by Anne Goodwin
‘Nope, sorry, I don’t recognise you.’
It’s not until I hear your words, until they solidify and sink inside me, that I realise how much I’d relied on a warmer welcome. As if the miles I’ve travelled and the money I’ve spent, along with the time I’ve wasted dreaming, would earn me something, if only a grudging prize for effort. But the world’s not fair, I know that. That’s one thing you taught me.
They warned me you might deny it, just as they warned me you might try to deflect me as you’re doing now, with that sheepish smile that reminds me of my son. The smile that declares you no worse than the lovable rogue who steals from my purse only to buy me a present. Rebuttal and mind games; they warned me, but it doesn’t make it any less of a shock. I gasp, and through air tinged with stale cigarettes and disinfectant, rage seeps into my soul. The man who has monopolised my mind for a quarter century doesn’t remember me? The man whose shadow has followed me through marriage, childbirth and divorce doesn’t see who I am? I want to kick back my chair, reach across the table and throttle you.
The chaplain shoots me a glance; I can’t decide if it’s meant to console or constrain, but it grounds me. Focus on the concrete. Articulate the external. Name what you can see. Techniques from the therapy group that saved my life.
Table. Chairs. Walls. Window. Hands. Shirt. Men. How many men? Only three: one standing; one sitting across from me; another seated quietly at my side.
A stainless-steel rectangle with bolt-down legs. Three metal-framed chairs with wooden seats not styled for lingering. Four walls stained institutional beige. A single barred window positioned so near the ceiling only strips of cloud show through. Your hands flat on the table as per instructions; mine on my lap in white-knuckled fists. Your shirt, pale blue, your number stamped on the breast pocket; mine, starched white and buttoned to the chin. A uniformed figure immobile by the door. Man at my side channelling another kind of restraint. Man sitting across the table: that shirt, your thinning hair, sallow skin and smoker’s teeth embodying your debasement, yet you retain the power to menace my mind.
Prison officer. Chaplain. The man who ruled and ruined my life. You chose me for Christ’s sake! How dare you fail to recognise me now?
I stretch out my legs beneath the table, careful not to tangle them with yours. ‘I guess I’ve grown up a bit since then.’
You shake your head. ‘It’s more than that. Your story. I can’t make it fit.’
So I go over again how you dragged me into the bushes, how you bound my hands and gagged me. You listen, and even nod occasionally, like a counsellor would.
‘I’m sorry,’ you say. ‘I’d help you if I could but that wasn’t me.’
Twelve men paraded in jeans and T-shirts, a spot-the-difference of criminal clones. Identical clothes and identical haircuts, but you were the only one who made my stomach churn.
The police thanked me for my contribution but they had enough for a conviction without me. The other girls’ evidence was stronger, more robust. I felt I’d failed, somehow, but my mother was relieved. With exams looming, she thought I should concentrate on my schoolwork instead of testifying in court.
Up in my bedroom, books splayed across my desk; when I should have been rehearsing Shakespearian soliloquies, I reviewed my teenage tragedy till every detail was scorched on my brain. I resolved to remember each moment, to keep it fresh and vital till I could confront the man who’d torn my childhood from me. My belief in the future, too. It took years of persistence and persuasion to get this meeting. I wasn’t counting on an apology, only that you’d acknowledge the damage you’d done.
The bandstand. The playing field. The woods. Your arm against my jugular. Your hand across my mouth.
Twigs snarling my hair. The smell of beer and leaf mould. The taste of blood and sweat. The searing pain.
‘I suppose when you’ve done so many, you might forget the odd one.’
‘No, no, the way you said it happened, it wasn’t my style.’
I inhale deeply, ready to rattle off my story once more. But the familiar words regroup themselves and stick in my throat. I’m caught in an anxiety dream; a crucial exam where I know the answer to the question yet can’t transfer it to the page.
‘I’ve no incentive to lie to you. It’s not as if I’ve anything more to lose.’
The chaplain reaches for my hand but I pull away, wrap my arms around my chest and curl into myself. I’m in another room, at another table, another man holding my hand. My mother’s standing by the sink and crying. You wouldn’t want Uncle Jim put away, now would you? She won’t say who’s upset her most but I don’t think it’s him.
He squeezes my hand, like he did the day my mother introduced him, when he promised to treat me like one of his own. Course she wouldn’t. Got herself a bit confused, that’s all.
‘I’m sorry you’ve had a wasted journey.’ Your frown draws attention to a scar cutting through your eyebrow I hadn’t noticed before.
I push back the chair and turn away. At the door, the prison officer springs into action with a rattling of keys. The chaplain mumbles something, but no words get through to me.
I’ve read the testimonies of women who’ve confronted the men who raped them. Some met their assailant with forgiveness, others to scan his face for guilt. They write about closure; they write about release from the resentment that can erode what dregs of dignity their attacker left behind. Must I receive so little? Must I leave with less than I had when I arrived?
The chaplain invites me to his office for a debrief, but I shrug him off. A female officer leads me down the corridor and out the front door.
The breeze brushes my cheek. The traffic murmurs in my ears. The light seems sharp, despite the clouds, but still too blunt to point the way from here. I cross the paved courtyard to the low wall that marks the boundary between the prison and the facade of freedom beyond.
Squatting on the wall, my feet still on prison territory, I hug my bag. It’s not much consolation, but it’s all I’ve got. I ought to kickstart my grounding exercise, but there’s too much out here to name. Or maybe I don’t want to be grounded. Maybe I’d rather float away.
I run through a checklist of emotions; another therapy trick. It’s not the negative feelings we should be wary of, but the absence of any feelings at all.
Not sad, not scared, not shocked. Not disgusted, despairing, disappointed. Not anxious, angry or afraid. The adjectives I want don’t figure on the list they gave us. I’m seeking something grander, four syllables at least. Liberated. Vindicated. Authenticated. Fancy words, alien, but I’m going to make them mine.
I came for the truth and you’ve provided it. Showed me what I took as truth was false. It’s time to confront the real culprit. Or the person who covered his tracks.
I uncoil myself from my bag, dive within for my phone. I thumb through my contacts and tap the icon beside my mother’s name. On hearing the ringtone, I nod towards the prison walls and mouth my thanks.
Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. This was followed by her second novel, Underneath and her short story collection, Becoming Someone, on the theme of identity. A former clinical psychologist, Anne is also a book blogger with a particular interest in fictional therapists.