Panic is bubbling up through my body. My tongue is dry and my stomach is churning horribly, although I’m not hungry.
To distract myself I start fiddling with my pretty bead bracelet. I like the feel of the smooth chunks of coloured glass as they roll between my nervous fingers. I don’t know if I can go through with this.
I steal a glance at the face of the female detective who is sitting next to me in the back of the police car. She looks very determined, while I feel extremely wobbly.
“You look nice, Alloma. Very smart.” DC Martell is smiling encouragingly, as the car nudges through the heavy morning traffic towards Bristol Crown Court, where I will shortly be giving evidence in a child abuse case against my foster mother of ten years, Eunice Spry.
The detective is a reassuring presence. But in my mind I am still remembering Eunice’s scrawny hands around my throat, trying to stop me from speaking out, squeezing the very breath from my body.
Then I remember that the owner of those terrifying hands is now safely in police custody, and I finally find my voice. “Thanks,” I say to the detective. “But are you really sure there’ll be a screen?”
DC Martell’s face softens. “I’m sure, Alloma. She’ll be brought into court after you’ve arrived, so you really won’t see her face. I promise.”
I nod slowly, trying to take this in. God I hope you’re right, I think, because if she can see me, she can get me. The minute I’m skewered by her gaze, by those hard, grey eyes that bore into my very soul, then I’ll be lost.
The car pulls up outside the imposing court building and I’m hastily shepherded inside.
An official brings me a cup of tea and tells me I might have to wait several hours to be called. To be honest, after so many years of suffering in silence, I don’t suppose another few hours will make a huge difference.
For me, the real issue is whether or not other people – in this case, a jury of 12 complete strangers – will believe the extraordinary story that I, my younger brother Thomas and our foster sister Sarah are going to tell them. We can only wait and hope.
That story begins, for Thomas and me at least, back in the spring of 1991, when we were still living with my real mum and dad in the genteel spa town of Cheltenham.
As a little girl I knew absolutely that my parents loved me. That security is the greatest gift you can give a child and is something most of us are lucky enough to take for granted. I don’t.
I am grateful to my mum and dad for showing me warmth and affection, for every hug and kiss and kind word. Without the memory of being loved once, I might not have survived my horrific years with Eunice Spry.
My parents had met very young and although they adored their children, our home life was somewhat chaotic.
My mother’s health was fragile and both my parents had experimented as teenagers with drugs, leaving them with problems for which they were still bravely seeking help when I was a little girl.
Every day they would go to a local drug rehabilitation centre, often taking me and, later, Thomas with them. They’d do their best to make it a fun outing for us, taking us for lunch in the canteen and going to the park on the way home.
But by the time I was six and Thomas was around three, they were struggling to cope. My father forgot to pick me up from school one day, then again, and then quite regularly. My teachers started to get worried. Some days my parents didn’t manage to get me to school at all.
It was at this point that Eunice Spry came into our lives. My parents already knew her because she had looked after me briefly as a baby while my mother recovered from an operation.
Now, at this difficult period in their lives, they turned to her for help again. How could they ever have foreseen the dreadful consequences of their decision? My parents were Eunice’s victims, too.
Eunice Spry had originally come to them recommended by Gloucestershire Social Services as a registered childminder and foster carer. She was in her 40s, a pillar of the community and a devout Jehovah’s witness, as well as being the mother of two children. Her credentials seemed perfect.
By the time I met her as a six-year-old, Eunice’s children had grown up and she had adopted two young girls: Charlotte, who was a couple of years older than me, and Sarah, who was about the same age. She readily agreed to help take care of us as well.
Looking back now I can see how Thomas and I must have seemed like the sweetest little ripe cherries, ready for the picking. With her gimlet eyes, which missed nothing, Eunice must have entered our house and seen the disorder that pointed unmistakably to a family in trouble.
She was kindness itself on her first visit to our house, chatting to us all in a friendly, lively way. She taught me to knit with needles and wool she’d brought specially, and before she left she invited us to her house for Sunday lunch.
