In all Elliott’s years as a probation officer, he had never witnessed such raucous and unruly behaviour as on this night. It wasn’t unusual for him to have to listen to foul language; but, on entering the police station, he had been greeted with abuse that was normally only voiced by the lowest and most uncouth of society. Surveying a corridor full of thrown food and drink, pieces of clothing and, judging by the stench, urine, Elliott realised he was in for a challenging session of cell visits.
‘Constable, what is going on?’ he asked, being very careful where he placed his next step.
The inexperienced constable didn’t immediately answer. He was too preoccupied with the bedlam around him. ‘Oh, sorry, Mr Elliott! It’s these people we arrested earlier. Making life hell they are.’
The officer was referring to the Doones, a notorious local family and their gang, who had been arrested at the railway station attempting to transport some fine art forgeries to London.
Elliott could see the constable becoming more and more flustered. Holding up a hand to interrupt him, he spoke in a firm tone. ‘It’s nothing that we can’t deal with. Now kindly tell me, where is Sergeant Drake?’
The constable pointed to a cell further down the corridor, then proceeded to try and placate a prisoner in a nearby cell. Watching the timid officer getting shouted down, Elliott took his cane and banged hard on the cell door, insisting ‘Enough!’ After which he thrust up the viewing hatch. ‘Never let them get the upper hand, lad.’
It was certainly a baptism of fire for the new constable.
As Elliott wandered further down the corridor in search of Sergeant Drake, he wasn’t expecting that the worst noise and the foulest language would be coming from a cell containing a girl – a girl who, when he finally saw her, would look to be around eighteen years of age. The sound of banging and clattering became more audible as he approached. Then, without warning, a cell door shot open and out tumbled Drake, accompanied by a colleague holding a canvas restraining jacket.
‘Little cow!’ shouted Drake, clutching his right arm, where the prisoner had bitten him.
‘Fuck off,’ shrieked the girl from inside the cell. ‘Leave me alone ... just fuck off.’
There was a moment’s pause before she screamed more abuse, following it by throwing a piece of wooden stool which smashed against the closed cell door.
‘Having a spot of trouble, Sergeant Drake?’ quizzed Elliott jovially.
Drake pulled himself upright, spluttering with fury, ‘The little cow’s only gone and bloody bitten me.’ He reached out to grab the restraining jacket from his constable. ‘I’ll show the insolent little bitch.’
Raising his hand to intercept it, Elliott insisted firmly, ‘Shall we agree this is perhaps not the best way to deal with the matter?’ Whilst restraining a prisoner with a jacket was sometimes inevitable, he was sure one wasn’t needed in this case. ‘If you’ll open the door, I’ll see what I can do.’
‘Mr Elliott. It’s not safe. She’s nothing short of a lunatic,’ remonstrated Drake.
The constable beside him nodded his head to concur.
‘Who is she exactly?’
‘That is what I’m trying to find out,’ Drake exclaimed, wrestling his uniform back into shape. ‘She’s a young girl who was acting as a distraction in a case down at the railway station.’
‘I see. Well, don’t worry, sergeant, I take full responsibility for my actions. Let me in.’
Drake eventually sighed in resignation. ‘Very well, on your head be it … literally. Open the door, constable.’
The young officer couldn’t quite believe anyone would want to go in and talk to the girl in the state she was in.
Elliott waited patiently for the correct key to be placed in the lock and remained perfectly calm as another piece of wood came crashing against the door, followed by more of the occupant’s choice language. ‘I said leave me alone, you shits.’
The constable offered to be present.
‘No, thank you,’ Elliott replied, giving a confident smile, ‘but that won’t be necessary.’
Once inside, the probation officer was greeted with a tirade of imprecations. After listening to her outburst, which contained at least ten ‘Fs’ and an equal number of ‘Bs’, and worse, he tapped on the door. When it opened, Elliott calmly confirmed to the constable that there would be no further need for the restraining jacket. And, to appear less confrontational, he handed over his cane for safe keeping.
‘Right miss,’ he said coolly, showing no surprise at the girl’s foul-mouthed outburst. ‘If you’ve finished with your filthy affront on the King’s English, we’ll begin, shall we?’
The girl was slightly taken aback. Since her arrest, all she had experienced was hostility. Now, here was a man talking to her in a calm and decent way, which she wasn’t expecting.
‘Begin what?’ She eventually replied.
Elliott studied the shabby looking girl who stood before him, her dirty face still showing the redness of anger. Her long brown hair was terribly tousled, probably on account of her struggle with Drake and the constable. Yet underneath her scruffiness, the girl possessed what, given some care and attention, would have been a pretty face. The problem, as Elliott was discovering, was what came out of her mouth, and how to tame her aggression.
