‘Basically, Tara came back to the hostel tonight and blew a fifty four, which isn’t drastically over the limit – but still it’s over the limit, maybe one and a half times. So she’s scared that she’s broken the terms of her parole by drinking alcohol tonight – which she has, of course, technically – and she’s scared she may get sent back to prison. Which we don’t know, but still.’
‘What was her offence?’
‘GBH – landlady, child. ABH police.’
‘And what’s she done tonight? We’ve only been told she’s cut herself.’
‘She broke up a safety razor and used it on her arms and face. Nothing too serious, I think – but a couple of quite deep wounds that might need attention. She’s calm at the moment. A couple of members of staff are sitting with her. I don’t think she’s a threat any more.’
‘Have you called the police?’
‘Well, we didn’t really want to. We thought it might inflame things. We thought we’d take advice first from you first.’
‘And will you be able to spare a member of staff to come down to the hospital with Tara? If she’s this volatile she’ll need supervision at A&E.’
‘Oh. Um. Maybe.’
Sheila, the female hostel worker, folds her arms and exchanges a look with a colleague standing over by the office fire door. Of the two he is the calmest, sipping from a mug of tea and studying the CCTV. Sheila seems brittle, as if the padding of a generous disposition had been chiselled, thinned out by experiences such as this.
‘Let’s go up and see how she’s getting on, then.’
She leads us up a steep and narrow staircase that branches off through a network of small landings and fire doors. This tall Edwardian town house has been converted into a probation hostel, with anti-slip marmoleum treads and strips, fire extinguishers and exit signs, notices and rules. But to counteract the expedient institutional feel, the staff have put up motivational posters: we pass one that shows the silhouettes of two climbers at the peak of a mountain at sunset, the highest one reaching a hand down to help his mate. The tagline is: You can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed.
Sheila knocks on room number nine, and we go inside.
Tara is sitting on an unmade bed, intensely smoking a hand rolled cigarette. A male hostel worker sits opposite her with his arms crossed and resting on the back of a reversed plastic chair. Tara’s left arm is wrapped around with a bloodied white towel, she has a stripe of blood on her right cheek, and her right arm is bloodied, too. It looks as if she is struggling to keep the cigarette going; her fingers are too damp with blood.
‘Hello Tara. My name’s Spence and this is Rae. What’s happened tonight?’
She stares at us for a second or two, then looks away, tries to drop the cigarette in a yoghurt pot but it’s stuck to her fingers.
‘I’m not going to prison again.’
‘Can we have a look at your arms and see if any of these wounds need hospital treatment?’
‘Do what you like.’
We’ve been told that Tara is twenty years old, and she certainly looks it in her physical self, being a tall and thickset woman with powerful arms and hands. But her face seems curiously juvenile, utterly without mark or experience. In fact, the only visible sign of distress in or on her face is the cut she put there with the razor – and in her eyes, which continue to stare disconnectedly at the mess she seems to have found herself in.
Her arm is unwrapped now. She has carved the word HOME along the soft underside of her forearm. After the letter E she has swiped her arm across – a vicious underscore – laying it open to the muscle. The other arm has a series of swipes, nothing so deep. Maybe she practised on that arm first.
‘These are quite serious wounds, Tara. You’ll need to come up to hospital to have them stitched, I’m afraid.’ I go to my bag to fetch out a couple of bandages and a sachet of sterile water.
‘I’m not going back to prison,’ she says. There is no change to her voice or her facial expression, but the male hostel worker watching from the plastic chair – acutely, like a fisherman on a riverbank watching his float – straightens and unfolds his arms. Tara stands up.
‘Calm down, Tara,’ he says, ‘Take it easy.’
Suddenly she reaches over to a cluttered bedside table and grabs an orange safety razor hidden amongst the scrunched and bloody tissues there. She puts it in her mouth, bites the plastic guards away at the top, and then plucks out a shard of blade. She drops the plastic handle and holds the blade fragment to the side of her neck.
This could only have taken a fraction of a second, and the pause that follows only a breath or two more, but the silence seems to fill the room without end.
‘Come on, Tara. We’re only here to help,’ I manage to say. I’m holding the half-opened bandage and sachet of water, and it feels like some utterly lame demonstration of intent.
‘Put the blade down, Tara. This is not helping.’
The cool hostel worker from the office downstairs is standing by the door. He is as neutral as Tara. ‘This is not what you want.’
Tara looks at him, at us.
‘Tell me something beautiful or I kill myself,’ she says.
The silence that follows is deeper and more deafening than the first.
Later, in the ambulance, and then in my car on the way home, I try to think of all the things that are beautiful to me. And though I don’t know Tara, all the things that I think of first – images of family, homey things, feelings of love and connection – these are all things that Tara seemed violently removed from. And though it hurts me to replay that scene, to consider the fact that when I was called upon to make some meaningful statement, I hesitated, and joined my mute silence to everyone else’s, when I put myself back in that room the only reassurance I can manage for myself is the thought that if I’d mentioned any of these beautiful things I might well have only intensified her despair.
At last Sheila says: ‘We all care about you, Tara. We want you to be well.’
For the first time Tara flames with purpose.
‘Get out of this room or I cut my throat,’ she shouts. ‘Get out!’
The police are called; half a dozen turn up within minutes. One of them accidentally knocks the mountaineering picture off its hook with his riot shield as he goes up the stairs. After half an hour of patient negotiation, a policewoman persuades Tara to open the door and submit peacefully to an examination. When we are invited back in, Tara is sitting back down on the bed, her elbows strapped behind her back. She doesn’t look up.