Tiago Costa’s mouth was beginning to go dry, his heartbeat was racing and his hands shaking as the clock on the wall showed 3.20pm. Already his mind had switched off from the French lesson which Mademoiselle Le Bon was teaching, and he was planning his escape route from the school building. It was imperative that he escaped the clutches of the gang of school bullies; he must outwit them.
Tiago knew he was fair game for the bullies. He was short – his Portuguese heritage had made sure of that – his dark hair stuck up like spikes all over the place and, worst of all, his face sported loads of zits!
‘If only I was good at something,’ he thought to himself, ‘something which could make me popular – especially some kind of sport – they might leave me alone.’
But at best he knew he was only ‘average’ – or so the school reports said. Then, to make things even worse, his clothes were awful! They were old, not washed as frequently as he would have liked, and mostly bought from the local charity shop. No designer labels for him! No wonder he was bullied. It had been like that ever since he started school, and he had never really had a good friend.
Tiago sighed. ‘How I wish I had a mate and we could share things, hang out together and stick up for each other.’
There was just one person in his tutor group who gave him a smile from time to time: a girl named Zoe-Ann. Sometimes she even sat with him in the canteen and chatted. Tiago didn’t know why she bothered, she had lots of other friends and was very pretty, but it was so cool when she sat with him. Truth be told, he really fancied her!
At last the bell rang to announce the end of the school day, and with a rush of adrenaline pumping through his veins, Tiago was the first to grab his few belongings and dash to the locker rooms to collect his school bag. He had to get out – he must escape. Sometimes the rhyme he had heard so often when he was very small and attending pre-school ran through his mind: ‘Run, run, as fast as you can! You can’t catch me. I’m the gingerbread man!’ Every single school day he tried to outwit the bullies and be the first out of the school gates so that he could then run through a couple of streets and merge into the general hubbub of Upper Street, Islington. It wasn’t until he reached there that he felt even remotely safe. But he still kept looking behind him every few minutes, scared that they might be catching him up.
It had become a horrible sort of game for him, trying to outwit the bullies every single day, before school, at school, but most of all, after school and to get home safely without being attacked. The adrenaline rush somehow enabled his wobbly legs to run faster than he could ever run on the sports field. His greatest fear was that he might be stabbed – he knew some of the guys carried knives.
It was dark and murky that November day, but Tiago decided to go through the street market. It was bustling and noisy with loads of people around. He knew it inside out, and could dodge around the stalls, because at weekends and school holidays he worked on a fruit and vegetable stall, and considered Tom, the owner, and his wife, Val, his only real friends.
‘Look who it ain’t, Val,’ said Tom, in his booming voice, which he usually used to attract customers to his stall, looking up and smiling at Tiago. ‘I’m right glad to see yer, son,’ he added. ‘Got time for a bit of extra work before you get off ’ome? Our Val needs to visit the doctor – I was ’oping you might come this way and give me a hand while she ’as ’er appointment.’
‘I can stay for an hour, Tom, but that’s all. I need to get home to get our Lizzie her tea. Mum’s not usually up to doing it these days.’
‘Thanks, ducks,’ said Val, taking off her apron and buttoning up her coat. She grabbed her large handbag and gave Tom a quick peck on the cheek before disappearing through the market stalls to the doctor’s surgery.
‘’Ow is your Lizzie, then?’ asked Tom. ‘It’s bin a while since we’ve seen ’er.’
‘I know, and sorry about that,’ answered Tiago. ‘It’s easier in the holidays to bring her out. Mum is glad when I do that. It’s good for her to get fresh air.’
Tiago rarely talked about his life at home, but Tom and Val had a pretty good idea that things were miserable for him and his two-year-old sister, Lizzie. Val loved to cuddle Lizzie when Tiago brought her down to the market. Her experience told her that the two kids were neglected. They wore clothes that were well past their best, their hair needed cutting and their shoes were scuffed; but that was typical of many of the kids who lived in that part of Islington. Sometimes Val brought Lizzie a toy or a nice dress from another stall, but she rarely saw the things again, so she guessed that the children’s mother had problems and probably sold the items for cash. Tiago was very loyal and only ever hinted that his mum was ill and not able to cope.
‘I have to get going now,’ said Tiago, at the end of the hour. Tom gave him a hefty tip and a bag of fruit to take home with him.
‘Thanks again, mate,’ he said to the lad. ‘See you on Saturday morning, nice and early, to set up the stall.’
