Tuesday, February 16, 2010

In the Company of Strangers Part 4


I  expected something of an earful from Hugh, but apart from a few pointed comments on what I could do the next time I suggested hitting Rivo’s for the evening, he didn’t say much. I followed him across the town centre towards the Dolphin and by the time we got there, we were side by side and more or less on speaking terms. The Dolphin was half-empty as usual mid week, and the music was quiet enough to talk through. We found a table near the back- no one having decided I was a fire hazard- and Hugh surveyed me from behind his pint. He doesn’t drink that often - it was clear tonight I'd driven him to it.

“What’s all this about the Elite?”

I told him what Melanie had said. “And what’s more,” I added, “Craig got himself picked up by us soon after Steve’s death.”

“He was picked up because he was about to be arrested.”

“If you wanted to be picked up as an emergency, what would you do?” I demanded. “Ask nicely or make damn sure someone turns up and does something about you? Craig knew one of us would find him somewhere to go.”

“So Craig knew Steve had a pocket full of Elite,” Hugh said mildly. “What are you worried about? Craig getting implicated?”

“And others.” I rolled my glass between my hands, watching the lager slosh. “Craig could well be in trouble if there’s an organised gang pushing this. The more dealers, the more variant in price. It becomes a competitive market.”

“You don’t know he’s at any risk,” Hugh said frankly. “All this hangs on the words of a kid who isn’t sure what day it is. Let the police worry about it.”

“You saw the reaction of those kids outside the club,” I argued.

He gave me a patient look. “Joss, they were pissed, and you were asking a lot of questions. They probably thought we were police.”

“Why has Adair picked them up then?”

“Because he wants to know about this Elite. They’re investigating a new drug. It’s their job. Leave it.”

I glared at the table. Hugh leaned across and got hold of my hand, gripping when I pulled to escape. “This isn’t going to make you feel any better about Steve’s death. It wasn’t your fault, it was an accident. You did the best you could. Let it go.”

Ritter came to the Friday morning staff meeting, which was held in an atmosphere of cordial loathing. He already had a referral to fill Steve’s place. I came direct from seeing Melanie formally charged by the magistrate and arrived in mid row.

Jenny rolled her eyes at me. Ryan broke off arguing.


“She’s in court in three weeks.” I dumped the file on the desk. “All I can do is keep trying with the foster placement and show the court she’s better supported. And contained.”

“We’ve tried that before,” Jenny pointed out. “No money to get her into a fostering programme unless we buy in from social services, and that’s a big investment from our budget.”

“My point exactly,” I told Ritter. “How many placements like that can we afford on our hands? We’re not funded for kids with this sort of need.”

“Social services are no wealthier,” Ritter said shortly. I smiled sweetly at him.

“We have seventy permanent cases on file at the moment between three of us. Ryan? Realistically. How long will Mel Keen stay at a foster home? Is she going to hold onto this baby? What will she be doing in a year’s time?”

“Hopefully,” Ryan began. Jenny stubbed out her cigarette.

“Hopefully. How many rang in on the emergency lines yesterday? Three? You’re still trying to find the time and places for this kid who came in last week. I’ve got no work placements for him. No money for him. He’s desperate not to go back into care, I’ve seen him. He’ll take work, he’ll take any chance he’s given, it’s criminal to turn him down and waste yet more money on Melanie Keen!”

“She’s had the equivalent of several thousand spent on her already,” I added. “It’s immoral to waste any more. She’s not a suitable client for this project!”

“The agreement was that you took the emergency cases around the referred cases- when you had the space and the time.” Ritter said grimly, “If you can’t do that, then the emergency line will have to be shut down.”

“We already take most of the emergencies as unpaid over time!” Jenny spat.

“We can’t prioritise emergency calls over social services referrals.” Ritter got up, pulling his coat on. “The St. Giles project is a facility for the town council and will be used as the town needs. I must warn you, I can see the council closing down the emergency line when they see this year’s accounts; it’s an expensive extra -“

“It’s a lifeline,” Ryan said sharply. “You have no concept of how terrible things can get for a kid with nowhere to go-“

“We have seventy such youngsters on the St. Giles caseload, being funded and supported,” Ritter said calmly. “I’m afraid you must be content with providing a good service to them, we can none of us expect to be miracle workers. However I will pass your concerns on at the next senior staff meeting.”

“I bet he will,” Jenny said as the door shut behind him. Ryan slowly leaned on the table, shoulders hunched. He was an idealist: a gentle man with a genuine love for people and the vision to keep this crusade afloat but recently I could see him beginning to run out of steam. The world was full of Ritters and their barracking.

I put a hand on his back. “What can we do for this kid?”

“He’s staying with me.” With an almighty effort, Ryan pulled himself up off the table and yanked his coat on. “I’ll try a YTS residential project. He’s bright. In the right place he’d be taken into more serious employment fast.”

