by Kieran O’Hagan
There was no light to guide O’Neill along the unpaved garden paths and the wet and heavy soil cushioned every step. He didn’t mind the darkness; the knock on the door would make them more anxious.
He was at the rear of a rundown Liverpool tenement block of twenty dwellings. Nobody in sight, no street name, little light, no numbers on the filthy battered doors. The only sound was the monotonous cooing of pigeons in a rickety loft.
He smelt the rot and decay all around him, more potent than the night air and the hogweed and nettles that had somehow broken through the concrete rubble of every garden. These sloping back gardens had once been paved but never cultivated and thick green moss had accumulated and colonised both the soil and the paths.
When he arrived he had wandered slowly round the block failing to find a front entrance. Inch-thick steel railings ran continuously from one end to the other, separating the homes from a primary school and a college. At the rear a high brick wall completed the enclosure. The residents entered and left the rear through black metal grid gates, one for every two houses. These gates were conspicuously new and unmarked. They had been recently installed to protect the residents from vandals and from the city’s not-too-bright burglars living nearby who invariably found nothing of worth for their trouble and always got caught.
There was a large children’s play area at the rear bereft of a single item of play activity; presumably all stolen, replaced, stolen and replaced, until the council had had enough. But it did serve as a dumping ground for passers by, full of litter and graffiti on the crumbling gable end of the block. Outside the back wall perimeter dozens of empty gaudy-purple wheelie bins were lined up, many of them unopened, unused, yet each partially submerged in stinking half-eaten junk food and beer cans.
A persistent drizzle and mist blanketed the city, but he could still see an outline of the nearby Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King. Paddy’s Wigwam they once called it, built at the same time as the tenement block. For years tourists had clambered up its fifty-five steps to contemplate its revolutionary design and munificence of light, only to find themselves squelching through the rain that flooded its aisles daily. In thirty years its leaking roof had channelled countless gallons of rain onto the heads of incredulous tourists below. It was once mockingly referred to as the biggest repository of rain water outside of the Mersey, compelling the church hierarchy to contemplate demolishing it. Now fully dried out, some seriously regard it as Liverpool’s architectural gem.
Familiar sounds came from inside the cathedral. A choir was rehearsing. He turned towards the main doors, straining to listen. He recognised the music but could not remember what it was called. The voices ebbed and flowed, soaring to heights of power and passion, then descending, slowing, fading to a pianissimo finale he could regrettably no longer hear. He thought it had ended. Then five thunderous beats on a bass drum, doubled and repeated a few seconds later, reminded him what the music was: Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem. It all suddenly stopped and a few minutes later began again. It stopped and started again and again. The choir still hadn’t got their Day of Anger right.
O’Neill paused for a moment, looked around and contemplated the oddity of the place. He was looking for a couple, Madge and her partner McGraw, accused of child abuse. But this was not the place where he usually investigated. Abusers did not normally live within the shadows of a cathedral at the heart of the city’s two universities and medical centres and just across the road from its famous Everyman theatre and Philharmonic Hall. He once knew the area well; he was only a few hundred yards from the Sydney Jones and Harold Cohen libraries where he had laboured through endless garbage about child development and child abuse.
He glanced over the twenty residences of the block. The anonymous referrer had said she didn’t know the number they lived at except that it was an ‘end house’. It was nearly always an end house, he thought: housing officials contribute to these atrocities by allocating them end houses, or even worse, housing them in isolated dwellings, severing them from the community, ensuring that nobody knows what is happening to a child. ‘They never mix, never speak to anybody…an them kids never see the light o day!’ she’d added indignantly.
But that was no different to the lives of many other kids on his files: curtains permanently drawn, TVs and DVDs spewing out libraries of old films and porn in smoke-filled, window-sealed rooms; babies in their prams deliberately placed as far away as possible, toddlers bribed or warned to shut up. This was the nature of their sensory world; seeing nothing other than incandescent fluorescent screens; hearing voices that meant nothing to them, or music so loud that it deafened them, and always inhaling an all-pervasive stench. Many a time mothers and their partners would open their doors and recoil in anger and resentment from the brightness of the day; natural light was too much for them.
O’Neill approached the end house. This was the one the pigeon loft belonged to. He was sure the birds sensed his presence yet there wasn’t a flutter; their cooing never varied. Maybe they really did feel safe and secure in their rickety loft, he thought; maybe they were wonderfully well cared for; he had known child batterers obsessed with the welfare of their dogs and their birds. Then another thought crossed his mind: perhaps it was the pigeon shit all over the gardens rather than bruises on the child that had made a neighbour squeal.
