When I first started writing this, it was my aim to fill it with stories of inefficient social services workers, death threats from pensioners and the Kafka-esque world of county-level politics in Britain. While I still have some of those up my sleeve, one story soon took over, and slowly but surely pushed most other anecdotes out of the way. For the protection of friends that still work in the unit and the 'service users' (what we refer to in the real world as children), I won't be declaring where I worked or use real names.
Y'see, I used to work for a local Social Services unit as an agency temp. It was my first 'proper' job after several years slugging away in the world of retail, bouncing from one dead-end job as a stock assistant to another. I had decent grades from college and consider myself fairly intelligent, but never had the drive to go to university. However, I still felt bored and craved a 'real' job -- you can only fill up shelves with children's underwear at 3:00am for so long, before you think you did something terrible in a past life.
I was lucky enough to have a partner working in the building when a job came up so, in a good old-fashioned show of nepotism, I arrived at the reception with a CV in hand before the new vacancy was even posted. After a quick cup of tea with the Service Manager and a glance over my credentials, I was asked to start the following week on a full-time basis.
Before I charge on, let me give you an idea of what this building was like. Imagine a Victorian-style school building: imposing brickwork, iron gates with stone Victoriana Lions on both sides, and a plain-but-threatening name. This wasn't a school for children who enjoyed such uncivilised activities like laughing or playing, no sir. This was a school designed to break a child and reforge them into decent British Men and Women.
Its history was tragic, and it was close to being torn down in the '60s when the Grammar system was all but abolished, but it had found a new lease of life as a Social Services department. Now, instead of breaking the child, it would be the place that sought to try and protect them. Walking up to those gates on my first day, you had a sense of belonging to something you could truly call an authority. I strode up those steps in my new shirt and tie combo, hastily bought from the local Tesco the day before, and walked into the strangest 18 months of my life.
My office, if you can give it that grand a name, was a small, damp room at the rear of the building. I had to get to it via a long, seemingly pointless corridor that my supervisor cheerily called the 'airlock'. On opening the door, I was met with a sight that I know for a fact will stay with me for a very long time. Stacks of files, from floor to ceiling, balanced on shelves next to old, mouldy pieces of IT equipment from the early '80s. Boxes that would be named 'CHILD A' or 'SMITH FAMILY, BOX 1/6' were stacked up in one end and the whole placed just reeked of cat piss. But it was the wasps that did it. Every flat surface was covered in dead wasps, some piled up at the windows in heaps like they were trying to escape when they died. I would open files from boxes and wasps would fall out. I would sit down with a new cup of tea for literally a minute and inexplicably find bloody wasps had fallen in it from the shelves. Known to all as 'The Dead Room,' my office was full of the bodies of dead insects and the files of dead children. I came to learn that any file with the word 'EXORS' stamped on was the file of a child who had died while in the care of the local authority and as such, it was my duty to read and then destroy the file.
My task, as a 20-year-old in his first office job, was to read the files of dead children and summarise the case. I would take a child, whose life had been condensed down to five bulging files full of misery, sexual assault and neglect, and condense that to a one-sided summary sheet. I would then delete them from the computer records and shred the file. The child would cease to exist in our records, apart from my summary sheet. I was never privy as to why we did this, if you can believe that. I think it was because we simply needed the space to store more crap we never got rid of. I did this for nearly two years before budget cuts meant my job was axed, but I never once spoke about what I did with friends. I was just 'admin' if they asked. I would smile and sympathise when they moaned about how awful a particular customer was and not mention the stuff I'd read or the pictures I'd ended up seeing.
I've carried the stories of the children from the Dead Room with me since I left. I don't ever tell people about them but someone should remember them. Apparently, soon after I left, they just had all the files that remained shredded and disposed of without any summary being completed. Those children are now lost to us, their stories and agonies wiped from record but hey, at least we got to keep that printer from 1993 that broke down. You never know when it might come in handy.
Thomas Pitt, or Moose_Malloy1987 here on Giz, is currently working with homeless youths in Essex and trying to start a writing career, if only he wasn't so lazy. You can follow him on Twitter.
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