Cry Myself to Sleep: He had to escape. They would never hurt him again.
Cry Myself to Sleep
He had to escape. They would never hurt him again.
JOE PETERSwith Andrew Crofts
In loving memory of my wonderful dad ‘George William’, 1944–78.
Thanks for those early years together. These memories I will treasure for a lifetime; until the day we meet again I accept you’re here by my side in spirit.
To my baby that I never got to see, may God rest your soul. Granddad will look after you until the day we meet in heaven and I finally get to see you.
In my thoughts all the time.
Table of Contents
About the Publisher
I was only five years old and my father was the centre of my universe. I knew he was the most important person in my short life, but what I couldn’t possibly know at that terrible moment was that he had been the only protection I had from enemies I didn’t even realize I possessed. I knew that I loved him far more than I loved Mum and I knew that he loved me with the same intensity, that I was ‘his boy’; but I didn’t realize how much Mum hated me for being Dad’s favourite, or how much my half brothers wanted to hurt me.
Mum and Dad’s marriage was in tatters by that time, and Mum must have seen me as being on his side and so loathed me in the same way that she loathed him. I knew she was capable of physically hurting me, because she had done so in the past, but I had no idea how far she would be prepared to go in the coming years.
On the day when everything changed for ever I watched my father burning to death in front of my eyes. I could do nothing to help him as he ran around the garage in flames, screaming from the pain while I struggled to escape from the car, where he had left me in order to go to work. It was as if everything was happening in slow motion and all the other grown-ups were rooted to the spot by the horror of what they were witnessing. There had been a smell of petrol and a carelessly thrown cigarette end which had been caught by the wind and blown back into the building, igniting the spilled fuel and turning my father into a living torch as he worked underneath the engine. Eventually I fought free of the car and ran to help him, but someone grabbed me and held me tight before I could reach him.
Dad never recovered consciousness after the ambulance took him away, and Mum instructed the doctors to turn off his life-support machine a few days later. I had to listen while she and Marie, Dad’s girlfriend, fought about it in the hospital, and then fought about me. Even though I wanted to stay with Marie, Mum wanted me back, not because she loved me but because she wanted to take her revenge, and the law was on her side. I had to accept that Dad had gone for good and I was going to have to live back home with Mum and my sister and four brothers, two of whom hated me as much as she did.
From the moment I walked through the door, a small boy needing to be comforted for his devastating loss, it was made clear that my place in the family was lower than that of any pet animal. I might have been Dad’s favourite, but now I was loved by no one. My brothers were free to kick and punch and abuse me in any way they chose and there was nothing I could do about it. They used to eat at the table but I had to lick up the scraps they tossed on to the floor for me. I wasn’t allowed to sleep in a bed, unless it was to allow my brothers to sexually abuse me and hurt me, but was relegated to the floor in a corner of the room with only a single blanket to cover me.
As the endless beatings and humiliations escalated, my throat and tongue seemed to close down, with the result that I started to stutter and gulp more and more, until eventually I was unable to speak at all, or even to make any sounds beyond tiny squeaks. When I cried, my tears ran silently down my face and no sobs escaped from my heaving chest. I had been silenced by the shock of what I had witnessed and could no longer beg for mercy or hope that I would ever be able to tell anyone about what was being done to me by my own family. I was trapped inside my own head.
Everything I did seemed to anger and disgust my mother and brothers even further, and the violence and abuse escalated with every passing month. They were constantly telling me how worthless and vile I was, and it became harder and harder to remember that Dad used to praise me and tell me how much he loved me. As the weeks turned into months, I started to believe the things they were telling me about myself: that I was beneath contempt and deserved to be hurt and demeaned all the time.
Eventually Mum could no longer bear to have me in her beautiful clean house any longer and I was dragged away and thrown into the dark, damp Victorian cellar with nothing but an old mattress to lie on and a bucket for a toilet. I sat in the darkness, dreading the threatening sound of approaching footsteps on the stairs even more than I dreaded the loneliness and hunger. Sometimes I would be left there for days on end without food or water, unable to call for help or beg for mercy, trapped inside my own silence, not even able to scream when they came down to beat or taunt me. In my head I would talk to Dad; I was able to see him sitting next to me in the gloom and able to hear his voice. It was my only comfort.
Things grew a thousand times worse when Amani became my mother’s new lover. To me he seemed like a giant, ugly, alien figure. I heard that he came from Africa, but as far as I was concerned he could have come from another planet. My mother encouraged Amani to visit me in the cellar and relieve his sexual and sadistic needs whenever he chose. It started with him working off his sexual frustrations on me whenever he felt the urge, twisting my private parts painfully if I made any attempt to resist, and then he seemed to want to hurt me for the sheer pleasure of inflicting pain. He would rape me and then throw me aside, spitting on me and calling me names, as if it was all my fault and I was the dirty one. It seemed that to him I wasn’t even human. The violence of his attacks and the force of his contempt for me seemed to amuse Mum and my brothers, reinforcing their own ideas of my worthlessness.
Only my eldest brother, Wally, ever showed me any kindness, sneaking down to talk to me whenever everyone else was out of the house, bringing me small shreds of hope that one day my nightmare would be over and telling me that it was Mum and Amani who were the bad ones, not us; but even though he was a young man by then, he was still too frightened of Mum ever to do anything about rescuing me or even speaking up in my defence. When he told me he was escaping from home to live with his girlfriend, I was sure he would tip the authorities off about where I was, but he never did.
It seemed as if the outside world forgot that I existed during those three years. Thinking back now, it’s a miracle that I didn’t die in that damp, airless, underground cell. If it hadn’t been for the fact that I felt Dad was with me, willing me to keep going, I don’t think I could have survived.
It wasn’t until I was eight that the school authorities heard of my existence from my other brother, Thomas, and Mum was forced to bring me out of the cellar, still silent and frightened and struggling to cope with a world that seemed endlessly threatening and painful.
Even once I was attending school like a normal child, my lack of a voice and my fear of the violence that I knew Mum, Amani and my brothers were capable of meant that I was still not able to escape the horrors of my home. While I was actually at school I was bullied and teased by the other children for being mute and backward and different, but nothing they could do to me was ever as bad as the torture I had already grown used to at home.
I still had to spend much of my life in the cellar when I was back in the house and as well as abusing me themselves, Amani and Mum decided that they could earn some money from me.
Amani had a contact, a man I only ever knew as Uncle Douglas, a seedy, overweight, evil-smelling old man who ran an organized paedophile ring from his home. At first when he was brought to the house I thought he was going to be nice to me, because he gave me sweets and wanted to take my picture, but when he tried to get my clothes off I fought back, biting like the little wild animal I had become, and he called Amani in to help him. The two of them raped and beat me together with all their adult strength, so that I would know it was never going to be worth fighting against them again, and so that I would understand that they expected me to be totally obedient, no matter what they demanded of me.
To begin with Mum sent me off with Uncle Douglas on my own to be ‘groomed’, which meant being repeatedly raped and abused in a hotel room deep in the countryside. He would drive me there, locked in the car, telling me of all the things that were going to happen to me and what the punishment would be if I tried to escape. He locked me into the boot of the car while he organized the room, only letting me out once the coast was clear for him to take me into the secluded, cabin-style room. Once I was safely in the room, he was free to beat and rape me and force me to perform any sexual act or humiliation that occurred to him. He took his time over everything, savouring the moment, even leaving me in the room, naked and chained to the radiator, while he went to the bar for a drink. There was nothing I could do because I had only the strength of a small child and I had no voice with which to call out for help.
Then Mum told me I was going to be a ‘porn star’. Confident that he had broken my spirit and that I understood what I had to do, Douglas took me to his home. Children like me would be imprisoned there at weekends and during the school holidays, raped and defiled by a variety of men, every filthy act filmed and put on video. We were not allowed to speak to one another, or even allowed to make eye contact; we were treated just as slaves must have been 200 years ago.
The men who came to Douglas’s house were monsters of cruelty, but they often looked like normal members of the public. There was no way of distinguishing them from the decent, kind people you find on every street. It was impossible for me to know who to trust and who to fear because everyone, particularly men, held the potential to be my tormentor. None of the other children I met in that house during those years had been abducted or kidnapped: they had all been introduced or sold to Douglas by someone from their own families.
Over the coming years I would meet so many young people on the streets and in the psychiatric wards of different cities who all had the same stories to tell of violence and rape, cruelty and betrayal at the hands of the people who should have been the ones protecting them from danger. No child starts out in life wanting to live rough on the streets or to develop an addiction to drink or drugs. It is always because of what has been done to them by others in the early years.
At school kind, well-meaning teachers and specialists worked at coaxing my voice back. Gently and slowly it returned, but the damage had already been done. I had lost three years of my life, which left me hopelessly behind the other children of my age in everything, and by then I was too brainwashed and terrified to ever give anyone even a hint of the sort of agony my life was at home. It was as if I inhabited two different worlds, one of which was a hell that would have been unimaginable to most of the other children who sat around me in classrooms.
