- About the Book
- About the Author
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 6
- Chapter 7
- Chapter 8
- Chapter 9
- Chapter 10
- Chapter 11
- Chapter 12
- Chapter 13
- Chapter 14
- Chapter 15
- Chapter 16
- Chapter 17
- Chapter 18
- Chapter 19
- Chapter 20
- Chapter 21
- Chapter 22
- Chapter 23
- Chapter 24
- Chapter 25
- Chapter 26
- Chapter 27
- Chapter 28
- Chapter 29
- Chapter 30
- Chapter 31
- Chapter 32
- Chapter 33
- Chapter 34
- Chapter 35
- Chapter 36
- Chapter 37
- Chapter 38
- Chapter 39
- Chapter 40
- Chapter 41
- Chapter 42
- Chapter 43
- Chapter 44
- Chapter 45
- Chapter 46
- Chapter 47
- Chapter 48
- Chapter 49
- Chapter 50
- Chapter 51
- Chapter 52
- Chapter 53
- Chapter 54
- Chapter 55
- Chapter 56
- Chapter 57
- Chapter 58
- Chapter 59
- Chapter 60
- Chapter 61
- Chapter 62
- Chapter 63
- Chapter 64
- A Chat with J.C. Lewin
About the Book
Social worker Suzanne Walker has spent her life protecting children from abuse. For Suzanne it’s not just a job but a duty. Then one of her young wards is found dead. And her own teenage daughter, Teigan, goes missing. Suzanne’s cosy life shatters to pieces.
What really happened that day? The question haunts Suzanne, as she recounts the morning leading up to Teigan’s disappearance. They’d had a fight. A normal mother-daughter spat. Did Teigan run away?
Detective Sergeant Anthony Clarke takes on the case, and the clues begin to paint a grim picture of events. Why are there traces of blood in the house? Why didn’t Suzanne realise Teigan was missing sooner?
As the investigation deepens, one thing becomes clear: no matter who you are, the past always catches up with you.
About the Author
J.C. Lewin loved writing stories as a child, but started writing more seriously in 2014 when she quit her job as a social worker to study a Masters in Creative Writing at City University, London. Her debut novel won the Janklow & Nesbit debut competition in 2015 and was shortlisted for the Luke Bitmead Bursary. J.C Lewin now manages a care home by day and continues to write by night.
She was going to die. She knew it.
Her face throbbed from the blows that had rained down upon her, her head dizzy and stomach seizing in pain as her organs fought to keep working. They were losing the fight.
Just run away! She’d told herself time and time. She can’t be trusted! But she’d clung onto that shred of hope that things would get better. After all, it hadn’t always been this way.
Once upon a time, she had been wanted. Loved, even. But life had gotten hard, and it had changed things. Changed them both. There were moments, fleeting as they were, that she was the woman she used to be. She would squeeze her hand and tell her she was a good kid. That she was proud of her. On those rare occasions, it was hard to imagine those same hands curled into fists. Pummelling her until red splotches on her skin blossomed into angry purple welts. She begged her to stop.
She knew she shouldn’t love her anymore, yet she did. She always would.
This is it, she thought as she closed her eyes, struggling to draw breath. There was something poetic about the person who had brought you into this world taking you out of it.
She was dead. I already knew that.
There she was, her fresh-faced picture all over the East Anglian news, confirming that no one would ever see that sad smile again. She had been my responsibility. I was meant to protect her.
I stood in the middle of the lounge, staring at the television while an overwhelming sense of helplessness washed over me. I’d known it would hit the news today — I’d been awake all night dreading it — but, somehow, seeing her face there in my living room caught me off guard. A slideshow of her life scrolled across the screen. Quirky pictures from her Facebook account. Instagram shots of her posing in school uniform. Selfies with friends in Norwich city. All lies. Emma Beale did not have a happy life.
I looked around at my own comfortable life, a life I often took for granted. My eyes flitted from the pile of mismatched shoes and boots on the floor, to the cherry-vanilla scented candle on the second-hand coffee table, to the cream sofa on which I’d curl up at the end of the day with a glass of cheap wine. It wasn’t the grandest house in the world — a standard two-up, two-down terraced house in Norwich — but it was ours. Teigan and I had everything we needed. She was safe and loved. And that was something Emma never had.
I glanced at the framed photos on the mantelpiece. Mother and daughter. My favourite picture of us on holiday in the Canary Islands, holding our ice creams and beaming like Cheshire cats. Teigan must have been about ten — before she’d become a teenager and determined that smiling in a picture with your mum was lame. My thoughts returned to Emma. She had never stepped foot in an airport, let alone jetted off to the Canaries. And now she never would.
