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Groomed: Danger lies closer than you think

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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‘No,’ I said. ‘Well, a bit. But don’t you worry. Not for long!’

Though with a good deal more confidence than I felt.

Chapter 4 (#u589aecc6-9912-5100-bdc3-9a62eeb44f69)

Keeley arrived home just as I was dishing up our roast dinner, so I assumed she must have been hungry. We’d normally have had it at lunchtime, but with the weather having been so nice it made sense to move it along to early evening. And I was glad I had, because Keeley sniffed the air appreciatively as she unzipped and took off her hoody.

‘Perfect timing,’ I said, smiling at her, the morning’s tensions forgotten. As I’d intended they should be. Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all. (How many times had I told myself that, since I’d been fostering, I wondered?) ‘Roast chicken,’ I went on as she followed me into the kitchen. I gestured towards the pans on the stove and lifted lids in turn. ‘Do you like all these vegetables?’

‘Yeah,’ Keeley said, ‘all of them. But not too much gravy, please. Zoe used to drown everything she cooked with the bl— the stuff.’

Progress, I thought. ‘Good,’ I said. ‘Well, off you go to wash your hands – Mike and Tyler are doing likewise, so you’d best nip upstairs. Then straight to the table. I’m about to dish up.’

‘I’ll do it here,’ she said, going to the sink. ‘And then I can help you, if you like.’

Well, well, I thought. Progress indeed.

So that’s what she did, washing her hands at the kitchen sink and drying them on a clean tea towel. ‘What’s that?’ she asked, nodding towards a misshapen array of coloured lumps on a board on the window sill.

I turned to look. ‘Oh, that’s just a few of my granddaughter’s salt dough creations. Marley Mae,’ I clarified. ‘My daughter was over earlier. She’s four. Not my daughter,’ I said, correcting myself. ‘My granddaughter.’

Keeley made a cooing noise as she studied the various creations. ‘Ah, that’s so sweet,’ she said. ‘What is it? A sheep or something?’

‘I believe that one’s a unicorn.’ I told her. ‘Just a rather short one.’

Keeley laughed as she finished drying her hands. ‘Blimey. You don’t look old enough to have a grand-daughter,’ she said. ‘You don’t even look as old as Zoe. Are you?’

‘I have no idea,’ I told her. ‘But you’re right. I’m not that well preserved – I’m just quite young for a grandmother, I suppose.’

She smiled. She had a nice smile. It really transformed her face. As was so often the case with teens who made a look of scowling cynicism their default expression. ‘Have you any more?’ she asked.

‘I have four,’ I told her as I pulled the chicken from the oven. ‘The oldest is ten now. Which I can’t quite get my head round, to be honest.’

I wondered as I spoke about Zoe Burke and what she might be like. I wondered if they’d adopted their first child because they’d tried for quite a while and failed to have one of their own. It made sense, given Keeley’s comment about her probable age. For how long had they tried? I wondered how old they were now.

‘Blimey, ten?’ Keeley said, gaping.

I smiled. ‘My daughter started very early.’

‘And you’ve got a son as well, haven’t you? I mean, as well as Tyler. He told me. Sorry, I’m not being much help, am I? What can I do?’

‘I tell you what,’ I said, because my guilty secret was that I preferred dishing up solo. ‘How about you take a look at something while I do the dishing up?’ I went across to my junk drawer (which of course held the exact opposite; everything in it was indispensable, obviously) and pulled out a much-thumbed pink A4 plastic wallet.

‘What’s this?’ Keeley asked as she took it from me.

‘It’s the family,’ I told her, because that was exactly what it was.

It was a relatively recent thing, the family file, but our fostering agency had encouraged all of us to make one. It was a kind of rogues’ gallery, containing mug shots of all the family members foster children who stayed with us might come into contact with, together with names, ranks and serial numbers – well, sort of. It was a good idea, too, because it was a quick way to orient a new house guest – right down to pictures of the house itself (it could be sent out to a prospective new child as well, of course), plus some light-hearted details about the family routines.

‘Take a look,’ I said. ‘And I tell you what, why don’t you take it on through. I’m sure Mike and Tyler will be happy to fill in any gaps.’

