The Phone Call
6pm Feb. 1991
There are no heroes in this story. If you are looking for a happy ending where everyone ends up okay; stop reading this now.
The tingling was leaving my fingers and my toes were warming up; I was beginning to thaw out. I had to get up off the radiator; it was almost dark and there was no place to go and I had run out of options. I couldn’t even visit Mom at the prison until tomorrow. Everything was closed or closing and the snowstorm was too cold to walk in. I had to figure something out fast.
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.
There was a 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 operator had a twang in her voice and the line was kind of fuzzy and she sounded far away. I thought about the telephone cables under the black and cold ocean that separated England from The United States and how far away my sisters were.
I waited until she put me through and then asked the operator at my family’s office to put me through to their house.
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. I took my little sister straight to Heathrow after I sprung her from temporary foster care. We had no family here that could help us. They were all back in the States. I took her to the airport as fast as I could so they couldn’t take her passport and make her stay here too to testify against my mom. Then we’d both be homeless.
Little Erin was living with our eighteen year old sister Katie in New York and had a return ticket back home. My oldest sister Meagan lived near them and was waitressing and putting herself through community college. I should have gone with them. I had made a terrible mistake coming here with mom.
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 plane 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 and taken to Holloway. They arrested me too but let me go when my school told them I was in class when the crimes were committed.
The day after Christmas, cops came to our house out in the country and raided it. Later on we found out that while I was at school and trying to convince myself that Mom had turned over a new leaf; she had been robbing manor houses and selling the antiques she had stolen.
I knew something was up, but not sure. It always made me nervous and uneasy when I was happy and things were quiet at home because I knew from experience that it wouldn’t last. Mom always ruined it. But this time 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.
As soon as we moved to England and I started school, I stayed away from Mom and the house she rented and spent it at school with my new friends. I’d go to the library or to their houses after school and I’d stay there as much as I could. I liked to see how normal teenagers my age lived and I hated going home to Mom. She had rented a huge house in the country, an hour and a half out from London and there was no reason to go there; it was mostly an empty house and I stayed in my room anyway. After everything that had happened in the States, I just didn’t like being around her anymore.
I was spending so much time at school and in London; I didn’t care what she was doing anymore. I was enjoying my freedom from her. I could take the train into the city and go to school and could stay away until almost the last train ran back. We had started to get into fights when I got home because she said I was never home anymore and didn’t want to be around her.
I didn’t really have a plan, but I knew I wanted to get away from Mom and live my life. She ruined her own life and she ruined anyone who was near her. It was only a matter of time before she did something terrible, again.
After I started writing my book and seeing these stories on paper; I started to get angry. Mom’s rich and/or middle class family had known for years how dangerous and evil she was and never called child protective services for us. And they knew how bad she was. She had been like this and in and out of jail before we had ever been born.
They never stepped in when she got arrested, they just paid her bail and she’d be out again and we’d pack up quickly and get on the road and move to another state to start over.
I think they only bailed her out of jail because if they didn’t, they would have to take care of her four little girls. If they had called child protective services for us, they’d have to explain to them why the abuse had gone on for so long and they’d have to take us in because they were relatives, but none of that happened, they never swooped in and took us away from her, and the abuse continued for years. There are no heroes in this story.
Mom’s family and her father in Scarsdale and her brother in Darien looked the other way when we were living in motels for months. They looked the other way when our house burned down. They looked the other way when scary Charlie Manson-looking people lived in our house and did terrible things to children; and they said nothing and did nothing when little children were living around these weirdos. These people were scary street people with crazy eyes, and mom had brought them to live in our house and let them around her children so she’d have someone to do her dirty insurance scams for her.
My sisters and I spent years living in terror and the this is a kind of terror that never really goes away; you just learn how to live with it. Carry it. We lived a slow terror of poverty and arrests that never ended and most of my nightmares are just memories and dreams of my childhood growing up.
But the worst part of growing up like this was watching my cousins grow up in happy and safe homes. They were loved. I got to see everything I never received when I visited them. I got to see my aunts and uncles love their kids; just not us. They provided safe and happy surroundings for their own children, just not us.
We were Maureen’s kids. We were the outside dogs.
My father’s family was even worse, he had run away at ten years old because his family beat him so badly. We had never met them and didn’t know where they were or who they were. Our dad told us he never wanted any kids and refused to pay child support. The money that the state made him send wasn’t enough, because we moved every few months, we’d run out of food and we would always get evicted, again.
