January 2008

On the morning they buried my uncle, I arose sleepless and before any one else was awake, ran down through the village, empty but for a paper boy muffled in earphones and singing his own private melody to the echoing streets.  The nights mist was thinning and the sea was so far out across the beach, it merged with the wet sand in a golden shimmer.  An Oystercatcher called, sharp and urgent, as I turned into the sun and ran towards Melbourne, my shoes leaving deep prints in the sand. 

Ahead I saw a line of posts, leaning like soldiers asleep.  I read the notice.  Naturist area. 

I looked around.  The wide beach was empty except for a flock of gulls crying over the water.  In one quick movement, I removed vest and shorts and shoes and holding them to me at a crouch, hid them in the dunes by the float.  I remembered my uncle on his white slab in the mortuary as, bereft of clothes, I skimmed over the sand, chasing the light.  Free from the night’s torments and forgetting the jiggle of shame,  I  sped down the beach, sole and heel thumping rhythmically on hard sand.  The sun shone warm against stomach and chest, the breeze was cool over my shoulders.  My mind repeated the same mantra as I allowed my legs carry me further from the cares of the day. 

Far along the beach, much further than I had gone before,  the shining formed itself into buildings, cranes, people walking dogs.   Suddenly self conscious,  I thought of the house awaking, people arriving in dark suits and medals, long black cars, the church and flowers. 

My watch was in the sand, but the sun was higher and further inland.  I had to get back.  The sun was on my back now, pushing me along,  but my feet splish-plopped on the incoming tide and threatened to trip me up.   

After an age of fatigue,  I saw the posts, and with panic rising in my chest, raced up to the spot in the dunes where I had left my clothes.   The yellow float was there attached to a frayed, faded green rope, but shoes, vest,  shorts and any hope of dignity were all long gone.  

God does not exist.  Love is an illusion. There is no truth, only conviction.  Scientific proofs are but ingenious fictions.  Beauty, like character, cannot be quantified;  it is in the mind’s eye of the observer, a projection filtered by experience and shaped by  expectation.  Everything, absolutely everything, the house you purchase, the food you eat, the car you drive, the illnesses you suffer from, is driven by metaphor and infected by meaning. The team you support is, in reality, not especially imbued with talent, your shampoo just a weak detergent, expensively scented and packaged.  But then, what is reality?  Nothing is definite. There are no facts, only beliefs, convictions, assumptions and assertions.  We inhabit a world of our own make believe.       

‘Surely not!’, you exclaim.  ‘I know two and two equals four.  That is a fact!’ 

‘Not at all.  It is a fiction, conditioned by the decimal numerical system we have evolved – based on the ten digits we have.  Change this to a counting system based on just three ‘numbers’, and two and two equals eleven. 

‘OK, if I look outside the window, I can see my car.  I know that’s real.’

‘Well, is it?  It might be an illusion, constructed in your brain by expectation and imagination.  At the risk of appearing pedantic, what you ‘see’ is an image projected on your retina, converted into a pattern of electromagnetic pulses and interpreted according to our expectation into an abstraction, composed entirely of meaning.’ 

Physiological studies show that we rarely look at things, we scan them and generate the image we expect.  Bird watchers have a word for this – giss – they just have to catch a glimpse and their mind does the rest. Of course different observers may see it differently. It can lead to arguments, like the one I witnessed in the big hide in Albufera.  ‘Little Stint’, announced one expert,  ‘Knot’, said the other.  S’not a knot!’      So we see what we expect to see,  see what we expect to see, hear what we expect to hear, and understand in a way that is not only conditioned by our experience, but also coloured by mood.  If you are cheerful, you will perceive things through rose tinted spectacles, but if you are melancholic, then your glasses are dark and the same objects will acquire a different meaning.  The Rorschach Test, in which subjects say what they see in a featureless ink blot, illustrates our facility to extract meaning from shapes.  In a similar way, the night sky presented ancient travellers with a cast of mythical characters.  Tell somebody a story and ask them to relay it to somebody else, it will be altered by the meanings that condition their interpretation.  Ask people to relate the same event and they will do so in different ways.  Witness statements are never quite the same.  Identity parades are notoriously misleading.  Witnesses often select the person who looks most like a villain.  Reputations can be ruined by a hint  of gossip. Everything we perceive is infected with meaning. 

There is no reality, just shared perception, no fact, just an agreed fiction,  no truth, just a concensus of  belief.   We inhabit a world of meanings.  Knowledge is never written in stone but on the sand and when the tide comes in, it changes. 