A familiar anxiety started gnawing away at me as the inevitable questions flooded my mind. Could I have saved her? I paced around the room, scrolling through the list of missed calls from just two days before.
- 11:10 Missed call from Emma Beale.
- 11:45 Missed call from Emma Beale.
- 11:55 Missed call from Emma Beale.
- 12:01 Missed call from Emma Beale.
- 12:02 Text message from Emma Beale: Please call me. I need to talk to you.
If only I had called her then. If only I’d known what was going to happen.
I jumped as my phone vibrated in my hand. Hilary Andrews. I should have known it was coming. A call from the boss before eight in the morning meant things were going from bad to worse.
“Hello. I’ve seen it.” I paused as the lump in my throat hardened. “I’m so sorry.”
“I told you yesterday that it’s not your fault the mother’s a delinquent.”
“But I should have got her out sooner. I knew this would happen. I knew it.”
“No, you didn’t. And don’t go saying things like that to the review panel — they’ll have a field day.”
“It’s not your fault, Suzanne. If I remember correctly, you actually did raise your concern about two months ago that you wanted to remove Emma from the family home.”
“Yes, but it didn’t happen.”
“Well, it wasn’t your call. You know better than anyone that when senior management says there’s not enough evidence, then that’s it.”
It was true. Nothing put a stopper in the works like a senior manager saying that the threshold hadn’t been met. My mind flashed back to that day when I’d stormed out of the office. Months of hard work, and for what? I’d promised myself I’d do further assessments, gather enough evidence to get Emma out. But before I knew it, my other cases were taking over, and Emma had slipped down the priority list. The forgotten children.
“I should have done more.” My voice came out all thick, trying to fight the tears. The image of Emma’s weary face that last time I had seen her flooded back into my mind. She was turning away from the car after I’d dropped her home, steeling herself for the next round of emotional abuse.
I heard Hilary let out a sigh on the other end of the phone. She was never one for emotion, old Hilary.
“You’ll need to hold it together for the case review. I’ll be speaking to the panel, as well, so you’re not in it alone.” She paused. “What time will you be in?”
I cleared my throat. “Soon. Twenty minutes.”
“Good. The review panel will be here at nine.”
“Okay. Can you ask business support to cancel my interview about The Walker Foundation today?”
“Oh, Jesus, is that today?”
“This afternoon, yes. But, we’ll cancel it, right?” I gripped the phone between my fingers. “I can’t do it today, not after this.”
“Suzanne, do you realise how much all this PR rubbish has cost?” Hilary’s voice was stern and patronising, like an old schoolteacher. “There’s no way we’re cancelling. If it’s not until this afternoon, that’s fine. You can go to it after the review panel.”
“But isn’t that rather insensitive?”
Hilary bristled at my insinuation. “This was your bloody idea in the first place, Suzanne. You’re the one who wanted to come together with Norfolk Children’s Services to do this. Norfolk has invested a lot of resources into it, as well, so we’re not cancelling. All right?”
I sank down onto the sofa, my shoulders sagging in defeat. I knew all too well that you had to pick your battles carefully with Hilary. “Okay … as long as it’s handled sensitively.” I hung up the phone and looked back to the television. You could tell May was coming. Emma Beale’s death would soon be drowned out by all the politicians fighting for power. For most, she would fade into a distant memory, into nothing. But for me, she would always be someone I had failed.
Teigan’s agitated voice pulled me out of my gloomy thoughts as she thudded down the stairs and sulked into the room. She had a face like thunder.
“Mum, what have you done with my purple scarf?” Teigan stood with one hand on her hip, the other clutching her phone in its rainbow-coloured case. Her long, dark hair fell forward, half obscuring her face.
“What scarf?” I spoke as clearly as I could, trying to hide the muffled tears from my voice.
“My purple one! With the butterflies.”
“I haven’t done anything with it.”
She crossed her arms and huffed. “You always do this. You move things to where you think they should be, then completely forget you’ve done anything.”
My cheeks flushed red with indignation. If only she knew. Teigan clocked the expression on my face and stopped, uncrossing her arms as my stroppy teenaged Teigan gave way to the caring girl underneath.
“Mum? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Just … work.”
Teigan nodded. “Is it to do with that Emma girl that was on TV this morning? Was she one of yours?”
I hung my head, ashamed at the reminder that Emma was mine to protect. “Yes. She was.”
“I’m sorry, Mum.” She shuffled closer and gave me a hug, her long hair tickling my arm. I blinked the tears back, willing myself not to cry.
“Thank you, sweetheart.” I tucked her hair behind her ears as we broke apart. “Try looking in the cupboard under the stairs for that scarf — I think I saw it in there.”
