‘Governor? Everything all right?’
Joan Ferguson turned away from the window, from her daily view of walls, barbed wire and concrete. Then she shut her eyes, the better to listen to her deputy’s voice. A brisk, dismissive voice, as befitted Vera’s role, but underneath it was the faintest tremor, an echo of a young woman still playing at being grown up and afraid that someone would notice. A delectable combination. So innocent.
‘That’s not true, though, is it?’
Ferguson opened her eyes. Vera’s previous words were still drifting in the air.
‘Mr Fletcher’s gone. He was saying some pretty crazy things … about your time at Blackmoor.’
Ferguson gazed back at her deputy, her face and body motionless, her heart racing. That weird, breathless calm – stillness and exhilaration all in one. Every line and corner of the office, every movement of Vera’s face, stood out with unnatural clarity. It was always like this, beforehand. A swooping, slicing sensation, like a hawk plummeting out of the sky in perfect silence, its talons unfurling.
This was what justice felt like.
Vera’s blue eyes flickered. How badly Joan’s deputy wanted to hear a denial of Mr Fletcher’s story, to be reassured and soothed. To be lied to. From the twist of Vera’s hands and that quiver of her bottom lip – it always did that, what would it feel like to bite it? – Joan felt sure the younger woman had already guessed the truth, or part of it. Maybe she’d guessed it long ago. Joan hadn’t tried very hard to hide her methods, and Vera, whatever her mother, half her colleagues and every one of her previous bosses had told her, was not stupid.
And yet Joan had no doubt that if she said, right then, ‘No, of course it’s not true,’ Vera would believe it. Would make herself believe it. Such devotion and discipline – it was impressive, Joan thought, as well as pitiful. She felt a rush of something like tenderness.
How easy it would be to lie. How enjoyable, too, perhaps. Joan closed her eyes again and let it all play out in her mind. Would she be angered and offended by Vera’s question? How could you think…? You’d believe that malicious drunken oaf…? After I trusted you, mentored you…? Would her own voice shake a little in shock and betrayal? Joan decided she didn’t care for that idea, but the thought of Vera’s fluttering apology was not unpleasant.
How long would Joan wait before relenting? Ten seconds? A minute? A dozen stammered ‘sorries’? But in the end she would excuse Vera for asking such an insulting question. After all, her deputy had been through a lot lately, and a good ruler knows when to grant clemency.
Maybe Joan would take Vera by her shoulders as she reassured her; maybe she would give them a little squeeze. Maybe she would run her hands over her deputy’s sleek hair, breathing in the apple scent of her shampoo. Maybe she would draw the younger woman closer, until Vera’s forehead was pressed into the brass button on Joan’s jacket, pushing it into her breastbone. The thought of the hard, round shape, a precise point of pain, being imprinted for a moment into both their bodies, was interesting.
Would Vera relax into her arms straight away, or would there be stiffness and wriggling first? Either scenario had its attractions.
But ultimately Joan would do what Vera wanted, which was to promise her that of course the accusations weren’t true, that she shouldn’t believe a single one of the pithecanthropoid grunts that issued from Mr Fletcher’s mouth, that she, Joan, had never touched anyone in ways she shouldn’t, that Vera should trust her and stay like this and not worry about anything. And Vera might tear up a little, in relief or remorse, and Joan would forgive her and drive her home because she seemed upset. Then she would walk her to the door, where Vera would apologise, unnecessarily, again, and Vera’s soft fingers would tangle in hers and Vera’s face would turn upwards for the possibility of a kiss, but Joan wouldn’t give it, not this time, because she had self-control and respect and standards.
It might have been better to do all that.
But Joan was feeling reckless. What if today’s plan failed? Jesper was not invincible, and there was no guarantee Mr Fletcher hadn’t already got to a phone. In the event of a failure, Vera might end up being told a great deal about Blackmoor, by morons, lechers or do-gooders. The prospect was a distasteful one. Better Vera should hear the story from her governor first – the calm, triumphant version. The correct version.
But if the plan succeeded, which it would, because it was Joan’s and therefore right – well, then there would be no need to say anything to Vera at all. Really, Joan knew, it would be wisest to keep quiet for now. Except….
Except that Joan wanted to see how Vera would react. Wanted to know how far she could trust her. In that tense, suspended moment, Joan wanted that very much. Enough to take an unnecessary chance, enough to risk losing the possibility of hair-stroking and apologies and doorstep kisses. Because there were other ways to be intimate with someone, and in that moment Joan wanted them more.
‘What if it is?’
‘Every decision I make is for the greater good.’
‘You’d relate to that.’
‘What you did to your mother.’
