There’s a photograph knocking about of the day we left Liverpool for Belfast. We’re all lined up along the edge of the boat. Everyone’s turned around, looking out to sea. Only I, on the end, stare grinning down the lens. Desperate for attention and validation as ever.
I was eight, and I look excited. I was excited, I’d spent weeks telling everyone at school where we were going and I couldn’t wait to get there and see what adventures waited for me. I couldn’t wait to make friends, but of course I didn’t. When we arrived we were just too different, and after getting burned the first few times I stopped reaching out to people before long.
When the new girl came, they were the same to her. Well, actually they were worse because she smelled bad and didn’t brush her teeth. She had the same name as me, and being that little and feeling sorry for her I thought that was a good enough reason to be friends. I didn’t really want to be, she made me play weird games about getting married and hiding under the bed even though nobody was looking for us.
She had a little brother, all covered in rolls of baby fat he toddled up and down the street in his nappy, his pudgy hands opening and closing when he saw me but I was way too little to ever pick him up. I used to bend down and cuddle him instead, but her parents hated that so I didn’t do it often. I can tell now that these children I played with were victims of abuse and neglect.
At eight years old it’s hard to imagine, firstly, that people like that really exist. Harder still to identify them in your own life. But the house smelled and was dirty, the kids were the same – the baby was never dressed, and often toddled the street alone in a sodden soiled nappy before he could even talk. The adults sat in the front room and smoked, they were not to be disturbed, ever. And if they were they would roar, and the kids would pale and run. And I would desperately want to go home.
One day the girl my age who kept bringing me here to play sidled up next to me and grinned, she cupped her hands around my ear and whispered hoarsely into it. “My brother wants to be your boyfriend!” She hissed, I could smell her stale breath between her fingers and it made my stomach turn. “Will you be his girlfriend then?” She was jigging on the spot now, flexing her fingers in excitement, her dark eyes shining.
I felt the shame creep up my neck and across my face. I had no idea what to say or do. This boy was much older than us, I think he was about thirteen. I didn’t want a boyfriend, I didn’t want to be there at all most days, but when she asked me stuttering and blinking to come over and play I knew what she was really saying. “Save me. Don’t leave me in this house alone.” So I went, and I played, and I counted the minutes until I could leave.
I had never been taught to be assertive, to protect myself or stand up for myself. I was taught to be seen and not heard, to be meek and mild, to just get on with things and not rock the boat.
It was this sense of needing to please people and hating to disappoint or embarrass them that made me finally say “Yes. Ok.”
I avoided him like the plague. If I saw him coming I would run, hide under the bed like she showed me, or play with the kids in the street. I wanted never to be on my own with him, I was scared. But she didn’t understand, and she helped him.
I was outside with the baby, holding his hand when she called me over with a wry smile and said “you need to go to the kitchen!”
I had no idea what a wry smile was, or what they meant. So I went to the kitchen. And there he was. Stood in the kitchen swigging cider out of the bottle. She slammed the door behind me and held it, I couldn’t get out, and I still don’t know if she knew what she was doing or if this was just a silly game.
He held my face and forced his tongue in my mouth. The cider tasted rank and I wanted to be sick, but instead I froze. Rooted to the spot in sheer terror. Soon she moved from the door and he stopped slobbering on my like a dog and the next thing I knew I was being dragged to the bathroom by my hand and she was singing some stupid fucking song on the stairs behind me. I asked her to help me, I was terrified and she was laughing. I don’t think she knew.
Next, in the bathroom, she held the door again while he held me against the wall and pulled down my shorts. I was shaking and afraid and I couldn’t speak, but I didn’t say no. Should I have? Would that have made a difference? In not doing so, did I give consent? Of course a child can’t give consent, but he was a child too.
Eventually he freed me from the bathroom. I ran, all the way down the stairs and into the street and I sat on the kerb, shaking and breathing as deeply as I could. Trying my best to calm down. When her dad came and said it was time to go home, I could have kissed him. I got in the car and never looked back.
She asked me again, but I never went back to that house after that. I remember a year or so later, me and a new friend id made found a little boy crying and wandering the streets on his own. We asked him what was wrong and took him to her house to see if her mum could find his.
He told us another bigger boy had shown him his willy and he was scared and ran away. No matter what we said or did he would not stop crying, and it was making us scared.
By now, me and my friend with the little boy were being marched down the street by their mums to this older boys house to see what’s gone on. The kid was still crying and it was stressing me out, so I squeezed his hand and I said to him, “don’t worry. It happened to me too, it will be ok.” And he stopped, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
The mums must have heard me, because when I finally got home my mum was waiting too. She asked me if I had lied to that little boy to make him feel better. I said no, it was the truth. I stood at the top of the stairs, waiting to be released to my room. She stood at the bottom hands on hips. She pursed her lips, looked at me and said “you know, if we go to the police station they will know if you are lying or not, and you will get in a lot of trouble. So tell me the truth – did you make this up?”
I had long been a liar. I was the middle child of five, I wanted attention and love so I made up stories of elephants in playgrounds and meeting celebrities at the shops. It was harmless, but it was annoying, and that reputation in my family stuck to me for a long time afterward. Nobody ever believed me, truth or not.
I thought about how long ago it was. I thought about the clothes I’d been wearing, the exact same ones I grinned so happily in on that photo on the boat to Belfast. I thought about them finding nothing, calling me a liar. I thought about the way my family would think and talk about me if they thought I had lied about this. I was sick to death of always being called a liar and never being believed. I was terrified of what the police would do if they came to the wrong conclusion.
So I looked at my feet. And I rubbed the toes of my trainers together, and I looked down the wooden hill at my mum and said, “I made it up so he would stop crying.”
Her face changed, she relaxed. She told me to go to bed, and she went into the living room. That was the last time we spoke about it for ten years or more. That was the last day I ever told a stupid lie.