Monday, February 15, 2010

In the Company of Strangers Part 1

Title: In the Company of Strangers
Author: Ranger
Characters: OC, Joss and Hugh
WARNINGS: This is a slash story but the discipline relationship is subliminal and evolving: no explicit discipline involved. Although arguably the hero is in serious need. You'll have to imagine it for yourselves guys. ;)


The call from the office caught me less than two miles from home. It was past five on a Friday night and I admit, I thought twice before I picked up the mobile. Jenny’s voice was apologetic.

“Joss? Steven Price just called in.”


I surveyed the ring road lanes, pulled out in front of a Mercedes, which honked angrily at me, and made it down the slip road to the roundabout which led back into town.

“Where is he?”

“Behind the station, just outside the multi-storey. He said you knew it.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

“Have a good weekend.”

Actually, as this was after five, this should have been Jenny’s problem. She was on emergency call over the weekend, but we all had our own special cases: a small handful of clients who we’d always turn out for, whatever the time.

The traffic was hell. It took me some time to fight my way into town and longer still to find a parking space. The multi storey was nearly full, and there were people everywhere in gangs and couples, hitting the town to eat and be entertained. I thanked God Hugh and I never went out on a Friday night: it would be a while yet before he started wondering where I was. As a mechanic, his occupation ended at five pm. on the dot, with a shower, a change of clothes and the first decent meal he would have eaten all day: it was me who worked strange hours, chasing around the city.

The streets behind the station were quieter. I circled the multi storey block, where the alleyways get darker and more litter-strewn, and where the brickwork is a little older. This part of town was built on the 1950’s bombsites, and the back streets are cluttered with buildings whose proper purpose vanished years ago. The mills and workshops are nightclubs now, or warehouses. There was no one around. I moved on and tried the next street, which backs onto a supermarket. Our kids have been known to hang around waiting for the half-charitable throw out of stale bread at the end of the supermarket day; they’ve even been known to nip into the back entrance and help themselves. If Steve had got himself arrested for petty theft, this time he could fend for himself until Monday morning.

“Steve!” I said at last, loudly. My voice echoed slightly in the dusk. “Steve? It’s Joss. From St. Giles.”

The official policy is to wait twenty minutes, to give the client plenty of time to see you and think about it before they approach you. A lot of our kids, especially the ones who ring in on the emergency lines, are wary. Steve however had been on and off our books for three years. He knew me well and I wasn’t in the mood for his games.

“Steve? You’ve got two minutes before I go home.”

Nothing. It was bloody cold, and getting colder. It was why I was taking my time, despite the threats. Usually if Steve rang in, it was because he was ill or hurt, and he needed a few days of warmth and decent food in whichever hostel I could wangle a place for him.


Nothing. I checked out the alley anyway. Boxes were stacked all around the heavy, wind-up doors to the warehouses. It was getting darker by the minute. I almost ran over the hand outflung on the concrete before I caught a glimpse of bright red hair. Steven. There was enough blood that I knew there was no point in hurrying, but I crashed to the ground and fumbled at his neck for a pulse. He was still warm. The blood was congealed and his skin had taken on a slack, grey shade unlike anything I’d seen before. His eyes were open. I sat back on my heels and took a few deep breaths. The injuries were to the side of his head and his chest; I could see the distorted shape of his skull under his bloodstained hair. My hands were trembling as I found my mobile and dialled for the police. I was staggered at how calm my voice sounded.

“This is Joss Milliner, I’m from the St Giles project.”

The police know us well. A lot of our clients are their clients too.

The emergency services seemed to want horrendous amounts of detail. I explained, and explained to various people about the fact- strange and unreal- that I was sitting, in an alleyway, at five thirty on a Friday evening, beside a dead boy.

I know quite a few of the local constabulary, but I didn’t recognise the plain clothes man who walked towards me, pulling his card from his top pocket. He only flashed it; I really wasn’t interested beyond that he was from the CID . He stepped over me to put his fingers against Steve’s neck. Youngish man. I suppose I was staring at him not to have to look at Steve’s distorted face. Expensively cut dark hair. Suit. Tie pulled loose at the knot. Blunt fingers with immaculate nails. I always notice hands. Hugh has long fingers like a musician or a surgeon, and his nails are always bitten.

