In the darkness, Joan Ferguson lay with her eyes open.
She wasn’t looking. She didn’t look much any more, or listen, taste, touch or smell if she could help it. Still, she was aware of the darkness, its many shades and textures. At this hour there was no sign of the gouged plaster and cement that made up her world now, but those things were there all the same, beyond the darkness and within it. Even in the pitch black, you couldn’t pretend your way out of this place. You couldn’t tell yourself you were gazing up at a moonless sky. The darkness in here was more like what you’d find inside a car boot, or a closed fist.
Still, the darkness was manageable. The light was harder: that white tube in its metal cage, too high for her to smash, that hummed and throbbed and watched her for fifteen merciless hours a day.
(Was it fifteen? She recalled how the timetables used to work, but what if they’d changed? At first she’d tried to figure time out by the buzzers, the pills, the microwaved slop on plastic trays. The glass brick of a window was set too high to see out, and gave few clues. Then she’d begun to wonder if they were tricking her, switching the times. They could be slowing her days down or speeding them up, just for fun. Or as an experiment, maybe – it wouldn’t be the first time prisoners and lunatics had been used for that sort of thing. For a while she’d tried outsmarting them, counting time by her own heartbeat. But that was hard to maintain when she could no longer remember why it mattered.)
Mostly she lay on the bed or sat at the edge of the mattress, her thoughts and functions shut down to the minimum necessary. Back in General, when they’d been friends (a strange notion, that she could have had a friend once, and in this place), Kaz had called it her screensaver mode.
‘It’s like you’re asleep with your eyes open,’ Kaz had said, but that was incorrect. Joan was awake, she was here, she just wasn’t present. She was like a guard in another room watching the prisoner Ferguson in her isolation cell, the CCTV whirring away on an endless loop. She had always been able to slip away like this when necessary, and in here it was always necessary.
But she hadn’t realised the danger: that a person in that state might slip too far away to return. Might slip so far that she could no longer comprehend why that was a danger.
The old part of Joan – the part that thought and fought and schemed and survived and never, ever gave up – knew this wasn’t right. That old Joan clawed at her chest sometimes, howled at her to think, to do something. To remember that this wasn’t over, that Nils was gone, that Smith’s death wasn’t her fault, that the new charges were farcical and she hadn't been to court yet – that there were still ways, even in here, to take back control.
There were always ways to do that.
But that old version of herself was standing on a receding shore, her shouts carried off by the wind. Was it even worth trying to listen? After all she’d done – the months of incarceration, degradation, pain and filth. Months spent waiting and planning and pacing in cells, eating, sleeping and shitting under a camera’s gaze; months of standing in line with society’s refuse, blank indifference plastered across her face to keep reality at bay. Months of tunnel vision – don’t stop, don’t look, don’t care, don’t feel – of tolerating whatever she had to and doing whatever she had to, suffocating herself in order to survive – and for what? Where had it got her? Ten seconds in Bea Smith’s arms, and then back in here.
Why bother listening to the old Joan? Why not switch to screensaver mode and stay there?
There was a sound in the corridor outside.
She didn’t hear it; she was merely aware of it. Footsteps, like the neat tapping of a hammer. Her brain registered: an officer, then. A woman.
The footsteps moved at a leisurely pace. Most of the guards hurried past her door, as if afraid of contagion. As well they might be; plenty of them had overstepped the line now and then in the course of their work. Did the sight of one of their own now locked in a concrete box scare them? The sour stink of her unwashed body and matted hair, the black glass of her gaze? There but for the grace of God…
Maybe not. Most of her former staff were not what you’d call thoughtful people. Probably they’d just been warned off associating with her, because she was so very, very dangerous.
The tapping grew louder. Joan lay limp, her face unchanging – but her sluggish pulse quickened, a tiny flame warming her chest. Could it be…?
Of course it couldn’t. Since they’d charged her and brought her back here in the butcher’s van, Vera hadn’t been to see her once. No threats, no gloating, no more tedious talk of justice. Just … absence.
Not that it mattered. Nothing mattered. But as the footsteps approached, Joan felt something like a giant hook fasten itself in her ribcage and give a mighty tug. Now, without intending it, she was sitting upright.
There was another sound out there: a soft, metallic shiver. Joan sat taller. For the first time in weeks, she wasn’t just conscious; she was listening.
Jangle-clump. Jangle-clump. A lazy rhythm.
Someone was tossing a set of keys from hand to hand.
Outside, the visitor’s keys chinked softly together. A muscle leapt in Joan’s cheek. Maybe – maybe –
Then another sound, harsh but lilting. Was the person out there … humming?
Joan’s shoulders slumped. The truth came crashing over her, and she couldn’t numb herself fast enough to endure it. The darkness blurred and stung her eyes. That voice outside was a woman’s, but it was too low-pitched, too abrasive.
It wasn’t Vera.
In that moment, it all descended upon her again, the things she’d been holding at bay. The stale air, her ragged, dirty nails, the chill that made her jaw clatter and her limbs ache.
She should be stirring into action. Readying herself, calculating the risk of harm from a midnight visitor, mapping out what to say and do to turn the situation (whatever it was) to her own advantage. She had done all that before, and in situations as bad as this.
Instead she thought: why couldn’t it have been Vera?
The humming was growing louder, the notes gathering themselves into lyrics.
‘Long years had passed, war came so fast…’
It wasn’t a young woman’s voice singing out there. It sounded sandpapery, roughened from a lifetime of smoking and shouting.
‘Bravely they marched away…’
When was the last time Joan had heard another person’s voice? She knew it couldn’t be the literal truth, but the last voice she recalled had belonged to Bea Smith. ‘This is it, Freak… I win.’ That memory reeked of earth and iron, of excited sweat and warm blood, and it made her fingers clench around the bed frame. Too much closeness, a loss of control. Entanglement.
‘Cannons roared loud, and in the mad crowd
Wounded and dying lay.’
How close had Joan come that day to ending up back in psych ward for the rest of her life? Or to taking that screwdriver and following Smith’s example?
She’d shut down instead, a safety switch to prevent an overload. She had dropped the weapon, gone quietly; she’d said and done nothing so they would call her sane. No burning smell, no shower of sparks, no last fiery show. Not this time.
‘Up goes a shout, a horse dashes out
Out of the ranks so blue…’
That voice in the hallway, though… It sounded lazily amused and mischievous – and cruel. A children’s song, but any sensible child would have fled by now.
‘Galloped away to where Joe lay…’
It was right outside her cell.
Joan squinted. She craned forward, watching the rectangle of glass that was set into the cell door. It had been placed at head height so any passers-by could watch her at their leisure. The lights were off in the corridor, but they had proper windows out there, where the prisoners couldn’t see through them. Moonlight must be flowing in, or floodlights from the yard. As her eyes adjusted, she could make out a profile: a long, sharp nose and a curiously shaped face, all angles and bones.
‘Then came a voice he knew…’
The taunting melody of the keys again; a clicking and gliding of metal weights. Then the scrape of the door opening outwards.
Joan rose to her feet.
The darkness thinned. The half-light of the corridor illuminated a tall, narrow figure, all glinting buttons and long black limbs. It flexed its spindly fingers, then stepped forward.
‘Hello, Joan. Haven’t you got a hug for an old mate?’
Joan stood and stared. After weeks of inertia, her mind was suddenly staggering in forty directions at once.
She could have said ‘Is it you?’ or ‘Am I mad?’ Instead she heard herself say ‘You do realise…’ Her voice, long unused, came out croaky and slurred. ‘You realise that song is even creepier in light of recent revelations?’ She paused for breath. Getting a whole sentence out was exhausting.
‘Now, now.’ Joan’s visitor stepped deeper into the cell, leaving the door open behind her. ‘I’ll have you know I used to sing that song to my nephews when they were little. Course, they’ve both taken out restraining orders since.’
Joan didn’t move. This was no hallucination, although it certainly should have been.
‘What are you doing here?’ She forced the question out, her throat rasping, then licked her cracked lips. They tasted of blood.
The woman sauntered closer until they were standing face to face. In her solid heels, she had no trouble looking Joan in the eye.
Then she grinned. An old white scar ran the length of her face, from left eyebrow to pointed chin.
She said ‘Just looking for a quiet place to enjoy one of these.’ She reached behind her and Joan flinched, which made her visitor chuckle. In the woman’s hand was a pack of cigarettes.
Turning her back on Joan, she strolled over to the metal toilet and seated herself on the lid, her feet planted wide apart, her elbows on her knees. Cigarette jutting from her mouth, she mumbled ‘You don’t mind, do you?’ There was a rattle, a scrape, then a blue and orange flare. The woman squeezed her eyes shut, sucking hard until her strange face seemed to be nothing but cheekbones.
Then she dropped the match and stamped it out beneath her heel.
‘No smoking in Victorian prisons,’ the visitor intoned, expelling acrid curls through her nostrils. ‘Fuck me.’ Joan had never heard anyone get that many syllables from a four-letter word.
The woman took another long drag, then said ‘Time was, every single bastard in this place would’ve smoked. Screws, lags, social workers – even the fucken nurses. ’ She inhaled again, the tip of the cigarette glowing neon orange. ‘Come to think of it, the nurses were the worst. But now...' She jabbed the air in Joan’s direction. ‘You can’t even do it in the bloody carpark! Come visitor’s day, if I want to enjoy an honest ciggie, I have to walk a hundred miles thataway–’ she flung out one arm ‘–and stand in a fucken field, with all the bikies and dealers and thirty-year-old grandmas asking me for a light!’ Exhausted by her own outrage, she paused for another deep draw. In a calmer voice, she added ‘It does promote a sense of community, though, I will say that.’
Joan still hadn’t moved.
‘What – ’ this time her voice came out steady ‘ – are you doing here?’
The woman glanced up at her.
‘Oh, you poor darl. It’s those elephant pills they’ve got you on; no wonder you’re a bit woozy.’ She waved a hand in front of Joan’s face and said in a slow, clear voice ‘It’s OK, I am not a figment of your psychosis. It really is me, your close personal … colleague.’ She gave a smile that showed the white points of her incisors. ‘Cynthia Leach, from Blackmoor.’
‘Cynthia.’ The word creaked its way out of Joan’s mouth. Her episodes of madness had made more sense than this.
‘Yep.’ The woman blew a puff of smoke up into Joan’s face. ‘Fifteen years, eh, Ferguson? I’d like to say you haven’t changed a bit, but frankly…’ She looked Joan up and down, taking in her rumpled teal tracksuit, her bare feet, her hair that hung in werewolf tangles around her face. ‘Well, frankly you look like shit.’
‘You –’ Joan stared down at her. Despite the gloom, she recognised that uniform. ‘You … work here now?’
‘Work here?’ Cynthia broke into a coughing fit. Banging her chest, she spluttered ‘Well, that’s put me back in my box. You always were good at that, Joan.’
She grinned up at Joan again. Joan could make out the places where the scar had sliced through both of Cynthia’s lips. At Blackmoor, the rumours said that scar had been the work of a particularly vicious drug dealer, who’d grown the nail of her pinkie finger two inches long for that very purpose. Rumour also had it that Cynthia had dealt with the attack by biting that finger off.
Cynthia raised one mangled eyebrow.
‘Oh Joan, haven’t you heard? I’m your new governor.’
I cannot take the credit (or the blame) for the lyrics of ‘Two Little Boys’, by Theodore Morse and Edward Madden, and popularised by Rolf Harris. I do apologise for Cynthia’s taste in music, however, and for many of her other qualities.
Cynthia is based on a character from the original PCBH, btw, but I have meddled freely.
It might be a week or two until chapter 3....
Joan sat down hard on the side of the bed. The cold, dank air stung her nostrils as she breathed in and out. The shock had acted like a jolt of adrenalin, and her heart punched at her chest. Now suddenly everything in here was all too real: the concrete beneath her feet, the taste of her unbrushed teeth, the white glow of the bedclothes in the darkness and the glint of the metal toilet bowl.
She was waking up, and she should not let herself do that. If she perceived things as they really were, she would go mad.
She shut her eyes, concentrating instead on the sharp scent of cigarette smoke drifting around her. Like a message from the outside world, or from another time – a time when everyone smoked in prisons, and she and Cynthia were friends, and Joan Ferguson was the name of a person, not a police file.
‘They…’ Joan swallowed, her throat parched. ‘They gave the governor’s position to you?’
‘Actually, Joan, I was headhunted.’ In the gloom, she could just make out the vengeful gleam in Cynthia’s eye. ‘The Board needed a firm leader, you know? Experienced. Someone who could straighten things out and restore Wentworth’s reputation after years of chaos.’
‘And how many people turned the job down before they got to you?’ Joan knew she sounded like a petulant teenager, and that this was exactly what Cynthia wanted. But what else was there to say?
‘Now, that’s not very gracious, Joan.’ Cynthia’s grin widened. ‘But it’s OK. I can understand how it might be a bit of a sore topic for you.’ She tapped her cigarette, sending ash tumbling across Joan’s cell floor. ‘Full disclosure: I think the Board may have talked to one or two other candidates first, who turned out not to have the balls required. After all, this governorship is starting to look a bit jinxed, isn’t it? Like teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts.’ She sucked hard on her cigarette. ‘That’s a popular reference, Joan; you wouldn’t know it. But bloody hell – four governors in three years? One dead, one deranged, one a corporate lawyer.’ She sighed. ‘Jesus. Poor Erica. And then there was your work experience girl.’
‘Vera.’ The name came out in a whisper.
Of course it made sense that Vera would have lost the governorship after the disasters of this year. Had they bumped her back down to deputy yet again? Joan thought of how Vera had treated her during her time as a prisoner, and her mouth twitched. Appalling though it was to think of Cynthia Leach as governor, perhaps there was an upside.
Joan pictured it: Vera having to run Cynthia’s errands to the betting shop and the Bottle-O. Vera spending her days breathing Cynthia’s second-hand smoke, tidying her apocalyptic paperwork, and listening to her calling everyone from the inmates to the Attorney-General a pack of stunned cunts. Joan’s mouth flickered again. How very … karmic. Not to mention Cynthia’s ability to trap even the most decent people in her nasty little schemes. Joan recalled that senior officer Cynthia had fallen out with at Blackmoor, the one so squeaky-clean her nickname was Ajax. By the time Cynthia had finished, the poor woman was serving two years for fraud.
For the first time since her day in court, Joan felt her lips curling into a smile. Oh, Vera. Let’s see what’s best for you and the women of this prison now.
‘So…’ Joan lifted her head. ‘How is Ms Bennett doing?’
From the silence, she realised this was not the question Cynthia had been hoping for.
‘Joan, I don’t mean to seem needy…’ Joan remembered the last time she’d heard Cynthia use that tone: right before she rubbed a steel cheese grater on a prisoner’s face. ‘But we were talking about me.’