We acquire meaning from our parents, teachers and colleagues through associations and experience. People, encultured in a different set of meanings, see things in different ways. A member of an Amazon tribe will witness the crash of an airliner in the jungle in a very different way to a white aid worker; same event – different meaning.  Even illness has different cultural meanings. A sensation of tight heaviness around the chest in a man from the Punjab is seen as an indication that he cannot control his daughter – a sign of shame.  .        

But civilised societies hate the uncertainty of unsubstantiated meaning.  They have to exert control by deducing facts, establishing the truth,  proving what is real.  But really, it is all fiction.  Politicians direct the meaning and enshrines it in law.   Teachers do not teach facts, they instil culturally approved ideas.  If people are brought up with the same set of meaning, then they can be more easily controlled.  But as they acquire knowledge, so they lose meaning and intuition. When teachers from the south went to ‘educate’ the Inuit,   they took them away from their meaningful wilderness and imposed Columbus, Maths and Three Little Pigs.  Scientists attempt to establish what is real, but their observations, measurements and theories are so conditioned by assumptions, that science is nothing but an elaborate  construct, a triumph of imagination, directed by the culture and consolidated in textbooks.  

The medical sociologist,  Brian Turner, once wrote that ‘Illness is a language, the body is representation and medicine is political practice’.  Most ill health does not have a basis in pathology.  If the doctor is to help the patient, it is more important to find out what the illness represents.  When the charismatic neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot was practicing in Paris,  patients quickly learnt to adopt the symptoms diagnostic of  his invention, ‘La Grande Hysterie’,  but after he retired, these symptoms quickly vanished.             

Theologians and ‘true’ believers may argue the existence of God, but the fact is there is no God, only faith – a projection of omnipotence that comforts us against the realities of death and evil.  

When we fall in love with somebody we invest them with the meaning of our lives.  They become everything we crave.  The things we give and receive, the places we visit, the people we meet, are touched with magic.  Our ordinary life becomes deeply meaningful.  But if our beloved lets us down or cheat on us, the meaning changes overnight.  Those that we love to distraction we will soon hate beyond measure.  They have tricked us, destroyed our meaning.  Meanings are fluid, like attitudes.  They are contingent on the situation or context.  The same poem can have a very different meaning at the end of a relationship than at the beginning.  And if we lose the person, we have invested so much meaning in, we lose the meaning and with it the will to live.  That is why the loss of a loved one can leave us bereft, sick and exhausted and devastated.  Philanderers are so destructive because their exploit and plunder meaning.           

It is not reality that holds individuals and societies together but meanings; religion, culture, the arts, law, science, love – these are all meaningful constructs.  It is the meaning embodied in self belief that drives human beings to be creative and successful.   If we lose the meaning, then we lose a sense of ourselves.  The same kind of devastation we experience over the loss of a loved one can occur when we lose the job that has given our life meaning or we lose the reputation we have created over the years or we lose our faith.  When elderly people lose their home and move into institutions, they tend to lose the meaning for life, and many succumb quite quickly.  It is well established that loss  makes us ill, but not any loss – only loss that is meaningful.  It’s the loss of meaning that makes us ill. 

So many of my patients tell me they have no meaning in life; they don’t know who they are.  Thus, to heal and become whole again, they need  to recover that sense of meaning – to withdraw the cathexis from what has been lost and reinvest it into something new.  Therapists and healers, who treat patients sick through loss of meaning, should not only seek first to understand the meaning of what has been lost but also help their patients find ways of restoring the meaning in their lives.   

To plunder another relationship, to capture the dependency of another person and then to abandon them is nothing short of a ruthless act of desecration, a murder of the soul.  Seducers, adulterers, philanderers, insecure lovers who need another’s desire so much they will steal it, are very dangerous people.  They destroy marriages, deplete the lives of the love object, and can even cause injury and death. They should be issued with a government health warning and wear it at all times.  

In Dangerous Obsession, the play so skilfully crafted by N.J.Crisp,  the horror of what can ensue from a secret love affair, uncoils with the stealth of a python.  We know there is something wrong when John, an unassuming little man, clutching his brief case, calls on Sally in her luxury home one summer’s afternoon.  