“Ah, so you did move it!” She grinned, triumphant.
“We’ll agree to disagree on that one.”
I walked through the middle room — the dining room turned general storage area — and spotted two loads of Teigan’s washing still hanging on the clothes-horse in the corner.
“I asked you to put these away last night, Teigan.”
“What?” She looked up briefly from her phone, which, now that her scarf had been found, had her full attention again. “Oh, yeah. I forgot.”
Of course she did. I”d been trying to teach her some of the basics, domestic-wise. By her age, I was well-rehearsed in washing, ironing, cleaning, and cooking. I’d had to be. So far, it had been a battle just showing her how to use the washing machine. “Right, well, can you put them away now, please?”
“In a minute,” she mumbled, her gaze not leaving her phone screen.
She rolled her eyes and sighed heavily.
I walked into the kitchen to make my lunch for work — it still stank of last night’s fish. The once cheery yellow paint looked tired and grubby. My eyes wandered to the Norfolk & Norwich Festival leaflets I’d been collecting on the fridge. It was coming up again. May always came around so quickly. I grimaced as I remembered last year. We’d managed to get a pair of highly sought-after Speigeltent tickets for the 1920s night, and I’d ended up having to let Teigan down at the last minute because of a work emergency. I’d promised her then that we’d make it this year. No emergencies.
“Teig, would you circle the events you want to go to at the N&N this evening? I’ll start looking at which ones we need to book.”
“Go on, otherwise we’ll miss all the good stuff. Looks like they’re doing the 1920s night again — you still up for that one?”
Still glued to her phone, Teigan made her way through to the kitchen.
“Watch out for the —”
She missed the step down into the kitchen and stumbled, catching herself in the doorway, but dropping her beloved phone. It skidded across the kitchen floor, and she scrambled down to grab it. I cringed.
“Argh! The screen’s broken!” She stamped her feet, just like she had done when she was three — the year of the temper tantrum.
“Oh, Teigan, really? You’ve only had it — what, ten days?”
“It’s not my fault. You asked me to come through.”
“Well, it would have helped if you were looking where you were going, wouldn’t it?” I raised my eyebrows in a “don’t you blame this on me” way, before losing my resolve. She looked on the verge of tears. “Look, there’s that shop in Castle Mall that does screen repairs. We can take it there at the weekend and get it fixed, okay?”
I left her to mourn the phone as I opened the fridge. There was hardly any food left — I made a mental note to go shopping this weekend. However, I already knew most of the weekend would be spent reviewing Emma Beale’s case history, looking for things I might have missed and tormenting myself over it. I grabbed some leftover chicken and the open packet of limp rocket leaves. A modest lunch. It would have to do.
“Why are you dressed all posh today?” Teigan said as she wrapped the purple scarf around her neck, lifting her long hair out of the way to reveal a scatter of freckles on the side of her face. My spirits lifted — asking about my outfit was her way of apologising.
Did I look posh? I was going for smart, but down-to-earth. Professional but approachable. I’d put on a skirt suit, though my tiny frame always did look a bit stupid in suits — like a child trying to play dress-up. “I’ve got an important meeting today, a case review. About Emma.”
I fiddled with my shirt, tucked it into the skirt, and noticed the large gap between the waistband and my stomach. I’d probably been overdoing it recently. Or underdoing it, so to speak.
I pressed myself closer to the fridge as Teigan wiggled through the limited space between my back and the kitchen surface. She picked up the iPad from the mess of bills and took it through to the middle room, pulling up a chair at the unused dining table.
I drizzled some lemon juice dressing onto my salad and popped on the lid. 8:25 a.m. I needed to get going. I was in for a stressful day at work.
“Don’t forget to feed Tonks.”
“Mum, what the hell is this?”
“Teigan — language!”
She ignored me and brandished the iPad in my face — showing a tab that I had foolishly left open. “Why are you looking at houses out in the sticks?”
I groaned. “Okay, not now — we can talk about this later.”
“Garboldisham? Harleston?” She was scrolling through the listings with a look of pure panic. “Oh, my God, we’re not moving out of the city, are we?”
“I’ve just been doing some research, that’s all. They’re nice villages where you get a lot more for your money and, frankly, I’d like a kitchen we can both physically move around.” I heard the rising frustration in my voice. I didn’t have time for this.
“But we had that money. We could’ve had a bigger house right here in Norwich, but you wanted to be all Saint Teresa about it!”
“It’s Mother Teresa, Teigan. And it was my decision. That money was …” I trailed off, the memories washing over me. The mixed emotions. The guilt. “It wouldn’t have been right for me to spend it.”
