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Society has deemed these women defective

Chapter Text

In every crowded institution, there is a moment in the dead of night when the corridors fall silent. When the conversations fade away and there is no more shuffling, swearing or sobbing. When the only sounds are muffled snores and the hum of a fluorescent light bulb in an empty hall. When nothing moves in the shadows.

That was when she went walking.

She knew how to make her footfalls audible in these deserted hallways. Night patrol was a performance she’d learned from older officers: the slow, resonant tread, the deliberate pressure of pacing feet against cracked linoleum and concrete … then a good, long pause outside this cell or that. It was uncanny how loud the rattle of a keychain could sound at midnight.

‘Look and sound hard enough, and most of the time you don’t need to do anything else,’ her first boss had told her. And most of the time it had proven true.

But tonight she kept her footsteps silent.

The key turned in the lock smooth as oil and the door opened outward. They built them that way, like in the old lunatic asylums, to stop desperate women from barricading themselves in.

She stepped inside, shut the door and locked it again.

The main lights had been turned out and only a thin strip of tubing glowed above the bed. A young woman sat on the edge of the mattress, her body stiff with nerves from hearing the door click, a book still open in her hand.

‘You again.’

Then the young woman smiled, that slow smile that always looked like she’d given it careful thought. With the white light behind her, the curly strands of her hair seemed to crackle and dance.

Joan pressed her back to the door, making an effort to slow her breathing.

‘How are you?’ She kept her voice low. Even at midnight with the door locked, they could not speak out loud.

‘Yeah, good.’ Jianna put the book – Five Senses by Judith Wright – to one side and stood up. They looked at each other, three feet of space between them. ‘You all right?’

‘Fine.’ Joan answered too quickly. Her heart kicked as if she’d run here.

‘I’ve still got that chocolate if you want some.’

‘No, it was for you.’ Joan cleared her throat and steadied herself. ‘You’re back on light duties. Tidying the schoolroom, shelving in the library. I expect you can take him with you.’

‘Thanks.’ Jianna nodded. ‘I was worried about taking him on cleaning duty, all the chemicals and that. And I don’t like leaving him.’ She chewed her lip. ‘It’s hard to trust people.’

‘It is.’ Joan glanced towards the cot. David’s little yellow teddy sat at the foot. When he was born, Joan had smuggled it in as a present, hidden in a box of painkillers from sick bay. ‘Is he asleep?’

‘Out like a light.’

Joan leaned over the cot.

‘I should have got here sooner.’

David’s black curly hair was damp and smelled of baby shampoo. His fists opened and closed in sleep, his translucent eyelids flickering. Joan reached across to pull his singlet down over his tight little belly. She caught her breath, buffeted by emotion, a savage tenderness that would have throttled the life out of any threat to this child. That urge to protect – it was with her all the time now. It had displaced her cool focus, the logic, clarity and reason she’d been taught to value above all else.

But was that so wrong? Wasn’t the point of power to change things, to set things in the right order? It couldn't be right that this child was so vulnerable, down the very bottom of society's pecking order. She could make a difference for him.

Joan nodded to herself. Then, unbidden, she was struck by an image of the bad fairy in a folk tale, the dark godmother hunched over the cradle to give the child a gift no one would have asked for.

Jianna chuckled – ‘You’re not going to break him, you know’ – but Joan drew back.

‘He’s perfect.’ Her voice was curt.

‘Never thought I could love anyone that much,’ Jianna said. ‘I’d do anything in the world for him.’

Joan nodded. And she wondered, not for the first time, if ‘anything in the world’ included herself. Would Jianna have wanted her company if things had been different?

Sometimes the uncertainty twisted Joan’s guts … and yet she had learned to live with it, maybe too easily. You could never truly rely on other people’s emotions, but there was no doubt she, Joan, was needed here. Necessary. Depended upon. And although she craved a thousand times more, perhaps that was enough.

