God, she was nervous. She wiped her damp hands on her thighs for the third time and gripped the steering wheel. Come on. Move it. One step at a time. For Debbie’s sake. That got her moving. She stepped out of the car, swung her bag onto her shoulder and locked the door. Walking over to the reception she looked around. Despite the bright sunshine this place was unremittingly grim. Concrete, high walls, strings of barbed wire: it all had an oppressive effect. Imagining Debbie coming here gave her a queasy feeling. She had fully supported her desire to visit, but now she was here she wondered if she should have cautioned her against it or prepared her for this. She appeared to be coping well enough, but with a teenager it wasn’t always possible to be certain.
Signing in at reception she was given a locker key so that she could leave her belongings safely behind. She wasn't allowed to take anything with her into the visiting room. She sat on a hard plastic chair, waiting until a guard could show her in. The room smelled strongly of a falsely sweet cleaning product. Trying to breathe through her mouth, she watched the guards in their black and white uniforms. They were not exactly unfriendly, but nothing about them invited you to relax or share a smile with them. Every visitor here looked tense and pale. Maybe that was just the effect of the fluorescent tube lighting. There were no windows here and one of the lights was flickering nauseatingly in her peripheral vision.
An authoritative voice called her name, making her flinch. She got to her feet, eyeing the guard cautiously. Enormously tall with buzzed hair, his name badge read "Fletcher". Seeing her rise he looked down at his clipboard and read out three more names. Once they were all assembled, they were led into another room where a dog handler and her dog waited.
"Owing to an increase in drug activity in the prison all visitors will need to submit to a search from a sniffer dog. If anyone does not consent to the search, I'm afraid you will not be allowed inside the visitors’ room," Fletcher announced.
Debbie hadn't mentioned anything about this. Even though she knew that the dog would not smell anything on her, her heart still picked up anxiously. Force of habit, probably. Huh! Habit. She should be a comedian. She tried to breathe more evenly. A young fair-haired man gave a rueful grin.
"I'll come back another day," he smirked. Officer Fletcher nodded without looking at him and marked something on his clipboard. Pressing a button on his radio he spoke to another officer.
"Mr Holt will not be joining us today. Could I get an escort please?"
Once the young man had been led back the way they had come, the officer passed the clipboard to the visitors and they all signed to give their consent to the drug search. Tensing, she looked straight ahead as the dog sniffed her, only relaxing when the handler gave Officer Fletcher the nod and they were all allowed to file through to yet another row of hard plastic chairs. As she sat down, she couldn't help but remember the night a few weeks ago when Debbie had come home reeking of cannabis ...
"Ms Novak? The inmate is ready to see you now. Follow me."
“Debbie?” she called after the denim-clad flash that had scampered up the stairs. The girl slowed, then turned reluctantly. “Could I speak to you for a minute before you turn in?” Debbie tramped back down slowly, attitude in every step, the way only a teen could.
“I’m not late,” she protested with a flash of defiance in her eyes. Allie consulted the clock.
“True,” she said with a smile. “But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“Oh.” She sounded a little deflated.
“Come and sit down for a moment. I think you’ll be pleased …” Now she looked curious, although, as she sat down, she still crossed her arms across her chest in a classic closed off pose. Allie wasn’t worried. Debbie had her troubles, true enough, more than most in fact, but in many ways, she was better adjusted than the majority of young people she had cared for. “I’ve found a teacher who can take you on for lessons. After school on Wednesdays. That won’t clash with anything else you have on, will it?” Debbie leant forward, her eyes lighting up.
“Really? No … track is on Tuesday, band on Friday … but, isn’t it too expensive?” she asked, clearly preparing herself for the worst.
“Debbie, I wouldn't even have mentioned it if it couldn't be managed from your care allowance," Allie explained. Debbie still had low expectations for her life. Hardly surprising, she supposed.
Allie wrinkled her nose at the smell she was becoming aware of. With a feeling of dread, she knew she had to tackle it right away. It was a shame that this moment of positivity would be ruined.
"Debbie … I’m not accusing you of anything, but you're giving off the smell of weed," Allie began. With these troubled young people, it was important not to destroy the trust you had banked by jumping to conclusions. "Care to explain?" After a pause, Debbie spoke.
“I’ve not been smoking Allie, honest. Just … someone I was hanging out with was.” She sniffed at the shoulder of her jumper. Allie sighed internally. She could tell Debbie a very personal cautionary tale right now, but was that the right approach?
“And … what stopped you from joining in?” Allie asked. Debbie was quiet for a moment.
“My mum. She always says drugs are for mugs.” Allie smiled.
