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Groomed: Danger lies closer than you think

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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Not that it was quite like that with Keeley. She had a file; I’d just yet to see it. But I wondered if, actually, it really mattered anyway. It might to some, I supposed, but since our whole speciality was to try and successfully foster the unfosterable, it wasn’t like we were going to say no, was it? Whatever horrors lurked in their files. And if we took a child in extremis, even if it was supposed to be temporary, how could we then send them on their way? Come one, come all. That was us.

Hmm, I thought, perhaps that was why we got called …

‘Squad car no less,’ I said to Mike.

‘See?’ he said. ‘Trouble.’

‘Love, I don’t think it being a squad car has any of those kinds of implications. It was probably just the first car they had to hand. Anyway, come on, let’s get the door open, shall we?’

By the time we were on the doorstep, they’d emerged from the car. An older male constable, a younger female PC and Keeley herself, who appeared to be laughing at something the latter had just said. So that was something. At least she wasn’t too traumatised.

The female officer stuck a hand out as they reached us. ‘Hi,’ she said brightly. ‘I have one Keeley McAlister for you. I gather you’re expecting her?’

The girl had stopped laughing now, returning my smile with her best sullen expression – the kind I’d seen many times before. Just as teachers were always instructed not to smile before Christmas, so some kids in care, particularly if they’ve been in care a while, adopt a ‘whatever’ look as a shield.

I ignored it. ‘Hello, love,’ I said, as brightly as the policewoman. ‘I’m Casey, and this is Mike.’ Mike smiled too.

‘Come on through,’ I went on. ‘It’s getting a bit nippy out there, isn’t it?’

‘Not according to young Keeley here,’ the male officer told us as they trooped one by one into the living room. ‘She doesn’t feel the cold, do you, love? Not even after walking twenty-five miles.’ He grinned. ‘It was twenty-five miles, you walked, wasn’t it, love?’

I followed the policeman’s smiling gaze, taking Keeley in properly. She was a good-looking girl, with thick, glossy hair, which was conker-coloured and tied back in a neat ponytail. And she was clearly well looked after, at least in all the practical ways; wearing very expensive trainers – clean, just like the rest of her – below a pair of high-end labelled tracksuit bottoms and zip-up hoody.

Taking my cue from the officer, who was clearly gently ribbing her, I widened my eyes. ‘Twenty-five miles!’ I gasped. ‘My God, you must be exhausted! Did you get lost?’

Keeley turned to me, now adopting an impressive look of condescension. ‘I didn’t get lost,’ she drawled. ‘I knew exactly what I was doing. I was just trying to put a bit of distance between me and “home”.’ She raised her hands and did the quote marks with her fingers. Her nails were perfectly manicured and painted in blood-red polish. ‘It’s not my fault that these lot are a bit slow in locating missing kids, is it? Thought I was gonna have to walk around all night.’

‘Um, excuse me, young lady,’ the female officer said, stepping forward. ‘I think you’ll find you were located half an hour after you were reported missing. Your foster carers had no idea you were missing at first, did they?’

‘Pft!’ Keeley hissed, swinging her ponytail for effect. ‘By foster carers you mean Zoe and her paedo husband, I guess? I’m surprised they didn’t just leave me to rot.’

Mike and I exchanged a glance, then we both looked at the police officers. Since they’d liaised with all parties concerned, I presumed they’d have something to add.

The female PC duly flipped open her notebook. ‘As I think you’ve been told, Mr and Mrs Watson, Keeley has made an allegation about her foster dad, and that will have to be investigated, of course. But in the meantime she doesn’t want to go back, and the carers have said they are happy with that.’ She looked at Keeley. ‘They also, understandably, feel the placement is at its end. No going back. Anyway, that’s obviously for social services to discuss with you after the weekend. In the meantime, as I say, we’ll be looking into the allegations.’

I looked at Keeley too, wondering exactly what had happened. If, indeed, anything had. She was busy stifling a yawn. But then perhaps she was exhausted. Whatever else was true, it had probably been a very long day for her. The dark smudges under her eyes weren’t just make-up. She was also shifting from hip to hip and I could tell from her posture that the oversized handbag hanging from her shoulder was probably very heavy.

I pointed towards it. ‘Is that all you have with you, love?’ I asked.

Children usually came with a suitcase or something similar. Even the most neglected kids we’d ever seen had come accompanied by a bag of rags. But Keeley obviously hadn’t packed. She presumably had only what she’d gone out with. Had this been an impulsive decision?

Keeley yawned now, and as she was doing so she nodded. ‘Got my toothbrush and PJs,’ she said, ‘and my phone and my charger. Would it be okay if I go to bed now? I’m knackered.’

