herself in a beautiful house. ‘Go fuck yourself!’ She said, and looked Blakey straight in the eye.

CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE
‘You didn’t!” Yvonne giggled. Strolling home arm in arm.
‘You won’t tell! Promise?’ Kirstie, now regretting her crude language to Alan Blakey.
‘Of course not. Not even to dad.’ The early October sun was still warm. It had been a week since Kirstie had faced up to Blakey. She had been expecting a visit to the headmaster, or at least some kind of discipline. None had come. Now, relating the incident to Yvonne felt safe. Blakey had avoided her for four days of math. Kirstie had been meticulous in showing her working out, and keeping her exercise book neat and tidy. She felt that she was doing well at school, especially with Yvonne being best mates. And the other girls who gathered with them near the bicycle sheds.
Kirstie waved to Ian, who was wandering the footpath on the other side of the road. Ian had been one of her mates on the promenade before she was taken away. Sometimes, when she was with gran’ma Ian would be standing on the corner smoking. Now that she had her own money, she could give him a fiver. Enough to buy some fish and chips and have a little change. It made Kirstie feel good to be able to help out a mate. Not that she ever went down there anymore. She was done with all that.
‘Who’s that?’ Yvonne asked. ‘He’s not bad looking.’
‘Yeah. He’s a good sort. But he’s a needle freak. I reckon he’ll be dead before he’s twenty.’
‘Really!?’
Kirstie shrugged. There would never be anything she could do about Ian. He had always had her back though, just like the others had. When she was little and hurt so badly that she could hardly walk, those kids had been there to talk to. They knew. Probably lots of other people knew too, but they were the ones who thought it was all just her fault. She tried not to remember those times, but when Alan Blakey was still around and still powerful, how could anyone just forget.
‘Dad’s home.’ Yvonne said, pointing at the old Jaguar parked outside their house. ‘Probably took the day off. The foreman can take care of things at the farm for a week or two. Then we have to get ready for Christmas with the pork and the turkeys.’
Yvonne opened the front door and shouted ‘Dad!’
‘In the kitchen darling.’
The girls navigated the long hallway and opened the kitchen door. Kirstie suddenly wanted to run. The first person she saw, seated at the kitchen table was the social worker. The fat bitch. Beside her, another social worker, and on the end of the table a lady police officer. Frank sat, looking stern at the other end, his long legs planted on the floor while he sat on a tall bar stool, there being no other chairs in the kitchen.
Fat bitch, a self satisfied look on her face chose to be the speaker. ‘We’ve had a complaint. We decided to wait until you arrived home before we all speak together.’ She opened a buff folder on the kitchen table. She looked at Frank. ‘I’m afraid Mr. Dunn that part of this complaint refers specifically to you.’
‘Oh?’ Frank had been sipping on cup of tea which he had made for all present before the kids got home.
‘We have received several complaints that Kirsten may have been abused while in your care Mr. Dunn.’
‘What?’ Frank looked stunned. ‘ Who is this complainant?’
The lady officer spoke, glancing at the two social workers for confirmation to speak. ‘We’re not at liberty to say at this juncture Mr. Dunn.’
Frank looked at Kirsty, his face etched in worry. ‘Have you Kirstie?’
‘No! That’s bullshit!’ She looked at Yvonne for backup. ‘I love it here. It’s my home.’ Then, not wanting to be imprecise she qualified. ‘My foster home.’
Fat bitch spoke again. ‘Kirsten. You have been seen on CCTV menacing an old lady into giving you money. Which you then passed on to a known addict.’
Shocked, Kirstie blurted. ‘That’s gran’ma! I help her with the shopping. We go to the ATM and she gives me pocket money. That’s all it is! You look at the cameras!’
Fat bitch cut to the chase. Looking directly at Kirstie, but talking to Frank. She first closed up the buff folder and said. ‘ We have an order to remove Kirsten from this foster care, and an investigation will be instigated. If the investigation proves to be without foundation Kirsten might be returned to your care Mr. Dunn.’
‘Girls. I’ll sort this. You can go to your rooms. Don’t forget the homework ritual.’
After the kitchen door closed, Frank demanded. ‘What’s all this really about?’