‘Why don’t you fuck off like you’re told?’ shouted the girl, deciding to continue using the same tack with Elliott as with everybody else. ‘Are you deaf or something?’
‘Oh, I hear you all right. It’s just that I choose to ignore such horrible language. And language more suited to miners and steelworkers than young girls, if I may say.’
The girl, still holding a last lump of wood, returned to sit on her cell bench. ‘Quite condescending, aren’t you?’ she spat out.
‘So, you do have command of proper vocabulary,’ replied Elliott, becoming convinced that beneath all her antagonism there was a very intelligent girl.
He was treated to more expletives before the piece of wood was sent hurtling in his direction. It seemed it needed only the slightest wrong word for the girl to become incensed and return to her former belligerence.
Luckily for Elliott, he was able to dodge and watch as the wood clattered against the cell door. ‘I’m fine,’ he shouted to Drake and the constable, not wanting them to open the door. He knew he was on the verge of winning over the girl’s confidence, although from his next remark the other two wouldn’t have thought so.
‘Do that once more, young lady, and I’ll take you across my knee.’
The girl laughed sarcastically and then hissed, ‘Yes, I bet you’d like that.’
There was a moment’s pause before Elliott offered an olive branch. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘What if we each stop trying to get the upper hand. Let’s call it a draw. I’ll get a chair and together we’ll discuss how I can get you out of the trouble you’re in? We can talk like two civilised people.’
He held out his hand. ‘I’m Mr Robert Elliott.’
‘Who says I need any help?’
‘Oh, I think we all need a bit of help from time to time,’ replied Elliott, thrusting his hand a little closer to the girl. ‘Might I know your name?’
The girl subjected her visitor to intense scrutiny. His whole stature and presence signalled authority, something which she had grown to detest. And yet she felt able to trust him – or was it just that she needed to trust someone? Although she was not able to understand why, there was something about Elliott that made her feel quite secure.
Finally, she held out her hand. ‘Call me Al, if you want.’
In Elliott’s role he was often faced with false names, therefore, he hadn’t really expected ‘Al’ to be an accurate response to his enquiry, even if it was only an abbreviation. In his head, he’d thought of Al as being short for Alison; but it was actually short for Alise; and, surprisingly, it was the girl’s real Christian name. It would be a good while, however, before Elliott would discover her full name of Alise De Burk.
Although his cell visit had proved productive, Elliott had only scratched the surface of the girl’s background and troubles. Anyone arrested who had connections to the Doone family and their criminal activities usually refused to answer any questions about their associations. They knew they would be quickly bailed by the family’s corrupt but very efficient solicitors.
In the case of Alise, the best Elliott was able to ascertain before her release had been secured was that she had no fixed abode, distrusted just about everyone, and was supposedly just innocently walking through the railway station when arrested. What he was able to do was scribble down his name and address on a piece of paper with the offer of his further help in future. Little did he realise just how much the girl would protect that paper. For Alise, it was always when, not if, she would make contact with Elliott again. In the meantime, the probation officer would often wonder just how the girl had become embroiled in criminality with such an infamous family.
Two years earlier - September 1914
Although nothing in her accent suggested it, Alise was Belgian and had spent the first ten years of her life in Aarschot, a small municipality near Leuven. Her parents had emigrated to England in 1908 to search for regular work and eventually settled in a small pit village, where her father secured a position as a miner. During the next six years, the family integrated well into the village and Alise enjoyed her new life, making friends and excelling in school. But her life was to change drastically when, one day, her parents received a letter from Belgium. Watching her mother sob uncontrollably, Alise learnt that her grandparents had been shot and killed by German soldiers advancing south towards France and implementing schrecklichkeit, the army’s policy of terror.
Alise was shielded by her parents from knowing the whole truth and wasn’t aware that, in fact, nearly all her living relatives in Belgium had been among those killed in the atrocities. Perhaps, had she known this, she might have been able to make more sense of what happened next to turn her whole world completely upside down.
It was a morning she would never forget. Standing, shivering in the small cold kitchen of their brick terraced two-up-two-down house, Alise read the note which had been given her:
Our sweetest Alise,
Knowing you have awoken to be given this letter in itself breaks our hearts, and we cannot bear to contemplate your thoughts of us as you read on, but you must understand that we really had no alternative. And, God willing, it will only be for a short while.
Your father and I are broken people, grieving for family so dear to us in Aarschot, and now we must bear the awful daily news of further German atrocities in our beautiful country. Father cannot justify staying in England whilst in Belgium people are suffering so much. He must do his bit and I must follow, but never could we put you in harm’s way. I beg of you to understand it is for this reason you must stay in England, in the care of Mrs Makin, and await our return.
Dream of us each evening, as we will of you, and pray for our protection. We will write again as soon as possible and tell you of our safety.
