We found our way to a sordid quarter
of town. Drunks lurched beside burning
braziers, warming their filthy hands.
Young painted women stood mournfully
by the grubby kerb stones. Our hotel
was on the first floor of a dismal, crumbly
building. A neon light flickered obscenely,
some of the red letters were missing.
Mrs Eames wasn’t distracted. She
cantered up the stairwell to find
the manager. Our room smelt sour,
like it was never cleaned. The curtains
were drawn. They were a lurid orange
colour and particularly dusty. William
sneezed. Three single beds filled the
room. The black carpet was speckled
with holes from cigarette burns. My soul
sunk into my shoes.
We were slowing. Over the intercom,
the conductor announced our destination.
The train snaked across a grubby river
bridge, and entered a red brick station.
Mrs Eames manhandled her unnecessary
suitcase to the doors and we alighted.
William leapt onto the platform. The train
was throbbing like a great spent beast.
I strode towards the gates. Soon we
stood in the station forecourt. It was a
miserable, soulless place. Mrs Eames
hailed a taxi. Come on my dears, she
chirped, let’s find our accommodation.
The giant locomotive rumbled over
the sleepers, departing the grimy station.
We were cramped in a second class
carriage, where the upholstery was faded,
crumbling. As we rattled over the points,
out onto the high-speed rails, I surveyed
the other passengers. They didn’t look
like they wished to speak to us. Everyone
had preoccupied eyes, they were mute.
I leant across and opened a small sash
window. Air swirled in, hot, metallic.
William bobbed in his seat, clearly thrilled.
Mrs Eames removed her coat and gloves.
We gathered speed. Soon the ugly brick
buildings ended and fields were rushing
We stood on the busy platform, awaiting
our train. I’d roped Mrs Eames into our
adventure. She wore a heavy coat and
gloves, although it was warm. The air
was sooty. William coughed periodically.
I thought about his asthma. The train
was late. The passengers were getting
restless. An elderly man stood perilously
near the edge, fascinated by the shining
tracks. There was an announcement over
the tannoy. I couldn’t understand a word.
But Mrs Eames tutted. She’d heard. The
train was delayed an hour, because of
maintenance work on the tracks. I sat
down on my small haversack. This was
a poor beginning.
My phone buzzed, vibrating wildly. It
was an unknown number. That surely
meant trouble. I pondered a moment,
then picked up. It was a doctor. Dr
Stevenson. I gulped hard. What had
Mother done now? The doctor explained
how Mother had been put on a new
regime of medicines. They hadn’t agreed
with her. She’d become anxious,
dangerous, uncooperative. Mother had
been placed in solitary confinement.
She’d been there for three days now,
hammering on the door to be released.
I moaned at this. I hated to think of
Mother caged like a savage animal.
I told the doctor we would come.
The money was drying up. I had a letter
to say our allowance had been reviewed.
We would get twenty pounds less each
week. It was an appalling loss. After the
rent had been deducted, there was very
little room to manoeuvre food onto the
table. I didn’t tell William. He was an
inveterate worrier. The prospect of fewer
groceries would have harmed his soul.
I did endless pointless calculations. I
came up with a solid figure. Thirty pounds
a week to spend on food. It was enough
to make me cry. There was nothing for it.
A diet of scrambled eggs, boiled potatoes
and bullet-hard beans. William would be
Mrs Eames was suffering from debilitating
back pain. She hobbled around, wincing,
muttering curses. I offered to fetch pain
killers, to take her to the doctor. Mrs
Eames would have none of it. It’s my
cross to bear, she said, through gritted
teeth. I’d been wanting to discuss the
journey. Our trip up to see Mother. I’d
been secretly hoping that Mrs Eames
would accompany us. This seemed
unlikely now. I couldn’t imagine Mrs
Eames sat rigid in an uncomfortable
railway carriage, staring out the foggy
windows, as the miles rattled by. I’d
have to ditch my plan. Mother must wait.
A letter arrived. It was from Mother’s
psychiatrist. Mother was going to be
transferred to a care unit out of town.
Her condition, the doctor explained,
had deteriorated. She wasn’t responding
to treatment. I wondered if we’d be able
to visit. It was a major journey away. I
checked online, and discovered we’d
need to take an express train, and
maybe stay overnight. I had money,
but not a great deal. When I explained
to William, he looked forlorn. Like the
rug had been pulled from under him.
I felt very alone. We were truly abandoned
I shared my fears with Mrs Eames.
Whilst she thought it important we
went to school, she had her qualms.
These people shouldn’t be bullying you
like this. It’s not decent, threatening
young folk in this way. She was fuming.
She offered to telephone the Ministry.
I accepted happily. I admired Mrs Eames.
She had backbone. She was never afraid
of a brawl. I’ll knock these women down
a peg or two. Coming around your house,
and scaring the living daylights out of you,
it’s not on. Don’t worry dearie, I’ll sort
this. She picked up her mobile, her face
red as a boiled sweet, and dialled the
I lived in terror. Of a knock at the door.
I feared my phone would vibrate crazily,
and it’d be them. Or a toxic message
might drop into my inbox. But nothing
happened. As time passed, I began to
think the two social workers had made
an empty threat. Surely they were too
busy with more serious concerns. We
were merely a couple of waifs skipping
school. I went out to shop. William came
too. When we returned, clutching loaded
bags, a business card was pinned to the
door. I shivered. It was them. A note was
scrawled on the back of the card. Call me
urgently, it read. My veins turned to ice.