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Blue light: one woman’s story of policing on the frontline

Blue light: one woman’s story of policing on the frontline


For years, Claire McEnery was one of the most senior women in the Lancashire police force. With that seniority came exposure to the best – and worst – of life, but also to the best and worst of the police

1. The end

I wrinkle my nose in distaste and look away. I’d rather be somewhere else. Anywhere else. I’m staring at a dead child on a slab, ready for the post-mortem. Another one.

Wouldn’t mind but it is getting to be a regular occurrence. Senior investigating officer sounds grand. Not very grand in this clinical, cold, strange smelling room. What is that smell, you ask. Formaldehyde. Once inhaled, never forgotten. And it seeps into your clothes so even dry cleaning doesn’t stop you stinking of the morgue. It’s not the smell of death – that’s a whole other story. No, it’s more clinical. Maybe the mixture of disinfectant they use here or what preserves the body parts we choose to save. 

Another wasted life. I’ve just left family members in the midst of the worst day they will ever experience. I empathise my way through a spiel that, no matter how you try to disguise it, still amounts to: I’m checking you didn’t cause this death. 

You can’t really soften that. 

So, here I am again. Another child; the same slab. 

Why this story?

Life in the Police has always made for good drama. To name but a few, Line of Duty, The Tower, and perhaps especially, Happy Valley, have gripped huge audiences in Britain and abroad. But what is it really like to serve for 30 years, confronting violence, degradation and death almost daily? And what is it like to be a woman in an organisation infamous for its sexism? 

Claire McEnery knows the answer to all these questions. The first time I spoke to her she shocked me with some of her replies to them. Having risen through the ranks to become one of the most senior officers in the Lancashire force she had seen it all.  But what she really wanted to talk about was the life she had found after she retired from the service. Her account of her life in the force and what she did next is told at length in the Tortoise Quarterly, our short book of long stories. Here she tells that story and where it has led her. Keith Blackmore, Editor

Seems they send me to these things because I never had kids myself. I get it. Last detective I brought here was sick, and couldn’t pick his little girl up that night. Or the next. PTSD. 

But no one asks me how I feel. Seriously. Never. 

I once went to a hospital to congratulate my best mate on the birth of her child. Her hubby handed me this beautiful baby. Can’t tell you how weird it felt. First live baby I ever held. Warm and squiggly. What kind of person has only ever held dead children? 

Well, that’s an easy one. Me.

Actually, the next examination of a dead child was one of the worst things I ever had to do. I kept imagining them warm and moving. I jumped back in horror and slid down the wall behind me. Strange what the mind can do.

So yes, here I am again. I look at the angelic little face. I feel nothing. Well, that’s not right. I feel terribly sad for the parents. I think I do. Perhaps I’m prejudging this one, but – I think – this is just one of those tragic unexpected deaths. Not suspicious. 

But I also feel a responsibility to this tiny child. She deserves to have her death investigated. I’m her only voice now. I’ve briefed the Home Office pathologist – we have discussed what samples I want. Just a three or four-hour post-mortem to go. Exhibits officer and photographer on hand, all gowned up and off we go… 

Again. I’ll tell you one thing. Good piece of advice actually: your eyes can never unsee what they see. I thought post-mortems were bad. Try categorising child abuse videos for court. Believe me. You can never unsee that stuff. It can haunt you for a long time. But I’ll come to that. 

Once, for a child post-mortem we had a new pathology assistant. A middle-aged woman, lovely and motherly. At one point we needed the child turned over – what was left anyway. She called the child Poppet, and said: “Let’s turn you over then.” Whoa. Made me sick. Made us all sick. Can’t tell you the disgust I felt. The pathologist came down on her like a ton of bricks. Good job too. You can’t humanise a child mid-post-mortem. 

As I write this, I know it must sound terrible. All I can say is this: stand through a four-hour child post-mortem, until there’s hardly anything left, and then have a go at me. 

We aren’t robots.

And the friend that handed me that newborn? Well she didn’t get off lightly either. She had attended the aftermath of far too many child deaths to remain unscathed. She spent the first year of her child’s life having panic attacks, thinking her baby might die suddenly too. I realise now how tragic that is: the legacy that this grim aspect of policing leaves in its wake. Another affected friend of mine can’t joint a chicken because it gives her flashbacks.

But here’s the strange thing. No matter who is on that slab – alcoholic, suicider, domestic abuse victim, murder victim, child – it’s just a shell. Fat and muscle and bone and organs. It’s a shadow of a reminder to those left behind… I was going to say loved ones but a lot don’t have any.

I know that because… well, because I watched them being cut open, obviously. But it’s far more than that. I know it because I am utterly and immovably convinced that their souls have moved on. Perhaps that’s why Poppet seemed so grotesque to me. 

2. The good life

My life has been blessed. Mine was a dream childhood really. Great parents, good friends, posh school even. We lived on a farm, so I had ponies. I’m dead northern, with a broad Lancashire accent, so certainly not posh but, as I type, I’m thinking I used to go to Pony Club camp and that sounds well posh. 

Anyway, I never worried about money, I received a mountain of Christmas presents, and got a car bought for me at 18. Grandad took me to the Ford garage. He was sharp, my grandad. War hero type. He wanted me to have the safest car in the showroom. I knew jack diddly about cars. So he gets the guy to put a bog standard 1.2 Escort on a revolving plinth… he’s added spotlights, black metallic paint, a go faster stripe, and spoilers and the lights are set to flash. Like, subtle. Not. The XR3s and the Capris of the day are hidden in the corners of the showroom. 