With all our hearts we love you and beg your forgiveness.
Mother and Father
The parents’ being away ‘for a short while’ became anything but that. And, as each week passed, Alise became more withdrawn and desperately concerned about her parents, particularly her father, who, she learned, had joined a small group of guerrilla fighters. Her mother in turn had begun to spy on German troop movements and was providing information to members of the Francs-tireurs.
Trying to get letters out of Belgium was becoming harder and harder as the German occupation gained a stranglehold. Alise had to wait another two months before receiving another letter. Unfortunately, when it arrived it carried the devastating news that her parents had been killed serving their beloved country. The harsh reality of being orphaned soon overwhelmed the sixteen-year-old.
The task of trying to support and provide for Alise fell on Mrs Makin, a neighbour of the family, who had befriended them when they first moved into the village. The miner’s wife and mother of four children of her own was the most caring of women, but even with all her pragmatism, she knew her job was going to be anything but easy. Over the next few months, the challenge of controlling Alise would prove to be very much a problem.
Alise’s initial reaction to her parents’ death was to withdraw. Day after day she continued to say hardly a word and sought solace in her own company. But with seven people crammed into such a tiny house, the chances of her being on her own were almost non-existent. A sad-faced girl, aimlessly wandering the streets alone, she soon became a frequent sight in the village. This was the period when she met Alfie.
Barely past 20 years of age, Alfie was already well entrenched in his father’s criminal operation and part of a gang known as the ‘Doone slips’. He regularly frequented many of the ale houses that plied their trade between his estate and Alise’s village. Never seeming to work, but never being short of money, had earned the youngster the reputation of a ‘wrong un up to no good’; but, whilst that reputation, as with all the Doone gang, was invariably well deserved, Alfie could demonstrate charm and affection like no other young man around.
‘My mate has just said there’s a really sad looking girl over there,’ Alfie started, deciding to sit next to Alise on the low wall beside the Leeds Arms. ‘But all I can see is a pretty girl who’s deep in thought … penny for ‘em.’
Alise lifted her lip ever so slightly to form a faint smile, but said nothing.
‘So, what’s a nice girl like you doing sitting outside a pub? You waiting for someone?’
‘I’m not hurting anyone,’ responded Alise, with a hint of firmness.
Alfie laughed. ‘Indeed, you ain’t, my dear.’
‘I often come here. Well, most nights if the weather’s good.’ She looked round towards Alfie and, just like a child would to a parent, she added some reassurance, ‘But, I’m always really careful.’
‘You can do what you want as far as I’m concerned … What’s your name?’
Only after a slight hesitation did she tell it him.
He looked into the girl’s inviting hazel eyes and studied her tender face, unable to miss the small beauty spot resting on her left cheek bone. Jovially, he began umming and aahing, before giving his opinion. ‘About fifteen, I’d say.’
An affronted Alise, desperate to appear all grown up, immediately corrected him. ‘I’m sixteen actually.’
Alfie smirked. ‘Well, Miss Alise, there’s some bread and dripping on offer in there. I could get some if you like. Mind you, I’m not convinced it’s seen much proper beef juice.’
Alise gave a giggle. ‘All right then.’
A relationship had started; but with it had come the end of her innocence.
It took only three further meetings with Alfie for Alise to learn from him about voicing her own opinions. With a new-found confidence gained through observing Alfie’s fearless attitude, she started to challenge Mrs Makin at every opportunity. Whether she was helping out with the younger children or doing simple chores, it all became a battle.
But one evening, as they were all gathered around the table for their meal, she crossed the line. After Alise had made an impertinent remark to his wife, Mr Makin rose from his seat and slapped her across the face. In a bull-like rage, he stood and bellowed, ‘You, my girl, should remember whose charity it is that puts a roof over your head. Nobody will show such disrespect and talk with such vulgarity in my house. Get out! Get out now!’
He knew the girl had nowhere to go, but no matter how much Mrs Makin begged him, he wouldn’t change his mind.
That evening Alise took up her usual place on the wall outside the pub. Now, however, she was filled with more trepidation for the future than she had ever known. A youngster with no more than a carpet bag of belongings and keepsakes, along with three shillings, she wondered exactly where she could spend the night.
‘Do you want me to go and sort him?’ said Alfie. ‘Or, how about I arrange something nasty? It’s easily done.’
‘No, please, no. I just want to forget it all.’
Alise kept shuffling the bag at her feet, pondering the situation. ‘How many nights in a hotel will three shillings get me?’ she suddenly blurted out.
Alfie gave a sneer at her childish assumption of what three shillings would buy.
‘Then I’ll just have to find somewhere on the streets,’ said Alise, indignantly.