‘Sure thing,’ answered Tiago, happy for a bit more money to add to his secret stash of savings. Sometimes he was tempted to buy a decent T-shirt with a logo on it, or a nice pair of trainers, but he was saving up every penny from his work in the market and his early morning paper round. One day soon he planned to run away from all his troubles and knew he would need money and equipment. He had a place in the garden shed where he kept his savings – it was safer than indoors where his mum or her boyfriend might find and steal it, then spend it all on drink or drugs.
Tiago ran back through the streets – always on the lookout for the gang of bullies. Fear gave him flight once again as he ran down one street and up the next. They all looked much the same, rows of Victorian terraced houses; many of them, like the one where he lived, needing a lick of paint.
As he came to the end of the road he could see that his mother’s boyfriend, Jack, was home, because he had parked his lorry outside. The very sight of it made Tiago feel sick. As he neared the house, he went up the side alley and quietly unlatched the back gate (or as quietly as he could because it was rusty and squeaked as he pushed it open). He put his hand into his trouser pocket and felt for his key to the padlock on the shed door. No one else ever went to the shed, but he had bought a strong padlock for himself, just to make sure his money would be safe. He hid his wages under several flowerpots. Tiago knew that it would be safer in the post office or a bank, but there was nothing he could do about getting an account, so he tried to hide it as best he could and hoped against hope it would be OK.
Behind the shed he had a small vegetable plot. This time of the year there was nothing growing, but during the summer months he managed to grow tomatoes. Once, Tom gave him some squashed tomatoes and he had saved the seeds and planted them. It had been so exciting to see the plants grow, and he had felt so proud of himself for providing some food for the family.
Tiago carefully locked the shed and went up the garden path to the back door, quietly letting himself in. He put the fruit which Tom had given him on the cluttered kitchen table. What a mess the kitchen was. There were dirty dishes in the sink, the floor was stained and the tiles were cracked. Tiago looked around in disgust and wrinkled his nose at the smell. He hated the mess in which they lived and did his best to clean up from time to time, but since no one else cared, his efforts didn’t last very long. He sighed deeply. How he wished he could wave a magic wand and things would change – but he knew that didn’t happen in real life.
Jack must have heard him come in, for he bellowed, ‘Decided to come ’ome from school, then? What time do yer call this? ’Ave you been skiving off with yer mates somewhere? Yer mum and I are waiting for some tea. She don’t feel like making anyfink – so you better get to it!’
Tiago walked into the living room. As usual his mum was half-asleep, still in her grubby night clothes. Lizzie toddled over to him, her clothes stained and her nose running. He could smell that her nappy needed changing, too. Anger rose up inside him. Why was everything left to him, as if he were some sort of slave? Lizzie put her arms out and something inside him melted. He picked her up, dodging Jack, who tried to give him a clip around the ear as he crossed the room.
‘I’ll just see to Lizzie, then I’ll see what’s in the fridge and cook you something,’ he said to Jack, and his mum opened her eyes and gave a sort of smile. She had that ‘faraway’ look and Tiago knew she was high on drugs again. He couldn’t totally hate his mum, she was weak and sick, but he did hate her boyfriend. He was neither a boy nor a friend!
He took Lizzie to the bathroom and tried to wash her sore bottom. He couldn’t understand because she was bleeding and bruised; she always had a nappy rash, but there had never been blood there before. A horrible thought came into his mind – had that louse of a man hurt her – tried to abuse her? Wasn’t it bad enough that he abused his mother and did unmentionable things to Tiago in the night – but to hurt his own little girl, only two years old? That was unforgiveable! What should he do? What could he do?
Tiago’s mind was reeling as he carried her downstairs and took her into the kitchen. He sat her in the playpen. It was like a prison in which she spent most of her daylight hours.
The pain he felt inside was unbelievable. He thought his stomach would burst, but he didn’t dare say anything about what he suspected.
‘I must focus,’ he thought to himself. ‘I must cook something – then Jack will go to the pub for a while. Then I can think what to do. I must make a plan.’
There wasn’t much food around, but Tiago found some eggs and bread and made toast and an omelette. He made sure that Lizzie had a share before putting his mum and Jack’s portions on plates and taking them into the living room, along with mugs of strong tea. There was little left for himself, but Tiago felt too sick at heart to eat. He washed the fruit he’d been given, cut up an apple into small pieces for his sister and put the rest in the fridge. Maybe he’d have some later.