Grandad told me: “You can have any car in here except the one on the revolver.” Clever, eh? “Oh, but Grandad,” I whined after 20 minutes of looking around. “I really like that one in the middle.” I think I’ve won the jackpot when he relents. And that’s how I ended up with a safe car. 

But you get my point. Life in my lane was always good. I even grew from a gawky, frizzy-haired, horse-poo-smelling girl to quite attractive, slim and busty. So that helped too. Life was a breeze. 

The posh school I attended was Roman Catholic. I had failed my 11-plus, much to the horror of my parents (especially as my sister was a bookworm grammar school girl who ended up a professor), and they thought I’d go off the rails at the comprehensive school. 

I don’t recall much about my school days other than one funny but maybe, in hindsight, important incident. Mum and Dad went to a parents’ evening, no doubt with trepidation – teenage me being easily distracted and, let’s say, the less academic of their daughters.

The staff made a big thing about taking them into a room and telling them they thought I had a vocation in ministry. Mum and Dad apparently nearly fell off their chairs laughing. They pointed out that actually I was a Church of England imposter, not a Catholic or even a church-goer.

When they came home they demanded to know what on earth I had been saying to make my teachers suggest such a thing. I heard Mum and my uncle and his wife having a right laugh about it, tears no doubt rolling down their cheeks. 

Anyway I digress. After leaving school, some friends went to hairdressing and beauty college, so off I went with them. After three years I qualified, though I was a useless hairdresser.

But the next stage of my life started with a local photographer taking my picture for a competition. I was obsessed with my tan, which gave me a Gypsy look, so I daresay that was the attraction for the photographer. 

Anyhow, my picture was displayed in the window of a well-known bank for a long time and I started getting local photography groups wanting to recapture the image. So soon I found myself, 18 years old, posing at 5am on sunny mornings (when, they told me, the light was best) in nearby woods, wearing ragged clothes and looking… well, I guess like a wild child.

There was nothing that I thought was too risqué but then I got a job with a hypnotist as the kind of assistant who has to wear a minuscule, sparkly little number on stage. Perhaps it would have gone downhill from there but Mum had seen enough. She filled in a job application for me… for the police. 

After the interview, which didn’t really go to my plan, I was asked to wait outside. There was no way I was going to hang about for some pompous tool to tell me no thanks, but the officer on the desk was particularly handsome. And anyway Mum was sitting outside in the car wearing her worried face. So I stayed. And they let me in. 

Training turned out to be ridiculous. We had drills – marching and 6am “fun runs” that weren’t much fun as far as I could tell. I had to celebrate my 21st birthday at the Bruche Police Training Centre in Warrington. And for someone who liked to be the centre of attention this wasn’t ideal. I had to share my big occasion with three others, and the highlight of our night was chicken kiev balls. Mum had bought me a fancy cake. I opened the box to show everyone and when I turned around it was just crumbs.

3. Bobbie on the beat

Bruche lasted a painful 15 weeks. And when it was over, I vowed never to polish another pair of shoes in my life. But I certainly came out fitter, and realised that I worked well in a team. 

Accrington was my first beat. On my first day I forgot to bring my hat. Mum had to drive over with it. Oh, the humiliation.

Dave, my tutor constable, was a cynical man. Nearing retirement, his main job satisfaction seemed to derive from issuing parking tickets, and he seemed dismayed by my failure to share this enthusiasm. 

But your past catches up with you, they say. One day I was sitting in a smoke-filled room processing traffic tickets. A call came in. Burglary. I looked hopefully at Dave. Then I heard the name of the victim: it was Bentley Evans, my former boss, the hypnotist.

My head filled with images of his studio as I had last left it, full of pictures of him, two blondes and a brunette in sparkly bikini bottoms and not much else. They were the photos we had done advertising a tour of Mexico and the US that I was supposed to have taken with him, before my mother rudely intervened. 

The next day I went into the locker room and every locker was thrown wide open. I soon realised why. Big, blown-up, risqué pictures of me tacked to every male locker door. 

Start as you mean to go on, Claire! And from that moment I was known as Bobbie, the name I had used while shaking my booty in a sparkly outfit as the hypnotist’s assistant. They still call me that today.

Eventually I was placed on a real team and life began to turn serious. There were 20 of us altogether plus two sergeants and an inspector, a luxury that would certainly not be seen today. Being part of a team comes to mean so much over time. You really felt like you would die for your team-mates if you had to. I hope that’s still true. 

Some cops got battered time and again. Some got complaints time and again. Some cops had this us-and-them attitude. It was a way of life. “They” were the “Scrotes”. But for me, most of the time, “they” seemed better than “us”. At least they were more straightforward. 

I was put on a town centre beat. It was like a two-year probationary punishment – walking the beat on nights for eight hours, with short refs (refreshment breaks). It could be mind- and foot-numbing. 

There was this guy on my team, a fast runner known as the Whippet, who was really well respected as a “thief-taker”. The Whippet loved to walk the beat at night. Following a spate of shop burglaries, the town was divided into two and we were given half each. Woe betide either of us if a burglary was reported that we had missed.

So I spent all night pacing those streets, anxiously walking back and forth down back alleys, desperately shining my torch into nooks and crannies, checking security. By six every morning I was exhausted. 

One part of my beat overlooked the taxi rank, strictly speaking in his half of town. And whenever I looked, there would be the Whippet. He’d be with the taxi drivers, playing pool, having a laugh or just sitting with his feet up watching television. Yet he never missed a burglary – ever. 

