The weeks went on and Kate found it easy to pick up on Joan’s day-to-day routine. When Joan was due home from work in the evenings she would purposely place herself outside on the veranda, under the warm wall light in front of her lounge room window where she had arranged her newly acquired second hand rocking chair pair and small side table. With a book in her hands, a glass of wine and the bottle beside her on the table, and often a blanket over her legs, Kate would always have her head tilted down towards whichever book she was reading at the time as Joan pulled into her driveway directly opposite and parked the car in front of the sectional door.
The motion sensor lights would flick on as the wheels of the shiny black and chrome sedan touched the washed gravel driveway with the lightest clunk as the tyres cleared the small hump where the road ended and the driveway began. The modern lights on the modern house would wash a crisp white glare over the yard that held a sparse few small native trees dotted among the red wood chip mulch. Washed concrete traced a winding pattern through the small yard, sectioning off separate small garden beds where the trees were growing. It was an architect’s dream and a hippie’s nightmare all at once.
Joan would be illuminated as she stepped out of her car, hugging her black coat tightly around her body or adjusting her suit jacket. Her see through carry bag held only a few items as she would shrug it over her shoulder and her heels would click on the concrete as she walked around the car and over to her front door. The mechanical click of the car being locked would echo through the yard as the indicators flicked on once and the car would go dark before Kate heard the sound of a key being slid into a lock and the clunk of a bolt being retracted as the hidden front door was unlocked.
On days where she got home early in the evening her hair would still be in the tight bun she sported in the morning, other times when she was home later her hair would be loose, hanging around her shoulders and bouncing with her steps. On those days her collar buttons were always undone and her neck tie would be in her carry bag. She also had a sports bag on those days which seemed to be particularly full. Sometimes she walked with a spring in her step, other nights she would slam the car door and storm off towards her house where the music would quickly play louder than normal.
And very occasionally she would get home very late. Her bun would be messy, her neck tie loosened but not off completely, and she would walk with a slouch in her shoulders, the car door would be shoved hard closed, not slammed, and there would be no stomping involved as she made her way inside. Hard day at the office Kate would assume.
Kate would keep her head tilted down towards the book as she watched Joan intently every night. There was something about her and it held Kate in a way she couldn’t quite describe, it was more of a feeling than anything else, combined with a definite curiosity. She would find herself thinking about Joan as she went to sleep at night, dream the most delicious dreams about her, and wake up feeling ripped off because it was only a dream. But then she would get dressed and go for her morning run, getting back into their street just in time to watch Joan walk to her car at 6.30am and drive off to work. Her hair was always perfectly manicured into a tight bun. Her uniform was always perfectly pressed and lint free. And her heels were always perfectly polished to a high shine, not a single scuff in sight.
Occasionally she would even get a wave and an awkward smile from Joan, Kate would always smile and wave back with warmth, hoping that one day the woman who seemed to be stealing more and more of her mental space would give her more than 20 minutes of her time.
Kate got the distinct feeling even from their limited time together that Joan was not accustomed to having friends, or interacting with other humans on an equal playing field such as theirs, which was why their interactions so far had seemed somewhat awkward or strained. It wasn’t anything in particular that Kate had noticed, their conversation had flowed freely and Kate felt like they were both comfortable together, but there was a hint of something that Kate just couldn’t put her finger on; something deeper than a lack of friendly interaction with other humans.
She was reading her book on a particularly balmy night when she heard the quiet hum of the Mercedes motor come around the corner further down the street. A flutter in her stomach sent goose bumps through her body and she took a slow, calming breath and a sip of wine to slow her heart rate.
Turning the page she settled in to watch the woman she had become infatuated with as the car pulled into the driveway and the lights flooded Joan’s front yard.
Running her fingers through her hair and taking a deep breath after a long day Joan took a moment to pull herself together before getting out of the car. She knew Kate was watching. Every night she could feel those bright green eyes burning into her from across the road. As hard as she tried to ignore them or forget about them she just couldn’t.
Every night Joan would go about her normal routine when she walked inside, she would shower and eat and prepare for her next day with her music on trying not to think about her neighbour, and then she would fall asleep and those green eyes would swim into her dreams. She would feel those fingertips brushing so delicately against the skin of her forehead and tucking the lock of hair behind her ear. Joan had also figured out that in the mornings when she is getting herself dressed and ready for work if she angled her bedroom blinds in just the right way she would have the perfect view of Kate stretching out in her front yard before her run without ever being noticed herself.