‘My apologies, Ms Leach.’ Joan pushed back her hair. Her left hand protested at the movement, the old heat and tightness returning. The sensation took her by surprise. She had cut herself off from it for so long, like the inverse of an amputee feeling pain in a missing limb.
‘Well…’ Cynthia was waiting. And while Joan knew nothing beneficial would come out of this, it still seemed important to keep her visitor talking. If she didn’t, Cynthia might leave, and Joan would be alone in here again.
‘So, Cynthia, the Board lured you out of your cave with raw meat, to do a job no one else would touch. How is that going?’
‘Joan, I’m so glad you asked.’ Cynthia reached into her pocket, drew out a folded piece of paper, and shook it straight. ‘I saved this for you from yesterday. Knew you’d be interested.’
It was a page from a newspaper. A large photograph showed Cynthia in full uniform, standing with her arms folded in front of a wire link fence. Above it, the headline read ‘Back to Basics’.
‘I see.’ Squinting, Joan could just make out the byline: ‘After years of scandal and disaster, could the old-fashioned approach offer new hope for Victoria’s troubled women’s prison? Hayley Jovanka reports…’
Knowing that much of the scandal and disaster in the article would have her own name attached to it, Joan decided the darkness in here was a good thing. Of course only a moron would care what Ms Jovanka had to say about anything … but still the humiliation stung her like battery acid.
She handed the paper back to Cynthia.
‘Congratulations. If your greatest ambition was to see your picture in a tabloid above an advertisement for power tools, you’ve succeeded.’
‘Jealous, Joan?’ Cynthia taunted. ‘Don’t worry; they’ve printed quite a few pictures of you over the past year.’ Joan felt her jaw tighten. Cynthia sniggered. ‘I’ve been keeping them in a scrapbook. Want me to bring it in?’
Joan tried staring the other woman down, but Cynthia had played that game before.
‘Come on, Joan. Don’t pretend you’re not interested in what that article says about the future of Wentworth.’
Joan tried to shrug.
‘I assume the phrase “firm but fair” was used?’
‘Actually, I went with “common sense corrections”.’ Cynthia winked. ‘Politicians love it.’
‘So, Vera’s New Wentworth has gone the way of the dinosaurs?’
‘More the way of the Loch Ness Monster, Joan.’ Cynthia pinched the filter, took one last ravenous drag, then dropped the butt and ground it into Joan’s floor. ‘Far as I can tell, the New Wentworth never really existed.’
‘Well, it did rather resemble the Old Wentworth with pamphlets.’
‘Exactly. Joan, you and I have been around long enough to know that when you build an institution meant for punishing people, stuff it to the brim with the poorest, maddest, most drug-fucked cases the Department of Human Services has to offer, then send the bill to Mr and Mrs Suburban Taxpayer who are out for revenge because their car got nicked – the results usually don’t have much to do with human rights or yoga classes.’ Cynthia shrugged. ‘Nature of the beast. I daresay the New Wentworth would have vanished soon enough, even if your Ms Bennett hadn’t turned out to be as useless as a chocolate teapot.’ The new governor snorted. ‘Christ, what an appointment, eh? They may as well have left a pot plant in charge.’
‘Some of Ms Bennett’s systems reforms showed promise,’ Joan heard herself say. Then she added hastily ‘At a micro level.’
‘Are you sticking up for her?’ Cynthia gave an incredulous cackle.
‘Hardly.’ Joan’s jaw clenched. The notion that she would defend Vera Bennett, that treacherous little rodent who had deceived her for months on end, sucked up her mentorship, pretended to worry about Joan’s feelings, made Joan think she might be a – a friend, then plotted with common inmates to have her falsely imprisoned… Well, the idea was preposterous. Still, Joan didn’t care for the implication that she’d been defeated by a fool.
To divert Cynthia’s attention, she said ‘So, this “common sense corrections” of yours – does it involve confiscating the inmates’ television sets? That’s usually what the tabloids like.’
‘Christ, no, Joan. That was where you went wrong.’ Cynthia shook her head. ‘If you’d just let those poor slags watch Real Housewives for eight hours a day, their brains would’ve been too fried to go planning any riots. Nope, the TV sets are staying. But I have introduced a few other changes, in view of the need for tighter security. After two breakouts and the odd murder, the Board could see the sense in my approach.’
‘Go on.’ Joan edged forward. Almost against her will, she could feel her mind creaking into gear. How long had it been since another person had wanted to talk to her about anything other than her so-called crimes? How long since another person had said anything to her besides ‘stand on that line’ or ‘bend over’ ?
Cynthia leaned forward too, her hands clasped between her knees.
‘Security is paramount,’ Cynthia recited, as if she’d given this speech before. ‘When inmates aren’t working, they are confined to their units, apart from strictly limited exercise periods. Inmates are not to visit each other’s units. Inmates are not to walk or congregate of groups of more than three. Inmates are not to speak languages other than English. Phone calls are supervised. Visiting times are restricted and physical contact is not permitted. The food is … simpler, and we’ve cut out most of the meat and sugar. We’ve pared back the items inmates are allowed in their cells; only the essentials, and cells are inspected each morning. No cosmetics, no loose hair, no coloured socks – and above all, I’ve cut all the bloody hoods off those jackets.’ Cynthia let out a scornful breath. ‘Seriously, Joan, I reckon I solved fifty per cent of your security problems right there.’
‘They’ll eat each other.’ Joan shook her head. ‘You don’t have the staff to enforce all that. There’ll be a riot within the first month.’
‘It’s been running for three months, Joan, and rather well if I do say so myself.’ Cynthia’s voice bubbled with barely suppressed glee.
Joan eyed her warily.
‘Why do I get a sense there’s something you haven’t told me?’
Cynthia winked, then sprang to her feet. Beckoning Joan to the open door, she said ‘Come out here. I’ll show you something.’
At the threshold, Joan paused, grasping the doorframe for support. Her legs wobbled at the prospect of walking further than the distance between the bed and the toilet. She bit her lip, listening hard for voices, footsteps. She couldn’t shake the sense of being led out into an ambush.
But there was only Cynthia, leaning back against the window ledge and watching Joan stagger forward with a smirk of triumph on her scarred face.
‘Move along there, Ferguson, I haven’t got all night.’
The air tasted different out in the corridor. Joan could see down the hall for twenty metres in either direction, all the way to the glowing green exit signs. Through the window, she could make out an overcast black sky, one or two stars peeping through, and the lights of a plane taking off from the airport nearby. It rose higher, moving north, until it disappeared from view.
Joan’s heart was hammering. She stretched out her good hand and ran her fingers over the cool glass.
‘Hard, isn’t it?’ Cynthia crooned. ‘Seeing the world outside when you know you’ve got to go back in there?’ She jerked her chin towards the cell. ‘Harder still when you know you could spend the rest of your life in there. How long do you reckon you might last, Joan? Twenty years? Thirty?’ Cynthia spun around. ‘But let’s not talk about you, eh? There’s something out here I’d like you to see.’
Moving unsteadily, Joan followed Cynthia’s crooked finger over to the right. Cynthia tapped the glass.
‘Up there. On the skywalk.’ Joan blinked, her eyes adjusting slowly as she looked into the distance for the first time in months. Cynthia prompted ‘What do you see?’
‘Two officers patrolling.’ They were both women and they moved with the time-honoured guard’s gait: slow, ponderous steps, chests puffed out, heads swivelling left and right. In the midnight calm, Joan fancied she could hear the soft crackle of the walkie-talkies on their hips.
Joan screwed up her eyes. The floodlights against the night sky were dazzling.
‘You’ve changed their uniforms.’ The women wore black trousers, black button-down shirts with logos on their sleeves, and hefty black boots. ‘Don’t tell me the Board gave you a budget for re-branding?’
‘Well, sort of.’ Cynthia was leaning far too close now. Joan could see Cynthia’s long, yellowed front teeth and taste the tobacco on her breath.
Cynthia said ‘Joan, those women out there are prisoners.’
‘This is the key to my success.’ Cynthia was twitching with happiness. Her eyes were wide; she was watching Joan’s every reaction hungrily. She said ‘It’s my new community marshal scheme, Joan. Would you like to hear about it?’
Joan said nothing. She edged away to avoid physical contact, but Cynthia moved with her, her shoulder nudging against Joan’s, the hard edge of her shoe almost crushing Joan’s bare toes. Almost. Joan took the hint and stopped moving.
‘It’s an innovative solution, Joan, to a whole bunch of longstanding problems in corrections. We take up to twenty per cent of the inmates – carefully selected, of course – and we train them as community marshals. They undertake a significant amount of the routine daily work of the prison: admin, rostering, health promotions, cell checks, routine patrols. They receive training and accredited qualifications – certificates in office management and so forth, plus they have actual work experience to put on their CVs when they leave. Several of them have shown interest in becoming public transport police or security guards – or corrections officers! – so we’re working with the relevant authorities to fast-track them through that training when they get out. Imagine that, Joan – prisoners who are actually good at something besides hiding crystal meth up their fannies!’
‘I take it you left that last line off the press release,’ said Joan. ‘Your officers can’t be happy about this.’
‘Oh, the union got a bit restless, but I sold them on the idea it will make their own work safer, without significant redundancies.’ Cynthia shrugged. ‘Staff-wise, I’m refreshing the brand a bit anyway; out with the old, in with the new. Hell, there’s a million unemployed out there.’
Dismissing that issue, Cynthia went on ‘When training our community marshals, unity is the key. They live together in a separate unit; they eat together, they have their own gym hours. I’ve been sure to include some fun stuff along with their training – you know, ropes courses, boxercise classes, movie nights. So many of these women have never done anything enjoyable and interesting in a group before.’ She grunted. ‘Unless you count pole dancing, I suppose. And my marshals get special privileges: better food, personalised cells, proper visiting sessions. You’d be surprised what a change it’s made just putting them in a different uniform. And of course I work with them a lot one-on-one. Lifting their self-esteem, making them realise they can do something better with their lives, that they don’t have to be like the other scumbags in here.’
‘And in return … they do your filing?’
‘Well, amongst other things.’ Cynthia flashed a wolfish grin. ‘I tell you, no one is better at figuring out what prisoners are up to than other prisoners. And no one is better at handing down a little discipline when it’s needed.’
‘I see.’ Joan was beginning to. ‘Tell me, Cynthia, these special inmates of yours – do they receive combat training?’
‘Self-defence,’ Cynthia answered smoothly. ‘It would be irresponsible of me not to provide that.’
‘And do they carry weapons?’
‘Certainly not, Joan! That would be bang out of order. Although of course…’ Cynthia nodded towards the two women outside; they had moved closer now. Close enough for Joan to see the large heavy torches that swung from their belts.
‘And what if these women start abusing their new powers?’
‘We do not stand for that,’ Cynthia said briskly. ‘Anyone fucks up, she gets stripped of all privileges and sent straight back to her original unit.’ That low cackle again. ‘You can imagine the welcome she’d get from her old cellmates, can’t you? Funnily enough, I’ve only had to make an example of one or two.’
‘Fascinating,’ said Joan. ‘And when you say “fucks up”, Cynthia, what behaviours are you referring to? Bashing another prisoner – or bashing her without your permission?’
‘Let’s not get bogged down in details, Joan.’ Cynthia’s grin was so wide now that Joan could see the metal fillings in her back teeth. ‘The point is innovation.’
‘Hmm, yes.’ Joan chewed her lip and forced a nonchalant tone. ‘Not all that innovative, actually; Himmler had the same idea. You’ve introduced a kapo system.’
‘Community marshals, Joan, please.’ Cynthia bounced on her toes. The look of delight on her face was truly alarming. ‘Well? What do you think?’
Joan breathed out hard.
‘I think … I underestimated you, Cynthia.’
‘Yeah.’ Cynthia lunged forward, seizing Joan by the chin and forcing Joan’s face close to hers. Her nails bit into Joan’s skin. The gnarled white scar tissue twisted around Cynthia’s mouth as she smiled and smiled. ‘You really did, Ferguson. But you won’t be doing that again, will you?’
‘No.’ Joan broke free. ‘I won’t.’
For months, she had deadened herself to the unwanted touch of other people, to their dirty, disgusting hands on her skin. But now she was awake again and she couldn’t tolerate it any longer. Couldn’t and wouldn’t. She wiped her face on her sleeve, while Cynthia laughed.
‘Oh, Joan. You don’t know what it means to me, to have you here to see my success. You never thought I could do it, did you? You never thought I’d make governor at all.’ Cynthia’s smile had become a snarl. ‘Not after you’d done your fucken best to stop me.’
Joan rolled her eyes.
‘My approval means a lot to you, doesn’t it, Cynthia?’
‘Fuck your approval! And fuck you!’ Cynthia lashed out; Joan’s reflexes, numbed for months on end, were not quick enough to respond. There was a loud crack, and pain burst across the back of Joan’s skull, four hot stripes stinging along her cheek. Cynthia had slapped her so hard her head had hit the wall.
Joan surged forward, her right arm swinging around, determined to flatten Cynthia’s long nose for her. Blood was surging behind her face, her old impulses screaming back – touch me, will you?
She caught herself just in time. Stumbled to a halt a half-inch away from her opponent. Lowered her fists and stepped back, her heartbeat pounding in the sides of her head.
‘That’s right.’ Cynthia was trembling, either with rage or momentary fear, but now she laughed again. ‘Stand down, that’s a good girl. You know what happens to a prisoner who assaults a senior officer, don’t you, Joan? Especially if she’s the sort of pathetic lowlife freak who’s rotting in protection because even the other slags can’t stand her.’ Cynthia leaned forward with exaggerated concern. ‘Golly, Joan! What does that make you?’
Joan drew herself up, her fists unclenching.
‘The person who defeated you at Blackmoor.’ Her voice came out as cold and imperious as it had ever been. ‘And Cynthia? I’m sorry to hear you’ve been bearing a grudge against me for years, obsessing over how to get even and what you would say when we met at last … because all that time, I wasn’t thinking of you at all.’
Cynthia’s long fingers twitched again, her disfigured face a mask of hatred. She said ‘Think you can push my buttons that easily, Joan? Get me all confused and upset, doubting myself?’ She snorted. ‘I’m not Vera Bennett.’
‘Yes, that is one thing that might be said in Ms Bennett’s favour.’
Joan watched her captor closely, waiting for another blow. Still, she couldn’t help adding ‘And how is Ms Bennett adjusting to your New Old Wentworth? I can’t imagine it’s to her tastes.’
‘Who gives a shit? Anyway, I don’t expect she knows much more about it than you do.’
Joan frowned. Did that mean Vera was no longer working here – that the Board had sacked her for incompetence? Joan felt a momentary flare of triumph – but in a second it gave way to a shameful and shattering disappointment. If Vera had been banished from Wentworth, then Joan would never spar with her, never sneer at her, never see her again.