“I’ve got some more bad news,” I said apologetically. “I’m sorry. It’s Craig. Mel told me he was with her at Rivo’s on Wednesday night.” I didn’t tell him the rest.

“He’s jumped,” said Jenny. “What a surprise.”

It took Ryan a minute to answer. Eventually he sighed, straightened up and picked up his keys. “Well we tried. I take your point, both of you. That was his last chance. It was his choice; I suppose there’s nothing else we can do for him.”

Lucifer woke us on Saturday morning by pacing up and down the bed and yowling. Hugh stirred against my chest. He was spooned back against me and he mumbled in protest when I moved away. I have little interest in the lower half of my body: there's no sensation, it’s just there. Dead weight. Hugh has no such hang ups. He likes to feel me against him from head to foot, although he’s somewhat longer than I am. He rolled over and buried himself in my arms, blocking my escape this morning. It takes him a long time to wake up. I held him, stroking his back, running my fingertips up and down his spine, which makes him twitch, until he dragged himself awake enough to capture my hands. The struggle threw Lucifer off the bed and on to the floor with a disgruntled thump. He moaned under the bed while we had the usual weekend argument over which of us got up, fed him and made breakfast. Eventually Hugh staggered into the kitchen and returned with tea, the biscuit tin and the mail, without ever really having opened his eyes. I opened the biscuit tin and grimaced at the contents.

“What are those?"

He took one of the oatmeal type things from me. “I like them.”

“They're entirely flavourless.”

“You won’t cook and you won’t go into supermarkets,” Hugh said tranquilly. “If you want something different, you do the shopping.”

“Dream on.”

He grinned and opened the single letter. And turned it for me to see. The estate agent logo headed the page. I put my mug down to take it from him.

“Two bedroomed, ground floor flat in Brinkley.”

“Not much more of a drive to work than from here, for either of us.” Hugh put an arm around me and pulled me down so he could read over my shoulder. “One level, open plan-“

And in our price bracket. I looked at the picture on the back. “In the middle of nowhere.”
“Converted stable block, one of four flats. Shall we have a look?”

“I’ll ring them this morning.” I folded the paper and put it on the bedside table. We’d been looking vaguely at houses for about a month, restricted by the fact it had to be ground floor and wheelchair accessible. Hugh moved in with me when we decided to co habit- for a start he lived up two flights of stairs, and secondly it was less traumatic for my parents.

“What about your job?” I reminded him. “You said you’d start looking for something new.”

“It’s near enough to the motorway; I’ve got plenty of room to look in. And it’s several miles further away from your mother. Have you told her yet we’re looking at houses?”

“Do you think I’m mad?” I swatted his rump as he got out of bed. “I’ll send her a postcard a month or two after we’ve moved.”

I did the basic range of exercises lying on the bed while he shaved. I can’t always be bothered, but I do notice the difference if I miss a few days. Hugh came back, half-dressed and immaculate, and gave me one of his reticent looks.

“Can I help?”

I was trying, unsuccessfully, to open out the stiff hip.

“I’m supposed to be able to do this.”

He dropped the towel he was holding and knelt on the bed. “What do I do?”

“It’s all right.” I rolled away from him and reached for my clothes. He sat and watched me dress, lying flat on the bed. “Do you think you’re getting stiffer?”

“I’m not going to worry about it,” I told him. “All medics are scaremongers. My father threatened all sorts of things when I stopped walking- tendons contracting, bones getting brittle, my blood pressure would go wrong, my kidneys would pack up- it’s been years now and I’m still fine.”

“Why did you give up walking?” Hugh asked curiously. I shrugged.

“Too slow, boring and exhausting. Have you any idea how much callipers weigh? I’m a mid-chest level paraplegic. Non-viable walker. It’s in my contract.”

I’d seen it in my medical notes, years before the physios at school began to gently prepare me for the fact that walking was going to be ‘therapeutic’ only. I can remember passage of time not by my age but by the names of physiotherapists. Sarah and Lucy, who were the school physios. Jason, who joined the school physio team when I was fifteen, and who spent two months doing weekly hydrotherapy with me following the major back surgery. Young, strong and devastatingly handsome, incredibly gentle in the water where he handled me as if I would break in his hands- he was my first serious crush. Margaret, whom I hated, and at the age of five, bit to the bone.

The phone shrilled. Hugh paused, half way to his feet. “You’re not on duty this weekend, are you?"

“No, Ryan is.”

I transferred across to my chair and followed him into the kitchen. He glanced across at me and rolled his eyes. “- I’ll tell him. Yes, Claire.”

I groaned. Hugh hung the phone back on the hook. “Letter for you over there and you’d better collect it pronto if not sooner. It’s on the way to Brinkley.”

