The first part of this account appeared in the June edition of Children Webmag. If you want to read that first, click here.
Next morning I heard the staff waking the other kids to go to work or school. One came over to me and said I could stay in bed if I wanted, because I had got in so late the night before. I turned over and went back to sleep. In the end one of the cleaners brought me some tea and toast. My first ever breakfast in bed. She told me where the bathroom was, cos I couldn’t remember. I said I seem to have lost my clothes, so she asked a member of staff to come and kit me out.
She was very apologetic that they were clothes that had been donated to the home, but assured me they were all washed and clean. She obviously didn’t have a Mum like mine. “Don’t ask where it has come from, girl, and don’t waste water washing stuff before you wear it” was her motto. Now, I wonder if that’s where some of my head lice came from.
Anyway, here I was rested, clean, and not hungry. And I had had clean sheets and breakfast in bed. Five firsts for me.
Of course I didn’t keep getting breakfasts in bed, but things were pretty good. The other kids took to me pretty well. They were used to kids coming and going and at least I didn’t smell now. Clean hair, clean body, clean teeth and clean clothes. Four more firsts.
The most tricky part was when the staff started asking questions. Who was I? What was my address? What about family? I said I was called Joan and used my mother’s family name of Green. I made up an address. Then I had to get vague about my school, doctor and a lot of other things they wanted to know. I didn’t really want to lie to them. They had been nothing but kind to me. I just felt I didn’t want to get in too deep. If they found out about my Mum, they would probably swoop on her, try to get her cleaned up, try to organise her. I knew she would hate that and she would think I had told on her. Which I would have done, in a way.
But most of all I couldn’t tell anyone about the men. By now I had heard enough from the other kids to know what had been happening to me. I guessed that it would be bad news for Mum if ‘they’ ever found out.
Things started to unravel when I saw the doctor one day. All the kids had to see the doctor and the dentist and the optician. Of course I had a lot of problems with my teeth. They had never been looked at. They also thought I ought to have specs, at least for reading. They started work on my teeth and getting me some specs, but the real trouble came with the doctor.
She soon found out that I had had S-E-X. She was a bit clucky about it because I was only thirteen according to what I had told them. Actually I wasn’t even that. Anyhow I was still what she called under-age and this set off a whole hullabaloo about me having been abused. She also did some tests for what she called STIs and PREGNANCY. At least that was a word I understood. She asked me about periods and I said I couldn’t remember when the last one was, although really I had never had one. I only had a vague idea from Personal and Social something or other, but they don’t do too much detail at junior school.
Soon the police were involved, asking questions, wanting to know who, how and where. What would have happened if I had said in my scruffy bedroom, in our filthy house, while my Mum was out of it in the room next door, or spark out on the living room floor. Not good news for poor old Mum you can bet.
So I kept on being vague and unhelpful. I think I annoyed the Police and the staff. In the end the one who had made us laugh about the running buffet offered to take me to the cinema. Really it turned into a way of her trying to get through to me as they like to call it. Nosey Parker-ing the kids called it. Anyway after the film we had coffee and something to eat. At least thanks to the Assessment Centre, I could recognise more than bread and jam, or chips now. I had also stopped gobbling every thing at top speed. I had learned that there was always plenty and there was no need to grab, or rush.
Of course we got round to her questions at last. She was very clever about wrapping them up, but they kept coming in a gentle kind of way. It was warm in the café. I had enjoyed the film. I quite liked her. I relaxed and let a few things slip. Of course she was going to report it back to her boss. That’s what it had all been for.
We headed for the Tube. When the train came in I pretended my shoe lace was undone and she stepped on ahead of me. I kept on fiddling about with my shoe and the voice came to say the doors were closing. She leapt off so as to stay with me, but I pushed her aside and squeezed on. I felt quite sorry to see her sitting on the floor rubbing her head, because she had gone over and bumped her head on the bench. I rode to the end of the line using the card the home so kindly got for all the kids.
I broke into a garden shed and passed a good night, but I woke early and crept out without anyone seeing me. What should I do now? Go home? Tell Mum all about the men? I couldn’t ring her. We had no phone. It was just possible that by now they had found out who I was. The school would have reported me missing, even if Mum didn’t.
I met up with a few other kids who had run away from home or from care, or both. They shared some food with me and showed me how to get more of my own and how to beg. One of them gave me a cardboard notice saying “ Homeless and Hungry. Please spare some money.” They showed me how to put a few coins in a hat one of them gave me. They said people were more likely to give if they thought others had already. I sat with this for a while. A few coins dropped in. I looked up each time and smiled and said, “Thank you.”
Then someone stopped in front of me and dropped in a £1 coin. I looked up, smile at the ready. It was Mrs Running Buffet. “Hello Jo. I had a feeling you would be around here, at the end of the line.” I thought I was at the end of the line in more ways than one.
This time she had a couple of police with her and they took care not to let me slip away again. So it was back to the Assessment Centre. The other kids were a bit rough on me at first and some of the staff obviously felt put out. They all liked Mrs Running Buffet and thought I hadn’t played fair with her.
I really wanted to ask to talk to her. I wanted to tell her everything. But instead I just scowled at everybody and said even less.
The questions kept coming. The staff and the police were determined to find out who I was and who had abused me. How easy to tell them everything. How good to sink in to that clean bed, with a full stomach and sleep safely all night. Then I thought about Mum and what I thought would happen to her.
In the end I just took the next chance to slip away again. I found some of the kids I had been with before and some new ones. This time I made sure I had a big loose coat, so that you couldn’t tell if I was a boy or a girl again. I also picked up a baseball cap from a park bench, when the owner was playing with his dog nearby.
So now I hunched in doorways or wherever I could find, with my collar up and the hat well down over my eyes. And I only ever look at people’s shoes. No more looking up and smiling.
A few times Mrs Running Buffet has been around, but when she gets to me I pretend to be asleep. There have also been some of the do-gooders who have brought pictures of me. However much I had tried, obviously I didn’t keep out of all the photos the staff and kids were always taking. So here they are.
“Have you seen this girl? Her name is Joan. Her friends call her Jo. Her mother is desperate to find her. Please look at the picture. If you know her or see her please ring this number. She’s not in any trouble we just want her to be safe.”
I stare at their shoes. They push the photo closer to my face. I look at the picture. It was one of those days when we were mucking about in the garden at the Assessment Centre. The sun was shining and everyone was having a good time. I must not have spotted the camera because you can see my face quite clearly.
I mutter, “ No. Don’t know her,” into my coat collar and they move off to someone else.
Mrs Running Buffet came again. She gave me a cup of hot chocolate and a packet of sandwiches and some sweets. She said, “Will you please give these to Jo for me and tell her I am sorry if I upset her. I only wanted to help her to get back home, or to be safe with us. Tell her I’m sorry if it felt like interfering.” I nodded and hunched further in to my coat, staring at her feet.
“Take care, dear,” and she was gone. I decided to shift my pitch and went nearer the city centre. I thought they would lose my trail. But I still take care only to look at their shoes. Never look up. Never show your face. Your Mum might end up inside.