By Laura Solomon
I took the job in the orphanage on a whim. I lived in Peckham and had been working in a café in East Dulwich. Walking home from work one evening I had seen the advertisement in the orphanage window.
Looking for fulfilling full-time work?
We are now hiring individuals
to help in our orphanage.
You will be assisting with the
day to day running of the orphanage.
If interested phone 20 8693 2766.
The next day I phoned the orphanage. A gruff voice answered after three rings.
“Hello can I help you?”
I took a deep breath.
“I’m enquiring about the job”, I said. “My name’s David Thorburn.”
“Great. You can find us at 232 Lordship Lane. Bring ID and 2 references – one character reference and one work reference. Can you come in at around 4.30 today.”
I said that this would be fine, as I could go after my café job had finished.
During my lunch break at the café I called the father of my friend Heidi and asked for a character reference. He said he would write me one and send it through via email. At 4.30 I headed to the orphange. The door swung open on its hinge and a stoic looking woman appeared in the doorway. She held out her hand for me to shake.
“Hello”, she said. “I’m Marian, Marian Hammond.”
“Hi”, I said. “I’m David. I rung this morning about the vacant position.”
“Come in”, she said, stepping to one side.
Entering her office, the first thing I noticed was that the walls were adorned by photographs of babies and young children that I assumed were the adoptees.
Sitting at her desk, she paused and looked me up and down, then gestured towards a seat opposite. Obediently, I sat. Butterflies danced in my stomach. This was more daunting than applying for the café job had been.
“So what makes you think you’d be suited to working in an orphanage?” she asked.
“I’m really good with children. Could you please tell me a little bit about the role?”
“You will be helping us with the care of the children.”
“That sounds fine to me”, I said. She then stared at me with a cold look. The thought occurred to me that this woman hadn’t smiled or laughed in a long time – years maybe decades.
She stared at me again.
“So, do you want the job or not?”
“Sure,” I said “Ill give it a go.”
She handed me some forms.
“This is the job description and contract. Can you start on Monday?”
“Not a problem.” I said “Thank you for your time.”
I held out my hand for her to shake hoping to extract some warmth from this woman – She ignored my gesture.
At home I set about reading the paperwork she had given me, the job description first. The content was very rigid and formal in style. Sentences such as ‘Must be at work 15 minutes before your shift starts’ and ‘You must make sure the children are well behaved and quiet at all times’ But the one that took me by surprise the most was ‘No affection to be shown to the children at any time.’
I supposed they had their reasons for their policies but it seemed a bit draconian. I signed the contract – the wage was seven pounds an hour – less than I was getting at the café however I’m sure this would be a more satisfying job. I felt sorry for the children (no affection – how brutal!)
and hoped that maybe I could make a difference in their harsh lives. Monday rolled around and I got up at 6am to be at work by 6:45am. Entering the orphanage, it was chaos. I walked to the office to meet Marian she didn’t even say hello just shoved a piece of paper in my hands proclaiming “This is the morning routine, it needs to be followed to the tee.” Then she walked out.
Looking at the list the first thing on it was; Breakfast in the dining hall all children must eat all that is given to them.
I walked down the hall to find the kitchen, encouraging the children I walked past to follow me. They dutifully obeyed. Entering the dining hall I discovered three long tables with children sitting impatiently while two frazzled looking staff members were darting around serving breakfast. I walked into the kitchen to see how I could help where I found what I assumed to be the cook madly spreading margarine on a row of toast. She glanced at me and then said “Can you get the jam out of the fridge please.”
Helping her to spread the jam I then took platefuls of toast out to the tables where the children all grabbed greedily as if they hadn’t eaten properly in months. Plastic cups of water were intermittently spilt across the tables, water gathering in puddles and dripping to the floor.
I sat down next to a baby who was crying and had an empty highchair tray. Picking up a piece of toast I put it in her chubby hands and she ceased crying as she started chewing on it with her only two top teeth. With jam smeared on her face she grinned at me.
I wanted to shine some light into the existence of these children. Their lives were so dark and gloomy with no fun or laughter that it sent a shiver down my spine.
I read the next instruction on the piece of paper Marian had given me.
After breakfast all children must be gathered together in the main dining room.