This went on for months – him chillin’ and me grafting. And I still sometimes missed a burglary. He would just shrug and walk away with a grin. Well, sometimes good things happen to good people and he got promoted to cars. 

In the early hours of his last, freezing cold morning on his beat he radioed me to come to the taxi rank. He winked and beckoned to follow him to his side of town. And he showed me how he did it. Each night at 3am when all became still, that cunning little beggar used to go round putting black cotton across the ends of every street or alley. Once an hour he would casually test the taught string and know that no burglars had set foot that way. 

Meanwhile, I was walking my 40,000 steps a night. 

4. A soft landing

I’m standing outside a house. The report said relatives had been unable to reach the occupant and were concerned. We are short staffed as always so I, still a probationer (rookie cop), am here, alone again naturally, to investigate.

I check with the neighbours. They haven’t seen our man for weeks. Bottles of milk are souring on his doorstep. 

I think he might just have done a flit. So I push open the letterbox. Mail is piled on the floor inside. Then a terrible smell wafts out. 

When I finish retching the call operator, kindly but firmly, suggests I check for a point of entry. So I find an open window at the back. It’s high but reachable.

Great, I think. Now I’m a real cop, and on a mission… a proper investigation. It isn’t easy getting through the window. It is not that I am unfit – the “fun” runs at Bruche have seen to that – it’s all the kit I’m carrying. Radios, a truncheon (if you can call it that… the women’s truncheon is the size of an Ann Summers vibrator and wouldn’t stop a rat in its tracks), a belt, pocket books.

But eventually I squeeze and slither headfirst through the tiny space. It’s dark inside. Then I realise I’m caught on the window latch, and I find myself helpless, dangling upside down. I can hear my pants ripping as I wriggle. Then something gives and I plunge down. On to something soft. 

Well that’s lucky, I think, groping in the dark. There’s a tiny amount of light coming through. I seem to have ripped the curtains (along with my uniform) as I fell. At least I’m the right way up now. My head is clearing. That terrible smell is still knocking me out, though. What is it? My eyes are growing accustomed to the half-light. I can make out a blank television. 

And I appear to have landed on a sofa chair – not the comfiest, but at least I am unhurt. I reach out for my radio mike that’s gone astray in the fall. There’s something cold under my hand. Odd. It’s sweltering in here. I look closer. It’s a hand. It takes a second. My hand is on a hand.

I’ve landed… on a dead man. I’m up and across the room. I crash into a wall and try to scream but no sound seems to come from my mouth. My whole body is seized with fear.

But what am I frightened of? I don’t know, but every horror film I have ever seen, every nightmare I have ever had, seems suddenly made real. 

My radio crackles. The operator is shouting my number and asking for an update.

I want to answer but I’m frozen. Staring at that… thing, sat in the chair. 

Eventually I come out of my trance and respond: “The occupant is deceased.” That sounds professional, and the words calm me. The kindly operator, who had probably guessed what I was going to find, responds again: “Will call the detectives and the funeral directors. Please try to identify the deceased.”

I can’t take my eyes off Sofa Guy. He’s an old man. Lucky for him he’s long dead, I think, or my fall on his lap might have killed him. He looks… well, cold and leathery and grey. I venture forward. His eyes are open. They are blue, I notice, but are glazed over. I try to do what I have seen done in films and close them, but that doesn’t work, and seems disrespectful, so I stop.

I shiver. Repeatedly glancing over to make sure he doesn’t move, I start checking the sideboard drawers for ID.

And my curiosity about this man begins to get the better of my fear. I find picture after picture of him smiling and laughing with his family. Here is Sofa Guy with grandchildren on his knee; Sofa Guy eating an ice cream with someone, who – I guess – must have been his wife. Sofa Guy seems nice; a lovely grandad. I look over at him again. Suddenly, I feel a wave of compassion. I tentatively pat his hand, and apologise for my ungraceful entry. I tell him I hope he’s in heaven or wherever they go. 

And so ended my first encounter with death. It was by no means my last. I should say that most probationers, as I was then, get a supportive, cushioned introduction to the policing of sudden, unexpected deaths. They are protected by the presence of a tutor constable, they hang back and peer from a distance, usually near a door they can be sick out of, or can lean against if they feel faint. 

Not me, as it turned out. But Sofa Guy helped me on what turned out to be a very long journey accompanying the newly dead. Death certainly does not become anyone, but in death we are our raw selves, without any trappings. Sofa Guy was loved by his family, and I’ll always carry a not – ultimately – unpleasant memory of him. Rest in peace.

My next job was dealing with a man who had jumped in front of a train. I spent several hours with others finding the pieces. Thereafter… so many bodies. Suicides mainly, or drug deaths. Alcoholic deaths can be gruesome – they often look like a murder scene as things burst and splurt on ceiling and walls. “It’s definitely a murder scene, boss,” I’ve been told more times than I can remember. Often in less than a minute I can be back in my car with the words “unsuspicious” on my lips and sleep firmly on my mind.

I’ve attended brutal murders – one in particular where the poor soul had been tortured and set on fire. I even recall, in the early days, attending a man tied to a chair with his head blown off with a long shotgun. Brains on the roof dropping down on us.

One more death sticks in my mind. It was Christmas Eve. A man was missing, apparently depressed. His car had been found parked on the moors. I summoned air support, searches, dogs. It was bitter out there, minus three degrees according to the thermometer but feeling colder. It was supposed to be my first Christmas Day off in years so I handed the case over to another officer. 