Fat bitch, with some satisfaction replied. ‘There have been two complaints that Kirsten Hardisty, while in the care of a responsible adult, apropos temporary foster care, was sexually abused.’
‘What!’ Frank exploded. ‘Are you accusing me of..?’ He was unable to get the words out.
‘It’s only a complaint at this stage Mr. Dunn.’ The police officer inserted. ‘These matters must always be investigated if a complaint is made.’
‘There is also the matter of Kirsten taking money with menaces.’ Fat bitch chimed in. ‘As requested, you have tendered Kirsten’s purse, and we found a large amount of cash amounting to four hundred and twelve pounds.’
‘She worked the farm for the summer.’ Frank argued. ‘She’s not a little girl who spends her money. It would be in line with her pay for her work.’
‘And for nothing else?’ Fat bitch asked with some malice.
‘Absolutely not!’ Frank leaned forward, hands on his thighs. ‘Exactly what are you implying? Can you not be specific? After all, this is very serious.’
‘I think, the best we can do right now, is to end this interview for the time being. We’ll make some enquiries Mr. Dunn. I’m sure that we’ll sort this out quickly and Kirsten and your daughter will be returned to you. Kirsten’s mother has expressed a desire to have her daughter back at home.’ She drooped her head a little. We have to investigate all complaints, especially of this nature.’
‘And we make every effort where possible to return a child to the birth parent.’ Fat bitch interjected.
For moments Frank did not take in what had been said.
‘My daughter?’ He asked, astonished. ‘You want to remove my daughter?’
For the first time the backup social worker spoke. She looked very young and inexperienced. ‘It’s probably only temporary Mr. Dunn. When a serious allegation has been made it is for the safety of the child.’
‘You can’t do that! You can’t just take my daughter, or my foster child for that matter! It’s preposterous!’
‘We can. And we will do whatever we must to do ensure the safety of children in our care.’ Fat bitch announced.
Then all hell broke loose.

CHAPTER THIRTY SIX
‘I’ll sell the farm before I let them get away with this.’ Frank lamented. Jill made tea. It was what she did best when she or others were so upset.
‘A social worker came yesteday dear. She asked me a lot of questions about that dear little girl and about my money. I told her that I have my own money and it’s nobody’s business who I give it to. She asked if I’m forgetful.’
‘Why would she do that? That’s none of their business.’
Jill poured a pint mug for Frank, and for her a fine porcelain cup and saucer. She still loved the gentile things in life. ‘ She kept trying to confuse me. You know how I get in a flap sometimes.’
Frank smiled at that. His wife, she of the mercurial temper could tie Jill in knots when she felt like it. It was that temper, taking off in her red Porche, that got her killed.
‘I’m worried about ‘Vonnie. I’m not allowed to be there when they question her. They say “have a chat” but they mean question. We should never have applied to foster.’
‘Frank!’ Jill got her dander up at his defeatist attitude. ‘I’ve known you since you were born! You made a grand foster parent. And never let them say you’re not!’
‘I got the books out last night auntie Jill. The Family Court can make whatever recommedation they like based on what the social workers say, and it’s all secret. I don’t know if it will be OK but yesterday when the social workers were there I put my dictaphone on table. No one noticed, but I’ll give it to Dan Solent.’ Solent had been the family solicitor since forever. He no longer took on new clients, but he had retained his long time ones. At the age of eighty one, he still had all his marbles and a sharp mind. ‘I don’t trust that plump, thin-lipped social worker. She seems like a bad ‘un to me.’
‘Is she the frumpy one that wears tweed and looks like a puffer fish?’
Frank, in spite of himself laughed, blowing out his cheeks. ‘That one?’ He said.
‘Perfect!’ Jill replied, pouring more tea into her cup. ‘I heard that Frankie Hardisty has been making some noise about getting Kirstie back at home. She had cleaners in and went to the council to get a visit. She’s a sly one that one is.’
‘But she’s a drunk auntie! Half the town know that, and the other half don’t go to pubs!’
‘Oh, she’ll have that little girl cooking and cleaning. No wonder Carol ran away. They can’t be bothered trying to find her! It’s criminal.’ Jill did not say so, but she was worried that Kirstie would be banned from visiting her. She enjoyed the child’s company. What was more, she did not have to count the silverware when Kirstie left.