I nodded. ‘Yes, course you can, love,’ I said. ‘You must be very tired,’ I then added, considering and deciding against pulling her up on her own choice of word. ‘Come on, I’ll show you to your room and leave you to get ready for bed, then I’ll bring you up a drink and some biscuits, if you like. I imagine you’re hungry. Actually, would you prefer a sandwich?’

Keeley shook her head. ‘A drink and biscuits will be fine, thanks.’ She then followed me out of the room, without another word to anyone, much less a thank you for the police officers who’d been her taxi for the evening. They shrugged at her departing back. They’d dealt with worse.

‘Any other kids live here?’ she asked, as I followed her up the stairs.

I nodded as she turned on the landing. ‘Here you go, love,’ I said, pushing the door to the spare room open. ‘And yes, we have a boy. He’s called Tyler. He’s sixteen – but only just. So maybe the same school year as you? Anyway, you’ll meet him in the morning. He’s asleep now, I think.’ Which made something else occur to me. ‘Were there other children at your last placement, love?’

I’d registered Keeley’s sour expression when I mentioned the word ‘school’, but now it changed again. She looked emotional suddenly. She nodded. ‘Yes, my foster sister, Jade. She’s fourteen.’

‘And they foster her too?’ I asked, my mind chugging. An allegation against their foster father might well change that.

But Keeley shook her head. ‘No. She’s adopted. They adopted her when she was little.’ Her face fell, and she suddenly looked younger than before. ‘I’m going to miss her. Not them two, but I’m going to miss Jade, big time.’ She met my eye then. ‘She was like my real sister, you know?’

I smiled sympathetically, and told her I did know. ‘And I’m sure you’ll see her again,’ I said, reaching out to squeeze her shoulder. She was a good three or four inches taller than me. Which, admittedly, wasn’t hard. ‘Now, you get yourself settled.’ I pointed across the landing. ‘There’s the bathroom, obviously. I’ll just go downstairs and finish up with the police then I’ll be back with your drink, sweetie, okay?’

‘I wouldn’t count on it,’ Keeley said.

I was confused. ‘Count on what?’

‘On me being able to see her. I’ve got four actual brothers and sisters. Did they tell you that? I bet they didn’t. I’ve never seen any of them since the day I went into care. Not even once. Social services are all bastards.’

Four. Never seen again. My heart wept for her. But now I had to speak. Start as you mean to go on and all that. Especially with a kid that’s been in the system a long time. ‘Sweetheart, I know you’re angry, and you’ve every reason to be,’ I said gently. ‘And we will sit down and talk about all this, I promise. But we don’t allow that kind of language here, okay? Me and Mike have young grandkids, so it’s just one of our rules. One of our few rules. So can you try to think of other words you can use?’

She had the grace to look embarrassed, which surprised me. From her initial demeanour, I’d been expecting more attitude. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d answered with ‘whatever’. Or told me to sod off and leave her alone. So though it was only a small thing it was an important one; it built a bridge between us. ‘Sorry,’ she said, looking downcast. ‘I’ll try not to.’

‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘I know you will.’

The consensus wasn’t quite so positive when I returned to the living room. ‘Yes,’ the female officer was saying, presumably in answer to something Mike had asked her, ‘we do think the accusation against Mr Burke is probably false. It just came out of nowhere, for one thing, and was quite a time coming. We were asking her why she didn’t want to go back there, obviously, and she was coming up with all kinds of reasons for running away. They were too strict, too fussy, too stupid and so on. The usual teenage things you’d expect. And, of course, at that point there was no question that we wouldn’t be taking her home again. Of course we would be. But when we explained that – that we had no choice but to do that – out the accusation suddenly came. With a smirk, even, like she knew exactly what she was doing. ‘‘Steve’s been touching me up,” she goes. “There! You can’t take me back now, can you?’’’ The policewoman flipped the cover of her pad back. ‘And she’s right, of course. We have to act on the allegation. But we aren’t convinced there’s any truth in it. Not as yet.’

Even though I’d had my own suspicions about the veracity of Keeley’s allegation, I was still a bit stunned. Would a fifteen-year-old really be so bad that she would make up something so horrible, and even smirk about it? I knew the answer, of course, because I wasn’t born yesterday. And as foster carers, Mike and I heard about things like this all the time. Well, if not all the time, at least often enough to scare us, because it was a situation we could potentially find ourselves in. It didn’t bear thinking about.

I shook my head, said my farewells and, while Mike showed them out, went into the kitchen to pour a glass of milk and find some Jaffa Cakes.

Then I went back upstairs with them (Mike was still on the doorstep, talking about the engines in squad cars – at this time?) and pushed the slightly ajar bedroom door open with my foot.

‘Here you go, love,’ I said as I entered.

Keeley, already in bed, yanked the duvet up to her chest. ‘Don’t we have rules about knocking?’ she asked. She also blushed, instantly and furiously.

