When Catherine* was a teenager, she ran away from home on an impulse - and ended up living through a nightmare. Now 29, she shares her story for the first time
All pictures posed by models
‘Pulling the red nylon bib over my head, I sprinted onto the tarmac playground that doubled as a netball court and waited to be told what position I’d be playing. ‘Please centre, please centre,’ I murmured as the PE teacher divided us up. ‘Please centre.’ My friend Anna chucked the ball in my direction and I caught it neatly. ‘Cathy,’ called Ms White, ‘centre’. I grinned at Anna and she rolled her eyes – it was a bit of an in-joke; the fact that everything tended to go my way.
Until I was 15, my biggest concerns probably fell into three categories: friends, boyfriends and whether or not I’d remembered to pack my gym kit that day for school. My mum had died when I was a baby, so my two sisters and I were raised by our grandparents in the middle of nowhere in Wales. Sure, we bickered sometimes – I went nuts when I caught my younger sister smoking weed with her friends – but we pulled together and made a functional little family. I don’t think I realised how good I had it. I genuinely believed that the worst thing that could happen to me would be getting a bad grade or missing a netball match. Looking back, I wish I could shake myself.
As it was, it took exactly 72 hours for all of that to change. School had finished for the summer, and I was working as many hours as I could in a local business, playing at being a ‘grown up’ and trying to save some money. I loved it – seeing the money in my bank account stack up at the end of every week; checking the rota to see what my shifts were going to be; telling my friends I’d meet them ‘after work’. But in reality, I was still a child – hormonal and naïve – and after an incident with my boss left me in tears, I didn’t know what to do. I walked home and stood outside my house, unable to bring myself to put my keys in the lock. I’d had enough of this stupid town, I told myself, kicking at a flowerpot. If I stayed here, I’d just end up working in Woolworths until I died. Before I could talk myself out of it, I turned around and headed to the train station. It was Sunday night, but the next train was due at 7pm. London Euston, read the departures board.
I’d never been to London before. To be honest, I’d never really left Wales, so the first thing I noticed was how loud everything was. I felt like I’d been wearing headphones my whole life and someone had suddenly lifted them off. It was also freezing. When I’d left work, the air had been thick with summer humidity, so I was wearing shorts and a thin t-shirt. I had a small cross-body bag with my pay-as-you-go phone, a lip balm and my bankcard, but that was it. Pushing through the ticket barriers, I saw a New Look. I had £256 in my account – all my savings. A couple of pairs of knickers, some jeans and a jumper later, and I was down to £185. I figured that would last me a month or so until I found work.
By Wednesday afternoon, I was completely skint. Without any money to pay for another night in the youth hostel, I found myself sitting on a wooden bench outside Euston station, sobbing into the sleeve of my sweater. I didn’t have enough money to top up my phone and call my grandparents, and I didn’t want to have to go back, tail between my legs, anyway. I knew I could probably bunk onto the train without a ticket, but I figured my family would be angry at me – or worse yet, they’d laugh at me for thinking I’d ever be able to ‘make it’ in London in the first place. My tears fell harder, and it started to rain.
I didn’t see the man drive up and park his car a few metres away. I only looked up when he walked over and crouched down next to me, one knee in a puddle. ‘Are you OK?’ he asked, looking concerned. I shook my head. ‘I’ve run out of money but I don’t know what to do,’ I told him. ‘I don’t want to go home.’ He looked at me calmly. ‘Hey, I live near here,’ he said. ‘You can come and dry off and get some food, then we’ll work out an action plan.’ I hesitated – I didn’t know him, and I knew I wasn’t supposed to head off with strangers. ‘My mum’s at home,’ he added, and I caved. It was like he was my knight in shining armour.
As I dried off in the passenger seat, the man spent the 30 minute drive to Baker Street telling me he’d grown up in London and worked as a taxi driver. His name was Michael, he said. He looked like he was in his late 20s or early 30s, and he reassured me I’d be OK – London was always daunting at first, he said. It just takes a bit of time to get used to. I watched the streets and the tall white buildings whizz past the windows, and I felt myself relax for the first time in three days. Stopping outside a particularly posh-looking house, he opened the door for me and we walked down the garden path.
