“For the record and recording please state your full name.”
“Joanna Mary Turnbank.”
“Joanna, please inform us why you have come to Argyll police station.”
“For twenty years I have lived with killers.”
Keep your eyes closed and never speak a word. Two of the rules I had to abide by to stop any beating. My Father would repeat this every morning and night in a slow chant until both my Mother and I joined in.
His mottos, those words, they were the fond early memories I had of my family. I knew from a young age to follow his rules. My Mother stood and let it happen, but she was by no means his victim. Nor was he my Mother’s oppressor. They worked like a cog, you see. Whenever one would move the other would fall into place. Either one could be the dictator and we all would follow.
The day I learned we always played by their everchanging rules I must have been about eight years old. In the cold November Scottish air, I remember it so well. It would be the last day I was ever allowed to go to school.
The morning was just like any normal day. My Father reeked of stale ale from the night before as my Mother nervously tried to hide the Valium choking down her throat. Before my laid meat so mangled I could not fathom what it could be. This was served to me with eggs and bread that was starting to become hard. I would thank them graciously for the bountiful feast I was to behold breaking my fast before the ritual chanting would begin.
“You’ll do well to remember those words,” Father grunted before leaving to tend to the farm.
The morning continued as I was hauled into our gold Volvo Estate that always seemed to have its own smell. I’ll never understand why my Mother would drop me a few roads away from the school. Yet, I always felt her eyes burning my flesh as I ran to the safety of the school playground. I would rather take my chances with bullies every day than to stay at home and see what utter hell was unleashed in my absence.
It was evident to the children at school that my parents did not care for hygiene or modern technology. It may have been 1999 but no interest was taken in the latest mobile phones, even if they were more useful as door wedges than contacted another human. Still, I was venomously bullied daily for being behind with technology. Or my parents being odd, rumours had circled through our village that my Mother had lost her license to practice medicine and hold a practice open due to her drink problem. Then there were the other talks of what my parents did to earn an extra living. This was when I would normally stop listening as they threw empty bottles and sweet wrappers at me. Naturally, with parents choosing poor hygiene regimes my clothes still carried the soiled smell of pigs and cows from when I would help after school had finished. To them, the smell was unbearable; making me fully aware each day as I walked past them. No matter what issues my parents subsequently caused me at school there was no way I would dare to approach it with them. The beating would be relentless.
Luckily, I did have a friend. Seema, she was also a target but stood up for us both. I always thought the children were jealous of her. I know I was. Her parents were loving and hardworking which had recently paid off for them. When the time came for high school Seema would be attending a private school far from our small village. It had already been arranged with still another three years to go.
On my last day of school, I wasn’t concerning myself of when I was going to lose ultimately my only friend but why she seemed so upset. During our breaks and lunch that day Seema explained that her auntie had recently passed away. It was on our second break that afternoon she suggested that I could stay at her house for tea that evening. Of course, I immediately agreed, I doubt my parents would even notice. It was a chance to be away from the farm and maybe stay awake past my normal bedtime of 6:30pm. Perhaps a chance to see if everyone had the same house rules.
When school finished at 3.20pm Seema’s mum was waiting to pick us up. A nice change from sometimes waiting until 4pm for my Mother or Father to stumble there. So, of course, neither parent could stop me from going to Seema’s home. Their home was beautiful. Still, a farm much like my own home but warmth resonated from deep within. We were given freshly baked cookies to enjoy as we ran through the trees coming back briefly to play with the abundance of toys Seema held.
It had only been three hours but it felt like a mere minute had drifted by. Enjoying every moment of a house with no rules or chanting it was sadly cut short as ferocious fists began hammering down on the Khatri’s door. After a few screams and flurry of tears, I was dragged out of that home.
No concern for me left Mother’s mouth only “what if they started asking questions about our home? Would you remember not to say a word?”.