‘I should write a will.’ She said almost absently. ‘ The poor girl will need something of her own and I know you won’t want the house when I’m gone.’
‘Don’t get all maudlin auntie. You’re as fit as a fiddle. Anyway, I’ve got enough on my hands with the farm and the houses. I don’t need another one. It’d be a millstone.’
‘That social worker asked if I had a will.’ Jill said. ‘I got a bit flustered. I didn’t expect her to ask something personal like that. She said she was only concerned about my welfare when Kirstie was around. I’m not stupid, and I’m not senile, but I can’t for the life of me think why she would ask that sort of thing. She asked if I had lost or misplaced any valuables.’
‘Have you?’
‘Of course not! I gave Kirstie the little St Christopher, and the silver crucifix. They belonged to MY granny. She was as pleased as Punch. The other things are in the safe with my house deeds and other personal papers.’
Frank pulled a piece of paper from his shirt pocket. ‘When I was reading last night I wrote this down because it might mean something. I’ll read it to you.’ He unfolded the small scrap of paper. ‘ “Parental abuse, neglect and rejection are common and bereavement a factor for some.” What if they ask Vonnie and she says that dad gets angry and shouts at her sometimes? They call that abuse now, especially if the social workers want to put that in their notes. What if she says that sometimes she has to cook dinner because I’m out late at the farm, or that I sometimes don’t listen to her because I’m busy or doing the accounts? What if they ask about Yvonne getting killed?’ Yvonne, named after her dead mother would be likely to say something like that if they were all smiley and encouraging. Frank held his mug out for a refill and worried his bottom lip. ‘It’s all true. I do shout at her sometimes. I do neglect her, but not on purpose. She understands that. I do reject her sometimes when I’m really busy thinking about the accounts. I never was good at maths. And I know how hard it was when her mum was killed. It broke her heart.’
Jill filled his mug to the brim. ‘It broke yours too Frank. And surely they wouldn’t say you neglect her. That’s just silly.’
‘I’m really worried auntie. It’s been two days and no one will tell me anything. I can’t sleep, and I can’t stop thinking the worst. I’d likely turn the tractor over at work because I can’t concentrate.’
Jill stood behind Frank and wrapped her arms around his neck. ‘Frank. You’re a good dad. You’re a good foster dad. I don’t care what councillor Blakey says.’
Frank froze. ‘ Alan Blakey? What has he said? Who told you?’
‘Well it was the social worker. She said that Kirstie had been rude and defiant in his class, and had she been like that with me? Well, I didn’t know what to say!’

CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN
Yvonne returned home sullen. Her usually gregarious nature absent of any of the natural ebulliance that made her friends at school laugh. ‘Can I have a week off school dad?’ She asked. Frank thought she was being uncharacteristically evasive when questioned about her interview. ‘It wasn’t an interview dad. It was an interrogation.’
There was little more she wanted to add, and that was odd given her upbringing. She would be fourteen soon and Frank had never treated her as less than an adult. Frank had begged Yvonne his wife, for a child. She had not wanted children. Had never inherited any mothering instinct. She had however, agreed to bearing him a single child on the proviso that, ‘when it can hold an adult conversation I’ll take over.’ Frank of course, was delighted. “It” was born at 10.28pm on December 24th at Meresea Maternity Hospital. At 9pm that evening, Yvonne announced that she was going into labour. Frank wanted to call a taxi, but she insisted on walking the mile and a half on her own. On arrival they were quickly ushered into a delivery room where Yvonne was looked at by the midwife. The same lady who had in fact delivered Frank and many of the youngsters in town. One of those women who not only loved her job, but refused to retire gracefully. She brought Frank and Yvonne cups of tea and biscuits, saying, ‘It could be a little while, but if you need to just press the red button.’ Pointing to the button on the wall. Ten minutes later, the family doctor, another who refused to retire and had doctored a great many of the folk in town, called in for a chat. He was celebrating with a Christmas drink with the staff. At that time doctors were not usually present at a birth unless called on during an emergency. Yvonne, all “gassed up” broke into a stream of expletives upon seeing him, which amounted to “get that man out of here.” Neither succinct, nor acceptable in polite company. Dr. smiled and left the room. Ten minutes after that with no time to press any kind of button, Frank was holding an eight pound four ounce baby in his arms. Frank bought, or was given, (he could no remember) a “papoose carrier” which held the child to his chest. He spent his days at the farm feeding a baby and driving a tractor.
