Great Expectations : 2 : In Secure

This is part two of a three-part story. Ruth has just been admitted to a secure unit. If you wish to read the first episode, click here.

Once I was clean and in some clothes the staff had given me, I sat down and looked at the beans on toast, savouring it as if it were a five course banquet, not that we had any of them in our house, of course, but I read a lot and knew all about feasting and carrying on.

I had a summer job before I met Baz, working at a place near home where they did those medieval nights, with folks dressing up and everybody shouting “Wassail” and “Drink Ale”. Anyway I was a serving wench and had to carry these huge platters of food to the big long tables. It was usually good fun and since we got any stuff that wasn’t eaten I managed to take something home most nights. Mum was always so grateful, but I found it a bit humiliating that two people who worked as hard as my parents welcomed scraps I managed to smuggle out of work to boost the family diet.

Anyway, in these past weeks I can tell you there were plenty of times when I would have gladly eaten the left-overs off the plates, never mind the stuff that was surplus that I used to get. Being with Baz was not all sunshine, but he made me feel so alive. And he didn’t have great expectations, other than that I would humour his every whim. So the baked beans were feast enough for me that night.

We had been driven in our separate vans to the police station. I was going to be put in a room and Baz banged up in a cell. He carried on swearing and struggling, and I thought I ought to do something as well, so I waved my arms about and started swearing a bit. Sadly I hit one of the women police in the mouth and made her lip bleed. One of them said, “That was a big mistake, young lady. You will be charged with assault on a police officer. Do you know how serious that is?”

I was badly frightened by now, so I decided to put up a front and lashed out with my feet and shouted some more. The officer said, “This is getting worse and worse. Let’s get her away from him. We’ll let you cool off in here for a bit.” So by now I was panicking. In the room I threw the chairs about and tipped over the table. Then I went and curled up in the corner. “What had I done?” I asked myself. “What will Mum and Dad do? What about school? What has happened to me since I met Baz?” A policeman brought me a sandwich on a paper plate and some water in a cardboard cup. My mouth watered, but I was still playing hard, so I pretended to ignore it. A bit later somebody else came and took it away. Damn.

All this flashed through my mind as I started on the baked beans. For now I was warm, clean and about to get a full stomach for the first time in days.

The member of staff came and sat by me at the table. “Do you mind if we talk while you eat?” she said, making it sound as if I had a real choice. I nodded, but I thought, “You won’t get much out of me until all this food has gone.”

Actually she didn’t want to talk at all. Not really. She had some records to fill in and what she really wanted was for her to ask me questions and for me to tell her the answers. Luckily most of the answers could be nods or shakes of the head. She also told me bits about what was going to happen, but I really did not take it in. I was tired and so much had happened that day.

Mum and Dad had turned up at the police station. At first they were thrilled to see me. I had been missing for days and obviously they had been thinking the worst. My Mum touched my face and my hair. She got out her little hairbrush and tried to tidy me up. She even spat on her hanky and tried to clean my face up, like when I was little. She touched my clothes and said, “I should have brought you something clean to wear, Ruthie. And you could do with a bath. You don’t smell too good, girl. Where on earth have you been? We’ve been so worried – all of us.”

Dad hovered about behind her, looking very serious. “You shouldn’t do this to your mother, Ruth. The worry has nearly killed her.” Dear old Dad. As if he hadn’t been out of his mind as well. Worrying, pacing, looking out of the windows. My brother had told me what he had been like the last time.

Anyway, after a lot of talk, with duty solicitors, the doctor at the police station and then a social worker, it had been decided to send me to this secure unit, miles away, because of Mum working for the social services where we lived. She had just started a new job in one of the children’s homes, so having me around in the assessment centre would have been embarrassing for her.

Mum wanted them to let her take me home for a bath and a meal and some clean clothes, but after the fuss I had caused, the police just wanted me on the road and locked up somewhere else as quick as possible. Also they didn’t trust me not to do a runner again. What they didn’t know was that I would not go anyway without Baz.

I must have been frowning while I was thinking about all this because there was this cheerful voice saying, “No need to worry dear. The other girls are quite nice, when you get to know them. But just keep your business to yourself. No need to go telling them all about your family, or why you are here. Anyway, whatever it is, it will all seem so much better in the morning, when you’ve had a good night’s sleep.”