Eunice’s semi-detached house in Tewkesbury, around 15 miles from ours, was a revelation. It was warm and cosy and packed with games, toys and videos, not to mention her five cats.
From the very first time we went there, Thomas and I loved it. Before long we began staying overnight, and then for whole weekends.
I now know from the evidence gathered for the court case that Eunice was “grooming” my mum. She bribed her with presents, offers of washing and cooking and the promise of a good life for her children, so that Mum would entrust us to Eunice’s care.
For a year we shuttled back and forth between our house and Eunice’s until the inevitable day when my father called us into the living room and said he had something important to tell us.
“You know you like going to Eunice’s for the weekend?” he said. “Well,” my dad paused and looked at the floor, “you’ll be living there from now on.”
My mum was in floods of tears. I crawled over to her and she put her arms around me. I felt sad and scared because I loved my mum, but I also felt a twinge of excitement, if I am totally honest.
“It’s all right, Mum,” I said. “I’ll be fine. Thomas and I will be OK.”
“Yes, love, I’m sure you will,” said Mum, through her tears.
What she did not know, and what would later emerge in court, was that Eunice had by now been struck off as a carer by Gloucestershire Social Services, because they thought she already had too many children to look after.
Eunice had made a private arrangement with my mum after she had been de-registered. How the funding was arranged I have no idea, although I came to understand how clever and devious Eunice was when it came to playing officials off against each other.
By the time I was seven-and-a-half, I had moved to Eunice’s full-time and the pattern of my life had reversed. Thomas and I would visit my parents for an occasional weekend or evening, and Eunice’s house was now to be called “home”.
I quickly settled in to my new routine, however, and I liked my new school and classmates. I was a chatty and sociable little girl and not afraid to ask questions. Like most children, I simply accepted the new situation.
Only now do I realise that almost from the moment I got to her house Eunice wanted me to forget about my past life. She made it clear, for example, that we were to think of her as our real parent.
“Call me Mummy,” she insisted, and as Charlotte and Sarah did, we did too.
However, she stressed that during our occasional visits to see our parents we had to remember to call her Auntie Eunice.
The second thing we had to do was to change our names. I was upset about this, as I loved my name, Alloma – it had been chosen by Mum after she’d read it in a book about fairies and mystical people.
But Eunice didn’t like it. In her eyes it was a “magic” name and therefore, according to a curious expression she used, “demonised”.
This came to light one day as Thomas and I were sitting at the table with Charlotte and Sarah. Eunice gave a book to Charlotte and said mockingly: “Pass this to the Devil’s child next to you.” This, apparently, was me. I blushed and felt very embarrassed. I looked up and Eunice showed no emotion at all.
Charlotte smirked and looked at Eunice, who said maliciously: “Yes, they’re the Devil’s kids all right.”
Eunice put a piece of paper in front of me. “There’s a better choice of names for you,” she said. “Better than your demonised name, anyway.”
Tears stung my eyes. My name was a link with the family I loved. But I looked up at Eunice’s stern face and I knew I had to choose. No question. From that day I became Harriet, not Alloma.
It was all very confusing. I was seeing a new, bad-tempered side of the kind lady who had taught me to knit, which was really rather scary. I didn’t like it at all.
Several curious events from that time stick in my mind. One of them is the day I went swimming with Charlotte and we met by chance two of her biological siblings, from whom she’d been separated when she went to live with Eunice.
When we got home I was full of the news. “We’ve just met Charlotte’s brother and sister!” I blurted out. Eunice’s reaction was extraordinary.
She stopped what she was doing and strode towards me with a terrifying look on her face. She seemed to have grown in size and was towering over me, her face white and taut with barely suppressed rage.
“Oh, no you didn’t,” she snapped. “They were just friends.”
Charlotte said nothing and looked down. She obviously knew not to quibble. But I didn’t know any better. “But we did – we saw her brother and sister.”
Eunice suddenly leant forward and tapped me sharply on the mouth. I was totally taken aback. It hurt a lot, and I hadn’t the slightest idea why she had done it. It was the mildest taste of what was to come. I had stepped into dangerous territory.