The man swivelled, still crouching, elbows on the knees of his immaculate slacks.

“And you are?”

“And I am what?” I said, past being polite. He didn’t react.

“Your name is? Sir?”

“Joshua Milliner, city St. Giles project.”

“Social services.” He said dismissively.

“Not social services.” I contradicted sharply.  “We are definitely not affiliated. This is Steven Price, he is seventeen, he’s been a client of mine for three years.”

“And what does a client of yours do exactly?”

He wasn’t looking at me. He was going through Steve’s pockets, methodically, unmoved by his face or by his presence. For the first time, my eyes stung.

“He or she contacts St. Giles either through referral from hospitals, GPs, some of the more in-touch police services, or through our advertised emergency numbers. We find long term places for local homeless kids under the age of twenty one.”

“Funded by?”

“City council.”

“Ah.” He flipped a couple of packets over in his hand, taken from Steve’s coat. “Was he a drug user?”

“Not an addict as far as I knew.” I said shortly. “Many of them take what they can get hold of. They’re sleeping rough and it’s winter.”

“I thought you found them places?”

“He’s one of the flotsam.” I used the word without realising, and for a second wondered why he turned to look at me, one dark eyebrow raised over a light blue eye.

“Persistent runaways. He only contacted us when he wanted a bed for a few nights, he never stayed in a placement long.”

The man straightened and brushed off his hands. “Death by misadventure. Is there a family to get hold of?”

“I don’t carry the files with me. ”

“There’s a forensic team on its way out. We’re going to have to do the full performance, justified or not.”

“What does that mean?” I said acidly. He shrugged.

“No family. Runaway.”

I ran into this attitude a lot; we all did, and there’s no point in arguing with a bigot. I looked around to see what I’d done with my wheelchair when I first got down beside Steve, leaned and grabbed it by the footplate, dragging it over. The CID man stiffened and looked awkward, as all members of the general public do when I move. I hauled myself up into my chair and dug my freezing hands into my pockets.

“I suppose you’ll want a statement?”

“Uniform will when they get here.” The man looked me over and jerked his head at his car.  I remember noticing the make: it was unmarked. Some American thing that went with his suit. It’s a model Hugh hates, and which I’ve been lectured about at length whenever he’s infuriated by seeing one.

“Why don’t you sit in the car? You must be freezing.”

“Thankyou, I’m fine.”

Silence. He whistled, softly and tunelessly, and propped his shoulders against the brickwork. I could cheerfully have broken his jaw.

Hugh had given up waiting for me, and was cooking. He’s a lot better at it than I am; if I can con him into doing it, I usually do. He was fresh out of the shower with no trace of the oil stains he would have been covered with when he got home, and his overalls were already spinning in the drier. He glanced over his shoulder and gave me his private smile: all slightly crooked teeth and soft, green eyes. It mutated from welcome to concern in seconds.

“What’s happened? Are you all right?”

Ever practical, he took a saucepan off the stove before he turned to me. I pulled myself together and took my coat off. “Steve Price is dead.”

He looked blank, then shocked. He knows a lot of my kids by name.  “When?”
I looked at my watch and was surprised at how little time had actually passed.

“About two hours ago. He called into the office just as I was on my way home, so I went back into town to meet him and –“ I gestured with my hands, outlining a body on the kitchen floor. “- there he was.”

“You found him? Oh Joss-“

“It was a delivery bay. Most likely a lorry turned and didn’t see him. The chances are, the driver wouldn’t even have noticed the impact. His head was smashed.”

Hugh winced. I dropped my coat on the table and stretched shoulders that were aching more than usual. “The police said it probably won’t be investigated beyond tracking down the vehicle. Just an accident.” I found myself quoting the CID bastard’s casual inflection and shut my teeth before I lost my temper. Hugh came to me and put his arms around my shoulders. I held on to him until he crouched in front of me, coming down to my level, his hand running slowly up and down over my shoulders. Eventually he drew back, scraping his rough jaw against mine in a gentle, thorough touch that told me he understood how I felt and knew me well enough not to offer platitudes.

