The women were gathered around the steps in the creeping cold of a November Saturday, waiting for a heavy black door to open. The shadowed air was damp and clinging. False lashes were wilting, tight blonde pony tails were limp. A handful of long black spirals, laquered and permed had lost their spring. Only the botoxed lips and the fingernail claws were holding up. Some of the women were holding small children, some had slightly less small children in pushchairs. Some women were pregnant, a desolate cast to their faces. Jolly grandmas with lots of missing teeth were making jokes and smoking. Grim faced male friends and brothers kept their faces tight and unnavigable. They waited at the foot of the stone steps, slightly apart from the women and fidgetting from foot to foot.
In front of them all the high flintstone walls of the prison tipped forwards against the sky, looming and threatening to fall and engulf them at any moment. Somewhere inside their men were waiting, some keen and impatient, anxious to discuss what would change when they got out. Some were bored and unrepentant, disinterested. Some were annoyed that visiting hours, the visiting 90 minutes, coincided with the footie on the telly.
Behind the thick locked door the black and white uniforms, faces carved, colourless and set were waiting. And the keys on long chains, the security cameras, the registration forms, the sniffer dogs, weapons and id scanners. The curious atmosphere of routine boredom and habitual watchfulness. And time, flaccid and loose, moves patiently along the confining walls and corridors, leans lazy against hidden ceilings, hides in corners and under the furniture. It distorts the days and nights to create a new continuum.
The loneliness of the women, their patience and confusion, their anger and fear keeps company with time’s distortion. Inside in the waiting rooms, it is too warm, too close. The hovering testosterone of angry young men blisters the air and pock marks our sights and conversations. The slow tango that happens most Saturdays is not a scene we want to see, to share. It’s not a scene we can truly share with the regular visitors, or with their children. But we try to do it anyway.
We all go through the complicated security, sadly simple for the women who do it every week. We all put our stuff in lockers and throw tissues and chewing gum in the bin as instructed, because they are not allowed. We all go through the scanners and let the sniffer dogs do their thing. We all listen to the stern warden who tells us that smuggling drugs into the prison will get us a long prison term. Her voice is strict but also bored and as she calls the names of the women who can go through to the next stage, she jokes about not needing to repeat her other reminders. They try to laugh politely except the granny who guffaws and declares, “alright darlin’ we got it first time around”. Except that the man they are visiting, did not get it the first time around and now here they all were coming to see him again as he waits out his fourth term in prison. Petty thefts and drugs and some violence. He didn’t get it in goes one to four, so five when it comes may be his chance to make a change. All a mistake, granny says.
A little boy of four or five smiles through all this and plays on the floor with the toy farm and its plastic animals. He asks his patient mother endless questions and she answers soft and indulgent, makes him sit beside her and holds his hand tight. He asks me where I live and I tell him and I ask him where he lives. He asks his mum and she tells him and he tells me with a proud smile, rolling the name of his town around his mouth for the first time and then again as he laughs through the word. He repeats it and repeats it and I laugh and his mum tries to laugh too. Tries hard to crack her golden face and stop the welling eyes from overflowing. She reaches for her little boy and folds him tight against her shoulder and he laughs and laughs as her tickling fingers caress him. He has no idea that he’s all there is to keep her from screaming her fear, her loneliness and her shattered belief that it wasn’t meant to be like this. And it wasn’t. It never is.