Prison is one of those times when you’re glad you were born a woman. While my ex and his co-religionists were presumably packed off to the holding pen in Belmarsh, I ended up in single-cell accommo at Holloway. Or it was supposed to be single cell. For after a big chunk of time this Afro-Caribbean girl was thrown in with me.
She could have been anything between nineteen and thirty, she wore the standard working-class London bird’s denim and black, and she was trouble. It was the eyes that told me this – they were big and bright and on twenty-four hour watch for a million terrible contingencies. They were the fearful and vicious eyes of an animal that is about to bite.
‘Stay the fuck away from me!’ I yelled. I figured that pre-emptive and total aggression was the best strategy for survival.
The woman raised her palms. ‘Chill out, posh lady. Ain’t no one gonna trouble you, you keep your head down.’
‘Fuck’s that meant to mean?’ I found myself emphasising the North Manc accent I’d spent fifteen years trying to shed.
She just shook her head in exasperated dismissal and sat on the bench. From the pallet across, I watched her for what must have been hours. I told her several times that I’d kill her if fucked with, to no meaningful response.
Eventually Nikole (later she would insist it was spelt that way on her birth certificate) was taken somewhere else, and I was alone, without even cigarettes – these had been taken at the cop shop, along with the travellers’ cheques, the cash still woven into my suitcase, and the books I was going to read on the plane. There was nothing to block out the overwhelming aural presence of a living institution coming through three walls: conversation, argument, negotiation, sounds of sleep and laughter – and every so often the screams and pounding footsteps that would send a tangible shudder through every inch of my frame and make me wish I’d never got involved with Majid Hallam.
Couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t read. I thought of the Hannibal Lecter quote: any civilised society would either kill me or give me my books.
The small box of sky darkened, and my initial boredom and anger turned to an evil, paralysing depression that I could barely stand. I hammered on the call button. I wanted a Listener, a counsellor, company, any company: I yearned even for Nikole. This was like nothing else. I felt my soul was being ground up inside me: pestled and mortared.
Then, when the fuckers turned out the lights, I began to scream. Screaming helped me cry, the first time I’ve cried since I was six years old and had just seen Dog the dinosaur getting ripped in half by a couple of scallies – the film ended happily, I knew that, the dinosaur got better: but as Stephen King would point out, the enduring childhood memory is that of a friendly, fragile creature destroyed by an act of human malice and human caprice.
After three long days and three ageless nights, I got to see the Legal Aid guy that I’d belled with my one phone call. He was younger than me, clear-skinned, presentable – under better circumstances, I thought, we might fuck. Not that I looked my seductive self after seventy hours in hell with no mirror, makeup or ladyshave and only the same sleep-damaged clothes.
We discussed the charges. I repeated my story that I was merely in a relationship with Majid and had no idea of his Islamist leanings (you will know, if you’ve read this far, that I had in fact been planning to use his cell to arrange the maiming of an ex-boyfriend). Unfortunately, I’d been caught on my way out the door with a stash of euro and a plane ticket to the Dam. Not exactly the actions of an innocent woman. I asked for the worst-case sentence, and then I wished I hadn’t.
Back in the cell, my books, cigarettes, and lighter were finally delivered by a dumpy blonde screw. My clothes were also returned, in a transparent polythene bag. I rationed and savoured my Roth and Brookmyre, and that got me through the next few days, but the sense of childish terror and irrevocable loss remained. Ten years I could be in here. And this was just remand. It made the 42-day debate irrelevant. You could be on remand for years and years without ever getting to trial.
And then I realised a terrible thing: I was going to die here. Women prisons were notorious for suicides. At HMP Styal the favourite recreational activity was ‘ligaturing’; that is, attempting to hang oneself using bedsheet and shoelace. I wouldn’t last. One more day of this would kill me.
That was when Nikole returned.
She had been brought by a male screw this time. The door slammed, and I just gaped. ‘You’re back!’ I said.
It was so long since I’d spoken that I expected the words to hang in the air for a second, like names traced in fog. ‘Yep,’ she said. ‘Still planning to kill me, then?’
‘I’m sorry I spoke harsh to you, babe. Please be nice to me. I’m dying here, I’m falling apart. Touch me.’
‘What’s your name, love?’ There was suspicion in her voice, but also something else, a lilt that could have meant kindness, could mean compassion – and I grabbed for it like a lifecord.
‘Rebecca. Rebecca Quayle.’
‘You been here all this time? You not get association time?’
‘No, man, they don’t let me out.’ I later learned that terror suspects were generally denied courtyard exercise, at least for the first few weeks. ‘Come on, help me. I’m completely losing it.’
‘Changed your tune, hey?’ Her voice was bow bells with a mediterranean trace. ‘Where’d your attitude go, darling? Aw, seriously, there’s no need –‘ I had broken down by this point – ‘give me a cuddle.’
Christ, isn’t it good to touch people sometimes? You wonder how and why we go without it. She held me for a long time, and then got me to lay down onto the mattress. Then she positioned herself on top of me, and I felt a thick tongue prying at the gaps between my teeth.
Now I hadn’t been with a woman since university, but I can still answer the classic question: what do lesbians actually do? To all my gentleman readers, I can say: they fuck, is what they do. And afterwards they lie around and talk.
