The Custody Suite is as busy as ever. People standing where the footprint decals on the floor indicate they should stand; officers at each segment terminal on the raised dais entering details, issuing instructions, explanations, documents; faces at the windows of the interview rooms; officers wandering out, wandering in, fetching property bags, storing them away; phones ringing, keyboards rattling, steel doors slamming – all in an atmosphere of airless, plainly lit process, the administrative nexus of the day’s drama.
‘Here they are!’ says one of the custody officers. His colleagues look over at us and smile.
‘You’re going to love this!’ he says, logging out of his terminal. ‘Or maybe not. Have you been told much?’
Rae shakes her head.
‘Section patient to Southview. That’s it.’
‘You wish,’ he says, standing up. ‘Have you got gloves, or...?’
Just as he comes out to lead us round, someone calls out to me from a room at the back.
It’s the custody nurse, a man I’ve never seen before. ‘Fancy seeing you here! How are things? Keeping well?’
‘Yeah, fine!’ I say. ‘You?’ I struggle to place him, but nothing fits. He leans back in his chair and laces his fingers behind his head.
‘No worries,’ he says. ‘I saw Jack just the other day. Nice to see the old faces now and again.’
If I’m going to admit I don’t know him it has to be now. But in that panicked instant before confession or pretence, I opt for the latter.
‘How long have you been working here?’ I ask him, as the custody officer punches in the security code and opens the door to the cells.
‘About a million years,’ the nurse says. ‘Feels like. Anyway – nice to see you again. I’ll let you get on. But hey – don’t blame me!’
I laugh and nod and hurry after Rae.
‘I don’t know how you want to handle this,’ the officer says, pulling on some white plastic gloves. ‘The story is she was found wandering in the street, very distressed, not making any sense. A car brought her here, but not without some difficulty. She’s – how shall I put it? – covered in shit, I think is the technical term. When we put her in the cells she defecated on the floor and started throwing it around, so we had to withdraw. She did calm down enough for your nurse friend to take some obs, though, blood sugar and whatnot, and he was happy with all of that. The psych team assessed her and she’s being packed off to Southview. I don’t reckon she needs an escort, but see what you think. You’ll have to watch your step inside, but I’ll leave the rest to you, to price the job, so to speak. All right?’
He has a quick look through the letterbox observation hole, then unlocks the door.
‘Paula?’ he says. ‘The ambulance are here to see you.’
A young woman is lying on her back on the low bed shelf at the other side of the cell. She is covered up to the neck in a blanket. All you can see is a pale face above the top of it, framed by a tangle of sweated black hair. She is talking quietly and quickly, a smooth commentary, staring up at the patterns the light through the tiny window throws across the ceiling.
Getting to her is a problem, like walking across a minefield. There are lumps of excrement liberally scattered around the floor and against the wall, smears where boots or feet have slipped up. The cell has been sprayed with air freshener, which only makes the stench more sweetly overbearing.
‘Hi Paula. I’m Rae and this is Spence.’
We pick our way over.
She doesn’t acknowledge our presence at all, but carries on her strange monologue.
‘... Jesus be kind to me. Jesus kiss me and save me. Come unto me here and say that you understand the nature of my blackened heart. In your sweet, sweet name, amen. You were always aware of my sins and the power of your demons to capture my heart. And after all that happened ... Yes? You remember? Sweet Jesus how you always remember. You see me now thrown into the pit of ... that despair which was foretold, that was cast into the likeness of liars and frauds and deceitful demons. That which you have taken unto yourself be forever blessed and understanding for evermore, amen....’
Paula is unreachable. She doesn’t respond, not even a glance. The fact that we are two strangers standing over her makes no impression at all. She carries on staring straight up, her voice softly pattering out what in any other circumstance would pass as speaking in tongues, or automatic writing, when you write without editing, whatever comes to mind, falling into the prophetic cadence of the priest or shaman.
‘...and you understood what befell me there. You could see what lay on the other side. And when you said you loved me, what did that mean, and how did that manifest itself? The demon understands. He is waiting for me, licking his lips with the deliciousness of it all. He is waiting to consume me in his blessed fire, and I know you would do something if you could, but he is as much a part of it all as I am. He understands my weaknesses and fears, he has consigned them to the flames along with me. But I am not afraid. I am lain low and dying, but I am not afraid....’
We step carefully back out of the cell.
‘We’ll get the trolley,’ I say to the officer. ‘And some blankets.’He closes the door behind us. I can still hear Paula’s whispering monologue, right up until the very moment the lock engages, slotting into place, coming to with a resounding clunk that echoes ahead of us down the corridor.