By the time little Yvonne, now ‘Vonnie, was six years old, she was erudite and curious. Frank felt pangs of what he thought must be jealousy when the two Yvonnes bonded almost seamlessly. He also understood that it was time for the youngster to begin to learn “girl stuff” rather than further develop her tomboy ways at the farm.
Then Yvonne died. Her mercurial temper had flared, and she had flounced out to the recently acquired Porche convertible and taken off at speed. Yvonne was eleven years old and motherless.
Right now Frank had never felt a greater need for his beautiful but difficult wife whom he had adored and who, in her own way had adored him and her precious daughter.
‘You can take a week if you like.’ Frank said, ‘but if it’s just avoiding a problem I’d suggest you get right back up on the horse.’
‘It’s all ’round town dad! They’re saying that Kirstie is a slut and a slag again. And that I must be too!’
Frank’s heart melted in a fire of indignation. Not that he was going to demonstrate it. Instead, he wrapped his arms around his little girl. Not so little girl. ‘You know what darling? A few weeks ago you were telling Kirstie about how to deal with bullies. Remember?’
Yvonne remembered but chose to bury her face in her father’s chest.
‘Take all the time you like sweetheart. You can stay at home and mope in your books. Or you can come to the farm and sweat out the anger. Or you can just shrug it off and go to school as usual. Whatever you do, I’m on your side.’
‘ I want to go to Kirstie’s hearing, but,’
‘But they won’t let us. I know sweetheart.’
‘They’re sending her back into secure care. I heard them talking. They said she’s going into a training unit and that she’s violent! It’s not true dad! And Kirstie won’t tell. She told me. She told me everything!’
Frank held her tightly. ‘I know too darling. Larry told me everything there is to know. He was busted for belting up some men. Margie said that when that creep they called the Sweetie Man admitted it to them, well, actually he was bragging, Larry went down to the back of the old station building and broke some noses and a jaw. He got a suspended sentence and four years probation.’
It took a few moments to realise that his little girl was sobbing. She did so quietly, soaking the front of his shirt with her tears.
‘Hey! Hey hey! Sweetheart! You haven’t cried since your mum died.’
‘I miss her!’
‘I do too. Right now I think we both need her. She’d scoff at us and call us wimps!’ Trying to make Yvonne laugh, and he did get a brief chuff of agreement.
‘They asked me all sorts of questions dad. Like, did you get into bed with me. Or did you ever act inappropriatly with me. Like trying to make you into a monster!’
‘I said I wanted you there with me, but they said that you might intimidate me into answering the way you wanted me to. And they brought in a lady cop and those two social workers. They never gave me a chance to explain anything. Just kept asking really really rude questions.’
Frank curbed his fury.
‘They said if I didn’t answer their questions truthfully that they could put me into a care home while they investigated what they called “certain charges”. I told them there couldn’t be any certain charges because you were the best dad in the world and that they had dirty minds.’
‘That’s my girl!’ Frank forced himself to bring up a laugh. ‘I bet that made you mad eh?’
‘I didn’t swear though. I know swearing just makes things worse.’
‘Do you want to swear?’
‘I wanted to say the F word and the C word. But not now. I thought they were going to take me away. They said they could. That they would convene a hearing and have me taken away!’
‘Do you regret having Kirstie as a foster sister?’ Frank could not stop himself asking.
‘No! Kirstie’s my mate. She’s sweet, and she’s had a horrible time. She told me everything when we were in my sitting room upstairs. Why should she always be punished? She told me about cutting herself, and how she had stopped now since we were her dad and her sister. Dad, she’s the victim, not the criminal. But they say she’s just a violent criminal and has to be put where she can’t do any harm.’
Frank released Yvonne from the hug, which was beginning to take his breath away.
‘Well, she did apparently attack councillor Blakey. She stabbed him didn’t she?’