I promised nothing had been said, nothing was discussed about our home life. Why would I? I was in a haven. My words weren’t good enough for Father when I got home. His fists buried themselves first in my face, neck, and chest. Then finally my back and legs when I tried to crawl away. Laying on the floor in a heap of clothes and blood he laid next to me and began to cry.
“Joanna, you don’t understand how special and important this family is. We can’t be taken away from each other. We need to stay together, you could have ruined that tonight. What if you would have said anything at all to make them question us? Joanna, you can’t go back to that school again. I’m not stupid I know the kids make fun of you anyway. You’re better staying here. I can teach you about the farm and your Mummy will teach you all the things they teach at school. But you must never leave the farm without one of us, we can never be separated. Do you understand my girl? Sweet Joanna?”
If I knew then I was about to become a prisoner and an unknowing accomplice, I would have found the strength in my battered legs to run. Run far from that cursed farm.
Lessons started two days after when the swelling and bruises had started to ease on my small body. When sober, Anna my mother, was a fantastic doctor and an even better liar. So, taking me out of school was easy enough. A feel of nausea surged through me on the first day on lessons. Would I be beaten if I didn’t know the answer? What sort of retched punishment would this be?
To my surprise, the first few months things seemed to be somewhat normal. Never before could that word be associated with my upbringing. Neither Joseph, my father, or Anna were drinking every night as before. They never openly drank alcohol in front of me, it seemed to be one moral they kept to. However, it was evident that in the past when I had gone to bed between 6:30pm and 7:30am when I woke up, they had been somewhere to drink alcohol.
Each morning the once beautiful Anna had returned fresh-faced and ready to teach me and extended my bedtime so I could fit in all the reading I would need to do to keep up with her standards. She even returned to doing house calls once more to the elderly patients of the village. An ordinary life had finally begun.
Of course, nothing good can last forever. Two weeks into the fourth month something changed. My Mother snapped one night. The attack started with me but I was quick enough to run. Next, my Father felt Anna’s catastrophic anger plough into him. He wasn’t quick enough to run. I watched the fight continue for at least half an hour before her body grew weak from exhaustion and collapse against my Father’s bloodied body.
I never spoke a word.
The next morning my farm studies were to take place instead. I spent my time helping Joseph and learning about the farm. Midday we stopped for a sandwich and a warm drink from a flask.
“Joanna, your Mother is a sick woman. She has these issues that things need to be in a certain place and the floor must be cleaned in a certain way. And then sometimes Joanna, she needs to lash out a little. To get rid of some of that turmoil. It’s perfectly normal for her condition. She hasn’t been able to do it since home schooling you. You see, I have a bit of that illness as well. Normally when you used to go to bed we could go out, have few drinks and do things that we need to do. Joanna sometimes your mum and I need to let out our illness. I’m thankful you have never been cursed with this so far. So, I think it’s best if you hear us going out just go to sleep. And Joanna, never come down if you hear anything. Just as before. Things have to be done in a certain way.”
Only before I never really knew that they left the farm. I would never leave the safety of my room even if I heard something in case they blamed me. My room was my sanctuary, a haven where neither of them ventured between 6:30pm and 7:30am but I never realised why before that day.
I nodded at my Father to signal I understood what was now expected of me and finished my sandwich.
Just as promised that night they left the farm after my new agreed bedtime of 8pm. Although I was alone, with my door tightly locked and the house otherwise on lockdown, nothing could scare or get to me. With a safe feeling washing over me, I fell into a deep sleep.
When I woke up it was daylight already. Checking my clock, it was 9am. Panic surged through me as I quickly threw on some clothes wishing I had not slept so long. As I unlocked my door I was greeted by a smiling Mother. She ushered me back into my room and told me there were no lessons today but I was to finish a book and not leave my room until I was told to. Slyly pulling a book out to my face I could see the letters ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’. I almost squealed in excitement. Everyone in my class had talked about the books as rumours swirled about it potentially becoming a film. I gave my Mother a tight hug and blissfully found my way back to my bed to read. Never once questioning why I had been bought this book. I guess it stopped me from questioning why I was not allowed downstairs for the day.