I thought, “ A good night’s sleep. When did I last sleep in a warm, comfortable bed, feeling clean, with a full stomach and no worries about the next day? The answer was easy really. It was before I ran away with Baz this last time. It was like all the other times. I was warm and comfortable at home, even though we were not well off, but I ran off with Baz and we always ended up cold and hungry. And I used to worry about waking up tomorrow if I could get to sleep at all. But before, it had been a case of being taken back home and promising not to do it again. When I promised, I did mean it, honestly. But then I’d get a talking to from Mum and there was Dad going around all quiet and hurt looking. Next there’d be school, wittering about my prospects and their expectations, for the reputation of the School, when I did well. Not too much about what I wanted from any of them.

So then, when Baz was hanging around as I walked home from school, it didn’t take long for me to be ready to go off again. Now in our separate ways we were both locked up. I wondered who I could ask about what had happened to him and when I could see him. I looked out of the bedroom window and wondered if he was looking at the stars as well and if he was going to ask about seeing me.

My room looked new. It didn’t look at all like a cell, but I soon found out that it was indeed meant to keep us girls in and to keep anyone from outside getting in. When the staff said good night, all smiles and good humour, they soon locked the door when they got outside your room. I tried opening the window and an alarm started up. I thought there must be a fire. But no, it was just me fiddling with the window that caused it. You couldn’t choose to have fresh air, or not.

I also found in the middle of the night that you couldn’t just decide to go to the toilet, without getting two staff involved, in case you tried to overpower one on their own and make a break for it. Even if you knew where you were, which I didn’t, how far would you get in fluffy slippers and flowery pyjamas, two sizes too big? All normal clothes were locked away overnight and as time went by I found out more and more of these bits of restrictions and the ideas about security that went with them.

On the surface it was all bright and comfortable, and the staff were so nice. But underneath there were all sorts of ways in which you got the message that you had offended and were already being punished, before any major legal decisions were made. I also found that the nicest and kindest members of staff could deck you and bundle you into your room in a very short time if a ruck got started.

There were plenty of unspoken expectations here, but few of them about success and bringing credit to yourself or anyone else. Here you had offended and the expectation was that you would pay for it. Some of the staff took great delight in pointing this out to the girls when they thought nobody who mattered was around. Somehow they found out where my mother worked and picked me out for special taunting about that.

But that was yet to come. I fell asleep that first night, happy to be safe and comfortable, but worried sick about what would happen next.

Several days went by in a blur. I learned the routine. Get up, wash, turn the bedding back, have breakfast, go into the little schoolroom, go to the gym, have meals, watch TV, go to bed. It was easy enough to fade into the background and keep out of trouble. Smile, be pleasant to the staff, comply,  without being too keen. If you were too smarmy with the staff, some of the other girls used to kick off. Then if a fight started, we’d all end up locked in our rooms for a bit. If you got used to the monotonous routine and didn’t kick against the petty restrictions, except in your head, it was actually quite pleasant.

The classroom was a bit of a hoot. Most of the girls had missed a lot of school and several couldn’t actually read, or do simple arithmetic. So most of the teachers’ time was spent trying to persuade them to do stuff we used to do in Junior School, without actually saying they were backward.

I don’t suppose they would have been backward if they had gone to school regularly. I didn’t really understand why people bunked off school. I never did until I met Baz. I used to enjoy learning new things. I only started to get fed up when the great expectations got too much. Then it stopped being fun and I started to feel that I had to perform, to please everybody. Nobody ever asked me. What did I want? Just pressure. Do well in the tests. Do well in the exams. Go to a ‘good’ university. (Are there any bad ones and if so why?)

In the secure classroom I sat in the corner and did loads of worksheets. The teachers were pleased that I was so cooperative. For me it was a joy to do such easy stuff, without anybody pressing about where it was all leading. For me it didn’t have to lead anywhere and nor for the teachers. We kept coming and going and they had to keep order and improve standards for some of the girls if they could. At least they tried to make sure we could all read and understand forms and fill them in, check bills and make sure we knew what change we should get.

The thing I missed really was reading. There didn’t seem to be any decent books and if there had been, finding time and peace to enjoy them would have been hard. My favourite reading time used to be in bed at night, but in my little cell the light was vandal proof, buried in the wall over the head of the bed and hardly gave a glow let alone power enough to read by. Yet another unspoken message. “You made a nuisance of yourself. We will restrict your life”, only by a bit, but when you put one bit with another bit and another, you start to really feel it and to think seriously, which is of course what ‘they’ were


To be concluded next month.

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