Some kind of material served as a curtain on the living room window but it didn’t cover it completely. He could see a faint light inside through its ragged edge and its drooping top. He quietly descended three steps at the edge of the garden onto a concrete path that ran past each back door. He checked McGraw’s swollen door for wayward slimy slugs; there were none but the mere knocking on it made him feel contaminated. He wiped his knuckles with a white hankie.
Heavy shuffling footsteps could be heard. The door screeched as it trailed open along a chipped concrete step on the inside. Frank McGraw stood facing him. O’Neill could not yet see his face clearly because the hallway’s bare electric bulb shone in his own eyes, but he could see that McGraw was fat and small with a bushy black beard.
O’Neill felt no need to speak. He just stood there allowing McGraw to scrutinize him.
‘Whaddy ye want?’ said McGraw, in a voice betraying the nervousness clearly visible in his eyes.
‘Shouldn’t you be asking who I am?’
‘Well…who the hell are ya?’
‘O’Neill. Social worker.’
He held an identity card close to McGraw’s face. McGraw looked at it, then at O’Neill. The dark tweed jacket that O’Neill wore was old and crinkled; his jeans were well worn at the knees. He never wore a tie except in court where it meant a great deal to impressionable magistrates. Mc Graw didn’t seem to notice anything O’Neill wore; he looked anxious.
‘Yer not our social worker…it’s misses Winters.’
O’Neill smiled. Mrs Winters was the reason he was here. It wasn’t his area. Mrs Winters was unwell. Their boss Morgan took advantage of that. He wasn’t happy with her supervision of this family. Anonymous telephone calls, school reports, health visitors…they were all concerned. Morgan was burdened like every other inner city team leader with the fall-out from the Victoria Climbié case: memos, new regulations, warnings, and more and more inspections. He had heard enough too, about Jackson the newly-appointed child abuse supremo, to make him more edgy and vigilant. Still, he couldn’t get Mrs Winters, nice Mrs Winters, to make sure that she saw the children each time she visited. All she wanted to talk about when she got back to the office was the language of McGraw’s partner Madge, shocking language that disgusted her and intimidated her. Morgan had given in with Mrs Winters. He could trust O’Neill, not the most congenial of his staff, but reliable. Morgan took all the credit recently, when O’Neill had been congratulated in Crown Court for his realism, a social worker ‘who didn’t let child abusers pull the wool over his eyes.’ A rare event, making O’Neill famous for twenty-four hours and Morgan rather pleased with himself as he was, nominally, O’Neill’s boss. Morgan didn’t know and had never asked why O’Neill found no difficulty in confronting abusive, threatening clients, or how he was able to walk with ease into a home and demand to see what he was paid to see. But Morgan appreciated it, and O’Neill was always willing to oblige.
‘She’s sick,’ said O’Neill indifferently.
McGraw mumbled something, revealing the reluctance and fear he felt in letting O’Neill in. He led O’Neill through a hall smelling of damp and cold, past a tiny kitchen with an ancient gas cooker, draining boards piled with unwashed dishes and pans laden with hard dripping that looked like wax, bluish and grey. The window above the kitchen sink had never been opened and pools of condensation and dirt lay in the corners of the sill.
McGraw reached the end of the hall and looked round; O’Neill was still staring in at the kitchen.
He followed McGraw into the living room. The stench of shitty nappies, stale urine and vomit came wafting over him. Madge sat near a gas-flamed fire with an infant in her arms. She was twenty-nine years old, but she might have been forty. She had a sallow complexion and more visible bone than flesh. Her grey hair was thinning and lifeless. Her weary eyes were sunk deep in their sockets and her legs bore the deep red tracks that betrayed the countless hours she spent in the same location, in that same position, either in idleness or apathy, or both. She was visibly frightened by O’Neill.
‘Social worker,’ said McGraw; ‘the other one’s sick.’
The other one was a pain to be ignored; O’Neill was an intrusion that threatened.
‘This the new baby?’ he asked, as he walked over uninvited and loosened the clothing about its neck. ‘What’s her name?’
She couldn’t be much more than a month old. He carefully placed his hand at the back of Abigail’s head and gently brought it forward. For a horrible moment Madge thought he might lift her baby. He felt the exquisitely warm velvety softness of her crown and inhaled its fresh talcumy smells, not yet suffused by the odour rising from the discarded nappies at her mother’s feet. His touch reverberated through child to mother and Madge trembled. ‘Where’s the other two?’ he asked. He could hear some movement in the bedroom above.