But I couldn’t help myself. I rang to find out how the search was going. Called off due to a shortage of resources and the cost of overtime at Christmas, he told me. I was up to my elbows in Brussels sprouts but I was furious. I called the chief constable. Not the done thing. And especially not on Christmas Day. Anyway, he listens to my rant and gives me 12 hours at great expense to the budget, and, I’m thinking… my career might be over. 

Well, we found our missing man… in a ditch up on the moors, unconscious and suffering from hypothermia. He was hospitalised but, amazingly, pulled through.

Two days later, he was found in his garage. He’d hanged himself.

5. Woodentops

I used to feel far more at ease out on my beat in a rough area than I ever did back at the station. Out there on the street folks were real. If they were mad, they shouted. If they were sad, they cried. No hiding emotion, no getting one over on you. You knew where you stood. 

In fact, it was on these beats that I began to find people would tell me things: where stolen goods were, or where dealers hid their stashes; or more importantly who the bogus officials were targeting. These callous types would charge vulnerable people – the elderly, the needy – enormous sums for small bits of work. Thousands of quid for cleaning out a gutter or patching a pothole on the drive. 

Paying snouts (informants) was ridiculously disorganised. It’s much better now but in my day I even had to pay for information from my own bank account until the boss sorted it for me.

I once sent a snout packing for turning up at the station begging for his money for information passed. Seriously dangerous for him coming to the nick. Tragically, he went home and hanged himself. I had to deal with his death.

There wasn’t much sexism on my uniform team – the odd wink and a nudge but nothing that made me feel demeaned; no bum slapping – well, not from the uniform staff. 

And for the first time in my life I felt proud to be part of something – a valued team member. I would go to a pub fight and act pretty darned hard for a woman because I knew I would soon hear the screaming of sirens approaching from all angles, as my team raced to my side, ready to put themselves in the way of any danger. Even now that sound, heard way off in the distance, makes my heart swell with pride.

So, the problem wasn’t within my team, apart from the senior officer who kept leaving notes stuffed in my locker along with little gifts. Affairs were the problem on my team, and many other teams too. Cops were always seeing other cops who were already married. It was like an unspoken rule that we could go on outings where wives were present and chat merrily all night and the lads never even had a jot of concern that anyone would dream of grassing on them.

I only encountered real sexism and misogyny when I wanted to get on CID. The CID office was at the far end of a long corridor with peeling paint and damp, and it could be found by following the wafts of fag smoke that drifted into the hall. As you peered in, there was usually thick smog down to about chest height, and the ashtrays were always overflowing. Tea cups encrusted with blue mould sat on most desks. If you ventured in, they made you stand at their desk for a minute or so, to ensure you realised that you were just a woodentop (a uniform cop). 

I was probably made to stand there longer than most, given I was a woodentop and a woman. Despite that, the one thing I had going for me was that I produced a lot of intelligence from my sources, which resulted in good collars for them.

The detective sergeant, a definite player, looked over his glasses at me and deliberately puffed pipe smoke in my face. He leant back on his chair with his feet on the desk. After ostentatiously looking me up and down, he said: “I could see you on this team. Yep, I could certainly see you on this team.” He nodded to himself slowly. Believe me, it was no compliment to my policing prowess. “Give us a twirl,” he said.

I was saved by the DI (detective inspector). I don’t think CID had come across women who actually wanted to do the job. Most who tried to join just seemed to be looking for a husband. Anyhow, I ended up with a secondment that led to me becoming one of the first women in the CID. There was some bottom slapping and a few times I was dragged on to people’s knees but I’m pretty strong that way and just batted the offenders away. 

Over the years, the team’s behaviour did improve, and it was women who made the office more welcoming to uniform officers, although some would say there is still a divide. Front-line uniform tend to feel they do all the hard work – out there on the streets facing danger head on – and they see detectives as the lounge lizards of the station. Detectives, on the other hand, feel they spend their lives putting the lid back on sloppy uniform jobs where evidence has been missed, or has been lost under clod-hopping boots. 

Meanwhile, my informant work was becoming unmanageable. I was paying out hundreds of pounds a week for quality information, and we couldn’t keep up with the workload of prisoners that it produced. 

I aspired to be on the crime support team – the major incident team – dealing with the big robberies and murders as an investigator. I had idolised the cool jacks (experienced detectives) swanning around the nick. I eventually got on the team and the reality was nothing like; all swagger, no swag. My hero jack shook like a leaf when we went to interview someone, and he was so rusty he didn’t even know how the recorder worked. Before long I was pretty miserable, not to mention bored. And, disillusioned, I moved on.

I trained to be a hostage negotiator and suicide intervenor. This is seriously tough training, some in Hendon, Met HQ. After depriving you of sleep, the instructors scream at you as soon as you drop off, dragging you out of bed. Once they bussed us, already exhausted, to Heathrow airport, ran us through the public area tailed by armed cops and threw us into a mock hostage situation. 

Immediately a phone starts ringing and you have a screaming “terrorist” in your ear making demands. You look out of the window and there is an aeroplane with a role-playing madman holding a hostage at the top of the boarding steps. And off you go.

Many hours later, totally spent, you drag yourself across the car park to your room as dawn breaks, only for another madman to grab a passing female, press a knife to her throat and scream abuse at you. And off you go again. That’s hostage training. 

Somehow I passed. The training had been exhausting, exhilarating and scary, which turned out to be the exact opposite of much of the reality. I spent many many lonely, freezing, wet hours on rainy car park rooftops, or sea piers, or motorway bridges talking to those threatening to jump. It’s a lonely cold place – for them and you. Being with people who are so terribly despondent, desolate and without hope brings you face to face with the futility and horror that some people confront.

