ReadingRoom

Saturday Short Story: The Spare Room, by Jackson C Payne

We continue our weekly series of New Zealand short stories with a prison story by Jackson C Payne. Photography by Peter Black.

(NOTE TO READERS: This story contains themes of domestic sexual abuse and assault)

Grease sits in rainbow pools as the drain sucks them down. The bubbles cling to your arms and then vanish just like the water, only more slowly. You move the cloth over the counter to catch the last of the slop. Squeeze it in the sink.

A guard appears at the door, a new one. She takes after her father, you can tell, for the high cheekbones and jaw are clumsy and obvious like a man’s.

‘Visitor,’ she says.

She leads you along the red painted line between the units to the visitors’ centre. Your hands are cuffed behind your back but she is gentle with you: They are loose on your wrists, like you could just slip them off. The sky is wide and grey and no matter which direction you look you see no birds, no trees, no hills.

Your lawyer is sitting on a cold aluminium table and looks at you disinterestedly when the guard unlocks the door with a loud metal pop. He returns to his pad and continues writing. Without looking up he pushes toward you a pile of paper with a pink post-it note that says ‘sign.’ You try to read each but by the second page the legal jargon makes the words look like a foreign language. You sign the rest without reading.

He fumbles with the lock on his beaten briefcase and stuffs the pile of papers into the front pocket. He frowns.

‘There’s not much we can do but plea.’

You don’t really know what you were expecting but this certainly wasn’t it. You say nothing and he takes his chance to leave, motions for the guard to let him out. He can’t wait to get away from you. At the door he looks over his shoulder.

‘Look,’ he says. ‘The evidence is overwhelming. Sorry. Hopefully we get an easy judge.’

The door clinks shut and his stiff leather shoes clop up the linoleum corridor.

There’s something about his face you don't like. He could very well have been one of them. But they were all different: Some drunk, others nervous. It was the ones who weren’t ashamed you worried about, something in their eyes you didn’t trust. All of them didn’t like you and you didn’t like them but that was okay because they brought money, and that’s what you needed. Always that awkward thanks at the end, grappling nervously with their wallets before handing over cash, eyes to the ground and shame burning in them, for they knew. The ones who didn’t surely suspected it.

The guard comes to take you back to your unit.

‘He’s a bit of a dick, eh?’

You laugh but it makes you sad because you cannot remember the last time you did so. Distant screams come from the isolation unit and guards in blue uniforms walk in pairs around the grounds, vigilant like birds. At your unit the guard stuffs a large key in the small lock and the door opens. Everyone is at rec so, for once, there is no line of people waiting to use the phone. You dial the number you memorised as a kid and it rings for a long time before there is life, but there is no greeting. Just breathing.

‘Who's this?’

‘You are the one who is calling.'

You lose your breath at the sound of your stepdad’s voice. You thought he had left. Swallow down the sick that’s hit the back of your throat. Breathe.

‘Mum there?’

He wheezes into the receiver but he says nothing. The phone clangs to the counter and you hear hissed voices in the distance. Wait for a long time, so long the voice that appears startles you.

‘What is it?’ she says.

‘Mum, hi.'

‘Uhuh.’

‘You coming tomorrow?’

‘You–’ she starts, that shrillness you knew so well as a child rising in that opening syllable. Feel yourself shrinking like you did in the corner of your bedroom. She stops herself; she does not want to upset him.

‘The shame you have brought on me, on this family. I– I cannot believe. . .’ she trails off, panting with rage.

‘I’ll be there,’ she says. ‘But not for you.’

The dial tone rings in your ear.

*

Torchlight flashes in your room, the guard cupping his hand to the window, doing his nightly checks. Each one wakes you. Not that you can really call it sleep. Always that same scene over and over in your head. Your mother asleep in the other room, your stepdad’s cold hand pushing up your nightgown. You, startled. 'It’s okay, it’s just me.' The smell of cigarette smoke on his breath, the taste of it on his tongue. The lifeless plastic eyes of Mr Bunny rocking back and forward on the pillow next to your face. You were afraid to sleep and when you finally did it was the bedroom doorhandle rattling and the panic in your chest. In the morning you searched your mother for sympathy but she stood over the stove cooking his breakfast. His newspaper shielded his face.

