Journey Competition - Runner Up

Cindy George

Runner Up
Things You Hear When You’re In The Back Of The Car And The Social Workers Think You’re Asleep
Journey Competition


Cindy George is a writer living in Coventry. She has written romantic stories for teenage magazines, award-winning radio commercials, press releases, music reviews and an academic dissertation on Edgar Allan Poe, but now mainly writes short fiction. She may eventually give in and write a novel.

Things You Hear When You’re In The Back Of The Car And The Social Workers Think You’re Asleep By Cindy George

“It’s a shame, isn’t it? Such a pretty girl.”
“Shame, yes. Clever as well. She could be a secretary one day.”
“I doubt it though, if she carries on like this.”

I can’t remember their names. It was a long time ago, long ago enough that cars always had ashtrays but rarely seatbelts. They had introduced themselves with their full names, Jessica Edwards and Rosemary Preston - not those names but something like that, something quite formal as if I had a job at a reception desk and they were asking to see a manager. I hated using my full name, kids at school had made fun of it even though it was quite unremarkable, and it just made me think of cruelty and tellings off. When I went to the new school I made up a name I liked better, but no-one ever called me it.

“Fancy absconding in this weather. She was soaked through when they picked her up. Like a drowned rat.”
“That must be why their department didn’t want to drive her back. Didn’t want runny mascara all over the back of their cars.”
“Well, that and by the time they’d got her dried off a bit in the cells it was already 9 or 10 at night. All their emergency cover was out. There’d be no chance of getting anyone to drive all the way out to us once the pubs started shutting”.

That was interesting. If I’d managed to stay out a bit later, then, nobody might have bothered about an underage runaway. If I’d had 2p for the toilet, the policeman wouldn’t have seen me climbing over the turnstile and I might not have had to go back till morning.
I didn’t really understand how Jessica Edwards and Rosemary Preston were different to Kioni, the social worker who came to see me once a week in the home and took me out shopping for school clothes. They seemed old to me, but Kioni was young and wore massive earrings and sometimes brought me makeup she didn’t use any more, so I thought maybe once a social worker gets old they stop having kids to visit and instead have to drive around in the middle of the night, putting people back in their proper places.

“She is asleep, isn’t she?”
“Must be worn out from all the trouble she causes.”

This must have been a joke, because they both did a little laugh that sounded more like the sound that comes out when you need to cough but you’re not allowed to make a noise.
I didn’t think I caused trouble. I thought trouble happened to me.  Yes, my family were dead, but it’s not as if I killed them. I didn’t think so anyway. I always worried that it was my fault for sometimes wishing they were dead. But I didn’t tell anyone that. It seemed like the sort of thing that would get you slammed. That’s what the other kids in the home called it when you got locked up somewhere more secure, like the Young Offenders Unit down the coast at Fairlands. I thought it was called Fairyland for ages because that’s what everyone said, but when I called it that they laughed. It didn’t really matter, no-one ever stayed at the home long except me. Either they got old enough to live on their own, or they went home, or they got slammed in Fairyland. I didn’t have a way out – I still had two whole years before I aged out of the system, I didn’t have anywhere to go back to and getting slammed sounded worse than being in the home. So I ran away when I could, just to be somewhere else. It was always scary and I always got caught, but at least I was away for a bit. In the home, the staff did a report every night of what we’d all done, and sometimes I got to see a page or two when I was in the office. They usually mixed up who said what and didn’t put the right names. It was like they were there but they weren’t really listening.

“Do they know why on earth she went there? Seems more like the sort of place you’d run away from, not to”.

Actually, it had just been the first train I saw that looked like it would be easy to get on without a ticket. There was space between the seats for luggage and I squished into there until the announcer said it was the last stop. Someone even put a backpack in there with me for a few stops and never noticed me behind it. The backpack was purple with a tag on it that said Kathmandu, and I wasn’t sure if that was a brand or a place. I remember it though, because it was all I had to look at for at least 45 minutes. I thought I’d look for Kathmandu in a book when I went back to school and see if it was somewhere I could go.

“Is she one of Kioni’s?”