“Well, it’s not right to make me move away from my friends, either.” Her eyes were wide with panic, her cheeks flushed red. “What about school? What about my life?”
“Teigan. You need to calm down. You’d still stay at the same school. I would drive you in instead of you having to walk. I just think it’s time to start thinking about moving out of the city into a nicer house.”
Teigan waved away my platitudes and started pacing. “You just want to move away because this is where your cases are, and all the families hate you,” she cried. “You don’t care what I want. I don’t want to be the weird kid whose mum drives them into school every day like they’re still in primary school. No one will want to hang out with me.”
“Teigan —” I countered, but she cut me off.
“And even if they did want to hang out with me, they won’t be able to, because I’ll have to get picked up straight after school like a kid.”
“Teigan,” I tried again, “we can talk about this later. Right now, I have to get to work.”
“You always have to get to work.” Her eyes were brimming with tears now, her voice thick with choked emotion. “You’re always worried about letting your care kids down, but what about me? You care about them more than me.”
I froze, stunned at the accusation. The look of hurt on my daughter’s face mirrored my own. Images from Emma’s case bombarded me — her sad smile, the terrible conditions of the house, the bruises on her face, the self-inflicted cuts on her arms and thighs. The difficult conversations with her mum, followed by the tense debates with Hilary about what to do. The fear I imagined in Emma’s eyes when her mum had attacked her that day.
Teigan’s accusations had faded into background noise. My mind had wandered elsewhere, a fog of stress and memories I didn’t want to remember. The newsreader’s haunting words: “Emma Beale, tragically let down by those who were meant to protect her.”
Was I letting down my own daughter, too? My heart raced, my thoughts swirled. The more I tried to focus, the less I could hold on.
Then, there was nothing.
It wasn’t until I pulled up at the traffic lights outside the football stadium that I realised I’d left the house. My brow furrowed as I tried to recount the events of the previous half hour. I glanced at the clock on the dashboard of my old Peugeot. Nearly an hour had passed since the fight. Where had the time gone? I tapped my foot gently on the clutch as I waited for the lights to change. The warning message was up outside the stadium again. The Canaries were playing at home on Saturday. Great, so the city would be in gridlock. As I stared at the pop-up sign, Teigan’s accusation circled in my cloudy mind.
You’re always worried about letting your care kids down, but what about me? You care about them more than me.
Was it true? I couldn’t bear to hear her talk about Emma — I couldn”t listen to it anymore. I had blocked it all out … and then? My heart fluttered as my mind fumbled for what had happened next.
As the lights turned to green, I floored the accelerator and tried to process the facts. I was stressed. She was grumpy. We’d argued. Then she left for school? Or did I leave first? I hoped she’d locked up the house — the last thing I wanted was to return to a burgled home. I joined the queue for the next round of traffic lights, feeling somewhat jealous of the people in suits walking down the hill to work. To be able to walk to work, what a luxury. The sun was shining through the light, fluffy clouds — a surprisingly nice day for April. City workers would be milling around Norwich Market at lunchtime, sipping coffees and nibbling on pastries as they sat on the steps outside City Hall. I envied their nine-to-five days with a clear hour lunch break. My car still smelt of tuna after I’d scoffed my salad between home visits the previous day.
Teigan must have left first. She had probably stormed out, leaving me to deal with the cat. Did I feed him? Yes. I remember him rubbing up my leg in gratitude. Or was that the day before? I shook my head in exasperation. The days weren’t even distinguishable anymore. It was happening more and more. Ever since that case, two years ago. The brothers. It was like the trauma of it all had destroyed a part of me, leaving my memory prone to slips, especially under stress. Last week I’d walked to the shop after a hard day and not only had no idea what I’d gone to buy, but also no recollection of leaving the house. Still, I wasn’t that bad off. The stress of social work had done worse to others.
A rare discovery pulled me from my self-loathing — an actual parking space. Maybe this was the start of some good luck. I pulled in and thought about texting Teigan. I hated arguing with her, and I hated leaving things unresolved even more. I rummaged around in my bag for my phone, my fingers fumbling various objects — notebooks, reading glasses, ID badge, purse. But no phone.
Dammit. I’d left it at home again. I’d have to text her on my work phone, which I hoped was in my locker. Hilary wouldn’t appreciate it if I lost another one. I sighed and released the door handle. It was time to take on the day ahead.
The open plan office was filled to capacity, with a sea of exhausted staff counting down the days to Friday. There was the usual hustle-bustle of the office, the phones ringing constantly with various echoes of “Norfolk Children’s Services, how can I help you?” around the room. Already, I could hear fragments of conversations involving Emma.
“I know, another child death. We’ll be in Special Measures at this rate.”