I let us in when no one answered the door. Hugh trailed me down the hall, pausing in front of the portrait photograph of me aged eight or nine that he hates, on the grounds that I look like I’m in front of a firing squad. The house was, as usual, immaculate, polished and dust free.

“What is this thing your mother has with dried flowers?” Hugh said under his breath. I skirted them with the ease of long practise.

“It’s a hobby.”

“I think it’s a control thing. She organises and rearranges them, colour co ordinates them, moves them around the house- no wonder your father hides in the garden.”

“He smokes in the garden.” I corrected.

“Darling don’t bring your chair in here, you know what it does to the carpet.” My mother called from the sitting room.

“Levitate,” Hugh said under his breath.

More used to my mother, I repaired to the kitchen. She can just about stand the tyres on the tiled floors. Mother kissed me on her way past and gave Hugh her usual and who are you? look.

We behaved properly while we drank the compulsory cup of tea and mother talked me through the relatives. Hugh has never got his head around my home and family. His own are nice, tolerant and normal people- with the result that he can't deal with us at all and he’s very wary of my mother.

The letter was in a plain envelope and addressed to me. Mother refilled Hugh’s cup and watched me rip it open. “It looks like your six monthly scan. Your father was saying yesterday you were due for an appointment.”

“The consultant’s a bastard.”

“You need it done.”

“Yes, mother.”

Two sheets of paper. One of which was headed with the estate agent logo. Hugh caught my eye and flinched. It was advertising: the standard blurb sent out to anyone on their mailing lists. They must have swiped this address off our application forms. Mother peered at the heading before I could hide it.

“What’s that? Are you looking for a house, Hugh?”

Hugh and I looked at each other. I took a deep breath.

“Actually, we both are. Looking together, that is.”

Silence. She looked at the paper in disbelief. “Where?”

Mutely, Hugh took the sheet on the Brinkley house out of his pocket and handed it over. My mother scanned it, then folded it, face calming. "This house isn’t even converted. It’s miles away from us- darling, this is out of the question.”

When I was a kid, they were all for independence. Moving, walking, dressing, you name it, they were all for me learning to do everything I could for myself. Then I got into my teens and got a little bit too independent. Once I learned to drive, got the car and I was going out- without them- without them knowing exactly where I was going- I WAS twenty- they really started to get panicky. We had huge fights when I wanted to move out. I tried it briefly while I was at University, living in halls, but I got a major kidney infection the first winter there and had to move back home. They took that as proof that I was only safe under their eye. When I finally pushed the issue and left, I had one or both of them in the house at least once a day and there were constant phone calls. It took ages before they calmed down and recently they’d been quite laid back. Now I’d started the whole problem off again with a vengeance.

We left amidst threats of what would happen when my father heard about all this. I could imagine: he’s worse than my mother.

Hugh drove about a mile out of the town, pulled into a lay-by and put a hand on my knee.

“Are you okay?”

“I told you it was a dire mistake living with me,” I said grimly.

“No it wasn’t.” Hugh pulled me closer, shaking me gently. “They’re protective, I can understand why- you’re their only child for a start.”

I folded my arms, not trusting myself. This was mired ground. I’d told myself long ago that Hugh would never be dragged into all this. The rows, the bickering, the pathos my parents could turn on and off at will: it was hell and I didn’t want him involved.

The flat at Brinkley, was unfortunately perfect.

It poured with rain all afternoon. Hugh took the phone off the hook and we curled up in front of the worst film we could find. By mutual agreement we didn’t talk about the flat. About ten pm Hugh lifted his head off my chest and turned the TV down.

“Is that your phone?”

“No,” I said hopefully. He rolled off me and found my mobile in my coat pocket. I caught it as he threw it across and unwillingly pulled the aerial up.


Hugh sat on the arm of the sofa and his fingers trickled distractingly down my neck.

“Joss, it’s Ryan. Brace yourself.”

“What?” I fended Hugh off, warned by Ryan’s tone.

“The police just called me. Melanie did a runner from Rainbows last night-“

“Oh God.”

“Joss, I’m sorry mate, she’s been found dead.”

The shock was physical. I felt the blow to my stomach, a jump of adrenaline.

“How?” I demanded. “What the hell happened?”

“Hit and run.” Ryan sounded tired and dispassionate. “Up by the Mayfair roundabout.”

“You are kidding me.”

“I wish I was. She was still breathing when they got an ambulance to her, but she didn’t make it to the hospital. DOA. And the baby.”

“Christ.” I ran a hand through my hair trying not to think of the baby. At barely five months gestation, even if it had survived the crash, a medical team would be unlikely to think it a viable patient.

“Where are you? Do you want me to come out?”

“What can you do? I’m at the office, the police want Melanie’s file. After that I’m going home. I just thought you’d want to know.”