It took a plate of chicken, rice and peas for me to open up. Sitting at the kitchen table with Mike and the woman who I assumed was his mum, I told them everything – how I didn’t fit in back home and how I hated my boss and how my family didn’t care about me anyway. I told them about how my phone had run out of credit but how I couldn’t imagine anyone was looking for me. As I recounted my story, I noticed a few other girls coming in and out, taking plates of food back to their rooms. They didn’t say anything so I assumed they were just students, but their presence reassured me. These were good people. They were helping people in need. By 11pm, I was exhausted. Mike led me downstairs to a basement bedroom, and kissed me goodnight. When he pushed me back towards the bed, I didn’t say no.
I woke up naked and alone, with a splitting headache. I’d left my clothes in a heap on the floor the night before, but when I went to reach for them I realised they weren’t there. Instead, there was a dressing gown on the chair by my bed. Confused, I put it on, and padded upstairs to ask for my jeans back.
Mike was sitting at the table when I approached. ‘I can’t find my clothes,’ I whispered – embarrassed about making a fuss. ‘They’re in the washing machine,’ said the woman who I still assumed was his mum, turning from the counter where she was preparing food. ‘But they weren’t dirty,’ I mumbled, sitting down at the table and feeling confused. Mike glowered at me. I wrapped the dressing gown tighter around my body, suddenly awkward.
Three hours later, and the washing machine had stopped spinning, but nobody had made any move to get the clothes out. ‘Sometimes it just jams,’ Mike said, wandering out of the room. I crouched down and started pulling at the door handle, trying to unstick it. Growing up, I’d always been good at fixing things. I figured a washing machine couldn’t be too hard. As I started fiddling with the dial at the top, I felt something hard and heavy hit the back of my head, and I was sent flying across the room. ‘How dare you,’ yelled Mike, kicking me in the ribs. ‘We take you in, and we feed you, and this is how you repay us? How dare you insult us! If she says the washing machine is broken, then it’s broken.’ He kicked me and punched me and pulled at my hair as I screamed. With a final smack to the face, I passed out.
When I woke up again, I was back in the basement bedroom. Shaken and scared, I saw my trainers were still by the door, so I pulled them on and crept up the stairs. Fuck the clothes, I thought. I just need to get out of here. But the front door was locked. Blood draining from my face and suddenly desperate, I shook the handle and looked around for a key. The woman came out of the kitchen and stared at me. ‘I need to leave now,’ I told her. ‘Something’s come up, and I have to go home. Can I have the key?’ She shook her head. ‘Michael has the key,’ she said. ‘He’s the only one who can open the door. And he’s out.’ And with that, she punched me in the face.
Sometimes when I look back on what happened to me, I still wonder whether I could have fought back harder. If maybe I’d tried harder, I could have fought her off, smashed a window and escaped. She was in her 50s, and I was definitely fitter than she was. But as the blows rained down on my body, I found myself cowering and in tears. She grabbed a clump of my long blonde hair and dragged me down the stairs on my back, kicking me into the bedroom. I ran to the window, but it was locked with bars across the outside. My bag with my phone was gone, and I was trapped. Nauseous and hurting, I collapsed onto the bed. I didn’t understand what was happening. I was 15 years old. I just wanted to go home.
I was left alone for the rest of the day. Occasionally I’d hear movement from upstairs or thuds from around the rest of the house, but most of the time the building was silent. As evening drew near and my tears began to run out, the woman opened the door again. ‘Please, I need to go home – my family will be worried about me,’ I asked as she stood looking at me, expressionless while holding a tray of chicken, rice and peas. ‘They’re not looking for you,’ she replied calmly. ‘You told us last night how much they hate you. They’re glad that you’ve gone.’ She handed me the tray, before walking the bed and placing a large towel over the cheap satin duvet cover and leaving. Ten minutes later she was back with a Sainsbury’s Bag For Life. ‘Put one of these on,’ she said. Inside were four or five sets of used, dirty lingerie. My peripheral vision began to cloud, and I felt suddenly sick.
