Joan was feeling downtrodden after the day she’d had and the fencing match she had just lost as she drove home. She had been a good sport and allowed her opponent a moment of reprieve after he stumbled, but he took the action as weakness and used the unguarded second to thrust forward fast. Things were not going as well as she had hoped with the plans she had put in motion at the prison. There had been hiccups, missed opportunities, she wondered if she had backed the wrong horse. She could hear the disappointment in her father’s voice as she pondered her failings.
She gunned the Mercedes around the corner and into her street. It wasn’t until she had pulled into the driveway, turned the car off and stepped out of the door onto the concrete that she realised Kate’s lounge room light was on. There was no second thought, no rational decision making, Joan simply closed her door, locked the car and marched across the street.
Walking up the front three steps she suddenly felt a pang of irritation, it was more than a month ago she had given Kate a key to her house, but Kate was yet to return the gesture. Was she being played? Her face twitched and her head ticked uncomfortably around the subject for a fraction of a second before she rapped on the door – probably too harshly.
She heard dull footsteps on the floorboards, the hallway and porch lights flicked on, then the click of the front door unlocking.
Kate stood on the other side of the screen door looking a mess, her eyes were puffy, her hair was damp and knotty as though it had been towel dried but not brushed, and fresh tears streaked her cheeks. She wore a pair of ratty old pyjamas with her bath robe over the top, not tied up around her waist as it usually was, and her feet were bare on the floor boards. She reached out and unlocked the screen door then simply turned to walk back to the lounge room.
Joan was quick to open the screen door and step inside, locking it behind her and following suit with the heavy wooden door with the frosted glass panels. Her heels clicked on the hardwood floorboards as she went through to the lounge room to find Kate on the couch with a glass of wine in her hand and her knees tucked up to her chest.
“You’re upset, what’s wrong?” Joan said the words with such finality and demand that it was more a statement of her own character than a question of concern. Her lack of empathy was strikingly evident in that particular moment.
“’Hi Kate, are you okay?’ would be far more appropriate Joan.” Kate had spoken softly, like she had no more fight left in her. All there was now was sorrow, and wine to drown it. She had expected a little more emotion and empathy from her lover, but at the same time she wasn’t surprised that Joan didn’t have it in her to be caring and considerate when confronted with a situation she wasn’t expecting.
Instantly Joan knew she had been insensitive, she had been too absorbed with her own failings to give empathy or compassion to the woman she loved when she obviously needed it. She realised she had reacted wrong, once again, in a social situation that could change her future completely. It wasn’t guilt she felt, just another failure and her head raced as it checked off all the things that could be compromised because of her own actions in that moment. But she had become quite adept at pretending she felt a wide range of emotions and so she softened her features, controlled her breathing, and sat on the lounge beside her lover, placing a hand on Kate’s knee. “Sorry love,” good opening she thought, push the value of companionship. “It’s been rough at work lately and that was tactless of me. There is no excuse. Are you okay?”
“Rough day at work. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you scrub yourself you just can’t clean it out.” Kate was more than half way through a bottle of wine and just wanted to drown out the last few days. She wanted to forget it and wake up tomorrow feeling new and alive again. Sometimes she felt that her job was cutting her away in slices, taking pieces of her that she would never get back. Today it had taken more than a slice; it had taken a chunk that would take a long time to heal.
Joan’s twisted brain instantly turned to the thought of germs, microbes and viruses. It took all her strength to keep her palm stable and comforting upon Kate’s knee as her mind raced. She concentrated on Kate’s damp hair, knowing that she always showered at work when her shift ended and had obviously showered again recently calmed Joan’s phobia and helped her portray the woman Kate needed her to be at that moment. “What happened?”
Kate sniffled and took a long drink of wine; her glass was almost empty when she came up for air, she needed the dampening effects of the alcohol to be able to relive what she had been through. “It was a whole family. Three children, mum, dad. One pathologist, one whole family, one report. It was awful.”
It wasn’t obvious but Joan relaxed. It was just death, nothing infectious. She could deal with that, death was a simple fact of life, everyone she had ever loved had died and there was nothing she could do to stop it coming for anyone death deemed ready, infectious pathogens on the other hand were something Joan could control and dealt with heavy handed. “What can I do to help?”
“Get more wine.” Tears rolled freely down Kate’s cheeks as Joan stood from the couch and made her way to the kitchen. As Joan walked away Kate saw Ludo in his bowl on the small side table at the far end of the couch, he was happily swimming circles around his small space and she envied him the undeniably simple life that his fish bowl offered.