When I was finally able to make myself understood, I made my first friend. Pete was a kind, clever and popular boy who took the time to listen to me and understand what I was trying to say. He liked me for who I really was and even took me home to his posh house to meet his parents. But in the end he was moved on to a better school than a seemingly backward child like me was ever going to be able to attend. He promised we would stay in touch, but I knew somehow that our friendship wouldn’t last, and that I was going to be on my own again. Like Dad, he had been my protector and then he was gone from my life.
I was thirteen when I made my first bid for freedom, by just walking out of school and continuing walking until I was a safe distance away in the countryside. I managed to stay free for over a week before the police caught me. The thought of being sent back home to Mum and Amani terrified me, but I was even more frightened of grassing them up to the authorities. I fought as hard as I could to make the police believe me, telling them that my brothers abused me but not daring to mention Mum and Amani or Uncle Douglas. They had to investigate the accusations, which meant I had bought myself some more time, but the family all closed ranks and told the same story: that I was a liar and had been trouble from the day Dad had died. Mum was able to point to the accident as an explanation for why I had been struck dumb and why I was such a difficult and unstable child. She was always very good at persuading people in authority to believe her, which meant that none of them would have believed me even if I had had the courage to speak out.
In the end it was decided that there was no truth to any of my accusations about my brothers and I was delivered back home by the social services. The moment the social workers left, Mum and Amani reverted to their true characters and beat and raped me with even more violence than I had experienced until then. They were determined to break my spirit and ensure that I never thought about trying to run away again, but by then it was too late, because I now knew that it was possible to just walk away, even if my first attempt had ended in me being brought back. However much they hurt me and demeaned me when I was at home, they couldn’t stop me from simply walking out of the door when I was back at school. I also now knew that there were places for children to run to and I bounced back and forth to a number of care homes once I was old enough to start running away from school and home, gradually being delivered back to Mum less and less often.
By that stage my head had been so messed with I was a real problem to anyone who tried to control me, even those who had good intentions and were hoping to help me. I was still too afraid to tell anyone the truth about what had been done to me throughout my childhood. The anger and fear and misery of the previous decade were stewing up inside my head and finally one day I flipped in the care home I was in at the time and exploded.
I was sixteen years old and I went on a wild rampage, smashing up my bedroom, not caring about anything any more, raging like a wild animal. The key workers tried to restrain me, but it was too late for that. My anger made me too strong for them and I managed to escape, running out of the home without having any idea where I was going. Once I was outside, I could see the rest of the staff having a meeting inside and I grabbed a brick, lobbing it through the window at them, shattering the glass and hitting one of them on the shoulder.
That night, when the police brought me back yet again, the man in charge of the home told me he’d had enough, and I was to leave.
‘Pack your bags and get out,’ he said, ‘and don’t come back.’
‘I ain’t got nowhere to go,’ I snapped.
‘Go back to your mother. You’ve got a home to go to.’
I knew Mum and the others had gone away for a few days and the house would be empty, so I slept in the garden shed for the night, planning what I was going to do next. I knew I had to leave the area and the only place I had ever heard of was Charing Cross in London. I’d heard other kids in the care homes talking about it after they had been caught and brought back, telling one another how great it was in the world of the homeless and free.
‘Yeah, you’ve got to get away from this place,’ they’d tell me. ‘Charing Cross is the best place you could go to. There are millions of homeless kids there.’
Although I harboured the same wild dreams of becoming rich as most other young boys, it was the thought of finding someone to love, who would love me back, that was my greatest goal.
The next morning I broke into the house and went through it, collecting every bit of small change I could scrounge, as well as all the food and clothing I could find in the cupboards, stuffing it into my bag. There wasn’t much there to take, as Mum squandered virtually every penny anyone brought into the house on drink, spending all her time down the pub and no longer cooking family meals for any of them. As I went, I left a trail of furious devastation behind me, smashing everything that came within reach, burning my bridges and making it impossible that I could ever return.
My heart was thumping as I stood by the side of the slip road down to the motorway at dawn. I was wearing my blue ‘shell suit’ and trainers–which was pretty much the only uniform I ever wore at the time–trying to thumb a lift down to London before anyone spotted me and took me back.
The adrenaline was still pumping from my rampage, the anger still throbbing in my head, and now I was anxious to get away from the area as quickly as I could, in case one of Mum’s neighbours had heard the racket that I’d made when I was ransacking Mum’s house, or seen me coming out and called the police to report the crime. Even in my agitated state I felt a bit guilty about all the damage I’d done, but at the same time I felt a strange sense of satisfaction at having finally taken a small revenge for all the pain that gripped my heart. I wanted it to be a final gesture to her and to my brothers and to Amani, before I disappeared from the area, losing myself for ever in the bustle and excitement that I was sure I would find in London.
I had all my worldly possessions, and whatever else I had been able to snatch from the house, in my precious bag. It was a sort of holdall backpack thing that was to become my closest and most treasured companion in the coming years. When you have practically nothing in life, you cling tightly to the few possessions you are able to truly call your own.
I was on a nervous high at the thought of finally escaping, like a freak burst of sheer happiness, which was helping me to cope with the cold of a spring morning and the steady drizzle that was soaking through to my bones, making my cheap clothes stick uncomfortably to my skinny, shivering frame and my hair hang lankly over my face. I must have looked a bit rough already, having slept the night in the shed before finally plucking up the courage to break into the empty house, and it had been at least an hour’s walk in the rain to get to the slip road; so I suppose it wasn’t surprising that the cars kept on streaming past and not even slowing down to consider offering me a lift. If I had been sitting inside a nice warm, dry, clean car, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to stop in the rain and open my door to someone like me either.
It hadn’t occurred to me for a moment during my walk to the slip road that I might not get picked up at all, but as the hours ticked past and the cars, vans, motorbikes and lorries kept tearing by, most of the drivers not even giving me a second look, I felt fear gripping my guts with increasing intensity. What if I was left standing at the side of the road until a police car or someone who knew me came past and spotted me? What if they took me back and I had to face Mum and the rest of the family after I’d trashed her place and stolen her money? It might have been only a couple of quid in ten-pence pieces, but I would be judged on the principle of the thing, and the fact that I had dared to challenge her. I knew from past experience how immediate the punishment for even the smallest imagined transgression could be if she and Amani managed to get me on my own, and I could clearly picture what they would do to me for daring to make such a brave stand. I knew the authorities wouldn’t take me back into the care home after I had lost my temper and hurled a brick through the window at them, so I couldn’t expect any shelter there either. I had no option but to keep standing by the side of the road with my thumb out for as long as it took.
The hours kept on going by and the rain barely let up. My initial high spirits sank out of sight. After a whole day of being ignored, during which I took only the odd break to delve into my bag and eat the food that I had grabbed from the house, my feet aching from the standing around, a car full of young guys pulled up a few yards away from me. I felt my heart leap back to life with a mixture of relief, excitement and apprehension. Apart from wanting to get away from the cold and the wet, I was desperate to get out of sight and on my way, and finally my chance had come. Scooping up my bag, I ran towards the waiting car, my stomach tight with fear. I was always wary about climbing into cars with strangers, ever since Mum had sent me off with ‘Uncle Douglas’ in his car. I knew that once someone had you in a locked car you were trapped: you were their prisoner and they could pretty much do what they liked with you. I had no way of telling who were the potentially dangerous people amongst the world of strangers I was now entering; often in my experience it was the ones who were nicest to you at first who turned out to be the cruellest once they had you at their mercy.
I told myself it would be harder for people to overpower me now that I was sixteen and six foot tall, but the fear was too deeply embedded inside me to be susceptible to reason. I was tough, because I was ferocious like a cornered animal, but I was still just a boy and knew a determined man could easily beat me. The feeling in my stomach wasn’t all fear. It was partly excitement too: excitement at the thought of starting a new life in a community of people like myself, people who would understand me and what I’d been through and wouldn’t want to hurt me, people who had been abused and hurt and knew that the outside world could often be a kinder place than their own homes or the care homes they had been put into.
I believed that even if I had to sleep rough on the city streets I would still be part of a community, and there would be people coming round with food and blankets and all the basic essentials that I needed. Sleeping on the streets amongst friends would be infinitely preferable to anything that had happened to me in my life so far. It sounded free and adventurous, a million times better than being trapped alone in a cellar with no light or air or food as I had been for so many years, physically unable to speak to anyone. It was as if the kids in the care homes had been talking about a real never-never land–somewhere where kids like me could go to make our fortunes. When everything in your life is shit, you are eager to grab at any slim hope that there might be something better out there just waiting for you to discover it. If you didn’t believe it, you wouldn’t be able to keep going at all.
