The author lives with her daughter at the seaside in a rambling, crumbling house full of dogs, cats, an ancient grandmother and an equally ancient retainer who all speak foreign languages.
The young girl was sleeping, her face and hair so pale under the luminous lights that the teacher held her own hand against the girl’s mouth to feel if she was still breathing.
The hospital was deathly silent with pools of light at other beds and the nurse’s station, but there were no other occupants and the nurse was fetching coffee.
“She’s okay,” a voice said and the teacher actually jumped backward in surprise, so deep had been her concentration on the girl’s face.
“Sorry,” the man apologized and extended a hand, “I’m Doctor Smith.”
“Smith?” she said, for want of anything better to say and shook his hand. He shrugged and lifted the girl’s heavily bandaged arms.
“You see?” he said, “If she were dead, the pathologists would be saying she had raised her arms against the knife in self-defense”.
“Against whom?” the teacher asked.
Doctor Smith laid the girl’s arms back on the bed with an almost unbearable gentleness and said quietly, “Herself of course.”
The teacher had to clear her throat to speak again, “And you asked me to come. Why?”
He smiled, but could not raise his eyes to look at her, “Her parents would not,” he said, “and she had been calling your name.”
She was lost in a very strange dream. There were men and women in white coats flapping about everywhere like moths and she kept saying, “Yes, but my mother. I want to see my mother”, while the white-coated people flapped away out of reach. She was muttering, moaning and woke herself up. Still in the hospital; still in the dimmed fluorescent lights. But the girl was staring at her through opaque blue eyes.
“Hello,” she whispered. She had turned on her side and was resting her head on one of her wounded arms. “You came.”
“Of course. How are you?”
She felt fuzzy and uncertain. What was she supposed to do or say? In the end she could only resort to honesty. She couldn’t bear politeness.
The girl smiled. “That’s why I wanted you to come,” she said, “You know.”
“I know?” she repeated looking in the clear, blue eyes for some kind of emotion, but they were as flat and clear as the sea on a sunny day.
“I don’t have to explain to you,” the girl said. “You know all about it.”
Know everything, but did nothing, the words seemed to imply. Yet the girl’s eyes showed no anger. They were opaque and expressionless as usual. What could be more hopeless and frustrating, the woman thought, than being aware of a crime, yet being unable to prevent it?
“How are you?” she asked again instead, knowing the words sounded banal and trite.
“I’m free,” the girl said and turned on her side to face the woman directly. “No one will ever hurt me again.”
There was such fierce determination on her face that the woman had to look away.
“Is there anything you need?” she asked.
“Yes,” the girl said. “I need people to know the truth. I want you to tell them the truth. Will you do that for me Claire?” her hands reached out and all Claire could do was take them and mutter helplessly, “I’ll try”.
“No,” the girl said, “You must. There is no other way. You have to tell the police that they tried to kill me.”
In a reflex movement, Claire tightened her grip on the girl’s hands.
“Who?” she said, thinking of the young doctor’s comments.
“My parents of course,” the girl said, “You have known that they wanted to kill me for a long time now. My soul they killed long ago, but my body – this is the evidence they have to remove.”
Claire was so terrified by the look of fanaticism in the girl’s eyes that she dropped her hands, exclaimed and backed away. Had she finally gone mad? Was it the medication?
“You will do it? You will tell the police?” the girl said with her hands still outstretched.
But Claire was backing away into the darkness and when she reached the safety of the passage, she fled.
When she got to her car, Claire tried to put her keys into the ignition, but her hands were shaking so badly she dropped them. She put her hands to her face and took deep breaths.
The young girl lying in the hospital was one of her twelfth grade students, Juliette Beckman. Claire was just one of her teachers. And her parents, Claire thought, of all things, were two of the most respected members of the school board. Her father was a lawyer, her mother a wealthy socialite.
And yet this suspicion of abuse had been present ever since Claire had known Juliette – which was when? The ninth grade? Did any of her other teachers suspect something? Know something? Claire had tried to bring up the subject discreetly many times, but her question was never answered. She had even phoned the police anonymously with a metaphorical question “What if?”
She wanted to know what the consequences would be for Juliette and her family. But the process related to her by the matter-of-fact policewoman seemed cold, hard and if Claire was wrong, far worse than Juliette’s current situation. She had not known what to do. And now this.
When she got home, Claire found that her boyfriend, Simon had opened a bottle of wine and was making a salad. He took one look at her face as she dropped her keys on the table.
“Bad day?” he said and as she just nodded, handed her a glass of the chilled wine. She sipped and noticed that her hand still shook.