Then he set to work trying to clean up the mess in the kitchen. It was therapeutic, in a strange way. It helped his inner pain when he worked hard, scrubbing and tidying up. It helped his mind to go blank.
Tiago waited until he heard Jack go out, slamming the front door behind him. He heard the lorry engine revving up and moving away. Thank goodness! Now he would have a couple of hours of peace. He went back into the living room and collected the dirty plates and mugs to wash.
‘Ta, Ti,’ said his mum. ‘I feel tired, love – just going up to bed. Get me that bottle, will you?’ She pointed to a bottle of cheap plonk that Jack must have brought home for her. ‘Can you see to your sister? I’m too tired.’
‘You’re always too tired,’ Tiago grumbled under his breath, then said, ‘Yes, Mum,’ and walked back into the kitchen. It was always the same these days – his mum was incapable of taking care of her kids, or even herself.
‘Come on then, Lizzie,’ Tiago spoke gently, picking up his sister and going upstairs. He took her to her cot and saw that the sheet was stained with blood. Anger pulsed through him – he felt like shouting and screaming as hate for Jack filled him. He was sure that Jack had abused his sister. He must do something, he must tell someone, and somehow he and Lizzie had to escape. Tiago changed the stained sheets and tucked up his sister, feeling angry, sad and confused.
‘I’ll make sure you are alright – somehow I’ll protect you, Lizzie, before I leave,’ he whispered and gave her a kiss on the cheek, then sang her a nursery rhyme before closing her door.
His next job was to tackle the laundry. Most of the equipment in the house had been sold to pay for his mum’s drink and drug habit, but he could still wash the clothes in the old washing machine. He loaded it, then took his torch and went to the shed. That place had become his refuge. Tiago had found a way to help him to cope with his emotional pain. He found that by hurting himself it blotted it out, if only for a short time. He had devised different ways of doing this and the pain he inflicted on himself somehow seemed to alleviate the pain inside him. Sometimes he burnt himself; other times he used a sharp knife to cut his wrist. He didn’t cut deeply, as he didn’t want to bleed to death, but just injured himself enough to get rid of his inner pain. So far, nobody had noticed his scars or questioned him about them.
Once Tiago felt calmer he began to think. He had to get out of this situation but could not leave without knowing Lizzie would be safe. He probably had enough money saved up to buy the essentials he would need to survive while he found himself somewhere safer to live. Anything had to be better than the living hell his life had become! The only place he felt even remotely happy was at the market with Tom and Val, but that was far too near home for safety. He had to get right away – somewhere where he could not be found.
‘Maybe I should go abroad, try to find my father’s family,’ he told himself.
The more Tiago thought about that, the better the idea seemed. Perhaps he could travel to Portugal and find his grandparents – maybe they would love and help him?
Tiago decided that as soon as he was ready to leave, he would tell Tom and Val about Lizzie and what was really going on at home. He hated to think it would mean betraying his mum, but he knew he would have to do so to make sure his sister was safe. She would be taken into care – but there was no way he was going into care, too. He would escape and make his own way in life; get away from school, home and Islington.
Having made his decision, Tiago returned to the kitchen. The washing was done, so he draped it on a rack to dry. He went up to his room and climbed into bed, pulling the old duvet up around him. He looked at his homework and sighed in despair. It wasn’t that he hated school work, but he really couldn’t keep up – he had no computer, and it was hard to queue in the public library to get a turn to use one; the after-school homework club wasn’t much of an option because the bullies might find him there, and several times in the past they had torn his shirt, blazer and once almost strangled him with his tie. He put his books back into his bag and tried to sleep, but his mind was too alert. He was listening for the noise of the lorry and Jack’s return. He gritted his teeth as he heard the door slam and the man’s boots on the stairs. He could almost count the minutes as he heard him in the loo, then turning the handle of his bedroom door and coming over to his bed.
‘Our time together now, ain’t it, Ti?’ the man leered, pulling the bedclothes off the boy. ‘Waiting for me, were you?’ The smell of drink was overpowering and Tiago felt sick. He would never get used to the horror of the man’s advances and the sexual things he did to him. He just gritted his teeth and silently endured it all. He had learned long ago that this was the best way – get it over with and then the man would go. When the abuse had first started, he had kicked and screamed, but that had made Jack angry and he had beaten him with his belt.
Once the ordeal was over, Jack left the room, and Tiago curled himself up in a ball, sobbing silently – feeling hate towards Jack and himself; he felt dirty, and guilty that he couldn’t stop what was happening to him.