I could see the faces of the guys in the car watching me as I scooped up my bag and ran towards them, and they didn’t look too bad. They were grinning and looked friendly. I put my hand on the handle of the door to open it just as it was ripped away from me with a screeching of tyres on the wet surface. The driver must have hit the accelerator all the way to the floor, and the car shot back on to the road and joined the rest of the traffic. I could see the guys’ faces laughing back at me through the rear window and I knew they had planned this humiliation from the moment they had spotted me. They had seen someone less fortunate than themselves and decided to give me another kick just for the fun of it.
I felt the same boiling fury I had experienced when wrecking Mum’s house rising back up inside me, but there was nothing and no one I could take it out on. Turning round and bending over, I yanked down my trousers and pointed my backside at my vanishing tormentors in a futile gesture of contempt. Even as I did it, I knew it was useless. What would they care that I had bared my arse at them like some ape at the zoo? It would just make them laugh all the more heartily, congratulating themselves on being the ones on the inside of the car amongst friends, not the sad loner left on the empty verge.
Pulling my cold, wet trousers back up, I collapsed on to the sodden grass and curled up into a tight ball to cry. At that moment it seemed as if that car had been my last chance of escape. It seemed as if I was never going to be allowed to get away and I was doomed to a sort of terrible limbo for all eternity. Everything poured out in those sobs. More than anything I blamed God, because who else could there be who could be so determined that I shouldn’t be allowed to escape from the things and people that hurt me? What had I done to make Him so angry with me?
Because I had my head in my hands, I wasn’t aware of the taxi approaching until I heard the engine coming to a halt beside me. I looked up to see what new tormentor I was going to have to deal with now. When I saw the light on the car, I was puzzled. Why would anyone think that I could afford a taxi?
‘I didn’t call a taxi, mister,’ I said as the Asian driver climbed out and came round the car towards me.
‘Are you all right?’ he asked, looking as if he was genuinely concerned. ‘Where are you going?’
‘Charing Cross,’ I replied, ‘in London.’
‘What’s down in Charing Cross?’ he asked.
‘I’ve got family there,’ I lied, worried that he would realize I was running away and would turn me in. Even though I was six foot tall I knew I looked and acted young for my age, and was obviously too young to be going to London on my own. ‘I’ve got to hitch because I’ve lost my money.’
‘Why don’t you let me give you a ride?’ he suggested.
‘Listen, mate,’ I said. ‘I’ve only got two pounds and I don’t want to be spending everything I’ve got on a taxi to London.’
If he thought it was funny that I was so ignorant I thought a journey of several hundred miles in a taxi would cost only a couple of pounds, he was too polite to show it. I’d never had money of my own before and so I had no idea really of the cost of anything. I imagined the handful of ten-pence pieces in my bag was going to last me for several days, until I got myself sorted out in some way.
‘You can’t stay here all night,’ he said, gesturing towards the traffic speeding past. ‘No one will stop for you in the dark, and then the police will come and pick you up. Let me take you to the station so that you can catch a train.’
‘I told you, I had my money stolen.’
‘I can lend you the money for a ticket.’
I was taken aback for a moment, suspicious of this unasked-for offer of kindness but tempted by it at the same time. Part of me longed to climb inside his warm dry taxi and get away from that bleak, exposed verge as quickly as possible. The other part of me feared a trap. I didn’t want to get into a car on my own with a strange man. I had been caught too often that way before. But on the other hand he seemed a genuinely kind and gentle man, and he did have a proper taxi with a number and everything. After a few minutes of him cajoling and me snapping at him suspiciously, he managed to coax me into agreeing to go with him.
He opened the back door, but I could remember previous trips with Uncle Douglas or in police cars, and hearing the snap of the locks going down and not being able to get out, so I threw my bag on to the back seat, slammed the door and climbed into the front passenger seat as if I thought that was what he expected. He didn’t seem bothered, hurrying round to the other side and climbing in. As he pulled out into the traffic, I stared straight ahead, trying to maintain a distance between us while I worked out what his game was. I had a clear plan in my head of what I would do to him if he showed the slightest sign of trying anything on with me.
As he drove me to the station, he told me his name was Mohamed and gave me a piece of mint-flavoured gum as he chatted. He seemed a nice man and I began to relax my guard a little as I chewed. I didn’t like driving back into the city that I was trying to escape from, but I could see that he was right: I might never get away on the road. If he was genuinely willing to get me a train ticket, that was an offer I wasn’t in a position to refuse. Arriving at the station, he parked in the taxi rank and we went in to the ticket office together, both of us unsure of how to behave with one another. The large, unsmiling woman behind the glass stared at us with a sort of unbothered hostility over the top of her half-moon glasses, like a headmistress trying to work out why a misbehaving pupil has been brought to see her.
‘A single ticket for my friend to get the next train to London, please,’ Mohamed said politely.
‘They’re doing repairs to the track,’ she told him. ‘Services have been suspended and he’s missed the last connection to London for this evening.’
‘When is the next connection, please?’ Mohamed asked.
‘Six o’clock tomorrow morning,’ she said, looking past him and returning my angry, gum-chewing scowl with the calm stare of someone enjoying their little moment of power.
I could see that she was wondering what such a young-looking boy was doing travelling on his own and having his ticket bought for him by a middle-aged Asian man. It obviously struck her as strange. My heart was thumping and I was poised to run if she went to press an alarm button or pick up a phone to call the police. I felt so close to escaping, and the thought of having to hang around the cold station all night made me shiver. The disdain that she was showing towards Mohamed was stoking my anger back up again.
‘Can I buy a ticket for tomorrow then?’ Mohamed persevered.
‘Are you travelling alone?’ she asked me, ignoring him completely. ‘Are you all right?’
‘Course I’m all right,’ I snarled back angrily. ‘Look, woman, are you going to give us this ticket or not?’
All the boys in the homes I had been in talked like that to virtually everyone. We all wanted to sound like the black guys we met on the streets. We wanted to mimic their easy confidence and cheek in the face of authority. I expect we all sounded as foolish as Ali G suggested when he turned our patter into a comic character. I guess the ticket lady lost interest in my welfare at that moment, deciding I was a nasty piece of work and could look after myself for all she cared, because she passed the ticket over and took Mohamed’s money.
‘Enjoy your trip,’ she said to me.
I glanced back as we walked away and saw that she was watching us go, obviously still curious about what our story might be, perhaps not certain that she had done the right thing by issuing the ticket. Maybe she had grandsons my age.
My next worry was how to get through a night on the station without being picked up by the police. I was still worried that Mum’s neighbours might have reported the damage I’d done to the house, and once the police started checking me out they would pretty soon put two and two together. Thanks to Mohamed I now had my ticket to the promised land of Charing Cross; I just needed to stay out of sight for the next ten or so hours. I had a feeling that Mohamed had been as offended by the woman’s suspicions as I had, but he didn’t say anything as we walked back out to his taxi, both of us wondering what to do next. It was as if I had become his responsibility now.
‘What are you going to do tonight, Joe?’ he asked eventually.
‘Find somewhere to wait, I suppose,’ I said with a shrug, trying to look as if I wasn’t bothered.
I guess he was worried about what would happen to me if he left me on the street, but equally he was nervous about giving the wrong impression by asking me if I wanted to go back to his place. We were both stuck in a strange, polite sort of limbo.
‘Don’t misunderstand me, please, Joe,’ he said eventually, ‘but why don’t you come back to my flat for something to eat while you think about what to do next?’
All my instincts flared up and warned me to be wary. I knew from bitter and painful experience how foolish it could be to go to a strange place with a man I knew nothing about. But at the same time the option of being picked up by the police seemed worse. He appeared to be a genuinely kind man and he wasn’t being pushy or creepy in any way. I decided it was a chance worth taking.
‘OK,’ I said, shrugging, as if it was I who was agreeing to do him a favour, rather than the other way round.
We climbed back into the car and as we drove I picked up a book that was lying next to the seat.
‘What’s this?’ I asked, wanting to make conversation and break the awkwardness of the moment.
‘It is the Qu’ran,’ he said. ‘The Holy Book. I am a Muslim.’
‘That’s where you’re from?’ I asked, having no idea what he was talking about.
‘No,’ he said, smiling. ‘It is my religion. I am a Muslim Brother.’
My ignorance was so total that I stayed silent, unable to think what to say next without sounding stupid. He must have realized that I knew nothing and spent the rest of the trip trying to explain it to me. By the time we got to his flat I was lost in new thoughts as I tried to make sense of what he was telling me about his God and his beliefs. I liked the fact that he talked to me as if we were just friends, not like an adult with a difficult kid, which was the tone I was used to hearing in other people’s voices.
‘My wife and I are getting a divorce,’ he explained as he opened the door to his flat. ‘So I have only just moved into this place. Our marriage was arranged for us by our families and we were not suited. My family are all very angry with me for leaving.’