“Thing is, that case should have gone to Court Proceedings months ago — it was inevitable.”
“I’m looking for positions in Suffolk, mate. Guarantee we’ll be privatised soon, especially after this Emma Beale case hitting the news.”
I hung my head low. Everybody in the room knew that I was the case accountable social worker for Emma. I prayed that everybody would read my body language and pretend they couldn’t see me. Social workers are meant to be good at reading body language, after all.
“Suzanne, hi. How are you doing?”
I looked up. It was Lauren — sweet, lovely, Family Support Worker Lauren. She was in her early twenties. A blonde, pretty thing with sky-blue eyes. She must have heard the news — along with everybody else — as she spoke in that ever-so-slightly patronising tone, cocking her head to the side in a way which said, “Poor you.”
“Yeah, I’m okay. Thanks. You?”
“Oh, I’m fine. Want a cup of tea? I’ll make it for you.” Lauren gently squeezed my shoulder and ushered off to put the kettle on. She had only been with the team for a few months, but she had quickly established herself as the tea girl. Whenever someone had a difficult meeting, or had just come back from a home visit to a family everybody knew was trouble — she would be straight on the tea.
I plonked myself down on the only available desk — the one by the smelly loos. Bloody hot desking. Still, at least I got a desk. I took a deep breath and tried to remind myself to stay positive. I was here to do a job, and I was doing it to the best of my ability. I heard my mother’s voice in my head, her favourite saying from when I was a little girl. “Keep looking up to the sun, my little petal. That’s how you bloom.” It had been nearly twenty years since I’d heard my mother’s voice for real.
“Here you go, Suzanne.”
I looked up and found myself being offered a cup of tea in a “Keep Calm and Carry On” mug, as well as two bourbon biscuits. “Oh, thank you. I’ll leave the biscuits, though.”
“Oh no, take them — the sugar will do you good.”
I smiled weakly, knowing I wouldn’t touch them. “Thank you.”
“Finally — there you are,” came Hilary’s familiar voice. “They’ve been waiting for you. The review panel started at nine. What took you so long?”
It was a good question. “Sorry. I had to sort something out for Teigan before she went to school. Then, you know, traffic.”
“Well, get down there now. I’ve already spoken with them, and it’s your turn. Remember, it wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have known this would happen. Stay strong.”
I nodded. I’d never felt further from strong in my life.
Three of them sat side by side on the opposite end of the table, like some sort of magistrate’s court or a group of particularly harsh interviewers. I drummed my fingers on my knee, trying to tap the nerves from my body. It was so cold in the room despite it being relatively warm outside — it was always either freezing cold or tropically hot in the Carrow House offices.
The silver-haired man in the middle spoke first. “So, you’ve been the case accountable social worker for Emma Beale for eighteen months — is that correct, Mrs Walker?”
“It’s Ms Walker. And, yes. Eighteen months.”
“Can you give us a rough overview of the case during that time, Ms Walker?” He appeared to be the most senior member on the panel and evidently wasn’t Norfolk-born and bred. Judging by his accent, he had probably come in from London.
“Yes. After the initial assessment I concluded that a child protection conference should be held for Emma. The result was that she was indeed made subject to Section 47, Child Protection Arrangements, under the Children Act 1989.” I took a breath and reminded myself not to talk so fast.
“And the reviews were held within timescales?”
“Yes. The review conferences were every six months, and the core group meetings were held every six weeks.”
“Well,” the blonde woman interjected, “they weren’t always in timescale, by the looks of the chronology here. More often than not, they were held seven or eight weeks apart. At one point last summer, there was a ten-week gap between core groups.”
I pressed my nails into the palm of my hand and steadied my nerves. Everyone knew meetings slipped out of timescale sometimes — it was the nature of the job. “Yes, I believe that was due to the summer holidays, with teachers and other term time professionals such as the school counsellor not being able to attend.”
“Hm. You still could have held a small core group with the family and health staff.”
“Well,” I faltered. “With all due respect, there was no midwife or early year’s practitioner in this case, and we all know GPs never attend core groups, so it would literally just have been myself and the family.”
The blonde woman scowled at me. “This is no time to be sarcastic, Ms Walker. A child is dead. A child you were responsible for.”
I shrank back into my seat, lowering my gaze as I was hit by the sudden desire to be sick.
The silver-haired man took his opportunity to speak. “I see here that several calls from young Emma were logged on Tuesday, the morning of her death. One at twenty past nine to the office, asking for you; another at eleven; and a further four calls made between eleven and twelve to your work mobile. Is that correct?”
His eyes lingered on me, daring me to challenge him. But I couldn’t. I swallowed the bile that was rising in my throat. “Yes, that’s correct.”
