Authors: Shane Dunphy
Shane Dunphy was born and brought up in Wexford where he now lives. He has worked as a child-protection worker in several countries and now teaches childcare courses in Waterford.
his first book, was a bestseller. He is a regular contributor to the
Fare you well, my own true love,
Farewell for a while
I'm going away, but I'll be back
If I go ten thousand wiles
Ten thousand miles, my own true love
Ten thousand miles or more
The rocks may melt and the seas may burn
But you know that I'll return
Oh don't you see the lonesome dove
Sitting on an ivy tree
She's singing a song for her own true love
As I shall sing for thee
Oh come you back my own true love
Come back and stay a while
If ever I had a friend at all
You've been a friend to me
Fare you well, my own true love,
Farewell for a while
I'm going away, but I'll be back
If I go ten thousand miles
âTen Thousand Miles',
TRADITIONAL FOLK SONG
Crying in the Dark
is the second part of a story begun in another book,
but can be read as a stand-alone â the narrative recounted here is not dependent on a reader having first read the previous title. This volume deals with different children in a different setting, and takes up the narrative twelve months later.
The incidents I write about have been taken from across the fifteen years I worked in child protection, and have been compressed into a three-month timeline for ease of reading. They did not happen concurrently, and names, gender, ages and all other identifying details have been altered to protect the identities of those described. The story you have before you takes place in a city, in Ireland, over a summer some time within the recent past;
that is simply the setting.
It could have occurred anywhere at any time. Everything did, however, happen. The events are all true.
The workers I describe in this book, other than myself, are purely fictitious, composites of people with whom I have worked. I have reproduced procedure as closely as I can, but different regions operate different procedural methods, so what you read here may differ slightly from your personal experience. I have tried to leave jargon and technical language out of the text as much as possible. Where it does occur, I have explained its meaning as simply as I can.
Standin' at the Crossroads
I'm standing at the crossroads and I don't know where to go;
The sun is gettin' higher and my heart is filled with woe.
I hear the wind a-moanin' and the dust is gettin' high,
But I'm standin' at this crossroads and the devil's passin' by.
âStandin' at the Crossroads',
TRADITIONAL BLUES SONG
The flats loomed out of the scutch grass and scrub of the wasteland like towers from a doomed kingdom. The land all about us was dotted with the husks of burnt-out cars, skeletons of twisted, mythological beasts. Stocky, piebald horses grazed on the reeds and tough vegetation with a dissatisfied look on their long faces, halters of blue, synthetic rope about their noses. A cloud of smog hung low over the twin keeps, foreboding in the rapidly approaching dusk. I lit a cigarette and handed the Zippo to my companion, Bill Creedon, a city Garda, tonight dressed in plain clothes.
âD'you think he's in there?' I asked, puffing smoke from the corner of my mouth, as Bill flicked the lid of the lighter closed and handed it back to me.
âOh, he's there all right,' he said. âC'mon. He's had too much of a head-start already. I'll take the rear entrance, you take the front.'
I was working in a residential home for teenage boys, many of whom had been sent to us by the courts, having fallen foul of the law for an assortment of offences, anything from drug-dealing to joy-riding. I was there on a temporary basis, looking for something more permanent, but not searching too hard. I was really only dipping my toes back in the waters of childcare after a year's break. On weekdays I taught at a local college, and I worked at the unit one night mid-week and at weekends. To judge from my performance so far that night, they would not be rushing to offer me a permanent post in the near future.
Roger, a new arrival who was supposed to be under my watchful eye, had made good his escape after only an hour in our care, breaking a bathroom window on the second floor of the building and climbing onto the roof, then down a fire-escape. It was the oldest trick in the book. Because we had an extra staff member on duty that night (we always did when there was a new child coming in), I had been sent out with the local police to bring him back. Bill, the juvenile liaison officer from the closest station, was used to our calls and had agreed to act as guide.
This had been Roger's first time in care, so he had not been difficult to track. A more experienced child would not have headed for home, but would have laid low somewhere for the first few hours, and then gone to a friend's house â somewhere we, or the police, would not have known about. Roger, on the other hand, had beaten a path straight for his mother's place in the Oldtown flats.
Bill and I walked over the hilly, pocked ground. We had been spotted from a good distance away. Children on bikes halted and watched us approach. Teenagers, lounging on the fence that separated the flats from no man's land, looked up and followed us with sullen attention. I glanced over at my companion. Although he was dressed similarly to me â a loose-fitting T-shirt, jeans and work-boots â he exuded the pungent aroma of âcop'. I didn't know whether it was his close-cropped hair, his stocky, muscular build or the way he held himself, but there was no doubt about his profession. Even if I had not known him, I could have picked him out of the crowd in any bar as a Guardian of the Peace. The group of kids awaiting us had already done so. I was probably a puzzle to them, but the fact that I was in the company of the enemy made me an unwelcome visitor.