I don’t remember how many men raped me that night. I only remember the first one. I was sitting on the bed when the door opened, and a massive, 20-something stone guy loomed in the doorway, with the woman standing behind him. He looked me up and down, then handed her the money and she left. When he was finished, he slapped me on the bum and told me I’d been a good girl. Half an hour later, there was somebody else. Over the course of that evening, I realised that all of the men were all paying to live out a fantasy where resistance turned them on. The more I screamed, the more they seemed to enjoy raping me. After that, I stopped fighting back – but that just made them angry, and they’d try to hurt me more. If I pleaded with them to help me, they ignored me. In between each assault, the woman would come in to change the towel on the bed because it would be covered in blood. Over the course of two years, I bled every single time I was raped. On one occasion, I accidentally got blood on the sheets, and she beat me up so hard I passed out.
By that point, my body felt numb and empty anyway. The clients’ requests were extreme and violent. When one man punched me in the face, my face swelled up and I wondered if my jaw had been broken. As I sobbed, the woman came down with a small cup of what looked like green medicine. I swallowed it immediately – desperate for pain relief. After that, whenever a man hurt me, she’d bring me the same medicine. It was only years later that I discovered it was Methadone, and the woman was deliberately trying to get me hooked on drugs so that I couldn’t try to leave. It worked. Methadone was soon supplemented with crack cocaine, and the constant rape and endless beatings was accompanied by manipulation and death threats. ‘If you ever try to tell anyone about this, I’ll kill your family,’ Mike told me on one of his visits back to the house.
I believed him. He’d found my phone in my bag and charged it up – calling my sisters to tell them that he was my boyfriend, and that they shouldn’t worry because I’d been given a job working for P&O ferries. Because I was out at sea, I wasn’t able to contact them, he said – adding that he’d love to meet them one day. He was charming, and I knew they’d bought it, while my grandparents were old and would have put it down to teenage rebellion. When Mike went on to find out my home address, I felt sick. I felt like his threats carried weight. His whispered words followed me everywhere – breathing down my neck and reminding me that if I tried to escape, my family would be the ones paying the price. I didn’t know what to do. I was imprisoned – a slave behind the walls of a whitewashed house in London – and within a few months, I collapsed inwards and lost my fight. I’d forgotten what power even felt like.
The other girls and I in the house didn’t talk much, but after a nearly 12 months in the house, Mike walked into my room with a Debenhams evening gown and a bag full of cheap, secondhand make up. ‘You have half an hour to cover your bruises,’ he told me. When I climbed the stairs to the kitchen, I saw one of the others was dressed up too. Together we were driven to a posh hotel, where Mike told us to get out. Led through a ballroom, no one blinked in our direction.
There were businessmen from all over the world with beautiful women in expensive dresses hanging off their arms, but nobody seemed to think we were out of place. As the other girl was handed over to a group of young men, Mike pushed me towards an elderly man from Saudi Arabia. Inside the confines of his suite upstairs, he told me he didn’t want sex – just a massage. He seemed kind, so I told him that I didn’t want to be here; that I was trapped and I needed help. But the warmth left his eyes. ‘Nobody would want to do what you have to do,’ he laughed, and walked away. With Mike waiting outside in the corridor, I left the room, crushed. But I still consider that night a lucky escape. As I pleaded with the Sheikh to save me, the other girl from our house was being gang-raped and infected with HIV. When a blood test showed she was sick, Mike decided she was ‘broken’ – but he couldn’t set her free in case she told the police. So he forced her into domestic servitude instead. Every day, she cleaned the house, cooked the food and did the laundry. Every night, the woman made her sleep in a dog basket on the kitchen floor.
