The tickle monster
What started as fun and games ended in years of silent misery...
The second the EastEnders theme tune started, my uncle Michael, 49, let out an exaggerated yawn.
‘Bedtime you two,’ he said to my younger brother and sister Scott, four, and Nicola, three.
Leading them upstairs to tuck them in, he turned to me and my brother Steven, seven. ‘You two can stay up,’ he winked. ‘Watch the soaps with your uncle!’ Brilliant!
Once a week, when my mum Denise, 43, went to bingo, Uncle Michael babysat for us. We loved it! We played car racing games on his Playstation, had tickle fights with him – it was always such a giggle when he pretended to be the Tickle Monster.
And now I was allowed to stay up late, too! I felt so grown up watching EastEnders, and I could tell Steven did, too – even though he’d been so desperate to go to the loo that he’d been fidgeting for the last five minutes of it. The second the dum-dum-dum-dum of the dramatic drums sounded the episode was over, he was up like a shot and out of the room.
Uncle Michael slid along the sofa and into my brother’s space, snuggling right up beside me.
Stroking his fingertips lightly over my bare arm, I stifled a giggle as my skin tingled. Time for the Tickle Monster – I braced myself, ready for the fight to begin.
Oooh, he was trying a new tactic, his hands weren’t heading for my armpits or feet like they normally did.
Instead, they pushed up my t-shirt and rubbed my chest and back.
I froze in shock. This wasn’t right. In fact, it felt really wrong.
Then, as Michael’s hands let go of my top, I saw they were heading elsewhere. With a grunt, he slid them right down into my trousers… Then footsteps came from the hallway. Steven!
Uncle Michael tore his hands away from me like they were suddenly on fire. Flung himself back to the other side of the sofa, like nothing had happened. What?!
For the rest of the night, I sat alone in the dining room, staring at my textbooks, pretending to do homework. I felt totally confused.
Maybe Uncle Michael had just been playing, hadn’t meant to upset me? But if he’d been playing, why had he jumped up when Steven came back in the room?
Baffled and scared, I tried to push what’d happened to the back of my mind. But after that, every time I played a game with Uncle Michael I was so terrified about what it might lead to, I started avoiding him.
I thought about telling someone, maybe Mum or my dad Richard, 44, but everyone always said what a great bloke he was…
What if they didn’t believe me?
Over the next few years, whenever he babysat, I’d sit alone in my room, or at the dining table doing my homework. No more tickle fights for me.
By the time I was 13, older and wiser, I knew what Michael had done was wrong. Carrying around such a vile secret started to take its toll. I felt violated, angry – couldn’t trust people.
Over the years, I had boyfriends, but they never lasted. I was always terrified they’d hurt me like Uncle Michael had. I became hard and defensive – anything to push them away and keep myself safe.
That one night had affected me so badly. Just five minutes of my life really, but I’d be haunted by it for a lifetime. I kept thinking about other kids who’d been abused, only their torment went on for years. How the hell did they cope? Just thinking about it made me want to cry.
My mum couldn’t work out why my attitude had changed, why I left a room whenever Uncle Michael walked in. ‘Typical moody teen,’ she tutted one day. ‘You should be nicer to Michael, he’s always
been nice to you.’ ‘Yeah!’ I scoffed.
If only she knew…
I still wanted to tell her and Dad, but the more years passed, the more I was worried no one would believe me.
Michael was Dad’s brother – what if he took his side? And who would Mum believe?
I couldn’t risk splitting up my family like that. Not over something that happened once, so many years ago.
Then one night when I was 17, I went round to see my dad’s other brother Uncle John and his wife Carla. As we chatted away over a cuppa, suddenly Uncle Michael’s name came up. I couldn’t help it, my body froze.
‘He’s such a great bloke,’ Uncle John smiled. ‘You just can’t fault him.’
My face grew hot, my fists clenching.
‘He’s kind, always offering to help out with the kids…’ he carried on.
Before I could stop, the words came spilling out. ‘You think Uncle Michael’s great?’ I spat. ‘Let me tell you…’
I forced myself to say the words, telling them everything.
Uncle John didn’t look shocked – he looked furious. ‘Michael would never do that!’
Stunned, I turned and ran home, tears streaming down my cheeks. What was I thinking, telling someone? I was furious with myself. I’d known no one would believe me and I should have kept my mouth shut.
After that, Uncle John and Carla avoided me, but didn’t mention what I’d said to anyone. Me neither. I vowed never to mention the abuse again.
I still saw Uncle Michael regularly. At my 21st birthday party, Mum forced me to have my photo taken with him. ‘Go on, pet,’ she said, lifting the camera. ‘Get in, nice and close.’
He wrapped his arm around me. My skin crawled. ‘Cheese,’ he grinned, squeezing my shoulder. I felt like I might throw up.
‘Happy birthday,’ he winked, swaggering off.
How was I ever going to get over what happened when, even at my own birthday party, it was staring me in the face? I just wanted Uncle Michael, all of this, to go away.
A few months later, I heard a horrible rumour, though. Someone told me a seven year old boy had also accused Michael of abuse.
Suddenly, I realised – this was never going to go away. Not unless I made it. It hadn’t occurred to me he might do it to someone else. I had to speak out.
The next day, I went to the police and told them everything.
That night, I went round to see Mum. ‘Umm, I’ve, err, got something to tell you,’ I spluttered.
She gazed at me, waiting.
‘Uncle Michael molested me when I was nine,’ I told her.
‘My God!’ she cried, wrapping her arms around me. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I wanted to,’ I whispered. ‘But I didn’t think you’d believe me.’
I told her about Uncle John’s reaction, how I’d been terrified to speak about it since.
‘Of course I believe you,’ she said, holding me tight.
Knowing that my parents, brothers and sister believed me gave me the strength to go on.
Michael was arrested, and tried at Newcastle Crown Court for two counts of indecent assault, and one of sexual assault on children under the age of 13. The day before the trial, he changed his plea from not guilty to guilty.
He was handed a two-year suspended sentence, and ordered to sign the sex offenders’ register. The sentence didn’t seem long enough for what he’d done to me.
Slowly, though, I’m putting all of it behind me and finally moving on. Monsters can’t hurt me any more.
Lianne Erskine, 24, Blyth, Northumberland
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