All these years later I’m still trying to understand whether Eunice’s cruelty was born of a religious belief that she needed to teach us a lesson, or whether she sincerely felt that what she made us do, or what she did to us, was improving our characters.
Either way, her outlook was punitive and extreme, with everything divided into black and white, good and evil, and with her as the judge.
When I look back on living with Eunice’s regime I think of it as going down a flight of steps to a basement. On the first few steps, I had to get acclimatised to the drop in light and temperature.
As I went on, it began to feel damp and uncomfortable, until finally I descended into a cold, rat-infested, stinking cellar where I was tortured sadistically until I screamed for mercy. But no mercy came.
After the tap on the mouth, Eunice began to mistreat Sarah, Thomas and me – although not so much Charlotte, whom she seemed to adore – on a regular basis, starting with flicks and hits on the mouth and then clouts to the head.
I was beginning to get a clear idea of what life with her was going to be like: an endless succession of rules, punishments and bizarre rituals.
One of the very worst of these was the daily toilet check. After breakfast we were marched to the toilet where we were required to perform, and not allowed to leave the bathroom until we’d done so.
It was terrible, and I was petrified. Of course, the more anxious I got, the less I was able to deliver. We were also forbidden to go to the toilet at any other time of day.
But the torture didn’t end there. If we didn’t come up with the goods in the morning, Eunice would administer an enema. The big syringe would come out, filled with green washing-up liquid mixed with water.
Eunice would bark at me to pull my pants down. She would then shove in the syringe, push the plunger in and order me to hold on to the soapy liquid for as long as her whim dictated.
When it was over I would go to school feeling utterly horrible, hoping no one would ever find out what had been done to me at home. Unbelievably, this appalling regime continued day in, day out until I finally escaped from Eunice when I was 17-years-old.
With Eunice, we discovered, you were either in her good books or her bad books. Charlotte was generally in her good books, as was Robert, a baby taken on by Eunice shortly after we went to live with her.
The rest of us were almost invariably in some sort of trouble, especially if we didn’t go to sleep when we were supposed to.
I found this out the hard way one evening when I became aware of Eunice standing in the doorway watching me as I pranced round my bedroom in my nightie after lights out.
“Right,” she said. “You’re obviously not tired. So I’m going to make you tired.” With that she yanked me out of the room and pulled me to the top of the stairs. Was she going to push me down?
“You’re to walk up and down these stairs all night,” she told me. “I mean all night. Right the way through.”
I looked up at her mean, hard face. She had to be joking. It was dark and cold, and I had bare feet and no dressing gown. But she wasn’t joking.
“Go on, what are you waiting for?” I started walking down the stairs to the bottom, Eunice watching my every step. At the bottom I turned, I suppose half hoping she’d relent.
“Come back up, this instant,” she said.
I went back up the stairs, my little legs already aching. At the top Eunice simply gestured silently for me to go back down again. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. What would my mum and dad say if they knew? Or my teachers?
Eventually Eunice went to bed and the house fell silent, but I knew I had no choice but to keep going. As the night wore on I started to trip up because I’d lose concentration, even consciousness, from time to time.
Then I’d come to, having fallen momentarily asleep, and find myself standing up in the hall, wondering what on earth I was doing there in my nightie in the dead of night. This punishment happened more times than I can remember.
One of the most terrifying things about Eunice’s discipline was that it was never doled out in temper. It was always done in a cold, hard, calculating way, often hours and sometimes even days after the misdemeanour had been committed.
Then, when she was ready to let rip, she would grab me by the arm, drag me into the living room and close the door.
While I stood trembling, she would fetch a piece of wood that she kept under the stairs with her Jehovah’s Witness books. It was about two feet long – I think it was the handle off an old copper saucepan or something.
“Take your shoes and socks off,” she would command, tapping the stick on her left palm, as if testing its weight.
