If it hadn’t been for what had happened in July, I would never have shown up at the Belgravia police station on Buckingham Palace Road at 3 pm on Thursday afternoon.
But there I was.
A blue framed set of automatic glass doors peeled away from each other as I approached the entrance to the building and they opened up into an empty waiting area flanked on either side with blue metal chairs. In the center of the room, against the back wall, was a massive sheet of bulletproof glass, also framed in blue. I once read in a psychology magazine that the color blue was know for conveying feelings of tranquility and calm but I was feeling everything but that as I approached the police station counter that afternoon.
“How can I help?” asked the skinny guy sitting at the counter. He squinted at me through the bulletproof glass.
“Um,” I whispered nervously. “I’m here to report my upstairs neighbor?” My voice curled up at the end as if I was asking a question. I paused and swallowed. “I think she’s abusing her kids.”
“You think she’s abusing them or you heard or…?” His right eyebrow inched over the top rim of his glasses.
“No—I heard her,” I replied firmly as I un-hunched my shoulders.
“Well the only thing we can do is…” His voice trailed off as he bounced his pen on the pile of ink scribbled papers stacked in front of him. He glanced up at me again and stood up from his chair. “Hold on,” he said. “Let me get my colleague.” He disappeared through a doorway on his left side that was also framed in blue.
Suddenly, I was completely alone in the waiting room. “I really hope I’m doing the right thing,” I whispered quietly into the gray counter. The last thing I wanted to do was get my neighbor in trouble with the police.
But after what happened earlier that morning, I felt like I had no other choice.
When I was around seven years old, Child Protective Services showed up at my front door. My mom and stepfather Joe had custody of me at the time and we lived in a thin-walled row home on Cresson Street in East Falls, Pennsylvania.
One morning, Mom sat me down on the couch and told me that some people were going to be coming by the house to ask some questions. She added, “If they ask you about the bruises on your arms and legs, you tell them you fell down.” She grabbed my chin and pulled my face closer to hers and continued: “And if they ask you if you are happy at home, you say yes. Do you understand me?”
Mom’s breath still smelled like the beer she drank the night before. I nodded and pulled my chin out of her hand. I didn’t understand exactly what was going on but I was pissed that Mom wanted me lie about where my bruises came from.
I did exactly as she instructed when Child Services arrived; after they left, Mom immediately started flushing beers down her throat. Once she was nice and drunk and completely insane, she decided that I’d called Child Protection Services and spent the entire night taking her anger out on me. At one point, she picked the phone up off the coffee table and hurled it at my leg. Its heavy, metal base crashed into my right shin, leaving behind a swollen purple bruise.
All these years later, it happened for the first time: I heard someone doing to a child what had been done to me. In July of this year, when I heard the unmistakable sounds, I found myself tearing out of my bedroom at 7:45 one morning in response to my upstairs neighbor manically screaming at her daughter. Before I’d even brushed my teeth, I impulsively decided that I was going to bust upstairs, bang on her door and confront her about her behavior.
But I’d only made it halfway down my hallway before I stopped and asked myself whether or not I was doing the right thing by intervening. I remember thinking that perhaps what had happened was just a one-time thing and that I was overreacting. I ended up talking myself down from going upstairs but decided to keep my attention on the situation; if things upstairs sounded like they were getting worse, then I would make my move. I didn’t realize that this would be just five short months later.
What woke me up on Thursday morning was the sound of a body crashing into the floor above my head followed by my neighbor’s nasally screams. But her screams that morning were like none I’d ever heard before. It sounded like the sharp metal blades of a blender were chopping her voice up. Her throat sounded like it was churning fire. I jumped out of bed just as I did back in July but this time I made it all the way to my front door and popped it open.
I peeked my head out into the hallway and looked up at my neighbor’s door. Initially, I’d thought she only had one daughter but from her yelling that morning, I realized that she actually had two.
For the next 15 minutes, the woman upstairs screamed and knocked her kids all over the apartment. I heard bodies bouncing against the hollow walls, I heard flesh being smacked, I heard chairs being knocked over and I heard the two little girls pleading with their mother to stop. But I could tell from the sound of the woman’s voice, which was growing hoarse, that she was too far gone and too pumped up on adrenaline and rage to stop.
Suddenly I heard the mother growl, “If you don’t like it then leave, get the fuck out!” I immediately lunged for the steps that led up to her front door. But again I stopped, Maybe I should just let the police handle this, I thought. I was pinned between the impulse to intervene and the fear of getting involved. The mother’s voice sliced through the air again: “You miserable fucking children!” she spit out. “I fucking hate you both!”
I’ve never been one to back away from a confrontation but even I was terrified by the thought of what might happen if I knocked on their door. So I backed up slowly into my apartment and listened as the mother continued to beat her kids with her tongue and only God knows what else.
After the commotion upstairs stopped, I knew the time had come for me to take action. So, I Googled the closest police station, printed out directions and decided to file a report that afternoon.
After pacing for 10 minutes in the police station waiting area, a woman brought me into a windowless room with a blue metal stool propped in front of another massive plate of bulletproof glass. She sat in front of a computer screen on the other side and took down my report. I told her everything that I heard that morning and every other morning since the three of them had moved in upstairs.
“Did she sound like she was gritting her teeth while she was yelling?” the woman asked.
“Yes! That’s exactly what she sounded like!” I blurted. “I grew up in an abusive home, so maybe I’m just being sensitive here.” I was starting to doubt myself again. “But I know abuse when I hear it and today was really bad.”
“Well without any evidence, there’s nothing we can do,” the woman said to her computer screen. “But child services will look into this and if necessary, they’ll take action. And if they have to, they’ll take her kids away.”
I left the police station on Thursday afternoon feeling like I’d made a big mistake. What happens if her kids get taken away? What happens if she finds out it was me that filed the report? Maybe I should have just typed out an anonymous letter and slid it under her door? I still don’t know for certain that I did the right thing but what I know is this: even though I never found out who called Child Protective Services on my behalf and even though I was never taken away from my parents, at least I knew that someone tried to help when so few people in my life at that time seemed to care. And hopefully it will be the same for those two little girls upstairs.
For now, I’ll just have to wait and see.
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