“Do you want a drink?”

I looked down at my hands and realised what he’d seen: I was still shaking.

“Steve only ever calls in if he needs a bed. I even had a place in mind for him.”

If I’d have been half an hour earlier, I’d be leaving him at the hostel now, in front of a meal and a TV set with a dozen other kids. Hugh put a glass into my hand, took one of the kitchen chairs near me and leaned across to unknot my tie and pull it loose. We drank in silence for a few minutes, listening to pasta bubbling on the hot plate.

“I went looking through his file for the next of kin,” I said eventually. “The police asked. I didn’t realise but every name he’d given us was made up. All film characters. As far as we know there is no one to tell he’s dead.”

Hugh’s hand cupped my neck and rubbed, dipping into the neck of my shirt. “You found him several places. He always ran away again as soon as he was fit. Didn’t he?”

He has the soft, Cotswold accent that makes his voice musical. Beautiful to listen to. And he was right. So many of our kids only want stop gaps- not the permanent homes we try to – want to -  find for them. He got up, stooped and gave me a rough hug as he passed, on his way to the stove. His familiar, angular bones jabbed my chest and arms, leaving the physical memory of him against my body.

“You’re turning grey. Get out of that chair and lie down. This just needs plating up.”

He had turned the fire on in the small sitting room and it had taken the chill off the whole bungalow. The stereo was playing one of his Simon and Garfunkel CDs. We’d been drawn together initially for our fixation on sixties music and bad horror films. I lay down full length on the hearthrug.  My shoulders flinched for a minute, then gave up the fight and clicked back into place. Lucifer, Hugh’s black and white cat, finished the job by climbing disdainfully up on my chest. The one reason he tolerates me in Hugh’s life is that I spend a lot of time on the floor. He regards me as some kind of centrally heated rug, with the added advantage that I feed him if he yowls long enough. Hugh put a plate in easy reach and sprawled on the sofa, his long, jeaned legs hanging over the arm. “Your mother rang.”

“It’s been a bad day, be kind.”

“I said you’d had an emergency call out. She wants to come over tomorrow-“

Oh God-

“- and did I know that your curtains need washing. I said they were your curtains and your problem. I got the impression she’s in a spring cleaning fit. I don’t know where she finds the energy. It must take her months to spring clean their house.”

“Don’t you believe it,” I said bitterly. “By the end of February she’s done the house, the garage, the shed, my father’s office-“

“She cleans his office?”

I gave him a look. “You don’t think the contractors clean it to her standards do you? They don’t even wipe his pot plants.”

He grinned at me over a fork full of pasta. “I think I’m going to be out tomorrow. Leaving at dawn.”

“You dare.” I rolled over, tipping Lucifer off. He stretched, stropped his claws on the carpet, ignoring Hugh’s sharp request to desist, and leapt up onto the windowsill. Most of the street think he’s an ornament. The CD player began The Boxer. Hugh had been playing this album the first night we spent together. That was the first time I’d heard the song and I was stunned by the power of it.

When I left my home and family I was no more than a boy
In the company of strangers
In the quiet of a railway station, running scared.

Steve had been one of my first cases when I joined the St. Giles project. A gangly, redheaded fourteen-year-old, and a runaway from his second foster home. He’d been in care since the age of eight. Whatever I’d managed to do for him, he’d still ended up on the ground, dead at seventeen, leaving no mark on the world except for the stilted facts held in a social services file.

I heard the clink of a plate put down, then Hugh sprawled out on the carpet beside me, his hands linked over his chest. I could see his leg hooked over mine. Even after eight months together, his instinct to touch was still stronger than his knowledge that I can’t feel it. I pressed where I could feel- his chest, his shoulder, his dark hair, still damp from the shower. I breathed his clean smell of Hugh, soap and fresh clothes, and felt his warmth against me, the solidity of him.

