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41 JUNE 2002
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short story

Of Cabbages and Kings

Phil Carradice

The moment I arrived back home my telephone began to ring. I glanced across at my wife, instantly sensing her anger and frustration, and moved towards the 'phone.

"For Goodness' sake!” Elaine stormed, hurling herself out of her chair. “Can’t they even give you time to get in through the door?

I picked up the receiver and listened to Jock on the other end of the line.

“We've got some absconders,” he said. “Three of them; went out through the common room window ten minutes ago.”

“Who are they?” I asked.

“Three guesses for three absconders – not that you'll need them. Peter, Tony and Alan.”

“O.K.” I said. “I'll come across.”

I picked up my keys from the table and went out of the back door.

“What about your tea?” shouted Elaine, slamming angrily about the kitchen.

"Put it under the grill,” I said. “I won’t be long.”

* * *

They had gone directly after the group meeting. It was the old story of pressure – pressure from the other lads, pressure which they could not take. As with most of the boys at the Assessment Centre, when they came up against a problem they would take the easiest way out and run away.

I called Jock and Bill, the House warden on duty, to one side.

"Have a quick scout around. They might still be in the grounds. I'll ring the police.”

I had no sooner picked up the 'phone than Jock came crashing through the doorway.

“We've got them. Peter’s been glue sniffing. Stoned out of his mind.”

I followed him into the woods. Even from the path and in the semi darkness it was easy enough to locate them. Half glimpsed shapes were thrashing about in the undergrowth and I heard Bill’s voice.

“Stand bloody still!”

When I arrived in the tiny clearing the scene was quickly and easily summed up. Two of the absconders, Tony and Alan, were standing silent and shamefaced at one side; Bill and several other boys – their outlines blurred and fading in the darkness – dotted around them. In the middle of it all was Peter, flat out on the ground, totally oblivious to everything which was going on. Around his mouth and nostrils the glue was smeared and congealed and the smell of it hung sweet and heavy in the clearing.

“We've just found him,” said Bill. “Face in the glue, in a plastic bag. Another couple of minutes he’d have been dead.”

Peter was no easy weight to carry – six feet tall and thirteen stone, blasted out of his mind, brain as liquid as the pungent glue he had been inhaling. We dragged him to his feet and carried him slowly back to the main house.

“Where’d he get the glue?” I asked as we threaded our way through the trees.

“Brought it back from weekend leave,” said Bill. “He hid it in the woods yesterday. I thought he’d kicked the bloody habit but it seems it’s been going on these last few weeks.”

“The stupid bastard!” I snarled. “Serve him right if this little lot causes brain damage, turns him into a cabbage for the rest of his life.”

Peter began to come to as we reached the edge of the wood. He mumbled incoherently, was sick twice and passed out once again.

"You’d better call an ambulance,” I said to Jock. “He’s beyond any help we can give him.

As Jock ran off I turned slowly to Bill.

"Let’s see if we can get him into ..."

The next second I found myself lying flat on my back, head ringing with the effect of Peter’s blow. As if I was dreaming I saw Bill struggling with the boy, trying desperately to restrain him. Totally out of his mind with the effects of the glue, Peter was lashing out and fighting like a man demented. Within seconds I had cleared my head and dived in to help Bill. Together, we managed to pin the boy to the ground and, eventually, he passed out again.

I looked across at Bill. A thin stream of blood trickled from the corner of his mouth and one eye was already puffing up.

"You O.K.?” I asked.

He grinned. “Just about.”

We waited half an hour for the ambulance. It felt like thirty years – a mixture of sitting quietly alongside the unconscious boy one minute, holding him down as he thrashed and lashed out with unbelievable ferocity the next.

When the ambulance finally arrived he had to be laced into a straight jacket before they could transport him to the local hospital. Bill went with him; I watched them go with a sigh of relief.

For over an hour I sat, trying desperately to get through to Peter’s parents on the telephone. They were out somewhere and, eventually, I gave up. Elaine, when I tried to explain the situation to her, had been unimpressed.

“Sorry, love,” I sighed, “It’s all a bit of a mess.”

"Don’t tell me,” she snapped. “Tell the kids!”

The line went dead. I sighed again. You simply couldn’t win.

* * *

Peter had been sniffing glue for some time now. He’d picked up the habit long before he came to us – an extremely effective way of getting kicks. Cheaper than drugs but twice as dangerous – at least, for kids like Peter.

Virtually all of us had sat and talked to him for hours, trying to convince him of the dangers of the habit.

“Why the hell do you do it?” I had asked him once. He had shrugged.

"Don’t know. It makes me feel goods as if I can do anything I want.”

"King for a day?” I asked.

He smiled. “If you like.”

Desperately we tried to warn him, to tell him the glue would eventually blast his brian into a lifelessness as barren and as scorched as an African desert. But it had been no good.

Now I sat there in the office, cursing him. Not just the damage he might do to himself but the chaos he had caused in my own domestic arrangements. I had promised to take my own two children swimming – the first opportunity in nearly three weeks. They had been excited and looking forward to it. No wonder Elaine had been angry.

Suddenly, the telephone rang. It was Bill.

“They won’t keep him in,” he said. “According to the Doctor there’s nothing they can do for him – can’t pump his stomach as he’s only taken in the fumes. Apparently he’ll calm down in a few hours.”

"I'll come and pick you up,” I said.