‘Don’t overcook those eggs again,’ he said.

*

There's no showerhead in your cell, just a small wound in the wall that seeps tepid water. You have to stand flush to the cold cinderblocks to get wet. You thought it would get easier but it has been six months now and it’s just as hard. Most days you don’t bother.

Today you wash vigorously, scrub your face until it tingles. You triple wash under your arms to make sure the odour is gone. The guard has stuffed your court clothes through the slot and they now lay crumpled and dead on the floor. Black shoes. Black pants. Black shirt. You have saved the last drops of hair oil for this day and it pools in the centre of your palm. It warms as you move it over your hands and massage it through your hair, pulling it back in a tight black plait.

The same guard comes for you, the one with the manface. She smiles and unlocks the slot. You turn your back to the door and put your arms behind you and through the hole. You feel the morning air in the hall and shiver as the cold cuffs clasp your wrists. Gently though, because it’s her.

‘I’m coming with you to court,’ she says.

It’s early but you can hear movement in the cells as you walk down the long metal grate to the stairs. Some of them are doing exercise, watching TV, but as they hear you on the landing the calls start to come.

‘Cunt!’

‘Die bitch!’

‘Rotter!’

They come from cells above and below until the whole hall echoes like a menagerie. The guard leans in close.

‘Don’t worry about it.’

You’re not worried, you're used to it, but you now know why the guard has been so nice; she has no idea why you're going to court. She leads you through parts of the prison you’ve never seen, but the walls are the same as everywhere else. At the end of the long corridor you’re locked in a room just big enough for you to turn around in. The small round window in front of your face is like a ship’s portal; through it you see the prison van reversing up to you, like the loading dock of a supermarket.

There are no windows in the van but the roof is made of frosted translucent plastic. People have scratched things in it like champagne for my real friends/real pain for my sham friends. You go with the inertia of the van as it creaks around corners. It’s like that bed, the one in the spare room. You always hated that sound, there was something sad in that rocking. But your daughter went along with it. Never complained. There was a part of her that enjoyed it, too.

At the washbasin in the laundry she came in holding Mr Bunny after that first time. You forgot you had given it to her and it startled you.

‘Am I a woman now?’ she asked.

‘No, honey, not yet.’

She smiled and left dragging Mr Bunny by the ear, her heels knocking him up in the air as though it was full of life. You plunged her knickers into the soapy water, watched the blood rise in it, worked at the stain until it was just a memory.

The van stops. The front door closes and the van shudders. Footsteps to the back, keys in the lock, the guard smiling up at you.

‘Ready?’

Down a panelled wooden corridor. You think she’s leading you into the holding cells to wait but the door in front of you opens and you’re looking out into flushed faces in the public gallery. You see your daughter sitting there between your mother and stepdad. Panic in your chest. Everyone in the room turns to you as you sit down in the dock. Everyone but your daughter. You see she is different. Older, harder.

You and your boyfriend had to show her what to do.

‘It’s okay,’ you said. ‘Mummy’s here.’

She lay on her back, frowning with her eyes closed.

‘Mummy,’ she said. ‘It hurts.’

‘Do you remember getting your ears pierced?’ you said. ‘This is the same. It won’t hurt soon, promise.’

‘But Mummy. . .’

‘Shh, it’s okay.’

Your boyfriend left his shoes and his shirt on. How different his skin was to hers. His hips moved awkwardly and without rhythm.

He looked up at you and smiled.

‘Just like you,’ he said.

And without a sound he finished.

You took her to the bath and washed her like when she was a baby. Was a baby.

The judge’s voice is high pitched and rings through the courtroom like an alarm but you understand none of what he says. Reporters’ pens searching for the worst of it. You want to scream that you did it for your family, you did it for her. The cuffs are back on your wrists, tight this time, it hurts. You look at the guard but she avoids your eyes.

You take one last look at them before you’re led away. Your stepdad takes your daughter’s hand and squeezes it.

--

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