It was a cold, empty-feeling place with a musty, damp smell oozing from the shabby walls and worn carpet. There was hardly any furniture apart from a strangely old-fashioned record player housed in a wooden cabinet. There was no television or radio to break the silence of the little rooms. He explained that everything he owned he had left in the family house with his wife. The only decorations in sight were the pictures of the small children he had left behind in exchange for this bleak place. He saw me looking at the photographs and began to tell me about them, his face glowing with pride.
‘You want to listen to some music?’ he asked, gesturing towards the record player.
He pulled out an Elvis record and started dancing wildly round the flat, encouraged by my laughter to ever greater heights as he mimed to the words, eager to entertain me. I recognized the songs because my dad had been a big Elvis fan and used to play the songs in the car on the days when he drove me around to keep me out of Mum’s way. The music was embedded in my head as firmly as the images of Dad burning to death in front of my eyes. It unlocked happy memories of our short time together but also reminded me of the cold horror of his love being snatched so cruelly away from me so young, the only love I had ever known.
When the song ‘My Boy’ came on, the surge of emotion took me by surprise. Images of my father and me together in the car, of sitting with him in the garage while he worked and of watching him running around in flames in front of me became overwhelming, and my laughter at Mohamed’s wild antics turned to a choking sensation in my throat as I struggled not to cry. Dad used to play that song to me all the time, over and over again, telling me I was his boy. It was ‘our song’.
The harder I fought to hold back the tears the more overwhelmed I felt by the emotions that the song unleashed in me. Mohamed stopped in the middle of his dancing, shocked to see that my tears of laughter had turned so suddenly to misery.
‘What is the matter, Joe?’ he wanted to know. ‘Have you hurt yourself?’
‘It’s the song,’ I said, not trusting myself to be able to explain any more than that.
‘I’ll turn it off. I’ll turn it off.’
‘No,’ I said, not wanting to reject the memories of Dad and be left back in the awkward silence. ‘I want to listen to it.’
‘Not good song?’ Mohamed asked, obviously worried that he had upset me.
‘It’s memories. My dad’s song.’
As I listened to the rest of the track and cried, Mohamed stood beside me and put his hand on my shoulder until it was over.
‘You want to listen to it again?’
‘Yeah,’ I nodded, no longer trying to hide the tears, wiping my running nose on my sleeve.
‘I will go and make us some food while you listen,’ he said, putting the track back on and disappearing out to the kitchen to leave me alone with my memories.
‘No more Elvis,’ Mohamed announced when he came back into the room a few minutes later. ‘I am making us a nice curry.’
As the smell of cooking drifted into the room and my saliva glands started to work, I realized that I was really hungry. I had never tasted curry before, but I was ready for anything by the time he had managed to find a second chair to go beside the little garden-style table he had set up for us to eat from, and I dived straight in the moment he put the food in front of me, shovelling it into my mouth. The next moment I realized there was sweat breaking through every pore of my skin and my eyes were streaming with tears again, but for a different reason. It felt as if my mouth was on fire and I gulped water from the glass he had given me.
‘Hot, hot, hot!’ I gasped. ‘More water.’
Mohamed giggled as he went out to get a jug. ‘It is only a mild curry,’ he said, laughing.
‘You call that mild? It’s taken the roof of my mouth off.’
He had given me a spoon to eat with, but he was tucking in himself with his hands, which shocked me. I had spent so many years forced to scrabble for scraps of food off the floor as a child at home that I couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to eat like that and get their fingers so stained and sticky if they didn’t have to. I certainly didn’t intend to follow his example. If it could burn my mouth the way it had, I didn’t want to risk burning my fingers too.
We were both easy in each other’s company by then. He talked about his family and where he had come from and how he had arrived in England with his father. He tried to prompt me to talk about my life, but I didn’t want to even think about it, let alone talk about it, and he didn’t push me. I had also told him the lie about my family waiting for me in Charing Cross and I didn’t want to give him any reason to think that he should try to stop me from running away from home. Now that he was becoming my friend I felt bad that I had told him lies. I had always been falsely accused of being a liar when I was a child and I hated the idea that now I was actually turning into one.
‘The record “My Boy”–is that your dad’s record?’ he asked once we had finished eating.
‘Yeah,’ I said, and I could see that he was looking at me, waiting for me to go on. Reluctantly I told him about how Dad had died in the explosion in the garage he worked in, while I was sitting in the car watching, just five years old, but I didn’t tell him anything about what had happened after that, once Mum got her hands on me and started to wreak her campaign of revenge, hiding me away from the outside world for years. I could see that he was shocked enough by what I had told him: there was no need to go any further. He stopped asking questions, not wanting to upset me any more. I could see that his eyes were beginning to glaze over with tiredness and I was certainly exhausted myself, but I wanted to put off the moment of going back on to the street for as long as possible.
‘I can drop you back to the station now if you want,’ he said eventually, ‘or if you like I have a spare sleeping bag and you can sleep here for a few hours. I have no bed to offer you, I’m afraid.’
I could see that he was being very careful not to make it sound as if he was trying to take advantage, and I had also realized by then that there wasn’t a bed anywhere in the flat. He hadn’t given me any reason to distrust him and had shown me nothing but kindness.
‘OK,’ I said, as casually as I could manage. ‘I wouldn’t mind getting a few hours’ sleep.’
‘Good.’ He seemed pleased that we had made a decision and bustled around clearing away the plates and folding up the table so that there was room for two sleeping bags on the floor. Almost the moment he put the light out I heard him start to snore.
Lying on a hard floor was not comfortable. Even at the worst of times, when I was locked in the cellar at home for days on end, I had still had an old mattress under me. But as I wriggled around trying to find a position I could sleep in, I was aware that I was going to have to get used to it, because once I got to London it was likely I was going to be sleeping rough for a while before I made my fortune or met the love of my life and managed to get a roof over my head.
Eventually I must have drifted off, because the next thing I knew it was half past four and Mohamed was nudging me up from a deep sleep, out of which I was very reluctant to pull myself.
‘You must get train,’ he said when I finally came to the surface enough to remember where I was and to make sense of what he was saying. At that moment all I wanted to do was slide back to the blissful oblivion of sleep, but Mohamed was being insistent. ‘I make you a drink.’
He came back from the kitchen with a glass of orange squash.
‘I will be back in a minute,’ he said, disappearing out of the room again.
I drank the orange and got up to go to the bathroom. The door to the other room was ajar and I could see him down on his knees with his forehead touching the floor. I had never seen a Muslim at prayer before and had no idea what he was doing. It seemed to me that the whole world was populated by nutters, but at least Mohamed was harmless.
A few minutes later he came out and made me something to eat, and we set out for the station in the taxi. We arrived a few minutes early, so he came in to wait on the concourse with me. There were already crowds of passengers bustling around us, hurrying to get to their destinations. I felt a sense of apprehension building again, and was constantly shooting furtive glances around the station in case a policeman headed in our direction, or anyone who might recognize me.
‘If you are ever in trouble, Joe,’ Mohamed was saying earnestly, ‘you must ring me.’
He wrote his name, address and telephone number down and passed it to me. I’m sure he must have guessed that I hadn’t told him everything about my past or my plans for the future, and that there was something not quite right about the way that I was spiriting myself away from my home town. I assume most people knew that Charing Cross was a magnet to homeless kids in search of better lives than the ones fate had dealt them, but he was sensitive enough not to question my lies or try to stop me. Offering to be there for me should I need a friend was the best thing he could possibly have done for me, but I tried to make out it was no big deal. As I folded the piece of paper into my pocket, he gave me a wad of money.
‘No, no,’ I said, feeling that he had done enough for me, not wanting to be any more in debt to him than I already was.
‘You repay me when you can,’ he said, pushing it into my only partially reluctant hand. ‘Send it in the post.’
Although I vowed to myself that I would do exactly that at the first opportunity, I expect he already knew that he would never see that money again. Once I got on the train I discreetly counted it and found he had given me £60, which was very generous for a man who was living in a bare flat and working every hour to try to support his ex-wife and children.
‘You look after yourself,’ he said, shaking my hand firmly. ‘Be good and be strong.’
It seemed to me that he was a little tearful about saying goodbye. I wonder if perhaps he was as much in need of a friend at that moment as I was.
As I turned and trotted off to find the London train, I felt a renewed surge of excitement. I was nearly there, nearly free of the city where I had been imprisoned ever since the day my father died, and I was about to have a whole bunch of new experiences.
‘Is this the train for London Paddington?’ I kept asking anyone who would listen, no matter how many of them assured me it was. I had never been on a train before and I didn’t want to risk getting on the wrong one, being whisked away to some other strange city and having to buy another ticket. I was mesmerized by the buzz of the station as the trains came and went and everyone else hurried around looking as if they knew exactly what they were doing and where they were going. I had no idea how far it was going to be from Paddington to Charing Cross; I just felt certain that once I was in London I would safe, able to melt into the anonymous crowd and leave the long agony of my childhood behind once and for all.