We passed through a jagged gap in the metal fence and arrived at the base of the towers.
âMeet you in the middle,' Bill said and kept walking without pause around the corner of the building.
The towers had not been built with much architectural imagination. They were simply two six-storey rectangles of grey concrete, each containing thirty small flats, intended for families on the public housing list. Built more than twenty years earlier, they had become a ghetto of crime, wasted lives and human degradation. Someone involved in urban planning had apparently forgotten that sticking sixty families with a multitude of social problems into cheaply built cages, without any support network, was effectively inviting the gangs and the local mobsters to set up shop in the area. And, to the utmost surprise of the local authority, that is exactly what had happened.
Roger was a child of this environment. He had been born in the flats to a single-parent family and had become immersed in a life of petty crime and violence almost as soon as he could walk. He was now sixteen, and it would have been comforting to think that professionals like Bill and me could have done something for him, but it was unlikely that the trajectory of this young life would be altered. However, we would try. That was our job.
I started up the stairs. On the second landing a group of young men were sharing a joint. They watched me pass and said nothing, but their eyes followed me with naked threat. I knew that I was deep in alien territory, and was glad that Bill was nearby.
Roger lived on the third floor. As I came out of the stairwell onto the landing, I heard a shout from the group below.
âRog, you're busted! Get outta there!'
Roger, who must have been waiting for such a cry, barrelled past me. I dropped my cigarette and took off after him. Bill was coming up the stairs at the end of the landing â I had climbed up the middle â but there was another flight at the other end, and this was the one down which Roger had gone. Bill and I pounded after him.
We hit the pavement outside the flats in time to see our charge vanishing around a corner and down an alley about a hundred yards away.
âHe's heading into Oldtown village,' Bill panted. âYou go after him. I'll try and cut him off from the other end. He'll head for Main Street.'
I worked on the premise that, although Roger was faster, I was fitter and would eventually wear him out. What I hadn't banked on was the terrain we were running across. He took me on a tour of alleyways and back streets, a crazy, ragged path that went over fences, across walls and through piles of rubbish and junk. It was like running an obstacle course constructed by Oscar the Grouch, and by the time we had emerged into the main city thoroughfare again, I was drenched in sweat, reeking of dirt, and my muscles were aching in ways I had never imagined possible. I paused and pondered the only possible path Roger could have taken.
The alley gaped, dark and filthy, like the dry bed of some foul river. I stood before it, leaning against a grime-stained wall, catching my breath. I heard movement in the darkness and knew there was nothing for it but to go into the shadows.
âRoger, is that you?'
The city buzzed and pounded about me as if it was the heart of an enormous beast. Sweat trickled down my forehead and into my eyes. Ireland is not a warm country. It is usually wet and intemperate, but this had been the hottest summer I had known. The night air was heavy and felt like treacle as I sucked it in and out of my lungs.
I had been close behind Roger, and there was nowhere else to go than up the narrow passageway. I called again, and my holler was answered only by more shuffling and what sounded like a can being kicked. I peered into the gloom and began to slowly pick my way through the scattered rubbish towards the source of the noises.
The alley smelled of urine and stale cider. The deeper in I went, the farther away from reality I seemed to be, as if the rest of the world was getting distant. The sounds of traffic and human life from the street seemed to grow faint and dim. I was wrapped in darkness, sodden heat and human waste.
âRoger, come on, man. Enough is enough. Let's go back and get cleaned up.'
I heard shuffling footsteps and then made out huddled shapes at the end of the alley. There were four of them, but I couldn't tell if Roger was one of them or not. They had their backs to me and were leaning over something. I got the sickening sense that they were feeding; there was an aura of almost frantic hunger to them.
âHey,' I called from several feet away.
One turned, and I saw pale eyes set in a wizened face, a gash of a mouth and green, cracked, broken teeth.
âGo 'way, you,' the man drawled. âThere's nothin' for you here.'
I could smell the sickly aroma of cheap wine from him. Then a muffled cry that was nearly a sob drifted up from among them, and I knew where the boy was. Panicking, I lunged forward, grabbing the closest one by the shoulder and spinning him away. Roger was sprawled on the ground, surrounded by the winos, his hoody half off and a look of abject terror on his face. I did not know if they were stealing from him or doing something worse, but there was no time for questions. I reached down and dragged Roger to his feet.