She realised Cynthia was frowning.
‘Joan…’ The other woman’s tone was confused. Then Cynthia’s eyes widened. ‘Bloody hell. You don’t know, do you?’
Joan hated it when people said that.
But now Cynthia was laughing once more, silently, her tall, lanky frame shaking with mirth.
‘Christ on a bike! You don’t know!’
With difficulty, Cynthia calmed herself, wiping one eye. Then she straightened her shoulders and jerked her thumb back in the direction they’d come from. Back towards Joan’s cell.
Joan’s body froze. The concrete chill of the floor seeped up through the soles of her feet. It slithered along her limbs and wrapped itself around her belly, her heart.
‘Excuse me?’ Cynthia blinked, her expression one of outraged amusement. Joan’s face hardened.
‘I will not go back in there.’ Joan drew her shoulders back. She’d finished with all that, she realised. Cynthia could call her officers or her jumped-up inmates, they could beat Joan down and drag her in there, but she would not walk herself back into that cage.
Cynthia raised one curious eyebrow.
‘Is that a fact?’ She nodded to herself, apparently turning this news over in her mind. Then she feinted sideways and delivered a jarring kick to the side of Joan’s knee, hard enough to send Joan staggering.
Catching her off balance, Cynthia seized Joan’s arm, twisted it behind her back, and propelled her forward, using Joan’s own weight to send her crashing into the wall.
‘Listen up, you slag,’ she hissed, pressing Joan against the bricks. She grabbed a handful of Joan’s loose hair and yanked her head back until Cynthia’s lips brushed her ear. Joan could smell the other woman’s sweat. ‘You will go wherever the hell I tell you to go, when I tell you to go there, and you will be fucken grateful that I bothered to speak to you at all. You got that, Ferguson?’
‘Get away from me.’ Joan thrashed in Cynthia’s grip, throwing her assailant left and right. But months of captivity had wasted Joan’s strength, and while Cynthia’s grip shook, it did not loosen.
‘Look at you, Ferguson!’ she crowed. ‘Pathetic! You couldn’t last ten rounds against my poor old mum and she’s been dead five years!’ Still, Joan could hear Cynthia puffing as the new governor dragged her sideways towards the cell door.
‘Put me back in there and I will kill you,’ Joan heard herself breathe. ‘However long it takes, however much you think you’ve won… Just ask Bea Smith.’
‘Oh, for fuck’s sake, Ferguson.’ Cynthia darted one foot between Joan’s ankles and tripped her neatly to the left. Joan teetered, before a shove from Cynthia sent her hurtling into the cell door.
The closed cell door. This wasn’t her cell, she realised, but the next one along.
‘Jesus, Joan.’ Cynthia was panting. ‘Calm the fuck down, will you? I was only trying to show you something.’
‘What?’ Joan caught her own breath much more easily. She hadn’t smoked since Blackmoor. Let her get out of this place and get well again, and she would tie Cynthia Leach in a knot.
‘Here.’ Cynthia slapped the glass panel in the door. ‘I was trying to give you a surprise, you crazy bitch. A bit of a treat.’ She released Joan and stood back, rubbing her ribs where Joan’s elbow had hammered them. ‘That’ll teach me to be so nice to people.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Joan’s teeth were clenched. She decided she would kill Cynthia regardless, just for touching her. And for insulting her, and for stealing the governorship and making a big, brutal success of it, when Cynthia didn’t deserve to be successful at anything, ever.
‘I’m talking – ’ Cynthia rapped one knobbly finger on the glass ‘ – about this.’
Moving slowly, mistrustfully, Joan followed the direction Cynthia was indicating. She brought her face up to the glass and squinted into the darkened cell.
It was hard to make anything out at first. As her eyes adjusted, Joan noted the same stark furnishings familiar from her own cell: the narrow bed, the toilet, the faint rectangle of light from the small window, set too high to provide any view of the world. This feeble light picked out the white tangle of bedclothes, the pale square of a pillow.
And lying curled up small on top of the bedclothes, her curly hair spread across the pillow, was a human figure. It was dark in there, but her features, silhouetted against the linen, would have been familiar to Joan anywhere.
Joan’s scarred hand reached up to touch the glass.
‘Vera,’ she whispered.
My sincere thanks to anyone still reading by now - I know this has been a long and explanatory chapter! Your patience is appreciated :-)
Joan stared into the cell. Her bad hand throbbed all over again, as if the glass were melting beneath her palm. Behind her, in the shadows, Cynthia was laughing.
‘How about that, eh? Two ex-governors at once – gotta be some kind of record!’
‘Why is she here?’ Joan breathed. She pressed her forehead to the glass, straining to see more. Vera wore teal tracksuit bottoms and a white t-shirt, smaller versions of Joan’s own clothing. She slept curled up, her knees tucked into her stomach, her arms wrapped across her chest. She must have thrown the covers off, but Joan could see her shivering.
‘Well, I could hardly let her out in the yard, could I? Not after what happened to you, Joan.’
‘No, why is she in here at all?’ Joan’s voice was rising. The glass trembled against her fingertips.
‘No one told you?’ Cynthia said. ‘Didn’t your lawyer mention it?’
‘My lawyer? I haven’t seen her since…’ Joan realised she didn’t know. Her own helplessness appalled her. Why had she become like this? What had happened to Joan Ferguson?
‘I don’t know anything about this, Cynthia. Why is Vera in here?’
‘On remand awaiting trial,’ said Cynthia. ‘Bail application was knocked back. A little bird told me the Attorney-General was royally pissed off that there’d been another scandal at Wentworth, and in an election year too. Not great for his tough-on-crime image. Oh, not that he would dream of influencing a magistrate, of course….’
‘What – ’ Joan fought to keep her voice level ‘ – is Vera charged with?’
‘Oh.’ Cynthia snapped her fingers, as if embarrassed by her fading memory. ‘Of course. Conspiracy to murder Joan Ferguson.’
Slowly, Joan drew her hand back from the glass, lowered it, and turned to face her captor.
‘Oh, yes.’ Cynthia’s second favourite thing, after screwing people over, was being the bearer of grim news. ‘Between the security tapes and the testimony of her own officers, it was clear that Vera was the one who arranged for Bea Smith to be let out of the prison.’ Cynthia whistled. ‘That’s a serious offence right there. But the Office of Public Prosecutions have taken it a step further. They’re arguing Ms Bennett engaged Smith to kill you.’
Joan didn’t move. Her voice, when she managed to summon it, came out hushed.
‘Pretty obvious, isn’t it? Smith was a double murderer. We all knew what she liked to do when she broke out of gaol, and how she felt about you, Joan. No way Ms Bennett couldn’t have realised what would happen when she let Smith go. And Vera had not one but two solid gold motives for wanting you dead. You’d announced to all and sundry that you were going to take her job off her – that precious governor’s job, Vera’s holy grail that she’d finally won after years of being passed over and humiliated. Plus everyone knew Vera blamed you for her Hep C infection.’ Cynthia scratched her scarred chin. ‘Shit, Joan, if you’d pulled that one on me, I’d’ve had you shivved too.’
‘But Bea Smith…’ Joan’s lip shook. Dread closed around her chest; she didn’t want to remember that day. The dust, the stillness, the raw white sunlight that had seemed to pull things out of shape. The obscenity of hearing Jianna’s name on that woman’s lips; the beast that had leaped inside Joan at that moment. How it had roared.
She forced herself to continue: ‘Before she died, Smith said nothing about Vera.’
‘So? What does that prove?’
‘Smith might have…’ Joan shook her head. ‘Smith was cunning. Manipulative. She could have deceived Ms Bennett with some story.’
‘Deceived her enough to open those gates? Are you fucken kidding me?’ Cynthia snorted. ‘That level of stupidity oughta be a crime in itself. But you don’t know the rest, Joan. Turns out ten grand in cash went missing from Ms Bennett’s bank account just a couple of days before. She claims she gave it to Mr Stewart for some “business venture”, but he denies all knowledge. Cops haven’t found the money yet, but they reckon Ms Bennett must have stashed it somewhere for Smith. As a deposit.’
‘I wouldn’t believe a word of Mr Stewart’s testimony,’ Joan heard herself point out. Why was she still arguing?
‘Oh, young Jake? He’s good value, isn’t he? Just how I like my men: handsome, amoral, and thick as pig shit. Yeah, I’ve got lots of little jobs lined up for Mr Stewart.’ She shook her head. ‘But I’m getting sidetracked. The case against Vera was really clinched when a prisoner came forward to say she’d seen Ms Bennett give Smith that screwdriver.’
Cynthia paused, letting that sink in. ‘Poor Vera. She’s looking at fourteen years.’
A muscle jerked in Joan’s cheek. The cold night air drilled deep into her bones. Somewhere just beyond her line of vision, she could sense her father’s presence. ‘I warned you, Joan…’
Had Vera done this to her? Not just betrayed her, imprisoned her, hated her – but actually sat down and calmly planned her death?
Joan’s numb brain answered her: probably. It made sense. The evidence, the motives, everything. She should have known Vera was behind it as soon as she saw Smith standing outside the prison gate.
Perhaps that was why Joan’s mind and heart had shut down for so long. To avoid facing this last unbearable truth.
‘If Ms Bennett is charged with conspiring with Smith to murder me,’ she heard herself ask finally, her voice flat and strange, ‘why am I still in here?’
‘Oh, Joan.’ She could sense Cynthia rolling her eyes. ‘Really?’
‘Yes, really.’ Inside Joan’s head the mist was clearing now, and anger was stirring again. It felt righteous. Cleansing. And it stopped her from thinking about Vera. ‘I have been locked in here for months like – ’ She realised she was shaking. ‘And all the time they believed I was innocent?’
Cynthia made a noise like a camel.
‘Fuck’s sake, Joan, no one believes that. These current charges are a bit wobbly, I grant you, but you know how the game is played. You embarrassed the police and the state government when you walked on that first lot of charges; you made the DPP and the Corrections Minister look like dickheads. They were always going to come after you for something else, even if it was just parking tickets.’ Cynthia yawned and picked at one fingernail. ‘As it is, I expect they’ll settle for manslaughter.’
‘Settle? I’ll settle for no such thing!’ Energy was coursing through Joan’s veins. ‘They think they can treat me like this?’
‘Well, they did, Joan.’ Cynthia seemed unfazed by Joan’s bunched fists and mad black eyes.
‘I’ll ruin them.’ Joan paced, her fingers clawing in vain for a suitable throat. ‘Every one of them. That detective inspector on my case; I heard things about him when I was inside. There are half a dozen trafficked Asian girls who could tell some stories…’
‘Oh yeah?’ Cynthia sounded politely interested.
‘The DPP’s a hopeless drunk and nasty with it. Might not take much to get his mistress to talk.’ Joan’s mind whirred; it felt unspeakably good to be doing this again. ‘And as for the Minister, there’s a story from his student days about a champagne bottle and a dead goat – ’
‘Well, it’s nice to hear you sounding like your old self again, Joan.’ Cynthia craned her neck. ‘But what about Vera? You haven’t mentioned her yet. Would’ve thought she’d be top of your revenge list.’
Joan stopped moving.
‘I daresay Ms Bennett is offering some kind of defence?’ She tried with all her might not to sound hopeful.
‘Oh, yeah!’ Cynthia hooted. ‘I think that was what convinced the cops she was guilty. Get this: she reckoned she’d sent Bea Smith out after you with a recorder, so Smith could trick you into admitting to all your evil crimes on tape. Then Smith promised to come straight back to prison and hand the evidence over to the police.’ Cynthia flopped back against the wall, guffawing. ‘Like the Famous fucken Five! Aw, you might have gotten away with it, Joan, if it hadn’t been for those pesky kids!’
‘I didn’t say anything incriminating to Smith,’ Joan murmured.
‘Well, of course you didn’t. Whole story was a load of bull. Mind you, I think the police did find a recorder, but Vera could have planted that. Seriously, did she think people would believe that was what she had planned with Smith? As if the governor of a prison was some desperate, wide-eyed, geeky little Nancy Drew!’
‘Well…’ Joan hesitated.
‘Jesus, Joan, you don’t believe it, do you?’ Cynthia’s voice rose to an astonished squawk. ‘I know you’ve been a bit doolally the last few months, but use your brain! The bitch was probably working against you from Day One.’
‘Yes.’ Joan’s shoulders dropped. A weight settled in her chest. ‘Probably.’
‘And now she’s deep in the sticky stuff.’ Cynthia gave a sigh of satisfaction. Then she frowned. ‘Joan, I know things have been tough, but I’d’ve thought this news would make you a little bit happy.’
‘Ecstatic. Thank you, Cynthia.’
Joan turned away.
She couldn’t stop her gaze from sliding back to that window in the cell door. Peering in there while Cynthia watched her felt distasteful, indecent. But it might be the last chance she would get to look at Vera.
Vera’s small chest rose and fell, her limbs quivering in sleep. What was she dreaming of? How long had she been in there, on the other side of the wall?
Joan’s breath misted the glass. There’d been a time when she’d fantasised about watching Vera sleep. Back home, in her own bed, in those hazy moments between consciousness and slumber, she’d often imagined the warm shape of the younger woman lying beside her. Imagined rolling over to pull Vera’s drowsy form into her arms, stroking her tanned skin and burying her nose in those soft curls.
How Joan had loathed herself for those tender fantasies later on, when she discovered what Vera was really up to. How she had loathed Vera for them, too.
How was Vera coping with captivity? Joan wondered. Had it broken her yet? Was she still veering between rage and hope – did she still count the days, pace the perimeter, kick the door, scream into the indifferent silence? Did anyone come to see her?
At last, Joan asked ‘Who was the prisoner? The one who said she saw Vera give Smith the weapon?’
‘Hm.’ Cynthia screwed up her nose. ‘Yeah, there is that. Truth be told, the slag in question is not someone I would trust to tell me the time. She’s a right nuisance; my marshals have had to give her a good talking-to several times already. But getting punished for breaking the rules has only made the bloody woman more determined to grab whatever power she’s got left. And I suspect she might have a teensy grudge against Ms Bennett.’ Cynthia shrugged. ‘Anyway, she’s sticking like glue to her story and the cops have accepted it. Who am I to tell them how to do their job?’
‘Who is it?’ Joan demanded. Cynthia watched her for a moment, before replying.
Joan’s breath caught. Her stomach clenched. But her face stayed remarkably still; there was no fear, no nausea, no residual pain.
Just a clarity that made her whisper ‘It wasn’t Vera.’
‘What’s that?’ But Joan didn’t need Cynthia’s interruptions now. She swung around and shut her eyes, the better to argue her case against the one person whose guidance and provocations she did want.