“I’m sorry. Sorry it was another one of yours.”

He sounded pretty shocky himself. Hugh looked anxious. I folded the aerial down, numbed. “Another kid killed. Hit and run.”

The phone rang again in the early hours of the morning. I recognised the voice when I woke up enough to answer it. Hugh buried himself deeper under the duvet, very asleep.


“Adair.” I turned up the alarm clock. “It’s three am .”

“I was called out of bed myself.” He didn’t sound in the least apologetic. “I couldn’t get hold of your duty worker-“

“It’s Ryan, I can give you his mobile number.”

“He’s at the hospital with another one of your kids.”

“Melanie?” I said, confused.

“A Craig someone? I was called out an hour ago, this is the third hit and run on a St. Giles kid in ten days-“

“Craig was hit as well?”

Adair sounded impatient.

“That’s what I’m telling you. The Keen girl at eight pm , Craig McDonnell at twelve-thirty am. Under the circumstances we need the girl ID’d straight away-“

Three? Three of them? This was impossible, and all I could think of, stupidly, was the duty roster.

“I’m off duty tomorrow.”

“I meant now.”

At three in the morning? Adair’s voice sharpened.

“You may need your sleep Milliner, but three of your kids are dead, same M.O. to each death, and McDonnell was found with the same dope on him that the Price kid had. I need the girl ID’d as one of yours right now before I can start putting wheels in motion- unless you want to wait for a few more clients to turn up dead?”


Hugh was used to me vanishing in the night when I was on duty. He barely woke when I dressed and slipped out. Adair was pacing up and down in the back bay of the hospital. He led me down several sloped corridors, into a lift and down numerous floors. The morgue looked nothing like they do on TV dramas. The whole thing was grim, cold and detachedly unpleasant. Melanie was very white, very still, and there was a huge blue mark marring her face from temple to lip.

“The car hit her at quite a speed,” Adair said shortly. “Hit her straight on- either she stepped right in front of it, or it was running straight at her.”

“You hear all sorts of things about kids joyriding,” I said numbly.

“Sure. But three hit and run deaths start to look suspicious. First thing in the morning we’ll pick up the HGV driver that killed Price. Is this Melanie Keen?”


Strangely, I felt very little for Melanie. Actually, in that setting, I don’t think I really believed it was Melanie. It was her body, but the whole situation was too surreal.

“How’s Craig?” I asked in the lift on the way back up. Adair sniffed.

“Critical. There’s police around in case he comes to- your colleague’s sitting with him.”


“Looks like a hippie. Green flak jacket.”


“He’s taking all this very seriously.”

“He got the St Giles project off the ground.” I said grimly. “He fights for the funding. He employed Jenny and me- believe me, not many leaders of a project like this are prepared to take on someone in a wheelchair. He took quite a risk on me.”

“What is the aim of the project?” Adair trailed me along more hospital corridors.

“I thought you read the brief. To get kids off the street for good. Permanent placement, education, employment. Support to stay afloat.”

“Long term commitment.”

I grunted. “It doesn’t work like that in practise.”

“It’s two projects isn’t it? The emergencies and the long term cases?”

“We haven’t got the funding to handle both.”

“Well you’ve got a place free now.” Adair said acidically.  “What about McDonnell? I saw his file; he’s from Sheffield isn’t he? What’s he doing this far south?”

“Staying away from the Sheffield police.”


“For years.”

“I thought St. Giles funded him for God knows how many rehab programmes?”

“And it’s that easy isn’t it?” I demanded. “Two weeks in rehab and the good fairy waves her magic wand. “

“I see a lot of people,” Adair said dryly, “I can tell you now-“

“Don’t bother.”

Ryan was sitting in intensive care beside Craig, who was stripped and lying under a sea of tubes and wires. Ryan turned his head towards me, eyes expressionless. He’s naturally pale, like Hugh. Celt colouring. His eyes were ringed in black and his bones looked sharp in his face. I gave him a helpless, faint smile. “How is he doing?”

“Not good,” Ryan said simply.

I wanted to hug him or do something to comfort him, but I knew the rigidity of his shoulders. He was containing himself; he wouldn’t want to be touched. Craig was one of Ryan’s clients in the way Steve had been one of mine: one of the ones Ryan had sweated blood over and devoted more than paid energy and effort to. When I left, Ryan put his hand over Craig’s with a look of grim tenderness on his face I’d seen before. Unlike Jenny and I, he had no one to go home to, which always surprised me slightly. He poured out so much caring on our clients I somehow expected him to need someone permanent to care for, a partner, children or even animals. I’d never quite made up my mind if Ryan was gay, but sometimes, when I saw that look, I was sure of it. He rang me during breakfast. Craig had died shortly after four am .

Continue on to Part 5 of In the Company of Strangers

Copyright Ranger 2010

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