If you were to ask Lily Beech what her fondest memories of her childhood were, she would emphatically and without hesitation reply that they were of her and her mother, dancing outside in the cold, crisp air, crunching autumn leaves under their feet.
It seems innocent enough. The sensory explosion of colour-changing Mother Nature, the audible crunching sound as addictive as that of popping bubble wrap, whispering at you to do it again, again, again. It is quite simply the epitome of childhood joy, and there is nothing more precious than a child’s laughter, until you can hear it no longer.
When do children cease to be children? When do they realise that the world is not their sanctuary, that there is darkness in the lightest corners of the earth, and that monsters aren’t beneath their beds but are the ones making their breakfast, lunch and dinner? Lily Beech knew all too soon.
She knew where the monsters lurked and how to find them.
It was December 1999. The Millennium was fast approaching. Carol had settled her daughter to bed for the night, whose pertinent questions of why Father Christmas had not brought her any presents both broke her heart and infuriated her beyond belief. Carol and Lily had moved only two days before Christmas to the other side of the world, or so it seemed in the world that Lily lived in. They had left a life behind in Scotland to start afresh somewhere new, at least, that’s what Carol had told her daughter when she asked. Carol knew that the story wouldn’t hold up for long. At eight years old, Lily was inquisitive – a natural quality in a child of her age – and would not leave a subject untouched when she had it in her mind. It was remarkable, really. She had been advanced academically for as long as Carol could remember, and by the time she started school, her teachers were already recommending moving her straight from the integrated school nursery into Year One. How am I going to tell her that she is starting a new school, a new class, a class a year younger than the class she was in before? Carol had worried over that conversation, almost exclusively, since they had settled five hundred miles (no less!) from Lily’s school in Glasgow. The quaint, small village of Polruan was vastly different in every way from what they were used to. Will she make new friends? Carol pondered. Lily, although bright and full of opportunity and potential, was not the social butterfly that Carol had been in her youth.
Lily Beech was a quiet and withdrawn child, yet that had not always been her usual countenance. At only eight years old, Lily was far wiser than I am in my adulthood. She had seen things that no eight-year-old should see. She had heard the vilest profanities and had suffered monumentally. As Lily lay awake in bed that night, listening to the muffled sobs of her mother in the adjacent room of their modest bedsit, she wondered just how much her mother knew of her suffering. Were those tears, in fact, being shed for Lily? Carol was quite unaware of Lily’s skill and precision at eavesdropping where she shouldn’t be, and so Carol’s tears continued as she sat curled up on a ball on the settee, wearing the woolliest clothes she had available, having packed in such a hurry to leave Glasgow. Stephen, her ex-husband, would have gone to great lengths to prevent the two of them from leaving if he had known, or even had a slight suspicion, that anything was amiss.
Carol and Stephen had been married for a grand total of eighteen months, from February 1992 to August the year after. They had formally separated on Lily’s second birthday, and, much to her pleasure, the divorce papers came through Carol’s front door shortly after. The marriage had not been a happy one. Carol viewed her marriage and everything that came from it, including the one child out of three that had lived, as a grave misfortune. Stephen, a drug addict and a generally terrible human being (as she told Lily whenever she had the audacity to ask after her father), had given her not one but three children. Lily’s older twin died shortly after they were both born, following a traumatic birth in which Alethea had been starved of oxygen when the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck. Their younger brother, Marcus, had been stillborn at 24 weeks. Fleeing Stephen and his family in the dead of night was the best thing that Carol could have done. Lily ran alongside her through the leaves, their backpacks only carrying the few precious belongings that they had space to take with them; toothbrushes, underwear, and a change of clothes for 2 or 3 nights.
“Mum,” Lily said. “Why are we out so late?” She looked up at her mother with that inquisitive stare, and the moon glistening in her big, brown eyes. Carol smirked.
“Don’t ask questions that you don’t want to know the answer to,” she responded abruptly. “Come on, you want to crunch in some more leaves, don’t you? We have a while to wait until the coach arrives.” Lily nodded mutedly, and began kicking the squashed, muddied leaves lackadaisically over the pavement and into the road. As she did, she watched her mother, quietly. Her eyes were careful not to make contact – Lily had learned another valuable skill in being the observer. She saw everything.