She has just come in from the pool and is still in her swimsuit.  She assumes John is a salesman.  He looks like one.  She tries to get rid of him.  But John is not a salesman.  He knows her.  They sat next to each other at a conference in Torquay the previous year. Her husband, Mark, danced with his wife.  She can hardly remember the occasion, wonders whether John is some kind of stalker and reaches for her wrap.  As she puts it on, John shuts the door to the patio and secretly pockets the key.  Out of politeness, Sally offers John a drink.   He asks her whether she has children.  Sally says that Mark does not want a family yet.  John says he has some business he wants to discuss with Mark.   

At that point Mark arrives, tired and not a little put out that John is there. He is polite but dismissive and tells John to make an appointment to see him at his office.  John refuses and says he won’t take up much of his time.  He starts to talk about a tragic accident affecting his wife.  Mark pulls a face and gestures to his wife to get rid of John.  But John asks for another drink and tells them more about the accident. 

It happened a month ago – on a country road in the New Forest.  He rummages in his briefcase and produces the love letter he found in Jane’s bag after the accident.  It is written to somebody called Mark.  He enquires casually what Sally and Mark were doing that weekend.  Sally told him she had to go to her mother’s in Norwich.  Mark said he went to Jersey.  ‘Which hotel?’, John asks.   

‘The Grand.’ Mark replies and then says ‘Look here old boy, there are lots of people called Mark.  I was not with your wife.  Right?    

John produces another piece of paper, a bill from the hotel where Jane had stayed in Bournemouth.  It itemises a telephone call made from her room.  He passes it to Sally.  ‘Is that your mother’s number.’  Sally gazes and nods.   

At this point, Mark gets annoyed and asks John to go.  John reaches in his bag and pulls out a gun.  ‘I call this my lie detector’.  He locks the other door and closes the curtains.  Mark thinks the gun is a bluff and tries to get it from him.  John fires twice, shooting the drink out of Mark’s hand.   

At the beginning of the second act,  John asks Sally and Mark about their marriage.  Sally admits it is not perfect.  Mark has had other affairs.  She had a revenge affair, but it didn’t make her feel good.   

John then reads the letter from Jane; she sounds distressed.  Mark admitted she was upset that he wouldn’t leave Sally.  Sally says that Mark would never leave her because the house, Mark’s business is funded entirely from her money.  ‘If he left, he would have nothing.’  

John asks Mark if he was responsible for the crash.  Mark denies it.  John tells him he is lying and threatens to shoot him.  Mark backs away and falls behind the sofa, screaming in terror.  John fires three times, but they are blanks.  There is one bullet left.   

Mark staggers to his feet helped by Sally and collapses in the chair.  John asks him again if he was in the car.  Mark denies it.  John puts the gun against the side of his head and cocks it.  Mark breaks down and admits everything.  Yes, he was driving Jane home, she was screaming and crying, he had been drinking,  it was raining, he was going too fast.  A car came the other way, he swerved, skidded, hit the other car and crashed.  He reached over to Jane.  Her face was covered in blood, she was unconscious and she didn’t seem to be breathing.  He pulled her across into the drivers seat, grabbed his bag and ran away, hitched a lift to Southampton and got a taxi home. He ignored the other car.  John informed him that the passenger, an elderly woman, was badly injured and because of the delay in calling an ambulance, she died.   

John then asks Mark and Sally what they thought would be a suitable recompense.  Sally asks how much he wants.  ‘Oh no, I don’t want money.  I was thinking of something more interesting. I was thinking that since Mark had Jane, perhaps I could have you and he can watch.’ Mark pleads with Sally to do it. 

She removes her wrap and starts to undo the strap of her swimming costume, but John tells her to put her wrap back on.  He has got what he wants.  He has Mark’s admission, he has exposed his cowardice and treachery, he has shown Sally that Mark would even sacrifice her to save his skin.  He can now leave them to sort out the debris of their lives. 

In the final twist of the plot, he reconnects the telephone and makes a call to Jane.  She did not die after all.  She remained in a coma for several weeks and still suffers from the after effects of severe brain injury.  Mark grabs the gun and tries to shoot John.  It clicks six times.  The chambers are empty.   

When a course of action is founded on betrayal and destruction, it continues that way until the final denouement.  Mark and Jane’s selfish obsession destroyed the lives of the innocent couple in the other car,  killed Jane’s baby, turned her into an invalid and exposed the make believe of Sally’s marriage.  Five lives have been damaged forever.  Crisp’s play is a parable for our time.    In a narcissistic age, where so many people seem to tire of their life partners too quickly and  seek self gratification in the thrill of illicit sex and secret affairs, social values like loyalty, responsibility and fidelity are sacrificed.  Without the values that build trust, life loses its meaning, the soul is depleted, innocent lives are destroyed.  Therein lies the route to depression, the iconic ailment of the age.   