Then Jianna linked her soft fingers through Joan’s and the rush of sensation drove everything else out of Joan’s mind. The young woman’s smile widened.

‘Are you going to say hello to me, then?’

Joan pulled her close, feeling her hands shake before she could settle them around Jianna’s hips, burying her face in the ticklish warmth of the young woman’s hair. It smelled of vanilla. She ran her hands up Jianna’s back, feeling through her pyjama top the hard wings of her shoulder blades, the delicate ridge of her spine, the corrugated bumps of her ribcage.

Too much closeness. It was overpowering. Joan squeezed her eyes shut against a rush of vertigo, a sense of cutting the rope and letting the kite spiral higher, whipped by unknown currents. There would be no coming back from this.

***

Dad had warned her.

‘What did you expect, Joan?’ he’d crooned years ago over her small, hunched body, heaving with misery and rage at another childhood rejection. ‘Other people, they’re not like us. They are shallow and foolish, calling everyone their “friends” as long as it suits them. We are different. Strong. We can see things clearly. We don’t need anything.’

But she was tired of not needing anything.

How ironic that it should have been Dad who'd brought this thing about in the first place.

Joan thought back to that stormy afternoon months before. The other inmates had hunkered down in the TV room and she’d found Jianna sitting by herself in here. Joan had pretended to glance into the cell by accident. They were always pretending back then.

They’d got to talking the way they did, in rough little bursts, clumsy with things unsaid. Joan glanced at Jianna’s belly where it strained against her checked shirt and asked if the young woman was taking care of herself. Jianna, getting the inference, said of course she was. She wouldn’t start using again now. Anyway, she hadn’t touched the hard stuff in years. Not since she was seventeen and going off the rails pretty bad, and one night in the squat she’d seen her grandmother walk in and sit down beside her, the same grandmother who’d died when Jianna was eight. And she’d heard the old woman’s voice on the night air – for real, it made the hairs on her arms stand up – and knew it was telling her to stop destroying herself.

If a story like that had come from anyone else, Joan would have dismissed it as nonsense. But Jianna’s voice was so calm and matter-of-fact, and the comfort she took from the memory was so palpable. All at once, sitting there and talking like this seemed better and more necessary than anything. Joan felt the young woman’s fingers lace through hers and that slow movement was overwhelming.

In a breathless rush, unable to stop herself, she blurted out her own secret, a thing she had never told anyone: that she could still see Dad, that she’d seen him ever since he died, that he talked to her, not in that imaginary, insipid way that grief counsellors spoke about, but actually and for real.

She fell silent, her throat closing over too late. A damp fever was gathering across her forehead and in the palms of her hands. Why had she said it? What had she been thinking? Bile rose in her throat. This … thing, it meant she was mad. Even more of an anomaly than people already thought.

She jerked her fingers back before Jianna could do it herself. She would have rushed from the cell but did not trust her legs.

Then Jianna smiled.

‘You’re lucky,’ she said. ‘To be so connected to your family like that, and to the spiritual side of life. To know your dad’s always looking out for you. It’s beautiful.’

Joan stared at her.

She could have replied that it wasn’t quite like that. That she’d always been a scornful atheist – ironically, another thing she’d inherited from Dad – and that the old man’s company, living or dead, was not what most people would call beautiful.

But she didn’t. Because in that moment it didn’t matter. What mattered was that she’d told the truth to someone who hadn’t flinched, someone who didn’t seem appalled or repulsed or even surprised. A warm wave of exhaustion rushed over her, and something so sweet she couldn’t name it. When Jianna reached for her hand again, this time Joan held it tight.

Chapter Text

Joan held Jianna up against her.

She rested her chin on top of the young woman’s head and let her gaze drift around the room, taking in the neat line-up of Jianna’s meagre possessions, the baby capsule in one corner, the card and pictures stuck to one wall. The card had blue ducklings; it had arrived from Jianna’s birth mother after David was born. The handwriting was large and painstaking, like a child’s. Jianna said her mum probably didn’t get much schooling, growing up in a children’s home where they taught the girls to clean houses and weren’t kind to them.

