Something You Can Feel in Your Teeth — Hannah Stevens

Anthony and Company, Interior View of the Main Hall of Prison, East Side, which is 6 Stories High, and Contains 600 Cells, Made 1860-1869. Art Institute of Chicago

Something You Can Feel in Your Teeth

She wakes up just before the morning bell. It’s been five years now of being woken at seven. The air is stale. Soon, when everyone is awake it will smell of cigarette smoke again. Georgia is on the top bunk. She rolls over on to her stomach. Her back aches from the sagging mattress. She looks at the tiny window high in the cell wall. Outside the sky looks grey. The pale, thin light barely penetrates the thick glass. 

The morning bell sounds. It reminded her of school when she first arrived. But now it just reminds her of being here, of the day before and of the day before that. Below her Winter stirs. 

Georgia climbs down the ladders. The floor is cold and hard. She glances at Winter who is still under her blanket. She can see the top of her head and her salt-and-pepper hair on the pillow. Winter is in her forties and her hair is greying at the temples now. They’ve been sharing for years but Georgia has forgotten how long exactly. 

Winter got seven years too. Her time is for stealing money. It was a few thousand from the company she worked for. The safe was open one day when she was in the office and it was just right there. She could get her mum’s kitchen done. Maybe a new carpet. 

There’s a kettle in the room and Georgia switches it on. Winter sits up. 

‘Morning,’ Winter says. Georgia nods.

Neither of them talk much in the morning. Somehow things are more difficult in the early hours. She feels more fragile, more lost, more oppressed by the narrow confines and the lack of light. 

Winter has a small box of personal belongings on the shelving unit beside their beds. She slides out the box and slips off the lid. Inside there are two photographs: one of Sam and one of Fay. She takes them out, studies them for a few seconds and then places them carefully back in to the box. 

The kettle has boiled now. Georgia pours hot water in to their cups, leaves the tea bags to steep. There’s a banana on the desk. She picks it up and pops the skin. It’s not ripe yet. The flesh is too firm and it’s cold. It doesn’t taste of anything and so she tosses it in to the bin. She lights a cigarette and Winter does the same. 

Georgia was twenty-five when it happened. Her children were five and three. She will be thirty-two when she gets released, her children twelve and ten. That’s a lot of years to miss out on, especially when they change so much, especially when they’re in care.

It was Dwayne’s stash. Cocaine he was looking after for his mate. He wasn’t even a dealer himself. Or at least that’s what he told her. She still doesn’t know who tipped off the cops but it was found in her flat, in a bag that belonged to her. Dwayne had disappeared. And in the end she didn’t even know if that was his real name. 

She knew the shape of his hands, though. The mark of his palm across her face. The metallic taste of blood in her mouth and the ache in her jaw from a cracked tooth. She knew the pattern of the bruising his fists made on her stomach, the print of his shoes on her thighs. And one time, even the shape of his belt across her shoulders. 

Down the corridor she can hear cells being unlocked, wardens shouting. 

‘C’mon ladies, time for work.’ 

Georgia finishes her cigarette, washes quickly at the sink and then gets dressed. 

Her day is the same as her weekdays always are. Work in the factory wing until 4.30pm and then the evening meal is served at 5pm. Today it’s fish in parsley sauce. She eats slowly, flaking tiny pieces of the fish with her plastic fork and chewing carefully. She thinks of the tiny bones and how one could lodge in her throat. 

Winter sits opposite and as always wolfs down her food, hardly chewing it. Georgia looks at her and laughs. 

‘What?’ Winter asks, knowing already what it is. 

‘Honestly, they’re not going to stop feeding us you know.’

‘Ha, well we don’t know that. And I’m not taking any chances.’ She smiles and pushes her tray away. She looks over Georgia’s shoulder, across the canteen and lowers her voice to a whisper. ‘So, you still want me to do the next part of your tattoo later?’ 

Georgia swallows another tiny piece of fish and then takes a drink of water. 

‘Yes,’ she says. 

It’s just after 7pm now and everyone is locked in their cells. Winter is setting up for the tattoo and Georgia watches as she pulls the tattoo gun from beneath her mattress. 

The motor belonged to an electric razor that had been stripped down. The plastic case of a Bic Biro pen made the chamber that held the needle. And it was all held together with sellotape. It had taken a long time to get all of these items together: to smuggle the pen and the sellotape out of the library, to swap tobacco for the motor. 

The needle was easy, though. You just pulled the spring out of a disposable lighter and there were lots of those around. Georgia had pulled the coiled compression spring from her own lilac lighter. She’d heated and softened it over a candle and then she’d stretched and straightened it out. To sharpen it she’d slowly scratched it across the exposed wall. The coarse brick was a good surface to give the spring the sharp edges it needed to become a needle.  

Winter cleared her throat.

‘Do you want to sort the ink?’ 

‘Sure,’ said Georgia. She picks up the ashtray and tips some of the loose grey ash on to the plastic lid of her instant hot chocolate tub. Over at the sink she adds some water and then a small squirt of liquid hand soap. She takes a metal bobby pin from her hair and carefully she mixes it all together in to a wet paste. 

‘Did you add the hand soap?’ Winter asks.

‘Yeah,’ replies Georgia. 

‘Good,’ says Winter, ‘it thickens the mixture so the colour stays in better.’ She gestures to Georgia to lie down on the bottom bunk. Georgia lies down and rolls up her sleeve.

She already has a bird. Winter did it a few months ago. It’s sketchy, shaky: just one single outline. Its head is tilted upwards, singing and to Georgia, it’s beautiful. This evening she’s settled on a single note. She wants it to float above the bird as if it had just escaped from its beak, as if the bird was free and singing in a wide open sky. 

Slowly Winter wipes Georgia’s arm with a damp flannel and then pats it dry with a towel. Next she sprinkles some talcum powder on to Georgia’s arm and smooths it out so that a fine, white sheen covers her skin. 

Next she draws the shape of the musical note with a blunt pencil. The end is damp and lifts the talc from her arm, like an eraser. A tiny skin-coloured musical note appears. 

‘Are you ready?’ Winter asks. 

‘As I’ll ever be,’ Georgia replies. Sometimes beautiful things came from pain, like her children. Though more often than not she knew that they didn’t. 

Winter dips the needle in to the ink and then she begins. Georgia feels the sharp, hot pain. She feels it move through her body, shake her bones and settle in to her teeth.

Hannah is a working-class writer with a PhD in creative writing. Her short story collection, In their Absence, exploring missing people and broken lives was published early 2021 by Roman Books. Hannah’s short stories, flash fiction and creative non-fiction have been widely published, including in Archer magazine (AUS), Litro (UK) and Loose Lips (CAN).  Her stories have been anthologised in award winning books from Valley Press and by small press publishers Unthank Books. Hannah is co-director of Wind&Bones: an organisation working at the intersection of writing and positive social change and currently lives in Dundee, Scotland. 

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