‘Dad! I know she said not to tell, but I don’t think she meant you. She stabbed him in the foot because he was raping her!’

CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT

Jill Whitfield rarely read the Meresea Gazette. Mostly she turned directly to the Births, Marriages and Deaths. Though it disturbed her to read of the death of an old friend she understood that she was of an age. The paper dealt only with local issues, and had been published by the same family for over eighty years. It was rare for the front page to grab the eye. This time the headline was unavoidable. TEEN GIRL SENTENCED TO TWO YEARS. VIOLENT ASSAULT TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT.
Kirsten Hardisty, a resident of Meresea was sentenced this week to twenty four months in detention. Described by the court as “violent” and a “hooligan” Hardisty has been in trouble since she was just eight years of age. Found guilty of demanding money with menaces from an old lady, a resident of Meresea for over sixty eight years. Hardisty also pleaded guilty to possession of a weapon. When searched Hardisty was found to have been carrying a penknife with a three inch blade. Councillor Alan Blakey, a local advocate for youth offenders said: “Teenage hooligans are taking over this community. They roam the streets in gangs, and congregate near the public toilets on the promenade where they inject drugs, and harass locals and holidaymakers. It is sad to see that a local girl of only thirteen has been in trouble for truancy, defiance, and a vicious assault on me personally at a time when we were reaching out to Hardisty and her single mother.” Councillor Blakey said that even though many attempts had been made by himself, and social workers trained in the rehabilitation of children and youths, Hardisty had been found “resistant to all efforts to help her.” Hardisty was observed on CCTV cameras standing behind the old lady at the ATM on the corner of Seaside Parade. She took the money withdrawn from the machine and handed it on to a known drug addict. During sentencing the judge commented that “This is a vile crime, carried out with no concern and no remorse.” In sentencing Hardisty to twenty four months in detention he added, “I can find no mitigating circumstances. After you have served your required sentence you will be required to wear an ankle tag.”
Outside the court Councillor Blakey said “I have been personally involved with Hardisty from a very young age. It is unfortunate that we have not been successful. It is very sad, but we will continue to have an interest in Ms. Hardisty after her release.”
Asked if he had ever considered his work to be futile, Councillor Blakey confessed that “If we can’t control them before the age of ten, it becomes so much more difficult. But we must address a burgeoning problem in the small community of Meresea.”
Jill put the paper down. Putting four heaped teaspoons of tea into the pot, she busied herself fussing with cake ingredients. Doing something was better than thinking. Thoughts cannot be corralled like cattle or horses. They escape too often, and scramble to hide in the folds of different thoughts. Where they seek to confuse.
A cup of tea was always a helper. Strong, and sweet, with a dash of milk.
‘Oh dear!’ She muttered, finding even the simple tasks difficult. She had taken out yeast instead of baking powder. ‘Oh dear!’ Now she plopped down onto the kitchen chair feeling oddly fatigued. ‘I must be getting old.’ The kitchen, always warm was getting stuffy. She would open the back door and let some fresh air through. The air outside had lost it’s autumnal warmth, and winter had come early. The wind off the sea smelled of seaweed, and had a bite to it.
Jill poured the tea, but her hand was trembling. Poor little Kirstie. She went to prison because I gave her some pocket money! ‘Oh dear!’ It was all Jill could say. The thoughts crowding out everything else. She reached for her rose decorated porcelain cup. Royal Doulton. God only knew how many years Jill had owned that dinner service. It had been a wedding present from her mother who had inherited it from her mother. And not a piece chipped. Not until she now knocked it against her Royal Doulton teapot. ‘Oh dear!’ She muttered again, her eyesight was deteriorating. ‘Oh!’ She said, and her voice came from a long way away as she toppled from the kitchen chair, banging her head on the cheerful yellow tiles.

CHAPTER THIRTY NINE
‘Hospital?!’
‘I should have gone to see her this week,’ Frank lamented. ‘I’ve just been so busy these past two weeks. With all the worry and fuss over Kirstie. Then getting the new shed ready for the turkey poults for Christmas. I can’t believe no one bothered to tell us anything.’
‘Is she going to be OK dad? Should we let Kirstie know?’