When Kate had come into the job she knew it wouldn’t be easy, she had been warned that there would be days that were hard, days that were shit, and days where she wouldn’t want to go back. Today was one of those days, and her boss knew it. He had given her the rest of the week off after completing the report. It had taken her three days to complete the autopsies, correlate the individual information, and complete a singular report for the police investigators. The trauma to the bodies was extensive. Between her and her assistant they had worked three 12 hour days each to collect all the information and evidence and now it was time to fall apart.
Joan obliged with a large top up for Kate, and a respectable amount for herself. Raising her glass Joan toasted, “to shitty days, and having someone to share them with who cares about you.” She hoped it was enough to redeem her own shitty response to the situation when she had walked through the door.
Kate toasted to that and drank far more than a respectable sip. “So tell me about your shitty day then.”
The black eyes fell upon Kate questioningly, but silent, weary of what Kate had been through already and her emotional trauma. She didn’t want to be callous again and risk doing further damage to their relationship. Joan found that her emotional gap and continuation of appearing to express the correct responses was a delicate balancing act that she didn’t always get right.
“I heard you drive down the road.” Kate stated matter-of-factly. “I know you had a bad day. When you thrash the Merc you always end up here within thirty seconds of the car door slamming shut and you pace around telling me about whatever new drama it is that has unfolded.” Kate pointed the fact out as though everyone else knew it.
Joan didn’t realise she was so predictable, or that Kate was so vigilant of such things. “A few days ago I went to visit a colleague in physical rehabilitation. He was hit by a car some months ago.”
“What?” Kate was stunned. “You never told me about that.”
“It was sometime while the whole breakout thing happened and everything was such a mess. There was drama everywhere, it must have been something that slipped my mind,” Joan lied. “And now the Board are pushing for him to have his job back. He’s just the broken puppet of a corrupt board member who wants eyes and ears on me. The man is a Neanderthal.”
“Which one? The officer or the board member?”
“Both.” Joan spat the word as though it was nasty food. “Can’t talk properly, can’t think properly, he can’t even walk straight. I’ve no idea what they were thinking, how is he ever going to be a functioning officer again? What is he going to do? And where can he be stationed where he won’t be a risk to himself or others because of his impairment?”
Kate felt sorry for the officer Joan was speaking about, she knew what sort of recovery he must have gone through over the last few months and it can’t have been easy for him, and now back to work in a high stress, fast paced environment? It didn’t sound right to Kate.
“One of my more useless officers now has murder allegations against him.”
“Murder?” Kate was shocked to hear such a thing. “Who do they allege he murdered?”
“The ex-husband of an inmate, the one who escaped actually.” Joan was getting fired up now that all her frustration was finally being vented. “There are allegations he and the inmate were or are having an inappropriate relationship, and now the ex-husband shows up dead. The officer and the victim have a history of arguments and some violent encounters. It’s all a shit show.” Spittle flew from Joan’s mouth, her cheeks burned with the pent up aggression and it took all her strength not to start yelling.
Kate simply sat silent in the corner of the lounge, her feet pressed up against Joan’s leg, her elbow on the back of the couch and her hand on her head. Her exhaustion was being held at bay as she listened to the crazy drama of the prison life. She watched Joan’s movements as the frustration poured from her and wondered where the emotions connected, if they did at all. Perhaps they were just flying fragments that sometimes landed in the correct pathway at the correct time.
“And I have recently found out that my deputy has been lying to me, I can’t be truly sure where her loyalties lie anymore. I may have to stand her down and find someone else, someone more trustworthy.”
“The one who was held hostage with a needle? The one who you wouldn’t negotiate for?” Kate was putting two and two together and risked the comment even though she knew it might backfire on her and inflame Joan’s anger.
“Yes, that’s her. Meek little rabbit of a woman thinks she can be a Governor one day, pfft, she hasn’t got an ounce of what it takes.” Joan followed Kate’s lead and took more than a mouthful of wine, she knew she needed to control her anger before it got out of control and she showed her true colours. She didn’t want Kate to see that.
Suddenly Kate didn’t want to know what it took to be a Governor. There was a look on Joan’s face that was chilling and the thought popped into Kate’s head that she might actually have to call that psychologist whose business card was hiding in her bedside drawer. Perhaps not so much for coping techniques that Joan could use, but for control techniques that Kate could use – if she ever needed them.