What does the word ‘damaged’ mean? What does it do to someone when they’re called it? What does it do to someone when they’re asked ‘what’s wrong with you?’ How can we, as a society, begin to change the things that go on behind closed doors?
I don’t know which was worse, what dad did, or that mum sat back and watched.
Life began for me in a shitty little suburb of London. The tube tracks ran down the back of our garden and I’d sit in my room at the top of the house and watch them rattle past. I’d count the seconds and minutes, every train that came a further reprieve from what I knew was coming.
When I say life began, I don’t mean I was born there. Life didn’t really kick in for me until was eight. Before that all I have are shadows, dark, nasty little things that chase me around my nightmares. They were, of course, a precursor for what was to come, but at the time they were just darkness and pain.
But before I was eight, they were my life, as much a part of it as breakfast and shouting. Eight was when they asked me if anything was wrong, eight was when I realised my life was different. It was a typical day at school, maths and English, the only two subjects in the world. We had art now and then, but my primary memory of it at that age was using lots of black and being told it killed the other colours. I liked black. Still do.
A stern-faced lady came and took me away from hand-writing practice. I tried to thank her as she stalked down the corridor and I jogged to keep up, but she was one of those teachers who became a teacher to keep kids quiet. Ironic, really, that she was the one taking me to see the counsellor.
I didn’t know it was the counsellor at that stage. She was just a lady in a room, sitting in a big leather arm chair and smiling at me in what she clearly thought was a reassuring way. I was far too interested in the fact that her table was against the wall. There was nothing between me and her save her firmly crossed legs. Looking back, I think she was quite young and quite pretty and I suppose I was quite taken with her.
Either way, when I sat on the partner chair to her own, pressed my knees together and sat bolt upright, I didn’t feel the usual butterflies in my stomach at being alone in a room with an adult.
‘Justin, do you know why you’re here?’
‘Um. No?’ I clearly remember wondering if that was the right answer. I was very keen on getting the right answer. Dad was very keen on showing me what happened if I got the wrong answer. It seemed, in those days, I almost never got the right answer.
‘You’re here because your teacher is worried about you.’
‘Oh.’ She was? Miss Arnold seemed to pay me very little attention at all, except to praise the way I drew my Ss. Apparently, that wasn’t the only thing she was looking at.
‘She says you’re very withdrawn and quiet.’
‘Yeah, don’t like talking much.’
‘Is there any reason for that?’
‘Don’t like it.’
‘I see. Do you live with your parents?’
That was the weirdest question I’d ever been asked. Where else was I going to live, in a zoo? Of course, a few years on I discovered quite a few kids at school didn’t live with their parents. Grandparents, carers, foster, all sorts. But to me, then, it was so bizarre I just sat and flapped my mouth for a minute. She waited for me.
‘And do they get along?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Are they married?’
‘And do they like one another?’
I’d never thought about it. I mean, they were married so they loved one another, right? Isn’t that how it worked? But liked each other? I didn’t have much to go on. I had a couple of boys I’d kind of call friend, in a pinch, but only because they didn’t try to steal my sandwiches.
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Why is that?’ she leans forward, pressing the end of her pencil against her bottom lip. Her lips are open slightly and very red. The word I’d use, now that I know it, is enticing. It certainly enticed me. Flashes of things I’d seen in magazines from beneath dad’s bed leapt through my mind and I shifted in the chair. She seemed to realise what that open bottom lip was doing to me and closed her mouth, pressing her lips together. The moment passed and I took a deep breath.
‘They shout a lot. At one another, I mean.’
‘How does that make you feel?’
Excellent question, the eight year old me thinks. It makes me feel bloody great. When they’re shouting at one another, they aren’t doing anything to me.
‘If you did know, what would you say?’
It’s a sneaky question and gets the answer from me that I know is the wrong one, but I can’t stop. ‘It makes me feel relieved.’
‘Oh. And why is that?’
‘Cos I know where they are and they aren’t near me.’