I didn’t last long before becoming broken too. After a couple of years, I was thin and sick and weak. When one man pulled my leg back while raping me, he dislocated my knee and Mike had to take me to the hospital. Surrounded by doctors and nurses, he was twitchy, so sat by my bed all the way through visiting hours, the weight of his hand pressing hard against my arm. Then – when he was kicked out and I was working up the courage to tell somebody I needed help – he waited an hour before coming back. He told the nurses that he’d just received word that my sister had died. They let him in to stay with me through the night, and he whispered quiet threats to remind me to pretend to grieve whenever a doctor walked by.
Soon my knee would dislocate whenever anyone tried to have sex with me, so Mike drove us to another flat in the Midlands and made me his servant – getting up at the first ray of dawn to clean and cook for him, and punching me in the face if there was a speck of dust left anywhere. As night fell, he’d force me put on a small, flimsy boob tube and tight, short skirt, then we’d go out to stand in an alleyway behind a community centre – me by the street, Mike back in the shadows. Men would pull up in their cars, one after another – husbands and fathers, businessmen and creeps. Then Mike would step forward to negotiate: eventually opening the door and pushing my head down until I collapsed onto the passenger seat and fulfilled whatever job Mike was being paid for me to do. I was his puppet, and all the time he stood there, taking the money from the men and smiling at me like there wasn’t anything wrong; passing me methadone and crack cocaine when we got back home to keep me quiet. He controlled everything; even my periods – for the four years that I was his prisoner, he made me take back-to-back contraceptives for months at a time so that I never, ever bled.
I only came close to escaping once. A women’s charity was running an initiative to support sex workers, bringing us hot mugs of tea to get us through the long nights. One of their volunteers looked at me – I must have looked awful – and murmured, ‘we can help you, you know. We can get you out of this, if you want.’ I laughed; by this point, I was so beaten down, I figured this was it. Nobody would ever save me. But she was determined.
‘Can you get out of the house to buy milk at the newsagents’ tomorrow?’ she asked. I didn’t know. For years, I’d been supervised for every second of the day. If Mike went out, he locked the door. I hadn’t used a phone since I was 15. If I went to the toilet, I was timed: 30 seconds to pee, three and a half minutes for a poo. Exceeding those time frames warranted a fist to the face. But something stirred in me. The next morning when I was cleaning the kitchen, I poured two pints of milk down the sink. Then, with my best blank expression, I put my head round the living room. ‘We’re out of milk,’ I told him. ‘Then go and get some,’ he said, rolling his eyes. ‘Be quick.’ Trying to look reluctant, I took the money and tried not to run down the street. In the newsagents, I headed to the fridge. Staring at the semi-skimmed, I felt a hand fall on my arm. ‘You’re under arrest,’ a policewoman told me. ‘We just saw you shoplifting.’ My heart flipped over and bile rose in my throat – I didn’t understand. She led me out of the shop and into a car outside. ‘We’re going to get you away,’ she said, once I was sitting in the back. But I panicked. ‘You don’t understand,’ I told her. ‘If I leave, he’ll kill everyone. He’ll find my family and he’ll kill everyone.’ ‘We’ll protect your family,’ she said calmly – reassuringly. But I didn’t believe her. Mike was still in touch with my sisters and my grandparents. He knew how to find them. I got out of the car and walked back to the house. ‘They only had skimmed,’ I told him as I walked through the front door.
I’d thought about killing myself in the past, but Mike had already told me that if I did, then my family would pay the price, so I couldn’t let myself take the risk. He was still raping me every night too, and when I fell pregnant, some deep, sickening instinct let me know the baby was his. So I just carried on putting one foot in front of another, while my stomach grew round and huge against my bones. I didn’t think about the future. I’d trained myself to stop doing that years ago. I was damaged now. Nothing good could ever happen to me.