Ivan never showed himself in here. Maybe the doctors had banished him with their drugs, or maybe he’d abandoned Joan of his own accord, disgusted by her failure. But now she could feel his presence, lingering just out of sight.
‘Vera’s been set up,’ Joan murmured. ‘Maybe she did let Smith out the gate, but she never gave her that weapon. I always guessed it was Vera who pushed Gambaro down those stairs. Now that creature wants payback.’
‘Even if Gambaro’s lying,’ Cynthia was talking again, much to Joan’s frustration, ‘it’s still likely that Vera did send Smith to kill you.’
‘No.’ Joan shook her head, grabbing wildly at the jigsaw pieces in her mind before they could blow away. ‘No, Vera was bitter. She wanted me to notice her – maybe that was all she’d ever wanted. Even when I was a prisoner and she hated me, she couldn’t stay away. If she’d set out to kill me, she wouldn’t have got Smith to do it behind her back. When Vera had struck before – her mother, Gambaro – it was face to face. She was sick of being dismissed all her life; it had driven her mad. If she’d had me killed, Vera would have wanted – needed – to be there. To speak to me, to make sure I saw her, to force me to acknowledge that she’d won. It would have been … intimate.’
In the distance, Cynthia was speaking again, but Joan was no longer listening. It was her father’s cynicism, his ruthless facts and logic she wanted to hear now. To hear and reject.
Yes, I know how it looks! she told him silently, furiously. I know which way the evidence points, but I also know Vera! She wouldn’t have done it like this, and – and I don’t think she would have done it at all.
At Ivan’s interjection, Joan shook her head and ran her hands through her dishevelled hair.
All right, all right, I don’t FEEL Vera would have done it – there you are! Disown me, Dad; I’m being led by emotions! In her head she was laughing now, doubled over, verging on hysteria. But I know I’m right. That wretched dinner – I asked her there because I felt something was wrong, and I was correct, wasn’t I? And maybe – maybe my mistake with Vera wasn’t getting emotional; maybe my mistake was drawing away. If I hadn’t choked, if I’d had any idea how to – how to tell her what I felt, then maybe none of this would have happened!
Joan pulled up short, her chest aching. Maybe neither of us would be here.
She turned around to find Cynthia watching her.
Joan hadn’t said any of that out loud. Had she? After months of unreality which the drugs only made worse, she could no longer be certain.
But perhaps Joan didn’t need to say anything. Cynthia Leach had always been able to read another person’s shameful secrets just by looking at her face.
Cynthia’s eyes grew wider and wider. Then her face cracked with glee as she realised the truth, her scarred lips pulling back in silent laughter, her teeth bared, her shoulders shaking. She leaned in closer to Joan, and in the shadows she looked like a crouching gargoyle.
It was the same look – salacious, triumphant, cruel – that Joan had seen on Cynthia’s face that night at Blackmoor, when Cynthia had caught Joan coming out of Jianna’s cell.
‘Well, well, Ferguson,’ Cynthia drawled, glancing back and forth between Vera’s cell door and her old adversary. ‘What have we here?’
‘Oh, Joan…’ Cynthia looked back into Vera’s cell and shook her head as if in deep dismay.
Then she sauntered closer to her old colleague until one polished court shoe was planted between Joan’s bare feet. Joan’s instincts were shrieking at her to move away, but to cede ground now would be disastrous. The ridges and protrusions of Cynthia’s utility belt bumped against Joan’s hips; if not for their layers of cheap uniform, their breasts would have brushed together.
Cynthia reached up to pick a loose thread off Joan’s t-shirt, just below the neckline.
‘I’d heard the rumours,’ Cynthia murmured. She took her time looking up close at Joan’s pallid skin and unkempt hair, knowing how much it was costing Joan not to thrust her away. ‘The big bad governor and her cute little deputy… But I thought it had to be bullshit. I mean – Joan Ferguson, the Fixer? Hydrochloric acid in her veins? No way, I said, that she could go soft. Not nowadays.’
Joan’s jaw was clenched.
‘Oh, I don’t think so, Joan. Dirty little secrets are my speciality.’ Cynthia raised an eyebrow. ‘You must remember that.’
Abruptly, Cynthia swung around and stepped away. But Joan felt no relief, for now Cynthia was approaching the door to Vera’s cell. She positioned herself at the viewing window, feet planted shoulder-width apart, hands clasped behind her back, as she regarded the sleeping woman inside.
‘Can’t see it myself,’ Cynthia mused. ‘Weedy little thing – she’d need a stepladder to pash you, Joan. Although I suppose she’d be about the right height for other things, eh?’ Cynthia craned her neck back for a moment, enjoying the fury that rippled beneath the controlled surface of Joan’s face. ‘Still, I guess you always did like the nervous little ones, didn’t you? The ones who were isolated and lonely, who’d keep quiet and be ever so grateful for your special attentions…’
Joan’s hands quivered. She was desperate to haul Cynthia away, to slap the smirk off her face. The sight of her old rival, tall and untouchable in her dark uniform, staring with relish at the helpless woman in the cell, sent a sick feeling churning through Joan’s stomach. She refused to acknowledge it as guilt.
Instead she said ‘Grateful is not a word I would use to describe Ms Bennett. The woman made false accusations against me and usurped the job that was rightfully mine. Of course, that was her only opportunity for advancement, given her utter ineptitude.’ Joan’s voice was cold, sneering. Most people would have been convinced by it. ‘And the only thing I “like” about Ms Bennett is the thought of what my lawyer will do to her on the stand.’ Assuming Joan still had a lawyer, of course, but there was no reason to bring that up here.
‘Hey, that’s right – we don’t know what Vera was up to with Bea Smith!’ Cynthia’s eyes widened. She gave Joan a wink. ‘Want to find out?’
Joan froze. Cynthia drew the chain from her belt with its ring of keys, and swung it lazily to and fro.
‘Why not, Joan? I don’t mind bending the rules for a mate. Time was, the two of us could have got a confession out of any prisoner.’ She licked her lips. ‘Might be just like the old days…’
Cynthia moved towards the cell door, but Joan was faster. She stepped in front and seized Cynthia’s wrist.
‘Don’t.’ Joan’s grip was murderous. Cynthia laughed.
‘Oh dear, Joan. You lost your subtlety along with your governor’s badge, didn’t you?’
‘You don’t go in there.’ It was Joan’s bad hand clutching onto Cynthia. The pressure of Cynthia’s sleeve and flesh against her gripping fingers made Joan’s skin scorch and pain go coursing through her. She held on tighter.
‘Or what?’ Cynthia’s face twisted as her wrist was squeezed viciously, but she refused to lower herself by wriggling free. She spat ‘You’ve got nothing left, Ferguson. That errand boy of yours is dead, and no one else wants to know you. I could pay Ms Bennett a visit every night, and there’d be fuck all you could do about it.’ She leaned closer. Her shallow breaths felt like insect legs scuttling across Joan’s face. ‘What do you think Joan – would you be able to hear us in the next cell?’
Joan’s own breathing had almost stopped. She was studying the tie knotted around Cynthia’s neck, the heavy radio on her belt, the circumference of her throat. Calculating the odds, the possibilities.
She heard Cynthia say ‘Unless you buck your ideas up, of course.’
Joan’s stomach pitched with mingled hope and disgust. She knew she couldn't kill Cynthia out here without it being traced back to her – assuming Joan could pit her sickly body against Cynthia’s at all. But if her gaoler was thinking in those terms, there might be another way.
Cynthia had always enjoyed humiliating her opponents, staging displays of her own dominance. Joan remembered the prisoners at Blackmoor who’d had to ask Cynthia’s forgiveness on hands and knees, or break their own cherished possessions, or read their love letters out loud for her snickering amusement. Joan remembered, too, how she had stood in the doorway on those occasions and let it happen. How she’d brought some of those women to Cynthia specially.
If Joan submitted to clean Cynthia’s shoes for her, or have her hair hacked off, or take her rare showers in front of Cynthia’s gloating gaze and foul commentary – would Cynthia leave Vera alone? Would it buy Joan enough time to plan her next move?
Still, Joan couldn’t help saying ‘You abusing your position and dragging me down to your level? Yes, that certainly would be “just like the old days”, Cynthia.’
And although she knew she must focus, Joan felt a fresh wave of anger at those memories.
The first time had been in the kitchens at Blackmoor, when Joan had stepped in to stop Cynthia from forcing peanut butter down the throat of a woman who was pleading and sobbing about her allergies. (Not that anaphylaxis was widely understood at the time; not that Cynthia would have cared if it had been.)
‘All right, Ms Leach, no sense in wasting the condiments.’ Joan’s voice had been mild, but her grip on Cynthia’s elbow had won a snarl from the other woman which Cynthia could barely contain until she’d hauled Ms Ferguson outside for ‘a quick update’.
‘What the fuck are you doing, Ferguson? Don’t you ever contradict me in front of these slags again!’
‘You went in too heavy, Cynthia. We don’t even know she was the one making the liquor. We don’t need her ending up in sick bay.’
‘What we don’t need, Ferguson, is this prison spiralling out of control,’ Cynthia had retorted, her eyes narrowing. ‘Because if that happened, Joan – if I had to spend every waking moment chasing troublemakers from pillar to post – I’d have no time left for other important jobs. Like protecting that nice little prisoner Riley, for instance. And you.’
What could Joan do, but stare back at her in defeat? That moment had confirmed what Joan had been dreading ever since the night Cynthia had sprung her outside Jianna’s cell and strolled away with a chuckle and a tap to the side of her nose. To wit, that Cynthia would never pass up an opportunity to own somebody. Even somebody who’d imagined Cynthia was her friend.
When they returned to the kitchen, they found the prisoner had pissed her pants from fear, which Cynthia decided was enough of a lesson for that evening. But Joan knew she herself would not be let off so quickly.
Now, watching each other in the darkened corridor at Wentworth, Cynthia said ‘No idea what you’re talking about, Joan. Back then, we made a terrific team.’
‘You forced me to be your lookout,’ Joan glowered. ‘Your hench. You blackmailed me into your bent little schemes.’
‘Did I? That’s not how I would have put it, Joan.’ Cynthia curled her lip. ‘Way I remember it, you always had a talent for “managing” the inmates, right from the start. The way you knew which visitors to block and which privileges to deny, to upset a prisoner the most. Those special restraint holds of yours that never left a mark. The way you could fasten the cuffs just that little bit too tight…’
‘That’s not true,’ Joan whispered. Inside her chest, there was a terrible hollow feeling. ‘I was a good officer. Straight down the line. Then I met you.’
‘If you want to blame me for all your problems, Joan, go ahead.’ Cynthia rolled her eyes. ‘But we both know you took to that stuff like a duck to water.’ Cynthia gave a dirty little titter. ‘Remember our “induction” sessions, Joan? For the newbies?’
Joan’s lip twitched.
‘That was nothing. Just … theatre.’
‘Oh, absolutely. I saw no problem with it. Just a bit of fun, really.’ She raised her eyebrows. ‘You had fun, didn’t you, Joan?’
The inductions had been Cynthia’s idea. ‘Prevention’s better than cure, Joan,’ she’d explained, before barking at the half dozen first-timers to line up in the corridor. At the head of the queue was the cubicle where the strip searches were conducted.
First in line was a willowy redhead with delicate, freckled skin and an air of such ethereal innocence that she could have been, as Cynthia put it, ‘in an ad for organic fucken hair conditioner.’ But the young woman, Brenda, had only been in the cubicle a minute before Cynthia’s voice rang out: ‘And what the hell is this, ya slag? You think you can bring this shit into my prison?’
‘Oh no, miss, it’s not what it looks like…’
‘Well, it’s doing a pretty fucken amazing impression of a Class A illegal substance. Ms Ferguson, can you come in here and escort the prisoner to solitary while I call the cops?’
‘No, no, miss, please – I can’t do more time! I’m really, really sorry – ’
‘Is that right?’ Cynthia’s voice had dropped to a lecherous purr. ‘How sorry?’ There was a pause. ‘This sorry?’
‘Oh, miss, I’m not like that!’
‘Really? I thought you liked naughty things up there?’ From behind the curtain there had followed a soundtrack of slaps and groans and whimpering protests.
It was Joan’s job to stand outside, stern-faced and implacable, making it clear to the new prisoners that no one would intervene. She also studied the faces of the women in line for signs of guilt, amidst their fear, disgust and occasional arousal.
Not for anything would Joan have admitted to the treacherous heat that stirred between her own thighs during those sessions, the slickness that gathered there. And she didn’t know whether to be more or less ashamed because the whole thing was staged – Cynthia’s performances had been keeping Brenda in cigarettes and chocolate bars for months. If Joan had pulled aside the curtain, she would probably have found a fully clothed Brenda examining her nails while she snivelled and panted and uttered desperate apologies.
Now, Governor Leach leaned in nearer to Joan and ran her tongue over her teeth.
‘You know what I reckon, Joan? I reckon our induction sessions used to be the highlight of your sad little life back then. And from what I’ve heard, you kept on with that stuff long after I was out of the picture.’
‘I’m not –’ Joan shook her head. ‘I’m not like you.’
‘No, Joan, you’re not. You took it too far. You got too emotional about it all. You got caught.’
Joan’s stomach gave a heave as Cynthia moved back towards Vera’s cell and ran her long fingers caressingly over the glass.
‘If you made me happy, Joan, maybe I could bring the old times back.’ She cast a sly look at her old adversary. ‘Don’t pretend you’ve never thought about paying Ms Bennett a visit some dark night. Giving her a surprise – teaching her the error of her ways…’
‘You’re deluded as usual.’ Joan spoke coldly, but it was an effort to meet Cynthia’s eye. Because she had thought about it. Of course she had.
Months ago, when she still had feelings in her body, Joan had gazed up at the ceiling of her bedroom, her office, or the police holding cell, and relived that moment when she had forsaken all control and slapped Vera hard across the face. The shocking heat that had rushed, tingling, along her fingertips and sparked between her legs. That angry, breathless, disgraceful thrill. And she’d imagined Vera begging her to do it again, to strip her clothes off and land rhythmic, punishing smacks all over her. And afterwards she, Joan, would take Vera in her arms and be kind to her, and soothe that outraged skin with her lips, her tongue, her breath.
Surely she had killed those feelings months before, or had them torn out of her. How impossible – how absurd – that they should come flooding back now, and on Cynthia’s command.
Cynthia said ‘It could be arranged, Joan. Some quiet midnight shift… I could keep watch outside. You used to enjoy that too, didn’t you?’
When Joan’s face tightened in revulsion, Cynthia taunted ‘You know what I always thought? Secretly you liked me knowing about Jianna. Sharing the guilt around, feeling like someone was giving you permission to go there. Even though you were doing a terrible, criminal, sinful thing, there was always someone who understood…’
‘You understand nothing!’ Joan’s face darkened. ‘And don’t you dare say her name to me.’