That night Tiago slept fitfully. His mind was full of plans of how to make his escape. He knew he needed to think it out very carefully; that way he would be less likely to be caught and put into a council-run home, which he dreaded. There had been a time some years previously when his mother had been found drunk and incapable of caring for him. He’d been around five years old and a social worker had taken him away from home and put him in care. He had been so frightened and didn’t understand where his mother had gone; although he had been so young he had vowed he would never go through that again. Tiago worried about Lizzie, but felt that she was so young perhaps someone nice would be asked to foster her and she would have a happy childhood.
Early in the morning he quietly got up, washed and dressed and ran to the paper shop. ‘Good morning, Tiago,’ said the newsagent. ‘Nice dry day for you to do your round.’
‘Mr James,’ answered Tiago, ‘I have to give you a week’s notice. I’m afraid I won’t be able to do the round any longer.’
‘Oh, Tiago, surely you are not going to give it up?’ replied Mr James in dismay. ‘You’re so punctual and reliable and it’s hard to get young people who are reliable. What’s the problem – can I help at all?’
‘I’m afraid I’ll be moving away for a while,’ replied Tiago, reluctantly. He didn’t want to have to answer lots of questions and he hated lying. ‘My mum isn’t well – but maybe when she’s better I’ll come back,’ he said with a smile, then grabbed his bag of papers and ran out of the shop before Mr James asked any more awkward questions.
‘Thank goodness,’ he thought. ‘That’s the first thing done. I just hope he keeps it to himself.’ There was a bit of comfort in the fact that the shop was on the main road, quite a distance from where he lived.
Once the round was finished Tiago ran home, grabbed a slice of bread, and then set off for school. He always timed his morning routine very carefully, so that he entered the school gates just before the bell rang, avoiding the playground and the gang of bullies. Today, he felt a real sense of freedom bubbling inside of him. Soon he would be rid of their threats forever; little did they know that he would be free from their tyranny and he would be the winner!
It was Friday morning and Tiago had decided that the best day for him to make his escape would be the following Sunday week. That meant he could work his notice properly and get his wages for the paper round, work two more Saturdays in the market, have time to buy essentials for living rough, and leave when Jack was due to be off on a long-distance run with the lorry.
The following week everything went pretty much to plan. Tiago bought a sleeping bag, blanket and a large backpack. He stored the things safely in his shed. Then he thought about the money he had saved and the best way to carry it safely. He knew some people put money in their socks, but he had too much to do that. In the end, he decided to buy a money belt to wear under his clothes, around his waist. He also bought some needles and thread from a market stall and sewed some of the money into the lining of his jacket. Other small items, like the things which he used to relieve his inner pain, he stowed away in the backpack. He was almost ready! Happiness and an excitement he hadn’t felt for years surged through him as he made his plans. He felt that at long last he had some control over his life. He could become somebody – he didn’t know who or what – but it had to be better than his present existence; as long as he made sure Lizzie was safe, too.
There was one thing which Tiago still needed to do. Jack had left on Friday afternoon for his long-distance trip, this time driving to Poland. That evening Tiago bought extra food and made a special meal for his mum and Lizzie – mince, veggies and rice. His mum hardly noticed, but he gave her the bottle of wine which was stored in the wardrobe and left her to have her drug fix and then drink the booze. He knew she would soon be ‘out for the count’. Once she was unconscious, he made his way to her bedroom. What a mess it was in! However, he had no time to tidy up – he was a man on a mission. Under the bed, covered in dust, was a tin. Years ago, his mum had wanted something from it and sent him to search, so he knew it was full of important documents. Now he was searching to see if he could find his birth certificate. If he were ever to manage to get to Portugal and look for his grandparents, he would need it to obtain a passport.
At the bottom of the tin he found it – but it was folded up inside other documents. Fascinated, he sat and read them. There was a death certificate. He knew his father had died, but he had never been told or even thought to ask any details. ‘My dad died at sea; drowned in a fishing accident in 2005. How terrible!’ he thought. He thought of the cold seawater filling his dad’s lungs and shuddered. No wonder his mum had taken to drink!