Not the frolicking about of that older child on a night more than thirty years ago; but an awful subdued sound and movement. Perhaps he had arrived too late, or… perhaps the timing was perfect.
‘Bed,’ snapped McGraw.
O’Neill glanced at him and saw the struggle between fear and hatred. ‘Bring them down,’ he said.
‘Whadda ya mean?’ McGraw stepped forward and clenched his fist.
O’Neill ignored him. ‘I came to see the kids,’ he said, turning conspicuously to Madge; ‘your kids.’
‘Ther’n bed,’ she just barely managed to say; ‘ther asleep.’
‘They don’t sound asleep Madge.’
‘Ye cin see em tamorraw.’
‘I need to see them now.’
‘Right! that’s it!’ yelled McGraw. ‘You fuck off!’
He had stepped backwards instead of going nearer to O’Neill. He thumbed in the direction of the door leading to the hallway. O’Neill went the other way to a door leading to the staircase. He was halfway up the stairs before the anger of McGraw conquered his fear and he went after O’Neill with a roar.
O’Neill turned on the stairs and watched him, panting already, yet driven by fury. Just like O’Neill’s mother’s partner all those years ago: oily, fat and bearded, rushing up the stairs of their tiny Falls Road terrace, humiliated because he could not keep O’Neill and his older sister quiet.
O’Neill swung his boot at the rising chin. McGraw somersaulted backwards. Madge screamed as her man lay sprawled in agony at the foot of the stairs.
Within seconds O’Neill stood at the bedroom door. He felt the cold dank air. He switched the lights on. He heard a child whimper and another cry. He walked quickly to the double bed, raised and lowered a grey sheet. ‘There Richard, it’s going to be all right.’ He spoke softly and embraced gently, wondering could the child feel his own pounding heart. He looked over him for a moment and then placed him back on the bed. ‘Christopher,’ he said, stretching over to the older child who had whimpered. But Christopher didn’t move. His face was turned away from O’Neill. ‘Christopher,’ he said again, lowering the sheets further and gently placing his hand beneath the child’s head, levering it round slowly. The skin did not feel right. It was moist but not the moisture of sweat. Christopher resisted him slightly, but he continued to turn the bruised and bloodied face of the child into the light. One of his eyes was swollen and blackened and remained almost closed.
O’Neill closed his own eyes involuntarily. His fist clenched so tightly it shook. He heard the screams of his sister as the punches rained down on her.
A tiny movement of Christopher’s head jolted him. He opened his eyes and felt disgust, realising that his own facial contortions had brought a worse fear to the children he was rescuing. He removed the bed-sheet completely. Christopher wore only a tattered unwashed vest. O’Neill removed it and turned him over. He saw the marks of the straps from the neck downwards. The skin beneath the buttocks folded. He turned him round again and searched for burns or scalding. There were none. He held Christopher’s two skinny ankles with one hand and lifted them upwards and over. He used his thumb and forefinger to stretch the child’s anus. He stared at it for a few moments and thought: McGraw was just a child batterer, not a sexual abuser.
‘Christopher,’ he said, knowing any utterance was futile. The child had surrendered, not caring whether O’Neill would do him good or ill. O’Neill lifted the scattered clothes and helped put them on. He told Richard who had stopped crying to do the same. He put his arms around the two of them and said: ‘I’ll be back soon; I’m bringing a nice lady to see you. I want you to stay here until I come back. McGraw will not come up to see you, I promise you. Will you stay here until I come back?’ Richard nodded. Christopher never moved.
O’Neill walked slowly across the uncovered creaking floorboards. He turned, forced a smile and repeated: ‘Be back soon.’
On the way down the stairs he took a deep breath, gripping the banister tightly. He entered the living room and ignored McGraw writhing in agony on the heavily soiled couch. Madge stood over him weeping. Baby Abigail lay silent in a pram.
He gazed at their squalor and then leaned over the couch, his head almost touching Madge. He could smell their cheap tobacco, their unwashed bodies and their visible nervous sweat. He grabbed McGraw by the collar and yanked him up. McGraw instantly crossed his arms and begged him not to strike.
‘It’s not me you need to worry about,’ O’Neill said in a menacing whisper; ‘it’s your neighbours and your cellmates.’
He stared into McGraw’s eyes and saw the fear. ‘Don’t go near those stairs, either of you,’ he said. He took a mobile phone from his pocket and rang a number. He walked towards the kitchen and turned to them: ‘I’ll be waiting outside…for a doctor.’
The Verdi Solution by Kieran O’Hagan is published by Hilbre Publishing; www.kieranohagan.com/hilbrepublishing/