This training gave me insight into so many aspects of policing, such as bereavement, dealing with bosses (managing upwards as they call it) and handling colleagues in distress. It helps you stay calm in almost any situation. That’s a mighty powerful tool to carry in your back pocket travelling through the ranks. 

And travel I did.

6. The dark

I once made an enemy when I was in CID. Someone I had arrested. It can happen. Some criminals take exception. Well this one really did. He smashed my car up and our house – repeatedly. He poisoned our dog, Jess. She died in agony in my partner’s arms. Even now that sometimes wakes me screaming in the middle of the night.

Police work can be tough and it can have consequences. I guess I’ve learnt that the hard way. They wanted me protected for a while, so I had a brief spell on the mounted branch. Hard work physically, but like a sabbatical for me really. I’d ridden horses all my life and now I was being paid for it. Didn’t last long – a big boss swung by and told me to “get my arse back to the real world” and that was the end of that. 

I was soon a credible detective, but wanted more. I was promoted to sergeant, and soon after to inspector. A career that had begun with my mother trying desperately to get her wayward daughter back on the straight and narrow had begun to take a serious shape.

I first met Stuart (I’ve changed the names of people and places to protect the innocent – and the guilty) in the 1980s at a “domestic”: a fall-out between a couple, often resulting in domestic abuse, usually suffered by the female. We treated these victims shamefully. You could have a head blown up like a football, closed and swollen eyes, but so long as you signed my pocket book to say you accidentally fell down the stairs I’d walk right on by. How despicable. How conditioned I was to follow the lead I was given. No complaint, no job, no paperwork. And that was that. 

We had no concept of the cycle of abuse. How victims lose all self-esteem, confidence and hope, believing they must stay in situ. We had no idea of the almost palpable fear victims faced in raising a complaint. A decision that could be a death sentence. We didn’t see that these women would be destitute and embrace enforced childlessness if they left their abusers. We didn’t see that the courts would see them as the abandoner, and the liar. 

Perhaps I should say that I didn’t see things. Maybe others did. I wonder when my moral compass swung me round at last and I saw this for what it was. I’m just glad it did, and that rising through the ranks I could influence the culture. I’m proud that we learnt to do better.

I am sitting with Stuart, who must be about 40 now, on a grotty bit of carpet in his miserable flat. My knees ache as I get down to sit beside him – that’s what the years and the late call-outs will do. My allergy twitches as the cat hairs catch on my on-call overcoat and the smell of damp hits me hard. 

The blue light of a cop car outside illuminates the dark room, and intermittently reveals deep lines on his face, every second or so, as it penetrates the frost on the cracked lounge window. 

I first met Stuart long ago. He was young then, perhaps seven. He was sitting on the stairs listening to the commotion, looking bored and crayoning on the walls. His eyes were dead and when he finally looked up I could almost see the fleas in his matted, filthy hair.

Nothing new here for him. A 3am police call, a few more things smashed. Furniture and his mum broken, again. Oh and his dad smashed too, in a different way (in his usual way). 

I met Stuart again in his teens – horribly thin, with red welts all over his face. Eyes no longer dead, but dilated, and rolling upwards. Glue sniffing – or was it butane? Grotty little urchin.

I saw him often after that. Usually he was under arrest. Thieving, fighting, thieving, stealing from cars, more thieving. I saw him often in the custody office, between juvenile detention centres. Then prison. 

Sometimes, on release, he looked briefly better. I barely recognised him when he had some meat on his bones. While he was inside he ate better than at any other time in his life. 

But it never lasted. The dealers, with their own desperate needs, soon got their freebies into him. No room for compassion for an addict when the dealer has a £300-a-day habit himself. 

Stuart’s addiction, like many before and after him, was soon out of hand. He started grafting harder than ever – commercial breaks (burglaries) now – he had probably never worked so hard. He started taking risks to avoid the piercing agony of withdrawal.

I once saw him writhing in agony on the custody office floor, in the grip of cold turkey. I can’t easily describe the horror of watching someone in this state even if relief is instant when the doctor gives them a thimble of greeny-blue methadone. No wonder an addict will drag an old dear to the floor for her purse. 

Once I went to Stuart’s stinking flat as I had received a tip-off about a power tool job (burglary). It was an Aladdin’s cave of nicked items. Neither Stuart nor his woman, let’s call her Gabby, noticed us kick the door in. They were both off their faces and unconscious, needles still in their arms, tourniquets still in place. There was a lot of HIV about then, and Hep C. This sneaky sod used to put his used needles in his sock drawer to catch cops out, when they were searching his place. 

Gabby had been pretty once – blonde and petite. Now she was a smack head (as we called heroin addicts), with filthy hair and gaps in her teeth, and no stranger to fighting with cops if the mood took her. She and Stuart had a son. A little boy. A mini Stuart. The type you saw the pet dog, half starved itself, trying to eat out of the child’s nappy as he learnt to crawl. We took the little boy away. But social care returned him to his parents soon enough.

Still, to help, Stuart and his little family were moved to a brand new council house. By now they knew me. They didn’t like me of course – I was a cop. But they thought I might be one of the fairer ones. I told them how pleased I was that they had the chance of a new start. They looked happy. 

But when I visited a few weeks later, Stuart was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the lounge. He was working on a car engine. Black oil was everywhere, all over the brand new pink carpet. And I watched as the little one, looking bored, crayoned on the walls, just as his father had done so many years before. 

A few months on and the drugs were eating them alive. 

I knew then that the child should not be left with them any longer. I couldn’t help myself: I was regularly coming by and just “happening” to look through the window. One day I peered in and saw both adults out cold. I walked in and carried out that little boy, vowing I’d never let anyone return him to Stuart’s care.