“So why, may I ask, did all these calls go unanswered? The business support officer who took the first two calls referenced in her note that Emma sounded distressed. Surely that should have put her at the top of your priority list?”
Guilt flooded through me. Of course they’d known about the phone calls — I’d been naïve to think it wouldn’t come up. Did Hilary know? She hadn’t mentioned it. I sat perfectly still in my chair, the lump in my throat preventing me from speaking.
“Ms Walker?” the blonde woman leaned forward, cupping her hands together. “Please answer his question.”
I dug my nail back into my palm with such pressure that it broke through the skin. The sting of the cut sent a moment’s relief through me.
“It was a busy morning, and Emma had a tendency to call a lot.” I winced at the defensiveness in my voice.
“Such is the nature of social work, Ms Walker. But that doesn’t answer the question. Why didn’t you return any of Emma’s calls, despite knowing that she was distressed?”
I couldn’t maintain eye contact with the panel any longer, the sinking feeling of dread pulling my head down. Oh God, what had I done? If I had answered those calls — would Emma still be here? Part of me just wanted to own up to my failures and throw in the towel, but another small part of me knew I had to defend myself. My mind travelled back to the day before yesterday, which already felt like a lifetime ago. I’d been on duty that day and had just found out I needed to attend a review child protection conference.
“The Greenwoods? I’ve never even heard of this family,” I’d said to Hilary, flustered by the unwelcome news.
“Yes, well, they’re on our unallocated cases list. Terri went to the initial conference six months ago, someone went out on a visit a couple of months ago when they were on duty — Sandra, I think it was — but no one’s been in since.” Hilary shrugged her shoulders at my horrified expression.
“Well, this is what happens when you have an unallocated case list. It’s crisis-management only. I don’t recall hearing any volunteers for taking on more cases.”
“Is the report done?” I asked, hoping for at least one bit of good news.
“Unfortunately not. That’s your job this morning.”
“For goodness’ sake, it’s meant to be shared with the family and chair forty-eight hours before.”
“Yes, well, you best crack on. Maybe we can share it at least two hours before.”
At that moment the business support officer had brought over the first telephone message from Emma. I’d glanced at it, had gone to call her, but then realised it could be a long conversation. I decided to prioritise the report for the Greenwoods, then get back to Emma later.
“By the time the second message came through, I was busy sending the report off to the chair and dealing with a mum who had come into the office in desperate need of food bank vouchers,” I relayed to the review panel in front of me. “When my mobile went, I was in the car on my way to the conference.”
“And what about after the conference had finished? Why didn’t you call her then?” The blonde woman was staring at me, her eyes like a hawk’s.
My stomach clenched. “The conference didn’t finish until half past four. I had several calls by then regarding other on-duty responsibilities. I got on with those instead. I planned to pick up Emma’s messages first thing the next day.”
“Only you couldn’t, could you? Because she was already dead by then.” The blonde woman shook her head in disgust. “She made a cry for help which went unanswered, and now it’s too late.”
I sat there, stunned, as the tears welled up within me. The blunt truth stared me in the face. I could have done something if I’d answered those calls, if I had been there. I could have saved her. Emma Beale was dead because of me.
The papers quivered in my hands. I shuffled through the pages of my speech for the eighth time. Did I touch on all the important points? Did I remember everything? Oh God, why couldn’t we cancel this today? I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
The woman doing my make-up for my television debut was tutting at the state of my eyebrows, pulling strange devices out of the drawers to attack the situation. Was she seriously stressed about a few eyebrow hairs out of place? Talk about First World problems. I glanced around the studio, trying not to move my head too much. I had already been told to keep still twice by the uptight make-up artist. The ceilings were high — not surprising considering we were essentially in a large warehouse off the Dereham Road. They were patterned with artificial lights, the type that would give you a migraine if you stared at them for too long. The make-up woman tugged my head back down so it was level with the mirror again. There were little LED lights dotted around it, with various brushes and powders scattered on the dressing table. All I could smell were perfume, hairspray, and the dusty heat from various electronic beauty devices. It was worlds away from the dingy offices of Carrow House, which only ever smelt of burnt coffee and the dodgy loo aroma.
I was doing everything I could to push Emma from my thoughts. I couldn’t bear it. The review panel had been horrific. Now that Emma’s case had hit the news, it would be paraded in my face for weeks to come. My failure, which had cost Emma Beale her life. I forced my mind away from her, landing instead on the morning’s events with Teigan. I fumbled with my work phone, which I’d been keeping on my lap just in case of emergencies, and started to type out a text.
