“Obligation may be stretched till it is no better than a brand of slavery stamped on us when we were too young to know its meaning.” ~George Eliot [Mary Ann Evans]
On the bus out to the prison I stared out the window, unable to even listen to my walkman or read like I usually did on this trip. There weren’t very many people on the bus with me, and the air smelled like hot tar as the driver waited for the guy in the orange vest to give him the go-ahead. The bus let me off a little way down the road from the main entrance, so that I had to walk along the stone fence that enclosed the towering building. There were knots in my stomach, which, even though they’d been present for months now, seemed to be especially noticeable today. There were no trees; just a vast expanse of grass surrounded the prison. It looked a little like a castle, with turrets along the top and narrow barred windows. I thought it would make a good setting for a horror novel.
The main entrance was graced with a heavy stone staircase with thick stone balustrades, a wrought-iron gate and a heavy wooden door that had been painted an institutional shade of blue. In the foyer, the floor was dark wood and grooved from the wear of many feet. Benches that looked like reclaimed pews from an old church lined both sides of the room. The walls had been painted a pale hospital green. I suppose it had been meant to be soothing. Display cases broke the green monotony, filled with police memorabilia, newspaper articles and a short history of the prison. There was a desk at the end of the room beside the hall that led towards the visiting room. A metal detector loomed in the entranceway.
At the desk I signed my name on the visitor’s sheet. I’d had to call earlier that day to let them know that I was coming. There was no such thing as a drop-in visit at a prison. Prison. Who would have ever guessed that I’d end up visiting someone in a place like this? Much less that that person was my boyfriend, and someone I thought I knew almost as well as myself.
“Ah, here to visit Mark* eh? His mother came this morning.” I nodded. The guard at the desk was the man I’d come to like. He was an older man with a brush cut and an irrepressible twinkle in his eye, which was a refreshing thing in a place like Wilkinson Prison. I’d been told his name a couple of times now, but in my head I called him Mr. Brush-Cut. I was beyond remembering new names at that point.
“Five minutes before we go in, ok?”
I nodded again and moved to the bank of tiny lockers next to the desk. I put my purse and my jacket inside the tiny space and shut it. I put a quarter in the slot and wrestled the key free. I went to sit with the others on the benches. There was a woman with two young children, an older couple and two young people this time, also an older man who smelled of old beer and tobacco. The children threw themselves around the room with a strange kind of abandon; they were going to see their daddy today. The older couple had been here before. They still looked tired and sad. I’d come to understand that the grey-haired man they were visiting was their son, even through their heavy accents. I stared at my shoes. Even though I was visiting someone here, I still felt very out of place and conspicuous.
“All right folks!” Mr. Brush-Cut said. It was obvious he was used to being in charge. A woman took his post at the desk and another man joined him from a break room as he bent to turn on the metal detector. He set a tray on the counter and proceeded to buckle on his vest as though he were entering a combat zone. I suppose it was one, but a battle zone of emotions rather than weapons.
The older couple went through with no trouble, as did the two excited children. The mother put her watch into the little tray and her anklet and earrings before she passed through the iron-grey arch. The young girl ahead of me took ten minutes. She even had to take out her belly button and eyebrow rings before she was given the ok. I’d already taken off my belt, my watch and my glasses.
The next room was painted a dark burgundy. There was a little hall filled with tiny solo booths complete with telephone receivers for those inmates who’d misbehaved on previous common-room visits, or for lawyer visits. I wasn’t sure which. I didn’t care.
This time there was a dog waiting in the anteroom outside the ‘family’ visiting room. The dog was a German shepherd cross; its chest was too wide across and its colouring too irregular to be a pure breed.
“This is Lucky. He’s our new friend here at Wilkie,” the young blond man in uniform said as he indicated the dog with the leash. “He’s here to make sure that no one’s bringing illegals into the visiting room.” The guard made us line up against the wall and we were to let the dog sniff us one by one.
“Please don’t try to pet Lucky while he’s checking you. If you’d like to do that, he’d appreciate it if you waited until he was finished his job.” The guard undid the leash and gave the dog a command.
“Go Lucky,” he said. The dog bounded to the first person and gave a cursory sniff. The mother had to hold her squirming children’s hands firmly while the mutt sniffed them thoroughly and then passed on to me. Lucky licked my shoe and then carried on. When he’d made it to the end of the line he shook himself and trotted back to his handler. He was rewarded with a milk bone, which he munched in a pleased-with-himself manner.
Our leader spoke into his handset.
“We’re clear,” Mr. Brush-Cut said, and the door to the visiting room was buzzed open from the front desk. I paused to stroke the dog’s silky head and tell him he did a great job. The fur in his head was smooth and soft under my fingers. I followed the others inside.
“Please space yourselves out while you’re looking for a seat,” the younger of the two guards said. Two long tables that faced each other divided the completely white room. A Plexiglas partition ensured that no one in the room would touch. The chairs were bolted to the floor so that there was no way to pick them up and throw them at anyone. I moved to the middle, where I could see the clock. I’d been thinking very hard since I’d been to Mark’s sentencing. This visit was a test for me before he was moved to Matsqui on the mainland, to see if I could keep doing this.
The younger guard seated himself at the little console on the opposite side of the glass and Mr. Brush-Cut, went to the inner door to usher in the inmates. Another buzzer sounded and I could see Mark come into the antechamber. He was buzzed in first every single time. That’s what happens when someone is in protective custody. I didn’t watch the others file in wearing their matching orange jumpsuits. I watched Mark as he sat in the chair and leaned towards me.
“Hi,” he said.
The colour of the jumpsuit did nothing for his already pale complexion. He had what could be called strawberries and cream skin, complete with freckles, which would have been considered adorable on a little girl. Unfortunately, little girls were the reason he was in Wilkinson, and the reason he was in protective custody. He thinning red hair was gelled back in its usual manner and his glasses rested halfway down his nose in what I think he considered was an intelligent-looking fashion. I stared at his long-fingered hands as they curled against the glass. The hands that drew fabulous pictures in coloured pencils. The hands that had given me backrubs when I was sick and held me close at night.
I looked at his hands and felt nothing at all.**
Listening to: Late Night Alumni – Empty Streets
Reading: Ken Follet – The Eye of the Needle
Drinking: Earl Grey
Word Count: nil
**written in 2008