The fly was smooshed across the newspaper, over the rolled up angry face of Wayne Rooney. A blackberry jam smear of blood ran from it, wings smashed.
It was poked, gently, with the prong of a fork. There was no doubt whatsoever. It hadn’t moved since it was hit hard with The Sun the day before, resting on a table after sipping at some spilt cola. He had retrieved the paper from the bin, delighted that the corpse was still there. Fate had brought them together.
Sprinkled with salt, then a crumbling of pungent yellow sulphur, spat on. It perhaps ought to be blood, but spit was simpler to procure. There was a mumbling of words, volume kept low. Concentration. He felt the power work the way through the veins, out through the fingers, into the hazel twig held within the fingers and out.
A soft fire sprang up around the broken body of the fly, whispering around it, kissing it with holly flames.
Was that? Could it be?
The holder of the hazel wand peered at the fly. The dark green flames were impressive enough, to have pulled those out of the air – the flames weren’t hot but cool and they didn’t scorch or char the newspaper, they just bathed the fly’s body. The salt burned. The spit bubbled. The sulphur crumbled within the flames.
But was there a stirring? Was there?
There was a knock at the door, brisk and forceful.
“Al,” said a deep voice from outside, “Breakfast is up mate. Coco Pops as well. Get in!”
The flames went out as his concentration lapsed. He pushed all of it under the bed, corpse, wand, newspaper. The experiment would have to be concluded another time.
Al opened the door to his bedroom, rubbed the flat of his hand over the part of his hair that is sticking up from sleep. He was barefoot, wearing pyjamas. He was thirteen, chubby.
“Jesus,” said Brick, the well-built teenager standing outside on the landing, “Your room stinks. Smells like something’s died in there. Lots of somethings. An army of the dead.”
The sulphur, Al realised.
“What have you been eating?” said Brick, wafting the smell away with a hand, “Ha. It’s no wonder you’ve got flies in there.”
Al turned in the doorway, to see a fat black fly spiral into the air. The fly climbed with hesitant soft noises, fumbled its way upwards, banged into the window because of course that’s what it would do when given the gift of life after death, fly straight into a window.
It had worked. He was Dr Frankenstein. Of flies. It was a start though.
In 2015, over two hundred children in England and Wales were placed in Secure Accommodation, meaning that they could be locked up for their own welfare without having been convicted of or charged with any criminal offence. Basically, a prison for their own good. Many of the basic freedoms that most children take for granted – being able to go out with friends, being able to make calls on a mobile phone, being able to use the internet, the ability to sleep in a bedroom that doesn’t have a locked door, are things that have to be re-earned in a Secure Accommodation Centre. These children are locked up because they usually have a history of running away from other sorts of care, whether that be with their parents, in foster homes or children’s homes, and when they run away they do things that put themselves, or other people at risk.
Ten such children at a time were accommodated at Saffron Park, a state of the art Secure Accommodation Centre. Saffron Park had unscaleable walls, gate system that can only be released by staff inside a sealed Gatehouse building, which cannot be accessed from outside. Complete security. Complete peace of mind. Built in 2007, located in Dartmoor. Remote location, meaning that in the unlikely event of an escape, the young person will be quickly recovered – no bus stops or train stations within nine miles. No neighbouring villages where refuge could be sought.
On site educational facilities, even the ability to conduct examinations. Recreational facilities including a gym. All meals provided and cooked on site. In house therapist to deliver bespoke packages of treatment for any form of difficulty. Five trained and qualified members of staff on hand at all times, even during the night. Staff rotated once per week, to maintain freshness and vigilance.
Expensive? Well yes, places like Saffron Park are always very expensive. But for the sorts of problems they are dealing with, there’s limited competition. Children don’t come to places like Saffron Park if there’s a cheaper solution, if their problems can be fixed or contained another way. Saffron Park is the place where they send children who can’t be managed in other Secure Units. The worst of the worst. Saffron Park is where they send you just before they give up on you completely.
It’s where they send the deeply troubled. The runners, the cutters.
All of that, of course, could be read on their website, on their glossy promotional brochure. The thing they didn’t boast about, because they had utterly no idea was that they didn’t routinely have ten prisoners. They had eleven. That eleventh having been in prison for decades longer than Saffron Park had ever existed. A prisoner who was hungrier for freedom than any of the children who came and went, and more disturbed and damaged than any of them.
Monday 26th October 2015 9.30am
It was a cold October day on the streets of Brighton and the boy had been thinking about stealing an oil painting when his mobile telephone rang.