“It’s one of the girls at school,” she said, “I don’t know what to do.”
Simon raised an eyebrow, “That bad?” he said.
“She’s in hospital,” she said and then found the whole story spilling out of her.
It was like a confession and Simon was a good listener. He just let her talk as they sat at the kitchen table eating steak and salad – well, he ate, Claire picked out olives and feta cheese and drank her wine.
“I knew,” she said, “as soon as I got to the school that Juliette had problems at home. She was very quiet, had dark circles under her eyes, difficulty sleeping, you know,” Claire flicked a look up at Simon but he was concentrating on his food. “I just didn’t know what to do,” she said, “None of the other members of staff seemed concerned so I waited.”
“Waited?” Simon repeated.
“To see if she would talk to me,” Claire said. “And she did mention that her father was aggressive when he was drunk – flinging an ornament across the room I think it was. But it was said in a kind of joking manner and I wasn’t sure if she was serious.”
“She was joking about her father throwing things at her?” Simon said. This time he looked at her and frowned.
“Well,” Claire shrugged, “I did ask if there was anywhere else for her to go – maybe a relation to visit for a time, for a break. She mentioned a granny. But I think the granny has passed away, so now even that door is closed to her.”
She poured another glass of wine and sat back.
“Did you ever mention this to the principal or heads of department?” Simon said.
“I asked about a hypothetical child,” Claire said, “And the answer was basically that anything was better than being taken into care by the state. I decided I would try to follow it up on my own. See if there were any alternatives. I didn’t know who would believe me – I just had this instinct, based on what she had said – and then she refused to go to the police herself.”
“Then there’s nothing else you can do,” Simon said, gathering up plates and stacking them in the dishwasher.
“That’s just it,” Claire said. “At the hospital she basically demanded that I do something. She said I must report her parents, but…”
“But what?” Simon said.
“The doctor said her injuries were self-inflicted,” Claire said.
“Let’s just wait and see shall we?” Simon said, “Don’t worry. There will probably be a psychological evaluation.
Her dreams were tormented, fragmented. There were shadows and light. Strangely, in the light was fear and in the darkness, safety. She wanted to scream, but her throat closed. She woke and sat up, drenched in sweat. Simon was still sleeping peacefully beside her. She had decided. She would go to the police.
She walked through to the kitchen and switched on the dim counter lights. She put on the kettle. She made a cup of chamomile tea and walked into her study. Parts of it had been taken over by Simon. He always brought files and paperwork home from his office. As a busy attorney he said he was always playing catch up.
She sank into the lemon yellow sofa and was about to pick up a magazine when the end of a word caught her eye – “man”. That was all and yet she felt chilled to the bone. She pulled out the file that had been hidden under a pile of others and saw the name “Cameron Beckman” on the front. It was Juliette’s father and as she gripped the folder she had an unreal sense of disbelief. She had just been talking about Juliette to Simon. Why had he not said anything?
She knew the files were confidential, but she couldn’t help herself. She had to know what Simon was doing with the information. As she opened the folder, photos slipped out and fell onto the carpet. She picked them up and almost immediately dropped them as if stung. They were pictures of girls – young girls – teenagers – all pretty and all displaying bruises and injuries to the camera.
Claire put her hand to her mouth as she saw black eyes, broken arms, split and swollen lips, cigarette burns and cuts that had been stitched up.
“What is this?” she whispered.
She looked at the file that seemed to be a litany of evidence against Cameron Beckman for the abuse of young girls, listing places, dates, times. There were statements that Claire could only partly read as the simple words stung her eyes to tears.
“No,” she whispered, “It can’t be.”
Then she had another terrible thought. Juliette had not excluded her mother in her blanket accusation at the hospital. She had said, “my parents”.
Frantically Claire scanned the pages for information about Sonja Beckman. She couldn’t find anything. Then the main light to the study flicked on.
“What are you doing?” Simon said. He was standing at the door in his boxer shorts looking coldly angry.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Claire said. “I was talking all about her at dinner and you said nothing.”
“You know this information is confidential,” Simon said taking the folder out of her hands, “You could misconstrue things, overreact…”
“Overreact?” Claire was furious, “What do you want? A corpse?”
“Claire,” Simon’s tone was conciliatory.
“No!” she shouted, “I want you to leave.” He lifted his hand. “Just go!” she said.
She heard him gathering his things and sank her head into her hands.