The pictures were ones Jianna had done herself, pencil drawings on lined notepaper nicked from the schoolroom. One was of David sleeping. The others depicted the solar system, based on a battered textbook from the prison library. But there was a precision and elegance to Jianna’s other worlds and her drawings looked like what they were supposed to be, which won Joan’s approval. Abstract art was an indulgence, just a way for men to vomit their emotions onto canvas. Jianna’s drawings reminded Joan of perfect 18th century miniatures – but here the landscapes featured planetary rings, blasted deserts and ancient volcanos shrouded in ice.

Jianna wriggled around, seeking Joan’s gaze.

‘What are you staring at?’ she whispered.

‘Your pictures.’

Jianna shrugged.

‘At school, art was the only subject I never wagged.’ She nestled closer, her breath tickling Joan’s throat. ‘I could do one of you if you like.’

Joan blinked.

‘That … wouldn’t be a good idea.’ Which was true, but even apart from the risk of discovery, the notion was unsettling. She wasn’t sure she would want Jianna looking at her that closely.

She worked her fingers into the hollow at the back of Jianna’s skull where the hair was like down. Then she began massaging her companion’s scalp, pressing lazy patterns with her fingertips until Jianna let out a sigh and rested her head against Joan’s shoulder.

The young woman said ‘For years, no one ever gave me a cuddle.’

‘Don’t think about that now.’ Joan buried her nose in her companion’s hair. The bleakness of Jianna’s childhood – ricocheting between foster homes and then the streets – was better not to dwell upon. ‘My father used to say memories were like weeds. You have to hack them to bits, dig them up and burn them – do whatever it takes to stop them coming back.’

Joan nodded to herself again as she repeated the old man’s words. And she tried to ignore the uncomfortable tingle she often felt at the thought of Jianna’s past. It was a reaction she did not care to identify: a pathetic and shameful pleasure. So life is good with me now, then? You know, in comparison?

Jianna stepped back and tugged at Joan’s hand.

‘Come over here.’

Joan lowered herself onto the edge of the mattress, tensing as the bedframe gave a squeak. She felt the mattress dint further under Jianna’s slight weight as the younger woman sat down beside her. Before Joan could turn her head, her companion’s fingers were already stroking her jaw, guiding Joan’s face towards hers.

Joan had never enjoyed kissing before. It was too invasive and messy and downright alarming sometimes, and it made people assume irrational things that weren’t correct. But the warm cling of Jianna’s lips had come as a revelation. Now Joan had learned to crave all of it – the hitch and surge of the younger woman’s breath, the electrical flicker of her tongue, the satiny underside of her lip and the way she gasped when Joan bit down on it… These things had come to seem more important to Joan than rational thought. More important than safety.

Their kisses grew deeper, more demanding. Joan could feel Jianna’s hands clawing through her hair, tugging and twisting great handfuls of it, messing it all up. The alternate tension and release in her scalp sent pins and needles rushing down her legs. Joan had never been able to tolerate anyone touching her head before. She dreaded the hairdresser so much she would accept whichever style was offered just to get out of there. Permitting this now felt shockingly intimate.

She slid her hands up beneath Jianna’s pyjama top to stroke the young woman’s belly, still soft and puckered from her pregnancy, then moved them around to the small of Jianna’s back where a slick heat was gathering. This was as far as Joan would go with direct touching. It seemed important to keep some boundaries, to reassure herself she had not crossed every line there was, irresponsibly and irreparably. Even if that was exactly what she had done.

‘Bloody hell…’ Jianna pulled away, breathless, to fumble with the utility belt around Joan’s hips before unclasping it and shooing it aside. Then she swung one knee over Joan’s legs until she was straddling her, and pulled Joan’s face back to hers.

Joan stifled a moan at the hot grip of her beloved’s thighs and the grinding of their hips together. A heat was simmering beneath her belly, try as she might to suppress it. She would not act on it, she assured herself. She would never ask Jianna to do a thing like that.