“He can’t have been dead more than an hour. It must have been more or less instant. Why on earth didn’t he ring earlier? I was stuck in the rush hour traffic for nearly twenty minutes… think of all the risks he took. Three years of living rough. He could have died of cold, pneumonia, TB. He slept God knows where with people who could easily have stabbed or raped him, I’ve got no doubt at all that he solicited when he could.”

“Some of them do, you know that.”

“He survived all that, and what kills him? A lorry turning outside a bloody supermarket.”

“It’s all circumstance.” Hugh’s voice overtook mine, being deeper rather than louder. “Every catastrophe is based on a hundred little details adding up. Think of all the things he must have done today, and all the things the lorry driver must have done that put them together in that place at exactly the wrong second. It’s unfair; that’s all. There’s nothing you could have done.”

“It’s useless. We give them antibiotics, clothes, condoms, we get them into hostels where someone at least referees the fights-“

“How are you going to protect them from HGVs? No matter how careful you are, people still die of the stupid, every day things.”

“That isn’t what I mean,” I said bitterly. He pulled my hand away from my mouth to stop me biting my nails.  “I know.”

In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade
And he carries a reminder of every glove that laid him down
And cut him ‘til he cried out in his anger and his shame-

“I’m knackered,” I said bleakly.

“You always are on a Friday night.” Hugh let me go when I drew away, and I felt his fingers trace down my chest, from neck to the point where sensation abruptly stops, just at the edge of my ribcage. “And you’ve just had a horrible experience. Why don’t you have a bath? You must be in shock.”

“There was some swine of a CID officer there, handling Steve like he was a training dummy.”


That jerked me out of my mood spin.

“No. Troll.”

He laughed, rolled over and kissed me before I could pull away. Even when I think I’m not in the mood, there’s something about his kisses. A few seconds more and I knew I was in serious danger of dissolving into a pathetic mess. I wriggled away from him in time. He grabbed me and pulled me back down into his arms, nuzzling along my neck. He was clean-shaven, gentle and using the coaxing tone that usually means he gets his own way.

“Come on. Let me see if I can cheer you up.”

“Its Friday, I’m exempt on Fridays.”

“Only with a note from your mother.”

I ran my hands half heartedly over his long torso, watched him shake his head at me in mock disapproval, then he rolled me over and pinned me, hands already under my shirt.
He long ago worked out where my sense of touch is strongest, and the man is a mechanic. It took him less than a minute to get me interested, and from there to get what he’d wanted in the first place.

He is more than slightly wary of my parents, particularly my mother.

SHE blew in at seven thirty am like a raven in a Laura Ashley skirt. In my entire life, I’ve never seen her look anything less than immaculate: her makeup impeccable and her hair swept up. The house always looked like something out of Homes and Gardens when I was growing up. Hugh vanished into the bathroom with alacrity, and I knew he’d either go out for a run, or take apart the nearest car. His or mine would do: in moments of stress he doesn’t need a technical reason.

I trailed my mother into the kitchen where she was already checking the cupboards. She can’t resist it.

“Good morning.”

“Hello darling.” Sweet smile, fastidious flick at the kitchen surfaces. I ignored it. She was filing coffee, tins and a variety of other bits and pieces from her bag into the cupboards: all brands we never bought and would never eat.

“Hugh and I do shop you know.”

“Rubbish, you haven’t been into a supermarket since you left school.”

“Well Hugh does the shopping then. Want a coffee?”

“I’ve got a lot to do.”

I was partially dressed and not at all ready for combat, but here it came.

“Mother you are not going to do anything to this house.”

“No, just a few spring cleaning jobs.”

“I can do anything that needs doing.”

I got the don’t be silly look. “Are you going to do the curtains? The cupboards? It won’t take me half an hour-“

“You can sit down, have a cup of coffee and a chat, and that’s it,” I said firmly, “You are not going to start on this house as well.”

“Let me take that.”

I surrendered the kettle and pulled my wheels back out of her way. “I can do it. The whole idea of this house is that it’s designed so I can do it.”

“Have you taken your tablets?”

“I’ve only just got up.”

“You look tired.”

“Like I said, I’ve only just got up.”

“You work too hard.”

Here it came; aria no 3 with choruses.

