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?’