At the Bottom of the Deep Blue Sea: a passage from The Skeleton Cupboard

31 March 2015

By Pan Macmillan

When a child is hanging by the neck, grabbing their legs to hold them up isn’t easy. They wriggle and they kick. Imogen struggled in silence. Then she kneed me in the face, hard, and I tasted blood. The stillness of the room belied the horribleness of the task.

‘Hold her up, up, up!’

Grunts of effort in unison as the little girl’s legs were hoisted higher to relieve the pressure on her neck. The dressing-gown cord was looped over a slim copper pipe in the ceiling. Victorian plumbing was not designed with the health and safety of suicidal children in mind.

I couldn’t believe how heavy a small-framed anorexic child feels when you have to support her as a dead weight.

‘C’mon, guys – push up and hold . . . and hold . . .’

A snap of steel through fabric, followed by a bizarre pause in motion – everything still for a beat before the child dropped into our arms. My frustration melted into relief. I just wanted to hold this little vulnerable person and rock her gently, make her feel safe. Imogen, though, was having none of it. She lashed out, biting, kicking and snarling.

‘Imogen, be still – let’s work together here. Ow!’

Negotiations over, she was quickly flipped onto her stomach, arms held behind her back. Lying prostrate over bucking legs, I had a sudden urge to bite back, to sink my teeth into this angry, ungrateful kid and shock her into submission.

And then it was finished. Child sedated, taken off to the ‘chill-down’ room – chic and bijou, nicely padded, sparsely furnished – while staff dispersed to other duties. Voices in the corridor: ‘What did the librarian say to the kid who wanted to borrow a book on suicide? Fuck off – you won’t bring it back.’

Third week into placement number two and already I wanted to give up and go home.

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