Hi, Teigan, it’s me on the work phone. Left my phone at home. Really sorry about this morning. I’ve been under a lot of stress with work. Hope school is okay. See you later. Love you XX
I hit “Send” and felt the relief start to sink in. Teigan was a good girl, despite the occasional teenage rampage. She knew work was stressful and would understand. Maybe she’d even text back saying that she loved me, too. I stared at the screen like a young girl waiting for a reply from her crush. The phone vibrated, and my heart lurched. But it wasn’t the reply I wanted. It wasn’t even a reply.
Message failed to send.
I hit the send button again and scowled at the phone as the same automated message popped up. “Do you have problems with the signal in here?” I asked the make-up artist.
I sighed. I’d have to try it again later.
“Suzanne, there you are, darling.” The flamboyant voice belonged to Annie, the publicist for the charity with which Norfolk Children’s Services had insisted we contract. She tottered over in her burgundy heels and pencil skirt, glamorous as always. Her hair had that envious style of looking effortlessly stunning, as if she had rolled out of bed, tousled it a little, and yet somehow every hair had fallen into place.
“Oh, hey, Annie. Sorry, I’ve been in beauty for ages.” I pulled a face emphasising my boredom and clocked the make-up artist’s disapproval. “But she’s doing a great job,” I added with haste.
“You’ll look fabulous. It’s worth it. Audiences respond better to attractive people, it’s been proven,” said Annie. The make-up artist nodded her head in agreement.
“Yes, but I’m talking about child sexual exploitation, not this month’s Vogue.”
“All the more reason to be attractive to the public. Come on, it’s no secret that social workers aren’t exactly popular. You want to promote your charity? You need an audience to pay attention.”
My head was yanked back into position again.
“Sorry.” I felt like a kid who couldn’t keep still.
The make-up artist brushed roughly at my dark, slightly matted hair, clearly not bothering to spare my scalp any pain. I shouldn’t have complained about how long it was taking. My comfort was her lowest priority now.
“How old are you?” the make-up artist asked as she studied my face.
She tutted in response and mumbled something about how my skin should be in much better condition.
“I had a baby at nineteen,” I said, hoping that would explain my lack of self-care.
“I see,” she nodded. “Anti-wrinkle cream is what you need.”
I gave her a thumbs up as I turned back to an impatient- looking Annie.
“So,” Annie pulled up a stool. “The set-up is the two presenters — male and female — and then it’s you versus the ‘anti you,’ basically. She’s a bit of a nightmare, so you need to be ready for her. She’s basically shot to fame by being an arsehole. Anything that is politically incorrect and going to cause a stir, she’ll say it. Last month she said that fat people deserve to get cancer.”
“Well, she sounds like a treat.”
“Exactly. So you can bet she’ll take the position of ‘young promiscuous girls bring it on themselves.’”
“Wonderful. Who is she?” I grimaced as my hair was dragged between the hot plates of hair straighteners.
Annie paused for a second, as if bracing herself for my reaction. “Nancy Thompson.”
“Nancy Thompson? Are you kidding me?” Nancy was well known for being awful. If I’d known I was going up against her, I’d never have agreed to go through with it.
“Keep calm — you’ll be fine. If anything, it’ll work in your favour.”
“Because people hate her even more than they hate social workers.”
She probably had a point there, but still. I started fidgeting in my seat, picking the smooth polish from my nails, only to have my hand batted away by the make-up artist.
Annie carried on, either oblivious to my panic or just choosing to ignore it. Probably the latter. “They’re likely to also ask you about your general experience as a social worker in child protection as well, so make sure you’re ready with what you want to talk about and what is off limits.”
“Little thing called confidentiality, Annie. Surely it’s all off limits?”
“Well, obviously with current cases, but you know. Any old case-study examples you can use to make your case will help. People like a real-life touch.”
My mind raced over all the children I’d worked with over the years, lingering for just a moment on some more than others. Some just stayed with you.
The traumatic memory penetrated my mind, as it often did. His body on the floor, lifeless in a pool of blood. His big brother cowering over him, crying, his wrists also spilling blood.
I shook the image from my head as the word association game echoed in my mind.
What do you think when I mention brothers?
“Suzanne, are you listening?”
I drew my attention back to Annie’s voice, feeling dazed by the shock of the memory.
“I think they’re also inviting people to send in questions via Twitter, so you need to be ready for some flak from the public, as well.”
“Oh, God, really?” This was sounding worse by the second. “Annie, how long is this all going to take? I need to get back to the office this afternoon.”
“It’ll take as long as it takes. This publicity is important, Suzanne. I thought you were taking this seriously?”
“I am —”
“Well, commit to it then.”