I remember the first time this happened. I had no idea exactly what she was going to do and just stood there trembling in my bare feet. Suddenly, Eunice bent over and I felt a most enormous “clunk” across the toes of my right foot. The pain seared through my bare feet, and I screamed out loud.
“Be quiet,” said Eunice. “Don’t fuss. You’ll make it worse for yourself.”
How could it be worse? I was shaking and crying, but Eunice was bent double again, raising the stick and now she was going at my toes with great, unrelenting clunks. Clunk, clunk, clunk … on and on, five, ten, 15 times. Then she changed foot.
“Stand still, you’ll make it worse,” she said again.
By now I was beside myself, yelping and screaming. But there was no let-up until the punishment was finally done.
A few times after being beaten like this I’d ask Eunice for a hug and she would briefly put her arms round me. For a moment I would feel comforted. It was twisted and makes me feel sick now, but children need affection so much that they will ask for it even from their abuser.
After these beatings my toes would be black and blue all over. I remember once at the swimming baths – before Eunice eventually put a stop to such outings – one of the dads noticed my bruised toes and asked: “How did you do that, then?”
I just said: “Something fell on my feet.” Young as I was, I knew somehow that I was not supposed to tell the truth about Eunice’s behaviour.
In 1994 our lives took a strange and new twist. Unknown to us, Eunice had befriended an elderly man named John Drake, who owned a huge farm near the affluent, pretty market town of Pershore, north of Tewkesbury.
John had never married and was now living alone. He was also suffering from lung cancer and needed nursing care. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Eunice had spotted an opportunity to inherit the farm and make herself a lot of money.
In the autumn of that year, without any explanation from Eunice, we went to live with John full-time. For me yet another new life had begun, although not everything had changed.
The bizarre regime of daily rituals and punishments went on as usual – washing-up liquid down the throat for lying or answering back, strangleholds to teach us a lesson, daily clouts around the head. Slaps on the mouth and punches continued as before, albeit well out of John’s sight and hearing.
As for school, it soon became clear that commuting back to Tewkesbury every day was impractical. Instead, Eunice applied to be our home tutor.
By doing so, she succeeded in removing us from any sort of normal life and contact with the outside world, as we now no longer saw our parents.
We slowly but surely became trapped on the farm, our only outings being to Jehovah’s Witness meetings or the local shops to run her errands.
It was shortly after we moved to the farm that Eunice decided to get a dog. He was a lovely black labrador puppy called Jet, and I was given the job of house-training him.
As I was only about nine at the time, I knew nothing about how to do this, and of course he would make a mess all over the place, which enraged Eunice.
One morning she came into the kitchen and found that Jet had done his business in the night by the back door. She was furious. “Come here,” she snapped.
It was me, not the dog, she was commanding. Eunice was glaring at me with her dead, grey eyes, her thin mouth clamped in a mask of disapproval. I crept over to stand next to her, head down, my legs feeling weak. What was she going to do now?
Suddenly she grabbed me by the back of my hair and forced me to my knees, which hurt as they hit the unforgiving tiled floor. Inches from my face was the pile of dog mess.
Slowly, Eunice pushed my head further down. The stench entered my nostrils, turning my stomach and then, with a sudden further push, my face was in it. The wet, stinky mass was going up my nostrils and over my cheeks and eyelids and I had to fight it from going into the corners of my mouth.
Eunice pushed my face into the mess and rubbed it back and forth, round and round. After about a minute she stopped and released me.
“That’s how you teach dogs not to poo,” she said. “You rub their faces in it. Got it?”
Telling me that I was not to wipe it off until she said so, Eunice marched out of the kitchen, leaving me shaking with revulsion.
Meanwhile, John Drake’s health was deteriorating quite rapidly. One morning, as I was playing with Charlotte, Eunice burst into the room and told us he had died.
She showed no emotion whatsoever as she took us to see him, stroking his hands and, bizarrely, encouraging us to do so too.
When the will was read a few days later, we discovered that the farm had been left in trust to Charlotte, Eunice’s favourite adopted daughter. There was some money for Eunice as well. She had triumphed. She had set her sights on her goal and had attained it.
