Some conversations stick for a long time afterwards. The memory rattles around in my brain like gravel in a shoe, and I’ll start arguing with myself at traffic lights and checkout queues. I think of what I could have said, what I ought to have said, and sometimes I’ll wake up weeks later and suddenly understand why a phrase bothered me so much.
Months ago, I was drinking an after-hours coffee with another member of staff at a site that shall remain nameless. We chatted about some of the children, what had happened over the day. She sighed and said “it’s just a shame that they’re all so broken.”
“Broken?” I said. “That’s a bit…” She shook her head.
“No, it’s true.” And then she outlined a sad future for them, one in which the girls would get pregnant young and the boys go off to prison, all of them “just making more screwed-up children to come here”. She saw this process as inevitable, and her job as making this temporary containment unit as nice as it could be. “It’s best not to think about what will happen to these children, after they leave here. It’s too depressing. Take Marcus, for example. You know nothing good will come from him.”
“Exactly,” said another staff member, leaning against the wall.
The word ‘broken’ caught me like a fish hook. It seemed to make a child nothing more than a cup, carelessly dropped and now to be thrown away. “Broken” suggested that any further efforts were pointless or, as I was called after my protests in the kitchen that afternoon, simply naive.
In truth, Marcus was one of very few children I ever found unsettling. His eyes glowed sometimes with a furious nihilistic excitement and then he would run straight into busy traffic, or try to smash a chair over another child. I had to breathe carefully at those moments because I wanted to be calm, but it lifted the hairs across the back of my neck. He gave the sort of look that if you saw it on a stranger in a bar you’d put up both palms and slowly back away. He was seven.
The other day I was having this conversation alone in my head, and it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps Marcus was ‘broken’ after all. Broken like a limb. Somewhere along the line he had sustained a terrible injury which had been neglected and now he lived in excruciating pain. His breakage was as real as if two bone shards ground within him, tearing at the softness of flesh, but that didn’t mean that injury was permanent. He needed help, a splint or a crutch, whatever it took to let his own processes of healing occur. Pretending that this breakage did not exist was no better believing it was impossible to recover from, because either way he was left to survive with this injury alone.