Cynthia folded her arms. Then she shook her head, almost wearily.
‘I see. We’re going to do this, are we?’
‘You were on duty,’ Joan whispered. ‘I was called to B Block. I asked you to stay near her. She was … fragile.’ Joan bit her lip until the pain seared. ‘You promised me you would look after her – and you snuck off to the staff room to get your cigarettes instead. One decent act, Cynthia, and you couldn’t even manage that!’
‘It was fifteen minutes, Joan, tops!’ Cynthia’s voice was rising too. ‘One honest fuck-up, and didn’t you make me pay for it!’
‘Not nearly as much as you deserved.’ Blood was rushing into Joan’s face, battle drums echoing in her temples.
Cynthia swore under her breath.
‘Christ, Joan, after that you did your best to ruin me! Remember that cell-toss, when we’d agreed in advance how to play it? Then you came slithering in after me and found that whole stash in a cell I’d just said was clear. The governor wasn’t too impressed with me about that, was he?’
‘You’re blaming me for doing my job, Cynthia?’
‘Piss off, Joan; we both know you’d turned a blind eye before. That cell-toss fucked my chances of applying for the deputy job – oh, and look who slipped her application in instead!’ Cynthia’s fists clenched. ‘But that wasn’t enough, was it, Joan? Then you went and set me up, so you could screw my career for good.’
‘Cynthia, I walked in on you drowning a prisoner.’
‘Bullshit – it was just a little discipline. And you “happened” to walk in with the governor and two visiting busybodies from the department right behind you! You’re telling me it was a coincidence that your little tour took them right to that particular bathroom? What did you think you were going to show them, Joan – the new cisterns?’
Joan could see the vein in the side of Cynthia’s forehead throbbing with rage. Cynthia said 'That job was all I had. I wasn’t like these kids nowadays, with their evening classes and their bloody investment properties. I’d been a corrections officer since I left school. Who else would employ a woman like me?’ She shook her head. ‘You knew that governor’s job was my end game; you knew it meant everything to me. And you shopped me, Joan, you had me bounced down the stairs – I was bloody lucky not to be charged!’
‘You don’t think your own actions might have played a part in that, Cynthia?’
‘Oh, look who’s talking!’ Cynthia hooted. ‘You know where I ended up, Joan? Working the front desk at a juvie in rural bloody Tasmania! Cleaning the bathroom, taking out the bins, getting spat on by teenage junkies, and explaining to their angry toothless parents why they couldn’t bring their pitbulls in for a visit! Passed over for promotion time and time again – I don’t suppose you had anything to do with that, Joan?’ Cynthia’s voice was ringing off the concrete. ‘It took me years to claw back something resembling a career – and all because your girlfriend got murdered for something that was your own bloody fault!’
Silence fell. Joan felt her mouth growing dry. In a distant corridor, there was a buzz and a click as a door opened.
‘You knew Jianna was murdered?’
Cynthia’s mouth fell open. For once, she seemed lost for words. Joan repeated ‘You knew at the time, and you said nothing?’
‘Jesus, Joan, it was years ago. What does it matter?’ Joan took a step forward. Cynthia added quickly ‘I figured suicide was a little easier to cope with, all right? I was thinking of you, Joan.’
‘No, you weren’t.’
She stared at Cynthia, taking in the deep lines in the other woman’s face, the point on her chin where the scarring was thickest, the guarded look in Cynthia’s eyes. And after so much time spent thinking of nothing at all, Joan suddenly felt the pieces of an old story gather and rearrange themselves, before settling into a clear and final pattern. How had she never seen it before?
‘Back then,’ Joan said slowly, ‘everyone smoked in prison.’ Cynthia seemed about to interrupt, but Joan continued. ‘There was a cigarette machine in the prisoners’ rec room. It was just around the corner. You didn’t need to walk all the way to the staff room for a smoke.’
‘No, you didn’t.’ Joan’s voice was level. ‘You’ve never forgotten the location of a cigarette in your life. You took an unnecessary walk, and in the short time you were gone, a woman was murdered.’
Cynthia was shaking her head, but on her face was a look Joan had never seen there before. Guilt.
‘Honest, Joan, it wasn’t like that – ’ Cynthia’s words were cut off when Joan’s right hand shot out and gripped her by the throat.
In silence, they grappled together. Joan had thought her body flabby and wasted, barely able to walk across a room, but now it was surging with power. Choking and wheezing, Cynthia wrenched at Joan’s fingers, but Joan’s scarred hand twisted Cynthia’s wrist, bending it painfully out of the way.
‘What happened, Cynthia?’ Joan whispered, her blank white face close to Cynthia’s sweating red one. ‘Were you so greedy, so corrupt, that a few dollars were worth an innocent woman’s life?’ Cynthia’s lips worked silently, her left hand tugging at Joan’s clothing. Her flesh was hot beneath Joan’s tightening fingers. Joan’s nostrils filled with stale cigarette smoke and a pungent animal scent: sweat and fear.
‘Or did you get a kick out of it, Cynthia? Maybe bashings weren’t enough to satisfy you any more. Did it give you a laugh to see my beautiful girl lynched?’
That vein was bulging in Cynthia’s forehead. Joan squeezed harder – and hissed, as one heavy, heeled shoe slammed down on her bare foot. Her grip weakened for a second, and Cynthia reached up to claw at her eyes. Joan flinched, then reeled as a hard, knobbly fist rocketed up into her jaw.
Struggling free, Cynthia hit out again, this time landing a chop to Joan’s windpipe that made her stagger backwards, gasping.
‘You fucken psycho, Ferguson!’ She could hear Cynthia coughing and retching. Claw-like fingers fastened themselves in Joan’s hair and banged her head into the cell door. White spots whirled before her eyes.
Cynthia was bellowing in her ear ‘Who the fuck do you think you are? You have a go at me, and I will make you regret it for the rest of your miserable pointless fucken life, you hear me?’
Joan’s arm was yanked up between her shoulder blades; she felt a ridge of cold metal snap shut around her wrist. Cynthia growled ‘This is my prison, Joan. And god help me, you will learn your place.’ She gave a wild laugh. ‘Otherwise, who knows? Maybe I’ll get careless with my paperwork and accidentally release Ms Bennett into General.’
A jolt shook Joan’s body. Her gaze lifted to the window of the cell door.
Inside the cell, the bed was empty. A slim figure was standing right on the other side of the door. Her small hand was clutching at the glass, her mouth open with shock as Cynthia crunched Joan’s face against the wall.
As Joan stared back, she saw that Vera’s eyes were wide with horror, and her lips were forming a name. Not ‘the prisoner Ferguson’ this time. Just ‘Joan’.
Cynthia’s breath filled Joan’s ear.
‘Imagine that – Vinegar Tits in teal!’ She grabbed for Joan’s left hand, seeking to fasten the cuffs. ‘Another ex-governor all alone out there… Still, I daresay Juice’s crew will give her a warm welcome.’
Joan’s head snapped back. She caught Cynthia on the bridge of her nose; there was a spluttering sound and a warm spray of blood. Joan ripped her arm free, hurtled around, and launched herself at her captor.
Her full weight caught Cynthia in the chest, sending the governor flying. Cynthia hit the wall opposite, then groaned as Joan’s fist pounded her in the stomach.
Adrenalin was surging through Joan’s body, but everything seemed to be moving slowly: the piston of her right arm, Cynthia’s shocked expression, the glint of the cuffs flying from Joan’s right wrist. Inside her head, there was a howling.
‘You think you can touch me?’ She heard her own voice; it was ragged, discordant. ‘What do you say now – am I "progressing well"?’ Mad laughter rang in her ears. ‘Breaking through my–’ her fist hammered Cynthia’s midriff ‘–barriers?’ Cynthia doubled over, gagging. Joan backhanded her across the face. ‘Reconnecting with my emotions?’
Flailing, Cynthia seized a handful of Joan’s hair and hauled until Joan’s scalp was scorching. Her head was pulled lower and lower – then Cynthia’s knee caught her hard in the mouth.
Spitting blood, pain reverberating along her jaw, Joan was dragged by her cuffed wrist back towards the cell. Cynthia had the loose cuff in both hands now, the metal sawing into Joan’s wrist. If she resisted, her good arm might break.
She rushed forward instead, catching Cynthia off guard and sending them both crashing to the floor. Joan scarcely felt the impact. Her face distorted and streaming blood, she straddled Cynthia’s heaving chest and pummelled her again and again.
‘Scum!’ Blood and spit were flying from Joan’s mouth, her clumped hair writhing like black snakes. ‘You think this makes you brave? You wouldn’t be the first pigs I’ve slaughtered!’ Her voice shook the concrete. ‘I’ll rip your eyes out!’
The taste and smell of butchery were everywhere. She couldn’t stop – wouldn’t stop –
Until Cynthia worked her arm free, and Joan saw a dark, bricklike shape – Cynthia’s radio – come arcing through the air towards her. It seemed to move with a dreamy slowness. No rush, no danger at all … until it smashed into the side of Joan’s head.
Twice, three times – then the world turned to knife-points of silver and black.
Please see PCBH for Joan's moving original speech 'I was a good officer...', which I have shamelessly pilfered. The real speech concerned her doomed relationship with Audrey; I have put it to a slightly different purpose here.
Joan did not open her eyes.
There was concrete underneath her and a battering ram crashing inside her skull. The metal cuff was biting deep into her right wrist, and her hand beneath it was numb. A sticky crust of dried blood gummed her lips together and crackled across her chin. She slid her tongue over her teeth; none were missing. Her body throbbed with bruising, but when she flexed her limbs nothing seemed to be broken.
Not the worst, then. Not like last time.
She lay still, her heart racing as the night’s events flashed through her mind. Cynthia had betrayed Jianna. Cynthia had threatened Vera. Joan had attacked Cynthia for it, and Cynthia had won.
There was a sound of running water, a sprinkling of cold droplets across Joan’s bare foot. Her mouth felt abominably dry.
‘Ah,’ said a voice above her. ‘So you’re not dead yet?’
Joan’s eyes flew open. Her body jerked upright – until a wrench of her wrist pulled her back, gasping with pain. Cynthia had fastened the cuff to the leg of the bed.
‘That’s it; don’t try and move.’ Cynthia was bent over the sink, splashing water onto her face. Cleaning up her bloodied nose, Joan surmised. Perhaps she had not been unconscious for long, then.
Holding her restrained arm still, Joan shuffled painfully into a seated position on the floor. She breathed deep, forcing down a wave of nausea. You’re still alive, she told herself.
In her head, she heard Ivan scoffing: You think this is pain? This is nothing! My father, he would take a horsewhip to the lot of us. Now, get up or I will give you something to cry about.
The thought was comforting in a ghastly way, as perhaps the old man had intended.
‘How are you?’ Joan made herself ask Cynthia. She kept her tone neutral, her earlier rage held back for now. There was no point in a chained captive shouting threats – not until she had more information.
Talking caused the split in Joan’s lip to pull open again, stinging. Fresh blood seeped out.
‘Think I’ve cracked a fucken rib.’ Cynthia prodded her midsection and hissed. ‘Always were a dirty fighter, weren’t you, Ferguson?’
‘In my experience, there is no other kind.’ Joan raised her free hand to touch her lip. It was still attached, although her face must be a mess of blood – her own and perhaps Cynthia’s, too.
In the past, she might have shut down in horror at that thought, or started screaming for the disinfectant. This time, though, she felt oddly calm. There was no disorder here, she realised; no invasion or entrapment. Just battle wounds, and no shame in that.
‘Cynthia, you might consider loosening this cuff? Amputation would mean a lot of tedious paperwork…’
‘Hurts, does it?’ Cynthia pulled out her torch and shone its white glare first into Joan’s blinking eyes, and then onto her wrist. The flesh around the cuff was puffy and discoloured. ‘Yeah, that does look sore.’
Cynthia made no effort to remove the cuff. She switched the torch off instead, and took a lazy step back in the direction of the door.
‘What do you reckon, Joan? If I got absent-minded, walked out and just left you like this, how long would it take before anyone realised? Days? Weeks?’ Joan could hear the gloating smile in Cynthia’s voice. ‘The screws never look in here much any more, do they? And they know not to take notice of anything you might try to say…’
The governor fell silent, letting the scenario take shape in Joan’s mind. The pain, the filth, the hunger and thirst, the slow, descending madness. It was entirely plausible, Joan knew. There would be no proof of murder or deliberate torture. Just an oversight, an accidental dereliction of duty – unfortunate, but easily papered over. And who on the outside would notice or care?
Cynthia took another step towards the door.
Joan breathed slowly, trying to ride the waves of pain rather than swim against them. In a whisper, she said ‘You could do that, Cynthia. But you won’t.’
‘Oh, yeah?’ Cynthia folded her arms. ‘And why is that, Joan?’
With her free hand, Joan lifted her hair away from her eyes. She said ‘Your lighter.’
Joan swallowed, trying to summon her voice back into her parched throat.
‘Back at Blackmoor, you always used your favourite Zippo lighter. You weren’t supposed to have one inside a prison, but you managed.’ Joan had bitten her tongue during the fight and it smarted when she spoke. ‘You never bothered with matches; you said they were a nuisance. But here you are, using what looks like an old matchbox from home.’
Cynthia shrugged, her face baffled.
‘Lighter’s dead. I need a new one.’
‘Just so. But you haven’t got one yet, and I never knew you to put anything ahead of your nicotine needs before. And then there’s your hair.’
Joan pointed with her left hand.
‘You were always fussy about it; you couldn’t bear it touching your collar or the tops of your ears. But now I can see it’s doing both. You look at least a month overdue for a haircut.’ Joan’s voice was growing louder, more resonant. ‘And when you stood by the window in the corridor, I could see your skin, how pale it’s grown. In the past, you always loved a full, leathery Queensland tan; you worked the nightshift so you could spend your afternoons in a deck chair.’
Cynthia pulled a face.
‘What are you on about, Ferguson?’
‘You’ve got your dream job at last, Cynthia, and you claim it’s all going swimmingly. But you’re spending very long hours at the office, aren’t you? You’re working so hard you can’t even indulge your vanity or your deadly addictions, and that’s not like you at all.’ Joan let that point sink in, then continued. ‘And then there are your nails. I had a good view of them earlier, when you were scratching at my face. They’re a mess; chewed down to the quick. The only time I saw you do that before was when I beat you to the deputy job at Blackmoor.’
Cynthia glanced down at her hands, then curled them quickly into fists.
‘What’s your fucken point, Sherlock?’