Then she jerked in shock as the young woman leaned back a little and planted her right arm into the space between them. Jianna wriggled forward until she was rubbing up against her own steady wrist, while the hot weight of her balled fist bore down between Joan’s clenched thighs.

‘We shouldn’t – ’ Joan’s protest dried up in her throat. The hard bulges of Jianna’s knuckles were pushing mercilessly against Joan’s sex. Through layers of clothing, plump protective outer lips and springy hair, her clit was being massaged and the shocks that jolted through her were more intense than any direct touch could have achieved before.

‘Oh, that’s…’ Jianna’s eyes were closed, her face taut with concentration as she rocked against Joan and her own touch. Joan gazed up at her, dazzled. Afraid to disrupt her but desperate for more closeness, Joan slipped her hands lower to grip the younger woman’s hips. Then Joan stretched out her fingers, extending them as far as she could until they reached the source of the heat through damp, scented pyjamas. At this light touch, her companion gasped, stiffened and came with a silent, shivering rush, her free hand wrenching hard at Joan’s hair. Joan hissed in pain but held on tight, until the sight of Jianna’s pleasure, the pressure between her thighs and the burning in her scalp shocked her into her own guilty, blissful release.

She sank back onto the bed, nudging the younger woman onto her side so that they could fit together on the narrow mattress. Jianna’s hips snuggled back into Joan’s stomach and Joan felt her heartbeat thudding up against the younger woman’s spine.

‘Stay like this,’ Joan muttered. ‘Stay here.’

Jianna gave a drowsy chuckle. ‘I’m not going anywhere, am I?’

Joan swallowed hard.

‘Hey.’ Jianna’s voice was blurry with sleep. ‘I want to ask you a question.’

‘A question?’ Joan felt her lips twitch into a smile. ‘If it’s the one about whether politicians should be made to take buses everywhere, or why people are mean about country music, or whether the government should provide free pets for old people, we’ve already covered it.’

Jianna poked her arm.

‘Smart arse.’

‘I’m teasing. I like your questions.’

That was how they’d first spoken, when Jianna turned to Joan in the breakfast line – apropos of nothing whatsoever – and asked why nearly every single religion in the world was prejudiced against women. Joan had been expecting a complaint about the baked beans. The next day Jianna asked her in the yard whether it would be fair to send an old person to prison for a murder they’d done, say, fifty years before. Would it be cruel to punish them, or cruel not to?

Over the months that followed, there had been many more questions, always asked seemingly out of the blue in a quiet, thoughtful voice. Joan, who was more used to fielding remarks that began and ended with the word ‘fuck’, stumbled through her answers but found herself looking forward to it more each time. And each time she walked away feeling revitalised, as if some deficiency in her diet had been corrected at last.

In Jianna’s file, the Department of Corrections psychiatrist wrote that the prisoner Riley had a probable intellectual disability ‘as she is unable to maintain eye contact or answer standard questions coherently.’

Now Joan murmured ‘What’s your question tonight?’ But Jianna had already drifted off to sleep.

Joan stroked the younger woman’s hair until Jianna’s breathing grew slow and heavy. Then she eased herself off the mattress, retrieved her utility belt and buckled it around her hips.

She glanced back at her sleeping companion.

They would never have met each other on the outside. Here in her fortress of concrete and wire, Joan Ferguson had a uniform and tasks to do, and she was somebody. Nowadays the kitchen and laundry room fell silent when she stalked in, and the inmates shuffled out of her way. She’d heard they called her The Bear behind her back, and discovered she didn’t mind it.

But on the outside? There she was just a quiet, awkward woman with no family or friends, who did a poorly-paid job which most people regarded as a dirty joke or the social equivalent of garbage collection. Some kind of filth, either way.