“We always said this job would be too much for you. I was never sure about a full time job anyway, but at least you could have been in an office and not tearing around the city in streets I wouldn’t set foot in-“

And here came the first refrain.

“- one day you’ll be mugged, we’ve told you and told you-“

I sat back and let it roll, picking out the familiar lines.

“Your father’s right. With your problems you have to have job security…. The hours are ridiculous; you can’t possibly have any sort of routine around the hours you work… It’s your health you know, you only have limited amounts of energy-“

And the finale.

“Why on earth you wanted to move out and make life so much harder for yourself…”

By now she had the kitchen sparkling. Thoroughly depressed, I followed Hugh’s example and hid in the bathroom. He’d slipped out, silent and shy as he is of most people. A lot of my friends have never actually heard him talk.

My father was in the lounge when I finally risked emerging. He was drinking coffee and flicking through a magazine – not an incriminating one. I checked it quickly, but there were no obviously naked men in it. Theoretically they know- or at least I’ve sat them down, several times, and made the coming-out speech – and they know there is only one bed in this house and Hugh lives here: but I don’t think the implications have ever really sunk in.  My father leaned across to kiss my forehead and dropped the magazine back on the table.

“I don’t suppose you want to play golf? I don’t think your mother’ll be finished before the club house closes.”

“Oh God.”

He caught my arm before I could head for the kitchen. “I’d leave her to it if I were you. Hugh’s underneath my car; he said the exhaust was knocking whatever that means. How are you?”


“Skewiff as usual. You’re supposed to watch your position in this, look at your feet.” He took my hips and straightened them to his satisfaction; hands running round the inside of the chair. “I wish you’d use the side blocks, you slide around too much.”

“It makes transfers too difficult.”

“You’ll end up with pressure marks.”

“I haven’t yet.”

“Are you still standing regularly?”

He knew damn well I wasn’t, and I knew he knew.

“What are you doing here? Hugh said it was just Mother coming.”

“I came to pick her up, we were supposed to be playing golf, but she’s still doing your kitchen.”

“I don’t know why.” I said irritably, “If I’m untidy, Hugh isn’t. The house is immaculate.”

“You know your mother. Smile and don’t argue.”

Balls. I headed for the kitchen. For lack of anything else to do, he followed me, half an eye on the garden beyond the kitchen window. “Do you want me to cut the lawn while I’m here?”

“I can do it.”

He winced visibly. “I thought Hugh did.”

“It’s not that hard.”

“I’d really rather you didn’t old boy, you can’t possibly manoeuvre a mower properly from that chair. What if you fell? I can do it, it’ll only take me five minutes.”

The kitchen was gleaming. Sterile, disinfected, organised and completely rearranged. I love my parents dearly. I’d like them stuffed and kept in a glass case somewhere.


I usually stay out of the office on a Saturday unless I’m on duty, but Hugh was still keeping a low profile, my father was gardening and I was on the point of blowing a fuse. Weekend duty consists of simply keeping a mobile phone on and responding to emergency calls. I was surprised to find the office unlocked.

It’s no more than two rooms at the back of the disused mental hospital: now a filing cabinet for NHS administrators. Gaggles of speech therapists and accountants are scattered around in little pockets. We all come and go with passkeys around an elderly and irritable security guard. St Giles only consists of three of us. Jenny, who deals mostly with the older clients, and with finding employment; Ryan, who is the founder of the St Giles project, and who has the qualifications to deal with the many addiction cases we get- he also tends to be very good with the few we get who have some degree of mental illness- and me. I tend to deal mostly with the younger clients, and with juggling residential placements. We all take emergency calls, but after that, cases tend to be distributed to the most appropriate person. Steve had been one of mine from the start.
I found Ryan in the main office, his khaki green anorak zipped up to the neck, his hands deep in his pockets, and he was sitting slouched in front of Dean Ritter, who ranks somewhere between Herod and the Spanish Inquisition. He is the money-man, the head of funding for St Giles, and unfortunately, on the senior management of social services. He isn’t popular with any of us. Jenny turns to ice at the sight of him and Ryan I could see was losing patience. He looked round to me in some relief. Ritter’s face registered something closer to oh damn, here’s another one. What the hell he was doing here on a Saturday was anyone’s guess.