The London-bound train was surprisingly full. Maybe other people had had problems the previous evening like me but there were still quite a few seats in the carriage I chose. I settled down, looking all around me in awe, still nervously asking everyone if it was the right train. I was impressed by the space and comfort of the carriage, until the conductor came along and chucked me out, pointing out the signs on the window and the fact that I didn’t have a first-class ticket. I answered back aggressively, as I always did when I felt threatened, but he was obviously more than experienced at dealing with my sort.
‘Don’t give me any more of your lip, lad,’ he warned, and I stalked off with as much dignity as I could still muster.
The moment I passed out of first class I realized what a difference there was. There was none of the space and tranquillity in second class and by that time the carriages were crowded, and I only just managed to find myself a corner. It was only once I was wedged into the seat that I realized why it was still vacant. The man next to me smelled really badly of urine, like an old tramp. I pulled faces and made lots of comments to make sure no one thought it was I who smelled. Fortunately he got off a few stops later and I caught the eyes of the people opposite, pleased to see them laughing as I fanned ostentatiously under my nose.
The train was hurtling through the countryside, carrying me off to unknown adventures, and my spirits were soaring. I could hardly contain my excitement. Like a small boy at Christmas I was bouncing around, asking questions of anyone I could make eye contact with, making inane comments that I’m sure weren’t anything like as funny as I thought they were. I was trying to make people have conversations with me when all they wanted to do was read their books or their papers, or catch up on some sleep after their early starts. I just couldn’t stop myself from rabbiting on and on, but no one wanted to hear from a scruffy little oik like me.
It was a while before I realized that everyone who came to sit near me during the trip eventually moved off to find another seat, but even once the penny dropped it didn’t dampen my high spirits. I felt so free and so excited by the adventures that I was sure now lay ahead of me.
We pulled into Paddington station around lunch-time and I strolled out into the streets of London, amazed to think that I was now in the famous city that I had heard so much about and that I was free to wander wherever I chose without having to worry about who I might bump into. It felt as if I had travelled all the way to the other side of the world.
One of the people I had been babbling to on the train had told me I was going to have to get ‘the Tube’ to Charing Cross. This was another new concept I was having trouble getting my head around. Was I really going to be able to travel under the streets and buildings in a train? I looked around, trying to work out where I should go next. I had never seen so many people rushing around in different directions at once. The level of activity all about me took my breath away. I tried to ask several people to help me find the right entrance to the right line for Charing Cross, but no one even paused or caught my eye–they were all so busy going about their business, bumping into me every time I paused to try to work out what I should be doing and where I should be going.
Maybe they were worried I was going to ask them for money or would try to steal something off them.
Eventually I found the entrance and went underground, but there were still signs to different lines and I didn’t know which ones to follow. There were maps on the walls, but my reading skills were not the most brilliant and the complexity of the diagrams made my head spin. I began to feel panicked and kept plunging around asking people for help until I found someone willing to spare me a few seconds of their valuable time. After what seemed like an age I found myself crushed on an underground train, hurtling along through tunnels in completely the wrong direction, having no idea how I would get back out again through the crowd when I reached the next station. I felt as if I was trapped in a nightmare, becoming disorientated and frightened and wondering how I would ever find this wonderful place that the other runaways had told me about. So far I hadn’t seen anyone who looked as if they were likely to be living like me, or who would want to be my friend.
Every time the train stopped I would ask if the station was Charing Cross and someone would shake their head. I couldn’t work out whether I was getting closer to my destination or further away, but eventually a woman told me that I was there, and I jumped out on to the platform quickly before the doors had a chance to snap shut and carry me away in the wrong direction again. The station was called Embankment, not Charing Cross, but a man in uniform assured me I was in the right place and showed me which exit to go through.
I think I expected to walk straight out and see a paradise of young homeless people all hanging out together around camp fires built amongst makeshift cardboard homes; but as I came out into the daylight, just across the road from the Thames, the street seemed to be like any other busy city street, with everyone dashing about, trying to get to somewhere important. There was a small park with a bandstand on one side, behind some railings, but I couldn’t see anyone in there who looked like me either, and in the other direction there were some railway arches, which merely led to another street full of rushing traffic. Apart from the people manning the flower stall, or selling the evening papers from metal stands, everyone else was moving about purposefully between the Tube and what I soon discovered was the mainline station at the top of the hill.
Where was this community of carefree runaways that I had been led to believe would be there to welcome me into their arms? There was no option other than to tramp around the streets to see if I could find some secret entrance to this world I had come searching for.
I started walking, looking round every corner for one of these places where I had heard a homeless boy could find a meal or pitch a bed, but I couldn’t see anything. All the shops in the Strand were brightly lit and full of people spending money. None of them seemed as if they would welcome someone as scruffy and disreputable looking as me, so I stayed on the outside, staring in. I still couldn’t see any homeless people anywhere, just normal citizens going about their daily business, all of whom I assumed would be returning to their homes and their comfortable beds in a few hours. What was I going to do then, when the streets were suddenly empty? Was I just going to have to huddle down on my own in one of these shops’ doorways once the staff had pulled down the shutters and gone home? Or should I go round the back of the buildings and see if I could find an air vent which would provide me with a bit of warmth against the night air?
I had probably been walking for an hour or more before I came across a lad who looked about my age and was sitting on the pavement begging off passers-by. He was scrawny and rough looking, but his clothes looked as if they had once been better than mine, although they were now dirty and worn. He had a young, pretty-boy’s face but his expression was furtive, like that of a wary little wild animal, poised to either attack or run. He didn’t look like someone who could be trusted. He was sitting on a sheet of cardboard with a sleeping bag over his lap and a pot in front of him, holding up another piece of cardboard scrawled with the one word ‘homeless’.
‘Spare any change?’ he asked as I drew near, staring at him curiously.
There was no way I was going to give him any money, being sure I was going to need every penny of the sixty quid that Mohamed had given me in order to survive, but I still wanted to strike up a conversation with him.
‘I’m homeless too,’ I said by way of an apology as much as an explanation.
‘What do you mean?’ he demanded, seeming quite angry despite his soft way of talking. To me he sounded quite well spoken, as if he was more educated than me, but maybe it was just a regional accent I was unfamiliar with. ‘You look all right to me.’
‘Just telling you,’ I said.
‘How long have you been here?’
‘I’ve just arrived and I don’t know no one.’
He looked exasperated, as if he knew I was one more stupid kid expecting pavements of gold and not knowing what to do next now that I had actually arrived.
‘Sit down then,’ he said, gesturing to another grubby sheet of cardboard beside him while he continued to hold his sign up at the passers-by, most of whom ignored him. ‘Spare some change?’
In between begging, he told me his name was Jake, and once he’d got used to the idea he seemed to like teaching a newcomer the rules of the street. He told me that I should avoid the police because they would have me down at the police station in a van if they could get hold of me, and then I would be shipped straight back to where I had come from.
‘You need to stick with the same bunch of people all the time,’ he explained, ‘because that way you’ll be protected from the rest.’
I had heard from other runaways about how homeless kids got together into little social pods for self-protection. I liked the idea of being a member of a gang instead of always being on my own.
‘So where do I meet these people?’ I wanted to know.
‘You have to be careful,’ he warned. ‘They get quite funny with new people coming in. They’ll see you as an outsider and they won’t want to take responsibility for new people.’
I must have looked a bit crestfallen.
‘You’d better stay with me for now,’ he said, ‘and we’ll go from there.’
All the time we were talking he was shaking his pot at people and asking for change. I was surprised how many of them actually gave him something and every so often he would empty most of the contents of the pot into his pocket and then go back to shaking and asking. One or two people would annoy him by refusing to give him anything and he would get quite cheeky with them, which made me nervous. I didn’t like the idea of attracting the outside world’s attention if I could avoid it–not till I knew my way around a bit better. He told me about the outreach centre, which was a project for the homeless run by volunteers, where I could get something to eat and some warmer clothes and a blanket for the night.
‘They’ll give you a list of hostels if you want and if they aren’t full. You can have a shower there, too, and clean yourself up a bit. I’ll take you there now.’
But when we got there we found it was closed for the night. Jake didn’t seem bothered and just started introducing me to a group of homeless people who were sitting around outside the centre, killing time. If you have no home and no job and no family, killing time is pretty much all you ever do.
Now that the city workers were beginning to disappear off the streets and into the stations, it became easier to see the homeless community that they left behind. A lot of the people Jake knew appeared to be paired off in boy–girl relationships, which seemed a bit strange to me. They were a bit like a normal group of young people meeting up of an evening and having a few drinks together, except they were doing it in the street rather than in a bar or a pub. It wasn’t what I had been expecting, but the pairing off was encouraging because that was what I wanted: a nice girlfriend who I could love and be loved by, someone who would understand me and always be there for me and who I could look after.