The threat was an empty one, of course. Vera must have realised that. Joan had no evidence and the irksome old woman had been cremated. If there was a danger to Vera, it was only the danger of being seen and known. Of having the darkest parts of herself understood and named out loud. No, Joan’s words were less a threat than a reminder. And less a reminder than an invitation.
Don’t play the innocent with me, the maiden in thrall to a monster. I know what you are. What you’ve done, what you’re capable of doing. And it’s all right, it’s all right, you’re not bad. You don’t have to listen to the names they call you. You don’t have to hide. You only wanted to survive, to respect yourself, to see some justice after all those years. Don’t turn away. Stay here with me, let me straighten your jacket, touch your mouth, run my fingers over your throat, lift your skirt, push you up against the wall. Tell me I’m all right, too.
Vera’s eyes had widened. Her posture was as neat and upright as ever, her hands clasped in front of her. Did she mirror her governor’s stance on purpose, or did it come naturally to her nowadays?
‘My conscience is clear. How’s yours?’
Joan’s voice and expression had never been more composed, but she could feel her pulse galloping. Would Vera pretend to be confused, bluster and deny everything? Would she start spluttering in revulsion, appalled at the idea that Joan might be capable of cruelty, or desire, or unwelcome honesty?
Or would she say ‘Tell me more’?
In that moment, Joan thought she had never wanted anything so badly as that.
The air-conditioning hummed. The computer on Joan’s desk whirred softly to itself. From down the corridor, Joan could hear the beep and snip of a security door opening and shutting, and from outside came the thrumming of an engine. A faraway squeal of tires.
Vera said ‘I’m late for the count.’
Ms Bennett closed the door behind her, soundlessly as always, and her heels clicked off down the hall. Quickly, but not too quickly. Nothing out of the ordinary. Joan stayed where she was, her heartbeat slowing and her face slackening, changing from calm to blank. She watched the place where her deputy had stood and felt a knot twist itself tight around her chest.
She couldn’t call it betrayal. When the police questioned them, Vera’s response was satisfactory. She backed up her governor’s accusations against Mr Jackson without hesitating, her voice level, her expression inscrutable. Even Joan was a little surprised at how easily her deputy could betray a colleague she’d known for years, and how little concern it seemed to cause her. After all, Vera didn’t know how much Mr Jackson deserved this, how right it was.
Vera didn’t stay around afterwards, though. She followed the detective to Joan’s office door, then stepped out after him.
That didn’t mean anything, of course. Escorting visitors from the building was just security protocol and good manners. Yet something about it made Joan’s jaw clench.
Was this how it was going to be? No rejection or recriminations, but no recognition either? Was this what Vera wanted, to go on working together, day after day, and pretend their conversation had never happened? Pretend they couldn’t both see the ghosts that watched from the corners, the dark things that crouched around and between them?
It was no surprise, if Joan took the time to think about it. How else could Vera have lived all those years with her mother?
Well, if that was how the younger woman wanted it, Joan could do silence and denial a great deal better than the next person. What did she care? That conversation had only been a whim, and it wasn’t as if Joan had really admitted to anything. It wasn’t as if she needed Vera, or anyone. Still, she found her fingers clamping around her silver pen, her thumb clicking the top in and out until she felt the spring snap.
When Vera had turned back to close the office door, her eyes had met Joan’s for a moment, and Joan could have sworn there was a strange, cool alertness there that the governor had never seen directed at her before. An expression which might have said ‘I could talk to these men some more on the way out, you know.’
It might have said ‘But I’m done talking to you.’
Later, after everything that happened that day had finished happening, after the prison had fallen into a battered silence, Joan found herself back in her office. It was past midnight. The lights in the corridor had been switched off hours before; only her desk lamp still gave off its thin greenish glow, illuminating the Corrections logo on the wall.
From the window she could see a patch of dense black sky. The floodlights blazed white against it, wreathed by silvery clouds of insects flinging themselves to their deaths. Joan had always found the sight rather beautiful, but she knew nobody else was likely to think so. If prompted, Vera would probably agree that it was pretty, but Joan wasn’t sure now if she’d be telling the truth.
She turned away, and felt her eyelid twitch.
Why should it do that? It hadn’t done that for years. Once upon a time it had driven her into a fury, like all her body’s weaknesses, but she’d gotten it under control. Why should it betray her again? And why tonight, when the fates of Mr Jackson and Mr Fletcher provided clear proof of her victory?
Why did she not feel victorious?
She knew the answer, of course, although she was damned if she would acknowledge it. The idea of a prisoner managing to make her this angry was intolerable.
It wasn’t just Bea Smith’s escape, either. That was the least of it.