This week a crocodile exploded in the British Museum.  It was in a crate in the vaults.  The curators had been aware for years that this reptile of prodigious size and weight, mummified in the XVth dynasty was emitted foul smelling gases.  This had been noticed by the public.  There were complaints.  So they nailed it up in a heavy wooden crate and took it down to the cellars and stored it in a room marked Egypt  amid sarcophagi, mummies and other assorted artefacts.  Other crates were heaped on top of it, but this did not prevent the smell from seeping out of the box, spreading through the underground chamber and oozing through cracks in the ceiling and floorboards to infect the chamber of Assyria and Persia.  On winter days when the windows were closed and the air conditioning switched off, the smell was so bad that even the stern profiles of the Assyrian warriors, immortalised since Sennacherib, wrinkled their noses.  

Nobody knew what caused the explosion.   Maybe it one of the curator’s assistants lit up in an attempt to disguise the stench.  It later emerged that not all of the charred bodies the police found in the wreckage had been mummified.  The explosion punched a hole through two floors, destroying for the second time the Persian Empire and severely disturbing the erotic façade of the Temple of Arasnipur, excavated from a site near Mumbai.  The curator was devastated.  On television and white faced, he said,  ‘It had completely destroyed our only record of pre-Christian Mesapotamia.  It would cost millions of pounds to rebuild the gallery and restock it, but the cost in terms of our human heritage and culture is incalculable.  This is devastating.’   Asked if the museum had any idea of the risk, the poor man admitted that they had known of the gases leaking from the croc for years, but literally covered it up.  ‘I have today tendered my resignation to the Culture Secretary.’ 

But this was only latest in a series of embarrassments for the Rt Honorable Mr Christopher Smith.  Only a few months previously, he had received a report recommending urgent refurbishment of the middle eastern section of the British Museum.  He had forwarded it to the Chancellor,  Gordon Brown, who refused to allocate additional funds and advised him to set up a committee.  Mr Smith resigned, the Chancellor was exposed, the government discredited and the Prime Minister went to the country. 

 The moral of this tale: Unless dark prehistoric secrets are dealt with, they can tend to emerge with devastating consequences.

It’s January.  The Seville oranges are on the shelves, those with the hard, knobbly skins, the dusky yellow orange colour of a stormy sunrise.  Slice into them.  The skin is thick and very bitter, while the fruit is so sour it freezes your teeth.   Squeeze about eight of them (2 pounds).  Pour the juice into a deep saucepan containing 4 pints of water.  Put all the pith and pips onto a square of muslin over a shallow bowl to collect any residual juice.  Scrape out the pith from the husks of the orange halves and put that on the muslin two.  Tie the muslin containing all the pith and pips into a bag with string and suspend in the liquid.  Then, using a large sharp knife, cut the orange halves into quarters and then fixing the end of your knife on the edge of the chopping board and using a rocking motion, cut the orange into thick slices.  With practice, this can be done quite quickly, but be careful, you don’t want slices of finger in your marmalade.  Put all the slices of orange in the pan and heat to boiling.  Then simmer for two hours until the peel is completely soft.  Now remove the bag from the pan and leave to cool on a saucer.  Put 4 more saucers in the freezer.  These will be used later to test whether your marmalade has set.  The next stage is critical.  

Add 4lb of golden granulated sugar to the pan.  This seems an enormous amount as it heaps up above the liquid like a island in the sea.  Increase the heat and stir the sugar in.  When the granules have completely dissolved,  squeeze in the glutinous pectin from your muslin bag.  Careful, it is probably too hot to squeeze in your hands.  Try squeezing between two saucers.  Get as much pectin out as you can.  This is what will set the marmalade.  Continue to heat the mixture.  Soon it froths up like the head on a pint of beer.  Set your timer to 15 minutes and continue to boil.  Do not leave the pan on the stove.  The mixture can easily boil over and burn.  Stir from time to time.  After 15 minutes, turn the heat off, allow the froth to disperse and spoon out a little of the juice onto one of your cold saucers.  Put it back in the freezer for a minute. Then check whether it has set by pushing it with your finger nail and seeing if it wrinkles.  This is a good opportunity to dip your finger in and taste your marmalade.  The amber elixir, such a wonderful dark bitter flavour.  If it has not quite set, put the pan on the heat again and boil for another ten minutes.  Test again until it has reached setting point.  Cooking is pure alchemy.  Only the oranges know whether they have reached that critical point when setting occurs. 