I smiled as she ambled off into the dining room, file in hand. And leaving me to plate the food up unmolested.

‘This is just so cool,’ Keeley was saying to Tyler when I came through with the plates. ‘Your mum and dad are so cool too,’ she added, glancing at Mike. ‘And so young.’

Tyler grinned. ‘Oh, they’re older than they look, you know.’

Keeley giggled, and I noticed how it made Tyler blush. I made a mental note that I’d definitely have to keep an eye on things in that department. I had never seen the lad go this gaga over a girl before. Well, not that I was aware of. What he got up to when out with his mates might be another matter entirely.

‘Less of the “old”, mister,’ I warned, waving a wooden spoon towards him. ‘Or there’ll be no breast for you – only the parson’s nose!’

Of course, I realised the very second the words had left my mouth how inappropriate they sounded. Tyler now looked mortified, and even more so when Keeley laughed out loud. ‘Yeah, Tyler,’ she teased, waggling a finger, ‘no breast for you!’ then, to Mike and my joint mortification, actually jiggled her own pair a little.

Mike stood up, clearing his throat. ‘Let me help with the other veg,’ he said, whispering ‘nice one’ as he passed me on the way to the kitchen.

But then, once we’d come back with the rest of the food and I tried to steer the conversation away to other, less inflammatory subjects, I got put in my place as well.

‘So,’ I said, sitting down, once both plates and veg were on the table, ‘what’s all this about Zoe’s gravy?’

Keeley picked up her cutlery. ‘You know, Casey,’ she said, ‘I know you don’t want me to swear, so I’d really rather not talk about them, if that’s all right with you. All I can say is that Steve is a twat and Zoe is an idiot for putting up with him.’ Her gaze took in all of us. ‘There isn’t really anything else to say.’

Keeley was right, of course. There probably wasn’t. Not at the dinner table, with her allegation towards her foster father still hanging in the air. So I decided to leave it and just try to enjoy my meal – get this first day over with as little drama as possible. I also decided, on impulse, to break a bit of a house rule by opening up the double doors from dining to living room so that the television could provide the entertainment rather than me. Which worked well; a repeat showing of Dancing on Ice improved the mood no end and we managed to finish up without further incident. The only thing that kept occurring to me was that, after we were all done with tea, would Keeley announce that she was going back out again? And if so, would there be another quibble about coming in on time?

Apparently not. It seemed Keeley was done with socialising for the day. Indeed, no sooner had she helped me with the last of the clearing up (uncomplainingly – another tick) than she announced that she was going to turn in for the night.

‘Really?’ I said, astonished. ‘But it’s not even eight o’clock yet.’

‘I know,’ she said, folding a tea towel and hanging it over the cooker handle. ‘But I’m just still so tired.’ She yawned extravagantly, but not at all convincingly. ‘I did walk for miles, you know, whatever that copper told you.’

‘Oh, I’m sure you did, love,’ I told her, wondering what she planned on doing once up in her bedroom. Certainly not sleep. Not yet, at least. She was all internet-ed up, after all. ‘No, you go on up, get some kip,’ I said. ‘We’ll be having the posse here tomorrow, won’t we? So you’ll need to have your wits about you.’

She rolled her eyes. ‘I’d forgotten that.’ I didn’t think she had for a minute. ‘Anyway, I’ll just grab a glass of water, if that’s okay. Which cupboard was it where you keep your glasses?’ Then she yawned again, so I said goodnight, and saw her off up the stairs.

‘What do you think?’ Mike said, once I’d rejoined him and Tyler back in the living room.

‘Rejoining the real world, I imagine. As in the one on social media. Connecting with all her virtual friends.’

Oh, if only it had turned out to be that innocent.

By 9 p.m. Mike and Tyler were engrossed in playing on the Xbox – some silly football game that I had to absolutely buy every year or apparently the world would spin off its axis and fly off into deep space. And with Keeley out of the picture for the night (I’d heard her shower earlier but nothing since) I used the time to get the laundry sorted out and iron Tyler’s school uniform.

