An Extract from Affinity
I moved away, along the ward. The woman's thin petitions, the matron's scolds, were made sharp and strange by the acoustics of the gaol; every prisoner I passed had raised her head to catch them – though, when they saw me in the ward beyond their gates, they lowered their gazes and returned to their sewing. Their eyes, I thought, were terribly dull. Their faces were pale, and their necks, and their wrists and fingers, very slender. I thought of Mr Shillitoe saying that a prisoner's heart was weak, impressionable, and needed a finer mould to shape it. I thought of it, and became aware again of my own heart beating. I imagined how it would be to have that heart drawn from me, and one of those women's coarse organs pressed into the slippery cavity left at my breast…
I put my hand to my throat then and felt, before my pulsing heart, my locket; and then my step grew a little slower. I walked until I reached the arch that marked the angle of the ward, then moved a little way beyond it – just far enough to put the matrons from my view, but not enough to take me down the second passage. Here I put my back to the limewashed prison wall, and I waited.
And here, after a moment, came a curious thing.
I was close to the mouth of the first of the next line of cells; near to my shoulder was its inspection flap or 'eye', above that the enamel tablet bearing the details of its inmate's sentence. It was only from this, indeed, that I knew the cell was occupied at all, for there seemed to emanate from it a marvellous stillness – a silence, that seemed deeper yet than all the restless Millbank hush surrounding it. Even as I began to wonder over it, however, the silence was broken. It was broken by a sigh, a single sigh – it seemed to me, a perfect sigh, like a sigh in a story; and the sigh being such a complement to my ownmood I found it worked upon me, in that setting, rather strangely. I forgot Miss Ridley and Mrs Jelf, who might at any second come to guide me on my way. I forgot the tale of the incautious matron and the sharpened spoon. I put my fingers to the inspection slit, and then my eyes. And then I gazed at the girl in the cell beyond – she was so still, I think I held my breath for fear of startling her.
She was seated upon her wooden chair, but had let her head fall back and had her eyes quite closed. Her knitting lay idle in her lap, and her hands were together and lightly clasped; the yellow glass at her window was bright with sun, and she had turned her face to catch the heat of it. On the sleeve of her mud-coloured gown was fixed, the emblem of her prison class, a star – a star of felt, cut slant, sewn crooked, but made sharp by the sunlight. Her hair, where it showed at the edges of her cap, was fair; her cheek was pale, the sweep of brow, of lip, of lashes crisp against her pallor. I was sure that I had seen her likeness, in a saint or an angel in a painting of Crivelli's.
I studied her for, perhaps, a minute; and all that time she kept her eyes quite closed, her head perfectly still. There seemed something rather devotional about her pose, the stillness, so that I thought at last, She is praying!, and made to draw my eyes away in sudden shame. But then she stirred. Her hands opened, she raised them to her cheek, and I caught a flash of colour against the pink of her work-roughened palms. She had a flower there, between her fingers – a violet, with a drooping stem. As I watched, she put the flower to her lips, and breathed upon it, and the purple of the petals gave a quiver and seemed to glow…
She did that, and I became aware of the dimness of the world that was about her – of the wards, the women in them, the matrons, even my own self. We might have been painted, all of us, from the same poor box of watery tints; and here was a single spot of colour, that seemed to have come upon the canvas by mistake.
But I didn't wonder, then, about how a violet might, in that grim-earthed place, have found its way into those pale hands. I only thought, suddenly and horribly, What can her crime have been? Then I remembered the enamel tablet swinging near my head. I let the inspection close, quite noiselessly, and moved to read it.
There was her prison number and her class, and beneath them her offence: Fraud & Assault. The date of her reception was eleven months ago. The date of her release was for four years hence.
Four years! Four Millbank years – which must, I think, be terribly slow ones. I meant to move to her gate then, to call her to me and have her story from her; and I would have done it, had there not come at that moment, from further back along the first passage, the sound of Miss Ridley's voice, and then of her boots, grinding the sand upon the cold flags of the ward. And that made me hesitate. I thought, How
would it be, if the matrons were to look at the girl as I had, and find that flower upon her? I was sure they would take it, and I knew I should be sorry if they did. So I stepped to where they would see me, and when they came I said – it was the truth, after all – that I was weary, and had viewed all I cared to view for my first visit. Miss Ridley said only, 'Just as you wish, ma'am.' She turned on her heel and took me back along the passage; and as the gate was shut upon me I looked once over my shoulder to the turning of the ward, and felt a curious feeling – half satisfaction, half sharp regret. And I thought: Well, she will still be here, poor creature! when I return next week.
The matron led me into the tower staircase, and we began our careful, circling descent to the lower, drearier wards – I felt like Dante, following Virgil into Hell. I was passed over first to Miss Manning, then to a warder, and was taken back through Pentagons Two and One; I sent a message in to Mr Shillitoe, and was led out of the inner gate and along that wedge of gravel. The walls of the pentagons seemed to part before me now, but grudgingly. The sun, that was stronger, made the bruise-coloured shadows very dense.
We walked, the warder and I, and I found myself gazing again at the bleak prison ground, with its bare black earth and its patches of sedge. I said, 'There are no flowers grown here, warder? No daisies, no – violets?'
No daisies, no violets, he answered; not even so much as a dandelion clock. They would not grow in Millbank soil, he said. It is too near the Thames, and 'as good as marshland'.