I could have kicked myself. And now I felt my cheeks flush as well. ‘I’m sorry, love,’ I said, placing the drinks and snack down on the bedside table. ‘Of course we do. I should have knocked. I’m just tired as well, I suppose. And I didn’t think you’d be so quick getting yourself into bed.’ I smiled apologetically. ‘Next time, I will knock. I promise.’

‘It’s okay,’ Keeley said. She raised a hand holding a smartphone. ‘I just wondered. Could I have your wifi password, please? I just want to drop a message to my foster sister. You know, to let her know I’m okay and that. I won’t phone her,’ she added meekly. ‘I know it’s late.’

I could hardly say no. It was a reasonable enough request. The girl was fifteen and how many of those didn’t have a smartphone? And it made perfect sense that she’d want to tell the one person she obviously felt close to that she was okay. I recited the password – long since memorised from having to constantly give it to the grandkids and other guests – and once she’d typed it in and got connected I went back downstairs.

‘She’s online,’ I told Mike once we were back on the sofa. It was very late but, despite what I’d told Keeley, I now felt wide awake.

‘So all’s well with the world,’ he said, rolling his eyes. ‘Spot of James McAvoy, then?’

I was just opening my mouth to share my joy at that prospect, when my own smartphone buzzed, with no caller ID, which I knew meant the lady from EDT again.

Mike put down the remote he had only just picked up. Yes, it was late, but if there was trouble ahead, we might as well know where it was coming from.

Chapter 3 (#u589aecc6-9912-5100-bdc3-9a62eeb44f69)

It turned out to be a very long night. Not because Keeley herself gave us any problems, and not because I watched The Jonathan Ross Show seven times. Simply because I was on the phone to Helena Curry for the best part of an hour, and then had to relate everything she’d told me to Mike. No, we might not have had a meeting, but it felt almost as good as, because she was having a quiet night, had most of the file and was happy to chat.

Our conversation wasn’t an edifying one. As Keeley had already told us, she was indeed one of five siblings. The oldest of them, in fact, by some distance. She’d been ten when they’d been taken from their heroin addict mother, the other four ranging in age from six down to just four months old. It seemed that Keeley had been their primary carer.

Their only carer, at the end. The poor, poor child.

There had apparently never been any father on the horizon, Helena also confirmed – though that didn’t particularly surprise me. The mother hadn’t even come up with any father’s name (refused to, apparently) so it wasn’t even clear if the siblings shared full DNA.

Keeley’s mother’s world was one with which I was rather too familiar. It was one in which having babies wasn’t something planned – just an inconvenient by-product of being off your face on drugs every day. And it often wasn’t just drug-fuelled abandon, either. It was something women often had to do to keep their drug-dealers – their drug lifeline – sweet. And, as with any world run by ruthless dictators, which the drug world definitely was, there were no safety nets for those at the bottom of the heap, much less family planning guidance or contraception.

Keeley’s family had had a long history with social services. They had been known to them for several years before the children were actually taken, as is often the case. I could all too easily envisage the endless cycle of visits and recommendations, of promises made and broken, of ‘at risk’ children see-sawing between their mother’s desperate attempts to get clean, and then failing, and the inevitable neglect. The measures social services would implement would become ever more intense, then, till the point where it would be unconscionable, if not indefensible, to let the children remain in the family home.

I wondered where and how the mother was now. Whether she was still alive even. Chances were she might not be. There was nothing on the file to say either way, apparently. In any event it was an everyday tragedy. Her life had already been that, whatever had happened to her subsequently. Five children existed, without her, to prove it.

And however much I could sympathise with the mother (heroin is a horrible addiction) my greatest sadness was for her children. And, more than that, for the fact that they’d been separated. Helena wasn’t sure about the whys and wherefores of that, because it had all obviously been a long time ago. All she knew was that the children had all been taken one night, following a tip-off from a neighbour about hearing screams and shouts, and that when the police and social services had attended the incident a man known to the police – a local drug dealer, Helena read out – had been arrested and charged with several offences.

The children had been scattered pretty quickly. Keeley went to one foster family, the two next oldest to another, while the little ones, as was usual in cases like these, went to a further home and were both immediately put up for adoption. ‘It looks like the middle two are still with the same foster family,’ Helena told me. ‘And it says here that the youngest went to adoptive homes pretty quickly. Or even home singular. They might have gone together, mightn’t they? Either way, I doubt there’ll be any more to know about them now.’

But what of Keeley? Why no happy ever after for her? And how must have it felt to be wrenched away from them all? I couldn’t quite get my head around how devastating that must have been for her, particularly if, as Helena said, she’d been so responsible for their welfare. How on earth must she have processed such a horrendous trauma? One minute being a second mummy to four cherished younger siblings, the next being cast adrift and denied any contact. How could she possibly come to terms with being allowed no contact with the brothers and sisters she had looked after since they had been born?
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