So now I’m sitting next to Stuart on the floor, comparing our lives by that flashing blue light. It’s like looking through the looking glass, Stuart. My life versus yours. My privilege against the prejudice that you don’t realise pervades your world. My entitlement against your ineligibility. I’m a sightseer invading your life intermittently, before retreating back to my cushioned, protected life. You never had a chance. I had every chance. 

From a distance, we might look as if we are just sitting here reminiscing as two old friends. 

But this time Stuart’s not off his face, not thieving, not shooting up, not going cold turkey, not even playing with a car engine. 

Stuart’s dead. 

He still has the belt around his neck. 

And I’m here to check it’s not a suspicious death. 

And there is nothing suspicious. Just hopeless. Bloody hopeless. He is gone. Not even a ripple.

7. The sharp end

After working as an uniform inspector in the busy town of Blackburn I applied to work for the deputy chief constable, as his sort of personal assistant. I thought it would do my profile good but I didn’t thrive there. Too much fine detail and too pen-pushy for me. 

I escaped with my career intact and before long I was given a lead role in Blackburn CID as a detective inspector. The disappointment of the local jacks at my appointment was palpable – not only a woman but a headquarters “wallah” (front-line dodger, bum-licker, networker – you name it, I heard them all). 

A machete shop robbery in the first hour on the rough streets of Blackburn wasn’t how I envisioned my first day beginning. The “crack on with it boss lady” looks were cutting, so out I went with a few reluctant jacks to the scene. The offender was “on his toes” as we say and we soon found where he was living, somewhere on Preston New Road.

Everyone to Preston New Road – door-to-door with description. Rookie error. I had no idea that the road was miles long. The smirk of the cocky jack with me said it all as he announced this ridiculous request over the air. “It seems the DI wants us to go… [pause for effect]… door-to-door on Preston New Road.” 

Too late. No retreat. Get knocking, I said, with as much conviction and bravado as I could muster. 

But luck, if you can call it that, was on my side. As I approached one door in that endless row of houses, a man, who turned out to be a doctor, ran out into the road, pursued by our man with his flashing knife. Suddenly I found myself rolling on the melting tarmac with this knife-swinging robber. 

Flashing my knickers as I fought for my life was the least of my worries. No one, no passer-by, none of the gawping onlookers shuffling around for a better view, nor the doctor who, it turned out, had been trying to section my assailant, tried to help. I was desperately fighting to stop this psychotic slashing my face. As my strength began to go I shouted for someone, anyone, to get on my radio, now 30 feet away, to call for help.

At last my colleague turned up, soon followed by some shame-faced jacks, and we managed to get the cuffs on our friend.

I later received a bravery award but more importantly had earned some respect from those detectives. I came to love them all but the price has been another of those occasional nightmares, this one featuring a flashing knife coming for my face.

I moved up, becoming lead officer overseeing detectives responsible for the management of 1,400 registered sexual and violent offenders. 

Sex offenders are categorised on risk levels, which equates to varying restrictions on their lives, curfews, and visits from the police. There were some depraved offenders on this list with a disease that sent them searching out children. 

The cops hated them and made no secret of the fact. It’s not the way, though, and by then I knew it. No one responds to being called a “dirty paedo” by their offender manager. I tried to change that. It’s my belief that only by treating people firmly, but with some basic dignity, can you get some reciprocity. Some of my teams hated this concept and left. So be it. We are supposed to be professional. How good it felt to finally be in a position to make these types of changes, rather than having that feeling in the pit of my stomach that something just wasn’t right. 

I felt some vindication when on a few occasions offenders rang to tell us their risk had increased. For example, by saying “I was on a bus and was really tempted to touch this kid in front of me”. Better that than dealing later with an abused child.

I was promoted again. Detective chief inspector. Everyone thinks that’s a higher rank than detective superintendent. Sounds somehow grander. My mates outside the police thought I’d been demoted when I eventually reached the rank of superintendent. I covered public protection for Lancashire Police. That covers child protection teams, sex offender units and child sexual exploitation. I also became the MAPPA lead (multi-agency public protection arrangements), which means I chaired meetings with other agencies to manage society’s worst criminals as they leave the prison estates and join society. That generally covers murderers, serial rapists and those coming out under medication from criminal psychiatric units.

Later, as a superintendent, I covered the Preston, Skelmersdale and Chorley sex offender teams, the CID, child sexual exploitation, and the intelligence units. Nice big office and a secretary hardly make up for the pressure and the long hours, which don’t give the benefit of overtime. I also had the personal responsibility of managing some murder investigations, and overseeing sudden death and death in childhood. The latter responsibility often resulted in call-outs during the night, to assess if a death was suspicious. I soon seemed to be spending more time with the dead than the living.

I set up new teams as societal criminality was changing. Online crime – scams, social media abuse, and the sharing and viewing of child abuse images – was becoming more prevalent than street crime.

I created an online abuse team. Pity those cops. Imagine categorising images of the worst kind of child abuse, day in and day out, then going home to your own kids. Nearly every offender we investigated had many images, sometimes as many as 60,000. We started rotating staff after a while, but that just victimised more cops, some of whom left with PTSD.

We also set up a team of covert cops “fishing” online to catch sex offenders. This was in response to the irresponsible so-called secular paedophile hunters that were cropping up all over the place. 

They often targeted innocent people, or those with severe learning disabilities. I had to deal with people on bridges about to jump thanks to these vigilante idiots, whose meddling even got houses petrol-bombed. Not only was I trying to work a 15-hour day, I had to put up with these fools appearing on breakfast television giving it large about the prohibition orders I placed on them.

