I walked back to the home from school and, entered the house by the back door;
only staff and official visitors were permitted to enter the house through its front door. ln the cloak room I removed my blazer and hung it on my allotted peg, which had my name written beside it in magic marker- JOHN.B. I became aware of movement behind me.
“You alright John?”
Kenny was a boy of my own age from the same district in South London where l’d spent most of my childhood. Ln the home there were three or four adolescent boys from South London who’d been taken into local authority care more because of their delinquent behaviour then because they were genuine orphans or from completely broken homes; they were deemed to be “Beyond proper care and control.”
ln this home they formed they an easily identifiable and homogeneous group, and were treated with an underlying attitude of suspicion and distaste by the wholly middle-class staff. None of the children in the home, not even the very young, were treated with genuine love and affection, just simply fed, clothed and supervised, but the adolescent boys from South London were treated with an obvious coldness and casual contempt that suggested their presence was resented and the home
considered an inappropriate environment for such obviously criminal and street-hardened creatures.
“John, this is Carman.”
Standing beside Kenny was a slim, delicate girl of Latin appearance; it took a
moment to realise she was not an inmate but in fact an adult and apparently a staff

member, someone completely new and unfamiliar. Kenny’s manner was furtive and conspiratorial, as us South London boys were inclined to be amongst ourselves, but never usually when a member of staff was present. L was intrigued.
“Carman is new here and says she’ll get us fags when ever we want”
My gaze shifted to the young woman. She seemed no older then a young teenager in dress and physique, but her eyes, dark and striking, revealed intelligence and maturity, which unsettled me.
“ Hello John, how are you?”
Her voice, light and sweet, was heavily accented with Spanish.
“l’m okay”
I replied quietly and guardedly. I had only just recently began to exchange monosyllable conversation with the house staff; my earlier total silence had earned me some sessions with a child psychiatrist who’d suggested that even some limited rapport with my custodians might preclude a transfer to a rather more austere institution for maladjusted boys.
“She’s okay”
Kenny’s reassurance was code for, whilst not exactly one of us, she could nevertheless be trusted and was prepared to cross the line to our side. But my silence had woven itself into the outer fabric of my personality and was the means by which I endured and coped with this place.
“That’s good”, I said quietly and walked towards the cloakroom door. “Do you want her to get you some fags then?”

Kenny asked in a terse whisper as I passed them. “Yes okay. You get them off her and let me have some”. I replied.
I was intrigued but unsure about this strange foreign girl/woman and what she
might really be all about. Over the following days and months Carman’s presence enriched and humanised the atmosphere of the home and her Spanish voice and laughter rang throughout the place and lightened its mood and spirit. She was always with and amongst the children, always hugging the tiny ones and making
them squeal with happiness when she swept them up into her arms and whooped with joy and excitement, always whispering and giggling with the older girls and going for walks with them in the field beside the house. She became pals with the South London street boys, kicked a football around in the garden with them and familiarised herself with their slang words and expressions, that shewould then use herself when in conversation with them like an honouree group member conversant
with their linguistic code. She possessed a raw, undisciplined energy and was unrestrained by rules or boundaries, and she would move and shift between child and adult roles spontaneously, naturally and completely.
I kept a polite distance from her and skirted around the edges of the world she
had created with the other children, whilst also keeping my interaction with the home generally to the barest minimum. After school most of my evenings were spent at a local boxing club, its working class environment more of a real home to me then the institution I was otherwise consigned to.