What bright young woman with big dreams would want to be paired with that? Especially if the young woman was also navigating the parole board, the police and the welfare, while trying to reconnect with her family, find work, make new friends, move back up north, raise her son to be proud of himself…

And Joan wanted all those good things for Jianna, she was sure she did. But no matter which way she arranged the jigsaw, her own large figure didn’t seem to fit in anywhere.

Holding her breath, Joan worked at the leather pouch on her belt until it popped open without a sound. Then she drew out the contents, flinching as the cellophane wrapper crinkled.

She tiptoed over to the shelf where Jianna’s library books were arranged in a careful line, lifted one and slid the contraband down into the space between the jacket and the spine.

Joan replaced the book. Then she gripped the doorframe and fought a powerful urge to throw up.

There was a cell-toss planned for tomorrow morning.

Chapter Text

Joan leaned back against the wall, ordering herself to concentrate, to get back in control. Her mouth tasted sour, her stomach was grinding. She heard David whimper in his sleep.

It wasn’t wrong, she told herself. Not really. The pills weren’t illegal, just extra-strength painkillers from medical. Doctors handed them around like mints on the outside, to bad-back sufferers and patients after surgery. By Blackmoor standards it was nothing much. Not enough to get a prisoner slotted, let alone charged.

But enough to put the brakes on an early parole.

She’d seen the paperwork in the governor’s office. Joan often volunteered for extra hours of data entry, filing and shredding while her colleagues were out drinking the day’s boredom and ugliness away. The governor saw no danger in it; he thought Joan was a ‘poor awkward unfortunate’ and assumed she was slow because she didn’t laugh at his jokes. The sight of the forms made her freeze.

She wasn’t spoiling things here. She wasn’t. She just needed more time.

Just a few more months, Joan bargained with herself. A few more months of Jianna’s smiles, her confounding questions and her pictures of other worlds. A few more months of David’s warm weight in her arms and his feathery hair tickling underneath her chin. A few more months, and she would find the strength to step back from it all. But not yet.

Dad would not have approved. But what had he known about loving anyone?

Righteous anger made her stand upright, gave her the nerve to step away from the shelf and leave the book there.

‘Hey, you’re still here.’ Jianna’s drowsy voice made Joan’s chest clench in panic. She looked across to see the young woman sitting up with a yawn, lifting her thick hair away from her face. It was clear Jianna had not noticed anything wrong.

‘I didn’t mean to wake you.’

‘That’s his job.’ Jianna glanced over towards the cot. ‘Hey…’ Her voice trailed off. ‘You know how I said I wanted to ask you a question?’

‘It’s getting late; I’ll be missed.’ Joan took a step towards the door. She couldn’t face talking now, couldn’t meet her companion’s eye. ‘Can’t it wait?’

‘No. I’ve got to ask.’ Jianna pulled her knees up to her chest. She was watching David’s sleeping form and her face was more solemn than Joan had seen it in months. ‘If we weren’t in here, him and me – if we were on the outside, I mean … would you want to be seen with us?’ She looked up at Joan. ‘Would you want us around?’

Joan stared.

‘It’s all right, I can take it.’ Jianna dropped her head again to pick at the blanket. Her voice was subdued. ‘I know a lot of stuff happens in here that wouldn’t work out there. And if you’re just … having fun, well, that’s up to you. But I’ve got to know – ’

‘Are you mad?’ Joan’s voice was almost a shout. She could feel her hands starting to shake again. ‘Of course I want you around. I’ve always wanted it.’

‘You never talk about the future.’ Jianna’s voice shook. ‘About us. You change the subject.’

‘I didn’t know how to.’ Joan felt her throat rasping. ‘You know me, I’m – I’m not a talker.’

‘I thought you might not want your nice, neat life getting all messed up.’ Jianna raised her head warily. ‘I’m not dumb; I know what it would look like. I know what we look like, him and me.’

‘You look perfect.’ Joan’s pulse was racing.

‘I’m serious. There’s your family, your neighbours, your work…’

‘Don’t have them, don’t know them, been lying to them for years.’ Joan counted off the points in a daze. Then she forced her voice down deeper into her chest. ‘All I want is you two.’

