THE LIFE AND DEATH OF CHARLOTTE CLEARY
[All names have been changed]
When we had first met I couldn’t help but notice the thin drizzle of blood which ran down her chest and stained her white vest top. The result of a tattoo, an inch or so above her left breast, that I guessed at the time had been etched within the last few hours. Written in a scrawled hand, most likely using a razor blade and a magic marker was the name ‘HOLLY’. The skin around the letters was red and puffy, already forming a scab which she picked at despite me telling her I was worried it might end up infected. As we sat waiting outside the family court and she took swigs from a can of white cider, it quickly became obvious that this was one woman’s last ditch attempt to get her life back, although I have a strong suspicion that even Charlotte knew it might be too late for that.
I’d first come across her a year or so ago, visiting the house she was then living in, one she had once owned but was now subject to a repossession order. It was a damp, two bed granite cottage in a small village just outside the town of St Austell. With a small investment and some love it would make a comfortable family home, something she told me it had been before the ‘hammer’ had fallen. Charlotte had stood by the window and pointed out the houses where she claimed she could buy heroin, stopping after five, this in a community where one pub offering a ‘two for ten’ steak deal and a small Spar shop seemed to be the only active businesses I saw on my drive in.
Every window in the house was smashed, the jagged holes covered in cling film to keep out the draft. She told me at first that it was bored local kids, but ended up confessing that in truth it was criminal damage relating to an outstanding drug debt. The only light in the room was provided by candles, the reason there were so many scorch marks running up the walls and my motivation for bringing a cheap smoke alarm on my next visit. She told me she hadn’t had any electricity for two months now, not since ‘he’d got himself fucking locked up again’.
The house was now almost completely empty, a relief of sorts because she no longer feared the bailiffs arriving, happy to swing open the front door and let them see for themselves the chaos she was surrounded by. The only exception to the mess was a single pushchair that was kept immaculate, covered in plastic and placed well away from the brackish water that had flooded the slate kitchen floor. On a positive note Charlotte had always been careful when it came to discarding her used works, a habit she had picked when using with the children in the house. Something she was always keen to tell the social workers who had featured so heavily in her life over the last few years. How safe she was. How she would never risk them hurting themselves no matter what ‘those stuck up bitches said about her’. Sadly, she’d let herself go a bit lately, the coffee table a minefield of uncapped syringes, their tips sparkling when caught in the flicker of candle light. You tended to be very carefully when reaching over for the ash tray.
‘I seem to go for men who knock me about’, she’d told me.
David, the father of Charlotte’s first three children was something of a ‘local character’, a term used by the diplomatically minded at least, but not one you’d use if you caught him breaking into your shed or taking your car for a joyride. One of four brothers, from a notorious local family, all feared by the residents of the housing estate they grew up on, he was always a heavy drinker and speed user and soon after they got together they had started hanging around with a group of his friends who would all chip in to buy smack on the weekends. It was all fine in the beginning, good fun even, but after a few weeks they found themselves scoring most days, finding that if they missed a day they’d be struck by shivers and sweats that they would blame on anything but withdrawal.
The first time he had beaten her she had rushed back to her Mum’s house. Her swollen eye, horribly purple and inflamed, looking like a sausage ready to burst open in a frying pan. She struggled to even sit down because of her broken ribs, her hand in plaster, but still able to take his calls despite her Mum begging her to report him to the police. She’d been brought up in a loving home, her mother a nurse, her dad an engineer and none of her siblings had ever had anything to do with drugs, so they’d struggled to know what to do for the best, making appointments with professionals that Charlotte would always fail to attend.
Distraught and crying back outside the court, although not calling the judge a ‘wanker’ as she had done on a previous occasion, Charlotte found out that there was no chance she would ever get Holly back. Like the other three children, all in the care of social services waiting for adoption, her youngest, just ten months old, would never get to sit in the pushchair that she had kept so spotless. In total she’d spent just one night with her, closely watched by the child protection team in the maternity wing where she had given birth. They had no concerns about Charlotte’s commitment to her kids, but knew that as soon as she was discharged she’d be straight back to David and the cycle of violence would continue, putting all the family at risk in the process.