‘My point – ’ Joan lingered over the word ‘– is that you claim to be the most successful governor this prison has ever had, but you’re working much harder than you wish to, and you’re worried.’ She paused. ‘And there’s your conduct tonight. You’ve been provoking me for hours, Cynthia – threatening this, promising that – but you haven’t done very much at all.’ Joan ignored the throbbing pain in her wrist, the headache that rang in her skull, and held the other woman’s gaze. ‘The Cynthia Leach I knew believed in direct action. Remember that prisoner at Blackmoor you caught threatening the nurses into dealing for her? You stuffed her down the garbage chute, then charged her with attempting to escape! You didn’t waste time swanning up and down making speeches, like you did tonight. There was only one reason for you to do that here, Cynthia: to get me interested.’
Joan’s chest was hot, each breath a tearing effort. But like a marathon runner spotting the finish line, there was no chance of her slowing down now.
‘So, in answer to your question, Cynthia, do you know why I think you’re not going to walk out of here and leave me chained up to die? Because you’re in trouble, and you want something.’
The new governor stood unmoving in the doorway. The corridor outside seemed to be growing lighter; a blueish pre-dawn haze.
Cynthia drew out her pack of cigarettes, now badly crushed, and sifted through it, looking for one that was still intact. She clamped it between her lips, then with a smooth flick of her wrist, lit a match. The flame, held upright, illuminated her battered face and sharp eyes.
She blew out a long, unbroken stream of smoke. Then she said ‘Fancy you remembering that garbage chute thing.’
Pushing her luck, Joan added ‘At the time, I thought you were Blackmoor’s tough-on-drugs crusader. Now I wonder if that prisoner’s real offence was not paying you off first.’
Cynthia narrowed her eyes. But all she said was ‘It was only smack, Joan. If it was up to me, I’d dole the stuff out from medical. Used to keep the women nice and quiet.’ She exhaled, faint white spirals drifting up from her nostrils. ‘But nowadays it’s ice, and that stuff’s uglier than a monkey’s arse. I’ve seen some sights, I can tell you. Property smashed up, officers attacked…’
‘Here at Wentworth?’ Joan ventured. Cynthia didn’t reply. Instead she watched Joan for a while as she smoked. Joan could see the smears of blood around her nostrils.
At last Cynthia said ‘I don’t answer to you, Ferguson. But for the record, I had no idea those slags were about to have a go at Jianna. When they tipped me the wink, I thought it was just another drugs drop-off. Told them I’d be along for my payoff later. When I came back and found you cutting her down…’ Cynthia broke off. She stared at the bright tip of her cigarette, refusing to meet Joan’s eye. ‘Well, it was like I’d been kicked in the guts.’
‘Why didn’t you say something?’ Joan’s voice rasped. She had not lost the urge to seize Cynthia by the throat.
‘And drop myself right in it?’ Cynthia shook the idea away.
‘You know – ’ Joan said slowly ‘–what my next question will be.’
‘Jesus, Joan.’ Cynthia mumbled it around her cigarette, puffing with all her might. ‘It was eighteen years ago – and you’re stuck in here for the foreseeable.’ Joan gazed back at her. ‘You’re not serious?’
‘I’m not famous for my sense of humour, Cynthia.’
‘Fuck a duck.’ Cynthia’s face cracked into a disbelieving smile. She shook her head. ‘You really are mental. You think you can get to them now? With Jesper dead? From in here?’
Joan looked around at the darkened cell, her shackled body, the hostile and dangerous governor standing over her.
Cynthia swore under her breath, then chewed on her cigarette for a while.
‘You had months out in General, Ferguson. You did nothing about it then?’
‘I wasn’t…’ Joan frowned. When she picked back gingerly through her memories of that time, nothing seemed to fit anywhere. ‘I wasn’t myself then, Cynthia. When I think of it now…’ She touched her injured lip. The cut was closing over. ‘It seems like somebody else’s bad dream.’
‘And now…’ Cynthia arched her eyebrows. ‘You’re awake?’
Joan took a deep breath, then released it gradually. ‘Yes.’
‘I see.’ Cynthia tapped her cigarette and watched with scientific interest as the ash scattered across Joan’s floor. Then she lifted her head. Her gaze was cool and direct.
She said ‘I’ll give you their names, Joan. Jianna’s killers. Catch me on a good day, I might even help you find the slags.’ She took one final draw and expelled the smoke up towards the heavens. ‘But first let’s talk about what you’re going to do for me.’
Cynthia sprawled on the narrow bed, her shoes on the mattress, midway through another cigarette. Joan sat cross-legged on the concrete, discreetly flexing her fingers and massaging her inflamed wrist. Coming back to life hurt.
‘Unlock these now, or I’m not listening to another word,’ she’d said to Cynthia. Cynthia had laughed at the empty threat, but she’d obliged nonetheless, taking as long as humanly possible to hunt out the key, work it into the catch, and snap the cuff open. No harm in reminding Joan of the favours a governor could do – and they both knew a displeased Cynthia could always stop by later and finish what she’d started.
‘So, my new system’s running bloody well, as I told you,’ Cynthia explained now. ‘But there’s one problem.’
‘The drugs keep getting in.’ Joan wriggled her fingers, feeling the sensation come tingling back. Her knuckles were skinned raw, she realised. A proper fight, and surely ridiculous at their age. Still, they’d both handled themselves, hadn’t they? Not many women in here could have done better, alone and without backup. She couldn’t help smiling a little.
Cynthia said ‘Joan, I’ll speak frankly: I don’t know where the fuck the stuff’s coming from. We watch these prisoners like hawks…’
‘Then I’m afraid the most likely scenario is that it’s being brought in by an officer,’ said Joan. ‘Or by one of your precious marshals.’
‘Yeah, thanks, Joan, I’m not a complete muppet.’ Cynthia scowled. ‘I know that. But I cannot be seen to be investigating my own team. Morale would plummet. And God help me if the Board, the Department or the newspapers got a hold of it. Not everyone’s entirely sold on my way of doing things, you know. I’ve been covering up the drug problem for now, but we had two massive meltdowns last week alone.’ She shook her head in frustration. ‘My system’s new, Joan; it has to look rock-solid.’
‘Well, I’m not sure what insights you think I can offer from in here – ’
Joan broke off. Cynthia was smiling.
‘No.’ Joan pinched the bridge of her nose.
‘Why not?’ Cynthia sat forward, cigarette dangling unheeded from her fingertips.
‘This is a joke.’
‘Well, Joan, I am famous for my sense of humour, but this time I’m absolutely bloody serious.’ Cynthia’s eyes were alight. ‘I need someone out there in the prisoner population who works for me, Joan. Someone I know. Someone smart, and not afraid to get her hands dirty. And someone–’ she jabbed the air ‘–who fucken owes me.’
‘I’m not hearing this.’
‘What, you’d rather stay in here?’ Cynthia jeered. ‘Don’t be such a wuss, Ferguson. The population in General’s changed the past few months; they won’t all want you dead now. Plenty of newbies out there. And I can make sure you’re protected – for real this time.’
‘While I politely ask my fellow inmates where they’re getting their drugs from? It’s absurd, Cynthia.’
‘I could get you more firepower than that.’
Joan stared. Then she covered her face with her hands – one swollen, one scarred – and rubbed her closed eyes.
‘A few minutes ago, I actually thought you might have softened a little, Cynthia.’ She shook her head. ‘And instead you were planning the most refined revenge of all.’ Joan dropped her hands, looking at Cynthia in wonder. ‘Making me – your superior, a governor – into one of your jumped-up, bullying prefect-prisoners, and claiming to be doing me a favour!’
‘I am doing you a favour, Joan.’ The humour had vanished from Cynthia’s voice; now it was steely-cold. ‘A place on my marshals program. It’s the only favour anyone’s going to offer you at this point.’
‘You think I would take that deal?’
‘Joan, I think you’d fucken beg me for it.’ Cynthia lounged back against Joan’s pillow and blew a perfect smoke-ring at the ceiling. ‘You will serve time, Ferguson. Your trial’s months away, and I hate to think what odds the bookies’d give you for an acquittal. Now, you can stay on here in isolation forever, staring at the walls and listening to your brains dribbling out your ears – or you can step up. Give me what I want, and I’ll see you get what you want. Those slags’ names…’ Cynthia paused and glanced at the wall that separated them from Vera’s cell. ‘And maybe a bit more besides.’
‘Why are you really doing this?’ Joan gazed, bewildered, at the woman in front of her. ‘You … hate me.’
‘Is that a fact?’ Cynthia tilted her head back, contemplating the ceiling. After a moment, she said ‘Remember the time at Blackmoor when we caught that mad old dear in the kitchens, mixing slug pellets in with the muesli? And she told us she’d been doing it for weeks?’ Joan blinked, then nodded. ‘We first got wind of what she was up to when you saw the snails had taken over the veggie patch.’ She paused, reminiscing. ‘And remember the day we found all that gear hidden inside the teabags in the rec room? That bust happened because you’d noticed the women had all started leaving the regular tea alone and drinking that weird raspberry and redbush stuff the social worker had left – and you knew there was no way that many prisoners would have turned hippie overnight.’
A smile tickled the corners of Joan’s mouth. She said ‘I’d forgotten about that.’
‘You hadn’t been in the job six months. Most of the other screws were happy to spend their days standing around watching the clock and scratching their arses, but you were different, Joan.’ Behind the flickering cigarette, Joan could feel Cynthia watching her.
Cynthia said ‘You were so awkward back then – stitched up as a Mormon’s undies. You thought uniforms and bells and rosters were fun; you couldn’t work out why no one else agreed. You had those earnest little plans for improving the prisoners’ minds – literacy classes, kitchen gardens – and I think it hurt your feelings that no one was grateful. The other screws didn’t like you; you ticked them off for getting in late and you didn’t pretend to be interested in the blokes.’ Cynthia smirked. ‘You could have made the effort to lie, Joan. It’s only polite.’
‘Thank you for the social advice, Cynthia.’ Joan’s voice was icy. ‘It might be more compelling coming from someone whose appearance didn’t make children hide behind their mothers’ skirts and strong men lock their car doors, but...’
‘Joan, I’m not having a go at you!’ Cynthia spread her hands. ‘Hey, I got a kick out of you back in those days. You were so … innocent.’
‘In your own way, yeah. I couldn’t resist stirring you a bit, leading you into temptation…’ Cynthia waggled her eyebrows. ‘And you were brainy. You read books instead of magazines; you watched the news. You drank vodka instead of beer, and you ate all that funny reffo food – black bread and pickled herrings and borscht and shit. I’d grown up on Wonder White loaves and tinned spaghetti. And you’d been overseas – for real, not just to Bali. Shit, Joan, you were weird.’ Cynthia shrugged. ‘I quite liked that.’
‘What you liked was how isolated I was,’ Joan muttered. ‘It made me easier to manipulate.’
‘Well, you were desperate for a friend, Joan. May as well have written it on your forehead.’ Cynthia shrugged. ‘I admit I made the most of that. But so what? I still thought we were mates. Then you went and betrayed me.’
‘I did not “betray” you, Cynthia.’ Joan pressed her lips together and looked away. ‘Your actions ruined me.’
Cynthia sighed. She leaned forward over her knees to look Joan in the eye.
‘And now I’m offering you a chance to start again.’
‘As a prisoner. With you in charge.’
‘Bloody right I will be.’ Cynthia eyed Joan narrowly. ‘Screw me over a second time, and I won’t be so forgiving.’
When Joan didn’t reply, Cynthia gave an irritable huff.
‘Come on, Ferguson, I’m not going to beg. You should be thanking me on your knees, you know. I heard about your record while you were in General before – “absolute fucken shambles” doesn’t do it justice.’ Cynthia shook her head incredulously. ‘Seriously, mate, what were you doing out there? It sounded like some Batman villain got drunk, put on a Joan Ferguson costume, then staggered around attacking people, getting the crap kicked out of him and falling over his own feet!’
‘Thank you for that image.’
‘Why do you think I wound you up so much tonight, Joan?’
‘I assumed it was for your own sadistic amusement.’
‘Well, yeah, obviously.’ Cynthia scratched her nose. ‘But also because I had to see if you could still rise to a challenge. I needed to find out if you still had it – brains and brawn.’ She dropped her arm, then cursed at the pain in her bruised chest. ‘Fair play to you, maybe you have.’
‘You really think I’m going to do this, don’t you?’ Joan stared. Cynthia gave a thin smile.
‘I know you are. You can’t let your story end here, Joan. This isn’t you.’ Raising her cigarette to her lips, Cynthia strolled towards the exit.
When she reached the door, the new governor clicked her tongue: ‘Oops. Almost forgot. I brought you something, Joan. Little present.’ She turned around. ‘To say no hard feelings, you know? Hope you didn’t squash it before, when you were punching me in the guts.’
Cigarette pinched between her lips, Cynthia unbuttoned the pouch on her utility belt. Then she drew out a small dark bundle. She shook it, and slowly slipped her right hand inside. The black latex stretched to its limit and gleamed in her cigarette’s reflected light. It closed around Cynthia’s wrist with a sharp snap.
Even now, the noise and scent reverberated into parts of Joan’s body she’d assumed were long dead.
‘Nice.’ Cynthia winked. ‘Customised, eh? I found them in your bottom desk drawer, Joan. Funny how Ms Bennett hadn’t brought herself to throw them away.’
‘That’s the present?’ Joan’s voice came out husky.
‘Oh, no. That’s just a precaution. This –’ Cynthia paused, then reached back into the pouch ‘–is for you.’
Joan squinted in the murky light. Cynthia was holding up something that swung from her fingers and shone faintly: a plastic evidence bag. There was something sealed up inside.
With extreme caution, Joan got to her feet and moved forward. She clasped her hands behind her back to avoid touching anything Cynthia might consider a joke. Then she peered at the contents of the bag.
There seemed to be a dark liquid in there, sloshing from side to side. And floating in it…
‘Cynthia.’ Joan’s eyes widened. ‘That’s not…?’
It was a rounded, light-coloured object. Small enough to fit into Joan’s palm – neat whorls and lobule giving way to gaping cartilage and ragged flesh.
Joan’s gaze slid up to Cynthia’s face. Cynthia drew the cigarette from her mouth with her bare hand, and smiled.
‘First time I saw that slag Gambaro, I knew she’d be one of the ones who never bloody listen.’ Cynthia winked. ‘So I made sure of it.’
She dropped the bag to the floor in front of Joan’s shocked gaze.
‘You…’ Joan swallowed back the taste of bile. ‘You took that from Gambaro?’
‘Course not, Joan. What do you think I am?’ Cynthia sniffed. ‘I made her boys take it. I find it’s easier to get a lesson across if you use an … interactive approach.’ She paused, then added in a tone of exaggerated concern ‘Don’t look like that, mate – I left the other one for you.’
Governor Leach turned away, chuckling, as she peeled the glove from her fingers.
‘You will take my offer, Joan.’