My sisters and I just tried to make the best of it whenever we had moved to a new town and tried to pretend it would be different in this city. We got good at pretending being normal and groomed our backstories. Mom was a writer with a gypsy streak. We’re hippies. Mom is writing a book. We moved here to be close to Mom’s family.
Our entire lives consisted of a cycle. Mostly, we moved every three to six months; until mom would get arrested again for hot checks or some scam, or bouncing a check to the landlord and then we’d move quickly or in the middle of the night. Then we’d live in motels for weeks or months until she could figure something out and move to a new city, find a house to rent, and then we’d stay until we’d get evicted again. Or she’d create a “natural” disaster and collect insurance money from it.
I didn’t know how to escape from Mom. She had programmed me to take care of her and protect her, and I was trying to deprogram myself, but I didn’t know how.
I didn’t know what was normal anymore. Aunt Erin would give me an answer or some encouragement or some ideas of what to do. I needed a friend and needed to talk to someone who knew Mom’s history and how dangerous she was.
Aunt Erin picked up. “Hello?” She sounded weak and tired. I burst into tears.
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.
“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!” I would never steal from anyone, especially Aunt Peggy.
Her daughter little Peggy was my best friend. Whenever I went to a new school and someone asked me who my best friend was, besides my little sister, I would say “my cousin Peggy!” because she was and I knew that we would always be family and best friends. Little Peggy had always been my friend when I had none and whenever I was in a new school, I thought of her and how much fun we had at her house and that she would always be my friend so I never felt alone.
Mom and I went to their house in the Valley for her father’s 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 Aunt Peggy’s house for the wake. Then we went to England to start a new life.
They were all tense at Grandpa’s funeral in L.A, but that was normal because we were never a real family in any sense of the word “family”.
Family gatherings were tense because they all knew how bad it was for us. Aunt Peggy was cautious around us, because Mom was awful to her and had been for most of her life. Aunt Peggy was great with kids and loved kids, but with us, she smiled a grim, tight smile and she seem relieved when she waved from the front door as were driving away, like she had seen a huge tornado and it had just barely missed her house and family. We were a problem too big for anyone to bear.
When I was in the 6th grade, we lived in a motel on Sepulveda for a few months and it was 3 miles from her house and we never saw her. For two months we lived in a dark and dirty motel room in a terrible area and my aunt, father and grandfather all lived nearby. Nobody ever came to visit or to save us from Mom.
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.
After Australia, Mom started scamming again when we got back to upstate 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.
This 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.
Mom’s brother had a great big house with extra bedrooms and kids our age and lived in Darien, Connecticut a few hours away, and he had lived there for 20 years, but we were on our own this time. We had lived with them for a month the last time mom was wanted and I think he paid for us to move into a rental house and our rent, but that didn’t last long. Mom started scamming again and the cycle continued. I had told the school counselor what was going on at home and they called child protective services, but we moved a few days later to upstate New York after they called Mom in to answer some questions.
We were on our own and all of us were waiting for mom to check out of the mental hospital; hoping she would shape up and be a parent for us. We’d go visit her at the mental hospital not to really see her, but to eat, because it was a fancy one that my dad’s health union insurance paid for. They had a salad bar and lunch. We ate our one good meal at Mom’s mental hospital and waited for her to get out. Nobody from Mom’s family called us to ask us if we were okay this time. 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,”
I should’ve went with my sisters 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 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.
I didn’t want to move in with my Dad because he was a drunk and a mean one and also violent towards women. I had seen my father while we were in L.A for the funeral; but only briefly. 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 while trying to strangle her and the police came and broke them up.
I watched the freezing snow come down and waited for Aunt Erin to speak.
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 when the school offered me one. I should’ve stayed on Hilton Head with people who cared about me and had offered me a way out.
At the wake for my grandfather at Aunt Peggy’s house, she never said anything to me about her wedding 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.
“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.
It was easier for them to dehumanize me. Otherwise they would have to step in and help me. It’s easier for them to tell themselves I’m worthless.
I remembered the day I got the fancy Lancôme makeup out of Aunt Peggy’s room for my cousin.
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?”
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 my rich kid 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 and didn’t want any part of this.
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.
As I trudged out of the doorway from my old school into the freezing night air, I thought about the woman who I had never met. She was currently in a prison cell, sleeping next to my mom in Holloway and she had offered me a warm and safe place to stay.