I managed to usher them haphazardly to the main dining room as per instructions. All the children sat around the tables noisily talking amongst themselves, but the atmosphere changed as soon as Marian entered the room. The poor tots looked frightened and immediately became silent.
“Well children,” she exclaimed “It’s Monday and you have had all weekend to clown around. Like the rest of the world you have to go to work, we have twenty two cars arriving today that will need cleaning inside and out and if I see any mucking around like last time you know what will happen.”
A visible shudder ran through the children. I whispered to Lettie one of the other staff
“What will happen?”
“The dreaded time out room,” she said in a hushed whisper “I’ll show you later.”
“Right get to it.” Marian said as she exited the room.
We all filed out of the dining hall to the laundry. Stacked against the walls were about thirty plastic buckets – they were filled with cold water. Taking some of the buckets outside, I saw about twenty cars parked in the carpark. The children had dutifully followed us outside, carrying equipment. Lettie squirted a drop of dishwashing liquid into each bucket and with woeful expressions the children set to cleaning the cars.
I grabbed a spare scrubbing brush and set about helping.
Lettie came over and tapped me on the shoulder. “No,” she said “Marian doesn’t let us help the children with their jobs.”
I couldn’t watch, it seemed so wrong – a cold morning with cold water the children becoming saturated and shivering.
“So tell me about this time out room” I said to Lettie.
“C’mon I’ll show you,” she answered.
Following her inside we walked through the laundry, down the hallway, turned left and came to a door painted black with a wire mesh glass window. Opening the door, Lettie and I walked inside. The room was completely bare and as dark as night because the walls were also painted black.
On the opposite wall to the door was a small high window with bars letting in only a minimal amount of light.
“So what’s the story with this?” I asked
“This is her punishment room,” came the reply. “This is where the children get sent when they’re naughty, they don’t have to do much for Marian to put them in here, sometimes for hours at a time.”
“But that’s child abuse!” I exclaimed.
“Nobody knows what goes on here, Marian keeps it all hush hush. If you want to keep your job I suggest you keep your trap shut about what goes on in this place. Marian doesn’t take kindly to blabber mouths.”
As I stood looking into the room shocked at what I had heard, a child’s pleading reached my ears. Coming down the hall, turning the corner, Marian approached dragging a child no older than three or four behind her.
We stepped aside as Marian shoved the child into the room slamming the door shut and locking it with one of the many keys attached to the lanyard around her neck.
Turning to us she spat “The dirty little brat soiled himself, you would think by that age they would be able to control their bowels, well he can sit in his dirty pants and think about it. Lettie come and get me in three hours, I think that will give him enough time to learn.”
With that she turned on her heels and strode off. I stood outside the door in shock, I could hear the boy’s wails from inside the cell like room. I felt Lettie’s hand on my arm. “C’mon.” she said gently. “There’s nothing we can do Marian is the only one with the keys. It breaks my heart too.”
I took the time to have a look around the rest of the orphanage, I discovered the nursery where the babies were occupied. They sat three or four to a playpen like chickens in a coop. They looked miserable, half- heartedly playing with dirty looking broken toys, that looked like they had come from the dump.
I spoke to the first lot closest to me and they looked at me with hope in their eyes. One of them stretched out her arms for me to pick her up. I instinctively reached down to pick her up, ignoring the policy that children were not to be shown affection at any time.
At that point I didn’t care, the child needed a hug and I was a firm believer in the power of love and affection in a cold cruel environment. The little girl smiled at me and snuggled into my chest like it was the first hug she had had in a long time, if ever.
It was then that the plan started to evolve in my mind that I would have to report this lady to social welfare because what was going on here was so wrong.
I went to help the cook prepare lunch. The children all filed in at twelve o’clock, wet, cold and looking exhausted. Lunch consisted of deep fried luncheon sausage, no fruit, or any of the nutrition children need. They got a miniscule portion each – however they scoffed it down like they were starving and appeared unsatisfied afterwards.
The little boy who had been locked in time out came in and sat down. He had tear mark stained cheeks. I went to the kitchen to get him his lunch. It was then the cook informed me that she had had strict instructions from Marian that he wasn’t allowed any lunch today. I saw red and decided to slip him some of my lunch. I sat down next to him and gave him some of my lettuce and marmite sandwich with the other kids looking on longingly.
