[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.

                                A MORBID CURIOSITY

Matthew is sitting on the sole item of furniture he owns, a second hand futon that sits in the corner of his studio flat. I sit crossed legged on the floor.

 ‘It’s a gross violation of my human rights. I’m not going to stand for it, no matter how high up I have to go’, he tells me.

  In front of us is a thick folder of correspondence which consists of dozens of letters. These are the responses he has received from his MP, the chief executive of the local probation service as well as many more from the dozens of solicitors he has engaged in his two year battle for justice. I notice one letter, pretty much blank except for a few lines of text, which displays the crest of Buckingham Palace.

 ‘I refuse to roll over and accept what they are telling me. Just like I refused to accept the prognosis the doctors gave me when I was first diagnosed’.

 You wouldn’t at first glance know that he has Multiple Sclerosis. He was until recently in remission after being accepted on a clinical trial for a new drug treatment. A slight limp in his left leg is the only sign of any problems with mobility but he knows he is likely to get worse. He’s waiting for the council to adapt the flat, putting handrails in the bathroom and kitchen, a process that is forever being delayed because of how often he has been forced to move in the last eighteen months. This is his fourth flat, but he feels settled here and is just waiting on his grant to be approved before the work can be done.

 ‘I think what it comes down to is they just don’t want me to have a functioning life of any kind. Despite me serving my sentence and paying any debt I have to society. I genuinely believe they won’t be happy until I curl up and die’

 The knock for Matthew came early in the morning, around six thirty. There were ten officers in all, some in uniform, but most in plain clothes. Their fleet of cars blocked the entrance to the flats and stopped his neighbours from driving the kids to school. They had all been asking what was happening but the police didn’t give anything away, although by the time they’d seen his desktop and laptop removed in forensic evidence bags word had quickly spread. Around ten hours later, at the point where the police custody sergeant was refusing bail, all his windows had been smashed in and the word NONCE had been painted across his door.

 In his living room the coffee table was still littered with empty wine bottles, the sink full of dirty dishes, CD’s scattered across his floor. When he asked to get dressed and a female officer had escorted him to the bedroom to find some trousers, she noticed the many black bin liners filled with dirty laundry that covered the floor. Sighing at the thought that her and the team would need to go through every one before they left the scene. Although the flat was small, little more than a bedsit really, she knew they would be spending the rest of today’s shift collecting evidence, even pulling up the floorboards if necessary. A USB stick could be hidden in the smallest gap, and a CD placed in the spine of one of his hundreds of books.

 He would tell the team in his later interview that he was glad they had knocked on his door when they had. Aware enough to realise that recently things had been escalating, especially his drinking, to the point where he knew he risked getting into trouble.

 The forensic investigator charged with reviewing the thousands of files found on Matt’s hard drive claimed they were among the worst he had come across in his ten year career. Of the 15,000 images logged only two were of adults. All the others were of children ranging from six months to ten years old. Starting with grainy images of naked toddlers scanned from the type of nudist magazines that were once commonly available on the shelves of local newsagent, eventually going deeper and deeper until their work started to mirror Dante’s descent into hell. There were both stills and video footage, all ranging in severity, the investigators appalled to discover one clip called ‘Five Year Old Torture’ that featured a child being abused with a hypodermic syringe. He couldn’t remember ever watching that one, explaining that he was most likely drunk when he downloaded it. He was always drunk when it happened. He’d been in touch with an alcohol support agency but had struggled to make the appointments.

 ‘Morbid Curiosity’ is a term the police hear time and time again when dealing with offenders charged with downloading indecent images. Matthew was no different, giving it as a defence over and over again when the detective sergeant had asked him in interview what his motivation was in stockpiling such a vast collection.

 ‘Did you masturbate over the images?’ she’d asked. Over and over again. ‘Sometimes’, he’d replied, becoming frustrated that he was being forced to repeat this. Almost as if they wanted to keep shaming him long after he’d confessed.

 After serving his prison sentence, he was housed by a Christian charity under close supervision by his probation officer. Families in the scheme would always take priority over single tenants and he had been moved so much because part of his release conditions were he was unable to be in close proximity to anyone under the age of eighteen. Angry and unsettled he had stopped taking his medication as a protest until his social worker had found him a flat in a section designed to house prolific offenders. His immediate neighbours now consisted of house breakers, addicts and persistent car thieves, their used works littering the outside flower beds and rotting rubbish bags blocking the hallways.

 His quest for justice had been motivated by a minor incident that occurred when he’d received a benefit payment aimed at covering disability expenses. A cheque had arrived and he’d decided to treat himself, buying a flat screen TV and a games console. He’d spend days locked in the flat, barely going out, playing games online with virtual friends from across the world. People that didn’t know his offending history. People who didn’t judge. He started drinking again and his MS symptoms came back. Finding himself unable to walk the short distance to the local shop he became reliant on online supermarket deliveries. This the reason for his ultimate downfall. One morning his probation officer had made an unannounced visit and was surprised to bump into a delivery driver in his hallway. Within thirty minutes the police were back at his door, arresting him for breaching the licence condition that stated he was banned from ever going online.

 ‘I’ve never done anything to hurt a child’, he often says. ‘How could I after what happened to me’

 His Dad had been convicted in the 1970’s. Matthew was seven, his brother five. Things worked differently back then. None of the family had received any social services support. There were no counselling appointments booked. His Mum had struggled and eventually both of them were taken into care. He had struggled, finding it difficult forming friendships, unable to really trust anyone.

It’s now almost eleven months since he was arrested and no further charges have been brought, but the idea that the police haven’t returned his PlayStation is making him apocalyptic with rage. Hence the letters, sometimes ten a day, to anyone he thinks can help him. As we sit in his flat you can sometimes hear shouting and loud banging when someone passes by his door. There are scorch marks around his letterbox, caused by his neighbours pushing through lit sheets of newspaper, a baking tray filled with water placed on his inside door matt to prevent the risk of a fire taking hold. Now he only leaves the flat when the ambulance comes to collect him for hospital appointments, taking advantage of the crew’s good nature, when they sometimes allow him to stop off at the supermarket on the way home to buy essentials. 

‘The best way to describe it is I feel like I’m part of some dark experiment’, Matthew says. ‘Society just doesn’t know what to do with people like me and as a result all our human rights are being trampled on’. There are so many of us I think it would shock people’, he says. ‘At least 50,000 people are thought to be doing what I did. At least according to the NSPC. What’s the plan? To put all of them in prison?’

This is the reason why the letters will continue, sent to anyone who might provide a sympathetic ear. Matthew also talks of direct action, of other men he’s been in contact with prepared to go public and openly discuss what they perceive as the draconian legal measures they have faced. At one stage Matthew even uses the word ‘victim’ in reference to what he’s been through but I stay mute, reluctant even in these extreme circumstances to directly challenge him given my position as his house guest.

 As I leave, concerned I’ll be spotted walking down the hallway by Matthew’s neighbours, he sends me a text, most likely from a smart phone that I’m guessing would represent a serious breach of his licence conditions: ‘just try and get across that I’m no monster’, it says.

 I’ve tried Matthew. I really have.