Two o’clock in the morning and the entrance to the residential home for troubled teenagers is all lit up. I buzz the warden and after a moment the latch clicks. Once inside we walk over to a serving hatch set into the wall overlooking the lobby. The man sat in the office there has a slack look to him, grey and poorly focused, like the security monitors mounted on the wall behind him.
‘Room 113. I’ll take you through. Sorry to drag you out. I’m sure it’s nothing.’
He leads us along corridors, through fire doors.
‘I expect you get a lot of this,’ he says, twirling and un-twirling the master key on a long piece of cord. ‘I couldn’t do your job.’
‘I’m not sure I could do yours,’ I say.
‘Don’t feel too sorry for me. There are benefits, you know.’
‘Same with us. All the bandages you can eat.’
‘Yeah – but all that blood and guts ...’
‘Yeah – but all those teenagers…’
He grunts, then breaks off to knock a couple of times on a partially open door, pushing it aside with a knuckle.
‘It’s the ambulance, Cheryl.’
A young guy opens the door.
‘I did my best but nothing worked,’ he says.
‘Let’s have a look.’
He stands aside and we move into the room, a utilitarian cube with a sink and shelf in one corner, a single bed along one side and a plain armchair opposite. Cheryl is lying the wrong way up on the bed, face up at the end, her feet on the pillow. She breathes quickly, holding her hands lightly on her belly, the pale fingers curled over into her palms like two strange creatures washed up on a rock.
Cheryl is having an anxiety attack. She’s had them before, she knows what to do. Except this time it’s gone on for longer, and she can’t break out of it.
‘My name’s Gary. I’m Cheryl’s friend from next door,’ the young guy says, squatting down and leaning back against the wall. He rubs his hands briskly with his face. ‘Jesus Christ. I’m supposed to be at work at eight. But I can’t bunk off. It’s my first day and I can’t screw this one up as well.’
‘We can handle things here okay. Why don’t you go and get some rest?’
‘Nah. I’ll stick around and make sure everything’s good. I’m used to going without sleep.’
It doesn’t sound an idle boast. He is long and pale, his bleach blond hair spiked upright like the shoots of something forced in the dark; even the tattoos on his arms have a shadowy quality, as if a sleepwalking tattooist inked-in the patterns by moonlight.
Gary reaches up and pats Cheryl on the shoulder. ‘I’m here for you, girl,’ he says.
Half an hour later Cheryl is sitting upright, breathing more slowly, looking exhausted.
‘She’s got to move out today,’ says Gary.
He stands up. ‘Shall I make some tea?’
‘That’d be great.’
When he’s out of the room Cheryl reaches under the pillow and pulls out a letter. She hands it to me without saying anything. I scan it quickly – something about internet grooming, a court case abandoned, a professional expression of support, a wish that things go well, keep in touch, and so on.
‘That sounds pretty tough,’ I say, handing her back the letter. ‘And you’ve got to move out today?’
‘Are you getting all the help you need? Have you got a social worker?’
She folds the letter up and pushes it back under the pillow as Gary comes in with a tray of tea.
‘No biscuits I’m afraid,’ he says, looking around in vain for a clear space to put the tray down. ‘I had a fresh packet this morning but someone’s gone and scoffed the fucking lot.’