The power of confession

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Judith stared at a spot on the concrete wall in front of her as the prison guard guided the metal detector down the length of her body. As he reached the curve of her hips she breathed him in, the heady scent of cedarwood and tobacco smoke curling into her nostrils. It reminded her of long-ago summer evenings with Malcolm, driving to the Sandgate foreshore in his burnt orange XC Falcon. She closed her eyes, sitting with the memory for a moment, before sneezing loudly.

The guard – Wilson, according to his ID badge – grabbed a tissue and passed it to Judith. She blew noisily into the Kleenex, and shoved it deep into the pocket of her jeans, then reached over and grabbed one of the plastic badges emblazoned with the word VISITOR in bold red letters that were lined up on the desk.

Her fingers were sweaty, and she struggled to open the clip on the back of the badge. Wilson tucked the metal detector into the moist armpit of his light brown uniform and held the badge, sliding the pin through her pale pink polyester blouse and fastening the badge with ease.  His fingers lightly brushed against the swell of her breast as he smoothed down her blouse, and she laughed nervously.

‘Sorry, it’s so hot today! I’m sweating like a pig. Am I good to go?’

The guard nodded, stone-faced and irritated that she’d ignored his signals. Judith smiled and winked playfully.

‘Guess I can’t get away with the old file in the birthday cake trick, right Mr Wilson?’

The corner of his mouth lifted. Judith wasn’t sure if it was a smile, or a smirk.

‘Gee, never heard that one before Mrs Murphy.’

Judith stiffened.

‘Ms. Davies, please.’

Definitely a smirk now. She wanted to punch him in the mouth.

Ms. Davies,’ he said, serious again. ‘I know this is your first time, so I don’t want to scare you or anything, but I’ve got a hundred and eighty-three crims in this hell hole. Dangerous men; scum of the earth, rotten crooks, rapists, killers.’ He watched her carefully as he spoke.

‘It ain’t hard for a pretty woman like you to get herself into some real trouble, real quick, in a place like this.’

Judith could feel the heat creep up her neck but held his eyes with her own, not wanting to be the first to look away. Of course, he wanted to scare her.

I didn’t play your game, so now you’ll get that rush of power by reminding me that I don’t have any, she thought. Men are so bloody predictable.

Wilson’s eyes dropped first, concealing his defeat with a sharp crack of a cough like a gunshot into his balled-up fist. He sniffed.

‘You’ll have one hour to meet with your husband. Now him and these other ratbags have been stuffed into their cells all day, like bloody sardines.’ Wilson nodded towards the old metal fan on the far wall, which was clearly struggling to have any effect in the oppressive heat. ‘All that sweat, all that heat – makes ‘em cranky. In the last few weeks, we’ve had a few blokes go a bit fruity in this heat. Going a bit mad, breaking some rules, causing a bit of a ruckus-‘ the hard k hit the roof of his mouth with a snap ‘- and we’ve had to rotate a few of the bastards in the Hole this month for trouble making, Mr Murphy included.’

He shrugged. ‘Only for twenty-four hours, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr Murphy is a little, shall we say, disgruntled this morning?’

Judith’s eyes narrowed.

‘What are you trying to say Mr Wilson?’

Wilson shrugged.

‘I guess what I’m saying is that your husband may not act like his usual self. Prison ain’t easy, but twenty-four in the black hole can really change a man. Just be mindful, and if you’re feeling a bit unsafe, just call out to the guard on duty. We’ll keep you safe.’

There was a pause, and Judith watched a bead of sweat roll down the guard’s temple.

Of course, remind me how much I need a man. Remove my power, then remind me of your strength. What a big strong man you are, Mr Wilson.

‘Mr Wilson, with all due respect,’ she said evenly, ‘my husband stopped acting like his usual self when he murdered that woman.’

She turned and, hands in the pockets of her jeans, walked down the corridor towards the visiting room.

*          *          *

The visitor room looked makeshift, unfinished. Round, scratched metal-legged tables with Day-Glo bright blue laminate tops were blobs of colour in the otherwise bland room, the folding chairs rusted and wobbly. There was a wall-mounted TV in the corner of the room, Days of Our Lives playing endless, silent drama to no one in particular.

            Judith pulled her hands from her pockets and grabbed one of the rusty metal chairs, the screech of its legs on the cold concrete floor reverberating in the otherwise empty room. She sat, folded her hands in her lap and closed her eyes, waiting. Five minutes passed before she heard the rattle of keys in the lock, and the groan of the heavy door opening. She was still, her knuckles white against her jeans.

            ‘Judith.’

