Words and feature image by Tabitha Lean
Content warning: This piece contains references to sexual violence and may be triggering for some readers.
The air was thick and damp and heavy. The moisture from the shower was carried along warm wafts and drifts of steam that circled upward, sailing along the planes of the ceiling, resting uncomfortably amongst the cracked and peeling paint, where water damage had swollen the plaster and bubbles of moisture had burst it open like war wounds revealing the bloodied flesh beneath. The fluoro lights overhead buzzed persistently, flickering intermittently casting random shadows that stretched and shrank against the grey walls—walls that reeked of institutional bleakness and misery.
The whole place was devoid of any real character, and yet somehow the architecture contained within it centuries of violence, pain and oppression. It was difficult to breathe in this space-the air was too thick and the damp, black, overgrown mould infiltrated your lungs like fingers creeping across the surface of your breathing organ and filling it with spores turning your insides black, while the musty smell tapped annoyingly at the edges of your nostrils begging to be let in. In here you learnt to breathe in shallow breaths through your mouth, because the blocked drains let off a stench that could rot all of your senses from the inside, leaving you with the taste of filth and death for days.
Fuck, I’d never get clean now.
I stood steady with my eyes closed tight, head tilted upwards (I always loved the feeling of rainfall on my face especially when it was coupled with the moon’s crepuscular rays bathing me in its twilight beams – oh for those days). This was a rare moment of solitary. Everything was communal in here-no reflective space, certainly no privacy. Hot water streamed from the shower nozzle: the kind of stream that comes out in fits and bursts, splutters even. The kind of inadequate pressure that gives out just enough to get you wet, but leaves you holding a grudge against the hard and rough lime scale on the chrome plugging all the little holes. But in this place you have to be grateful for anything that can wash away the grime that burrows its way into your open pores like a fungus, clogging your skin with its omnipresence. I could hear the girls in the yard, someone had a basketball bouncing it repeatedly up and down the court, the sort of repetitive sound that grates on your nerves- but in this place consistency is hard to come by, so you take what you can get. I could hear someone else swearing loudly: cursing the other girls or the staff or the world-likely all three. This place is built upon mountains of discontent. The women in here are caught in endless cycles of punishment and pain, buried in entrenched ruts of melancholy, and trapped in trauma so deep that freedom from the familiar is near on impossible—scary, even.
The mirrors in this place had fogged over and beads of condensation dripped down in wandering trickly lines, intersecting and growing thicker until those trails pooled along the chipped, cheap melamine benches, stained and etched with women’s markings. The bathroom door was slightly ajar (of course! Nothing worked how it should in this shit hole) and wisps of steam filtered through the crack into the corridor. The place was otherwise quiet, as quiet as it was going to get. I hummed a familiar tune to give company to the sound of water splashing down creating a symphony with the crinkle of the worn, ripped shower curtain with its broken hooks, which left it hanging slightly askew, barely holding back the sploshes of water. It seemed that the state of that shower curtain epitomised the hopelessness and dysfunction of this place.
Within an instant, the bliss bubble I had constructed had burst. It was as swift as a needle piercing a balloon but without the bang or the tears of the toddler left holding a flaccid crumple of latex. In a single, well trained move, my back was pressed against the wall pinning my body into submission. I felt my shoulder slip along the slimy surface and winced. Fuck, I’d never get clean now. I felt the ooze of blood running down my back like little rivers following their natural water course. Drips of red hit the floor and were quickly overwhelmed and absorbed by the water. Fuck those broken tiles. I gasped in shock as pain seared down my side like a hot knife running through butter. The water rained down on me—us. It ran across my face, drips perching along the ridges of my brows, welling along my eyelashes while mini streams poured along the lines of my neck, travelling down to my chest turning my breasts into rocky waterfalls.
My breathing was hard as their lips took possession of mine. The hot water was intoxicating and my body betrayed me and I felt warmth spread to the extremities. We were both interminably wet, hair saturated and their soaked clothes pressed against my naked body. I reached up, but with one swift move my hands were pinned against the tiles. Their mouth and lips and hands roamed roughly across my naked form, along the curves and across all the soft edges. I thought if I just stood still, if I didn’t react, didn’t submit or respond or breathe even, they’d move on…but I very quickly realised that this wasn’t the entree, I was the whole fucking buffet. So there I stood, eyes closed, holding my breath, counting slowly in my head…counting to the highest number I could go…and at 328 it was over…relief washed across me like the perfect wave, but instead of riding that crescent to the shore, I sank to my knees and sobbed; big, fat salty tears-you know the kind of crying that twists your face and distorts all your features. Pain is so fucking ugly.
I was battle weary. I was tired, so fucking tired.
I huddled in the corner of the shower, rubbing the bar of grey soap pathetically against my knee, salty tears and shower water combined to rain down on me. The force of it was ripping my breath away. And then I could hear someone screaming. It was terrifying, blood curdling, and it just kept going on and on and on. With furrowed brow, I crawled along the floor, pathetically naked, rising to my knees, until I was staggering wet foot prints across the room. I used the bench to haul my heavy body upright, and I saw myself in the mirror —it was me. It was me screaming. Instantly I clapped my hands to my mouth to stop the terror from escaping my throat, as if my hand could contain all of the pain and all of the panic, as if anything could. I watched the blood slowly ooze from the slit in my brow, and my eye was starting to bloat with a purplish-green hue. As if seeing through another lens, I saw the weight of depression clinging to my body, like an oversized coat I had borrowed in the winter. My mind wondered at how I had got to this place, in this space, in this time…it hurt to remember, it physically hurt, it hurt to the pit of my stomach and echoed through the valleys of regret down to my soul—it was as if each memory was so tightly stored away that I had to squeeze it out like the last bit of toothpaste in the tube. I wrestled with each memory, and tore the gaffer tape from the archives in my mind. My hands gripped the basin, knuckles white with the strain while thick globs of blood slowly fell onto the porcelain.
I forced myself to think. I thought about how I had been lured into suppression. I thought about everyone who had fed off me and discarded me like week-old food. I thought about how my body had been stripped bare, a rotting carcass of my former self, an empty shell with no hope, no future, no fight left in me, not even a roar. I was battle weary. I was tired, so fucking tired. I was consumed by an ineffable sadness, a grief so palpable, and a weariness that sagged and oozed from every pore.
I had been assaulted, night after night in this place and to my surprise it was a wolf that brought me finally to my knees. But if I’m being fair, it had started before I came to this place. The violence—the brutality, it followed me as if I was the pied piper leading every fucking rat to my door. I would always walk a little more warily. I would always sleep a little less deeply. I was changed on a molecular level. It was the ubiquitous slaps in the face I couldn’t stand. And I longed for peace, because even though I’ve always chosen delirium over death, anything right now would be better than the reality.
And then someone flushed the toilet in the next stall, they cleared their throat. The siren rang for the girls to come back inside, it was time to line up, time to be counted. I bowed my head in submission as I glanced around the crime scene, letting the tidal wave of sadness wash over me, praying today wasn’t the day that it drowned me, knowing I’d have to be prepared for it all to begin again tomorrow…because I am just a number— a sequence of six tiny, little numbers. Numbers don’t feel pain, numbers have no rights, numbers need no dignity.
Numbers…we are all just numbers inside.
This piece was originally published in Edition 34 of Verse. View it in its original PDF form via ISSUU.