Part One – Chapter 1
‘Every man has his secret which the world knows not…’
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 1807-1882
Click, clack, click, clack. The sound of my chunky heeled boots on the recently polished parquet flooring reverberated and resounded within the confines of the long, stark corridor. The walls, having recently had a fresh lick of paint, the smell still faintly lingered. Clean and clinical. Not odious, in my view, though some would have found it unpleasant.
Increasingly, I became conscious of the sound of my heels as I was led by an officer in her sensible flat brogues, a look of disapproval, a scowl on her face. It might, however, have simply been the smell of the paint, along this first floor landing, that she was bothered by. Still, maybe I should have worn more practical shoes but fashion had, once again, ruled my head and, like always, I had given in to its demands. Anyway, I loved my new boots and had worked hard to warrant their size fives on my feet today. I tried to walk discreetly on tip-toe to deaden the sound and wondered how much further along this seemingly endless expanse of corridor the interview room would be?
We eventually arrived and, with a degree of authority, and still scowling, the officer knocked on the door. A key was turned on the inside and I stepped into the room. A carpet! Still conscious about my heels, I was relieved. Apart from the carpet, the room, just like the corridor, was stark. No faint odour of paint, however. Instead, the room was stuffy and airless. A window needed to be opened. Some fresh air needed to circulate. Already the room felt oppressive. There was little in the room by way of distraction except for a clock on the wall and a couple of nondescript paintings of flowers. The supervisory officer in attendance, about to afford us the privacy we were entitled to, made her way to stand guard outside, but not before I pointed to one of the smaller top windows. With a nod, and a cursory glance, I was granted permission to open it.
At first Angie Ross appeared like any typical, truculent teenager in trouble, sighing in an exaggerated manner to indicate how little she wanted to be involved in any real discussion. Forced, false bravado. I knew all the signs and I knew to wait.
I sat down on an easy chair, strategically placed by the window and opposite hers. Some attempt at creating a comfortable, less formal environment, but there was nothing at all comfortable or informal about this situation.
A coffee table separated the limited space between us and I waited. I noticed that the table, relatively new, already had a cup stain ingrained on it. Wood tarnished forever. I read once that such stains could be removed with baking soda and water. No chance of that, or time for that in this place. The stain would remain unless someone really cared and tried to restore its polished surface.
I needed to introduce myself and explain why I was there although Angie knew I was there to speak with her. She was not stupid. I already knew this much.
“Hello, Angie. My name is Susan, Susan Raynor. How are you feeling today?”
As expected, no response.
“I’ve been brought in so that we can talk and see if I can help you in any way. So far, I know that you haven’t wanted to speak to anyone and that’s okay. If you feel you still don’t want to talk then we’ll just sit quiet and that’s fine, too”
No longer sighing, she now decided to stare. A staring game. Who would hold out the longest? I indulged her and stared back with a quiet, gentle smile on my face.
The only sound in the room was the clock’s regular and consistent tick, tock, tick, tock beat. It seemed to echo and dictate further silence. Her eyes delved into mine expressionless, dead almost. There was no awkwardness. I felt as though she was looking beyond me, right through me as if I were no longer there and I knew that, behind those deep brown eyes, Angie Ross was struggling, battling with her thoughts and was lost.
The silence continued, like a healing balm, a while longer, until rudely interrupted by the pitter patter of rain on the window. The large window overlooked the recently erected units, ugly in contrast to this old, splendid building.
Steady at first, the rain started to attack the window driven by the power of the wind that had decided to blow. I looked at the small, open window above, wondering now whether to shut it but, there was no need, as the rain slid down the pane of glass and dripped, dripped away onto the green lawn below. Nature’s manna, but not for me. I hated the rain. Miserable, relentless and, coupled with a blustery wind, always my enemy. A victim of fashion had its drawbacks, especially in a war between a flimsy umbrella and the elements. This enemy would definitely win today since the flimsy umbrella had been forgotten and was still at home. Drat! Hopefully, just a downpour, a shower and, when leaving, the sun would be shining just as it had done earlier in the day.
The silver birch, standing tall in the distance behind the ugly units, were so tolerant of the wind and rain. Thin, long branches, small green leaves stuck fast, intertwining but strong. These trees were planted long ago to thrive and had, so far, stood the test of time. They would continue in their glory, in their magnificence, unless cut down by man. A protected species, only to be destroyed by man’s interference, if allowed, or, more likely, by man’s interference if ignored.
My thoughts were brought back into the moment by another noise. Movement. Angie lifted her legs up onto the easy chair and wrapped her arms around them. The staring stopped as she now rested her head on her knees. She started to rock slowly, steadily, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. It was something I had seen a number of times before. A self- soothing mechanism. Backwards and forwards trying to find an escape from emotions; a release from feelings and thoughts too difficult to face. Her movements were hypnotic almost and I watched and waited and gave her time. Backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, I continued to wait.
Outside, the deluge eased and the wind settled. The tick tock beat of the clock was once more prevalent in the room. No longer dictating further silence, it let me know that our hour together would soon be over and it nudged me to act.