‘You don’t like being near your parents?’
‘Mum’s alright.’ I mean that in the loosest possible sense. I mean that I can bear her being within ten feet of me, not that she’s actually alright. But I can’t be bothered to try and explain that.
‘And your father?’
She cocks her head to one side and waits. She does the pencil on the lip thing again, realises what she’s doing, and stops. It’s a shame. Her dress stops just above her knee and from where I’m sitting I can see the bottom of her thigh. She’s got tights on, but that only makes the view better. I focus on that whilst I swim around plucking the words I need from the murky depths within my head.
‘He does stuff. To me.’
‘Oh.’ She sits up, puts everything down on the table, and places her hands on her lap. Looking back, I think there was maybe just a touch of excitement in that gesture. Like she’d found a real one. But maybe that’s just the cynic in my talking. ‘Can you tell me what he does?’
I tell her. Then I show her, where possible. I’m not taking my trousers off for her, not in a million years. Not that she asks. There’s a tiny part of me that’s a bit gutted about that. By the end of it she’s pale and tapping one foot restlessly against the ground. When I’m done, she leans back in her seat and takes a deep breath.
‘I see. And your mother?’
‘She just hides downstairs.’
‘Does she know it’s happening.’
‘Of course. She’s seen it enough times. But he says stuff to her and she goes away.’
‘I see. Justin, there are some things I have to tell you and some things that are going to happen now. You’re going to have to be brave for a while, because not all of them will be easy. Can you do that?’
I think for a while about what bravery means. To me, at that age, it means picking up your sword and fighting the terrible beast from wherever land. It means jumping into the cockpit for one more bombing run. It means rescuing the damsel even though it means certain death.
In the end, what it actually means is going back to my house one more time, shoving everything I own into a suitcase, and leaving without looking back. It doesn’t feel very brave. It feels like running away. It feels like giving up a resistance I’ve fought since my memories became more than vague shapes played against a white sheet screen.
I move into a home. It’s weird they call it a home, because it’s anything but. I have a room and share my meals with five other kids, none of whom have any interest in knowing why I’m there. Three of them are already on something. At the time, I just think they’re a bit weird, but within a few months I start to learn stuff. I become aware.
And I find the needles. Needles. I’m pretty certain the youngest is thirteen, maybe fourteen. And she’s shooting up between her toes so no one sees it. I think about saying something to the woman who runs the place, but what’s the point? The girl’s nice when she’s not stoned and what do I get by shopping her?
The six of us are there for nearly two years. It’s the longest period of stability I’m ever going to have and, had I been aware of it at the time, I’d have enjoyed it far more than I did. I’d been ten for a couple of months when people were switched in and out and I began to have trouble with a new boy called Alfie.
He was loud and big and very damaged. I’d learnt that word from the lady who came to speak to each of us every week. Counselling sessions again, this time to try and help us heal. She called me damaged. I’d never thought of myself as damaged before, but apparently I was. Alfie was the most damaged of all. I don’t know how old he was, only that he was bigger than me and liked to use his hands.
He caught me in bed one night, cos I’d forgotten to lock the door. I felt his big spatula hands pressing against my pants and started screaming. It took the woman who ran the place five minutes to get to us by which time Alfie’s clever plan had been to shove a pillow over my face and hold it there whilst he touched me.
She had to drag him off. I didn’t see. I was this close to unconscious, though I could still feel him tugging and yanking at me. I was sick for a week afterwards, just vomiting and wretched. That’s when I admitted that maybe the counsellor was right. Damaged was just the right word.
Despite that, Alfie stayed with us and, a few weeks later, he tried it again. I was ready this time. Except, somehow, I was the one sitting down with the police whilst they explained that it wasn’t right to stick a pencil in someone’s armpit. Alfie left for a while and I stayed, but it was way too late.
Nowhere was safe. Why I’d ever forgotten that, I have no idea. They moved me on to another home, then a hostel, then foster parents. I reached sixteen without realising it. No one sent me a card and the idea that I could legally have sex made me want to be sick again. I’d not spent more than six months in one place for the previous five years.
