The Phone Call
6pm Feb. 1991
The tingling was leaving my fingers and my toes were warming up. I was beginning to thaw out.
The radiator hissed in the corner like a friendly teapot and I had been sitting on it for while and was reluctant to leave my warm spot but I had to call Aunt Erin and get help before the school closed. The kids were all leaving their classes and going home, going to the cafe with friends, going to the library to study, going to the tube station to go home to their safe bedrooms and homes with parents who cared about them and cared about where they were.
The phone on the desk was by the art class, and the art teacher had a reputation for being cool. I think she knew what was going on with my situation, but she never gave me the worried look the other teachers gave me. Her class was empty and I think she was puttering back in her art studio but hopefully she wouldn’t hear me call my aunt. If I ever made it out of this, I was going to putter around too.
The coast was clear, the classrooms were empty and it was quiet, I could call Aunt Erin and nobody would hear my shame.
I picked up the phone to dial. Aunt Erin’s company had an 800 number and I pressed zero to get to an international operator.
“Hi, can you please dial an eight hundred number for me?” The American voice of the operator and my country seemed so far away.
I waited until she put me through and then asked the operator at my family’s office to put me through to their house.
Aunt Erin picked up. “Hello?” She sounded weak and tired. I burst into tears.
I had barely spoken with anyone in my family since I busted my little sister Erin (named after Aunt Erin) from foster care here after the cops arrested mom at our house in the country and took her straight to Heathrow. I took her there as fast as I could so they couldn’t take her passport and make her stay here too to testify against my mom.
Little Erin was living with our big sister Katie in New York and had a return ticket back home. I was the only one who came with Mom to England to start a new life again. A fresh start. We were going to do it this time. All of my sisters had stayed behind in the states and moved back to upstate New York after what happened on Hilton Head.
Mom had bought Erin a ticket for Christmas to come to England and was trying to convince her to move to England and live with us when she got arrested.
The cops came to our house out in the country, the day after Christmas. Later on we found out she had been robbing manor houses and selling antiques. I knew something was up, but not sure.
I was spending so much time at school and in London and hanging with my new friends, I didn’t care. I wanted to get away from her. She had credit cards with her name on them and I thought we were living on money from when her father died five months earlier. I knew it was too good to be true. Nothing happy and stable with mom ever lasted.
It was good to hear a family member’s voice.
“Aunt Erin?? It’s Morgain..I’m so sorry..I need help..”I was babbling now.
I needed someone to talk to who knew how crazy mom was. Aunt Erin had seen my mom arrested a dozen times, she knew how bad it was. She lived with us until I was about four. She knew.
“Morgain, I just had a baby a week ago and I’m a mess. I don’t know if I can help you.” She wasn’t very friendly and seemed angry.
I had forgotten that she was a mom now and just had a baby and that it was a really difficult time for her too.
“ Look, I’m sorry but they took my passport so I can’t leave, I don’t have any money or a place to stay and I need help. It’s so cold outside. I don’t have anywhere to go and I don’t know anyone else to call.”
I was rambling again. “I’m calling you from the school, all of my friend’s parents have tried to help but they’re freaked out and they want to know where my family is. Mom scares the shit out of them and the whole school knows she’s wanted all over in the States. I don’t know what to do.” I was heaving and breathing and trying to regulate my breath.
She spoke very quietly. “Morgain, I can’t help you until you tell me where the ring is that you stole.”
I was stunned. “What?” I whispered. “What?” I repeated.
“The ring you stole from Aunt Peggy’s house. I am not sending you a goddamned dime until you tell me where it is and where you sold it.” She was angry now.
I started crying and stammering again, “I haven’t seen Aunt Peggy since we stayed at her house, when I was fifteen and we were on the way to Australia when Mom was on the game show. I never stole her wedding ring! Why would you think I would do something like that?!”
I thought for a minute and then remembered that I had seen Aunt Peggy in L.A five months earlier at the funeral, just for a day.
“Wait a minute….Wait… I saw her at Grandpa’s funeral five months ago and she never said anything and we used her station wagon and did errands! She never said anything to me then! Why didn’t she say anything to me then?? I love Aunt Peggy, I’d never do something like that!” Her daughter little Peggy was my best friend.
Mom and I went to their house for the wake about five months ago, the previous August when my grandfather died. But Mom and I stayed in a hotel near her and were about to start our new life in England. We were only in L.A for a few days and we only went to the funeral and then we went to her house for the wake.
I’d seen my Aunt Peggy at the funeral and wake; and she and her family weren’t really friendly, but it was a funeral and I remember she wasn’t friendly to our family when we got back from Australia either and when we were living in motels for weeks.
When we got back from Australia; Erin and I were 13 and 15 years old and we thought she was mad because Mom was wanted all over New York for various forms of fraud. After we got back from Australia, and we ended up living in cheap motels in L.A because mom was afraid to go back to New York.
