Looking at Feet : 1

This is how I spend a lot of my time now – looking at feet.Tonight it’s even colder than usual and the rain keeps coming and going. I try to squeeze further back in the doorway, but I am already pressing against the glass of the door. The wind seems to have veered around and is blowing directly in to my face. I’m sure that it wasn’t doing that when chose my patch for the night.

I try to haul the black bin liner over my sleeping bag, in the hope of keeping it dry. Once things get wet it’s all but impossible to get them dry again. Even if you have money the folks in the launderettes don’t like what they call ‘my kind’ using their driers, in case we leave germs in there, or put off their preferred customers, I suppose. Sometimes you get lucky and find an ex-kid in care, or someone with their own kid missing in charge and they will turn a blind eye and sometimes even give you a cup of tea and share their sandwiches. But not often. So I haul on the bin liner and try to trap it under my sides, or feet and hope it stays put for the night.

The worst time for me was when a lorry came along spraying water to wash the gutters and clean the pavements. It was the first time I had seen one and was too late to scramble out of the way. I was soaked to the skin and everything I had was dripping wet. That took some sorting out, but it taught me to be up and on the move before the ‘Corpy’ workers got going. No lying in on the streets.

Lying in. The first time I got to enjoy lying in was in the Assessment Centre. Those of us who weren’t supposed to be working could lie in on a Saturday morning. There was a help-yourself breakfast until 11a.m. when the dining room had to be set up for lunch. Some of the staff called it self-service. One new woman called it a running buffet, which made us laugh, but seemed to hurt her feelings.

I still laugh about it inside when I remember how we kids thought of the food running down the drive. That’s what we were laughing about. We weren’t laughing at her. But it was too late to explain and stop the hurt. It so often is.

Like with my Mum. I wasn’t running away from home because of her being a rubbish Mum. She was, but at the time I didn’t know that. I didn’t know any better. I thought all Mums got drunk, forgot to get food in, didn’t do the washing, or clean the house. I didn’t get invited to tea, or to parties like anybody else in my class. I later realised it was probably because I was smelly, or was a frequent bringer of head lice into the class.

We didn’t have TV or books at home, so I hardly ever found out anything about being clean and warm and well-fed. But I didn’t run away because my Mum was a rubbish Mum. I ran away because of the blokes she used to bring around, or who used to pick her up in the pubs and then forced their way in when they brought her home.

At first I was OK, because I was so little I was usually asleep with my bedroom door shut and they didn’t know I was there. Then when I got a bit bigger and was sometimes still up when they came in with Mum, she used to make sure I wore boys’ clothes and called me ‘Jo’, which was short for my real name, Joanna.

One night one of them stumbled into my bedroom when he was looking for the bathroom. I had taken off the scruffy jeans and shirt and was just getting in to bed naked as usual. What else when you have no nightie, or pyjamas? He made a sort of choking noise and rushed at me. He pinned me to the bed and he was so heavy I could hardly breathe. He was groping, pinching, mauling me. He stank of stale beer and cigarettes and even I could tell he had a dirty, unwashed body under his greasy, smelly clothes.

With a huge effort I got my face free and screamed and screamed for Mum. She fumbled her way in, with eyes half closed. She had a ridiculous little see through nightie on, and some fluffy little slippers. I had never seen either before. She started hitting the man about the head with one of my shoes. In the end he rolled off me, off the bed and slumped to the floor. She kept after him as he stumbled down the stairs and out of the door. After a quick search of his pockets she threw his jacket and shoes out of the window. But she kept his wallet.

The next night we feasted ‘high on the hog’ as she called it. Well, really we had fish and chips and a can of Coke. But it felt good. Being with her for a whole evening and feeling full felt good. I found myself worrying about the man and especially about his wallet. We used to have school assemblies and the head teacher used to talk to us about things like stealing. She said taking something that didn’t belong to you was against the law. I wondered what the man would do.

Well, I soon found out. He went to the same pub again and followed my Mum when she left. When they got somewhere dark and deserted, he jumped on her and beat her up. She told him the money had all gone, but she still had the wallet and the other stuff in it. It turned out that he had credit cards and family photos in there. So she brought him back to the house and gave him the wallet, still with those things untouched. In those days we didn’t know about credit cards; otherwise my Mum would no doubt have done a lot more. I hovered about in the kitchen with a knife up my sleeve in case he turned nasty, or tried smothering me again. At that stage I thought he had been trying to smother me.

I didn’t know about S-E-X. But it didn’t take long to learn. The man hadn’t quite finished with my Mum. He went around telling all his mates about ‘the fresh meat’ hidden in her spare bedroom, and how it was for free, when they got tired of the drunken old slag of a mother. But that they had to make sure the old hag was out of it before having a go at the kid.

So my nightmares began. Men would come in with Mum. They would make sure she was sound with a mixture of vodka and funny pills, or what I now know to call wacky backy. Then they would come after me. After the first time I learned how to block and barricade my bedroom door. The horror of that pain and the waves of nausea at the stench of the man still sweep over me if I let the memory creep out. Push it back. Lock the door on it.

But sometimes Mum would come back after I had fallen asleep and thought I was safe. So whoever it was this time would come in. Why did she always have big, fat, heavy men that I couldn’t fight off? Oh Mum. Why could we never discuss it? Why did you keep on going to the pub and coming back with such rubbish men?

Sometimes I would go and sleep in the garden shed. Apart from the rats or mice who lived in there it was reasonably safe and comfortable. Certainly none of the men ever found it. A lot of other kids would have a friend or two whose houses they could ‘crash’ at for a night or two. But not smelly, nitty me.

In the end I just got so tired from not sleeping properly, not eating properly, not having anybody to talk to that I just walked out. Not because of you, Mum, but because of things that happened when you were incapable of protecting me.

I roamed around town for a while and at night I sat in the bus station. It was warmish and the lights were on, so it felt safe. A van came round and gave out hot tea or soup and sandwiches.

After a couple of nights one of the workers brought a social worker to talk to me and I got enticed to go along to the Assessment Centre. Even though it was late, I got hot food and a bath and a new nightie and such a clean-smelling comfy bed. I slept better than I could remember.

This is the first of a two-part account. For the second part, see next month’s Webmag.

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