“She has a point,” Allie replied with a slight laugh. “So … the druggie? Is this someone I need to worry about?” Debbie shook her head, looking at the carpet.
“Nah. I hardly know him and … he was kind of a spud tonight, wanting me to do stuff …” Allie felt her scalp prickle with shock.
“What kind of stuff?” she asked, doing her best to disguise her alarm.
“It doesn’t matter,” Debbie shrugged. “I already decided to avoid him from now on.” Allie nodded.
“Okay. Good,” she said. As far as she could tell Debbie was being honest with her, she just hoped she wasn’t being deceived. “You’d better have a shower. Wash the smell out of your hair. Leave your clothes outside the bathroom and I’ll wash them for you.”
“And ... after school on Wednesday I’ll pick you up straight from school and take you to your lesson.” That would give them plenty of contact time whilst in the car. The best time, Allie had found, for talking to teenagers: they couldn’t escape, but they didn’t have to look at you.
When Allie had first got the call about Debbie, she had been in two minds about whether to take her on or not. Not that she had anything against Debbie, or her circumstances. The opposite in fact: it was one of those situations she felt most strongly about. It was that she had only just completed a particularly tricky placement a few days before. She felt as though she was still catching her breath and had been looking forward to spending some time with her dad and the boys.
“When I tell you what happened, I think you’re gunna want to do it, Allie,” Michelle told her.
“Is it an emergency placement?” Allie asked. Short stay emergency foster placements were her specialty.
“Yep. The mother got arrested today … for killing the father no less, so the kid has no one.”
“Shit,” Allie said, with feeling. “Poor kid. How old?”
“Sixteen. Right in your sweet spot Allie. You’d be perfect for this one.” There was a pause while Michelle waited for the inevitable reply.
“I’ll be right over.”
Allie unlocked the front door.
“Here we are Debbie. I know you’ve had a hell of a day, so I’ll just point out the main features and then you can decide what you want to do next. Here’s the lounge room ... the kitchen … come on up … this one’s mine … bathroom … here’s your room.” Allie preceded Debbie into the room. It was light and airy, painted a soothing sea green. “As you can see, you have your own en-suite …” Allie didn't point out that there was no lock on the door, or explain the very good reason why not. “I’ll leave you to make yourself comfortable. I’ll be downstairs if there’s anything you need, or if you’re hungry.” Allie looked at the girl sympathetically. She had had the rug of her life pulled from under her young feet, and her face was pale, her eyes huge. She had hardly said a word either at the Social Services offices or in the car on the way home. “I want you to know that you’re very welcome here Debbie …”
“When can I see my mum?” Allie felt tears prick at her eyes.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know. Perhaps we can find out tomorrow …”
“My dad … he beat her, you know,” Debbie blurted out, and suddenly she was sobbing in a way that made Allie’s heart ache. She wrapped her up in a hug. Teenagers. They acted like they were all grown up, but they were still children on the inside, and needed as much love as any child. Allie’s job description was to give a teen a place to stay, stability, calmness, clean clothes, good food … all that. But they needed a hefty dose of love too.
“Allie … there’s a cat trying to get through the window,” Debbie said with a note of amusement in her voice. Allie looked up from the toast she was buttering to see Nova standing in her usual pose, on her back legs with her front paws pressed against the glass of the patio doors, a beseeching look on her face.
“Oh, the most important member of the family, and you haven’t even met her yet!” Allie exclaimed. “Let her in will you?” Debbie slipped off her stool and slid the door open. Nova ran in with her tail raised in greeting and rubbed against Debbie’s ankles. Debbie bent down and gave her a fuss. “This is Nova,” Allie said proudly. “Officially the best cat in the world. You do like cats, don’t you?” Not that she really needed to ask, seeing Debbie stroking her. Nova was a real asset and had put in as much time with her foster kids as Allie had herself, and maybe to more effect.
“Sure. She’s a real beauty,” Debbie said. Nova purred more loudly.
“Well, she certainly likes you,” Allie responded. After chewing on her toast thoughtfully for a minute, Allie continued. “I have to speak to your school today. Explain what’s going on, and that you’ll need some time off, and maybe some special considerations when you do go back.” Debbie said nothing but continued to pet the cat. “Is there anything in particular you want me to say to them? Or want me not to say to them?” Debbie sighed.
“Tell them I’ll be back next week.” Allie’s gut lurched. The stubborn kind, huh?
“Are you sure? That’s really soon,” Allie said, as neutrally as possible.
“It’s better for me to keep busy,” Debbie said. Allie knew that the therapist that Debbie would be sure to be assigned might have something to say about that. “Plus, I can’t afford to stuff up my exams.”
