Bea wanted to pace. Every impulse begged her to get up and move. She took a deep breath and resisted. A hair's breadth from jumping to her feet, she gripped the edge of the examination table instead and made a paddling motion with her ankles to relieve the feeling.
She knew she had come a long way recently. Weirdly, she felt that she had the beating to thank for that. And maybe Franky’s book. And Allie’s letters. And Dr Westfall, of course. She groaned internally from the humiliation of needing so much intervention. When had she become this patchwork doll sewn together by a band of seamstresses? She sighed and deliberately let it go. She also had the beating to thank, or blame, for her current crisis. She was no Victorian lady prone to fits of swooning, but somehow the anticipation of Allie’s impending visit had combined with the after effects of her concussion to make her head swim so that she hit the floor in a spectacular fashion. If she was now prevented from seeing Allie she didn’t know what she would do. She tightened her jaw and tried not to even consider it as a possibility.
She felt fine. No dizziness, nothing. The forgetfulness from a few days ago seemed to have disappeared. But here she was, back in medical, waiting for the doctor to give his verdict on her fitness or otherwise to attend the visitor’s centre today. What would she do? she asked herself in desperation, if he told her no? What wouldn’t she do, she thought, determination on the rise.
Franky gave her a perplexed look and rapped her on the head with her knuckles.
“Hello... Earth to Bea … Next month. I just said …” Bea intercepted the warning look that Liz was sending Franky’s way, along with an almost imperceptible shake of the head. It was sweet that Liz was trying to save her feelings, but she knew that this was not the first time this week that her memory had let her down. This forgetfulness was a delayed response to the blow on her head, as were the spinning and tilting sensations she sometimes felt and the slight clumsiness she had noticed. And maybe her eyes were a bit more sensitive to bright light than usual. She just had to accept that, whilst the rest of her was healing quickly, her brain was going to take a bit longer. Bea noticed that Franky was watching her intently and when their eyes met, Franky threw an arm around her shoulders impulsively and gave her a squeeze. “Early onset dementia is nothing to be ashamed of Red,” she joked. Bea made a disparaging sound and gave her a shove.
“Rack off Franky. Even with dementia I’m sharper than you!”
“Hah!” Franky responded with a quick grin. “But seriously,” she added, leading Bea away from the others. “Maybe you should have the doc check you over again. In case he missed something …” Bea pulled a face.
“Nah, I’ll be right. Hey, I’ve got a session with Dr Westfall tomorrow,” Bea replied, knowing that this was a certain way of distracting her friend. Predictably, Franky’s green eyes hazed over.
“Got my first session the day after,” Franky said dreamily. After a moment an enormous grin split her face causing her dimples to appear. Bea looked at the excited gleam in her eyes and huffed out a laugh.
“Well, you’d better bloody behave yourself,” she retorted. “Dr Westfall’s helping with my case. The last thing I need is her getting fired for being caught in a compromising position with one of the inmates.” Franky held her hands up palms outwards, a wolfish grin on her face.
“Total gentleman, me,” she said looking heavenwards. “I won’t lay a hand on her … unless she asks me to, of course.”
“She’s a professional through and through, from what I’ve seen,” Bea told her soberly. “Don’t get your hopes up for anything more.”
“No, well. We’ll see … women generally find me irresistible after all. And if it comes to nothing … well, an hour in the company of a beautiful woman is a pleasure in itself.”
“What are you implying about the present company?” Bea asked, nudging Franky and nodding towards Boomer who was using her index finger to extract something from one of her back teeth. “You’re surrounded by beauties twenty-four seven.” Franky guffawed causing Boomer to look up at them blankly.
“Oh, hey. I’ve got something for you …” Franky grabbed her by the upper arm and led her over to her cell.
“What?” Bea asked suspiciously, dragging her feet, hoping Franky wasn’t going to pull one of her humiliating stunts.
“Relax Red!” Franky said, brandishing a paperback. “You said you needed something to read. So I’ve selected this from my own private collection,” she said, cocking one eyebrow. “Just for you.” Bea took the book from her hand and examined the cover dubiously.
“Love Between the Stacks, ” she read. The cover illustration featured a bespectacled woman sitting at a desk piled high with books. Another woman leaned against a bookcase in the background.
“It’s entry level,” Franky continued. “Just right for your uptight self Red. You need to read it carefully … make notes if necessary. Allie can thank me later,” she added with a leer. Bea finally caught up with what kind of book it was and felt herself flush a deep red.
