A really bad thing happened on our recent holiday to Malta.
I wasn't able to write about it in my previous post because it felt inappropriate. In that post, I was trying to make light of the awfulness of Week 1 (ie. the monosyllabic other single mums I found myself with, the hideousness of our grotty hotel, etc). Consequently, mentioning What Happened on Night Six just didn't seem right. There was nothing funny about what happened that night and I felt that I couldn't make mention of it in a post in which I was trying to be light-hearted.
What Happened on Night Six (all names have been changed):
After dinner and a lovely walk along the seafront to Bugibba and back, my girls and I spent the rest of our evening in a lovely little cafe near our hotel, eating banoffee pie (Eldest Daughter's favourite 'food') and playing Gin Rummy. At about 11 o'clock we headed back to our too-tiny room. We tiptoed along the empty corridor and stopped outside our door. Just as I was inserting key into lock, we heard raised voices coming from the room opposite. We knew that two of our group - mum Vonya and 10 year-old daughter, Ruby - were staying in this room.
Vonya and I had spoken only briefly since the start of our holiday. She kept herself to herself, was always very brusque with her replies (to the point of being irascible). She spent a lot of time during the day sitting, alone and unsmiling, in the hotel lobby which struck me as more than a bit odd. She was, if I'm honest, a bit scary. She seemed angry all the time, in a weird, low-key, repressed kind of way. When we all met up for dinner in the evenings, Vonya often never came. On more than one occasion, daughter Ruby joined Eldest Daughter, Youngest Daughter and I at dinner. Ruby said things like 'My mum isn't feeling well' or 'My mum is having a nap', by way of explanation.
My girls and I felt sorry for Ruby: she was very timid, seemed afraid of everything (the sea, the swimming pool, the hotel food) and she spoke in a peculiar breathless, hurried kind of way. As if she had to get her sentences out very quickly. As if we were suddenly going to stop listening to her. She had a very short attention span and was unable to sit still for long. She was forever peering about nervously, constantly sitting down and getting up again, endlessly fiddling with her long blonde hair. It was clear that she was not a happy little girl.
As I was turning the key in our lock, we heard raised voices. Vonya said, angrily, 'Just do it!' Ruby replied, 'I'm going to!' She sounded angry, too. There was a short silence. Then we heard it. Thwack thwack thwack. The sound of Vonya hitting Ruby. Thwack thwack thwack. It seemed to go on for a long time. At first Ruby was shouting, then she started to cry. Then she was crying, really hard. And still it went on. Thwack thwack thwack.
I froze, completely shocked. Eldest and Youngest Daughters were staring at me, their eyes round and enormous. I recall looking at Eldest Daughter and whispering, 'What shall I do?!' I felt completely confused. I didn't know what to do. Next thing, I was banging on Vonya's door.
'Is everything okay in there?' I said, very loudly.
Silence. Ruby was still crying.
'Is everything okay?' I repeated.
Silence. Ruby stopped crying.
'Vonya, it's me,' I said, saying my name. 'The girls and I are here,' I continued. (In retrospect, I think that perhaps I thought mentioning my daughters' names might somehow make Ruby feel better?) 'Do you need some help?' I said through the door.
'We're fine,' Vonya replied, eventually. She sounded furious. 'Everything's fine.'
'Okay,' I said.
My girls and I let ourselves into our room. I was shaking like a leaf. Eldest Daughter was still staring at me, ashen-faced. Youngest Daughter promptly burst into tears. 'Poor Ruby,' she sobbed, 'Is she going to be okay?' I didn't know what to say. We all felt absolutely awful. About ten minutes later, I opened our door (very quietly) and leaned out into the corridor. All quiet, thank God.
We spent the rest of our holiday avoiding Vonya, which wasn't difficult as she didn't once come anywhere near us. When we did find ourselves in a group situation (which wasn't often, as she continued to skip dinner every evening and only took one other day trip that we did) she didn't so much as look in our direction. Had she done, I was ready with my most withering look of disgust/disdain/disapproval. But I wasn't even able to catch her eye. Ruby, however, continued to gravitate towards us whenever she could (ie. whenever Vonya wasn't around) and although we never discussed the events of that night with her (what do you say?: is your mum abusing you? Does she do it often? Do you want to come and live with us?) we knew that she knew that we knew. And I kept hoping that, somehow, that might be of some comfort to her.
