The plane soared majestically into the vivid orange sunset. Eyes shut, head pressed back into the seat I gripped the tatty purple dream-catcher tightly to my chest. Technicolour memories flashed through my mind like scenes from a film and big salty tears rolled slowly down my cheeks as I dared to hope that this was the start of a better future.
On a dark icy morning, my Dad had skidded on black ice into an oncoming car, he didn’t stand a chance on his motorbike. That was the day, aged ten, that I ceased to be a child. Mum had always been fragile; unable to cope and overwhelmed with grief she sought solutions at the bottom of a bottle. As the drink took a steely grip of her, friends and family gradually distanced themselves, embarrassed by her drunken outbursts and emotional breakdowns. She carried on trying to numb the pain with booze and tranquillisers and so began the torturous ever downward spiral. All self-respect long since gone and saddled with debts we had to move away to the rundown forgotten streets of Birkenhead at the mercy of a ruthless landlord.
I lay on the filthy mattress, thirteen years old and utterly desolate, drifting in and out of sleep. I could no longer remember when I last felt safe and loved, now each day was about survival and keeping out of harm’s way.
I heard the car swerve around the corner and crunch to a sudden halt against the kerb. Instantly alert, my cold thin body was rigid with fear which flooded out along my veins, making my limbs tingle and the hairs on my arms stand on end. The door slammed open and clanged against the radiator. My breath quickened and I pressed my hands to my ears but I couldn’t block out the terrifying screams, shouts and thuds. Suddenly it was silent and I shook as I gripped the sides of the bed, my knuckles white as I prayed the monster wouldn’t come upstairs. Thankfully this time he stumbled out along the hallway then speed away, tyres spinning.
I waited for Mum to stagger out into the street and make a scene, weeping and wailing hysterically for him to come back. I waited to hear her sobbing in the bathroom as she cleaned up her bloodied, battered face. I heard a faint noise from downstairs, then realised that she would be back on the stained sofa, tumbler of vodka in hand, awaiting the solace of oblivion.
I lay awake all night, straight and stiff and still, the stained duvet pulled up to my chin. I watched as shafts of sunlight pierced the holes in the faded sheet stretched across the bedroom window. The sun’s rays sought out the gaudy purple dream-catcher which hung above the bed and glinted off its tiny silver mirrors, making dancing disco patterns on the walls and ceiling.
My bare feet stuck to the dirty carpet as I crept through the pungent, dingy living room, dust floating in the sunshine as I picked my way past the empty bottles. Bathed in the mellow morning light she lay splayed on the ripped kitchen lino. As I crept closer my eyes widened in terror and my heart leapt out of my chest. Her torment over, her drink-ravaged face was as pale and cold as the finest marble, her fair hair congealed with blood and scarlet rivulets ran from her nostrils to her blue-tinged lips.
As light as a feather I floated out into the street and whispered to a stunned stranger, “my Mum’s dead.” The horror engulfed me and I sank slowly to the floor, curled up into a tiny ball and hugged myself tightly wracked with sobs.
The celebrant at the cold, echo-y crematorium did his best to say nice things about my Mum, a woman whose life he had no idea of. I felt hollow as I sat next to my social worker and a handful of neighbours and listened in silence, unable to shed a tear.
Eventually the monster was sentenced to ten years for manslaughter. It brought a kind of closure and I started to feel I could try to move, but I couldn’t help hoping the coward would suffer every day in prison.
I lived with a wonderful foster family and in my freshly laundered uniform and, with a stomach filled with more than dry cereal and pot noodle, I excelled at school. I made friends quickly and a bright future seemed assured as the next four years flew happily by.
‘A’ levels finished, dressed to kill, fuelled by vodka and sickly shots and armed with fake ID’s we hit the town to celebrate. I stumbled into the last of a long line of murky bars and into Josh. He took in my tight black dress and suntan and asked if he could buy me a drink. I took in his tight white t-shirt and bulging biceps and accepted. After drunken dancing and hazy kisses we swapped numbers as I was dragged away by my friends into the chaotic neon streets of late-night Liverpool, in search of cheesy chips and a taxi.
I saw Josh the next day and every day after that. I told ‘white lies’, stayed over at his flat, fell in love and at the tender age of eighteen told my stunned foster parents that I was moving in with him.
Josh was twenty five and a partner in the family building company. I was impressed by his Mercedes and his high ceilinged flat in fashionable Oxton complete with oak floors, black leather corner sofas, a massive TV and a shiny white kitchen.
I didn’t take up my place at University. Josh hugged me a little too tightly as he persuaded me I shouldn’t go; he said things were fine as they were and he’d always be there to look after me; he had a terrible temper if things didn’t go his way. Still vulnerable and carrying red raw scars from a violent childhood I emailed to cancel my place, holding back the tears as he watched on smugly from the sofa.
Josh’s business was doing really well, money was no object and a year or so passed in a blur of designer clothes, parties inside the red-roped VIP cordons, champagne and meals at the city’s hotspots. A life I’d never dreamed of and now wasn’t sure I really wanted.
Josh spent a lot of time at work and the gym. I lost touch with old friends and family because Josh was moody if he found out I’d seen them, so it was easier not to bother. I was lonely and bored to death of housework, hair appointments and shopping for the clothes Josh wanted me to wear to impress his friends. Passing Sunnymede Nursing Home one day I noticed an advert for care assistants; on a whim I called in. They were desperate for staff; the manager Marion was lovely and agreed I could start as soon as all the checks were complete.