“F’ fuck’s sake, Franky,” she muttered, trying to thrust the book back into Franky’s hand. “I’m not gay.”
“Uh huh,” Franky responded, clearly not convinced. “Doesn’t matter. Read it anyway. I’ve been subjected to plenty of straight fiction and some of it was pretty good.” Bea allowed the book to be pressed back into her hand. Well, she was short of things to read.
I've been thinking about you and wondering how you are. How are you healing up? I hope the prison is looking after you properly and that you are being sensible and resting when you can. I know how stubborn you can be! Sit down, get plenty of sleep, and don't force me to write to Franky or Liz and make them put you on bed rest. You know I will!
Don’t worry, I know what you want to know. Debbie is fine and being surprisingly patient with her house arrest. The swing band at school is going to be putting on a mini concert in a few weeks. She has the music and, because it's pretty advanced stuff, she's been practicing like crazy. So it's been wall to wall "Ain't Misbehavin'", "Let's Face the Music and Dance" and "The Charleston". All great tunes … until you're listening to them for the fiftieth time! I've been making the best of it and singing along and dancing as much as possible. I wish you could have seen me doing the Charleston while I was waiting for the spaghetti to cook. I totally aced it! But that dance is quite a workout. Phew ...
"I heard that you've been in medical for a few days Bea. What happened?" Dr Westfall asked as soon as they were seated. Bea was surprised by the doctor's tone. She seemed concerned beyond what she would expect from their professional relationship, and Bea was moved that she cared. Her eyes stung briefly.
“You know I can’t tell you,” she replied sullenly, to disguise how touched she was.
“If you want to tell me ... I’ll keep it confidential, of course …” Dr Westfall probed. Bea shrugged.
“It doesn’t matter. It’s all sorted now.” The psychologist observed her for a long moment.
“It was a severe attack, Bea. It’s okay to feel vulnerable after something like that. Perhaps you could tell me how it made you feel at least?” Bea sighed. Vulnerable was about right. Without her usual anger she had felt like she had peeled back her own skin and exposed all her nerve endings to the cold air; or like she had decided to climb a tall ship’s mast without a harness and, only once the wind had got up, had realised how hazardous her situation was.
“I knew it was going to happen so ... I was prepared. Only, I felt exactly the same fear I always felt when I knew Harry was going to go to town on me. But I didn’t get angry. You taught me that,” she said with a glance and a smile. “And Allie always reminds me that I have to be smart and not get a record in here, to give me the best chance at my trial …” At the thought of Allie, Bea’s lips had done that thing that they always did and curved into a slight smile. Dr Westfall looked at her and then down at her notebook.
“Er … Allie. That’s your daughter’s foster carer?” Bea nodded, her heart driving hard. “Is she visiting you?”
“Yeah,” Bea croaked. She cleared her throat. “When I was first in here, I wanted to meet the person who was looking after my daughter. To be sure that Debbie was gunna be okay. I guess we … hit it off because she’s visited me every week since.” Dr Westfall nodded.
“She must be a very special person … to do so much for you and Debbie …” she suggested with a smile. Bea nodded.
“Yeah. Debbie really lucked out …” The psychologist just nodded thoughtfully and made a note.
“And your injuries? No permanent damage I hope?”
“The doctor says not …”
“You should consider allowing your lawyer to take some photographs of those bruises,” she said. “Sometimes harsh prison conditions can have a favourable influence on a jury.”
“Good idea,” Bea said with a nod.
“And you’re certain that this won’t happen again?” the doctor asked. “Because I can have a word with Miss Davidson and get you moved into protective custody …” Bea shook her head.
“Not necessary, really …
… I will film it for you for when you get out. I know it’s not the same and I wish you could come and watch her. You’d be so proud. Hell, I’m proud! My dad wants me to get him a ticket when they’re available. Would you be okay with that? They get along so well. He takes an interest in everything she excels at. If I wasn’t such a grownup I might feel a little jealous as I don’t remember him taking much of an interest in me when I was that age …
Lying on her bunk, Bea looked up from the letter and pondered that. Allie seemed to have such a good relationship with her dad now but from a few things she’d said she gathered that that hadn’t always been the case. Her eye caught on the photos of Debbie that she had pinned to her wall. Debbie had had a terrible experience of having a father and for the rest of her life she would have no experience of it at all. Bea had taken away any opportunity for a healed relationship such as Allie and her dad now had. And she’d taken away a grandfather from any children that Debbie might have in the future. In the midst of her abuse she’d been sure that Harry would never improve, would always be a bastard and, in fact, might never stop until either she or Debbie were dead. But now … if she’d left him, if he’d got help for his violence and his drinking … could he ever have become a positive force in Debbie’s life? She doubted it, but she’d never know. And that was the very good reason why she was in prison now. Why she deserved to be here.