They didn’t say the name the way Kioni said it. They said it like Bryony.

“Yes, she gets all the good ones, doesn’t she?”

They did that not-laughing thing again.

“She’s definitely asleep?”
“Hasn’t moved in ages.”

I was good at pretending to be asleep. I always tried to make myself small and unnoticeable, even when mum was alive - it was safest. If people thought you were asleep you could get so small that you didn’t exist.

“Did you hear about Ella?”
“The shoplifter? Killed herself, didn’t she?”
“And she was pregnant as well. Everything to live for.”
“She must have had something wrong in the mind. It’ll come out at the inquest.”

I had known Ella, she went to the same compulsory youth club as me. It was supposed to help us make friends. I hadn’t been friends with Ella, or anyone, but I thought she was nice, and pretty, and sad. I was sorry she was dead. I couldn’t imagine not wanting to be alive. I could imagine taking too many pills though, I’d done that myself. I wasn’t trying to hurt myself, I just wanted to get out of the home for a bit. And I thought people might take me seriously after I’d done it. They didn’t. I just got some new nicknames. “Drughead”, that sort of thing.
I wondered what you had to do to get people to listen to you.

“Robbie’s going to be so cross when I get home late.”

I didn’t like Rosemary Preston much, but I felt a sudden stab of panic for her.  I didn’t want her to go home and get shouted at or worse. I didn’t like to imagine her trying to come in quietly and making herself small so she wouldn’t be a target.

“He’ll be meowing at the top of his voice till I sit down and let him in my lap. I’m not allowed to go to bed till I’ve fussed him and given him his bedtime biscuits”

I was so relieved and angry at the same time. Why would you call a cat Robbie?  I pretended to wake up just a little bit so they’d shut up for a minute. I was sick of listening to them. Maybe they were nice people to their families and their cats, but they didn’t seem to think they needed to be nice to me. I was only one of the bad kids.

When I was a boss at Social Services, they’d have to listen to me then. Maybe I could do that. If I was clever enough to be a secretary, I probably could. I was certainly cleverer than the school secretary who thought thunder was the sound of clouds banging into each other and couldn’t spell “calendar”. I’d probably have to go to university first. That would be ok, I always passed my tests. I always did my homework as well, it’s not like I ever had anything better to do. I thought about university and hoped it was a place where I could choose my own dinners and if anyone talked to me it would be because they wanted to, not because they were being paid to or because they were stuck in a home with me. After, I’d probably do a job like Kioni’s for a bit. I’d always bring makeup or sweets for the kids, even the horrible ones. I could talk to her about it next time. I was thinking about what to say, but I must have really fallen asleep, because when I opened my eyes I saw some pinkish clouds through the top of the car window and Jessica Edwards was talking again.

“Home sweet home – for some.”

They both did the laugh noise again.  I wondered if they couldn’t laugh properly because it wasn’t  funny.
I knew when I got back I would be getting a telling off from whoever was on duty – or worse, an appointment for a telling off. And Kioni would have to come and ask me questions and be all sad. But as we pulled into the weedy gravel drive leading to the big square building with all the windows, I thought it might be alright. I thought I might know a better way of escaping now.


Judges Comments

The title of Cindy George's 'Things You Hear When You’re In The Back Of The Car And The Social Workers Think You’re Asleep' – the runner up in WM's Journey competition – shows how important it is to give a story a really effective title.  In this case, everything the story will hold is suggested – and nothing is given away. We know the set-up, but not how the story will pan out. We have to read it, to find out.

What a powerful story it is, too. Giving voice to a character who is overlooked, Cindy's first-person narrator shows us prejudice, discimination, stereotyping – all though the device of an overheard conversation accompanied by the narrator's own commentary, which gives them a voice and the chance to tell their side of their own story – and for readers to contrast it with what the two social workers are saying.

The gulf between appearances and reality is the overarching theme in Cindy's story and she's delivered it with a deft touch, blending telling details and interior monologue to create a really effective delivery and a truly memorable tale that takes the reader on a journey of understanding the perspective of a person they might otherwise not have 'seen'.