While John was alive a pretence of normality had been kept up, but all that now ended. Eunice started to keep the curtains closed permanently, so no one could see in from the outside and, of course, we couldn’t see out. It really did feel as though we were her prisoners.
Only on the rare occasions when a school inspector came to see us were things any different. Then Eunice would put on a show worthy of Mary Poppins, buying us all new books and getting us cleaning the place until it sparkled.
When the inspector came we’d be sitting at the table, writing, with clean hair and scrubbed faces. As soon as they had gone, things returned to normal.
One day, I was in the kitchen when Eunice appeared, looking very angry. It was the third day in a row I’d forgotten to buy some throat sweets she’d asked me to get from the village shop. I knew I was in for it.
“Where are those throat sweets I told you to get?” she demanded.
I knew that saying anything at all would inflame the situation, so I stayed still, hoping the storm would pass.
“Cat got your tongue, has it?” she said. “Well, I’ll give you a sore throat, then you’ll know how it feels.”
Next, I was being dragged unceremoniously out of the kitchen by my arm and into the living room, where I prepared myself for the usual beating. I noticed, however, that this time there were two sticks, not one.
“Open your mouth,” said Eunice. Coming towards my opened mouth was a long piece of wood, wedge-shaped and about a foot long. To my horror, Eunice thrust the wood into my mouth, past my new front teeth, until it hit the soft tissue at the back of my throat.
I retched hard, tasting the wood. I could hardly breathe. In response, Eunice pushed the wood in further. This time she is going to kill me, I thought.
Then I felt the familiar, sickening thwack on the soles of my feet. Whack. Whack. Whack. Whack. Whack. I was being hideously assaulted on two different parts of my body, and if I protested, the wedge would be driven further down my throat.
Afterwards I lay on my side in a foetal position, shaking from the shock, moaning and weeping while holding my throat with both hands.
“You won’t forget those throat sweets now.” And with that, Eunice swept out of the room to get on with the rest of her day, satisfied at another sadistic, soul-saving job done.
Ten years later, in court, I would hold one of the sticks she routinely used to thrust down our throats and show the world the two inches of dried blood still staining the end. It was shortly after this appalling incident that something inside me finally snapped.
I was 11 by now and had been enduring Eunice’s terrible physical and psychological cruelty for nearly five years.
It was all to do with a piece of cheese that had gone missing from the larder. You’d think someone had stolen the crown jewels from the fuss Eunice made. She was absolutely convinced I had taken it.
To this day I believe Jet was probably responsible, but Eunice refused to believe it, and set out with ruthless determination to pin the crime on somebody else.
But this time I’d had enough. I don’t know whether it was my outrage at all the previous punishments, or just growing older and more defiant, but I utterly refused to admit to something I hadn’t done.
“It wasn’t me,” I said. Eunice stared hard at me and came and bent over me. “Answering back, are we?” she said. “Well, you can starve.”
I wanted to say “Fine!” but I didn’t. I knew better than that. I knew when to stop. I just stared back at Eunice, making my eyes dead and blank. She stared back and we were locked together like that for a few moments.
This was the first moment I had ever really stood up to her and although it was only a small thing, and I knew I was going to be hungry afterwards, I felt a tiny edge of triumph.
And so I starved. For a week she gave me nothing – not a single scrap to eat. It was a real battle of wills, and I became so weak and sick that I was hallucinating.
In my desperation, I resorted to the pig bin and feasted greedily on mouldy boiled potatoes, vegetable peelings and pig nuts. It was revolting, but I just hoped it would give me the energy to survive.
Eventually, maybe after a week, Eunice handed out some food at a mealtime to me, as well as the other children. There was no apology, no explanation, no making up. I was suddenly just included.
I guess she felt she had to feed me something or I would die. Whatever the explanation, the rebellion had begun and battle lines had now been drawn.
There was a long way to go before I’d finally be free of her clutches, as I’ll explain on Monday. But at last I had hope.
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