She turned onto her side and faced the wall. Why? Why did it have to be this way? Aged just twenty her own parents had died and had left her alone with Harry and a toddler. And she’d had such a good, positive relationship with her parents. When she had fallen pregnant with Debbie they had supported her decision to marry Harry although she could tell that neither of them rated him as good son-in-law material. If they hadn’t died that day she knew that they would have seen what was going on and would probably have convinced Bea to leave Harry years ago. She imagined what that would be like: for her parents to be alive, for Bea and Debbie to be living free of Harry for many years, independent, well adjusted … free. The four of them would go out on the boat and her mum would teach Debbie how to manage the sails; her dad would be the one proudly squeezing Debbie’s shoulder, not Allie’s dad, a man Bea had never even met. Sorrow struck sharply at her heart for all the things that they had both missed out on. And then the tears came. Loud sobs that she muffled as best she could with her pillow.
When the worst of her grief had passed she was left feeling empty and obscurely ashamed. She roughly wiped her face dry of tears. She had cried and she supposed that was something. Dr Westfall had told her that it was unhealthy not to cry. But she couldn’t feel proud of herself. These tears had leaked through somehow, maybe from some gland or duct that had been loosened by that blow to the head … loosened by something, at any rate. Maybe by her fledgling understanding of herself and her impulses or by the sympathetic help she was getting from her friends. But they were born of her own self-pity at what she had been denied. They didn’t help. They couldn’t solve anything. Debbie was as fatherless as ever, and so was she.
Maybe that cry had done her some good after all. Bea had been reading through Allie’s old letters that she kept safely in a pocket she had made at the back of her sketch pad. Allie’s words about her dad still saddened her, but the sadness had faded now so that it produced only a melancholy smile rather than a storm of grief. She released her breath in a shuddering sigh. Now that she was thinking more clearly, she realised that Harry could never have amounted to anything. He was nothing like Allie’s dad and was incapable of change. Debbie was no more fatherless now, now that Bea had put an end to him, than she had been at any other point in her life. He had never done any of the things that dads usually did with their kids. She could not even be sure that he had ever loved her, or even if he had been capable of love.
She put the letters away carefully inside their pocket, inside the sketch pad, between two of the taller books on her shelf. Her eye snagged on the colourful spine of the romance novel that Franky had lent her: “Love Between the Stacks.” She pulled it out and lay down on her bed to read.
“There you are, love. We wondered where you’d got to …” Liz said with a smile as Bea came out of her room into the common area. Bea blinked blearily. “Did you drop off?” Liz asked, putting her knitting to one side. Bea shook her head, dizzily adjusting to being back in the real world after a good two hours in the fictional world of Franky’s book. Although drop felt like an apt word. She felt as though she had been falling for a long time and had only now hit the ground and was struggling to find her feet.
“Dor reckoned you were meditating or summat …” Boomer began.
“No I didn’t!” Doreen protested.
“ … but I just reckoned you needed some alone time ,” the big woman continued relentlessly, making a crude gesture. Bea blushed hotly and looked away.
“Boomer!” Liz interjected.
“I was just reading,” Bea retorted, feeling somewhat compromised by Boomer’s insinuation and still vaguely off-balance from this rude return to the real world. And then Franky swivelled in her chair and made it worse.
“It must be a good book to keep you occupied for so long Red,” she said with a knowing grin. “What is it? Political memoir? Celebrity exposé? Or good old fashioned bonk-buster ?” Kim laughed. Bea blushed hotter still. Franky knew exactly what that book contained. In fact, Bea had been unsurprised to find that it fell open at certain pages. But did she have to show her up in front of everyone?
“Struth,” she muttered under her breath. She cleared her throat and headed over to the sink.
“Anyone want a cuppa?” she asked with her back to the group.
“Yeah, I’ll have one. Cheers, Bea,” Boomer replied, apparently unaware of Franky’s jibes. Thank God for Boomer.