That night in December, when her cold ears had stopped following the sound of her mother’s crying, it was what she saw that was most terrifying. She saw her mother creep into her bedroom, pillow in hand, tear-stained cheeks but no tears thereupon them. She approached Lily’s bed with a cold, calculated manner; emotionless.
Lily knew what was coming. She had seen her with the same look on her face just days ago. Her father had visited, Christmas presents in hand. Her mother, unimpressed, offered a place on the settee for him to stay the night.
Lily knew that her dad was partial to alcohol; her mother was always calling him a dirty, drunk druggie in front of her. It’s true that Stephen had a weakness for it, too, so when Carol offered him a whiskey, then another, then another, she knew that he wouldn’t (or, rather, couldn’t) refuse. It was all part of her plan. A plan that Carol had no idea Lily knew anything about. Once the pot-bellied beast had begun to snore profusely in his deepest sleep, Carol walked over to him, the same way that she walked over to Lily’s bed a few days later, pillow in hand and a look of pure, unadulterated hatred painted on her porcelain face.
Lily watched her mother press the pillow over her father’s face. Lily knew that the same was going to happen to her.
She pretended to be asleep and lied there unmoving. She felt her mother’s presence over her and resisted the temptation to open her eyes. She smelled her red wine-tinted breath and resisted the urge to flinch. In that moment, she was no longer a child.
She waited for what felt like eternity, but was in reality only a millisecond, before beating Carol to the punch, kicking her hard between the legs, jumping out of bed, grabbing her bedside lamp and hitting her over the head.
She grabbed her chance and ran, no longer a girl; a survivor.
“Lily, it’s good to see you.” I greeted her with my usual smile, though in her case it felt far more genuine than for some of my other patients. “How are you?” I asked, with little trepidation – she was a success story, as true as they come.
She smiled back, bouncing Violet on her lap. “I’m doing okay,” she said. “This little one keeps me busy,” she added, nodding toward the mischievous imp that could easily have been mistaken for the same child she once was.
“Would you like to come in?” I opened the door to my office, and in ran Violet with Lily following close behind. “Please, take a seat – there are some toys under my desk for you, little lady!”
Lily laughed. “Oh, she knows where the toys are, Ellie! She can sniff them out, I swear!” Lily sat in her usual chair, relaxed and content. This was our final session together.
Lily first came to me as a child, referred through CAMHS after she had broken down to her foster carer about what had happened in her childhood. She was lucky. Her foster carer supported her, a frightened eight-year-old girl, through the news that her mother had died. It hadn’t been that night – but only a few nights later on the eve of the Millennium. Her mother’s alcoholism and undiagnosed psychosis had led to her death, though, of course, Lily carried guilt for the rest of her life about what had happened the night she ran away.
When news of the death reached Lily, after she made it to Windsor and was taken into care, it prompted her to tell her foster parents everything. Lily disclosed years of abuse from her mother, and the final attempt of her mother to keep Lily sleeping forever. Carol’s death, tragic as it may be, was the light for Lily. Her death meant that Lily could move on, and, selfishly, it meant that I became a part of her life.
She was discharged from my clinic in 2005, aged fourteen and about to sit her GCSEs, having made significant progress with her mental health both with and without medication.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Excited. Nervous… I don’t know,” she hesitated. “I never thought I could have all of this.” She gestured at Violet, chewing on a toy train and gurgling away to herself.
“When I first met you, you had lost that,” I pointed at Violet. Lily seemed confused. “I don’t mean a child! I mean you had lost the child in you!” I paused, but her only acknowledgement was a silent smile. “You have done so well. First your childhood trauma and second your postnatal depression – you are truly remarkable, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Lily’s cheeks reddened with embarrassment, a slight grin touching her face, yet still she remained silent.
“You never have been one for talking freely about things, have you?” I huffed, “I won’t miss trying to convince you to get your words out.”
She shrugged. “You know me, I’d rather talk about the weather or something.”
“Is that so?”
She laughed. “Is that an invitation?”
“Well, if it’s the only way to get you to talk to me, then, yes!” I was exasperated already, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love working with her, no matter how difficult it was to get her to speak to anyone.
“The leaves are changing,” she said.
“Indeed they are.”