            Her eyes flickered open. He still looked handsome; honey-gold hair, greasy from neglect in prison but still thick and wavy. She remembered a warm Sunday in late autumn, their bodies entwined on the secluded part of the beach at Coolangatta, her fingers tangled in his golden locks as he kissed her neck.

            ‘Malcolm.’

            He sat directly opposite her, the cuffs on his wrists clanging against the table’s metal leg. She stared at the chains, and he looked apologetic, embarrassed by their presence.

            ‘You cut your hair,’ he said quietly, his feet shifting under the table nervously. ‘It looks good on you.’

Judith smiled thinly.

            ‘It’s a lot longer than it used to be.’

            ‘Oh. Right.’

The silence sat heavily between them like city smog, thick and unrelenting. Judith cleared her throat.

‘Malcolm, we need to talk.’

He straightened in his chair, and opened his mouth –

‘No Malcolm. Please. Don’t say anything.’ She closed her eyes again, took a deep breath. ‘I just need you to listen.’

Malcolm frowned, closed his mouth, and sat back on his chair.

‘I’m sorry I haven’t visited before today.’ Judith continued. ‘It’s been… it’s been hard, Malcolm.’

‘It’s been twelve months Jude,’ Malcom said, his voice low and urgent. ‘Twelve months I’ve sat here, rotting away, alone. No visits, no letters.’ He was getting louder now. ‘You’re my wife for God’s sake.’

‘Tell me about her Malcolm.’

‘What?’ He looked confused.

‘Tell me about Claudia.’

Judith swallowed, feeling sick.

Malcolm leant back in his chair, exhaling sharply.

‘Jude, I didn’t kill her.’ He fixed her with his pale blue eyes. ‘I know I was unfaithful – I know it was wrong and I’m so, so sorry for that. But on my mother’s life, I swear I didn’t kill her.’

God, he’s a dead ringer for Burt Lancaster.

‘I’m not asking you if you killed her Malcolm, I’m asking you to tell me about her. I want to know who she was.’ Judith sighed, looked down to her hands.

‘I want you to tell me why you chose her over me.’

*          *          *

‘I was just grabbing a beer after work with a few of the boys; we’d just won that huge contract with the Expo mob, remember?’ At the memory, Malcolm smiled. It had been a big achievement at his construction firm. Judith remembered him stumbling up the front stairs of their unit in the early hours, his beery breath on her neck as he slid into bed that night.

‘Claudia was working behind the bar at The Regatta, and I’d put away at least seven or eight schooners by that stage.’

            Malcolm paused, cleared his throat.

            ‘You sure you want to hear this, Jude?’

            She nodded, not trusting herself to speak. He took a deep breath.

            ‘It was a stupid mistake. I was drunk and the boys were heading home. I stopped out the front for a smoke and Claudia was there. She asked for a light, we got to talking, she asked if I wanted to go back to her place…’

            ‘Did you love her?’

            ‘What? No.’

            ‘Then… why?’

            The chains on his wrists jingled as he shrugged.

            ‘I was drunk. I thought I was a fucking God that night Jude, I thought I was King Shit. I was rotten drunk, and my ego took over and I just wasn’t thinking. Not with my brain, at least. Not that night.’

            ‘Or the next.’

            Malcolm sighed.

            ‘Okay yes, or the next night, and the night after that. I know, I’m a bastard.’

            Judith watched him closely, waited for him to continue.

            ‘It went on for too long, I know that. I was stupid, this was a stupid mistake. She made me feel good Jude, that’s it. It wasn’t love. But I swear to you Jude, I didn’t kill her.’

            Judith looked down to her hands, folded in her lap.

            ‘I know.’

She said it so quietly, Judith wasn’t sure If Malcolm had heard her at first, but when she looked up he was staring at her, slack-jawed. She stole a glance at the guard at the door and pushed her hand into the pocket of her jeans. He watched her as she loudly blew her nose with the tissue from her pocket, but quickly turned back to the television, not wanting to miss whatever drama was being played out in Salem that day.

‘Wh-what did you say?’

She brought her hands to the table, reached for his. The cuffs scratched against the laminate tabletop.

‘I said, I know you didn’t kill her.’

Malcolm looked at her, confused. Judith smiled.

‘I did,’ she whispered.

She pushed the note into his palm, then got up and walked to the door. The guard, engrossed in the silent soap, was oblivious to the exchange. He opened the door and Judith disappeared into the hall.

*          *          *

Back in the cell, Malcolm pulled the note from the waistband of his pants. It was written on an old paper coaster, beer-stained and crumpled with the mahogany logo of The Regatta printed on one side. He turned it over and instantly recognised Judith’s familiar looped scrawl.

            Don’t ever hurt me again.

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