“Angie? Angie?” Nothing. Backwards and forwards.
“Angie?” I tried again. “You might want to tell me about things you really like or are interested in, maybe. What do you think? Your call.”
Lame, I knew that much but I had to start somewhere. I had to break the distance between us and hopefully, hopefully engage.
I tried again, “Angie?”
Suddenly, she stopped her rhythmic movement and slowly turned her head. For the first time she really looked at me. Not through me, but directly. A puzzled look, a frown almost, as if I were speaking in an alien tongue.
“Angie? Who’s Angie? I’m not Angie.”
She turned away. Backwards and forwards; she continued her rhythm.
Fifteen years old and she resembled someone older. Brittle, bleached blonde hair, dark roots visible. Chipped varnish on bitten down, dirty fingernails. Nasty cold sore on lips that could have been full and beautiful but, instead, were chapped and dry.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for getting your name wrong. What is your name?”
Reaction. The rocking stopped and she looked directly at me again.
“Yes, your name.”
“Why? Why do you want to know my name?”
“Well, I’d like to know your name so that I can get to know you a bit better.”
“A bit better? You don’t know me at all so what do you mean by, a bit better? You make it sound like you already know something but want to know more.”
“Is that what you think? It’s just an expression. I’m sorry.”
“What is it you want to know, then?”
“Whatever you’d like to tell me.”
She looked at me a lot more intently now, drinking in my every feature, or so it seemed.
“I like the red,” she said.
“The red?” I was puzzled.
Still hugging her knees, she managed to point a finger up towards my face.
“Yes, your lipstick. I like red lipstick.”
“Oh,” I smiled. “My lipstick.”
I knew that young people responded more readily when they could relate to something or someone. Lipstick. It was a start.
“Yes,” I continued, “it’s actually called Cherry Red. I got it in Woolworths. It’s Max Factor. Do you want me to show you?”
Breakthrough. She put her legs down and leaned towards me, the coffee table still a divide. She watched me closely, almost mesmerized, as I opened my handbag and got out the lipstick. She watched me closely as I lifted off the gold top and unscrewed the base to reveal the slender infusion of red. Cherry Red. A bullet of pigmentation that broke the distance between us.
“It’s lovely,” she said. “I used to have one just like it. My friend, Jimmy, would sometimes get it for me. He used to go to Woolworths too and get me things. I tried to tell him not to but he never listened. I wanted red lipstick, I got red lipstick. Yes, I got it.”
Silence. She turned away and looked out of the window. I knew to wait until such time when she was ready to speak to me again but, for now, silence ensued.
I did not have to wait long. It was as if she had been digesting what had just taken place and had decided that I was okay. Progress. Small steps. She looked at me.
“Well what?” I answered softly.
“Well, will you be writing anything down?”
“Do you want me to write anything down?”
“Yes. Yes, I do. Like a story.”
“A story? Okay.”
“Right then. And, will you let me read it?”
“Of course,” I answered, somewhat bemused.
“Good. I want you to use good words, proper words like they do in stories. They make things sound special.”
“If that’s what you want me to do,” I assured her, still somewhat bemused.
“Yes, I do.”
I smiled. She looked at me now up and down, up and down. I knew she was simply trying to establish in her mind whether or not she could trust me.
“You look like one of those women in the catalogues. Yes, you do. Pretty. I found a catalogue once. Someone had thrown it out with the rubbish and left it in the back street by the bin. There were newspapers there too but I wasn’t interested in those. I took the catalogue. Thin, glossy colourful pages. ‘Empire Stores’. Do you know it?”
She did not wait for an answer. Instead, with some animation, she continued her rambling.
“I’d spend ages looking through at all the lovely dresses and skirts and jumpers and shoes and boots.” She paused and pointed at my boots. “Boots like yours. Anyway, if I really liked something, sometimes I’d show Jimmy. Shouldn’t have done really because then he’d go to town and see if he could get it for me or something like it. I really like those jumpers without sleeves. They look tight and snug. If I had one, I’d call it my ‘hug me tight’. I liked one that was knitted in different striped colours. Have you got one? I bet you have.”
Again, she did not wait for an answer.
“Yes, well, Jimmy tried to get one for me even though I told him it wasn’t necessary and he didn’t need to. He wanted to surprise me. Couldn’t find one, though. Still, he would never come back empty handed. Even if it was just sweets or chocolate. Well, anyway, Woolworths is a magical place for sweets and chocolates. Jimmy just loved the magic! The sweets especially are all set out ready for you to help yourself and pick your own. Jimmy always did. As many as he could stuff into his pockets”
She giggled to herself, lost once more in her thoughts. She stared out of the window and silence returned enveloping the room; the tick tock beat of the clock steadily taking over.
I could not help thinking how articulate Angie Ross was for such a young girl that had missed out on so much of her education.
I broke the silence. “Did Jimmy ever manage to get you the ‘hug me tight’?”
She turned her head and looked at me. Reaction. “Pardon?”