Thrusting his hand deep into his trouser pocket, Alfie pulled out some coins and glanced over them. In total there was probably about 10 shillings. ‘Here, that will get you a meal or two,’ he said. Then, in his usual lordly manner, he explained that the landlord at the George and Dragon pub owed him a favour. She was instructed to make her way there in an hour, and a room would be waiting for her. At least for one night.
To a sixteen-year-old girl, Alfie appeared as a knight in shining armour. But, unknown to her, he was priming her for a future life of submission, fear and extreme hardship working for one of the most feared families in Sheffield. It wasn’t long before the conversation turned to the future and what shelter might be available for her after her night at the George and Dragon. Despite having never heard of the place, Alise, without much hesitation, agreed to Alfie’s suggestion that she lodge at a house on Mulberry Avenue.
The city was full of run-down housing, but none of it was more dilapidated than that on Mulberry Avenue. The road, part of a slum estate near the city centre, would have been described by the city fathers simply as ‘poor quality housing stock’; but this would have been a compliment. The estate was virtually a ‘no go’ area for the police, and had spawned the joke that even the rats thought twice before moving in.
Criminality was rife in the neighbourhood, which made it a perfect place for members of the Doone family to return to after their brutal assaults and aggressive money scams. If any strange vehicle dared to venture into the avenue or the surrounding streets, it certainly wouldn’t come out, other than in bits for sale.
The next day, Alise walked cautiously towards the area, trying to ensure she didn’t get too far behind Alfie, who was striding purposefully ahead. On every bit of waste land, there seemed to be kids in threadbare clothes playing. Each small group would stop in turn as Alfie and Alise went past. They simply gawked at them with their filthy little faces.
Occasionally, a cocky one would push his way in front of Alfie and try his luck. ‘Hello, Mr Doone. Giz some money.’
‘Piss off,’ was the swift reply.
It was the first time Alise had heard Alfie swear. Yet, by the time they arrived at their destination – a back-to-back terraced house, the windows draped with filthy net curtains – she had heard him use every conceivable profanity. The obvious change in his persona and his uncouth manner began to unsettle her, but already she was learning swearing and being aggressive seemed to keep people on their toes and weary of them.
Once inside the house, Alise was given a brief introduction to two older women. One was simply called Ma, and the other Pat. Alfie quickly made his exit, leaving Alise struggling to understand why she had agreed to come here. Her worst fears were quickly realised. Looking around, she found it was the dirtiest and most unkempt place she had ever come across. Above all, it reminded her of something that she might have read about in one of Dickens’ novels. There were four bunk beds in what ordinarily would have been the kitchen, and another four bunks in the front parlour. Apart from the fireplaces, there was precious little else in the rooms, other than a bucket in one corner and oddments of clothing strewn around the floor. Alise counted up the beds and clung to the hope that she wouldn’t be expected to share with another seven people.
On being led upstairs and into the back room, Alise got a surprise. Instead of there being multiple bunks, there was just a single bed, along with a table and bench. Here Alise was puzzled to see a young girl, about the same age as she was, sitting at the table and eating. Judging by the way she was attacking a lump of bread, Alise couldn’t help thinking that the girl hadn’t eaten for a good while.
‘Put your foot up,’ said Ma, pointing towards the bench.
‘Sorry? Put my foot up? Why?’ asked Alise.
At this, without any warning, the two women became aggressive. Alise repeated her question, and the next thing she knew was that Ma was grabbing hold of her hands, whilst Pat grappled with her leg and thrust it onto the bench. To her horror, Alise found herself being shackled to a chain which led to a ring secured in the wall.
‘What the …? Hey! Hey!’ she shouted. ‘No! Please! Get off me!’ Alise started to struggle but was quickly overpowered and thrown to the floor. Although she repeatedly begged to be told what was going on, her pleas fell on deaf ears. With their job done, both women calmly walked out of the room, locking the door behind them.
Throughout the incident, the girl at the table had said nothing and given no reaction. Eventually, she lifted her head and watched Alise desperately pulling at the metal band strapped around her ankle. ‘Struggling gets you nowhere. You won’t get it off,’ she said.
By now totally distraught, Alise began to sob. ‘Please, tell me what is happening?’
‘Welcome to a nightmare, luv.’
‘This place. It’s a living nightmare.’
Alise shook her head in confusion. ‘What are you talking about?’
The girl swung round her leg and got up. ‘You’re here to replace me. You see, once I’ve trained you I’m going downstairs.’ She paused and playfully dropped her blouse down over her shoulder. ‘To be one of the ladies,’ she laughed.
It was all becoming too much for Alise to comprehend. ‘Please! I don’t understand,’ she moaned.
Sitting back on the bench, the girl enlarged on her cryptic words. She introduced herself as Agnes, and then began to explain all that Alise needed to know.