What she found most frustrating was the fact that she felt she has started to turn her life around, although in the process of doing this she was aware that dark clouds lay just around the corner. David was currently inside, serving a six month sentence after beating her in the middle of their street, kicking her as she lay curled up into a ball, the neighbours finally getting involved, ringing the police, no longer able to believe that it was something they shouldn't get involved with.. To add to her problems she had started seeing Shaun, David’s brother, when he was locked up. Very much a charmer compared to his older brother, Shaun suffered from slight learning difficulties after sustaining a head injury in a motorbike crash when he was fifteen, but he was at heart a kind soul who’d always held a torch for his sister-in-law and treated her with respect. Both of them were excited when they had found out that he was soon to be a father as well, although they knew they were facing a difficult situation when David was released, especially given his toxic jealous streak. As they waited for him to come out on licence both of them spent their time drinking in the shabby hostel Shaun was living in, the walls thick with black mould, the bed always feeling damp despite them feeding the meter to make sure they had heating. Shaun encouraged her to decrease her heroin use, buying her gear and measuring out quarter gram doses that he planned to dish out at certain times of the day. 'Don't let me have any, no matter how much I kick off', she'd tell him, but as soon as she raised her voice he'd go and fetch her the drugs, he just wanted to see her happy.
Old habits die hard and within a matter of weeks of him coming out of prison, Charlotte and David were back together, Shaun heartbroken but lucky to escape without any physical punishment dished out by his brother. All it took was for David to promise once again that he had changed, that he had been through counselling inside, that he promised, really promised that this time he would never hit her again. Charlotte would always believe him, almost as if he had the power to subject her mind to some sort of Stalinist purge, the negative memories dissolving just by treating her kindly for a few moments. A 'cunts trick' her friends always called it, telling her that as much as the guilt might eat away at him like cancer, he was unlikely to ever change and history would always repeat itself. 'I know', she'd say. 'But I still love him'.
Like Sid and Nancy theirs was a destructive love that was always on the verge of spiralling out of control. Soon enough their drug use had increased to the point where it was becoming impossible to fund through shop lifting alone. Health professionals who knew her would always refer to Charlotte as ‘vague historian’, a polite term for a pathological liar, but I always found she talked honestly and openly, usually laughing when describing the darkest periods of her life. One of the exceptions to this was when she told me about how David had ‘set her working’. Initially it was doing ‘favours’ for his friends for drugs, sometimes he’d be present, often getting involved as well. ‘It didn’t feel like prostitution’ she’d told me, ‘more like we were just experimenting’. All this changed on the day when he had driven her to a local industrial estate to meet a client. Pregnant and recently discharged from hospital after surgery to drain a groin abscess, a result of her injecting into her femoral vein, the wound was still fresh, raw and oozing and covered in a stained dressing pad, but the client, a well-known local businessman had still gone through with it. ‘Although he only paid twenty, rather than thirty’, she said, before telling me that throughout the sex she could see David waiting in his car just a few hundred yards away.
The last time I saw Charlotte was a few weeks before she died. She looked like someone who had turned a corner after she had been accepted as a client for a local domestic violence charity. They had rehoused her after another brutal beating from David. This time he had broken the socket around her eye, detaching her retina when he had punched her. He was back inside, a two year stretch this time, long enough for her to start exploring just why she kept returning to him. Her key worker had even organised a methadone script and quickly enough she came to realise that she had always been with the wrong brother. Shaun catching the train to meet her in the new town where she had been housed, occasionally even sneaking into her flat to spend the night, despite it risking her tenancy. There was even talk that she might be allowed supervised access to Holly if she managed to produce a run of clean urine tests.
She had been with some old drug friends a few days after her birthday and they had decided to celebrate in style. Rather than smack or a handful of Indian Valium, they thought they'd try some of the new drugs you could buy online. The ones that didn’t have names, just a series of letters and numbers, chemical formulas, the kind produced in Chinese or eastern European laboratories. So used to the ritual of injecting Charlotte had placed her dose on a soot covered spoon, added water and prepared herself for a hit, unaware that the milky fluid would instantly turn back into powder as soon as it hit her blood stream. The embolism travelled through her circulatory system until it finally lodged in her pulmonary artery, killing her instantly. Her friends were so panicked that they didn’t ring an ambulance. Instead, as soon as they realised she had stopped breathing, they had carried her into the stairwell of the flats, placing her next to the recycling bins and waited for someone to find her. Charlotte was twenty-six years old.