“Surprise and delight me,” he said into the phone.
A voice spoke to him, and the boy smiled widely. Whilst the look on his face did not convey surprise, delight was certainly nearby. He was a very slight boy, fourteen but looking much younger, small for his age. He didn’t have the awkwardness in limbs that many of his peers were developing. He had ash-blonde hair in a tousled cut, a wedge of it falling across the left side of his forehead, and this together with his blue eyes and long eyelashes made him look like a chorister. He wore a black leather jacket, skinny leg jeans and ice-blue Nike Air Max. He had on a black V-neck jumper and around his neck was a diamond necklace on a silver chain, sparkling in the winter sunshine. The boy had a fondness for things that sparkled, beautiful things. If they happened to wave at him through a window, he wasn’t one to resist the call. They often did.
“Two beds?” said Robin, and after pausing for the answer, “And my old room?”
He nodded happily along with the answers. There was a bounce through the soles of his Nikes as he climbed the inclined street. The wind was pounding in from the sea, buffeting the gulls from side to side. He had come from the pebbled beach, the seething sea always made him calm and ready.
“See you tonight then Brick”
He put the phone back into his jacket pocket. A few things to take care of, some shopping to do, and then he could make his arrangements. But before the shopping, there was the money to sort out.
Robin’s walk took him all the way up West Street, past the bar with the red neon sign that said “Absolutely no alcohol and no nuclear weapons allowed”, past the little restaurants where people smoked hookah pipes upstairs, and up onto the main drag, by the clock tower. He ended up outside Waterstones, where the Big Issue seller stood by the window in front of the display of children’s books, blowing on his hands to keep them warm. As usual, there was the worn Tartan blanket and the plastic ice-cream tub by his feet. Robin’s practised eye took in the contents of the tub, scanned for coins and the odd balled up note within it. Without any passer-by being even able to notice that he had looked at the case at all, he had totalled up exactly how much was in there.
“Freddie,” he said to the Big Issue seller, clocking the whiteness that was appearing in the man’s beard around the jaw, “How are you doing, mate?”
“Robin,” said Freddie, suppressing a nasty sounding cough, “It’s been ages! You been away?”
“Away. Back. About to go away again. You know me”
Freddie laughed, “Too right mate. Never stay anywhere long, do you?”
“Always looking over my shoulder, Freddie. Gets tiring after a while”
The boy made a show of fumbling with his right hand in his jeans pocket. His left hand was busy elsewhere.
“Got a fiver you can have, Freddie,” said the boy, “I wish it was more, but you know how it is”
“That’s bloody good of you,” said Freddie as the boy pressed it into his hand, “Helps in this weather”
“I know,” said Robin, “I know how hard it is on the street. Listen, I’ve got to go, but I’ll catch you next time I’m in Brighton.”
“Cheers Robin”, said Freddie, as their hands separated, “When will that be then?”
“Well, officially, probably not for six months. But you know me.”
Robin gave Freddie a slap on the shoulder and strode off. Important to keep the pace up here, but without looking suspicious. Important not to look back.
He took his expensive phone out of his pocket, dialled the number of his solicitor, kept walking, buttered himself into the crowd. Look for the boy with the sun in his eyes and he’s gone. He knew where the cameras were, knew how to not be spotted by them. It was effortless these days, to move in ways that cameras would not see. He’d been doing it for so long, it didn’t actually require any thought from him. Visibility came much harder to him.
“Is Mr A in? I’ll be needing him this afternoon. Two o’clock. At the Magistrates Court. Robin Howard. Yeah, he knows my case. He’ll probably get an official call in a couple of hours from the other side, but I wanted to give him the heads-up.”
Back outside Waterstones, Freddie handed a copy of the Big Issue to a woman who had just brought a Rick Stein cookbook, and offered her the change, which she took. He went to drop the money into the plastic tub and saw the roll of twenties in there held together with an elastic band, a roll thick as a stick of rock, that Robin had invisibly dropped there for him.
Robin made his final telephone call. “Is Lisa there? Do you know when she’ll be back? Okay, it’s about a Missing Boy. One of her boys is missing. Robin Howard. He’s been missing for twenty days. I know where she’ll be able to find him. He’ll be at the Magistrates Court this afternoon. Two o’clock. If she’s not there with her application at two o’clock today, she won’t see him for another twenty days. Tell her it’s today or not at all. Make sure you tell her.”