I found out why when, a few days after my sixteenth, I sat down with yet another counsellor. By this stage, I couldn’t quite believe how many of them there were. I’d never once been seen by the same one, which beggared belief considering I was still being shuffled around the same, crappy London suburb.
‘Justin, how are you feeling today?’
‘Okay. How are you?’
‘I’m very well, thanks.’ She went on to talk about some tube strike or other and how long it had taken her to get into work today, but I zoned out. My name clicked me back in.
‘Justin, we need to talk about your future.’
‘Your current foster parents are… struggling.’
‘Ah, no. With you.’
‘They find it very difficult to talk to you. They say you don’t respond.’
‘I don’t remember them trying to talk to me.’
‘They say they did, lots at the beginning. But you never respond so they find it hard to keep trying.’
‘Oh.’ Surely if someone’s damaged, you have to keep trying. How else do you fix the damage? Surely this lady knows that.
‘They’ve asked me to find you a new home. Would you like that?’
‘Dunno.’ It’s true. The word home means nothing to me, so how am I supposed to know if I’ll like it? It won’t be home. It’ll be a room with some shelves and a wardrobe. Everything will be blunt and I’ll never eat dinner without someone watching me. Fun, fun, fun.
‘I was wondering whether you’d be interested in doing an apprenticeship?’
She sighed, then, as though I was the worst person in the world. I don’t think she got that I tell the truth. It’s why I avoid the police. I don’t want to tell them the truth, but I can’t lie. Maybe I could, once, a long time ago, but I’ve got these shadows that chase me around at night and make it hard for me to make stuff up. So I say ‘dunno’ because I don’t know if I’d like to do an apprenticeship.
I don’t really ‘like’ doing anything. I don’t really know what ‘like’ means. I like the smell of bleach and I like the feel of a spade striking the cold earth and I like the steam that rises when blood strikes the night time air, but beyond that, I can’t really think of much else.
I do the apprenticeship. I tried to track her down afterwards to say thank you, but, as with all the counselors, who I’m now calling social workers, she’s vanished into the haze. The apprenticeship was in carpentry, so I gained a number of useful skills including building wooden frames and using sharp implements.
The company offers me a job and I take it. They don’t mind that I don’t talk much. I’m an excellent carpenter, I’m always on time, I never take holidays. I’m an employer’s dream.
I’ve been working for them two years when I decide to search for mum and dad. They’re divorced, of course. It’s probably my fault. Dad’s remarried and has kids. That’s what flips the switch, the first time. He’s got a little boy and a little girl and I wonder if they have the shadows at night.
I bet they do.
I watch him for a few days, until I’m sure of his routine, then I wait for him outside the betting shop. He doesn’t recognise me, but my promise of a high stakes game is enough to lure him into the alley. After that, it comes to me like I was born to it. I think it’s more like I was raised into it, by the very man whose throat I tear open with a hacksaw just before dropping him into the hole.
I had to dig a new one the other week. The first one was full up, despite my trimming and chopping. I’ve packed them in tighter in this one. The wood cost a bomb for the frame and I hate all the digging, despite the rush that goes through me on the first bite of the spade.
Alfie’s in there too, I’m glad to say. He was really damaged, but now he doesn’t have to worry. I’ll go in there soon, too. There’s just a red-lipped counsellor and Miss Arnold to go before the set’s complete.
The funny thing, if there is anything funny about this, is how the police have utterly failed to find the link. It’s like, I’ve vanished from the world. I think I vanished when I was eight, when I discovered I was ‘damaged’. When I left home and went into that first home, the world somehow forgot about me. So now the police flail around with missing persons reports, drawing lines where there are none and missing the big red one that cuts through me again and again.
There’s something in that, though I’m not sure what. Maybe if I talked to a counsellor, they could tell me. Weird, though, they don’t seem to want to talk to me anymore.