Eventually, after a few weeks in L.A, and a huge ordeal with my Dad, we went back to Upstate New York. Mom got an apartment with me and Erin and my two older sisters had gotten a place and lived nearby. Erin and I went to school and lived in Glen Falls for a few months and things were stable until Mom started scamming people again.
Mom’s whole family knew how crazy and dangerous she was for years; she had been in trouble with the law and it had been happening for years before we were born, and now she was wanted everywhere.
They knew that she was unfit parent since we were toddlers and they never stepped in to take us away from her or at least call some professional help for us. Not then, not when we were little and not when we were living in motels and not when she was in and out of jails or mental hospitals. We were always left defenseless.
Mom started scamming again when we got back to New York and then she checked herself into a mental hospital in Saratoga because she was wanted all over and found out that if you were in a mental hospital, they couldn’t arrest you.
She left us (Erin and I were 13 and 15 years old) to live with our 17 (Katie) and 19 (Meagan) year old sisters to take care of us. We were all desperate and scared and had no money. Our sister Meagan brought us home Pizza Hut every night.
We were all waiting for mom to check out of the mental hospital; hoping she would shape up and be a parent for us.
Her whole family knew we were living like that. We used to eat at the mental hospital because we had no money. Nobody helped us then or called us to ask us if we were okay. Our dad didn’t either.
We had been living on the run and moving every three months for years, our whole lives, and nobody ever stepped in and sat us down and said, “Hey kids, this isn’t normal and you shouldn’t have to live like this,” They had their own problems.
After the cops started searching our house on Hilton Head; my sisters, Erin and Katie decided to move back from Hilton Head to upstate New York to live near out oldest sister Meagan who was still waitressing at Pizza Hut and going to community college there.
I should’ve went with them when they left Hilton Head to go back, but I didn’t want to go. It was freezing and up in the middle of the woods in the Adirondacks. We had already moved away once from Upstate to get away from the cold and poverty there.
Mom had done a bunch of scams on Hilton Head before we left; I think with stolen checks and I wasn’t sure what she had really done, she was secretive about how she came upon money and I stopped asking where she got it.
When the phone call came that her father died in Los Angeles, where he’d retired, we flew there for the funeral; but only stayed for about three days and then flew to England to start over.
Mom had promised me that we were only moving one more time; to a fresh start and going to use the money her dad left her to start over in England. Deep down I think I knew it was bullshit but I was sixteen and wanted to believe her. I needed a mom and was in denial. I didn’t know where else to go, my dad was abusive and I had seen him hit my mom, I didn’t want to live with him at all.
My sisters were all in upstate New York and mom was wanted everywhere; so England seemed like a new life and dream to find happiness.
Somewhere inside me I knew I should’ve gotten away from her when my sisters left, but I wanted to believe her. I wanted a mom and a normal life and she kept promising me one.
I didn’t want to move in with my Dad, I had seen my father while we were in L.A for the funeral; and he was abusive and a hated my mom and a heavy drinker. The time I’d seen him before that, on the way back from Australia, he tried to throw my mom over a balcony at his ranch and the police came and broke them up.
I should’ve moved in with my friend Amy’s parents and stayed on Hilton Head and listened when they offered me a way out. I should’ve taken that scholarship to Hilton Head Prep the school offered.
At the wake for my grandfather at Aunt Peggy’s house, she never said anything to me about a ring missing and she let mom use her station wagon for us to go do errands. I remember mom wanting to use her car again before we left; and she said no, but Aunt Peggy never said anything to me about a ring missing or anything being stolen. The whole family all wished us luck in England. I really thought we were going to start over in England and mom was going to get her life together.
“It’s not her wedding ring. It’s another kind of ring.” She spoke again, “Morgain, right before you guys all went to Australia, Uncle Tim was taking a nap and saw you in their room and saw you take something off their dresser and when he woke up you ran out of the room.”
Aunt Erin was was pleading with me. “Just tell me where you sold it and I can help you. We need to get it back, please, Morgain, just tell me where it is.” I could her her crying.
I was shocked. But then again, I remembered how Mom’s family acted every time we came around. They were always angry and upset and uncomfortable because they knew we were abused and neglected and it made them feel bad. But not bad enough to call child protective services and save us from the madwoman.
“Aunt Erin, the only time I ever was in their room was to get some fancy Làncome makeup off her dresser because her daughter told me to go in there and get it for her. She told me not to wake her dad up from a nap. I swear. I wouldn’t do something like that. I’ve been working since I was fourteen. I’m not HER!!!”
They thought I was just like her.
That’s why they didn’t care I was homeless. I remembered that day perfectly. We were visiting Aunt Peggy’s right before we went to Australia.
Mom was wanted all over in New York state so when the offer came to her to be a return champion on a game show called “Sale of The Century” in Melbourne; it was a stroke of weird luck for her. She had been a big winner in Los Angeles, back in 1984.