Bea read on into the night, unable to stop until she had reached the final page and the happy resolution of the story. She lay the book down and tried to compose herself for sleep. But her mind replayed the interactions between the central characters and the author’s description of their feelings and responses. She would like to deny that she had placed Allie into one of the roles and herself into the other, but here alone in the dark, the only person she could even try to fool was herself. That plummeting feeling she got when Allie took her hand or held her … the writer clearly knew that feeling and ascribed it to love, to falling in love. All those descriptions of looks and touches, of covert glances … shit. Bea had been living through a boilerplate romance and had never even noticed. Had Allie noticed? If she was half as savvy as Bea knew her to be, then she must have. Were her teasing words and looks in earnest? Or did she just enjoy getting Bea in a spin? Was she laughing at Bea’s cluelessness? Bea groaned at the thought.
When Franky had given her the book, Bea had told her that she wasn’t gay. And as far as she was aware, that was the truth. But her response to the sexual scenes in the book was undeniable. Her pulse had sped up as she read those passages. She had become hot and the liquid feeling that she had felt during her visit with Allie had returned. According to the book, that was arousal. Could she have been gay all along? Was that the reason her marriage had been such a disaster? Or had prison somehow ‘turned’ her gay? She snorted at the idea. Could Allie have turned her gay? She didn’t think it worked that way. She needed some advice. Not Franky! her unconscious thundered at her. No, not Franky.
“Can I ask you something?” Bea asked. Her heart was racing but now that she had finally got up the courage to ask she wasn’t about to back down.
“Of course. This is a safe space and you can ask anything,” Dr Westfall replied smoothly.
“It may seem like a stupid question …”
“There’s no such thing as a stupid question, Bea,” she replied with a reassuring smile. Bea took a deep breath and contemplated her shoes.
“How does a person know if they’re ... gay?” The psychologist took a deep breath.
“We’ve not discussed your perspectives on love and relationships … “ she began. Love. A relationship. These were words from a long forgotten language and Bea’s brain struggled to make sense of how they might apply to her. Did she dare to imagine someone to smile at over the breakfast table? Someone to hold and be held by during difficult moments? Someone with whom to share a life? Could she cast Allie in that role? “Bea …” Her scattered thoughts returned and she focussed back on Dr Westfall. “Where’d you go?” Bea gave a tiny shake of her head. This was ridiculous. Even if Allie was, by some miracle, interested in her, it wouldn’t be fair on her. Bea had nothing to offer. She could be in here for years. Allie was young and beautiful and deserved a life that matched. That thought descended upon her heavily and her mood instantly blackened.
“I’m done here,” Bea told Dr Westfall gruffly and began to get to her feet. But Dr Westfall wasn’t finished with her yet.
“You know, I’ve known a lot of women who identified as straight and who fell in love with a woman and panicked. And to those women, I always said, ‘Forget the terminology. Just be in the moment and see how you feel.’ Because if you’ve fallen for someone, then … fuck the labels.” Bea watched the psychologist’s face become deadly serious as she said those three little words: fuck the labels. Perhaps it was because Dr Westfall seemed the unlikeliest of people to use such language that it chimed so strongly with Bea’s sense of what was right. She’d never asked Franky what label she applied to herself, she’d just accepted her as she was. Why couldn’t she be that generous with herself? Bea smiled and nodded to herself. What did it matter if she said she was gay? Or if she said she was straight, or that she didn’t know? What she did know was that she felt connected to Allie in a way she had never felt connected to anyone. Had she fallen for her, as Dr Westfall seemed to suggest? She didn’t know, but perhaps she owed it to herself to see where her feelings took her.
“Thanks Doc,” Bea said earnestly. Dr Westfall was beaming at her like she was a baby who had just taken her first steps.
Sitting on the edge of that examination table, swinging her feet and waiting for Mr Jackson to return, she laughed at herself. God, she was such a cliché. A plain, middle-aged woman like herself falling for a blonde bombshell like Allie. It was too obvious! A shapely, young, blue-eyed blonde … she should get some kind of award for ‘Most Out of Her League Crush'. Still, when she had walked out of Dr Westfall’s office she had promised herself that she would follow her advice, not panic, and see how she felt. That was why it was imperative that she saw Allie today. Other than the fact that Allie would worry if she was turned away at the door, Bea knew that if the visit was put off until next week there was a high probability she would lose her nerve and be less open with Allie than she wanted to be right now. Heart rate climbing, she swung her legs some more, adjusted her ridiculous hospital gown around her bare thighs and listened out for the rattle of keys.