Lettie, Sharon and I cleared up after lunch. We then took the children to their beds for their afternoon nap. As we were walking back down the stairs I asked Lettie “So do the children get any of the profits from the clients who got their cars washed?”
“Hell no.” came her reply “Marian keeps that for herself.” I was shocked.
At the end of the day I took myself off to Marian’s office to sign out. Motioning with the pen in her hand towards the chair she indicated for me to sit down. I sat.
“So how did you find your first day?” she asked
I hesitated. What should I say? I hated it – it was the most disturbing day of my life.
“Fine.” I lied.
“Well.” She said turning to her computer, she turned the screen towards me.
“Do you realize I have security cameras in just about every room?”
Silence thickened in the room. It dawned on me then that I was in trouble. I remained silent. I wasn’t going to explain myself to this horrible woman.
She tapped away at the computer keyboard and an image of the nursery came up with me picking up the crying baby earlier in the day.
“You broke the no affection rule.” tap tap tap went her fingers. “Then you gave that boy some of your lunch.”
I stared at her as she stared back at me. “Look.” I said slowly “I really don’t think this job is going to be for me.”
“Yes, well that was to be expected.” She answered. “You obviously don’t have what it takes to work here, you’re too soft. I’ll put your wages for the day into your bank account however you will not be receiving the whole day’s pay as you broke the policies.”
I didn’t bother to reply, I rose from my chair and walked out leaving the door open behind me I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Once home I made myself a cup of coffee, sitting at my laptop I wrote out the events of the day vowing to myself that I would take the information to social welfare the next day.
The following day I called up social welfare and made an appointment. I was given a slot with Kylie at 3pm that same day. I waited until 3pm then made my way to the social welfare office. Kylie sat down behind a desk shaped like a bean and gestured for me to sit down on the other side. Obediently, I sat. I handed her the notes and she read over them slowly her eyes slowly widening the more she read, her mouth hanging open.
“This all sounds very horrific”, she said. “Thank you for bringing this to our attention. Rest assured that this matter will be thoroughly investigated.”
“That’s great”, I said. “Thanks very much for your assistance.”
On the way home I called in at the café at which I had previously worked and they gave me my old job back.
I saw the report on the six o’clock news.
Orphanage manager Marian Hammond was today brought to justice following more than a decade of abuse towards children. Interviews with staff combined with CCTV footage showed children being locked in seclusion rooms for up to twenty hours at a time, children being denied food, children being made to do slave labour without pay and children denied all affection. Marian refused to give a statement, appearing without remorse. She was stone-faced in court. She was sentenced to five years imprisonment. All children have now been placed into caring foster homes.
I was happy with this verdict and wondered whether Marian would learn her lesson in jail.
A few weeks later the young boy who was locked in seclusion came into the cafe with his new foster family.
“Hey”, he said, reaching out his hand to me. “It’s the man who gave me a sandwich when I was hungry.”
He gave me a big smile and said he was happy now and well cared for. I was pleased that at least one strand of the story had a happy ending.
About the Author:
Laura Solomon has a 2.1 in English Literature (Victoria University, 1997) and a Masters degree in Computer Science (University of London, 2003).
Her books include Black Light, Nothing Lasting, Alternative Medicine, An Imitation of Life, Instant Messages, Vera Magpie, Hilary and David, In Vitro, The Shingle Bar Sea Monster and Other Stories, University Days, Freda Kahlo’s Cry, Brain Graft and Taking Wainui.
She has won prizes in Bridport, Edwin Morgan, Ware Poets, Willesden Herald, Mere Literary Festival, and Essex Poetry Festival competitions.
She was short-listed for the 2009 Virginia Prize and the 2014 International Rubery Award and won the 2009 Proverse Prize. She has had work accepted in the Edinburgh Review and Wasafiri (UK), Takahe and Landfall (NZ). She has judged the Sentinel Quarterly Short Story Competition.
Her play ‘The Dummy Bride’ was part of the 1996 Wellington Fringe Festival and her play ‘Sprout’ was part of the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.