Nikole was nineteen and from Hackney. She’d dropped out of college and began a living selling coke and pills to the Soho crowd – I’d probably bought off her in better times and never remembered her face. She’d been stopped with three grammes on her. It wasn’t the first time, but she was blasé about the heavy penalties: she seemed to treat arrest as an occupational hazard. ‘Maybe those cunts from the Groucho will put in for my defence,’ she said, half-laughing, ‘I’ve sorted them out enough times.’
Now, you haven’t seen much of the kickass femme fatale during this chapter of my life, but it was at that point that I began to get my old Rebecca Quayle attitude back: felt myself seeping into myself. Part of it was having Nikole. They left her in my cell well into October, and at nights we would make love and then hold each other until this six-by-nine room with the tiny window would seem like the safest and happiest place in the whole world.
I was beating the system. When the lights went down, I knew we were safe. And if I could get through this, the worst experience of all my days, there was a chance I could beat the British state and get acquitted. And then, as if positive thinking had willed it, there was a break.
At first it looked like more bad news, because my lawyer came to visit and said there was a chance I’d be transferred.
‘HMG don’t want you in Holloway, Miss Quayle,’ the lawyer said. ‘See, there’s all this fuss at the moment about Islamist prisoners indoctrinating the other cons with extremist ideology. In some prisons they even form gang alliances with the British far right. So the government want you all split up.’
‘So what, they put me in some fucking steel ball and have me floating in the Irish Sea?’
‘It’s a little better than that. Due to overcrowding, the only prison that can take you is HMP Greenhalgh.’
He began to tell me about HMP Greenhalgh. Greenhalgh wasn’t like Holloway. It was a cat D, an open prison, with training courses, a library and loads of rewarding opportunities for society’s misunderstood. Unsupervised day release. Individual keys. No lockdown till eight. Best of all, it was in Dover, by the coast.
‘So do you want to do that?’
‘I get a choice?’
‘Not really, but if you show willing I can report that and it will go down in your favour when we come to trial. It will show that you aren’t planning to spread terror ideology among Cat A prisoners.’
‘Do I look like an Islamist, Dan?’
He lost my eye. ‘Not really, no.’
So that was my escape plan sorted. A holiday by the seaside! I was sure I would be able to find some way out of an open prison in some coastal outcrop somewhere. Sure, I had no money and they’d probably frozen my accounts, but if I couldn’t sort out a passage to France through my wit and wiles… well, I didn’t deserve to.
The next week I got a transfer date of November 9, which then got pushed back to the twentieth, then brought forward again to the thirteenth. Meanwhile, the authorities began to let me into association, first under close supervision, then with the same chaotic laissez-faire under which they governed the rest of the cons. I played pool, got involved in a mechanics class, got some more books from the library. The days began to pass.
My only problem was Nikole. I had said nothing to her of my escape, not wanting to jinx the plan: but it was hard, because by then we told each other everything – I’d have told that girl the dreams I’d had in the womb.
The glorious day came. The transfer was supposed to be done shortly after breakfast at six. Midday, nothing had happened, and I was pacing a groove in the cell, cursing the authorities.
Then the door ratcheted open. A couple of screws were there, including the fat bitch who’d returned my gear. There was also a lean, middle-aged guy wearing a suit.
A screw nodded. ‘That’s her.’
The lean man pointed to Nikole. ‘Her as well, yeah.’
This confused me. Nikole wasn’t on terror charges. What could they want with her?
I held my wrists out for the bracelets and felt them click against my skin. I’d been chained to the man in the suit – another weird sign.
Then the two of us were led down the hallways, through the reception area, out into a courtyard where there was air, sky, movement – overwhelming, after so many weeks in that spaceless tomb. There were a lot of meatwagons around, but we were led to an anonymous but expensive-looking black van.
While Nikole was loaded into the back, the suited man insisted I sit in the passenger seat, which meant that he had to climb over it, spread-eagled. It must have looked fucking farcical, and again I wondered what exactly was happening here. Also, I was aware that the screws had gone and that a bunch of techie-looking types in black lycra had climbed into the back with Nikole.
The suited man hit the ignition and we were away. Through the gates and out into the streets of London. The man steered hard, which meant my right hand got twisted and jerked about.
‘Stick the radio on, love?’ he asked.
‘Any particular station?’
I put on XFM: it was better down here than in Manchester. Lauren Laverne introduced a Kaiser Chiefs song.
‘Good choice,’ my captor said, and began bopping his head to the music. I studied his face, which was older than its years; a chiselled and hard-worn handsomeness, with a glint of opportunity in the eye.
‘I used to work with Lauren Laverne,’ he said. ‘When she had that Kenickie band? Bet you’re too young to remember them.’
‘No, I used to love Kenickie. Used to sneak into town and see them.’
He raised a cheeky eyebrow. ‘How old were you then?’
‘Fifteen. I could get served in bars, though.’
He turned his face to the road: we seemed to be heading out of town. I said, ‘Are we going to Devon?’
‘No, didn’t think so. Where are we going?’
I was treated to a sideways glance and a grin of deep and lacerating mischief. ‘Rebecca Quayle, you’re going to be on television.’