Everyone seemed to recognize Jake, which made me think he must have been living on the streets for a while and knew his way around, but I got the feeling they didn’t particularly respect him. The first people were a bit wary of me, but then he found a group who were more relaxed. There was a lad they called Jock, although I think that was just a nickname given to him because he was Scottish, not his given name. He was older than Jake and me, probably eighteen or nineteen years old, and seemed to be really wised up to everything, as if he was a sort of leader amongst the rest of them. He looked even older than his years because his teeth had already started to rot–not that mine were too clever at that stage, since I’d never been near a dentist and had suffered from malnourishment for most of my life. After Dad died I wasn’t allowed to see daylight most days, let alone be taught how to use a toothbrush. Jock and his friends seemed happy for me to hang around with him and so his other friends automatically accepted me. I had found a gang I could be part of and I started to relax and enjoy the adventure.
As we all strolled from one place to another, as normal teenagers might wander from one person’s house to another or from one pub to the next, we talked all the time. They all asked me questions about my past and initially I was a bit cagey, always finding it hard to talk about how I had been treated by Mum and my brothers and all the men who she had sold or given me to. It seemed like a shameful and humiliating thing to have had happen to me, and anyway I didn’t like to think about it.
‘My dad used to rape me all the time,’ one girl told me, shocking me with the ease with which she found she could talk about it but at the same time making me feel good that I wasn’t the only one such things had happened to. It was almost as if it was something normal for her. As the hours passed and I listened to more and more of their stories, I realized that many of them had had similar experiences. As the evening wore on and the drink eased my tongue, I opened up more and more. I started by telling them about Dad burning to death in front of me and about how much he had meant to me, being my champion and my hero and my protector, and how his death had left me dumb and unable to speak for years. That story got a shocked reaction, but when I went on to tell them how Mum had locked me in the cellar for years they were truly amazed.
‘You’re joking, man.’
‘I couldn’t have handled any of that.’
‘That’s so unreal,’ a girl called Charlotte said. ‘I always thought my mum was a bitch but she never did anything like that.’
They kept pumping me for more stories and once I realized they weren’t going to judge me it was a sort of relief to actually put into words the things I had been storing up in my head for so long, suffering so much pain as a result. It was as if it was no big deal to any of them, even though it was shocking, and we were all there together to talk and support one another.
‘Have you got any money on you?’ someone asked. ‘Because we need to buy some booze.’
My guard immediately went back up again. There was no knowing how long I was going to have to survive on the wad of notes Mohamed had given me. I could see that if I owned up to having it now it could all be spent within a few hours and I would be left with nothing. I was keeping a hold on my bag as if my life depended on it and when someone started trying to rummage around in it I snatched it away.
‘We share everything here,’ someone said.
‘That’s my property,’ I insisted. ‘It’s private.’
On my search through Mum’s house before leaving I had managed to find my birth certificate, which I had never seen before and somehow knew was going to be important to me, and also my dad’s watch, which I knew he would have wanted me to have and which was all I had left of him. I don’t know why Mum had even kept it, considering how much she hated him for leaving her–perhaps she thought she would sell it one day. Sometimes, when I felt unsure of myself, I would just hold it for comfort, as if I was holding my dad’s hand. Sometimes I would talk out loud to him, just as I had done in my head when I had been on my own in the cellar in the dark, which made other people think I was talking to myself. I guess they thought I was a bit touched in the head, and maybe I was.
Realizing that I was willing to fight to protect my possessions, the others backed off, but then I felt mean and guilty for lying because they all started rummaging around in their own bags and pockets, finding bits and pieces of food which they shared with me.
As it grew darker, we continued to move around in a group, trying to keep warm, talking and laughing all the time, sometimes shouting out to people as the drink made us bold and foul mouthed. I was surprised by how many people were still coming and going from the stations on their way to theatres, hotels and restaurants in the Strand, or maybe some of them were on their way home after working shifts. I hadn’t realized that big city life went on so late, and I liked the buzz and the constant distractions. It made me feel safe to have people around, even though they were strangers and could for all I knew have been predators. I knew from experience that some of the most perverted and heartless men looked completely normal and respectable on the surface, often well dressed and sporting wedding rings. Any one of the men walking past could have been the sort of man who visited the places where I had been kept as a child and continuously raped and abused.
We went on asking for change from everyone we passed, but no one handed any over, probably because they could see we were drinking and guessed that was what we wanted the money for. The others were becoming quite loud and intimidating, which was making me uneasy, but I didn’t want to leave the group and end up on my own. I felt that at least Jock and the others offered me a little protection against the rest of the world. I wanted to belong.
Everyone living on the streets in that area seemed to know Jock, not just the kids but the old winos as well, and they would call out to him as he passed, or come over to pay their respects, offering to share their cans of cider or whatever they had.
‘Jake!’ a voice called from across the Strand. ‘Come over here.’
I looked across and saw a man in an old Mercedes, which had pulled up at the kerb. Even in the dark he looked sinister and swarthy, much older than anyone in our group. There were two other guys in the back of the car, but I couldn’t see them clearly.
‘It’s Max,’ Jake said, and I thought he looked nervous suddenly.
‘Don’t fucking go to him, you fucking idiot,’ Jock snarled, holding him back.
‘No, Jock, I’ve got to go,’ Jake said, wriggling free.
‘Oh, fuck off then.’ Jock pushed him away angrily. ‘Go be Max’s bum-chum.’
I watched as the man they called Max got out of the car to talk to Jake. He was tall and rangy and looked strong. I could see tattoos creeping up his scrawny neck from his collar. He looked dangerous and I felt a shiver of apprehension. Max opened the back door of the car and Jake jumped in with the other guys without glancing back at us. It was as if the car swallowed him up, the doors snapping shut like jaws.
‘Fucking idiot.’ Jock spat and took a swallow from his can as the Mercedes drew away and disappeared towards Trafalgar Square.
‘Let’s get something to eat,’ he said, leading the way to what I assumed would be a café or takeaway.
‘I’ve got no money, Jock,’ I reminded him, not able to admit to my secret store of notes now I had denied having them.
‘You don’t need money here, mate,’ Jock said, laughing at my naiveté. ‘It’s all free. It’s a soup kitchen.’
The homeless centre was open again, and the volunteers provided us with stew and bread and hot tea in plastic mugs. I ate as if I hadn’t seen food in a year, hardly able to believe that I could have as much as I wanted and all for free. The meal raised my spirits again as it warmed my insides. I was having an adventure in London with a group of new friends and no one to tell me what to do, and now I had a full stomach as well. Charing Cross really was turning out to be the homeless paradise I had been told about. The volunteers were offering blankets to anyone who wanted them, but I felt quite warm again now I’d eaten and I didn’t want to have to carry anything else around with me as well as my bag.
Back out on the streets we started hunting behind the buildings, riffling through the big metal bins that were being put out by the shops, hotels and restaurants, and searching for anything that might be useful or that we might want to eat if we got peckish later that night. I didn’t really know what I was looking for, so I just followed everyone else’s lead. The stores were the best places: they threw out food that was a day past its sell-by date but still perfectly good. As it got colder I pulled out of my bag all my spare clothes, which were only a couple of jumpers and another pair of trousers, and put them on over what I was already wearing. I must have looked a right sight, but I didn’t care, because at least I was warm and I knew none of the people I was with were making any judgements about my appearance–they were well past the stage of even noticing.
The others were also collecting up any flattened cardboard they could find, opening it back up to rebuild the boxes, which must have been used to deliver goods to the shops earlier in the day. Everyone was calling out to one another, competing to see who could find the best box. I wasn’t as quick as the others and didn’t really know what I was looking for, so by the time I realized that what I needed was something I could sleep in for the night, I only had something tiny.
Once everyone had what they needed, we wended our way back down to the park, which was now finally empty of other people and filling up with an eerie, makeshift city of cardboard as everyone set about constructing themselves some sort of shelter for the night, covering them with plastic to protect them from the damp that was bound to descend before morning.
Everyone was huddled in the small groups that they had been in all evening, avoiding encroaching on the territory of anyone else who might be angrier, more violent and more drunk than they were, and staking a claim to a patch of land that was going to be theirs for the night. As everyone got settled, the odd fistfights would break out when one group felt that another had crossed over their boundary, and there were a few squabbles for the best, most sheltered sites.