Without looking around, she strolled through the doorway, giving Joan a mocking wave over her shoulder. Then she flicked the stub of her cigarette back into the cell, a tiny meteor soaring through the gloom, its bright glow crumbling to white. It landed at Joan’s feet, right beside the evidence bag which held Juice’s ear.
‘See you soon, Joan.’ As Cynthia hauled the cell door closed, she began to sing again in her harsh, scratchy voice.
‘Did you think I would leave you dying
When there’s room on my horse for two?’
She drew the syllables out at length, with great, grim amusement.
‘Climb up here, Joe, we’ll soon be flying
I can go just as fast with two…’
The door closed with an echoing bang, plunging Joan into deeper darkness.
For a moment, Cynthia lingered by the window. Joan could see the strange, cadaverous outline of her face. With the door shut between them, Cynthia’s voice had faded to a teasing whisper.
‘Can you feel, Joe, I’m all a-tremble
Perhaps it’s the battle’s noise…’
Cynthia’s black silhouette vanished from the window. Joan stood alone in the shadows.
‘But I think it’s that I remember
When we were two little boys.’
One chapter left to go! Thanks so much for the kudos and lovely encouraging comments :-)
Joan lifted the shirt from the cupboard and held it up, admiring its dark shape against the bare blue walls. The other women personalised their rooms (they weren’t called cells in here), but she didn’t think it was wise to need too much, or declare too much about herself. She didn’t mind the shade of blue, though. It was light and vivid. Forget-me-not.
She shook the shirt out with a faint smile. It had been a long night; she was still dressed in yesterday’s clothes, but there was something about a fresh uniform that lifted the spirits. She ran her finger along the collar, testing its stiffness. The sharp points left dints in her fingertip, and she closed her eyes to relish the scent of laundry soap and starch.
The marshals were exempt from most regular duties, but they cooked for themselves and did their share of laundry detail. They each took turns on the steam press. That had been Joan’s idea.
'Show the women what has become of their precious Top Dog system.'
She hadn’t been near the press herself, though, fearing ridicule if only in her own mind. Still, she couldn’t help imagining it sometimes: the weight of the apparatus under the operator’s hand, its creaking, puffing noises, the damp billowing heat. The danger.
She turned the shirt over to inspect the cuffs for threadbare patches, missing buttons or stains. You couldn’t be too fastidious. After last month’s incident with Gambaro, Joan had been forced to consign her nice neat shirt to the incinerator. A waste, but with that level of biological hazard, what could you do?
Her lips twitched, her nostrils flaring as if at the distant smell of sizzling meat.
Finding nothing wrong, she set about folding the shirt again with mathematical precision, smoothing and tugging at the fabric until it lay flat as cardboard.
Briefly, she touched the epaulette, the woven insignia on the shoulder. How she had flinched from putting on this uniform for the first time. Was it a pitiful imitation of the real thing, a mark of traitors, laggers and criminals?
But the clothing itself had beguiled her: the crisp lines, sturdy fabrics and dark colours. The gleam and heft of those black lace-up boots, the extra inch they added to her height. The pressure of the belt around her hips, the certain swagger it seemed to require.
Not to mention the effort and time it took to get into it all: the fiddling with buttons, zippers, buckles and laces, the vigilant shaking out of creases and folding of cuffs. It was the opposite to the regular prisoners’ uniforms: shapeless elasticised things, designed to be yanked off at any moment for body searches, urine tests, medical exams and two-minute showers. Even the soft, loose feel of those old garments had humiliated Joan when she’d had to wear them. As if she were so sickly, slobbish and undisciplined that she needed something ‘comfortable’.
Her body clad in teal had been an obscene burden, a sack of bleeding, dismembered parts she’d been forced to drag around with her. But now, with every buttonhole, belt loop and eyelet, she was pulling herself back together.
‘Joan?’ A rap on the doorframe. She turned around to find Mads slouching there. ‘Count’s in ten.’ First the marshals were counted by their own doors, then they filed off to count the inmates in General.
‘I’ll be there.’ Joan remembered to nod in a way that could be read as friendly. She was learning to live with other people.
Mads was going to join the army when she got out, she reckoned; be the only one in her family to make something of herself. On her first morning in the marshals program, Joan had ventured ‘You know I used to work here?’ And Mads – five foot two of nuggetty belligerence topped with a crewcut – had snorted.
‘We’re the ones who work here. Screws are useless; always pissing off on tea breaks. Don’t think you can sit around on our time, princess.’
As welcomes went, Joan had had worse. She assured Mads with absolute sincerity that she had no intention of sitting around.
Afterwards, Joan had marched through the yard in her new uniform for the first time. Some of the women had screeched at the sight of her and started their catcalling – ‘Freak! Freak!’
In an instant, Mads had spun around with a parade-ground bellow: ‘Did we say you could talk? SHUT THE FUCK UP THEN!’
And the prisoners, who would have jeered at such orders from Linda Miles or Will Jackson, had fallen silent. Joan saw the fear in their eyes and wondered again what Cynthia had created here.
Most of the women had not needed prompting to go quiet at the sight of Joan Ferguson. On their faces she saw disbelief, horror, loathing – but she could work with those things. She had wanted her gloves that day, but afterwards felt pleased that she’d left her scarred hand exposed for all to see – red, rippled and shiny, resting on the hilt of her big black torch.
Boil me in oil, and I’m still here.
Now she laid the shirt on the bed, beside the socks (rolled into a neat tube) and the underwear (precisely folded). She took care to leave equal space between each item. Then she reached back into the cupboard for the black woollen vest, rubbing its prickly warmth between her fingers, before positioning it on the other side of the shirt. She hoped to introduce stab-vests for the marshals some day, both for protection and for their bulk and air of business.
Cynthia had scoffed that there was no money in the budget, and warned Joan not to get above herself. But Cynthia might be persuaded to change her mind.
Cynthia had been right, of course; Joan had taken her offer.
She’d allowed herself to be transitioned into the marshals program, escorted by new guards she didn’t recognise and inducted by the women themselves. Some knew her; some didn’t. There was no one from Smith’s old crew, and only one from Kaz’s. Joan had taken her aside straight away.
‘If we’re going to have a problem, say so now.’
The woman, Sharon, had shrugged.
‘I’m in here cos Kaz went too far and shot her mouth off in a bloody prison visitors’ room. S’pose all you did was make the call.’ Sharon turned her tanned, weathered face away. ‘I left the Reds to come here. They spat on me, but I’ve got my future to think of. Governor reckons I’ll get fast-tracked for parole in here – you fuck that up, and we will have a problem.’
Joan promised she wouldn’t, and as long as it was in her own interest she was confident she would keep that promise.
It had taken weeks of patient observation before she’d managed to establish a link between drug-affected behaviours amongst the inmates and the cell inspections rostered to a certain Trace. Trace was another of the marshals, a wiry woman with a crocodile neck-tattoo and a wizened face beneath a clump of red dreadlocks that had seen better days. Joan had begun to wonder about Trace’s habit of nipping back into a prisoner’s cell ‘to just check one last thing’ after her partner had already left.
Trace was good. It had taken precision planning and split-second timing for Joan to catch her depositing something behind the sink.
‘Find what you were looking for?’ Trace jumped as Joan seized her wrist. The younger woman’s eyes widened with outrage, but she was smart enough to keep quiet when Joan pocketed the bag with one gloved hand and mouthed to her to speak outside in the yard.
‘Are any of the others in on this?’ Joan murmured once they were outdoors, their voices whipped away discreetly by the wind.
‘Governor sent you in to fuckin’ spy on us!’ Trace spat.
‘Very perceptive. But what I tell her now is up to me.’ Joan stood at ease, hands linked behind her back, her head swivelling sideways to hold the jittery woman with her black gaze. ‘And unless you would enjoy a reunion with your old cellmates, Tracey, you would be well advised to tell me the truth. Is anyone else involved?’
Trace flinched. ‘Nuh.’
‘Who’s bringing it in?’
Trace twitched some more. ‘Nursey. Reckon she’s in debt big time, hey.’
‘Lipstick expenses, perhaps.’ Joan pondered this news for a moment, then slid one hand into her pocket, her gloved fingers closing around the bag. ‘You will get her to organise one more delivery. You will get her prints on it, and you will bring it directly to me. Understood?’
‘Why the hell should I?’
‘So that I can get my acquaintance with our nurse on a new footing. Always useful to have a friend in medical.’ Joan gave a thin smile. ‘And so I can forget to tell Ms Leach what I saw today.’
Trace kicked the concrete for a while.
‘You want in, then?’
‘No.’ Joan kept her voice low and level, even as her tone hardened. ‘That will be your last delivery, Tracey. The bar is now closed. One more drug episode, and I might just recover my memory. Do I make myself clear?’
‘Fuckin’ screw,’ Trace muttered. ‘I’ve got kids, y’know. They’re at my mum’s, but she’d rather spend her pension down the pokies than get their clothes or school lunches or–’
‘Thank you, Tracey; I think I’ll wait for your life story until it’s made into a film.’ Joan motioned the woman closer, drew out the contraband and transferred it smoothly into Trace’s pocket. ‘In the mean time, you are going to leave this somewhere for me. The governor sends you in to clean the screws’ locker room, doesn’t she?’ Trace nodded. ‘Well, luckily I still recall a few of their codes.’
Overcoming her instincts, Joan managed to reach out and pat the other woman’s shoulder, once.
‘In the mean time, Tracey, if it’s money you need, I wonder if you’ve given any thought to gambling? There are always card games and wagers going on out here.’ She nodded around at the various groups of women hunched over the tables. ‘Suppose every time the women wanted to play, they had to purchase tokens from you? The money could go into some worthy fund – purchase of new television sets for C Block or something.’ Joan looked thoughtfully across the yard. ‘But you’re not very good at arithmetic, so a few dollars might go astray.’ She shrugged. ‘Not as lucrative as drugs, but safer.’
‘Governor OK with that?’
‘Ms Leach enjoys the odd flutter herself. Just you make sure she wins.’
Trace stared up at her.
‘My life would make a good movie, you know,’ she said at last. Then, ‘Why are you doing this?’
‘I want to help you, Tracey. You’ve got ingenuity, enterprise – and contacts on the outside and the inside.’ Joan’s hand closed around Trace’s skinny shoulder, squeezing hard into the knobbly bones. ‘You work for me now.’
Later that night, Joan stood at attention against the wall in the main corridor, and watched as Linda Miles was escorted from the building by two police officers.
Weeks before, one of the other marshals, Polly, had asked around on Joan’s request and got some information about Ms Miles from an ailing Maxine Conway in hospital wing. What she'd discovered hadn't surprised Joan exactly, but it had hardened her resolve. Joan was confident a police examination of Linda’s bank account would reveal this offence to be the latest in a long line of bribes and dodgy dealings. By planting the contraband, all Joan had done was expose the woman. For the sake of the prison, it was the right thing to do.
Cynthia had been pissed off to hear the drugs were being brought in by an officer, but relieved it was nothing to do with her precious marshal program. She'd cheered up further when Joan had pointed out that she could use this as ammunition against the Board; proof that their old staff were corrupt and unreliable, and that Ms Leach should have greater autonomy over hiring and firing in the future.
‘Fucken right I will,’ Cynthia had beamed, rubbing her hands together.
So much for Linda Miles. Linda, who had helped the neanderthal Fletcher to desecrate Joan’s memories of Jianna and turn Joan and Vera against each other. Linda, who had seen Joan at her most abused and traumatised and had left her to bleed to death. But Joan didn’t die easily.
‘They forgot the silver bullet,’ she murmured to herself now, as she took the dark trousers from the cupboard and held them up to check the creases were absolutely straight.
‘Joan.’ Polly appeared in the doorway with her usual silent grace, almost blocking out the light from the hall. She was a huge Islander woman and a devout Christian, who had chosen to believe Cynthia’s promises about training qualifications and future jobs. Sometimes she asked Joan’s help with filling out forms and writing letters to her family. Joan didn’t see her as the bullying type, but Polly’s looming presence was usually enough to make aggressive inmates back down. ‘Joan, the girls are ready.’
The marshals’ utility belts, with their radios and torches, were kept in a locked cabinet when they were off duty. Previously, they’d filed by a guard every morning to collect them, but as Joan had pointed out to Cynthia, this was rather demoralising, reminding these women twice a day that they were deemed too unwell or unreliable to be trusted. Joan had suggested she sign on and off for the items after the officer had counted them, and distribute them amongst the marshals herself. Cynthia, still triumphant after her meeting with the Board, had said she couldn’t care less – go ahead, now where are my smokes?
If she’d taken the time to reflect, it might have occurred to Cynthia the gradual effect it could have on these women, to receive their tokens of power and group membership, day after day, from Joan. The subtle air of authority that could start to attach to this woman, who was older, taller and sterner than the others. The opportunities it gave Joan to point out imperfections in the marshals’ uniforms – an untied shoe here, a loose lock of hair there – and instruct them to make the necessary corrections. She took care to intersperse these rebukes with kinder remarks, too, asking after children, cousins and bad backs in a brisk, bright tone. People forgot, but Joan had once known how to make herself an agreeable leader.
‘It’s all right, having you here,’ one of the younger women, Sophie, had mumbled the night before. Sophie was thin and wild-eyed, with limbs that never stopped bouncing, old slash-marks on her arms, and a temper that could explode without warning into flung chairs, ripped sheets and smashed tiles. Any cautious and compassionate governor would have seen poor Sophie as a candidate for psych ward, not a marshals program. But Cynthia Leach was neither of those things. Even Joan felt queasy at the thought of what tasks Cynthia might have in store for this damaged fury of a woman. She told herself it was only right that she, Joan, should keep an eye on Sophie, to see that the girl’s outbursts were contained – or at least aimed in the most appropriate directions.
‘No one else gives a stuff about me,’ Sophie had breathed last night, her chewed fingers wrapped around a warm mug of Milo that Joan had made for her. ‘Can I call you Auntie?’
Joan smiled at the memory. Day by day, things were falling into place.
She collected the women’s utility belts and passed down the line, handing them out. She swapped greetings with the women who seemed to have accepted her, and with the ones who had not. Like Donna, who recalled Joan’s time as governor and glared daggers at her every day, and Bernadette, a cold-eyed, violent bully, but prissy with it. (Joan could picture her as a Catholic schoolteacher in the fifties.) So many personalities, dynamics, possibilities. Her mind was humming smoothly along in fourth gear.
‘Joan?’ Mads collected her belt and lowered her voice for once. ‘This newbie – is she going to handle it here? She seems real twitchy.’
‘She’s had a difficult time lately.’ Joan’s tone invited no further questions. ‘She’ll do well. I’ll see to it.’
Having distributed the belts, Joan made her way with a faster step than usual back to her little blue room, where the uniform lay folded on the bed.