Little Peggy and I were the same age and getting ready to go out and meet boys and I remember we were doing our makeup and hair and I wished to God more than anything to have a bedroom like my cousin’s and a mom who was a teacher who kept a job and home and the cops never kicked the door in.
I loved Aunt Peggy’s bedroom. She had a little screen hole cut out for the cats to come in and out and her whole room smelled like Yardley of London roses and Crabtree and Evelyn. Aunt Peggy’s bedroom was the only place that ever stayed the same.
I started sobbing again. Aunt Erin wasn’t going to be the hero. She couldn’t be the hero. There were no more heroes left. Only people that hated my mom and the people who thought I was like her.
“I swear to God, I don’t know where it is but I do know you have to be eighteen to pawn anything, I was fifteen then!! You can’t pawn anything when you are underage; they won’t let you!!” I was angry now too.
I knew this because I tried to pawn something when I was sixteen in South Carolina the year earlier, to bail my mom out of jail there and the Pawnbroker turned me away and got livid and wanted to know what kind of fucked up parent would make their sixteen year old kid pawn something to bail them out of jail.
“I’ve never stolen anything from Aunt Peggy, I swear.” I was sobbing and babbling again.
I looked outside. It was pitch black and the snow was furiously coming down in the glow of the streetlights when I looked outside the windows. Down on the street, it was empty. Nobody was outside.
Aunt Erin seemed satisfied that I was telling her the truth. “Calm down, it’s okay. I’m going to send you money. I have to go, I’m exhausted.” She said. I could hear a baby crying.
“Oh thank you, thank you!!” Maybe I could rent a room somewhere until Mom’s court date, I think it was a few weeks away. And then I could figure out how to find a way out of this and get away from Mom.
“I’ll send you $200 pounds, go to Western Union, it’ll be there.” She said.
“Thank you Aunt Erin, thank you.” I whispered in a shaky breath.
I put the phone down and suddenly I realized that Aunt Erin had never brought up my mom in the conversation or that Mom was in Holloway Women’s Prison right now for theft.
She never mentioned her felon sister who had been in and out of jails for theft for the last twenty five years. My mother bullied both her sisters; and even when she was in prison, they were still scared of confronting her.
Why they found it easier to blame me didn’t matter; it was pitch black outside and fifteen degrees and the school was closing. I needed to find a place to sleep.
The $200 pounds she was sending would be gone quickly if I wasn’t smart; even if I could even find a cheap hotel in London that would rent me a room. Then I realized I couldn’t get a hotel room because I had no ID and wasn’t eighteen yet. The cops had taken my passport because they wanted me to stay in England and testify against my mom.
I pulled out a piece of paper from my pocket. On it was a phone number my mother had given to me the last time I saw her at the prison.
I didn’t want to call it but now it was my only option.
It was the phone number of Mom’s cellmate’s daughter. She had given the number to Mom to give it to me in case I was ever desperate and needed a safe place to sleep. She had told mom that her daughter and I were the same age.
I picked up the phone again to call the number, the daughter’s name was Amanda. My fingers were shaking again and someone had started to turn off the lights in the classrooms. The school was closing.
I dialed the number and then someone picked up.
“‘Ello?” It was a girl with a thick cockney accent. I heard hip hop music in the background.
“Hi Amanda, Uhhh… this is Morgain, I’m so sorry to bother you but I’m in a really bad place. I’m calling you from my school right now and they’re closing. Your mom and my mom are cellmates at Holloway and your mom said maybe I could crash with you for a few days until I can find a place to stay?” I held my breath.
Her end was silent. She finally spoke. “Oy, you’re American?”
I laughed a little. “Yes. I am.” My breath was shaky.
“What kind of music do you like?” She asked me.
“Anything that doesn’t make me sad.” I told her.
“Hahaha…okay, meet me at Holloway tomorrow in the visitors’ waiting room at Noon and we can make a plan. You can stay for a few days and we’ll see how it goes. Do you have a place to sleep tonight? It’s fucking cold out.”
She told me her address and it was pretty far from where I was. I thought of my friend that lived near me, near the school.
“Ummm, Yes, I think I can find a place at my friend Hannah’s tonight. ” I said.
“Okay, good,” she said, “See you tomorrow. I’ll be with a man named Mr. Darby, he’s me mum’s lawyer.” She hung up.
I started sobbing again. It was a mix of gratitude and relief. I had a place to sleep. She was a girl my age and we had something in common. I had made a friend.
I called my other friend Hannah from school. She lived nearby and her mom said I could stay one night at her place, but only for one night and I’d have to leave the next day. She told me her Mom was terrified of my situation.
Tomorrow, I’d go to the prison and meet Amanda and see my mom and we’d figure out a plan. For a split second, the terror in my whole being subsided a bit. It was going to be okay.
A woman I had never met, who was currently in a prison sleeping next to my mom, had come through for me on this dark winter night.