 Turn the heat off and allow the mixture to cool for twenty minutes.  In the meantime heat your jars, which you have previously cleaned in the dishwasher, on some newspaper in an oven set to 100C.  Your mixture will make 6lb of marmalade.  Now ladle the mixture out, preferably using a ladle with a lip, and  pour into your jars, making sure you have plenty of peel in each jar.  Fill to about half an inch from the top, cover with a piece of greaseproof paper, fix a cellophane lid on the top with a rubber band and label with today’s date; Nick’s Maramalade, 21.1.08.   It will last all year and you will still have some over to give to your friends.


How does somebody cope with the disappearance of a parent, a child, a spouse, a lover.  It is hard enough to cope with death, but at least death is certain.  There is a body and a funeral.  Family and friends reinforce the finality. You quickly learn to abandon the hope they will ever return and in time withdraw the cathexis, the sorrow, associated with that person.  How much more awful it is when they have just disappeared. How does Kate McCann cope with the abduction of her daughter Madeleine?   A husband walks out to work one morning, gives his wife a kiss as usual, says ‘see you later’ and disappears?  A lover suddenly vanishes leaving no means of contact.  How can a person ever let go under such circumstances.  That great torturer hope, condemns them to continued anguish as fear that the disappeared may be in danger conflicts with the probability that they wanted to go.  Disappearance leaves a black hole in your soul which devours all thought and generates a grief that never ends. How does anybody cope without the formality of closure, the acceptance of an end?  Some gain solace by creating a fantasy.       

Jennie’s mother just disappeared one night when she was only one year old leaving a hair brush, a bottle of cheap perfume and a note saying ‘Do not try to find me’.  Stricken with grief, her father never remarried, kept his wife alive in Jennie’s mind, and devoted himself to bringing Jennie up.  In ‘My Mam was a Hollywood Ice-Cream Blonde’, a new play by Alison Carr, Jennie, now aged 15, approaches adulthood with no guide to help her negotiate her identity as a grown woman.  There is no grandmother, no aunt. Tracey, her father’s new girl friend, might be in a position to help, but Jennie views her as a usurper, who threatens to steal her father.  She maintains the stability of her inner world through obsessional behaviours, assumes  the dependency of a child through anorexia, and fantasises an imaginary mother, a 30’s Hollywood actress created from the magazines she reads.


The creation of a fantasy relieves the tension.  Jennie’s mother did not leave her.  She is still alive, struggling to make it in the competitive world of film acting.  Dressed in a long black gown, mink stole, diamond necklace and with bubbly blonde hair, she visits Jennie every night, calls her honey bun and claims she still loves her.  Idly filing her nails, her mother tells her about her life in film and Jennie writes it all down in her notebook.  The central character in the fiction of Jennie’s life, her mother is still part of the family and loves her father, but she also represents a darker side and encourages her to get rid of Tracey. 


There is little distinction between sanity and madness.  Fantasy and illusion may be  stigmata of madness, but they can also be a perfectly rational solution for dealing with the torment of disappearance. Myth, legend and fantasy have always served to make sense of our lives. We indulge in make believe when we fall in love, when we move house, when we get a new job. It’s the fantasy and its camp follower – hope, that carry us through; otherwise we would do nothing.  Imagination is the engine of discovery.


We are held together by our beliefs.  They are what maintain the illusion of everlasting life.  Strip them away and all we have is the inevitability of loss and death.      

 But fantasy and imagination need to be informed and modified by reality.  Otherwise all is chaos and society collapses.  People may dream with their head in the clouds but their feet need to be firmly attached to the earth.  So at the end of the play, just as Jennie seems to accept the reality of Tracey and acknowledge the fantasy of the ice-cream blonde, her attention is captured by the announcer on the television. 

‘Mam? Mam?’ she cries, ‘Is that you?’


It was the end of term, just four days before Christmas.  The playground was emptying.  The children were drifting off, the echoes of their excited voices fading in the darkening wintery air.  The caretaker, anxious to get home for the holiday, had begun his round of checking and locking the rooms.  A light was on in the girl’s toilets. He went in.  One of the cubicles was closed and there was a trickle of blood coming from under the door.  He forced the lock.  A body was wedged against the door. It was a girl, about 15, dressed in jeans and a fleecy top.   She was unconscious. He dragged her out.  The left  sleeve of her top was rolled up.  The exposed forearm was cut quite deeply two inches above the wrist.  An artery was pumping blood.  She had been sick.  He pressed a thumb above where the blood was spurting and called for help on his mobile.   