“Annie,” I lowered my voice to a whisper. “There’s been a child death on my caseload.”
“Oh, right, sorry to hear that. I did hear about that poor girl on the news today. I didn’t realise she was one of yours.” A wave of awkwardness passed over her face. Perhaps she was suddenly reconsidering having me on the show. I couldn’t help but hope it would all be cancelled.
“Look,” she continued, “It airs live at three thirty, and you should be done by four, as they’ve got the daily cooking bit on then. So, you should be out of here by half past at the latest. Just remember why you’re here, okay?”
I took a deep breath. Of course I remembered why I was there. Our work is important. I just wished someone else could do the flashy promotion bit. That was exactly why I’d gone to Norfolk County Council with the idea — for them to deal with all this rubbish. I just wanted to supply the money to get it up and running. Everyone had thought I was mad, using the premium bonds money on this. But for me, it was the only option. I hadn’t even known the bonds had existed. It had been a complete shock to get the news of my big win and even more of a shock to discover that the bonds had been set up by my dad after Mum had died. It was probably the most thoughtful thing he’d ever done for me. And I knew, more than anyone, that I did not deserve it.
The make-up artist gestured to show me she was finished, as if I were a piece of artwork she’d spent hours crafting. I glanced back in the mirror and barely recognised my face behind the thick make-up, mass of hairspray, and perfectly defined eyebrows.
“Oh, Suzanne?” Annie bent down so that her mouth was level with my ear. “Make sure you don’t mention the child death on your caseload. It won’t make you particularly likeable to the public.”
Yeah, no shit.
Sit up straight, Annie had said. I adjusted my posture, conscious of my habitual slouch. There were people in the audience, but I could barely see them through the glare of lights and cameras. I focussed on the female interviewer, Natasha Rylands. I followed her on Instagram, but she was even prettier in real life.
“For our viewers who aren’t aware, premium bonds can be set up for people at any age. Like the lottery, if your numbers come up, you win. I must say, Ms Walker, that when most people win a significant amount of money through premium bonds, they buy themselves a mansion, a holiday home somewhere, go on an amazing holiday. But, you, you put it all into setting up The Walker Foundation.”
I nodded uncomfortably, unsure of what to say.
“That’s amazingly selfless of you,” said the male interviewer, Evan Michaels. His hair was greyer than I’d expected. Clearly the TV crew did some clever editing with the cameras.
“Oh, no, no,” I shook my head, embarrassed. “You only get that sort of money once in a lifetime, if that, and I’d always thought about setting up a charity. So, I couldn’t miss that opportunity.” I chewed on the inside of my lip, stopping myself from saying the truth. That I could never accept that money. Not after everything that had happened.
“So, why Child Sexual Exploitation,often referred to as CSE,in particular?” Evan prompted.
I straightened up again, ready to launch my pre-rehearsed answer. “CSE is a growing problem, whether we admit it to ourselves or not. Last year, nearly seventeen thousand children were found to be at high risk of losing their childhoods, of being abused.” My voice was shaking. I had remembered my speech so far, at least, but it was coming out all disjointed and jarring. I wished it weren’t live so that some clever member of the production team could edit out any of my misspoken words or hesitations.
I shuffled on the leather sofa, the fabric sticking to the parts of my leg not covered by the pencil skirt. God, it was hot. Why did they insist on shining so many lights on me? I hoped the camera wouldn’t catch the beads of sweat brewing on my forehead.
“Beyond numbers, Ms Walker, what’s been the most difficult case you’ve personally dealt with in this area?” Evan was definitely attractive. He had a friendly smile and blue eyes that contrasted beautifully with his greying hair. He was the type of man you’d easily find yourself spilling your secrets to, as he had that trusting look about him, though, he’d have to have a hell of a lot more than just a nice face for me to spill mine.
Natasha was probably about twenty years younger. She was stunning, her wide eyes decorated with expensive mascara and eyeliner, her plump lips shimmering with lip gloss. No doubt she hadn’t needed two hours and forty-five minutes with the make-up artist this morning.
I knew what Annie had said about sharing personal stories, but I couldn’t. I needed to keep my stories as broad and generic as possible, for the sake of the families. I cleared my throat as I prepared to answer.
“Well, classic long-term effects of sexual abuse include a much higher risk of mental health issues, particularly areas around control. For instance, children who have experienced this may grow up to have eating disorders, as it’s one of the only things they can keep control of. Or, perhaps OCD or anxiety relating to cleanliness, as you’ll often find victims of sexual abuse will have a desperate need to feel clean, both inside and out.”
“I believe what they were asking for was for a specific example, actually.” It was her, Nancy Thompson, finally chipping in from the other end of the sofa.