“Jimmy? Did he ever get you the ‘hug me tight’, the jumper?”
No longer animated, she looked like she was going to cry and she whispered, “No. No, he didn’t. Just sweets. Just some sweets.”
I knew at this stage not to prompt her further as she withdrew into herself. Our session was nearly over anyway and so I began to collect my things together. The rain outside had now completely stopped. No need for my flimsy umbrella after all; the one lying abandoned in the hallway at home. Tomorrow, I must not forget it just in case.
“Jenny. My name’s Jenny.”
Startled, I looked at her. She was still staring out of the window.
“Sorry. What was that?”
“My name. You wanted to know my name. Well, it’s Jenny. Jenny Smith.”
I knew full well not to question who she said she was. Angie Ross? No, she was Jenny Smith. Dissociation with who, deep, deep down, she knew she really was.
For now, she was Jenny Smith and, as Jenny Smith, she would tell me her story.
As if she could read my thoughts she said, “Don’t forget my story.”
“No. No, I won’t. We can start tomorrow.”
“Fine, but remember you said you will write down what I tell you like a story. You know what I mean? Like in a book from a library. Yes, like in a library. I like the library. So many books and lots of peace and quiet. No- one bothers you. Libraries are wonderful places, you know. The library I go to is like a huge palace and, when you go inside, after climbing up a lot of steps, it smells all sweet. A bit like chocolate.” She giggled quietly. “Maybe that’s why I like it there so much…”
She was rambling animatedly again but this time I managed to interrupt. “Have you got a favourite? A favourite book?”
“A favourite book? Well, yes, there are quite a few I like and a few I have always liked from being really little. The very first book I ever tried reading by myself was all about fairies and pixies and elves and other magical beings. It was the word ‘fairies’, you know, that made me want to read it. A very kind man first told me about them. He didn’t tell me about pixies, though, but I soon learned that they were cheeky and mischievous and enjoyed playing games under the moon. The fairies, well, they were just beautiful and magical. It was a book of poems and rhymes with lots of colourful drawings. Each poem told its own little story and I loved trying to get my tongue round some of the really difficult, funny sounding words that I never understood. It didn’t matter, though, because I could usually make out their meanings from all the drawings that went with them. Do you know? I can still remember the words of some of the rhymes… ‘stars are shining, the moon is alight, the folk of the forest are dancing tonight…”
She paused for a brief moment, her gaze unfocused, and her thoughts, quite literally, ‘away with the fairies’. Still, her flight into fancy, or distant memory, was short-lived, however, as she shook her head and looked at me.
“There is one book that will always be my favourite, though, and that’s because it was the very first story that was ever read to me. It’s a lovely story but sad as well. ‘The Giving Tree’. Do you know it? A beautiful, very kind lady read it out loud once when I was really little. I had to ask for it in the library I go to and, even though it’s for children, they still had a copy in the main library. I had to ask for it because I didn’t know who had written it. All I remember is that it was a funny name. A foreign name. Anyway, this time I read it myself and I could see all the lovely drawings.
“There’s a tree, you see, and it’s like a mother to this little boy. A lovely mother who forgives him no matter what. As he gets older, he’s always asking the tree for things and the tree, just like a good, good mother tries to give him what he wants. Sometimes, though, he’s not always grateful. Whenever I read it I always imagine it’s a little girl that goes to the tree. A little girl with a lovely, caring mother.”
She confused me. Not only articulate but loved to read too. Probably why she was articulate. Reading encourages a mastery of words, even picture books, when you are little, they open the mind to uncommon words. An avid reader myself, I knew this only too well and could relate to her interest in fairies and the magic of poetry and rhyme. ‘The Giving Tree’, however, was not a book I really knew at all. I would get a copy.
I did not want to leave. The hour had soon passed and I felt there was so much more she wanted to say. Fashion and make-up. Common ground. Books. Common ground. What else I wondered?
As I stood up I could feel her eyes following my every move. The sun started to shine through the window. So much in one hour. Blustery wind and rain and now sunshine, highlighting smears on the glass like dried up tears on a dirty face.
“What’s your name again?”
A little startled I replied, “Oh, yes, of course. My name’s Susan. Susan Raynor but you can call me Susie if you like.”
“You don’t look like you are a Susan. You look more like a… like a… like a Rose. Yes, Rose. Rosie Raynor. Has a ring to it, don’t you think? Rose for red. Red for Rose. It suits you. Yes, I like Rose.”
I smiled at her. She smiled back. Some understanding. A connection of sorts. The supervisory officer, still in dutiful, stoic attendance outside the room, entered as I opened the door and informed her that the session was over.
“Right, I’ll see you again tomorrow, Jenny.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Rose. Yes, I’ll see you tomorrow, Rosie Raynor.”
From carpet to parquet flooring, I no longer cared about the click, clack of my chunky heels resonating and reverberating within the confines of the long, stark corridor ahead. In fact, I embraced the sound. Confident and wanting to make my presence felt in this austere place, I made my way back, unescorted this time, to reception.