“Mr Ritter has come to sympathise with us over Steven’s death.” Ryan told me before I said anything tactless. “He’s also come to remove the files that might implicate social services in any responsibility, and to look at the funding invested in Steven. It’s quite lucky I dropped by.”

“Would it really hurt you to call me Dean?” Ritter said pacifically.

Ryan gave him a wry look from behind dark hair and a darker moustache. “Yes Mr Ritter, I think it might.”

“Steve was on my caseload,” I informed Ritter. “And his death won’t make much difference to the funding. We’re all working way over our limits anyway.”

Ritter sat on the edge of the desk and opened his briefcase. “So it has been noted. I have the figures here for the cases taken by St Giles from the emergency lines-“

“The kids who ring in on those lines need as much if not more than the kids on our permanent books.” Ryan said, glancing at me. He didn’t have to ask for backup; Jenny and I felt just as passionately as he did.

“The problem is,” Ritter said, running a finger down the figures, “The project is already running well over budget.”

“Because we have more kids than we can handle.” Ryan protested. Ritter shrugged.

“It does seem to me that if you stuck to your books-“

“The kids who ring in are desperate.”

“Theoretically, St Giles should only be used for clients referred by social services or by the emergency services – and they really should operate through social services.”

“The referrals and the paperwork can take months.” Ryan rifled through a drawer and dropped a file on the desk. “Look. I had a kid ring in last night. Seventeen, no where to go, no possibility of returning home. He’s at the end of his tether. He’ll take a job, he’ll hold onto it and he’ll sort himself out if we support him now. If he waits two months for social services to put him on our lists, God knows what’ll happen to him. The least of it will probably be the means he has to use to survive those two months. Do you have any idea what these kids do when they’re cold and depressed and desperate for cash?”

Ritter sat down at the desk and steepled his hands. He has rather a rat-like face; it doesn’t add to his attractiveness. “The St Giles’ mission statement is based on rehabilitation. The purpose of the project was never to provide stop gap emergency measures. The aim was to provide the counselling and funding to see clients off the streets for good. Education, employment, long term placements, with St Giles supporting them for a year or more if necessary.”

Ryan took a deep, careful breath. “Mr. Ritter. We have a huge- and increasing- volume of emergency calls each month, which we’ve never felt we can turn down, simply because in this town, there is no other agency to help them. And the turn over of clients on our books is too slow to admit new clients fast enough. We desperately need more funding, I’ve got sufficient work here for two more full time workers!”

“Mr. Bennett we’ve had this conversation and you know the answer.”

“If we’re taking work off social services’ hands,” I argued, “Surely the funding can come from them.”

“I hardly think St Giles is compatible with social services, since only one of you holds a social work qualification.” Ritter said nastily. Ryan glared at him. Actually, he was right: Jenny and I drifted into this field on Ryan’s invitation, without being formally qualified for it.

“I’m very proud of my staff,” Ryan said grimly, “And they are both professionals with talents and values that make them perfectly qualified for the work they do. I know the clients think so.”

Ritter shrugged his shoulders. “Nevertheless, there is no money I can transfer between budgets to you. The only alternative I can suggest is that you close down your emergency lines and concentrate your resources on the clients you already have.”

“I’ve got one more alternative,” I said, losing my temper. “Stop social services treating us like a dumping ground! We’ve got books full of time wasters who have been referred to us, not because we can help, but because no one else knows what to do with them! Look at Steve! He went through four placements; he left all of them within two weeks. He never had any intention of staying anywhere, or taking on work-“

“He needed the stop-gap help as desperately.” Ryan put in. Ryan and I never saw quite eye to eye on this. He had tolerance long after my patience was gone. In the early days he’d been the one who encouraged me to go back to the clients again and again, to learn to see past defences and abuse to the fears underneath. He had an incredible caring for each and every teenager on our books; he knew them all by name.

“But when we’ve got kids ringing in, genuinely desperate for help, who would take any one of those placements and make it work-“ I argued, “We’ve got several cases like Steve on our list and they’re all social services referrals.”

