I was in the reception area of the building when the front door buzzer started being punched repeatedly, and urgently. Picking up the intercom phone I could see on the screen it was Cheryl – a sex worker, and client of mine. “Eh up Cheryl, we’re open in about ten minutes love. Just hang about for a sec.” It was a stupidly officious rule, but we all knew it – don’t let anyone in outside of drop-in hours if they don’t have an appointment. “Ben….” she was sobbing “I really need to see you.” Fuck it, I punched the entry button and watched her come inside, what’s ten minutes anyway. She rushed into the waiting room and burst into tears. “Ben, can I talk to you please.”
“Yeah, ok Cheryl, just hold it together.” I went round the counter and led her to the nearest spare room. “Sit yourself down. What’s happened?”
“I’ve been raped,” she spat out, then she started to cry again, heaving and retching.
“Oh God, Cheryl. How long ago? Are you hurt?”
“Last night Ben. Two of them….. They took my money too.”
“Have you told the police?”
“Yeah….” I noticed a small bruise on her cheek. She was in pieces, sitting there in this grim building, doubled over and sobbing out the biggest tears onto the floor between her feet. Her mascara was running in two big black lines down her face, meeting at her chin. She had a scar over her right eye – a reminder of another sexual assault. She’d never bothered to report that attack or get treatment for the injuries she received – she’d had a couple of teeth knocked out that time too. How do you get over something like that? Can you ever get over it? What can you say to someone when they’ve been raped again – ‘there, there, it’s going to be ok’? I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be ok, not for a long time, how could it be?
We spent a good hour or so in there, her sobbing and filling me in with the details, me just sitting listening, battling my own tears, comforting, and trying to get her to go to the rape crisis centre. In the end, she wiped her eyes, smearing the watery mascara rivers across her cheeks, looked at me, and said “Right, I’m going home. Fuck them.” I’ve never seen a person pull horror out of their face so quickly, before, or since. And she left. That afternoon, a colleague who I shared an office with trundled into work with a big grin on his face. He took his coat off, revealing a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Give me a zero gravity blow job’ and the picture of some wanker off the tv. I made him put his coat back on and told him that if he ever wore that t-shirt to work again I’d happily punch him around the car park. People just didn’t get it; the terror some of our clients faced, the pain, the danger, it was all just something they watched rather than experienced. Some people said that if you saw the same film a hundred times it became boring, and that was the same with hearing about the horror in our clients lives. But that was never really true, not for me.
Cheryl lost her partner a few months later – he’d overdosed while they lay together in bed after sharing a dig. She didn’t realise until she woke up a few hours later and he was cold beside her. I guess she’d been lucky not to go over herself. They had a strange kind of bond – like a filthy and poor Yorkshire version of Bonny and Clyde – and when she told me he’d died I could see she was genuinely devastated. Here he was, this guy who had got her onto heroin in the first place and who relied on her earnings from sex work for his own considerable habit, and she was utterly destroyed when he’d gone. She cried again that time too when she told me, but there was something different in her eyes. No more defiance, no more fight, she was emotionally finished, there was nothing left. In a weird way I think it saved her. She moved away but kept in touch with the odd phonecall to tell me what she was up to. She’d got clean. “I loved him you know,” she said “but I’m glad it’s all behind me. All I’ve got are the memories….and the scars.”