Frank thought for a long minute. ‘Let’s find out more before we tell her. She’s gone through enough sweetheart. What do you think?’
Yvonne poured tea into her dad’s plain white pint mug. She had been included in all decisions since she was a small child. ‘I think so too. Tell me what happened dad. Is it serious? Jill would never go to hospital. She hates the places.’ Yvonne called Jill by her first name. It had always been that way.
Frank took a sip of his tea, burning his mouth. He squished up his face before swallowing. ‘I ‘phoned this afternoon when I heard. Mrs. Lockwood, you know the nosy neighbour who lives across from her? She stopped me in the street asking how she was. I know it’s shameful of me, but I pretended I knew, and Mrs. Lockwood blurted out all the details.’
‘What did the hospital say? Did they say how she is?’
Frank shook his head. Sad, and trying to make sense of it all. ‘She’s in a coma. Critical.’ He took another sip on his scalding tea and waved his hand at the chair beside him. ‘Sit down and stop pacing ‘Vonnie! You’re making me dizzy!’
Though he never advertised it, Yvonne knew how very fond he was of his old aunt. Jill has been very upset when Jack died. She had seemed confused and absent-minded at the cemetary. Frank had driven her in the Jag and, while she was the only close relative, a lot of people had turned up to pay their respects. Jack had been more well loved than Jill had believed. Some of his old service friends had turned up too, so the reception after the funeral more than filled her front sitting room, and she had struggled making more sandwiches. Frank put down Jill’s dizziness and trembling hands to grief. After a quick lie down, and Yvonne and Frank taking over hosting duties, Jill was back on her feet and seemed to have it together again.
‘I spoke to the attending doctor. He was pretty good. Took me through everything and asked a few questions. He thinks she might have had at least one TIA.’
Yvonne chipped in. ‘What’s that?’
‘ A transient ischemic attack. It’s like a mini stroke they tell me. The doctor said that usually they are temporary and only last an hour or two. But that she might have had more than one. Then she had a stroke. A big one.’ An uncharacteristic crack closed up his vocal chords for a second.
Yvonne stood and pushed her chair into the table to tidy it up. She stood behind Frank putting her cheek against his, hugging her arms around him. Frank hated his own emotions, but had never hidden them from his daughter. ‘Do you want to cry dad? It’s OK you know that?’
He nodded, forcing a strangled ‘Yup,’ and then broke up.
Yvonne hugged him. ‘It’s not your fault dad. Dad, it’s not your fault. It’s not.’ She wanted to cry with him, but refused. This was his grief and should not be usurped. She took slow, deep breaths, glad that he could not see her eyes tearing up. ‘When can we see her?’
Frank did not answer for a long time. Encouraging others to cry out their grief, Frank disliked his own. ‘Pass me some tissues darling.’ He finally said, now under control again. Dabbing his wet, puffy face with a handful of Kleenex, he reached for his mug of tea. ‘It’s gone cold.’ He said.
‘Of course it has doofus!’ Yvonne scolded. ‘It’s been sitting for nearly half an hour.’ She scolded with affection. ‘I’ll make us another.’
Just as in Jill’s kitchen, the kettle was just a basic whistler, and stood wheezing on the massive cast-iron stove that had been a part of the house forever. Things had been busy lately and the stove had been neglected. It needed a good swipe over with Stove Black.
Settled and composed now, Frank drank half his pint of tea. Sorting things in his head.
‘If she comes out of it she might recover they said. But it might take a long time. When I asked how long, the doctor said that it could be months. Or never. They’ll call when she recovers conciousness.’
‘I’m so, so sorry dad. We’ll wait and see what happens before we tell Kirstie. I think that’s a good idea.’
Frank looked up, mournful. A beseeching question etched into the handsome face. ‘There’s a problem sweetheart. I didn’t really know how to say this, so I’ll just say it. The police want to see me at auntie Jill’s place. Something about Kirstie, and aunt Jill’s safe. Things missing they think, but they want me to go and have a look.’

CHAPTER FORTY

‘We believe she had been on the floor for at least a day.’ The policewoman was the same quiet woman who had kept silent company with the social workers. The one now nicknamed “blowfish”, the same Kirstie described as the fat bitch, hovered. Now and then she made some notation on her clipboard.