“The point of St Giles is to rehabilitate those clients exactly like Steven Price,” Ritter pointed out.

“There are a lot of people you can’t teach and you can’t change.” I pointed out. “Social services refer to us at random- we get the kids no one else knows what to do with, and a certain percentage of those are no-hopers. We shouldn’t be hanging onto these kids and wasting resources on them when we’re constantly trying to fit in emergencies who need those opportunities and would make the most of them! Do you know who I was with yesterday? The kid at Rainbows?”

“Melanie.” Ryan said reluctantly.

“Sixteen.” I told Ritter. “Pregnant again. We organised an abortion on her request six months ago. She’s now in the process of blowing her third placement.”

“She needs support as much as anyone else, if not more.” Ryan muttered. I snorted.

“I’m not arguing that. What I’m saying is that our brief doesn’t meet her needs. I don’t know what to do for her, what I can offer isn’t right for her, and to be brutally honest, I know she’s wasting funding on chances she isn’t going to take. She ought to be handed back to social services and her place given to someone else.”

“You’re talking about selective admission.” Ritter said accusingly. I nodded shortly.

“Yes. No referrals dropped on us because social services are fed up with them, or haven’t got the resources. And we need criteria for handing back kids who don’t respond to our provision. Then we’d have time and money free for stop-gapping the emergency cases.”

“I can’t allow that.” Ritter said decisively. “On the sheer grounds of equal opportunities.”

“Social services are still there,” I argued, “We’re set up for the kids who can be got off the social services lists for good. We have got to stick to clients who actually want to be helped.”

“You’ve fought with a lot of your cases,” Ryan said gently, “A lot of your successes have abandoned placements-“

“Yes, so have yours,” I said at once, “But you knew from the start whether or not that kid was a genuine customer.”

“I’m afraid the basic fact is that I can’t permit any discriminatory provision, and I have no more money to allocate to you!” Ritter said exasperatedly. “I can’t give you what I don’t have!”

Ryan’s look appealed to me not to argue. I did as I was asked, knowing that while he was forced to be polite to Ritter, he understood. Ryan has the gift and the insight. The most confused, the most damaged, the most desperate clients we see are all attached to him. He often uses his own time to go to the haunts where they are, and he’ll go again and again until gradually they talk to him. It’s how he deals with the genuine emergencies; few of Ryan’s caseload are permanent placement cases. He has the experience and the nerve to argue with Ritter, where I flounder in logic and red tape.

“I do know how you feel.” He told me when Ritter finally left.  “Jenny gets just as frustrated, but I’ve worked in social services, I know the system. They’re not incompetent and they’re not uncaring; they’re just so snarled up in red tape and low budgets that they can’t move. It’s why I wanted St Giles to be a separate agency. So we’d be free to actually do something useful.”

“If we had a way to unload the kids we know we can’t help,” I said, “We’d free up ten to fifteen places tomorrow.”

“If you hand kids like Melanie or Steve back to social services, you’re throwing them to the lions.” Ryan gave me a wry smile and put Steven’s file away. “I’ve seen small children stuck into adult care homes because it was the cheapest bed available. I’ve seen girls like Melanie in mildewed flats, alone, with nothing but two weekly visits from an overstretched worker. At least with us, she’s safe. She might not take any of the chances we offer, but at least I know I know you’re doing everything you can for her.”

“What about this kid of yours? The one who called in?”

“I’ll meet him after I’ve finished here,” Ryan said simply. “I’ll see what I can do for him while we wait for a place.”

“That isn’t good enough.” I said furiously. “You shouldn’t have to use your own time and money to do your job, we ought to take this to the papers!”

“I wish I was still young enough to see everything in black and white.” Ryan said wryly.
He slid backwards to pick the phone up as it rang. He took a pen and scribbled a few lines, murmuring answers, then put the receiver down and got to his feet.

“One of our lot at the bus station, about to be arrested for public nuisance. Can I please get over there and get rid of him before the police have to take action.”

“Who is it?”

“From the description, anyone.”

