The first part of this story was in last month’s Webmag. If you want to read it first, click here.
I soon found a crowd to hang around with. They showed me how to lift things. Food from market stalls, the odd purse or wallet. And of course we did begging. I looked so small and thin and had sores round my mouth from the glue. I usually attracted a bit of cash. Then we could buy glue or gas.
The leader of our little gang was Stu. I think his real name was Stuart, but he thought Stu had more cred. He called me Jules. He said nobody, but nobody was called Julia these days.
Stu was the first boy near my own age I spent any time with and sometimes it felt like I really mattered, especially when I brought back some gear or cash. I fell in love with him. If he said, “Jump”, I’d turn somersaults over hot coals.
That’s how I’ve ended up here. But I’ll have to think about that later. Finally I’m drifting off to sleep.
Then I’m awake and sweating. I sit with my back against the rough wall. Don’t go back to sleep. Mustn’t sleep. When I sleep it all comes back, like watching a video over and over.
We’d all been sniffing. We were going up an alley between two buildings. We stumbled over the old wino. He started cursing and shouting. Stu grabbed his bottle and hit him at the side of his head. Then he gave the bottle to one of the others. “You do it,” he screamed. And one by one we all hit the old bloke, or kicked him.
There was a shout at the end of the alley. We all started to run. Stu shouted, “Split up”. I saw a copper dashing towards Stu and flung myself in front of the plod. We ended in a tangle of arms and legs and I did a bit of biting and scratching. I got clumped and slapped about, handcuffed and thrown into a smelly pig van.
Probably because I was the only one they caught, I got all the blame. Because of the number of marks on the old bloke they reckoned I had intended to murder him.
That day was all a blur. I had been ‘glued up’ for days before and was still out of it, from the glue and from the horror of that alley. I had stood there holding the bottle, watching the others jump around, shrieking like a bunch of baboons, like I’d seen at the zoo. So my prints were the clearest and the others all blurred, they said.
People came and went. They took my clothes. They took samples. They tried to take a statement. Somebody said she was a solicitor. She tried to tell me what was happening. Her voice was coming from a long way away and it sounded as if she was yawning. Her face kept getting nearer and going away again.
They kept moving me from a room to a cell and back. I’d fall asleep, sometimes with my head on the table in the room, sometimes in the cell. Sometimes they tried to wake me up gently, sometimes not gently at all.
Sometimes I’d wonder, where are the others? Nobody mentioned them. One time I think I asked the solicitor woman. She seemed puzzled and said, “There was only you, Julia. The witness and the police saw only you.” I started to speak and stopped. That meant the others had got away. It meant Stu was safe. I’d have to keep quiet. I pretended to go to sleep again.
At some point my mother came. All freshly dyed hair, bad make-up and hideous scent. She tottered in, making sure she rubbed up against the copper in the doorway. I saw him shudder. I hung my head, shamed by my own mother.
When I was little, I used to pretend that she wasn’t my real mother. That my real mother had put her pram next to hers in the park, and because it was a better pram, with a load of shopping and a handbag on a tray underneath my not real mother had pushed it away and stolen me with it. How I wanted my real mother to turn up with the police and get me back. Now I just want them to take this awful woman away, even if I never find my real mother.
Now I spend a lot of time wondering what my real mother looks like and if she could love me after all that’s happened to me, some of which I can never bring myself to speak about.
Then they said it was time for court. They gave me some clothes to wear and off we went. It was all very posh, with wood floors and walls and big leather chairs. Some people said things I didn’t understand and an old geezer at the front said a lot of stuff to me, but my eyes kept closing and I nearly fell off the chair.
Next we were on a long car journey. We got somewhere in the dark and I heard keys jingling as we went in. The door slammed and was locked behind us. I was made to have a bath, given some pyjamas and something to eat, but then I felt sick, so didn’t eat much. They put me to bed in a room by myself. The video started running in my head. The hitting, the jumping, the shrieking. I woke up shouting and somebody came. She came and started to ask if I was all right, when somebody else reached in to the room and pulled her out. “Never on your own with that vile murderer. Just remember.”
That was the first of many times I have heard those words. I realised that they meant me. I wanted to say, “But I didn’t do it. I was there, but I didn’t do anything to the old man.” Then I remembered Stu – out there and free, so long as I kept quiet. So that’s what I did.
Things got comfortable in a way. Room of my own. No mother, none of her ‘boyfriends’. Three meals a day. No worries to speak of. Even some school work, with one classroom, one teacher and no things getting nicked. There were some bullies, but somehow they all seemed to steer clear of me.
Sometimes there were things in the newspapers. Some staff would leave the paper open at the page about me and make sure the other girls saw it. Some tried to hide it away and would stop talking when I walked in to a room. I didn’t like either way, but at least it kept the bullies off me.
Some of the girls used to like getting the staff to do craft work, or beauty nights, so they could try to get some glue or nail varnish remover to sniff. But I tried to keep clear. Sometimes I could go for days able to think, understanding what people were saying to me and generally feeling a whole lot better for all the months I was there. I went back to court a few times, but always ended up back in the same place, where I was looked after and only a few people hissed “vile murderer”, when they thought no-one else could hear.
My birthday was coming up. Staff seemed to get a bit tense. One day I overheard one saying something about, “Just kept her here until they could send her to an adult prison.” I wondered who they were talking about. Then I found out. It was me. A life sentence for the murder of a person unknown.
I suppose my life had never been much up till then, but how could they send a teenager away for all those good years I should have been having. Getting a job, earning enough to go on holiday with some mates, meeting a nice bloke, marrying, having a baby. I craved that lovely, powdery baby smell. I yearned to have something so precious depending on me.
Instead I’m here, half starved, with a bunch of vindictive staff and a fly on the wall for company.
Where are you, Stu? He must have read about me in the paper. Why didn’t he come for me? Tell them I never touched the old bloke?
However many times I ask the fly, it doesn’t seem to answer. When I rant and rave at it, they bring the doctor who injects me and my mind won’t work for days. Then he says I have done damage to myself with the glue. I want to tell him what I think, but I don’t, because now I have learned to keep my mouth shut.