I’m not entirely sure where Custard got to that night, but she did not go home and she did not go to Dick the Dustman’s flat either. In fact, she never went there again. By the morning, Janet was frantic with worry and having quizzed KM and myself about her daughter’s whereabouts, and visibly disappointed in our lack of knowledge, she left our kitchen a whirlwind of pain and grey to the gills. A big, fat penny had dropped.
A few hours later, apparently none the worse for wear, Custard rolled up neither smiling nor proud of her absence but steely and determined.
“Wish me luck,” she said as she went in. She was still wearing her halter neck top and her hair shot off in all angles from where she’d slept.
At about lunch time Janet appeared in our kitchen again. She didn’t have a bag of tins as usual and she wasn’t full of fun or stories. She was gloomy, miserable and flatter than I remembered seeing her before; like she’d lost a fiver and found a penny. Or worse. My mother took one look at her, and then ushered KM and me from the room with a, “Don’t you two have something better to do?” which we didn’t although it would not have been a smart move to argue.
And so my sister and I stood in the living room bouncing from foot to foot, waiting for a sign that we could re-join the conversation: in the past Janet and my mother had competed to tell the funniest story, each rolling over the other in an elaborate game of Top Trumps. Not now though – I instinctively knew those days were gone.
The sign to re-join the conversation never came. Later my mother, a mass of contradictions herself, would say that she knew immediately what to do, and she did it, without a moment’s hesitation.
And the truth was, if not complicated, than somehow not straight-forward even though on paper it was exactly that. We don’t live our lives on paper, neither by a manual where the right thing to do is followed by the next right thing and the next: rather we muddle through and drift and sometimes those drifts take us off course. Janet had believed it was okay mostly because she’d turned a blind eye or never even looked. She hadn’t thought it through. She was short of cash and Dick the Dustman seemed like a good source of additional income. And why shouldn’t he want to support Custard and why wouldn’t he want to pay for her to stay over in his flat, and Custard had seemed fine with the arrangement and she’d got extra pocket money and other stuff? But it was wrong. It was so, so wrong, she’d told my mother, so, so wrong.
It’s easy to reflect with modern sensibilities and assume there was never any kind of defence for what Janet had done, and yet as a young person I felt some sympathy for her because I liked her. We all liked her. Janet was unformed, child-like; she was impulsive, uproariously funny and because of all of that she didn’t think about the consequences. She hadn’t even considered Custard beyond a fleeting second.
The first I knew about the gravity of the situation was seeing my mother in the hallway, holding the telephone – the phone half the neighbourhood paid 10p to use.
“Is that the police?” I heard her say and then she said, “My neighbour has just told me that she is selling her 14 year old daughter for sex, and erm, I thought you would want to know that…”
They did want to know that.
The cars started to arrive within the hour: first the police in marked and unmarked vehicles and then the social workers swishing about in Laura Ashley dresses and corduroy slacks. Janet and Ossie were taken away in separate police cars, and then Custard’s two younger sisters were helped into an estate. Finally, Custard, who was wearing a pink fluffy jumper by this point and her favourite pair of wedge shoes, climbed into a detective’s car. Not one person smiled.
Janet did not return. We heard later, when Ossie rolled back into the street that all of the girls had been taken into care.
My mother was in some kind of shock – after all, she had made the call that had precipitated the police and social work intervention – and so she gathered around her the neighbourhood women ‘to do something’.
These women were Jenky (Lena Jenky who lived next door the other way, and who always seemed to have smoked fish cooking on the hob), Alice (distinguished only by her Jersey accent and her preponderance for pronouncing burgundy by emphasising the ‘gun’ bit) and Thelma Boast (not my pretend Auntie) who lived five doors down and was considered a good egg.
My mother, and these women, were outraged. First, by Janet and what she’d done, and then by the authorities that had whipped the girls into care and that had ripped the family apart. So, they set about campaigning to get the girls back. Apart from being completely inadequate in every regard, what had Ossie done? For all that pile of nothing, he didn’t deserve this (or so my mother and those women said.)
They felt also that they had been deceived. They had liked Janet, even though they hated what she’d done. And they felt that they had let those children down. Because they should have known – they should have listened to their instincts. They shouldn’t have looked the other way.
“She was just a bit simple,” my mother said, in a reductionist moment, “Can you understand that? She didn’t think it through.” We nodded.
A few days later we went to visit Custard in a children’s home in Hessle: one of four imposing buildings in a row. “It’s not that bad,” Custard said, “Like being in a big family.” Her sisters were fostered.
“I didn’t sleep with him, you know,” she said, only once and we nodded not because we believed her but because we didn’t know what else to do.
Two further pieces of news came out after that. Ossie, obsessed as he was with his submarine building and his bonfire, claimed to have no knowledge of what was going on – and the police believed him. Janet exonerated him too. She apparently said, “He was too stupid to know any better.” Ossie literally thought nothing of Custard sleeping at Dick the Dustman’s. Nothing. Now, he just wanted his kids back. That’s what he said when anyone would listen, and, oddly, “She was still a virgin, you know.”
Which we thought she wasn’t because KM and I knew about the favours she’d given the speedway riders, and the encouragement she’d given us both (since she was the living, breathing expert on such matters) to roll around in the grass with some boys on the way back from swimming. And beside, the truth came out in court. Custard had had to endure a pretty undignified procedure at the police station…
So the informal coterie of neighbourhood women, led by my mother, started to campaign hard for the return of Ossie’s kids. This was tied up with a concern that those outside of our street would somehow see us all as complicit if they didn’t take a stand, take a side. So Ossie, who had always been seen as completely ridiculous and vainglorious in the street and beyond suddenly had the greater good on his side…
The younger two girls came home straight away, and later, after the trial Custard made an appearance.
“You back then, are you?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. And we never spoke of the matter again.
Soon after that she met a boy called Gordon (who wasn’t a moron, actually) and they are still married today. And at some point in the last 30+ years Custard also won a substantial sum on the lottery, which I like to think is Karma balancing things out.
Dick the Dustman and Janet were both sent to prison. When I tried to imagine what this was like I found myself picturing Janet slopping out with Myra Hindley, who was the only other woman I’d ever heard of being sent to prison at that time, but that was the extent of my imaginative power.
I saw Janet again, just once, when she was allowed a supervised visit with her children. She mostly looked herself, and from across the street, tried to be all hail fellow well met. But something had changed: she could never return and pick up the life she had once had. She couldn’t joke around, take the mick out of Ossie and make people laugh. It was as if she was shell-shocked.
A police car arrived early one morning at Custard’s house. My mother went next door. When she returned, her face was ashen. We were just eating breakfast.
“Janet’s been found dead,” she said, flatly.
We all stopped eating and looked at her. “She was found on the tip,” she said, “And she meant it to happen. There was an empty bottle of pills in her hand, and she’d been drinking.” We looked at each other, unsure what to do, our spoons hovering over our cornflakes, then my mother said, “She didn’t deserve that,” which was debatable, and added, “though I’m not sure what else could have happened.”
The first part of Custard is here!