This story is by Anne Boyle and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
“Are you wearing an underwire bra?” said the female officer.
“Yes,” said Emma, her arms up in the air, as the officer patted her body.
“Just a word of warning, leave if off the next time or you’ll be pulled in and strip searched,” she said, and Emma nodded and walked on, trying to remember to breathe.
Emma stood at a door into the next part of the prison, waiting to be let in. The cold wind whipped her face as she was ushered into an open, bare space with no function Emma could see, a limbo land before the meeting place. The door slammed shut behind her and she stood still for a few moments, her head bent towards the floor, trying to gather her strength to keep moving.
“There you go now,” said another prison officer, opening a door to a large, soul less room, divided in sections to keep inmates and visitors apart, “just go in there and he’ll be along soon.”
Emma chose a bench in the middle of the room and sat down. Her eyes flitted from poster to poster – warnings of prosecution for passing drugs to prisoners, and a reminder of being watched on CCTV. She stood up and leaned over the bench to see how close she would be when her husband came out. What a shit room she thought, so cold and lifeless. She pulled her cardigan around her and folded her arms. Her head felt heavy, like she had a hat on, and she put her hands up to check, even though she knew she hadn’t.
Her mother suddenly popped into her head. She could hear their last conversation before she left for London.
“Angela told me she saw you coming out of Lally’s the other evening. Do you have any idea how mortified I was? I was just about able to convince her you were doing some charity work.”
Emma couldn’t tell her she was having an affair with the oldest of the Lallys and it was the only thing that made her feel alive. It didn’t matter what she felt, if she was even allowed a feeling, because her mother was too busy living from the outside in.
“You know what?” said Emma, “you are a total snob and you go to church every Sunday and thump your chest like you’re the most devout Christian that ever walked this earth, but you’re a hypocrite. Do you think Jesus would be hanging around with all the snobs you hang around with? I don’t fucking think so.”
“Mind your language Emma,” said her mother, her bottom lip quivering and Emma knew she had gone too far.
“Anyway,” said Emma, “I’ve decided to move to London. I’m drowning in small town narrow-mindedness. It’s like the valley of the bloody squinting windows here.”
“I thought you would settle here now and build a life for yourself. What about Peter Dalton?” Her eyes were dark with an injured soul and Emma almost felt sorry for her.
“Peter Dalton is an arsehole,” said Emma, and her mother’s mouth opened sharply and her hand went up to cover it as if a blasphemy had been committed. He was her mother’s ideal son in law – doctor, golfer, member of the local Chamber of Commerce, a wealthy background and a large BMW. Emma dated him for a few months and wanted to die. His smugness and arrogance disgusted her, and he was part of the reason she left.
She moved to London shortly after the whole Lally affair ended. A work colleague introduced her to Andy. He shook her hand and his face lit up.
“How long are you over for?” he asked, his eyes wide and his white shirt stood stark against his tan. London was in the middle of a heat wave that summer, and everywhere smelled like sun lotion.
“For good,” said Emma and allowed herself to be taken home in his convertible, the warm evening breeze feeling soft on her face and for the first time in her life, she felt free.
Emma walked out of the room and onto the corridor.
“I’m in there on my own,” she told two other women. “I’m afraid I might miss him.” She paced up and down, stopping at every room to look in.
“I was told to stay in room C,” she said. “Sure there’s no one in there at all. I could be sitting in there and miss him.
“They’re not down yet,” said one of the women.
“Oh right,” said Emma and blew out her breath through her mouth in a big wave like she had learned in her yoga class.
“Is it your first time?” said one of the women.
Emma jolted her head upright to gaze at the woman. “Yes,” she said,” and I want to turn around and walk right out that door and never come back.”
The woman laughed. “I know exactly what you mean.”
Emma wasn’t sure she did. Her husband was facing eight years for a manslaughter charge that happened in Spain twelve years ago. When he finally got arrested, Emma’s life fell apart.
She caught a glimpse of Andy coming in. Her body froze as she watched this thin man in an over-sized tracksuit bottoms, and a neck like a stick popping up from a red sweatshirt. He reminded her of a heroin addict she saw sometimes on the way to work.
He was sitting near the door, his hands clasped together and stood up the minute he saw Emma.
“Darlin,” she said, leaning over as best she could to kiss him. His lips were dry and there was a faint sour smell off his breath.
“It’s so good to see you,” he said. He took her hands in his and his fingers rubbed hers gently.
“It’s good to see you too,” said Emma and she sucked in her stomach to stop her from crying. Spots of toothpaste hung on the sides of his mouth like a child who hadn’t cleaned his teeth properly and his cheeks were hollow.
The officer on duty sat with his legs spread on a swivel chair by the door. His belly shot out from under his coat as he swung from side to side, a man separate from all this, thought Emma, detached in his swinging.
“Are you eating?” she said.
“Not really,” he said, and his head fell onto his chest and his body shook. Emma could see the tears falling onto the red sweatshirt and a sharp stab of pain ripped through her chest.
“We’re going to get through this,” she told him. The words fell out, unintended, her voice higher than usual, as she tried to smooth out the edges and make it all okay.
“I’m so sorry I put you through all this,” said Andy, his eyes red now, and his brow creased in deep furrows.
“If you had only told me,” she said, “I’m more upset that you couldn’t trust me than what you did. I know you Andy, you’re a good man.”
Emma grabbed his hands and squeezed them both in hers, and her mouth closed in a smile as she plunged into silence, her eyes closed.
“What’s on your mind darlin?” said Andy. She loved the way his voice faded when he called her that. How many times in the seven years of their marriage had he called her that? Darlin, darlin, darlin. Her mother would be delighted it ended, and the told you so would arrive out like a new born calf on the straw ground – a thud with shock absorbers, to deaden the impact. But it would come, and she could feel her failure already. She shuddered and opened her eyes.
“I’m just wondering how on earth I’m going to cope with all this? How do I cope with this gap in our lives Andy?” said Emma. “What am I going to tell my family?”
“I’m on my own now,” and her voice trailed off as she lowered her head.
“I’m not expecting you to wait for me Emma,” said Andy, his voice stronger now. “Maybe you need to accept that you might not be able and I can understand that.”
Emma had waited her whole life for someone like Andy – kind, thoughtful, always showering her with presents and telling her he loved her. Maybe it’s payback for cutting contact with her mother once she moved to London.
“I don’t know what I’ll do Andy,” she said, “it’s too much for me right now.”
The prison bell rang for the end of her visit. She sat upright, shrugged her shoulders and tried to smile.
“Well,” she said, “I’ll see you next time.”
Andy leaned over and kissed her cheek and walked away without looking back.
The fog had lifted when Emma came out. The icy air filled her nostrils and her legs wobbled as she made her way to the car. Her crying surprised her, it made such a din.