What Keeley had said to me earlier about clothes hadn’t been lost on me. If she was to be staying with us after the weekend – which she almost certainly was – then I would need to sort some other clothes out for her by one means or another. Her ‘cool’ social worker, Danny, would either have to go and retrieve her belongings, or I would need to break into my bank balance. About which I wasn’t really too downhearted. For one thing I knew I’d be reimbursed for what it cost me, and for another, I’d not been on a shopping trip in a while, so, even if it wasn’t for me, I was quite looking forward to it. It would also be an opportunity for us to do a bit of girly bonding. Whatever had happened – and I knew it would be a while before I knew the whole story – the most important job in the short term was to get her to a place of emotional stability, settle her in with us, and some time together on our own, engaged in normal everyday activities, would be all to the good in that regard.

That said, Keeley really needed to be in school. Like Tyler, she was in her GCSE year now, so every day missed would not only mean vital learning lost; it might also have a serious effect on her final grades. And though Keeley had seemed indifferent about it when I’d mentioned it earlier, I knew she’d need to be enrolled in our local one without delay. She certainly couldn’t make the round trip to her old one. I wondered if she’d figured that into her thinking when she’d run away, and run so far.

The last thing ironed, I switched the iron off and piled everything up to take upstairs. I usually left Tyler’s either in his room or just outside it – he was pretty good at keeping it straight and putting everything away. All was quiet as I climbed the stairs, and again, when I put Tyler’s clothes down on his bed. It was only when I stepped back onto the landing that I heard something.

It was talking, of a kind, though the words were indistinguishable – perhaps she was nattering to her foster sister, or perhaps a friend. She clearly had credit on her phone, or even a contract. I hoped her social worker would let me know about that and, more importantly, what I was expected to do about it.

But when I emerged a second time – from hanging Mike’s shirts in our wardrobe – I heard a distinctly odd noise. Call me nosey or intrusive – I like to think ‘intuitive’ – but it was the kind of noise that, though it was impossible to identify, just made me pause and try and work out what it was. Thus I felt compelled to stop outside Keeley’s door and listen harder. And there it came again – breathy, almost a kind of keening. Was she upset? But then I heard something else, which could never be misconstrued – a girlish giggle, followed by, ‘No, you tell me what you’re wearing first.’

Stunned, I put my ear against the door, feeling no guilt about eavesdropping. Given the serious nature of the allegations she’d made against her foster carer, I wanted – no, I needed – to know what was going on.

And there was soon more to go on, which confirmed my first suspicions. Words that could mean anything but, given the tone in which they were said, could only mean one thing. ‘Oh, yeah, yeah,’ she simpered. ‘I’m doing exactly that right now …’

This was no ordinary conversation. Though my heart sank to realise it, I knew exactly what I was hearing. This was what I knew young people casually referred to as phone sex. I cringed a little. I definitely didn’t want to hear any more of it. And the question was, who was she having phone sex with?

A boyfriend? A girlfriend? Or someone more sinister? I thought back to a course I’d been on a few years previously, in which the subject was covered as part of a session on child exploitation. So I had to do something. Take action. I knew that. The question was, what? Keeley didn’t exactly sound as if she was being exploited, in terms of being coerced, after all. I really didn’t want to burst into the room, but nor could I wait till she had finished whatever it was she was doing. Decided, I knocked sharply on the door.

‘Keeley,’ I said, walking straight in. No waiting for a summons. ‘What are you doing?’

She was fully dressed, thank goodness, borrowed pyjamas in place, putting to bed my fears that something visual was going on. But the shock on her face was clear as day. She ended the call without saying another word. Then anger flushed her features. ‘I thought we had a deal about privacy!’ she snapped at me, throwing her phone down on the duvet. ‘My God! It’s like I’m six or something!’

It was all bluster, I knew, designed to divert me. Trying to divert the blame towards me.

‘Um, excuse me, Keeley, but what do you expect me to do, exactly? I could hear you, from the landing. I could hear every word you were saying. Not to mention everything else.’ I placed my hands on my hips and raised my brows, waiting for an answer to my question. Two could play at that game.

She folded her arms across her chest and exhaled sharply, her eyes down. As you might when you knew you were going to have to explain something you wish you didn’t need to. To an idiot.
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