Guardian angels, in the skin

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There’s much in my real life which I’d like to write about, but which for various reasons I can’t. There are stories developing which could end well or otherwise, and there are others with endings very much open. There are concerns for the health of at least one relative, and many other people’s situations I’m helping in. One story I can now tell, could have gone very badly, and it’s only just beginning.

Dark Angel

Like so many of the young people I’m still in touch with, I met Courtney when I was homeless. I met most of the others while I sat writing in McDonald’s, or later, when I’d established the squat (in an old commercial premises). An initial ‘No minors’ policy in my temporary hermit’s home quickly fell apart, when first one teenager found it and others inevitably followed. In time it became a peaceful anarchy of lost boys and young suffragettes.

My main fear was preconditioned perceptions. Although everyone at the squat was respectful of the neighbours, young girls visiting an older guy is bound to get the thought police thinking wrongly. So began on ongoing battle with the plastic police and defective detectives, who would jump to conclusions and assume that my conduct was inappropriate, despite never enquiring to find out. On any given day, I’d be camped out on a mattress somewhere, with sometimes half a dozen schoolgirls sitting with me. It would be wrong to envy me, for all I heard from those troubled young minds.

If those judges unfit for purpose had attended some sort of anti-kangaroo court, they might have learned the truth. They’d learn little though, as most of what was discussed was intensely private. Those young people (and they were mainly girls) mostly had complex backgrounds and many were without an older guardian, or frightened of the ones they had. To them, I might have been some radical, travelling, free-spirited writer, but most of all, I became an older wise friend they could talk to outside of their peer group.

For me, it was something to do. Those young people gave me purpose and helping them out with words of advice was rewarding. Some of them are doing some amazing things now (a forensic science student, a budding equestrian…) For the most part, they told some fascinating and tragic stories, and I was always touched that they’d chosen to confide in me. And there were never any drugs.

This was all known to the real police, as the squat was just up the road from the nick: I’d been on the wrong side of them (and stayed there) when I’d stolen some food, and they knew where I lived by then. Every so often, a couple of PCSOs (Laura and Mary) or local plain clothes officers (John and another) would pop in after school, just to see who was there, and if they were all okay (many of the youngsters were known to the law as well).

At six o’clock their mummies and daddies wouldn’t come to pick them up, but they’d disperse into the evening and whatever waited at home for them. I really feared for some.

Courtney was at the squat too, but I’d met her before, initially on my first night out with Mike Skinner (on the streets). Her and two friends got talking to me, as I sat on a bench with my life in three Sports Direct bags at my feet. I lied that I had somewhere to stay that night, but had a vague hope a friend at the other end of town might help me out. So I walked two miles to the other end of Tonbridge, with three 15-year-old girls carrying my bags. I asked them to wait while I called at my friend’s door. As I’d actually expected, he couldn’t help out. So I let the girls know I’d be safe for the night, and they returned to their respective homes. For some reason, I later got a slap from Courtney, when she found out I’d lied to her. Even though she was a third my age, she was a protector (she’d lived on the streets before).

Courtney was reassurance that it was possible to be more displaced in life than I was, as most days she’d appear beside me in McDonald’s, either bunking off college or avoiding home. Eventually, she moved into the squat for a while. At the time, she was 16. We let the local police know where she was (they knew her very well), and there was an almost audible sigh of relief from the police station. Now it would be much easier to find a serial absconder from home.

Aged 16, a person isn’t legally obliged to return to an address (certain conditions aside), especially if it’s the same address they’re running away from. The police themselves agreed, that with me in the squat, it was the safest place for Courtney.

In the four years since, we’ve remained close friends, I’ve met many of hers, and they’ve become friends too. We’re siblings, in all but blood (but there’s been blood). We’ve been through a lot ourselves, and together. Long after we left the squat, when Courtney returned first home, then to various shelters, she’d still abscond when life got the better of her, and I was always first port of call for the police (If she wasn’t with me, the network of youngsters from the squat would help us find her). I still would be, but she’s an adult now in the eyes of the law.

When a girl with a history of drug use, and a criminal record as long as her medical one (she has depression and PTSD, and she’s on the ADHD, Asperger’s and other mental health spectra) falls pregnant, interested parties and agencies are inevitable, and so it’s been for the past several months.

Come the day of the birth, I wasn’t there. I know the girl well, but there are parts of some people I never wish to see. I’m sure there were a few people who were surprised when the baby’s skin tone ruled me out of any paternal role, but I’d only remained close to my friend because the father hadn’t.

A Child Protection Order had already been placed on the unborn baby, which naturally stressed an already highly-strung mum-to-be. There was a chance the child would be taken away soon after the birth. Courtney, her mum and her grandmother were very aware of this, as three generations gathered to welcome a fourth, possibly for only a short while. Then, like a rhino quite literally charging through a hospital (bull in a china shop is too clichéd and polite), an uninvited interloper blundered in.

By all accounts (three that I’ve heard), this “friend” ate some food, asked the relatives to leave, and let the medical staff know she was the mum’s best friend and godmother to the baby. Then she went home and posted a self-congratulatory photo proclaiming her godmotherliness on Facebook, expecting I-don’t-know-what. Social awareness and responsibility are as far removed from reality as social media twists some lives.

