The afternoon’s grey daylight had begun to fade, and fluorescent lights coated the room with a bleachy sheen, not bright but thorough. Every dark contour was pulled into a smooth illumination, making a frictionless scene that slipped past Paul unreachably. He looked around, his veering glance seeking something that would hold his attention. Something that would hold him.
He saw Len, standing in front of him now, saying something to him. ‘Do you want a cup of tea? I’ll get yours if you like. Milk and sugar? Same as me?’
Len looked eagerly at Paul as the tea trolley rattled into the room. ‘I’ll come with you,’ said Paul, and they set off together.
Paul did not look around for his guardian nurse as the other patients began making their way back into the dayroom. He and Len stood next to one another in the queue for tea.
‘I threw up in the van, on the way here,’ said Paul. ‘It was because of thinking about what I had done. The security man wouldn’t clean it up; he just left it there the whole journey.’
When the guard who travelled with Paul had seen the vomit at Paul’s feet, he had in fact gone quite readily to get disposable gloves, disinfectant and paper towels. Prisoners often got travelsick in their claustrophobic secure enclosures in the van. But Paul seized the chance to tell his captor how he felt. He wanted not to be hated. So he explained to the guard why he had been sick:
‘I kept on thinking about that poor girl. It made me nauseous. I didn’t want to hurt her.’
That was too much for the guard. He didn’t think that a puddle of vomit really made the grade as a token of repentance.
‘Is that right?’ he said, before leaving Paul locked in with the mess.
At the head of the tea queue now, Len poured a cup for himself and one for Paul, adding milk and sugar to both. He handed Paul his tea.
‘You’re looking in the wrong place, Paul. That guard, he’s one of the good guys; they never let you off the hook,’ Len said. ‘It’s like when I kept telling Jesus how bad I felt about what I had done to him. It was hopeless. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” that’s what he preached. Well Jesus is without sin and he lobs stones at me all the time. The way he looks at me … so disappointed, so hurt.’ Len spoke lightly but he shook his head and gave Paul an imploring look.
‘It’s because I’m not weak like you. He’d forgive you. But I’m his father and I’m supposed to get things right.’
Paul recalled the girl’s miserable face after he raped her. She had looked right at him when he told her he was sorry, but then she looked away again and kept on crying. Why hadn’t she shut up and let him look after her? She would still be alive then and he wouldn’t be here. Bitch. He allowed himself to think that word.
He sat down among a cluster of other patients. He looked around at them and wondered what they had done to end up in this place. Probably some of them had committed famous crimes that he had read about in the papers. May be he could ask them.
A nurse came up behind him and spoke quietly. ‘Just to let you know, Paul, you’re off assessment now. You seem to have settled in well and we’ll have a chat soon about fitting you into all the ward activities.’
‘Welcome aboard!’ said the man sitting next to Paul, raising his teacup and then chinking it against Paul’s. Len was standing at the centre of the group. He took a couple of steps towards Paul and knelt down, so that his bloated face was close to Paul’s. He looked angry again and Paul was afraid.
‘Remember, Paul, Jesus is just an errand boy. What does it matter what he thinks? I’m judge and jury, nobody else. Stick with me. You’ll be fine.’