“Well, how about I ask for some work from your teachers so that you can keep up with your studies, and … we’ll worry about fixing a date when you’ve had a bit more time …”
“A bit more time’s not going to help,” Debbie butted in hotly. “My dad’s dead. My mum’s in prison. I just have to suck it up … the sooner the better …” Her words were tough, but the look on her face told a different story. Allie dropped the topic.
“What else do you need today Debbie?” she asked. “I can leave you in peace, or keep you company, or we can go somewhere …” Debbie stood up, brushing her hands on her jeans, looking uncertain. “Are there any practicalities that need sorting out? Clothes? Toiletries? What’s your priority for the day?”
“I need to know where Mum is. If she’s okay. When I can see her …” Debbie stuffed her hands into her back pockets self-consciously. “And Dad. I … I guess I need to think about the funeral,” she said, the tears beginning now. “There’s no one else to do it …” Allie was momentarily taken aback that Debbie would think that such a task would fall to her.
“No, Debbie. No one expects that of you.” Allie stepped up to her, tentatively offering a hug. Debbie sagged against her and sobbed. “Don’t worry. I'll sort all that with Social Services. And I’ll find out about contacting your mum. I’m sure she wants to hear from you just as badly.” Allie held her and rocked her for long minutes until the tide of tears began to subside. And then she held her some more, until Nova mewed loudly, making them both laugh. They drew apart. “Someone wants their breakfast,” Allie commented.
“And my phone,” Debbie said, wiping her face. “It got smashed when … when Mum was arrested, and … it would really help if I could talk to my friends.”
“Of course. So, a new phone,” Allie said with a smile. Debbie looked uneasy.
“I have a few dollars, but not enough for a phone,” she confessed.
“Don’t be silly. I couldn’t cope without my phone, and I don’t expect you to either. Anything you would usually have asked your mum or dad for, I’m here to provide.” Allie told her. “Within reason, obviously.”
“So, no diamond encrusted jewellery …” Debbie said with a grin.
“Exactly. And, before you ask, no you can’t get a tattoo …” Debbie laughed. Allie’s heart did a little dance.
Allie glanced sideways at Debbie. She wanted to ask how the session with the therapist had gone, but Debbie seemed preoccupied with her thoughts, so she let her be and drove towards home.
“Allie?” Debbie asked after a while.
“When I visited Mum yesterday, she asked if … you would go and visit her.”
“Me? Why? ” Allie asked, taken aback. Debbie shrugged.
“She said she just wants to meet you,” Debbie replied, looking out of the side window. “But probably she wants to ask you about me. Make sure I’m doing my homework and stuff,” she added apologetically. More likely she wants to check if I’m looking after you properly, Allie thought. And she could hardly blame her. Which mother wouldn’t want to check up on the person looking after her child?
“I’m not sure …” Allie hedged, trying to figure out what would be appropriate. And what would be in Debbie’s best interests.
“Yeah, well. If you decide to, I have a spare request form,” Debbie replied coolly, turning on the radio and effectively ending the conversation.
"How'd it go?" Allie asked as Debbie swung her trumpet case into the back of the car.
"Really good," Debbie said, throwing herself into the passenger seat. "I learned loads already." Allie pulled out into traffic feeling pleased with herself for setting up these lessons for Debbie. She had had the trumpet on loan from school for a couple of years, but had never had any proper lessons before, managing to teach herself from online tutorials and from attending the school's swing band. "The valves need cleaning and oiling," Debbie commented, looking at Allie meaningfully. Allie looked back.
"You know how to do that, right?" she asked uneasily.
"Not really. Mum always did it. Will you help me figure it out?" Allie laughed.
"I guess so. What else is YouTube for?"
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Allie had the feeling that there was more to come.
"Do you want me to move to a new foster placement?" Debbie finally asked.
" What? No, of course not. What would make you think that?" Debbie shrugged, not looking at her.
"Just … Michelle said you usually do short-term emergency placements. And I'm not that anymore." Allie coloured up. It was true. She didn't usually have anyone live with her for this long. But Debbie was different somehow. Somehow Allie wasn't ready to let her go. Somehow Allie felt that she was the one who would help her through this.
"Do you want to move placements?" Allie asked, struggling to watch both the road and Debbie's face.
"No. But it's not just down to me …"
"Listen. I'm happy for you to stay with me for as long as you want. We get along pretty well don't we?" Debbie nodded.
"Then … you need to visit my mum." This time Debbie did look at her and Allie felt terrible, having put off making a decision about the visit for a couple of weeks. Allie nodded slowly.
"Okay," she said faintly, alarmed by the prospect. Her heart thundered. For Debbie: she would have to visit Wentworth Prison and get the seal of approval from the formidable Bea Smith.