Every night when she pulled into her street Joan would look for the porch light that shone down on Kate as she read her books. She would take a moment to sit in her car and assess the woman behind her from her rear view mirror. Even as she walked to her front door her head would be directed forward but her eyes would be searching her peripheral vision for another glimpse of the woman and her bright green eyes. Since the lovely addition of the rocking chair pair there had been many times Joan had wanted to walk across the street, take up the other rocking chair with the spare blanket draped over it invitingly, and just sit with Kate for a while. There seemed to be something about her neighbour that calmed her neuroses and made her feel like everything didn’t actually matter as much as she thought it did. But the thought of taking that step was as terrifying as not being in control for a fraction of a second.
Stepping out of the vehicle Joan stood with her hand on the roof of the car for a moment, steeling herself. She felt silly, but there was something inside her calling for more, she couldn’t tell if it was a mental calling, an emotion, or something physical drawing her to Kate, but something was definitely pushing her towards the woman across the road.
Turning her head towards the dim yellow light shining from the porch light on her neighbour’s wall above the lounge room window her eyes fell on Kate. She had rarely risked looking directly at the woman since they had sat next to each other watching the sun set that night, Joan was worried what might happen if she allowed herself to imagine, to feel, to be in the moment. All the things that Kate seemed to embody without a hint of doubt about herself. It had been a very long time since Joan had allowed herself to feel something for another person, even something as simple as friendship.
Even with her head tilted down towards her book Kate could see Joan looking in her direction as she stood beside her car. It looked like she was trying to make a decision.
Raising her head with a smile Kate offered a friendly wave as their eyes met across the street, it seemed to be her signature move; catch Joan staring and wave at her to make her feel uncomfortable.
Joan’s head snapped back to the car as she was washed with embarrassment at being caught staring, again. “Fuck,” she whispered under her breath and knew that it would be considered rude not to engage now. She would have gladly just walked away into her house without any emotional rebuke but her understanding of social norms was excellent even if her participation was not, and she didn’t want Kate to think she was rude, or worse. “Think, think, think,” she chanted quietly to herself, tapping her index finger on the roof of the car with each word and quickly weighing her options.
Turning her face to her neighbour again Joan forced a smile and waved back to buy herself precious seconds as her mind raced.
“What the hell,” was the decision she came to and she closed the car door clicking the lock button as she strolled across the road as though it was perfectly normal, as though she was perfectly normal. Calm and in control was the image she portrayed, but Joan was exploding with anxiety on the inside with every step as she approached the woman who was stealing more and more of her thoughts.
Kate listened to the click of those heels grow closer and watched her neighbour unbutton the suit jacket and loosen her neck tie as she approached. She felt butterflies in her stomach as the woman crossed the path and made her way to the veranda steps.
“Howdy stranger,” Kate offered as she stood from her rocking chair to greet her visitor.
“Good evening Kate, how are you going? Settling in well?” Joan stood on the middle step to make herself the same height as Kate. At 5 foot 11 and standing 6 foot with her heels on she often used her height as a tool of intimidation, but she doubted very much whether it would have much effect on Kate who must have only been 5 foot 4 at a push and seemed to be fazed by nothing. Best to keep the terms of their engagement neutral for the time being.
“Oh yes, all excellent here. How about yourself?”
“Yes, yes, no issues. Full days and little down time. Things have been quite chaotic at work.” Joan was beginning to feel ridiculously awkward and starting to regret her choice to cross the road instead of going into her own house and getting on with her nightly routine.
“Wine? I’ve got a nice bottle of cab merlot open, you can tell me about your chaos.” Kate’s voice was bright and chirpy as she coaxed her neighbour into joining her.
Joan smiled and decided to stick with her ‘what the hell’ for a change. Kate made her feel things, strange things, and she wondered if maybe she would actually like it once the awkwardness passed; only time would tell. “How could I say no?” Besides the glassware seemed rather clean last time so what was there to worry about, really?
Kate quickly ducked inside for a second wine glass while Joan made herself comfortable on the second rocking chair that she had coveted for weeks. She listened to the sounds of the suburban evening and felt the worries of her life almost melt away. It was glorious and she wondered if this feeling is what happiness was like for other people, contentment, or maybe just peace. Comfort was the emotion she finally decided on, it was the feeling of being comfortable. Just home after a long day at work, even though it wasn’t her own home. Someone to talk to, even though it was someone she barely knew. The smell of roses on the crisp evening air, even though it wasn’t her own garden she was enjoying. However the glass of wine would be thoroughly enjoyed and Kate joined her on the veranda again and passed a full wine glass to Joan as she walked past to her own chair.
“Thank you, this is just what I need actually.”
“The wine?” Kate asked in such a simple way as she sat in her own rocking chair that Joan almost completely missed the pry.
The nail of her index finger tapped on the wine glass in her hands as she pondered the question. “Perhaps not just the wine,” Joan offered with a very small smile as she gazed through the dark red liquid in her glass. She turned her attention back towards Kate and their eyes met across the small space between them, deep black and bright green. Joan’s stomach flipped as though it was ready to jump from her body as she recognized the spark of desire in her neighbour’s eyes, and she realised she felt the faintest tingle of it herself.