‘The key was in the pocket of her smock.’ The policewoman said, handing it to Frank, who stood there wondering what he should do now. ‘We did open it to acertain the contents.’
‘And?’ Frank asked.
‘We looked only for cash and valuables. There are papers you should look at. Nothing of value.’
Frank inserted the key and removed everything, placing them on the table. Jill had kept all her romance novels, written under a variety of pseudonyms. There were eleven. Birth and marriage certificates, house deeds. No will.
‘I don’t know.’ Frank said. ‘What do you think I should be looking for?’
Blowfish pushed her way into the conversation. ‘We know she was being manipulated by Kirsten Hardisty.’
Frank bit his tongue, unwilling to get into any sort of slanging match with the woman.
‘Just as a matter of interest,’ Frank asked, ‘how exactly did you get in? And why?’
Blowfish puffed out her cheeks and made an entry on her ubiquitous clipboard. ‘Our work is subject to confidentiality. I called to make some enquiries, but after several visits there was no answer. So I called in a local police officer to gain entry.’
‘We brought in a locksmith to open the front door.’ The timid policewoman added.
‘So why did you not call me?’ Frank was angry. Also guilty of feeling neglectful. He should have called in. Working the farm had taken up more time at the weekends since Yvonne had been away. ‘ I have keys.’
Blowfish remained silent.
‘Well?’ Frank demanded.
‘Mr. Dunn,’ the woman said, at her most officious. ‘The paperwork regarding your alleged abuse had not been cleared,’
‘But I was!’ Frank interupted slamming a flat hand down on the table.
‘We were not at liberty to permit access.’ Blowfish.
Frank exploded. ‘You responded quickly enough to unfounded accusations! You took away my daughter for an inquisition! You locked up an innocent little girl based on completely unfounded and malicious complaints!’
‘The girl is a thief, a liar, and an intransient thug.’ Blowfish puffed out her cheeks once more.
‘Intransient or intransigent?’ Frank could not help himself. ‘Do you even know the meanings of the words you write?’
‘Hardisty was in your care when she robbed an old woman of her money.’ The woman was insufferable. ‘We examined the CCTV recordings in detail. Hardisty’s stance, her standing behind the old woman,’
Frank interjected again. ‘The “old woman” is my aunt Jill. At least you could call her Mrs. Whitfield and show some respect!’ He seldom “blew it” as Yvonne might describe his outburts, but something was telling him that something was being set up.
Blowfish, unperturbed, as if she had seen such behaviour a hundred times, went on, ‘Hardisty then crossed the road and handed several notes to a known drug addict.’
‘And that’s your proof?’ Frank railed. ‘Let’s see shall we?’ He strode over to the small bookshelf used for keeping Jill’s cookery books and books she might be reading. Plucking a red leatherbound book from the shelf, he flicked through to the most recent entries. Jill kept diaries. Every day since 1955 she had kept a daily record of things done, and seen, and considered. Ideas for her novels, small commentaries, birthdays, people to send Christmas cards to. ‘Here. Let’s just start here shall we. I should read it to you.’ He flipped pages. ‘ K. Pocket money five pounds. Here, K. cut back roses and did garden pocket money twenty pounds. Here. K. Went shopping poor little mite carried groceries. Watched CS. Pocket money five pounds. Should I go on?’ In his fury he slapped the diary on the table. It made a loud crack.
Blowfish, unperturbed made a notation on her clipboard. ‘Mr. Dunn,’ she said, further infuriating Frank. ‘Hardisty was the subject of several complaints.’
‘By whom?’
‘We are not at liberty to say. That is confidential information.’
‘Her name is Kirstie. Or Kirsten if you want to be polite. Not “Hardisty.” ‘ Now unable to contain himself he went on. ‘ You’re not social workers! You are an excuse for a broken system with you lot in charge!’ He stared at the policewoman. ‘Have you nothing to say young woman!’ Deliberately baiting with the “young woman”.
‘I’m sorry Mr. Dunn. This is a civil matter. I’m only here to ensure order.’
Frank, lost for words said ‘Shitheads!’
Blowfish made a note on her clipboard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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