Gradually, as exhaustion and alcohol took their toll, people began to fall asleep, pulling blankets and sleeping bags up over their heads and disappearing from the world for a few hours. As we all crawled into our shelters, the sounds of shouting and fighting become more intermittent as more people surrendered to sleep. Every so often a policeman or two would wander past the park, but they didn’t seem to be too bothered about anything that was going on. I guess it was easier for them to have all the homeless people corralled behind railings in one area than to have them curled up in shop doorways and back alleys all over the place, causing complaints from local residents and shopkeepers when they came to open up in the morning.
I managed to get my box together and put some plastic over it as the others showed me, but when I came to lie down it was impossible to curl all six foot of me into it, so I had to leave my legs sticking out, using my bag as a pillow with the handles looped round my wrist to make sure no one nicked it in the night.
Jake arrived back from wherever he had been with the man in the Mercedes and didn’t have any trouble finding us. He had picked up some cardboard for himself on the way.
‘What you doing with that box?’ he said, laughing, when he saw my legs sticking out. ‘You don’t fit in it.’
‘The others got the best ones.’
‘You’ve got to be faster than that, mate.’
‘Where have you fucking been, Jake?’ Jock growled from near by in the dark.
‘I had to do something for Max,’ Jake said, obviously not wanting to talk about it.
‘That fucking bastard! Why do you do whatever he tells you?’
I didn’t understand why Jock felt so strongly about this Max guy, but I was too tired to ask any more questions. Now that I was no longer moving about to keep warm, I was regretting not picking up one of the blankets at the centre. The others had put up another plastic sheet and tied our boxes together so that when it started to rain most of the water could be kept off us, but I was still feeling cold and damp. I would organize things better the next day, I told myself as I dozed off, now that I knew what was needed. Things would get steadily better from here on–I was confident of it. I could still hear the odd raised voice in the distance but it didn’t bother me any more; I felt safe enough to sleep. Here and there muffled giggles came from other boxes, and the sounds of couples having sex.
It must have been just after midnight when I was woken by the sound of voices.
‘Hello? Hello? Come on. We’re here. Hello? Does anyone want blankets?’
That was exactly what I needed, so I wriggled out of my box to see what was going on. A middle-aged woman was standing outside with her arms full of old-looking blankets, passing them out to anyone who asked.
‘Do you want something to eat?’ she asked as I went over to her. ‘The van’s just over there.’
I looked over to where she was pointing and saw a van parked outside the Tube station, with a table set up beside it doling out soup and rolls to warm us up.
‘Come on,’ she said, putting a blanket round my shoulders. ‘It’s a cold night. Wrap up well. We need to look after you. You’re a new face. My name’s Sarah. What’s yours?’
‘Come on then, Joe.’
She took me over to the van with the blanket round my shoulders and gave me some soup. Jock came ambling over and she obviously knew him well.
‘You’ve been drinking again, Nigel,’ she said, wagging her finger at him. ‘Haven’t you?’
I looked up in surprise, startled to find out this hard man’s real name. Jock did not look like a ‘Nigel’ to me.
‘I wouldn’t do that, Sarah,’ he said, grinning like a little boy being told off by a popular teacher.
‘Don’t you tell me any of your fibs, Nigel. How old are you then, Joe?’ she asked.
‘I’m sixteen,’ I said, more aggressively than I probably should have done, but I was fed up with people thinking I was younger.
‘Are you sure?’
‘’Course I am, you mad woman.’
‘Oh, now,’ she clucked. ‘I don’t want to upset you, lovey. How long have you been here?’
I was getting tired of all the questions and said nothing. I just wanted to get some soup inside me and go back to my cardboard box for more sleep.
‘Is anybody looking after you?’ she asked, looking across at Jock as she spoke.
‘Yes,’ Jock sighed. ‘I’m looking out for him.’
‘You make sure you do, Nigel. He looks very young to be down here. Who else have you met?’ she asked me.
‘Oh,’ she said, pursing her lips. ‘The less said about him the better.’
Just at that moment Jake came stumbling over for his soup and I could see she was trying to pack him off back to the boxes again as quickly as possible so that she could get back to talking to Jock and me.
‘Keep Joe away from him, Jock,’ she said once Jake was out of earshot. ‘That boy is confused. And that Max! You stay away from him, Joe, or he’ll get you into a lot of trouble.’
‘I fucking told him today, Sarah,’ Jock assured her.
‘You keep him in your sight all the time, Nigel. And don’t let Jake anywhere near him.’
I felt comforted by this kindly woman’s obvious concern for my safety, but at the same time her words of warning worried me. I had met enough violent and dangerous men during my childhood to know that I didn’t want to meet any more. Standing in the middle of a strange city in the dark and cold made me feel suddenly vulnerable, and anxious to hurry back to my box so that I could curl up under my blanket to hide from the world until morning. I moved off but found Sarah was coming with me.
‘Is that your box?’ she asked, obviously horrified.
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘It’s OK.’
‘For goodness sake!’ She turned to Jock. ‘Nigel, find Joe a decent-sized box. He can’t sleep in that little thing.’
‘He can have mine,’ Jock muttered grudgingly, wandering off to find himself something else while Sarah settled me in and made sure I was as comfortable as I could be, like a mother tucking in her child even though he was too old for such attention. It was an experience I had certainly never had with my own mother and I didn’t know how to react to it. She took no notice of my protests that I wasn’t a kid. By the time she had finished, every part of me was as warm as toast apart from my nose.
The next time I woke up it was morning and Jock had already disappeared. I felt a momentary lurch of anxiety at having lost my protector, but I knew I couldn’t really expect him to look after me just because some mad old woman had told him to in the middle of the night. Jake was the only one of our group still around.
‘Where have they all gone?’ I asked.
‘Up the centre. Want to come?’
Although Sarah’s warnings about Jake were still ringing in my ears, I didn’t think I had any choice, unless I wanted to stay in the park on my own. The park workers were already starting to clear away the cardboard debris of our almost abandoned camp. I decided any company was better than none and went with him. As we made our way through the streets, I became aware of a car drawing up beside us and I recognized the old Mercedes I had seen Jake getting into the previous evening. Jake stopped as the man I now knew was Max got out and came round to talk to him.
‘Hiya, fella,’ Max said to me. ‘You all right?’
‘Yeah,’ I nodded cautiously.
There was something about this man that told me I shouldn’t give him any cause to get angry. I noticed the big gold sovereign rings on his fingers, and he had the words ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed on his knuckles, as well as the illustrations I had already noticed on his neck.
‘Do you need any money?’ he asked.
I couldn’t understand why he would be offering money to someone he didn’t even know. Then I remembered how Mohamed had given me money for nothing and told myself not to be so suspicious, and that maybe people were nicer than I had been led to believe by my childhood experiences. I took the fiver he was offering and slid it into my pocket.
‘If you need anything, you come and see me,’ he said with a wink that should have seemed friendly but didn’t.
The following days fell into a routine. We would go to the centre in the morning to get something to eat and have a shower. The volunteers there were always really good with us and helpful. There was a doctor there each day, who checked us over and gave us prescriptions if we needed them. I had always had trouble with asthma, so they gave me a prescription for an inhaler. It was nice to know there was someone to go to if I got ill. Then we would wander out into the streets, buy something to drink and drift around from place to place getting pissed and begging, going back to the centre for an evening meal and then settling down under whatever cardboard we had been able to find for another night. I never needed to touch the money in my bag because everything was provided or could be bought with the change that people gave us.
I frequently ended up spending most of my time with Jake because Jock and his girlfriend, Charlotte, were always drunk and stoned and hanging out with the tramps and winos around the Strand, while Jake and I didn’t want to be doing that the whole time. Charlotte was a really pretty girl and I never worked out what she was doing with Jock and the other losers. Jake and I got bored with their company quite often and wanted to see different things and different places, so we would go off begging together. Jake knew all the different outreach centres where we could get food through the day and my initial wariness after Sarah’s warning faded as I got used to him. He seemed pretty harmless to me. It wasn’t such a bad life, I told myself: better than being locked in a cellar and continually beaten up and raped, and better than being in a care home with everyone bossing you about and treating you as if you were some kind of problem.
Some nights Jake would disappear and not turn up again till the following morning.
‘Where have you been?’ I’d ask.
‘Oh, I just stayed at Max’s for the night,’ he would say, obviously not interested in saying any more.
I’d been in London for a week and a second weekend had come round when Jake told me that Max had asked to have a word with me, to check that I was OK. I wasn’t that keen, but I remembered he had been friendly and given me a fiver the last time we had spoken, so there didn’t seem to be any reason to worry about it too much. It was broad daylight in a busy street anyway, so what could happen?
‘Why’s he so interested?’ I asked.
‘He’s just worried about you,’ Jake said, shrugging. ‘Because you’re a bit young he wants to check that you’re OK.’
The Mercedes pulled up beside us again as it had before and I saw that there was another guy with Max, who looked like a minder, with an evil fighter’s face that had taken a few punches over the years. They told me his name was Brad.
