Vanessa Clarke took a lot of time and trouble getting ready.
She hadn’t seen Steve for a couple of weeks and she knew he would have wanted her – expected her – to look her best.
She had a long leisurely bath, the water slick with a heavily scented oil that left her skin feeling silky smooth.
Then, pink-skinned and slightly damp, she sat, still naked, at her dressing table and did her make-up. Her hair was a dark, almost chestnut brown, naturally thick and curly, and she piled it up high on her head keeping it all together with a large, metal clip.
Her face was long, angular even, large hazel eyes set in skin that stopped just short of being olive. Lots of eye-make up – thick black lines on both lids – and shadow in a dark, bruised purple, blusher heightened her already prominent cheekbones and painted her lips scarlet. Scarlett O’Hara. Scarlet woman. Finally she chose “Obsession” as her perfume – because it was Steve’s favorite – dabbing it behind her ears, at her throat, beneath her full breasts and finally along the crease of her sex. He’d like that.
Vanessa had carefully lain her clothes out on the bed before bathing: matching bra and briefs in thin black net, so fine and wispy it almost wasn’t there at all. Black, wrap-around miniskirt that split up one thigh, a transparent black blouse through which her bra was all too clearly visible, flesh-tone lace-topped stockings that shimmered as she walked, swayed, in her black stilettos and flattered long, toned legs that didn’t really need any help.
Finally she slipped on a tight-fitting puffy jacket, padded in metallic silver, with “FUK” in large letters emblazoned across the chest. Dispassionately she considered herself in the mirror and wasn’t altogether sure she liked what she saw. The overall effect was striking right enough, but possibly a little too tarty for her tastes and not entirely appropriate for a woman of very nearly twenty-nine. But then it didn’t matter what she thought, it was what Steve thought that counted.
She walked the short distance to the Tube, and at King’s Cross caught the Cambridge train and from there to the small market town of Bury St Edmunds, before catching the bus for Sudbury.
Throughout the journey she’d been aware of sidelong glances from other passengers, mainly men, weighing her up and down. Well let them look, but several times she’d caught herself tugging her mini skirt down as if in the belief that it has somehow ridden up her thighs. And she’d blushed furiously when she’d noticed the men watching that as well.
At least on the bus there seemed to be a number of other women dressed at least as brassily as she was; most younger and several with small infants in tow.
When the bus finally stopped and she, and they, got off at Barnfield, saw the high fences topped with razor wire and the familiar forbidding sign “Her Majesty’s Prison North Lodge”, she realized why.
Steve was three years her senior and ran his own small jeweler’s shop in the east London suburb where they lived. They had been married for three years and dated for a further three before that. Vanessa had liked him from the moment they had met. He was a bit of a Jack-the-Lad, all right, but he made her laugh. And she loved the way he was able to lavish jeweler, gold and silver, upon her and the way there always seemed to be a big wad of cash in his back pocket.
What she had genuinely not realized until the day her world collapsed with the policeman’s knock at the door was that Steve had been “fencing” most of the stolen goods in the area for years.
He got four years’ time for the crime and that was what she was doing stood there in the middle of a godforsaken spot in the Suffolk countryside.
By now she’d been “visiting” often enough that she knew the drill by heart. Friends and relatives gathered in a large reception area, you had to hand over your Visiting Order in exchange for your “number”, produce your passport to have your identity checked and then your hand stamped with an ultra-violet marker.
You were only allowed to take a maximum of £20 into the prison visiting area. All other personal possessions – bags, phones, keys, papers – had to be put into a locker. Numbers were called out in batches: 1—10, 11—20,21—30 and so on; and when your turn came you made your way through the electronically-operated sets of barred grilles and into the prison itself.
In the entrance to the visiting area coats and jackets were examined, you went through a metal detector and were given a pat-down body search. Finally you had to line up against a wall while a trained sniffer dog gave you a once-over for drugs and then it was in for the visit.
Except that day was different . . . The dog was a friendly, chocolate-brown spaniel that wove excitedly in and out of people’s legs until it got to Vanessa, at which point it simply sat down in front of her and refused to move.
A female prison officer came across to her, took her numbered ticket and consulted her clipboard: “Sorry about this Mrs. . . . Clarke, but I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to come with me.”
Silently she followed the officer down a long corridor lined with what looked like steel, cell doors until they reached a room at the very end. It was large, white-tiled, brightly lit, although windowless, with an examination table in the middle beneath a large light. There was a full-length adjustable mirror on wheels, a small bench to one side, something that looked very much a shooting stick – a metal pole set into the floor – topped with some sort of canvas sling and what looked like a medicine cabinet up on one wall.
The officer virtually squared up to Vanessa. She was shorter by two or three inches, although Vanessa realized this was probably solely down to her stilettos. She had short blond hair framing her round, pale face and a solid, almost stocky build. She also had a natural air of authority, a “toughness” of presence that Vanessa found disconcerting.
“Right. We can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way. Do you understand?”
Vanessa could only nod dumbly by way of a reply.
The officer lowered her clipboard and fixed Vanessa with a stare: “I asked you a question. Do you understand?”
“Yes, er, yes.”
The officer continued to glare at her while the silence grew between them until it was almost painful: “Yes, what?”
“Oh, er, sorry. Yes, Miss. I mean, yes, Ma’am.”
“Right, that’s better. Now, Clarke, as you know, the drug dog picked you out at the line-up and they’re never wrong. So I have to ask you the following two questions. Firstly, do you have any controlled substances, Class 1, 2 or 3, about your person?”
“No, Ma’am,” Vanessa replied truthfully.
“Secondly have you eaten, smoked or injected any controlled substances or other substances such as solvents, glues or aerosols, within the last week?”