I ran a team looking at cold cases – often abuse on children in organisations, including children’s homes and within the Church. We staffed this with retired cops – cheaper and yet they added a great depth of experience. The abuse had often occurred more than 40 years earlier, but it’s never historic for the victims is it? It was satisfying to send old men to prison so long after their crimes had been committed. The system used to treat victims with disdain. This felt like a way of making an apology and giving them some justice at last.

As you need more people for this work, other teams are reduced as the money runs out. We even had to stop visiting burglary scenes, but what do you do with no cops? Stop one fishing for paedophiles to send them to Mrs Miggins’s shed break-in? 

And while I have you: people often go mad about early releases from prison. This anger is built on a serious misconception. Criminals should serve every day of the sentence they are given, they say (or more likely, shout). But at the end of a prisoner’s sentence, the police lose all control over them. No police visits, no curfews (having to be at home from, say, tea-time onwards), no signing in at police stations, no drug tests, no internet checks – nothing. Try managing that person in those circumstances. Some are murderers and serial rapists. Believe me, you want them released early, but with conditions. 

I undertook the arduous training in Liverpool to become a murder investigator, hence murder was under my remit also, as the senior investigating officer. This can be grim but extremely interesting, and it’s also an honour to serve the grieving family. These days murder is one of the few crimes the force doesn’t scrimp on. You could be in a coma, stabbed ten times, unlikely to recover, and one detective may deal with your case. But if you die, it could be instantly upwards of a hundred. 

8. In the field

I can’t recall doing much living. Work was all-consuming. I would go home to sleep, get up and start again. I realised that somewhere along the line I had stopped laughing. I became indifferent to others. I came to think I was living beneath a veil. I was seeing the world as it really was – grime and despair and suffering and abuse – whereas civilians lived in blissful ignorance. I think I wished I was you.

Meanwhile, retirement crept up on me. I was among the last of the lucky ones who would be able to retire after 30 years of service on a full pension. Suddenly, I found myself less than a year off. 

And where was I? What had I done in all that time? What had I actually achieved? 

I had seen, close up, the transience of life. I had seen hundreds of lives that had sunk without trace. People who had died without being missed by anyone. Who, like Stuart, had not even left a ripple on the surface. Meaningless.

And I had seen how cops often responded to the suffering they saw by burying their emotions and becoming hardened. Had I become like that too? It all felt like running on a hamster wheel. Endless effort without getting anywhere. Suddenly, I could see that when I retired another officer would take my place and become the sudden-death investigator. And he or she wouldn’t make any difference either. There wouldn’t be a ripple. And people would go on dying unnoticed.

In June of 2018, almost exactly 30 years from the day that Bobbie, the hypnotist’s “glamorous assistant”, became a police trainee, I would drive out through the station gates for the last time. 

And the world wouldn’t end. Work offers had already come in for me, some highly lucrative. Turned out I would be in demand as an experienced risk manager and safeguarding lead in a world realising it needed such things. A world on catch-up.

I was married. My husband and I loved Turkey. We had plans for a lengthy stay there. My long-suffering partner certainly deserved a break. Shirley Valentine would escape the nick and was going to get the sun on her face at last.

But it wasn’t enough.

Some retired officers find they can’t handle losing their rank, the realisation that they have lost status and their identity. That wasn’t going to be me, though. I knew I would be happy to leave the status behind me on those top corridors of the nick where the bosses dwell.

But what should have felt like the beginning of a golden period in my life – peace and contentment after a difficult job well done, a contribution made – left me feeling empty. What had it all been for? I didn’t miss being called out in the middle of the night, or being threatened, or seeing terrible things, on screen or in the all-too-real flesh. But something was missing. 

One warm summer day shortly before I was due to retire, I walked out into the field behind my house. Here I was. Healthy, wealthy, living in the lovely home where I had grown up. My life was privileged. Blessed. But where was the contentment that surely I should feel?

And then something happened. It wasn’t like Paul on the road to Damascus, a sudden blinding flash. But as I stood there in this place I had known all my life I began to become aware of a presence, a lightness, which contrasted sharply against the heavy darkness of the poverty, suffering and death I’d witnessed. 

I was not a person given to spiritual experiences or awakenings. I was not particularly religious either. In fact, I was the kind of person inclined to scoff at such things. So what was this?

Everything had suddenly become clear. There was a plan. It wasn’t all for nothing. The light I felt around me somehow made sense of everything. Every one of those who suffered or were lost had been deeply loved, their suffering felt at every stride, their lives not pointless at all. All the death and violence and the broken hearts, all the suffering, had meant something after all. There was, it turns out, a ripple in the water. 

And I knew at once, there and then, that I wasn’t going to be another wealthy retiree with a high-paid sideline or two. I wasn’t going to laze on Turkish beaches after all. 

But for all the certainty I felt, I returned to my house in a state of disarray and for the next week I kept my thoughts to myself. I don’t know what my husband or my mother must have thought about my behaviour. I couldn’t watch a film, or even sit still, I was so agitated. I only pretended to work.

In the second week I began to feel that I had to go to a church. But another part of me strongly didn’t want that. I actually resented the idea but couldn’t have told you why. I spent a week fighting the urge. Once, when I was a young WPC, I attended the funeral of an old man who had died on my beat. After the service I remember sitting in my car for a long while – not because of the funeral but because of the strange, uncomfortable feelings I had felt in the church. 