“Cheers.” Kate raised her glass as her green eyes sparkled with an intelligence that Joan figured would take her years to completely unwrap.
“To trust,” Joan saluted. “Upon which all the best relationships are built.”
Kate suppressed the wicked smile that was threatening at the surface as fireworks exploded inside of her from her neighbours words. “You know where I am Joan, if you ever need someone you can trust, a friend, a confidant, a soul mate to pour your heart out to.” She knew she was going too far but she couldn’t help it, something fiery was burning inside her chest making her fingers tingle and her stomach flip like she was on a rollercoaster. “I’m here for you. It can’t be easy doing what you do every day.”
A rush of anger coursed through Joan in a quick instant. She had never revealed anything about herself or what she actually did as a job, how could this woman possibly know what the daily stresses of her life were like. “How do you mean, ‘what I do every day’?” Despite the emotional rage inside of her she managed to keep her voice flat and calm, as always, in control.
“You’re Governor of the women’s prison here, that can’t be an easy gig.” Kate pulled one foot up onto the seat of the rocking chair and wound her arm around it, hugging her knee close to her chest. “I’ve read about the troubles they’ve had with the inmates there in the past and you had a death in custody just the other day. You must have been drowned in paperwork. Long days, late nights, managing a whole prison of staff and directed by a board whom I assume only care about the bottom line as most boards often do. I don’t assume for a moment you have an easy job, but I’m here if you ever need to talk. Anything you tell me will be strictly between us,” Kate added with a smile as she noticed the tenseness in her friend. It was becoming blatantly obvious that Joan was not used to conventional friendships, if any at all.
Keeping herself in check Joan processed all the information and took a sip of the wine as she decided how to proceed. She could cut this off at the neck, walk away and never speak to Kate again, it would be easy enough – she had done it before.
But something inside her was keeping her in her seat, pulling her to keep Kate in her life. It wouldn’t have been hard for this woman to do some research to have discovered this information. The news outlets were running the death in custody story like it was going out of fashion, and Kate saw her nearly every morning and evening in her work uniform. The shiny gold crown on her shoulder epaulette was hard to miss. This wasn’t a threat, she decided, it was simply someone wanting to get close to her, perhaps for genuinely caring reasons.
“It’s been tough.” Time to open up, she decided, it was a what the hell night after all. “Death in custody is always hard to deal with, and it always brings back memories of my first one. That was the hardest, I knew the prisoner well.” Joan kept her voice steady and calm as she touched on subjects that she was dealing with, without going into too much detail. She simply wanted to test the waters with her neighbour and see how she reacted. “And the media are like vultures, I can’t even walk into my own prison without having cameras and microphones shoved in my face. But this wasn’t negligence on the prison’s behalf; it was the Police missing the fact that she had a gut full of Heroin.
“Then there was the graffiti incident a few days later, rebellion for the changes I’m making to bring everyone back into line. And I’m overseeing a new garden project which is seeing inmates from the male prison here coming in most days to build garden beds and what not to get the area up to scratch.” Joan stopped for a moment to take a sip of wine, it was only now that she was actually talking about her work life to someone and getting it off her chest that she realised the weight of the stress she was carrying and how intense her job could be sometimes.
“Guards were flouting the protocols designed to keep things running smooth and safe. The prisoners were well out of control when I arrived, and they are pushing back at me as I make the necessary changes, as are the staff. The violence, the ‘top dog’ mentality, the drugs still making their way through my defences and wreaking havoc, but I will gain control of this prison, and I will bring these women back into line, and weed out those colleagues who cannot follow my rule.”
Kate smiled kindly as she watched her neighbour open up this tiny little bit. She wondered if anyone ever got to see the real Joan, and how many people thought they knew the real Joan. “Sounds tough,” Kate agreed. “You’ve got your work cut out for you then. And you’ve always got a safe space here.”
Their eyes met again, Kate’s bright green ones and Joan’s black ones. There was a definite spark, they both felt it; and recognised it in each other.
“Why do you care Kate?” Joan whispered in the night time air as her black eyes softened and her guard slipped for a moment. “I’m no one to you, just the woman across the street who works more than she sleeps.” It was a moment; just a moment of insecurity and in that moment the underlying emotions that had been hidden and locked away for so long crept through just enough to cause chaos within Joan as she internally scolded herself for showing such weakness.
“Because you deserve it.” Kate could have said many other things that would have been too far and she knew they would have scared Joan off, it was too soon. Joan wasn’t ready to hear a lot of what was running around inside Kate’s head, so she offered her simple words, a warm smile, and a top up of cab merlot.
“Thank you,” Joan said simply, but she meant it with all her heart and the softness remained.