âLeave him alone,' I said, hearing the tremble in my voice as we backed away.
They closed ranks, shuffling slowly together, a line of blank eyes staring at us. They were of indeterminate age â they seemed old, but with their rags and dirt-smeared faces they could have been younger than my thirty years. I pushed Roger behind me and took out my mobile phone.
âThe cops are nearby,' I told them. âI'm calling them right now, so don't move one fucking step.'
They came at us in a rush before I had a chance to dial, displaying a speed of movement that they should never have possessed. Roger screamed and ran, breaking out of my grip and shooting away towards the relative safety of the street. I had time to aim a kick at the closest groin and then they were on me. I went down on my back with a thud and cracked my head on the ground. Stars exploded across my vision. A fist hit me full on the nose. More stars, and awareness began to drift. I fought to wrest it back, but it was a losing battle. I punched blindly, connected with something soft, and then knew nothing for a time.
The feeling of nausea woke me.
I tried to open my eyes, but when I did the sky spun and pin-wheeled and then the sickness overpowered me and I rolled over and vomited a great gush onto the concrete. After getting sick again, I felt a little better. It occurred to me that I was on all fours, like a dog, and I crawled away from the pool of puke, finding a clear spot to sit down. I reached into the pocket of my jeans for my phone, but it was gone. My wallet too. A quick glance at my feet informed me, with some relief, that my boots were still there. Using my hands to grip the rough face of the wall behind me, I was dragging myself to a semi-standing position when I heard voices at the mouth of the alley. I groaned. If this was more trouble, I was in no condition to deal with it. Hell â I had not dealt with the last lot particularly efficiently.
âBill, I'm here.'
He winced when he saw me.
âChrist, what happened to you?'
âI got jumped. I made the mistake of flashing my mobile phone at a bunch of homeless people. I might as well have asked them to mug me. I take it you lost our young friend.'
âHe showed us a clean pair of heels. Listen, I'm taking you to the hospital. Is your nose broken?'
I touched it tenderly. âNo, I don't think so.'
Bill helped me to get up. My head swam for a second and I had to lean on him, but then it cleared and I was able to stand unassisted. I felt the back of my head. There was a large lump, but the skin wasn't broken.
âI'm okay. Just lead me back to the unit. A few paracetamol and a shower and I'll be fine.'
âDon't be an arsehole. You've probably got a concussion.'
âThere's a nurse on the staff, I'll be seen quicker there than if I go to Casualty,
there's less chance of being mugged a second time'.
âWell, I can't argue with that. My car's near. Can you walk?'
Back at the unit, I was fussed over and patched up by Jacinta, the nurse, and sent to bed immediately with a dose of painkillers. I didn't complain. The clients were all asleep, and if there were any disturbances during the night I would be called.
As it happened, I slept without being woken, and at eight thirty the next morning was sitting in the office, sipping coffee, nursing a mild headache and writing up the incident report of the previous night's adventure. I left out the full details of my encounter with the transients, because it had no bearing on Roger's continued absence, and because I was deeply embarrassed at having been overwhelmed by a bunch of drunks. I simply indicated in the report that there had been a scuffle that had detained me long enough for the wily youngster to elude me. I was just signing and dating the report when Jane, the house manager, came in.
âShane, I was hoping to have a word with you.' She poured herself a mug of coffee and sat down in the chair opposite me. âEventful evening?'
âThat's not what I heard.'
âIf you've come to gloat, you'll have to get in line.'
âActually, I wanted to discuss something with you. You're looking to get back into childcare full time, aren't you?'
âWell, I'm considering it, yeah.'
âI got a call last night from an old boss of mine, Benjamin Tyrrell.'
âAh, Ben. Yeah, I did a bit of work with him a few years back.'
Tyrrell was well known in childcare circles in Ireland as a charismatic leader, and something of a maverick. He had been one of the first managers of a residential childcare unit in the country who was not a member of a religious order, and he tended to divide opinion right down the middle: he was either loved or loathed. I had a deep fondness for the man.
âHe's running some kind of outreach programme for children with special needs,' Jane said. âHe's just been appointed. I think the project is financed by one of the voluntary agencies. He didn't give me many details, but the kids are, shall we say, extremely challenging. Ben had heard that you were helping out here, and wondered if you'd be interested in jumping ship.'
Benjamin was always interesting to work with. His ideas were fascinating, he was a naturally gifted manager, and he was one of the most talented childcare workers I had ever encountered. Children simply opened up to him. I had been drifting for the past twelve months. I enjoyed the teaching, but was not fully committed to it. Similarly, I knew that I was not cut out for work with young offenders. Jane knew it too.