Max greeted Jake effusively and handed him a bunch of cash. ‘That’s for the other night,’ he said, patting him on the back as if they were the best friends in the world. The previous times I had seen Max he had been dressed smart casual, as if he was going out somewhere. This time he was just wearing trackie bottoms and looked more relaxed, as if he had just got out of bed.
‘How are you doing, fella?’ he said, turning his unconvincing charm on to me.
We chatted for a bit and then he turned back to Jake.
‘Fancy coming back to the flat for a bite to eat?’
‘We’re just going to the soup kitchen,’ I said.
‘Oh, that’s fucking horrible food,’ Max said. ‘Come back and have something to eat with us. I’ll drop you back–don’t worry.’
The threatening look of the minder as he got out of the car brought Sarah’s warning words back to me. But at the same time I was nervous that if I said no they would be insulted and get angry. They hadn’t done anything bad to me–quite the opposite–so what right did I have to judge them just because they looked a bit rough? And I did fancy a decent meal. I was torn in my mind, and in that moment of indecision the minder opened the back door of the car and I panicked.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to go in the back. No way.’
‘That’s all right, fella,’ Max said. ‘You can sit in the front next to me.’
He opened the passenger door and I allowed myself to be steered into the seat. The minder and Jake got into the back and everyone chatted away as we drove across London. They were so friendly I felt my fears settling and I began to feel foolish for making such a fuss and being so suspicious of their motives. I started to look forward to having a decent meal.
We drove for about half an hour and pulled up outside a big grey block of council flats, the sort with open concrete walkways on every floor leading from one front door to the next past windows shrouded in net curtains, protected by metal bars or boarded up.
‘Maybe we should get back,’ I said to Jake as I stared up at the forbidding, bleak-looking buildings.
‘Don’t be stupid,’ Jake said, avoiding my eyes. ‘Let’s at least have something to eat. I’m hungry.’
‘It’s OK, fella,’ Max said, obviously able to see how nervous I had become again. ‘No one will try to hurt you. If they do, I’ll beat them up for you.’
He and Brad led the way without bothering to look back, laughing and talking together as if they were confident we would follow. Realizing that I had no idea how to get away from the area on my own anyway, I took a deep breath and went after them, clutching my bag tightly to me, sure I was going to be mugged despite Max’s assurances and even though there didn’t seem to be anyone around. Max and Brad were being so friendly and they weren’t trying to force me to go with them, and Jake seemed perfectly happy with them, so why was I being so fearful? I told myself to stop being paranoid. I couldn’t let my past experiences make me frightened for ever.
We climbed some concrete stairs past walls covered in aggressive-looking graffiti and went along one of the walkways until we reached a black front door with a glass panel in the top. The bottom panel had been boarded over, as if someone had kicked the glass in. Max let us in. As I walked into the front room I could smell a sweet, smoky aroma, which I later discovered was cannabis. There were two guys on a sofa, sucking smoke up from a hubble-bubble, both giggling and stoned.
‘Hi, Jake,’ they called out when they saw him. ‘Come here.’
Jake went over and they were hugging and kissing him, which I thought was a bit odd, ruffling his hair and being really mellow and friendly. I began to relax a little, despite the unfamiliar surroundings. They encouraged me to take a suck of the smoke, which was the first time I had ever done it. I didn’t even smoke cigarettes and I nearly choked as it burned into the back of my throat, making the others fall about laughing like hyenas at my discomfort. They encouraged me to take hit after hit, assuring me I would get used to it soon. As I became high, I felt a bit dizzy and had trouble protesting when Max offered to take my bag off me so that I could be more comfortable, so I just clung on to it as tightly as I could. The cannabis was making me feel strangely calm and accepting of everything that was happening. I found myself chattering away as if they were my oldest friends in the world. They brought me some food, but I wasn’t hungry, feeling a bit sick from the smoke.
‘So,’ Max said, ‘do you like to earn money, Joe?’
Shocked by the suddenness of the question, I tried to muster my drifting thoughts into some sort of order; I was fearful that if I wasn’t careful I would commit myself to doing something I might later regret.
‘Yeah,’ I said, cautiously. ‘I suppose so.’
‘You want a job?’
I thought perhaps he needed someone to clean the flat or something. It looked as if it needed it. ‘Yeah.’
‘What would you be willing to do for it?’ he asked.
‘Anything,’ I said, not bothered by how hard or demeaning the job might be, knowing that beggars couldn’t be choosers in the jobs market. I had to start somewhere, after all.
‘Anything? Right. Would you sleep with a woman?’
Even to my befuddled brain that sounded like an odd question. ‘Course I would.’
‘Ah.’ He nodded wisely. ‘Would you sleep with a man?’
The moment his words penetrated my consciousness alarm bells went off inside my head and I doubled my efforts to sober up and concentrate on what was going on. In a second I was transported back to the vile house that Uncle Douglas used to take me to for days on end, locking me in with the other kids and forcing us all to do the most disgusting things with the men who came to the door, beating us if we dared to protest or refuse, or even to make eye contact or speak before we were spoken to. For a horrible moment I wondered if Max was one of the people who liked to watch the films that Uncle Douglas and his friends had made of us. Was that why he was asking these questions? Had he seen me being raped and believed I’d enjoyed it? I realized now that Max had the same air about him as Douglas and his friends. That was why he had made me so uneasy from the start; that was why he had made me feel so afraid before I even knew why. The other guys in the room just kept on bonging as if they couldn’t hear the conversation, or as if it was the most normal thing in the world to be discussing when we hardly even knew each other. They were far too stoned to be able to help me, even if they had wanted to.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t sleep with a man.’
‘Why not?’ He pretended to be surprised by my answer, as if it was stupid or something.
‘I don’t do that,’ I said, trying not to let the fear I was feeling affect my voice. I wanted to stay in charge. I had to or else I would be a helpless kid again, as I had been for the previous ten years or more of my life. ‘I’m not gay.’
‘It’s got nothing to do with being gay,’ Max said. ‘It’s about earning money, boy. You can earn good money with me. I’ve got your friend Jake here. He doesn’t mind sleeping with men.’
Jake was either too stoned to notice what was going on or deliberately avoiding looking at me.
‘I’ve gotta go now,’ I said, struggling to get to my feet, willing my legs to stop wobbling beneath me. It didn’t matter how threatening the estate outside might look: I could see now that this flat was where the real danger lay. I remembered Sarah’s warnings my first night on the streets, telling me to steer clear of Jake and Max. She must have known all about this. I realized now why Jake disappeared during the night so often: he was on the game and Max was his pimp. That was why Jock hated Max so much. I wished Jock and Sarah had explained things to me more clearly. I would never have made the stupid mistake of getting into Max’s car if I had known what he was into. This was my worst nightmare, the very reason I had run away from home in the first place. I couldn’t believe I had been so stupid and naïve. The moment I got unsteadily to my feet Max pushed me back down and I toppled over on to the sofa.
‘You’re staying,’ he told me. ‘You’re in my house now and I’ll tell you when you are going to leave. I’ve got a punter coming round. He wants to see you.’
I wasn’t sure what a ‘punter’ was, but it didn’t sound good.
‘I’ll show you to your room now,’ he said.
‘No,’ I shouted. ‘I want to go.’
‘I’ll show you your fucking room,’ he said again and there was no mistaking the menace in his voice. He grabbed my skinny arm so tightly with his giant hand that it made me squeak from the pain as he lifted me bodily off the sofa, propelling me towards the door, still clutching my bag. The more I struggled the tighter his grip became, his fingers digging in.
‘Just do what I fucking tell you,’ he hissed into my face. ‘Don’t be fucking disrespectful.’
‘It’s all right, mate,’ Jake slurred from the depths of the other sofa. ‘Don’t worry.’
‘I want to go,’ I screamed, the panic overwhelming me and making my voice hysterical.
As Max dragged me through to the bedroom, I noticed there was a key in the lock on the outside and my panic doubled as every memory of being imprisoned rushed back. Once I was past that door they would be able to keep me there for years and there would be nothing I could do about it, just as it had been with Mum and the men at home. I fought and struggled with all my strength, but I didn’t have a chance against Max. He grabbed me in a headlock, ripped my bag from my grip and threw me into the room, slamming the door behind me and turning the key.
After a few seconds I forced myself to calm down, knowing that was my only chance of finding a way out. I looked around the room. There was a double bed, made up with fairly clean bedclothes. In fact it looked pretty much like a normal bedroom apart from the fact that the window had been boarded up with screws, cutting out all natural light and the only chance of escape. There was a flimsy wardrobe, which let a stale smell out into the room when I opened the doors. My fear was making me angry and I went back to the door, kicking and banging and shouting to be let out. After a minute I heard footsteps outside. The key clicked in the lock and the door flew open as Max burst in and punched me hard in the side of the head, knocking me to the floor with an explosion of light in my brain.
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