I agonised over what else I could do/should do. Should I confront Vonya? What would that achieve? Would it make things any better for Ruby? The next day, I told Lorraine, our Maltese chaperone/guide, what the girls and I had overheard. She looked horrified and said that Vonya had approached her that very morning and had mentioned, quite randomly, that she was taking a certain prescription medication which sometimes made her 'lose it'. At the time, Lorraine said, she'd wondered why on earth Vonya was sharing this information with her. In light of what I was telling her, it suddenly sounded quite sinister. I asked whether Lorraine could do anything in her capacity as company rep (me being a total wimp, clutching at straws, not feeling brave enough to do anything ie. confront Vonya myself). Lorraine said that there was nothing that she could do except 'keep an eye on things' for the remainder of the holiday and report the incident to the UK office. And so we all just carried on into Week 2 which (mercifully) included the arrival of The New Lot - single mums and children who were friendly and fun.
When we arrived back home, I continued to agonise over what the HELL to do next. Should I have said something to Ruby before we all went our separate ways? Was I a coward for not having 'had words' with Vonya? Could I possibly ignore what had happened and just carry on as usual? Should I consign the events of Night Six to the deepest, darkest recesses of my mind and hope that my daughters could, too? Should I report it to someone? If so, to whom should I report it? ... and what would they actually do about it? What train of events might I be setting in motion if I picked up the phone? Had my daughters and I perhaps 'witnessed' a one-off event? - in which case perhaps it was okay to do nothing?
We all fly off the handle, sometimes, I told myself. (I certainly have done, on umpteen occasions. When I do, I tend to get VERY S-H-O-U-T-Y but yes, I have smacked my girls, though only rarely and never more than once. And I've always felt absolutely horrendous afterwards). Life is tough. Being a parent is very tough. Being a single parent can be very tough. Did I have any right to meddle in Vonya and Ruby's lives? Was I just being a busybody? Was my over-active imagination running away with me?
I spent two days thinkingthinkingthinking.
I remembered Eldest Daughter's (at the time quite innocent) comment re. how Ruby only ever wore a full swimsuit (one of those 'Aussie-type' sunblocker things which cover arms to the elbow and legs to the knee). I recalled how, in the evenings, when all the other girls (and their mums) wore shorts or skirts or sundresses, Ruby wore long trousers and long sleeves.
I remembered how we'd seen Ruby wandering around the hotel late at night, all by herself. More than once, she'd joined us and asked whether we knew where her mum was.
I thought about how, on the few occasions that Vonya and Ruby had participated in group activities, Ruby never, ever stood with or sat next to her mum. Whenever she had the opportunity to be somewhere else, with someone else, she took it. She moved away from Vonya as often as she could. I never saw them hug or cuddle or hold hands. They hardly even spoke to each other.
I also recalled how Ruby had said over dinner one evening (in response to a question from Youngest Daughter) that she 'didn't have a Dad'. She did, however, have a Nan, who often sent her texts. She seemed very lonely, very alone in the world.
And I thought of Victoria Climbie and Baby Peter. How alone and lonely they must have been, too. And then I decided to stop being a wimp. I knew that I couldn't ignore what had happened. I couldn't possibly do nothing. That I had to trust my instincts. So I picked up the phone and called the NSPCC.
I was put straight through to a wonderful woman who listened quietly while I told her the whole sorry story. I told her how guilty I felt for not having done anything while on holiday (apart from tell Lorraine what we'd heard) and how guilty I felt, right now, for making the call. She was very kind and reassuring. She told me that that I had done the right thing then and that I was doing the right thing now. She was so kind and lovely that I almost started to cry.
I have no idea what has happened since. Nor will I, ever, as the NSPCC (and police child protection services to whom my call will have been referred) do not feed back. Apparently (according to lovely NSPCC lady) the first thing they will have done (following my call) is check various databases to see whether Ruby's name is already on a list somewhere. In a weird way, it would actually be a good thing if it was because then the wheels would turn more quickly. If not, they apparently make initial confidential enquiries via Ruby's school and/or GP (if she's registered) before eventually paying a visit to Vonya herself. But I can't help wondering (given the repeated cock-ups in both Victoria Climbie and Baby Peter's cases) whether anything will come of anything, anyway.
I find myself thinking of Ruby all the time. I hope that she's okay. I so hope I won't have made things worse for her by doing what I have done. I also hope, if anyone ever does knock on Vonya's door, that she doesn't connect me with the fact. I know it sounds wimpish in the extreme (and I'm totally ashamed to admit this) but I'd be afraid if she did. (A couple of weeks before our trip, the travel company sent a full list of parents and children who would be holidaying together on Malta: names, ages and where we all came from eg. Wimbledon, Weston-super-Mare, etc). The irony is, of all the mums on our holiday, she lives by far the closest. Uncomfortably close. As the crow flies, Vonya and Ruby live less than half an hour from our front door. And she really is a scary woman. Which is why I know that I've done the right thing.
4 years ago