by Anne Goodwin
‘Nope, sorry, I don’t recognise you.’
It’s not until I hear his 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 this man taught me.
They warned me he might deny it, just as they warned me he might try to deflect me as he’s doing now, with that sheepish smile that reminds me of my son. The smile that declares him 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 when it happens. I gasp, and through air tinged with stale cigarettes and disinfectant, rage seeps into my soul. The man who’s monopolised my mind for a quarter century doesn’t remember me? The man who’s shadowed 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 him.
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 opposite; 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. His hands flat on the table as per instructions; mine on my lap with white-knuckled fists. His shirt, pale blue, his 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, his thinning hair, sallow skin and smoker’s teeth embodying his debasement, yet he remains a menace in my mind.
Prison officer. Chaplain. The man who ruled and ruined my life. He chose me for Christ’s sake! How dare he fail to recognise me now?
I stretch out my legs beneath the table, careful not to tangle them with his. ‘I guess I’ve grown up a bit since then.’
He shakes his head. ‘It’s more than that. Your story. I can’t make it fit.’
So I go over again how he dragged me into the bushes, how he bound my hands and gagged me. He listens, and even nods occasionally, like a counsellor would.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘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 I had no problem picking him out. He was the only one among them who made my stomach churn.
The police thanked me for my cooperation 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; instead of learning Shakespearian soliloquies, I reviewed my teenage tragedy till every detail was scorched on my brain. I resolved to remember every 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 persisting and persuading to get this meeting. I wasn’t counting on an apology, only that he’d acknowledge the damage he’d done.
The bandstand. The playing field. The woods. His arm against my jugular. His hand across my mouth.
Twigs snarling my hair. The smell of beer and leaf mould. The taste of blood and sweat. The searing pain threatening to rip me in two.
‘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 I 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 in to myself. I’m in another room, at another table, another man holding my hand. My mother’s standing by the sink and crying. Crying while she boils the kettle for tea.
You wouldn’t want to see Uncle Jim put away, now would you? she says between sobs. 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. Just got herself a bit confused, that’s all.
‘I’m sorry you’ve had a wasted journey.’ His frown draws attention to a scar cutting through his eyebrow I hadn’t noticed until now.
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 consume a life. Is this my legacy, to leave this place with less than I came with?
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 trick I learned from therapy. 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 want to make them mine.
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 ring tone, I nod towards the prison walls and mouth my thanks.
Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was published in July 2015 by Inspired Quill and shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, is scheduled for publication in May 2017. Anne is also a book blogger and author of 70 published short stories. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.