I was wrong, but things had to get a lot worse to get better. Sitting in a flat full of Mike’s friends one day, a man on the sofa across from me asked me to pass a lighter. Without thinking, I picked it up and handed it to him. Maybe I smiled. Maybe I didn’t. Either way, Mike saw something he didn’t like. He hauled me up and dragged me out, pulling me down the street to our house. Screaming and yelling inside the kitchen, he attacked me – feet and fists flying at my body. In a scene reminiscent of a slow motion horror movie, he picked up a bread knife, and plunged it into my stomach. As I roared for help, he pulled me into the bathroom and pushed me into the bathtub – turning the taps on. Water makes your blood thin and bleed out faster. The last thing I remember is seeing everything around me turn red.
I woke up in hospital, achey and confused. My head felt like it was full of cotton wool, and my tongue was thick and dry. A nurse noticed me stirring, and came over – but she looked angry; like I’d done something wrong. She told me that I’d been expecting twins – a boy and a girl. The boy had died in the attack, she said, adding that the girl was addicted to methadone because I’d abused drugs while I was pregnant. She’d also suffered a deep cut to her arm from the knife. I could see in her eyes that she thought I was a bad parent – what kind of mother would do this to their child? Mike had been arrested, someone else told me. I didn’t care. I just wanted to hold my daughter. Pressing her tiny body against my chest, I cried for the first time in years. Then they took her away, and told me I couldn’t have her back.
‘This is the first time I’ve told my story’ – Posed by models
It’s been ten years since I escaped, and this is the first time I’ve told my story. I know it’s long, but I also know it’s important. When I was well enough to leave hospital, I was sent to a series of women’s refuges for victims of domestic violence – but nobody knew how to help me. Nobody understood me when I said that I hadn’t been trapped in an abusive relationship, because I hadn’t been in a relationship at all. I’d been trafficked – made into a ‘modern slave’ and imprisoned against my will for four years. But they just nodded and said ‘it feels like that, sometimes’. I think it was too big of a truth for anyone to face up to. They didn’t want to accept that something like that could have happened to someone like me. Someone like them. But it did.
It’s taken a lot of counselling and support, but these days, I’ve got my life together. I work with the Salvation Army to support other victims of human trafficking, and I’ve got my daughter back. But while progress has been made and awareness has been raised over the last few years, there’s so much more that needs to be talked about. Professionals working within the social services need to be trained in identifying potential victims of human trafficking, and we need to focus on education too. I think most people still only associate trafficking with women and children coming into the UK from overseas – but that’s not the case. Modern slavery can happen to anyone – it doesn’t matter what race or gender or nationality you are. All it takes is a single moment of vulnerability. Men can be imprisoned and forced into domestic servitude. Women can be imprisoned and forced into hard labour. Middle class, white teenagers from rural Wales can be imprisoned and forced into sex work. And it’s happening all around us.
This summer, I turned 29 years old. My body is scarred, but I feel strong. I’m proud of myself for surviving, and I’m not ashamed of my experiences any more. I’ll never allow myself to feel ashamed of what that man did to me again. But it’s a strength that comes with loneliness. My family has no idea what I’ve been through. I don’t want them to feel guilty for not trying to find me, or for trusting a man who lied to them through his white, polished teeth. Instead, I apologised to them for disappearing. We rebuilt our relationship, and I wove fictional tales of ferry life to make amends. At Christmas, my sisters tell my nephews and nieces that if they’re good, they’ll get to grow up and ‘be like Auntie Cathy and travel the world’.
But the truth is, I only ever went to London.
Minister for Safeguarding, Vulnerability and Countering Extremism Sarah Newton said:
‘Modern slavery is a terrible crime which affects people from all over the world – including those in Britain. Our world-leading Modern Slavery Act provides protection for victims, gives law enforcement the power to tackle modern slavery and ensures the penalties for offenders match the appalling nature of the crime.
‘Slavery has long been hidden in plain sight, but the rise in referrals to the Government-funded support service delivered by The Salvation Army demonstrates our efforts to identify victims as quickly as possible and encourage more victims to ask for help, are working.
‘We will never tolerate modern slavery or those criminals who wish to exploit the vulnerable.’
If you’ve been affected by anything in this article, you can contact the Salvation Army confidentially on: 0300 3038151 or visit their website at salvationarmy.org.uk.