Just days later Josh and I were slumbering in the half-light of an October morning when a black-clad man smashed down the front door and the bedroom was quickly swarming amid shouts of, “armed police, don’t move.” The wheels of justice turned quickly for once, the family firm was a front. Josh and his Dad were drug dealers, and now faced with fifteen years in prison.
Once again my life crumbled.
Too ashamed to contact anyone from my ‘old’ life, I moved into a grotty flat and worked every shift I could at Sunnymede to survive. Marion and I got on like a house on fire, she reminded me of my Mum. She said I should train to be a nurse and I must admit I loved working there, talking to the elderly residents, washing and dressing them, singing old songs with them and soothing them when they cried out for a relative long since passed away.
Out of the blue I got a call from Dean who said he was a friend of Josh’s and needed to speak to me urgently, he was very insistent. Suspicion turned to utter terror as he drove me to a grim bedsit in Rock Ferry in silence. A skinny, hollow-eyed lad jumped up from the sofa, clearly scared, and was told in no uncertain terms to leave and not come back. He didn’t need telling twice.
Dean, nostrils flared, eyes wild and menacing explained the terms. “Josh has got debts to pay us since getting caught and you’re gonna graft for us now till they’re paid.” He produced a knife, “bad things can happen to people like you, so watch your step.” With a leering wink, he tossed me a phone. “You’re living here now, people will be watching you so mind who you talk to, no Police, I’ll be in touch.” Within days the train rides to different cities began. Young, pretty girls were always a good bet in this business; less suspicious than half-stoned teenage boys.
I felt trapped and very frightened, I couldn’t see a way out of this sordid existence. One night at work I broke down and confided in Marion and together we hatched a plan.
As I slammed the battered front door of the bedsit behind me and stepped onto the filthy blue-tiled landing I had a very strange sensation. I imagined I felt a tightly curled flower bud deep within, poised to bloom, nudging out the dark feeling of dread. I held onto that thought as I strode through the graffiti covered stairwell which stank of weed and stale urine. Kicking aside the empty cider cans and burnt tin foil I headed to the Golden Sunrise chippy as instructed. In the doorway I glanced at the dirty plastic menu stuck to the window and my stomach lurched.
In the background the motionless, towering cranes rose from the icy ground like sad giants; the gunship grey workshops hunkered down below them in darkness. In its heyday the now half empty shipyard breathed prosperity throughout the town. The streets that now oozed despair and decay would have hummed with the camaraderie of workers, sharing a joke and a cigarette, heading off to build world famous ships. Silently I bade those streets goodbye.
Dean rolled up in a shiny black Range Rover and I got into the back. There was an overpowering smell of skunk as he expertly flicked the end of a fat joint out of the window then did an erratic, screechy U-turn and sped off into the grey-lined tunnel. To calm myself I sat back into the warm leather seats and pretended I was a chauffeur-driven celebrity off to glittering premiere.
I shot back to reality as we pulled up at Lime Street Station. Dean leaned in very close, I was sure he knew. “Manchester today, here’s the tickets, usual place. You know the drill.” My mouth filled with spittle and I struggled to speak for fear of being sick so I swallowed hard and nodded. I had to hold my nerve. Dean slung me a floral backpack, its childish pattern jarringly at odds with the heroin it contained.
My ‘drop’ completed, I went to the bank and took out all the money I had in the world and bought a suitcase, clothes and make-up. At ‘Darcey’s Salon’ I fidgeted nervously and made idle chat about holidays and boyfriends as my straggly hair was cut into a shiny, blonde bob. In the public toilets I completed the transformation, gone were the leggings and trainers replaced by a long floral dress, Doc Martens, denim jacket and beanie hat. I couldn’t risk being recognised, I was supposed to be back in Liverpool by now, they’d be looking for me. I dumped the old clothes and empty rucksack and hailed a taxi.
As I approached the airport I sent a message to Marion.
Mission accomplished, thanks for everything xxx
I jumped out of my skin as my phone rang, Dean’s number flashed angrily on the screen as I tossed it out of the window into the path of a passing lorry. It shouldn’t be long before the police picked him up. I’d sent them a long anonymous letter with details about his associates, customers and the stash of heroin, cash, weapons and phones he had had hidden at the bedsit. More than enough to send him away for a good long stretch.
At the check-in my legs wobbled as the man looked quizzically from me to my passport several times, then nodded me through. I didn’t notice his faint smile as he typed into his laptop. He’d unnerved me so I sat in a quiet corner of the departure lounge and carefully watched the crowds, nerves jangling.
I made sure I was one of the first on board, checked my handbag one last time and took out the tatty purple dream catcher.
As the plane levelled off a smiling stewardess approached with a silver tray. Atop a crisp white napkin was an elegant, glistening stem of champagne. “Happy twenty first birthday, courtesy of the airline,’’ she beamed.
At last, a fresh start, far away in Melbourne, to stay with Marion’s sister. Once I was settled I’d apply to study nursing.
I raised the champagne flute and whispered, “goodbye Mum,” then let the dancing bubbles fill my mouth.
The flower bud within slowly unfurled and started to bloom.