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Back Peddling

Pushing hard on the rickety handles of her second-hand baby buggy 13-year-old Zoë Baker gritted her teeth, bent her head low against an icy wind and wiped away a persistent tear. What she saw through reddened half closed eyes prompted painful memories of a time, not so long ago, when a leaden sky and a flurry of snowflakes would have been the stuff-of-fun for any little girl on the way to school. Now as she counted the cracks beneath her leaky shoes all they conjured up was a heavy heart, cold feet, freezing fingers and the prospect of another depressing lunch break with a Pot Noodle starter, a couple of fags, breast feeding and changing ‘hot chicken korma’ Huggies. Catching her reflection in a shop window Zoë quickly looked away, there was no fun and no glamour in what she saw, and certainly no ‘party-scene’ coping with a sprog on her own whilst the father does time in a young offenders institute.

For all the sympathy real or imagined, no one came close to understanding how wretched Zoë felt; nor how desperately she wanted to escape this premature responsibility and get back to things like snowballs by lunchtime and slides in the park before tea. As she trudged on towards school the echoes of a million laughs filled the air swirling and swooping around her in a lavish dance memoir. Faint but familiar voices called to her across a void now so great it was impossible to bridge. Uncle Ted’s raucous laughter, aunt Ruby singing her head off in the kitchen and reliable old Gran who always seemed to know what a girl needed most particularly the foldy-curly stuff. One minute it was Christmastime, the next her birthday, presents galore, mad parties and a warm bed to curl up in at night. Her brief life or at least the best parts of it, danced before her along chilly corridors of penetrating wind mocking her with piercing memories of freedom and friendship and of a time when the world was new and the future held so much promise.

If only she’d listened to advice, and just for once followed it to the letter, none of this might have happened but instead, plied with drink and intoxicated by too much knowledge mixed with too little experience, she’d gambled and lost a huge chunk of her life all for a few moments of fumbled personal invasion that when over had left her numbed, cold and confused.

She remembered the night vividly standing alone in the dark rearranging her soiled clothing. What had started out as a search for love, a rebellion against something and nothing, had ended in a vacuum, an empty space across which she could just glimpse the distant silhouette of a moody desultory youth more interested now in biting his nails than helping her back to respectability. This surely wasn’t the love she’d read about in magazines and seen on film. An act so short, so imperfect, she could hardly remember it, let alone feel it, and what of her love for Wayne, was it still there – was it ever there?

When he wasn’t banged-up ‘Wayne was a lovely lad,’ at least according to his mother who thought the sun shone out of his backside and was prepared to go a full ten rounds with anyone who disagreed. He saw her coming from his pram and knew what taking the pi** was before he could spell it. Zoë got the same engaging treatment, evenings and weekends spent hanging about the best street corners, smashing bus shelters and peeing on anything Wayne’s one-grain brain didn’t like. All top stuff, including the promise that ‘you can’t get caught first time,' which after a smoke and a grope, three months later led to outright panic when he initially denied even knowing Zoë. It has to be said however that Wayne was a doting father-to-be. He doted on joy riding, shoplifting and doin’ spliff when Zoë’s spends or the proceeds of thieving stretched that far.

Of course according to the local community bobby, all Zoë’s problems could have been avoided if only Wayne and his pals had been given a ping-pong table in a super-heated lavishly appointed sports centre paid for by the taxpayer. No chanceof anyone accepting the fact that poorly educated kids can turn into uneducated duffers for whom the very act of thinking ‘does your ‘ed in’ and can only be remedied by copious cans of lager to induce a self-inflicted stupor that gets toss-pots like Wayne through the day and night. No doubt about it though, Wayne and his pals have certainly got the measure of modern society, certain that someone will clean-up the mess they leave behind and confident that ample excuses will be found to avoid confronting a behaviour that so patently has poor schooling and poor parenting at its roots. Couch-potato mums and dads who only wake-up when their precious offspring is found wrapped around a lamppost ejected from a stolen car at three in the morning with his feet trapped under the pedals and his head 50 metres up the road.

When the news of pregnancy first poured out, shock waves registered high on the Richter scale and priorities initially became confused. ‘Who’s going to tell aunt Flo?' blurted out mum automatically. ‘Stuff aunt bloody Flo,’ cried Zoë’s dad, ‘who’s going stop me kicking seven bells out of the young sod and more to the point, who’s going to tell the police?' ‘Tell the police!' Screamed mum, ‘you mean this’ll go to court and be in’t papers like?' ‘Might do,’ said dad, ‘the girl’s well under age.' In time, Zoë’s parents calmed down and finally conceded that it was too late to do much more than stand by their daughter and give her what support they could.

Regardless of all the pity and belated advice Zoë was still a little girl with every right to behave like one. She liked to read magazines, experiment with make-up and dream the dreams of a lady-in-waiting. What did she know or care about motherhood? The sight of swelling breasts and belly in the mirror each morning were a decidedly unwelcome spectacle, a body clock she would prefer to stop or better still turn back. Her body was changing but not her age - glamour and glitz were what she wanted - not babies!

At first the change was imperceptible, but gradually day-by-day Zoë began to accept her fate, her smiles grew less radiant and less often, she began to smoke heavily and the odd drink became a habit, by her thirteenth birthday she looked and behaved like an adult who’d been to Hell and back. In this short time Wayne, true to form, had twice deserted her, twice beaten her up and almost given her a second child had he not in a fit of temper thrown her downstairs.

In the lonely hours before the foetus expelled Zoë tried to phone the police for help. She rang a number in a booklet given to her by the council and waited so long the line went dead. She banged on the wall as hard as she could and again, no one answered. In desperation, she rang a classmate’s mobile and couldn’t be heard above the din of another birthday party, defeated she ended the call. Frightened and cold she struggled limping into the loo and locked the door, sometime later she emerged still the mother of one, wept and went to bed.

When Zoë awoke in a room without a bulb, smelly and sweating on a damp mattress and in some considerable pain, she resolved whatever the cost to make a life for herself and her surviving child. No more filthy beds, stinking blankets, dirty houses and brain dead vandals masquerading as men. No more lies, no more apathy and no more false promises. She might only be a youngster but she knew the time had come to fight back. The first thing to do was to get some air, go to her mums and have a bath, tidy herself up and see the doctor. The next thing high on her agenda would be to give bloody Wayne the boot.

How Zoë wondered had a moment’s indiscretion lead to this terrible nightmare? She knew she had some back peddling to do and some serious self respect to regain, but with a bit of luck her mum would be there and so too would her dad, which is no bad start when a girl needs to put her life back together again.

© Joseph G Dawson