In the hospital, they pumped her stomach to remove the rest of the sleeping tablets and sewed up the artery.  Now she was sitting upright in bed, as still and as pale as a plank.  A blood transfusion was set up beside her.  Miss Gadd, her form tutor sat next to her bed holding her hand.  A nurse came in.  ‘Your mother’s here, Tracey.’    

She looked scared.  ‘Send her away, I don’t want to see her.’   

A short stocky woman strode into the room.  She wore sheepskin coat over a tight orange jumper and a skirt that ended just above her knees.  Her face was hard, her eyes glaring, her lipstick an angry red.    ‘What the fuck have you done to yourself this time?’  

‘Nothing mam.’  

‘What d’you mean nothing.  You look like death warmed up.’  

Miss Gadd looked up at her and said nervously, ‘Tracey’s hurt herself badly, Mrs Richardson. She’s lost a lot of blood.  We were lucky we found her.    

‘Cut herself again, has she?  It’s just attention seeking, you know.’  She turned to the nurse. ‘When can I take her home?’  

Tracey looked terrified ‘I don’t want to go home.’  

‘Oh, so that’s it.  You don’t want to come home.  It’s because of Dave, isn’t it?  You’re just jealous. You’ve caused nothing but trouble ever since Dave moved in.  And he’s been so kind to you.  He’s loved you like his own daughter.’  

No he hasn’t’, Tracey wanted to say, but she couldn’t.  Her mother wouldn’t believe her anyway.  She once tried to tell her that Dave kept touching her, but her mum just  slapped her hard across the face and told her not to tell lies.  Since then, she had said nothing and just let him do what he wanted.  He made her promise never to say anything and threatened to kill her and her mother too if she did.  Her mum was working in the bar over the Christmas and she would be left for hours with Dave.  He would be drinking and want her to do it to him.  And if she didn’t do as he said, he would hurt her but not where it would show.  He was always careful that way.    

‘She’s not well enough to go home now, the nurse explained. We are going to complete the blood transfusion and keep her in overnight.’  Then tomorrow she’ll have to see the social workers.   

‘Fucking interfering dykes’, her mother spat.  ‘What do they know?  Last time she did this they took her away and put her somewhere where she would be safe.  I’m her mother.  Do they think I would hurt her?  And Dave thinks the world of her.’   

Tracey said nothing but stared at her mother with a look that was both terrified and beseeching.    

‘Oh well, I’ll be back tomorrow’, she said as she swivelled on a heel as sharp as a dagger ‘and mind she’s ready to come home. I’ve already wasted enough time on her antics.’  And with that she strode out leaving behind her a furious aroma of cigarettes, alcohol, chip fat and cheap perfume.    

Tracey looked stunned and then crumpled.  ‘Don’t send me back home.  I can’t stay in the house over Christmas with him.’  She raised an imploring, tear-stained face to her teacher. ‘Can’t I go with you?’  

Miss Gadd longed to say yes.  She guessed what might be going on but she didn’t know for sure. Her heart went out to Tracey, but she was her teacher.  There were boundaries; she couldn’t take pupils home.  Besides, she and Rod was looking after her mother and father this Christmas.  She couldn’t risk a potentially suicidal teenager.  ‘No love, but the social workers will sort something out.’    

Mrs Trellis was large and wore in a thick green sweater over a tweed skirt.  She had a rank smell of stale sweat about her and breathed heavily as she talked.  She was harassed, overworked and unhealthy.  ‘I do realise Tracey is at risk, but if she won’t tell me about it, I can’t do anything.  My hands are tied.  Under normal circumstances, I could arrange for her to stay with foster parents or even in one of our children’s homes until she can have proper assessment, but it’s Christmas, and there’s not a single place to be had.  And Tracey’s not the only child at risk;  there are others I can’t place either.  We just haven’t got the resources.  And there’s no reason to keep her in hospital any longer.  Her mother wants her at home and has threatened to complain if we don’t release her.  You wouldn’t believe it but so many of our mothers don’t want their kids at Christmas.’   

Tracey stared impassively at the wall in front of her.  She said nothing. 

Mrs Trellis turned to her.     ‘It will only be for a few days over Christmas, Tracey,  and then we can see you again and sort something out.  Surely you can manage a few more days, can’t you?’