But Carmans influence upon that institution was making it a softer, happier place and I was no longer so desperate to be away from it. Meanwhile, her colleagus observed’" her with suspicion and unspoken resentment.Occasionally when I approached Kenny and the other South London boys as they hung around in a group in a corner of the dayroom or garden Carman would be with them and I would feel awkward and self-conscious and acutely aware of of her silent inquisitive stare, a slightly mocking smile touching the corners of her lips, and then the silence would enclose me again and I would move away.Kenny would sometimes, in confidential, clandestine tones, entreat me to trust Carman and talk to her, but my uneasiness with her, mingled with an intense fascination, created a barrier I felt totally incapable of transcending.One evening when the boxing club was off | wandered into the dayroom to watch T.V. and kill a few hours before an enforced bedtime. The room was divided into open planned sections; a T.V area, a dining area, and a space with tables and chairs where the children would sometimes sit and do their homework, Carman was sitting with a small group of teenage girls at one of the tables.They were absorbed, amongst whispers and occasional giggles, in something that Carman was writing on a sheet of paper. They looked up briefly when entered the room and then resumed their whispered exchanges, but Carmon smiled widely at me and said,“Please John, come here for a moment”. The girls sniggered and I regretted entering the room. “Please John, just for one moment”. I walked cautiously towards t

them, my stomach tightening with anxiety and dread. Carman’s eyes sparkled with fun and a hint of mischievousness, and again the slightly mocking smile touching
touched her lips. “John, Susan here thinks she really likes this boy at school but is too shy to tell him.” Her exotic Spanish accent blended naturally with the schoolgirl expressions. I smiled nervously. “Anyway, we decided she should write him a letter and tell him how she feels. Would you like to help us?”
The girls stared challengingly at me, and under Carmon’s intense gaze I shifted
uncomfortably. “l dunno…..just tell him you like him, I suppose.” I was now desperate to escape.
“Does anyone know where Kenny is?” “But John,” Carmans voice became uncharacteristicallyserious; “we must be more….what’s the word… romantic?” The laughter in her eyes was replaced with a direct almost challenging stare, and the silence began to pull me away. “l dunno, that’s all girls stuff”. I turned.and walked quickly from the room, followed by their laughter.
I stopped running away from the home. Usually I would run away about once a fortnight, was routinely picked-up by the police and returned, and then punished with an almost ritualised slapping around in the locked cloakroom by "Uncle Bruce. “Uncle BruCe”, the most senior staff member in the home, liked to cultivate the image of a retired army officer with his cravat and spots jacket, and an air of arrogant superiority, and the children were terrified of him. His attitude regarding the
children in his care was simple and straightforward: they were there to be disciplined and inculcated with strict middle class values regarding knowing ones place and the

absolute sanctity of authority, especially his. ln truth, he was a bully and a coward. He especially enjoyed giving vent to his hatred of the undeserving poor whilst administering physical punishment to the adolescent boys from South London whom heparticularly disliked. “Guttersnipe, scum of the earth, lowest of the low”, he
would sneer, emphasizing his hatred with increasingly harder blows. The beatings never deterred me and I would abscond again regardless, the silence surrounding and carrying me away to another, safer place.
For the four months or so that Carman was at the home I didn’t run away once. One late afternoon after returning from school I was in the bedroom that I shared with three other boys, packing a sports bag with my boxing kit and preparing to go tq the boxing tlub. I was alone in the room. Carman suddenly appeared.
“Are you going to boxing tonight?” Her voice was friendly and interested. I was felt suddenly awkward and shy. “Yes”. She moved further into the room. “Are you a good boxer John?” A warm and mischievous smile, her most characteristic expression, touched her features. “Not bad”, I replied quietly. “Show me how you box John !”
Her voice was beginning to dissolve into laughter. She suddenly adopted a mock impression of old fashioned boxer, her slim arms raised in front of her, bent at the elbow, her small clinched fists rotating in a twirl before her. She rose onto her toes and half-dartced towards me. “Come on John, show me how you box!”
Her laughter filled the room, and I began to laugh too, and it merged and became
one and filled the room completely, and my silence evaporated. She closed the

physical distance between us and stopped, dropped her arms to her side and smiled at me, her eyes shining with energy and joy. This time I held her gaze and smiled back.


George Coombs

Brighton and Hove, United Kingdom

  • Artist
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Artist's Description

This is a boyhood reminescence from John Bowden one of my prisoners


john george

Artwork Comments

  • 8upchef
  • George Coombs
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