Smith had plotted her revenge and achieved it – personally, publically and bloodily. Every woman in this prison would be retelling the story by now, embroidering and inflating it to Hollywood proportions, and half the country must have seen her on the news, cuffed and glowering for the cameras as if to say job done.
Done badly, of course. Joan curled her lip. Any act which landed you inside for the rest of your life could hardly be called a success. Still, the thought of it made her insides clench, her skin prickling with outrage. Was it true that justice should not only be done, but should also be seen to be done?
What Smith had done today – she, Joan, should have had that. The whites of a victim’s eyes as he realised the truth, the reek of his terrified piss, the cold weight of metal growing warmer in her hand. Justice, yes, but there might have been something almost playful about it, too. Guess who? Like the magician flinging back his cloak to the gasps of the audience, to reveal his last, impossible surprise.
Had Joan been too cautious, too discreet? Did her vengeance count for less than Smith’s, if she was not prepared to be exposed, to lose everything for it? Did vengeance count at all if no one else knew what you’d done?
Vera could have known about it. But Vera had not wanted to know.
A cold vibration, like the twanging of a wire, had started in Joan’s gut and travelled down to the tips of her fingers. She didn’t like them shaking like that, even when no one was there to see. If her hands were clad in leather, they would not tremble.
Of all the insults Smith could have chosen, it would have to be that one. That word that stank of mulch and sweat, that echo of a time when her heartbeat had hammered in her temples, when every breath tore at her chest and her young legs wobbled beneath her, slowing to a desperate stagger. And the baying of predators at her back. There’d been dirt in her mouth that day, and blood caked around her nostrils. She could never get clean enough afterwards.
Maybe the sunlight was to blame. It had been searing hot that day, a white glare in a clear blue sky, pretty and merciless. If only there had been shadows, dark places, tunnels through which to flee. She had discovered later that the best escape was into darkness.
She drew in a long breath and held it until her chest burned. Don’t go back down there. Not to that place where too many things were tangled up, overgrown like brambles, where it smelled of leaves and blood and it hurt to breathe. A place full of children’s jeers and doctors’ instruments, and the swish of a belt – Disgusting child, what’s the matter with you? Then again, sometimes that place was full of violin music that swooped around her, the song of an instrument smuggled out of hell when the people who’d danced to it were burning. Why did Dad always remind her of that part, as if she were to blame? There’s no one left but us, he would say, the smell of grog on his breath. Other times, that place smelled of the warm mildewed air of a shower block – in her first week as a guard, the deputy governor had warned her never to stand near there or there’d be talk. Joan had flinched in humiliation at the thought that this buried thing, so confusing to her, could be so plain and repulsive to other people. Years later, in a different shower block, Jianna had left the door ajar as if by accident, but Joan hadn’t looked, not that time. She’d known it wasn’t right.
She opened her eyes to find herself gripping the edge of the desk, her knuckles straining, her breathing a high-pitched rasp. Jianna had breathed like that when she was in labour, while Joan held on to her clenched fingers and offered silent sacrifices to whichever dark gods would take them. To her shame, she’d been praying too that Jianna wouldn’t slip in a moment’s agony and say Joan’s first name in front of everyone.
The nurse had not bothered to lower her voice: ‘This lot never have any trouble. Easy life – spread your legs and pick up your welfare cheques.’ And Joan had not dared to lift her head in case they all saw the monster that reared up behind her black eyes. Afraid of betraying herself, she’d said nothing. So much for justice, or the promise of protection. Joan had been no more use then than she would be on that other day, six months later, when Jianna wailed alone on the floor of her cell and no baby’s cry answered her.
How can you look at yourself?
There was a way out of there, a path that led away from the things that overwhelmed her. Joan had taken that path before. Into a dark place with a concrete chill, where her footsteps echoed with a sound like ice-picks and the bare walls rang with screams which were not her own. In that place she had no weaknesses or doubts, and there was no question of backing down. No question of redemption. How tempting it was, to go back there.
Still, she found herself listening for a sound in the corridor, for the familiar rhythm of Vera’s footsteps.
Absurd, as well as pathetic. Vera didn’t want to see any of those sides to Joan; she’d made that plain. And how could that quivering little mouse fix anything, if Joan herself could not? Not to mention the ordinary fact that Vera must have gone home hours ago.
Still Joan listened.
Walk through that door now, and I’ll forgive you anything. Find me here and don’t be surprised. Let me hold your wrists until your warm skin is more real than the darkness, let me listen to your breathing until those ugly sounds fade away. Ask me if everything’s all right, let me say I’m not – and maybe this time I will be.
Joan listened, her body still, every muscle taut. The sound of one footstep outside would be enough. She shut her eyes. One would do. Just one.