Vera, her skin flushed and her hair damp and curling from the showers, sat beside it.
The first time Joan had visited Vera in protection was months ago - before she'd joined the marshals, before she'd made Cynthia any promises at all. Seeing Vera had been a pre-condition of considering Cynthia’s offer.
Inside her cell, she'd found Vera balled up on the bed, her arms wrapped around her knees. The click of the door had made the younger woman blink out of her trance. She stared up at Joan.
‘I saw what that woman did to you.’ Vera’s voice was hoarse, her eyes swollen. The air was stale and stuffy. Joan realised her own cell must smell the same way.
Joan had coaxed a shower and a fresh tracksuit out of her captors and run her fingers through her hair, but she knew she must look far from elegant. Her lip was still swollen from her fight with Cynthia, her wrist bruised, her skin white and drowned-looking. Still, she felt more collected than the woman in front of her, whose slight body rocked back and forth as she spoke.
Vera whispered ‘I thought you might be dead.’
‘You should have had more faith in me.’ Joan took a step forward. Then she hesitated. Here was the woman she had mentored, desired, failed, loathed, plotted against, fought for, and lost – and Joan could think of nothing to say. Her jaw worked silently, her hands shook.
Vera didn’t get up. She was picking at the sleeve of her tracksuit, her movements vague and blurry. Joan wondered if they’d been drugging her too, or if this concrete isolation alone was enough to fracture a woman’s mind and deaden her spirit.
At last Vera said ‘I’ve been thinking about Bea Smith.’
‘Have you?’ It wasn’t the opening Joan had hoped for.
‘Yes.’ A thread pulled loose and Vera wound it absently around the tip of her finger. ‘Smith’s first week in here, she got me into trouble. Did you know that?’ Vera didn’t look up to see Joan shake her head. ‘She brought drugs in for Doyle and I didn’t catch her. Smith was new and distressed; I felt sorry for her. I went easy on her during the body search. Meg Jackson found the contraband instead, and hauled me over the coals for it. I looked like a fool, right in front of the prisoners.’
‘I see.’ Joan didn’t really, but Vera was speaking again.
‘Smith didn’t mean to cause me trouble; I just didn’t figure in her world.’ Vera raised her free hand to rub her eyes. ‘Then later, when Smith was Top Dog and she started that riot to weaken you – she gave those prisoners their orders. She had me attacked, beaten, stabbed, infected…’ The thread was tight around Vera’s forefinger, the skin beneath it turning pale, the tip glowing red. ‘I could have died, but she didn’t hate me. She hated you, Joan.’
Vera dropped her face lower; she was studying her tormented finger. Joan caught a whiff of agitated sweat.
‘And after that – I found this out later, from talking to Fletch – Smith arranged to have your office defaced, and she set me up to take the blame. To upset you. To isolate you.’ Vera shook her head. ‘You know what she called me? “Collateral damage”.’
The thread pulled tighter. Joan wanted to rush over, rip the thread loose, gather the younger woman into her arms. But she had never done a thing like that before.
‘And when Smith died…’ Vera shrugged. ‘I don’t know what she thought was going to happen out there, but it’s clear she figured at least one of you would end up dead. And guess who would be left to take the blame?’ Vera glanced up. Her eyes were surrounded by smudge-marks; her lips were pale. ‘Do you think she felt bad about that, Joan? Did she congratulate herself for destroying my life? Or did she just not think about it at all?’
‘Vera…’ Joan stretched out a hand. ‘Stop doing that.’ Vera glanced down at her finger, and blinked. She released the thread and watched as normal colour flowed back into her skin. Joan felt herself let out a breath.
When the red and white marks had faded, Vera whispered ‘I’ve been collateral damage all my life, Joan. People used me and bullied me, and it wasn’t because they hated me. They barely noticed what they were doing. My mother believed she was doing the best she could with her useless disappointment of a daughter. Governor after governor walked all over me, stole my good ideas, blamed me for their mistakes, but most of them could barely remember my name. Fletch took advantage of me; Will insulted me; Linda betrayed me, and I don’t think any of them believed they were doing something really wrong. Jacs Holt terrorised me, but that was nothing to her. She laughed when I tried to assert myself. And during the riot? Those dogs wanted to please Smith and get at you, but I was the one they brutalised. Afterwards, I had nightmares, panic attacks, a disease that could have killed me – but do you think they even remembered which screw they’d jumped on?’
‘Possibly not.’ When Joan had rehearsed this meeting in her mind, she had assumed she would take control. But faced with Vera’s pale, obsessive musings, Joan felt oddly passive, compelled to stand and listen.
Vera was still shaking her head, relentlessly now.
‘Jake stole from me and lied to the police about me. He let me take the blame for all this. But I don’t think he wanted to do me harm; he just didn’t care. It’s like … it’s like I don’t exist, Joan.’
Vera lifted her head at last. Her eyes were huge.
‘Joan, will you tell me something? When you thought I’d tried to blackmail you and hurt you with those pictures of Jianna … did you hate me?’
Joan gazed back. Her jaw clenched until needles of pain pierced her skull.
Vera untangled her limbs and sat up straighter.
‘When I went behind your back to Bridget Westfall and the Board, did you hate me then?’
‘Yes.’ Joan’s voice was tight. She should counter, take charge of the exchange, but Vera’s desperate stare held her mesmerised. With slow, teetering movements, Vera got to her feet.
‘When I let you take the blame for a grievous bodily harm you didn’t commit, against Gambaro, did you hate me?’
‘When I tore up your letter to Shayne, did you hate me?’
‘When you were a prisoner here and I treated you as cruelly as I could, so I could convince myself that all my problems were your fault – when I insulted you, isolated you, tried to make you feel worthless and hopeless – did you hate me?’
Joan nodded helplessly, all those odd wounds exposed and scraped clean, somehow, by Vera’s soft voice.
Vera took a shaky step forward, then another. Her bare feet against the concrete must have been cold.
‘Joan, when you dreamed about getting free and taking revenge on everyone who’d gone against you – was it me you were thinking of?’
Vera’s hands closed into urgent little fists. Her eyes searched Joan’s face.
‘But especially, though? Did getting even with me, especially, mean a lot to you?’
Joan answered truthfully: ‘Sometimes the thought of getting even with you was the only thing that kept me going.’
Vera stepped closer, until her bare toes butted against Joan’s. Joan quivered but did not move away. The younger woman reached up to clasp the cheap fabric of Joan’s prison windcheater. She grasped it hard, scrunching it in rhythmic circles. Joan felt Vera’s knuckles drumming over her heart.
Vera asked ‘Did you hate me more than you hated Bea Smith?’
Joan lifted her hands to cover Vera’s cold ones.
Vera’s eyes filled with tears.
‘Thank you,’ she said.
Now, Vera sat on the edge of Joan’s bed in the marshals’ quarters, wrapped in Joan’s long black cardigan. It reached nearly to her ankles. She was naked underneath, her skin blushing pink from the showers. Joan imagined sinking her teeth into it, tracing it with her tongue.
She didn’t, not today. The two women had held back from each other, ever since the second time Joan had visited Vera in protection. That time, they’d sat together on the bed and talked in awkward little bursts, sharing things they needed to say. Vera had shaken her head as she told Joan ‘When I do the wrong thing, I get away with it every time. Seriously, you don’t even know some of the things I’ve done. It’s when I try to do the right thing that it all goes to hell. I wanted to do the right thing, I really did. And look where it landed me.’
‘Clearly you were destined for villainy,’ said Joan.
‘Fuck you,’ Vera whispered, and started to laugh, her eyes streaming. Then she catapulted herself across the bed and into Joan’s arms, and kissed her as if they were about to be dragged apart forever.
It had been too much, that kiss. A frantic friction of cold lips and hard foreheads, their noses bumping together, their chilly fingers twisting each other’s hair and scrabbling at the teal uniforms they both hated. Their mingled breath and darting tongues the only warmth in that place.
Too much closeness, and Joan had soon flinched away. But three nights later she’d managed to visit again. This time she brought a gift, which she slipped into Vera’s palm surreptitiously, in case someone outside was watching. It was a handful of rose petals, pearly white tipped with red.
‘Governor let me have an airing,’ Joan whispered. ‘For five minutes, while the inmates were inside. The yard’s even barer now, but Cynthia’s kept a patch of garden under her window. I’ll get us out of here, Vera. I promise you.’
And she’d squeezed the younger woman’s hand so that Vera would feel the plush texture of the petals, the sticky juices that seeped from them, and smell their ripe, heady scent.
Now, with fingers that were still not quite steady, Vera dressed herself in her new uniform. Joan didn’t look directly at the younger woman’s exposed skin; she wasn’t ready for that. But she reached over to assist with clasps and buttons, admiring the way the dark fabrics fitted around Vera’s toned limbs and narrow waist. Then she picked up the hairbrush and waited for Vera to nod her permission.
Joan turned her companion around and drew her closer, until her head came to rest briefly between Joan’s breasts. Then she began brushing Vera’s chestnut hair with firm, lingering strokes. She imagined her own energy flowing through each individual bristle as it scraped a hot rhythm over Vera’s scalp. Every movement pulled the younger woman’s hair back tighter until it was twisted around Joan’s left hand in a sleek knot.
‘See,’ Joan murmured, breathing in the scent of soap and shampoo. She didn’t kiss the top of Vera’s head, but she thought about it. Next time. ‘You’ll be all right. Everything feels better when you’re dressed properly.’
‘If you say so.’ Joan looked up to find Vera watching her in the little square of a mirror that was glued to the wall. ‘Joan, why are you really in here? What’s Cynthia making you do?’
‘You speak as if you don’t care for her, Vera.’
‘Come on, Joan.’ Vera mouthed the words. No one in here spoke openly against Governor Leach. ‘The woman’s a thug. Don’t tell me you’ve forgiven her for what she did to you.’
‘I’m not one for forgiveness.’ Joan paused and gave Vera a meaningful look. ‘Well, not usually. But Cynthia… Cynthia remembers the same things I remember. And that’s…’ Joan’s voice trailed off. How could she explain what that meant, for someone who’d been labelled a freak?
‘But what does she want, Joan?’
‘I told you.’ Joan kept her voice low. ‘Ms Leach has some information I need. If I make her happy, she has promised to disclose it.’
Vera shook her head as well as she could with her hair caught in Joan’s hand.
‘You’ve already made her happy, Joan. She’s holding out on you. She’ll make you do favour after favour…’
‘Perhaps.’ Joan reached for the elastic. She secured Vera’s hair into a tight knot, the same style she wore herself nowadays. ‘But I’m making my own contingency plans here.’ She nodded towards the neighbouring rooms, the living quarters of the other marshals, who had begun to fall into line behind her. ‘Soon Ms Leach may have little choice but to cooperate with me.’
‘That’s what I’m afraid of.’ Vera turned around. ‘Joan, these women – the marshals and the inmates in General – they all think you killed Bea Smith.’
‘You know they do.’ Vera’s hands were still shaky, but her gaze was fierce. ‘And I know you didn’t do it, because Smith’s death was ugly and messy and stupid and obvious, and that’s not you.’
‘How well you know me.’
‘But you let them think it!’ Vera grasped the older woman’s arm, leaving wrinkles in Joan’s shirt. ‘You let them think you killed the last real Top Dog!’
Joan eased her arm free.
‘Come now, Vera – heredity by the sword? We don’t do things that way any more. Besides, didn’t she cede to Proctor earlier that day?’
‘History has a way of forgetting those little details, Joan. And don’t bullshit me.’ Vera folded her arms. Joan studied her with fascination. How strange it felt to be challenged by someone who cared about her. ‘Joan…’ Vera bit her lip. ‘You are going to fight your court case, aren’t you?’
‘What do you mean? Of course. I always fight; you know me.’
Vera’s eyes narrowed. Glancing out towards the corridor where the other marshals were milling around, she said ‘You’re going native, Joan. You like it here.’
‘Don’t be absurd.’ But Joan’s words came out with less force than usual. She hesitated, then said ‘But Vera, I have been thinking. Even if I’m acquitted a second time, even if I sue the Board for wrongful dismissal … they won’t let me be governor again, will they?’ Her voice quavered; it was hard to say it, even now. ‘Not here – not anywhere. They’d rather pay any sum I cared to name, just to get rid of me.’ Joan looked down at her new boots, admiring their sheen. She polished them every night before bed. ‘I’m right, aren’t I?’
‘Maybe.’ Vera faltered. ‘Probably. But you can’t think it’s better to stay here. You still have a life to live, Joan!’
‘In my fashion.’ Joan shrugged. Then she met Vera’s gaze almost shyly. ‘You know, Julius Caesar once said he would rather be the chief of a poor barbarian village than be the second man in Rome.’
‘Well, he sounds deluded.’ Vera clicked her tongue. The brisk dismissal in her tone and the worry in her eyes made Joan’s chest fill up with a painful tenderness. She wanted to kiss Vera properly this time, get to know the younger woman’s lips and tongue and the taste of her breath. Without haste, without guilt or fear.
Instead Joan reached into her pocket and handed Vera a small black tube.
‘A welcome present. One of the perks of the marshals program.’
Vera pulled off the cap and twisted until the head slid out. She swiped it across the back of her hand and looked at the shade – according to the label, creamy coral with beige undertones. She gave a sad smile.
‘Thank you.’ But she hesitated as she held Joan’s gift to her mouth in the mirror. ‘My mother used to sneer at me for wearing makeup. She’d say “Lipstick can’t change what you were born with”.’
‘As you were born with tenacity, insight and beauty, I should think not.’ Joan arched an eyebrow. ‘Rita was threatened by how colourful you might turn out to be. Perhaps she feared you would run away and join the circus.’
‘That would have made more sense.’ Vera sighed. ‘Joan, I think I know what you’re doing here, although it scares me to death. But what the hell am I doing here?’
Joan watched in the mirror as Vera hesitantly applied the new colour and rubbed her lips together.
‘Recovering your health. Getting back ten thousand dollars that was stolen from you. Crushing false testimony against you. Eviscerating your worthless ex-lover. Clearing your name. And learning to enjoy the sight of yourself in lipstick. Surely that’s enough to be going on with?’
Vera shook her head again, but she gave a reluctant smile as she examined herself in the glass.
‘Joan, this still doesn’t feel like much of a happy ending.’
‘That’s because it’s not an ending,’ said Joan. ‘After you.’
She held open the door for the younger woman. Then she followed Vera outside and through the open gates that led to the rest of the prison. Their dark, uniformed figures moved in time together, walking upright, side by side, down the corridor and out of sight.
If you've enjoyed reading this, I now have my first book out through Ylva press! It's a collection of lesbian erotic short stories called "The Taste of Her", strongly inspired by a certain governor... Check it out here: https://www.ylva-publishing.com/authors/jess-lea/