“I just don’t want you leaping to conclusions,” he said before he left, “especially after…”
“After what? What happened to me you mean,” she said, “You think I’m crazy? Me? After you’ve seen these photos!”
“Just give yourself time to cool down,” he said.
Then she heard him letting himself out the front door.
Claire could not go back to sleep. Memories swarmed around her, stinging like hornets. Her mother’s mental illness. Being taken into foster homes. The violence at home and sometimes at school that had been so sudden and so arbitrary, seared into her mind.
Agitated, she picked up the phone and dialed the hospital.
“I just wanted to check on a patient,” she said, “Juliette Beckman?”
There was a pause and then a nurse at the other end said, “Miss Beckman was released into her parents’ care this evening.”
“What?” Claire shouted, “But I just saw her.”
“The doctor decided she could go home,” the nurse said, “Are you a family member?”
“What about evaluations?” Claire said.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said very firmly, “That information is confidential – for family members only.”
Claire hung up the phone in a paralysis of indecision. She was startled when it rang under her hand.
“Hello,” she said cautiously.
“Claire,” it was unmistakeably Juliette Beckman, “You have to come. You have to help.” Then there were some breathy noises and scuffling. Claire heard screams.
“What is it Juliette?” she called urgently.
All she could hear were the screams. She threw on a coat, grabbed her bag and keys and ran out of the door. She knew the Beckman’s address but had never been to their house. She spent wasted anxious minutes hunting for street names and the correct number before she drove into a wide, tree-lined driveway. The nightlights illuminated the street number, but she was surprised to find the security gate standing wide open.
Anxiety spurred her on and she drove – seemingly forever – until she got to the entrance of the impressive mansion. She ran to the front door and again was surprised to see it standing open. She darted in calling, “Juliette! Juliette!”
Some rooms were half-lit, furniture overturned and more than anything, the silence terrified her. Expecting the worst, she was still unprepared for the sight in the living room. Mrs Beckman lay slumped on the sofa, blood spattering the elegant satin upholstery.
Claire’s stomach heaved and she fought off dry retching as she ran upstairs.
“Juliette,” she called softly, not hoping to find the girl alive. But there she stood, near her four-poster bed that was luxuriously swathed in peach and apricot silks. Her father, Mr Cameron Beckman was sprawled on the dark brown carpeting that showed no sign of the blood that would have come from the glaring wound in his head.
“Hello Claire,” Juliette said in a calm, cool voice, “I’m so glad you came.”
“Juliette,” Claire said in a voice that didn’t seem her own, “What have you done?”
She looked at the gun in Juliette’s hand – a hand that was wearing a beautiful arm-length black evening glove.
“Take it,” Juliette said to her, offering the weapon, “I don’t know what I might do to myself.”
Claire took the gun gingerly as though it were a venomous snake. She watched Juliette pull off the black gloves and then everything seemed to spin out of control. There were sirens, Juliette was screaming again and officers poured into the room. They took Claire away and as she turned to look back, she saw a broken, weeping Juliette in the arms of a woman police officer.
“Wait,” she said to the police who marched her into a waiting vehicle, “You don’t understand.”
But no one would speak to her. No one would look at her. And even Simon would not take her phone-calls. A court-appointed defense attorney told her that Simon could not help her due to conflicts of interest.
“But he has the photos – the file,” she tried to explain.
“What photos?” they said, “What file?”
A beautiful, slip of a girl in a minuscule coral bikini pirouetted on a beach with white sands, framed by a translucent blue sea. Her handsome male companion was taking photos.
“Come here gorgeous,” he said.
Waiters in white linen were bringing tall, icy cocktails.
“When did you first think of it,” he said, sipping on a rum and coconut concoction.
“Oh, that parent’s evening, do you remember?” she said, flopping down next to him on her multicolored beach towel. “I thought, what on earth was a hunk like you doing with an old hag like her.”
Simon laughed and caressed her thigh, “That was the ninth grade,” he said.
“I know what I want,” she said, “And I wanted you.”
“Your parent’s millions don’t hurt,” Simon said.
Juliette sighed deeply and stretched languorously.
“They said I would have to wait for my trust fund till I was twenty one,” she said, “Can you believe it? Three whole years! And whenever I wanted something, all they would do is nag, nag, nag. Well, now I do things my way.”
“You were lucky I was able to get Claire’s gun,” Simon said.
“And she just took it out of my hand,” Juliette laughed, “It was so easy.”
As the couple’s caresses became more urgent, the waiters looked the other way. A red sun was setting over paradise.
“Trust” Copyright © 2010 by Ingela Richardson, All Rights Reserved