As the day went by I felt myself relating to Harry in many ways. A cruel family that kept me locked away, trying to stop me from attending a school. Only for Harry, it was fiction, and as the book went on he found salvation at school and with his friends. I had neither. The room I once saw as a sanctuary was slowly becoming a prison cell. Four walls that kept me inside.
Soon it became ritual. I went to bed at 8pm and never asked my parents where they went. Some days I was working on the farm, others Anna would educate me. There were days when I was given a new book to read and banned from leaving my bedroom. At this point, I’d say it would happen about once maybe twice a week.
Only November in 2001 it never happened at all but they made up for it in December. At least three times every single week I was left with a new book up until Christmas.
Other than that, home life became somewhat blissful. They didn’t drink as much when they went out. Whatever was happening certainly helped their ‘illness’. I no longer feared being at home like I had done the first eight years of my life.
For the next seven years, we all fell into our own routine. My education was priority and Mother began teaching me about psychology, briefly touching upon mental health and medicines used to treat is, something she specialised in.
Although my education took place at home I was still required to take exams. My GCSEs were completed a week after my fourteenth birthday. From social services and an educational point of view, I was excelling in my studies. I would later learn this played well in building the idea that we were a normal family. Adding into that was my Mother continuing her house calls to some patients and even opened an evening practice in the village until 8pm. With more money coming in my parents could afford to accelerate my education, leaving me with seven A-Levels at the age of sixteen.
As before, nothing this great was sure to stay in my life. Over the next four years, nothing could have prepared me for the nightmare I could not wake from.
Billy was moved into the house three week after I received my exam results in August. He was fresh out of university after studying to become a doctor and needed a placement in a local general practice. They could do with the help of opening a little earlier and Billy seeing to some of the people in the village would restore the reputation completely. How generous the Turnbanks were helping a student out and letting him stay free of charge in their own home.
Obviously, I had my concerns. My parents assured me he had been thoroughly vetted. Billy had no convictions or family, he had been orphaned at a young age and spent his life in foster care. Never being adopted. He had moved around quite a lot and was described as a loner throughout his education. Mother informed me that this was a good thing. He had no ties, it meant he had no commitments, no one looking for him so he could focus entirely on his work.
Upon his arrival, the rules were just as strict for him. They explained he was not to have a room of his own but share with me. He would need to take care of me when my parents did their nightly rounds from 8pm until 7:30am. If he was to go out it would only be with one of the family members.
They explained to Billy about being victims of strong allegations after I was taken out of mainstream education. I was to be kept implicitly unaware of any rumours. This piece of information was only given to me by Billy after he left. I was never aware of any allegations my parents had faced.
As you can imagine, it was odd at first having to share my room with a twenty-three-year-old man. An invasion of my most sacred place. Thankfully my parents had bought a room dividing screen, giving us the privacy we needed.
After a month or so of very awkward small talk, Billy had noticed my parents had finally caved in and bought me a laptop and iPod. Bring me into the modern day. Hearing my music choice, he came over to talk about when ended up being everything. I never realised how thankful I was that I had made a connection with a normal human. A friend I could confide in as the year went by.
After our first talk, it became easier once 8pm hit and we were ushered off to bed.
“Why do we have to be locked in after 8pm? Did you hear the weird noises a few nights ago? It was weird keeping us up here for the entire day after.”
I knew my role well enough after sixteen years not to answer any of these questions truthfully. I told Billy not to ask any questions or raise this with my parents. Softly I explained it was something they were quite embarrassed about. My Mother had some mental health issues and OCD plagued her. Occasionally she needed to clean everything to satisfy her compulsion.
It was easy enough, Billy believed every word my Father had taught me to say.
Sadly, I knew it wouldn’t be long until Billy asked too many questions and I would be alone once again.