Far from adulation, a general sense of shock pervaded, among those aware of the insensitivity of the selfish gesture. Everyone else seemed aware that Courtney only wanted to be with close family in a very tense (and possibly temporary) situation, and that anyone else could jeopardise the whole thing. She’d previously said she might need a friend, but quickly realised that none were more important than family, even if hers could only be gathered fleetingly. The gravity of the matter didn’t trump the importance of self in one person’s blind ignorance. Even in the absence of a specific instruction to respect privacy, everyone else got it. If ever the blindly bungling, misguided excuse were to read this, perhaps it might provide some spectacles with which to see the bigger prevailing picture, better late than never. 

This invader hadn’t been the only one competing for attention and accolades as the day of the birth arrived, and the roles of godparents had been brought up many times, mainly by those who wanted to occupy the titles. Courtney herself had more pressing matters to attend to (having the baby and keeping it), so she’d made vague indications to a few persistent friends that they’d discuss it at a later date, perhaps when she found out if she was allowed to actually keep her own child.

So the announcement on social media of the Mr Ben godmother was wholly inappropriate and insensitive, to many people, not least of all the girl who then lay in hospital wondering if she’d even see her own daughter grow up. Now she was looking at Cleo (the baby) in someone else’s arms, while that person looked very pleased with themselves grinning out of Facebook. When it was pointed out to the would-be anti-fairy godmother that her conduct was in fact quite crass (it was as close as you could get to mental kidnap), she responded in self-defence, with yet more disregard for anyone’s feelings outside her own malfunctioning ones. There was never an apology, just prolonged self-flagellation in public.

For my part, I’d explained to my little sis that a godparent isn’t just a badge to be worn by the highest bidder, any more than a Christening should be used for personal gain. Courtney’s about as religious as me, so she gets that a Christening would be a waste of the church’s time, and that of those attending, obliged to dress up for a public display of infant torture as it has water splashed over its head. She’ll have a baby shower instead. But more importantly, choose any godparents wisely.

The godparents would be the ones Courtney needed most, for possibly a very long time, and not just in fair weather or for photo opportunities. Single parenting is difficult in any circumstances, but a mum with so many mental health issues and past problems is going to need help and support. While all those clamouring for selfish attention and entitlement crawled over Facebook, myself and a young friend of Courtney’s (a student midwife) were talking to various agencies, eventually ensuring that she kept Cleo. I helped with the phone calls and emails which eventually got mum and baby a placement in a joint dependence centre. All of this was done quietly by myself and “Charlton” (she’s named after a west London football club, but I’m from Catford), with no premature self-congratulatory posts on Facebook. The key was a letter I wrote.

As someone who’s always been in conflict with authority, Courtney doesn’t trust officialdom. It was a tough job, getting her to see that the various agencies wanted to help her, but that they had both her and Cleo’s welfare at heart. Even though I know she’s a decent person, I also know she’s prone to the odd wobble. She’s slapped me in the face and kicked me in the shins, simply because she gets frustrated. She can’t do that to many people, so she normally runs away. I just wait for her to fall apart, then pick up the pieces.

She eventually realised why everyone seemed to be against her (the courts, social services etc.): all they had to go on was what they’d seen: probation reports, a criminal record, drug use… That was all they knew, because they didn’t know the person, just the pieces of paper. A court hearing was pending Cleo’s birth, and whether Courtney kept her baby would be down to what was presented in court. So I wrote a letter of defence, a personal reference to counterbalance the case against my sister.

There was a lot in the letter (six pages of personal testament) but my closing statement was that I believed (as a friend) that Courtney would change, as soon as she had a reason. She wasn’t one who felt things should be earned, but give a homeless alcoholic a home, and he will sort the rest out with support around him. I used myself as an example of how someone’s life can be balanced, if they’re given something to live for. For me, it was a permanent home. For Courtney, it would be a baby. It was also a massive risk of a friendship, but one I knew would prevail, whatever happened.

I’ve had confirmation since, that it was this letter which helped Courtney into the mother and baby unit where she is now, when it would have been far easier at the time (this was Christmas) to simply place the baby into care. She’s halfway through that placement now, she’s proved me right and she’s vindicated my letter’s content. With Charlton and myself still helping out, the next step is to get her back home from Essex (it was the only place available then) and re-integrated with her own area (Kent), where dangers from the past could upset the balance if there’s no support. A combination of what all three of us have done means she’ll have her liberty back sooner than anyone might have thought.

Charlton and me have both been interviewed by social services and we’ve been asked to become Courtney’s family unit, for all upcoming meetings and hearings with various agencies, then for her ongoing life (and support). We’re recognised by the county council as being appropriate to the roles, and we’ve been asked to write life plans with Courtney, thereby committing ourselves to a judge.

Courtney asked us to be godparents. Auntie Steve and Uncle Charlton will help to bring Cleo up, and we’ll help our friend, as we always have, quietly and with no sense of entitlement. We’re not religious. We didn’t want for it, we didn’t need it, ask for it, or assume it. We earned it, by being ourselves.

Now they’re together, Courtney decided to get a tattoo for Cleo (on herself, not on the baby). She had a few stock quotes and poems in mind, but she thought something original would be more appropriate. So she asked a writer she knows to come up with something that had much personal sentiment besides the context of the words themselves.

The greatest love
grows inside
The strongest bond
my eternal pride

Cleo-Rose 18.12.17

With thanks to Courtney, who allowed part of her story to be told. All agency and authority references available on request for appropriate parties.