‘For real?’ Jianna hugged her knees as she studied the older woman.

‘Always.’

Jianna gave a wobbly smile.

‘That’s good to hear.’ She scrubbed her wrist across her eyes. ‘I would have handled it, you know. Him and me, we’ll be all right no matter what. But it’s good to hear.’

Joan nodded. Her body was rigid, her head spinning. A strange awkwardness had descended. She knew what she should be doing: stepping back to the bed, wrapping her arms around the younger woman and giving thanks to the God she didn’t believe in. But how could she do that, knowing about the tiny grenade hidden in this room and about to go off?

A tiny, selfish and, it now seemed, totally unnecessary grenade.

Jianna broke the clumsy silence: ‘Hey, you’d better go before someone comes looking.’

‘That’s all right.’ Joan swallowed. Maybe she could save this, steal the wretched pills back again. ‘I’ll stay until you go to sleep.’

‘Nah, I’ll read for a bit.’ Jianna sat up taller and reached for her Judith Wright volume again, while Joan writhed inwardly. Could she pick the book up in a casual manner – ‘hey, look, there’s something stuck in here’ ? No, Jianna might have handled it earlier and seen nothing there before. And besides, Joan didn’t trust her own powers of performance just now.

No, there was no way of getting the pills back without telling Jianna the truth, and she couldn’t do that, she just couldn’t. And to cap it all off, she’d rostered herself off tomorrow morning to avoid the cell toss, so that she wouldn’t be … involved.

Joan clenched her jaw and imagined punching herself in the stomach, over and over. Idiot. Horrible girl. You are such a disappointment.

‘Do you … do you want me to take your library books back?’

Jianna blinked.

‘Library’s closed. Anyway, I haven’t finished those ones.’

‘Right.’ Joan grimaced. ‘Stupid of me.’

It would be all right, she repeated to herself. The offence wasn’t serious. Probably they would just send Jianna along to the new drug support group, so that sensitive New Age social worker could pester her about her feelings. The man didn’t have the faintest clue about discipline, but for once Joan felt glad about it.

She would finesse all this somehow, find a way to fix it. That was what she did.

She unlocked the door and inched it open, glancing out into the dim, deserted hall.

‘Hey, you’re not going out like that?’ Jianna grinned. ‘Look at you, you’re a mess.’

Joan blinked down at her rumpled shirt and touched her snarled-up hair. She checked the hall again; of course it was empty, but she couldn’t risk going through reception looking this way.

‘Oh, I’d better – ’ But Jianna was already tossing back the covers.

Joan watched as the younger woman swung her legs around to stand up, taking in Jianna’s skinny ankles and long toes, the nails painted with red marker-pen beneath the hems of her white pyjamas. It was as if Joan was seeing these things for the first time, and every detail chimed in her chest with a clarity that hurt. She imagined what Jianna’s feet would look like getting out of another bed somewhere, a bed that wasn’t covered in budget-brown blankets and bolted to the floor, and decided nothing in the world would look better. Even if the other bed wasn’t her own.

Jianna padded over, picking up her comb on the way, and reached up with great care to smooth Joan’s hair back. Joan flinched at the contact but held herself still as her companion coaxed the knots loose and straightened her hair with slow, even strokes.

Jianna laid the comb aside. With unexpected skill, she straightened Joan’s tie, fastened a button that had popped loose, smoothed Joan’s shirt and tugged at her cuffs until the wrinkles gave way. She pulled the utility belt a centimetre to the left, and wriggled it lower until it sat firm across Joan’s hips. Then she looked Joan up and down and smiled.

‘Sharp.’

She reached out to brush Joan’s fingertips with her own, before moving back and watching as Joan stepped out the door and into the dark.

Across the hall, unnoticed by either of them, the slot in a cell door had been left open. On the other side of it, Kelly Bryant stood on tiptoe and stared.