When we finally got him back he was as violent and abusive as before. He refused to come into the building so we tried leaving him alone. He was unsteady on his feet and still virtually incoherent. Without knowing it he began to lash out at people and objects in his path. Eventually we had to drag him inside.

"Piss off, you bastards!” he screamed as we tried to get him into bed. “You’re all bloody bent!”

He was unable to sit still, but was desperate to be left alone. He shook and mumbled to himself and was sick yet again. Most frightening of all was the sense or aura of danger which seemed to cling to his shoulders. He was totally irrational, totally without concern.

Eventually we managed to undress him and get him into bed, but even before we had left the room he was up and out the door. We caught him on the back stairs and had to restrain him once again.

“That’s it,” I said. “I’m going to admit him to the Secure Unit overnight. He’s a danger to himself at the moment and we’ll never hold him otherwise.”

I telephoned the Principal to confirm the technicalities of the admission, then let the Unit know we were on our way. Just outside the Unit doors Peter wrenched his arm free and disappeared into the night. Desperately Bill and I gave chase. Twice around the main building we went and then, when I felt as if my heart was about to explode, Peter stopped dead and sank to his knees.

"My chest,” he gasped. “Pain in my chest.”

Eventually we managed to carry him to the door of the Secure Unit. Brian, the sleeper-in, opened the door and admitted us. After we had attempted to pour coffee into him, Peter passed out yet again. Bill and I put him into a vacant room, Brian opening the door and standing back in amazement. He closed and locked the door and we turned away. As we did so Peter leapt purposefully to his feet.

“Bastards!” he screamed.

He charged at the door and bounced back off it. Eyes wild and staring he looked desperately around the room, as if searching for a weapon or a way out. Finding nothing, he swivelled around and drop kicked the window. The glass starred but did not break. Peter fell back to the floor and lay still.

“Christ!” breathed Brian. “Do you think he’s safe in there?”

“Sit with him,” I said, eyeing the delicate spider web pattern on the window. “The glass shouldn’t break but we’d better not take any chances. I'll find a flannel to cool him.”

It took us – Bill, Brian and myself – another two hours to calm him down; at least, to the extent where he could be left.

“That’s it,” I said at last. “I'll be in the office for ten minutes. After that I’m going home. Let him sleep, but keep your eye on him. As long as he doesn’t go off too deep he should be O.K.”

I went down to my office to write up the incident in the log book. It was 1.30 in the morning when I finally arrived back home.

Elaine was asleep in bed but she woke when I came into the room.

“Where the hell have you been?” she asked furiously, her voice high and threatening in the silent house.

I explained what had happened but she was unimpressed.

"Your tea’s still under the grill,” she said coldly, turning over in the bed.

“Best place for it,” I yawned.

In ten minutes I was asleep.

* * *

Peter recovered fairly quickly. The following day he had a monumental hangover and, for a day or so, was unable to keep down any solid food. But he came through. When I spoke to him later in the week he was adamant he had sniffed glue for the last time.

"Mug’s game,” he said. “Never again.”

“Wish I could believe you,” I smiled. “You've said it before – many times.

He grinned weakly and shook his head.

"Don’t worry, it’s all over. This time I mean it.”

And for a while he kept his vow. He became the very model of good behaviour and we began to think things may have worked out for the best. When he left us some four weeks later to take up his place at a hostel he had not been sniffing again. We managed to get him a job as a factory hand in a nearby town and he went off to his placement, if not exactly happy, then certainly with resignation and a plan for the future.

I suppose it was inevitable things would not last. When he was with us, in a relatively controlled or protected environment, he was content and safe. The memory of his last escapade was frighteningly close and that, combined with our presence, was sufficient to keep him off the glue. But a hostel has to put the emphasis on the individual and Peter simply could not cope with the freedom.

Within three months he was sniffing again. According to the rumours he was coming to need it more and more each time. He came back once, just before Christmas, to visit us. We were shocked, startled by his appearance. He had lost a stone in weight and his skin, yellow and unhealthy, gave him an almost deathly pallor. His eyes were glazed and he twitched continuously. Somehow he seemed smaller, shrunken almost.

“Thought I’d come and see you all,” he told me as he tried with shaking hands to roll himself a cigarette. “Ain’t got much to do these days. Not since I lost my job.”

I took the paper and tobacco from him, rolled the joint and passed it back.

“Thanks,” he said.

Peter hung around for the rest of the day. We gave him tea and, eventually, he wandered off down the drive, a sad and lonely figure slouching into the gloom of early evening.

Six months later I opened the local paper and saw Peter’s face staring at me from the page.

"Youth dies on motorway,” the headline read. “In the early hours of Monday morning a fatal accident occurred near Junction 9 of the Motorway. A youth, apparently walking on the roadway, was involved in a collision with a lorry driven by Mr Edward Judd of Coventry. The youth died instantly.”

There was very little more, just his name and the fact he was in the care of the local authority.

It was easy enough to work out what had happened. Stoned out of his mind on glue he had wandered out onto the motorway, straight into the path of a juggernaught. Conceivably, I suppose, it had to happen sooner or later.

We were stunned. He had been and was now no more. It was as final and as ultimate as that. All the guilt and recrimination came to nothing in the face of his death.

“We should have helped him more,” said Bill. “Kept him here with us a bit longer.”

"Maybe. But we can’t keep kids forever. They've got to stand on their own sometime, haven’t they? We all thought he’d make out.”

"Poor little bastard,” said Bill. “Not much of a life for him.”

"Not much of a death, either,” I said.

And that was it, his epitaph. Poor little bastard.

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