“I’ll go.” I took the paper from his hand. “You sort this kid of yours out.”

“What are you doing here on a Saturday anyway?” Ryan demanded as I left. I grimaced at him.

“Avoiding the parents.”

He grinned. He’s met my mother.

The coach station was heaving. I hate crowds. People barging around you, doors knocking against your wheels and against your hands so you move about an inch at a time. Singing attracted me to the far end of the hall. A six foot two boy was lying full length on a bench and smoking between lyrics. I knew of him, I’d seen him once or twice before and from the glowering of one of the station staff hovering near him; he was the nuisance in question. Craig Mac something. He was one of Ryan’s caseload. I fumbled through my pockets for ID and waited until he looked round to me. Heavy eyed, very pale and unsteady. “What do you want?”

“I’m from St Giles. Are you all right?”

He pushed to his feet, staggered a little, and set off towards the far exit. I followed him at a distance, not hassling him, just waiting. He wandered around the phone box at the end for a while, then sat down on another bench. Other coach passengers looked at him and hastily removed themselves.

“Are you allright?” I asked him again. He lay down full length on the bench.

“The police called.” I said mildly. “You’re likely to get thrown out of here.”

“For what?”

“Threatening behaviour.”

“Who are you?”

“Joss.” He was skulled, I could see his eyes jumping.

“Where’s Ryan?”

“Want me to call him?”

Craig had been a good-looking boy when I’d last seen him. Now the heroin was really starting to show. He looked like a walking skeleton. I dropped a hand on his shoulder, hoping I could get him out of here without a scene. “Come on. I’ll drop you by the office and call Ryan.”

“I’m not going anywhere. Going to Birmingham .”

“Got the cash?”

He swore at me. The security guard was looking edgy. I pulled Craig to his feet.

“Come on. I’ll give you a lift.”

“I feel like shit, do you know that? Do you know what that feels like?”

He let me help him, subconsciously pushing closer to me for warmth.  He came eight or nine feet placidly towards the door, then felt the rain against his face outside and reared back like an escaping elephant. I grabbed him in time to stop him falling. He drew himself up, and while I saw the swing coming and caught his fist on the way past, I wasn’t quick enough to push it away from my face. For a minute I saw stars. Then I grabbed his wrist and twisted his arm up behind his back, firmly enough to make him wince. The security guard’s eyes were growing panicky behind the glass.

“Now listen.” I said in Craig’s ear. “We’re not going to hurt each other, are we?”

“Get off me you bastard.”

“Get in the car and shut up. Try that again and I’ll drown you in the nearest puddle.”

“I’m not being pushed around by a cripple. Not afraid to hit a cripple.”

“And the crip isn’t afraid to hit you either.” I jerked my head at the car. “That way.”


Hugh was sitting on the front step with a mug of tea between his hands and his car in pieces. It’s an ongoing project. He loves engines, not flashy exteriors; he drives a battered MG which he’s taken apart and rebuilt, cannibalised and resuscitated week by week since I’ve known him. My father’s car was gone.

“Did you have to talk to them?” I demanded out of my window, parking behind the MG.

“Only to tell your father to get that junk heap serviced. Quick.” He sipped tea, elbows on his gangly knees, and smiled at me. “What kept you?”

“Ritter was at the office, having a row with Ryan.”

“Did he hit you?” Hugh said dryly. I pulled my chair out from behind the driver’s seat and transferred across. The wing mirror served: Craig had caught me across the cheek, there was a good graze.

“Addict. High as a kite.”

“Was he a client, or just someone you passed and fancied?”

“It was a call out, thank you.” I leaned down to kiss him as I passed. His dark hair was warm from the wintry sun and I pushed it out of his eyes, making a mental note to pester him into getting it cut.

“The police called for you,” Hugh said as an afterthought. “Something about what Steve Price was carrying? Some drug or another, I don’t remember the name.”

“Steve wasn’t an addict,” I said in surprise.

“They said he had a pocket full.” Hugh twisted on the doorstep to see me. “Elite. That was it. Some bizarre name.”

Continue to Part 2 of In the Company of Strangers

Copyright Ranger 2010

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