The third document he looked at was his parents’ marriage certificate. They had been married in a church in Islington in 2001. It gave some facts about his grandfathers. His mother’s father, Joseph Harris, had been a gardener, and he was deceased. His father’s father was called Frederiko Costa and he was a fisherman. Along with the marriage certificate, Tiago found a black-and-white photo of a couple standing on a bridge. On the back in faint handwriting was ‘Emelia and Frederiko Costa, Braga, 1968’, and an address written underneath. Tiago stared at the photo of his grandparents. He wondered where Braga was. Did they still live there? He carefully put the photo and three certificates in his pocket, then closed the tin and shoved it back under the bed. A cloud of dust made him sneeze. He took the precious items down to the shed and put them in his backpack to keep them safe, planning to make photocopies of his parents’ marriage and his dad’s death certificates and to keep his own birth certificate. Tiago had bought a combination lock for the pocket of the backpack, and carefully closed it. He longed to ask his mum about his dad and grandparents, but he knew she might get suspicious. She could be very unpredictable at times, and his main priority was to keep his plan a secret.
Saturday morning found Tiago down at the market as soon as he had made photocopies of the documents at the post office. He was bubbling with excitement and apprehension. Tom soon noticed his young helper was not his usual self.
‘Well, Ti,’ he said. ‘What’s going on with you today? Yer excited about somefink. Spill the beans, son.’
‘I need to talk to you, Tom – seriously, I mean. When I’ve finished work today, can I have a talk to you and Val? It’s very important, but very, very secret.’
Tom looked at the boy and decided not to press him just now. Whatever the lad had on his mind would keep until the afternoon.
‘OK, I’ll tell Val to come up and we’ll ’ave a natter before yer goes ’ome,’ he promised.
The day passed quickly. It was always busy on Saturdays in the market – especially in the morning. So many people were buzzing around. It was colourful and fun. Tiago knew he would miss working there, but he had to leave if his life was to get better. Tom kept looking at him and wondering what was up. He’d grown fond of the lad – he was reliable, trustworthy and a very hard worker, but he’d long ago sussed out the fact that he must have a pretty rough home life – and that poor kid sister of his seemed so neglected.
Val made a brew at the end of the afternoon and when all the customers had gone, Tom called Tiago to come and have a cup of tea. Val also produced a bag of sugary doughnuts, which made his eyes light up.
‘Well, spill the beans and tell us what’s on yer mind,’ Tom told him.
Tiago found it hard to start.
‘It’s dead secret – you must promise me not to say anything to anybody until Monday,’ answered Tiago.
‘I promise,’ said Tom, and Val nodded, wondering whatever was going on.
Tiago began to tell them the story of his mother and her boyfriend. He struggled to keep his emotions under control and not to cry in front of them as he explained that he was sure Jack was now sexually abusing Lizzie.
‘I hate him – he’s done horrible things to me, but now he’s started on our Lizzie. When I saw that, I knew I had to do something. Please send the social services around on Monday. Not before then – I need time to get away. I’m leaving home forever, but once I’m gone Lizzie will have no one to love her or look out for her.’ Tiago handed a piece of paper to Val, on which he had written his home address. ‘Please don’t tell anyone that I’ve gone – don’t let them catch me or bring me back. Jack threatened to kill me if I split on him, and I know he’s capable of doing that.’
Val was crying by now. ‘Why don’t yer just pick up Lizzie and come to our ’ouse?’ she sobbed. ‘We’d take care of yer both.’
‘He’d find us and kill us, and probably Mum, too,’ answered Tiago. ‘I have to get far away, never to be found again – out of his clutches forever. But Lizzie must be taken somewhere safe. Don’t try to find me. I will try to get to Portugal and find my grandparents.’
Tom and Val were horrified by what they heard, and overwhelmed. Val found a bit of paper and wrote a number on it. ‘’Ere’s Tom’s mobile phone number. Call us any time and we’ll ’elp yer. We’ll go to the social folks first thing on Monday morning. Now, big boy as yer are, give us a ’ug and take care of yerself. Yer a good lad – don’t let anyone get yer into bad ways,’ she told him.
‘’Ere’s your wages, and a bit of a bonus. Call it a Christmas bonus if yer like. I owe yer – and take care of yerself,’ said Tom, handing a wad of notes to Tiago – far, far more than his usual Saturday pay.
‘Thanks,’ said Tiago, trying not to cry. He had to be in control now; he felt he had to act as a man going out into the world. ‘Thanks so much, you’ve been good friends. That’s why I know I can trust you to get help for Lizzie.’
With tears in his eyes he got his jacket and ran away from the market stall, not daring to turn back and wave in case he broke down completely. His life in Islington was over forever; a great adventure and a new start would come in the morning.