An Excerpt: Loving the Unlovely
The next morning, Bernice awoke, crying out in pain. She was very sick. She had run out of useable veins, so she’d given herself an extra dose into her upper arm muscles. Apparently it would be less powerful, but it lasted longer. Later on someone else told me that theory was rubbish.
We let Bernice have the first shower of the day. She didn’t bother closing the heavy door. She had trouble lifting her badly swollen arms, so I helped her remove her top (sticky from dried pus), and winced when she exploded a string of invectives from the pain. She was like a big wounded animal.
Bernice had been here before. As we waited for our turn we heard the water stop... then start again. We looked at each other, realising we could have had a longer shower just by pressing the button again! Bernice wordlessly took three showers. We weren’t going to complain! Eventually she emerged, moaning in pain. She tried to dry off, but needed help.
I noticed a hole in each of her upper arms, one centimetre, or almost a half-inch, in both diameter and depth. The skin around the holes was red, tight and swollen. I looked inside and could see her muscle sitting deeper within. I’d never seen a wound like it. Both holes were dribbling a thick yellow substance, watery in parts, as it oozed like poisonous toothpaste from the expanded punctures. It descended down each arm rapidly, and stained her shirtsleeves.
She told me it was heroin. I sprang for the cheap and nasty toilet paper, the kind you find frustrating in public toilets. I must have gone through half a box wiping gently up her arms.
The other girls whispered in horror, “Don’t touch her, you don’t know what she’s got!”
I knew they were referring to HIV. I ignored them and continued wiping the tender arms, quietly ministering to Bernice, silently praying for her. She had a need and I could help. I firmly believed that regardless of what she “had,” God would not let me catch anything if I was serving Him by serving her.
My actions were naïve, perhaps even noble; but still, it gave me a charge, as I felt the power of the Holy Spirit’s anointing, moving from me to Bernice. She felt it too and, looking in my eyes, she asked, "What the #$%&* was that?"
A peculiar friendship was born.
I didn’t have any cuts on my hands, and I was sensible enough to wash thoroughly with soap afterwards. Fortunately, Bernice was taken to see a nurse who put band-aids on her holes.
Our time at the watch-house was mind-numbingly boring. A highlight was when we were randomly moved to other pods. It happened several times. Then we would scrub all over again. An officer told us it wasn’t our job. He said he’d get us a broom but we didn’t see one. We asked if a cleaner came in, and were told, “Oh yes, every couple of days.” We never saw one of those either. He was probably being sarcastic!
Another highlight was being allowed to spend an hour in the yard each day. This was a brick pit, a small outdoor area made of high brick walls and the sky. It had a putrid toilet at the rear, with a bubbler in the top that we were not going to risk drinking from. There was nothing to do in it but walk up and down.
I thought of the many times I had walked into the city from Roma Street Station, totally unaware of the misery just a few metres below me.
Making the most of the novelty of fresh air and sky, I pulled off my tracksuit top, tied it into a ball and tossed it to Amanda, “Catch!” She laughed, and we all began to toss it around, pretending to score goals. This game was popular each time we went out. Then one day the voice of a rather unpleasant officer yelled at us, telling us "not to play" with the piece of uniform, or we’d be "put inside" again.
“Well, that was a pleasant hour.” I commented one day as we made our way inside; as though we had been ladies strolling in a garden!
Bernice cackled. “Pleasant, eh? Oh this was soooo pleasant! You called this @#&* hole ‘rather unpleasant’ today. Who talks like that? You are so funny! I’m calling you ‘Pleasant’ from now on!”
So, she did. I had a soft spot for Bernice. She didn’t accept Christ, but she accepted me.
I laughed at myself and took it as a compliment. I knew I was an “odd duck" in this place. I felt like a visitor passing through. It was strange, like being caught in an episode of the Twilight Zone.
Bernice referred to the officers as “Forbys,” pronounced “Fourbies.” It’s rhyming slang for screw: 4B2 (4x2 plank) - screw! We are not allowed to call them “Screws.” There is some dispute over the origin of referring to prison officers as “Screws.”
It could refer to “thumbscrews” as an instrument of torture, or a box with a crank that prisoners were required to turn so many times a day. A warden could make the turning easy, or hard, by the turning of a screw. It could also refer to a screw being used to lock prisoners’ cells, instead of a key.
I was in prison without having stolen anything. For a while I would feel obliged to explain this as I met people, officers in particular. It was as though I were clinging to innocence. I felt a need for people to know I didn’t really belong there. It was faulty thinking.
I saw a distinction between those who should be there, and those who shouldn’t. While I still think there are people there who shouldn't be there, my faulty thinking was that I was somehow a better kind of sinner than the rest.
Eventually, I would acknowledge and repent of that pride. I was no better than these women; regardless of the crimes committed. In God’s eyes, we are all the same. None of us is “innocent”. We either have a relationship with Him, or we don’t, and that is based on our acceptance of Christ paying for our sin, not because we are nice, or clever, or rich, or anything.
Pecking orders occur everywhere and God hates them. I am different, because of my education and training, my family, my faith, my mental, spiritual and emotional development. That doesn't make me superior. I have skills that are of value, but it certainly doesn’t make me of more value than any other human being. I do talk differently from most people who go to prison; I don't swear, and I have hope.
However, that was not always going to be an advantage to me. In fact, at times it would make me a target...
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