And now this conflict raged in my head. I must have been very hard to live or work with. By the Sunday morning of the second week, I could resist no longer. I drove the car to what was my nearest church. It could have been any church, any denomination. I didn’t care. I parked by the side of the road. The door was open so it didn’t need all my skills as a detective to tell me that there was a service going on. I tried to slip in unnoticed but the only seat I could find was halfway down an aisle and I hurriedly sat down next to a gentleman of military bearing.

I must have been visibly distressed – we are talking about a woman who had barely shed a tear in 30 years of police work – and he reached over and squeezed my hand. “You’ll be all right,” he said.

I didn’t know what was going on. When it came to the giving of communion I didn’t know what to do. I hadn’t been confirmed. I hadn’t even been in a church for decades. “Don’t worry,” my new friend said. “Just keep your hands down and you will receive a blessing rather than communion.”

I did that but when the service was over, despite the invitations from some of the congregation to come and have a friendly cup of tea, I fled.

At home I realised something. Despite my inexplicable reluctance to be in a church, I realised it was the right place for me to be. I wanted to make sense of what had happened. So I prayed. And although I was confused and uncharacteristically emotional, I knew I had found God.

9. The light

This is the bit you’ve been dreading. The bit where the nice lady turns out to be a Bible-basher. She fixes you with her big eyes and friendly smile and tells you about her conversion experience and what it means. For her. And, by the way, for you.

Well, of course. But I’ll keep it short.

I cannot do justice to the force or power that had been troubling me until I entered that village church. After a few weeks it had become overwhelming. I see now that I should have discussed it with someone. But who? Instead I found myself staggering into that service in floods of tears. The big, tough police officer trying to hide that she was crying her eyes out. But somehow, I had found my way home at last.

Maybe if those of us who are so blessed – and blinkered – stopped living our lives as if we have forever, but realised instead that today could be our last day – and I’ve seen enough sudden death to know it really could be – we would live our lives differently. 

I’ve been studying the Bible. Of course I have. And it makes so much sense of life. I have come to believe that the gospel, or the word of God, is our only hope. Psalm 139 beautifully explains that our God knows us in our mother’s womb, and has a plan for each of us, and that no life goes unwitnessed by God. Jesus Christ died for us, so that through grace alone, death is defeated. Pretty powerful stuff for an ex-detective who has witnessed far too much death up close and personal. It saved me and I believe it could save you too. 

I intend to try my hardest to live the rest of my life as if each day is my last. I find myself growing more into myself and who I am destined to be. I find myself carrying that peace, even through the difficult days. And I have such hope. Hope for the world that Jesus has promised. And every day I’m closer to him, and every day that I learn to love those around me a little bit more, and live a little bit more selflessly, that promised world edges ever nearer. Opening my life up to Jesus Christ through his holy spirit has been utterly life-changing for me. And his welcome is open to all. 

I could say much more, and I’d like to, but I promised to be short so here endeth the lesson.

An unusual set of circumstances resulted in me, within a few months of that terrible, wonderful day when I ran into the church, taking quite a few of the services there. Prematurely you might say and I might agree, preaching and having the immense privilege of presiding over some Church of England services and funerals. Of course, I was used to addressing large groups of people, usually a lot more unruly than the congregations I was now facing, but I’ve never felt such inner peace. 

It was months later that I was confirmed. That’s a rite, in case you don’t know, and I barely did, where you affirm your Christian faith and a bishop lays hands on you. It’s a very moving service. The bishop in my case was a woman who is known for her ability to feel a message for the person kneeling before her from the holy spirit. She didn’t know me or anything about me, yet she said: “The Church of England needs to hear your voice. You need to speak into the Church of England.”

What? Me? I had only been a practising Christian a few months. The very next day a woman from the Blackburn diocese rang. “We are looking for someone to lead a project, on behalf of the Church of England,” she said. “We want you to review all our files, and to make recommendations on how the Church can become safer for all, especially in view of the past cases of abuse we have witnessed.” 

So that’s what I did. Not just for Blackburn diocese but later for Chester diocese, and as the bishop had predicted I wrote a great many recommendations for the Church, in respect of how to prevent abuse. So I did talk to the Church and they did hear what I had to say. The results of this past case review are now being implemented around the country following the collective advice of people like me. 

Now, after all these years, I am a trainee again. I am studying at the Emmanuel Theological College based in Blackburn Cathedral, with weekends on what they call formation in Derbyshire. If all goes well, next year I will be ordained as an incumbent priest. In the meantime I can conduct funerals, lead and assist at services. I can’t do weddings, baptisms or serve communion yet. 

It’s interesting but that’s how God works. Here’s another example. The Church gives you a spiritual adviser to assist you with your faith. I kept telling mine that I felt called to reach out to more people in some way, wider than a church congregation. Who did I think I was? Billy Graham? Pray on it, my adviser said, repeatedly. I did, not understanding why. But the feeling remained. Then a stranger rang. 

He asked me to write this story.

10. The beginning

I don’t know what happened to Gabby but I fear the worst. I wish I could tell her and Stuart something. I want them to know that her mum raised that little boy. Mini Stuart. I want them to know that he has thrived. I want them to know that I watched as that little boy walked past my office window, hand in hand with his grandmother on his way to school. I want them to know how I felt, years later, seeing him in his smart school uniform fooling around with his pals waiting for the school bus. I want them to know how I felt when I saw a trendy young teenager walking through town, hand in hand with a pretty young girl. I want them to know that fetching him from that terrible home was the best thing I ever did in 30 years of policing. My story started with a child on a slab; it ends with a boy whose life is just beginning. 

Like mine.