It takes him a minute or so to get oriented, once the screen opens up. His hands are shaking like he’s done something wrong. The waiting round for this and finally getting brought here into the AVL room has distracted him from what it was actually for, but here’s his kid, looking a bit blurry because the room is only lit by a lamp, which he can see on a bedside table. Shaz has given Sam the iPad and he’s brought it into his bedroom, a room Lucas has never seen before. It would make sense that they’ve moved, though, because Sharon’s been on the waitlist for a new place, and it looks pretty good from what he can see on the screen; curtains in the window, not sheets nailed up.
“Dad,” says Sam, “can you see it?”
“The book. They gave it to me so I could read along.”
“That’s it there on your shelf, is it?”
Lucas chews at the ragged spot inside his lip. He should have thought first about what to say, and lined up some questions. Sam’s looking past him, clocking the fluoro light and office chair of the AVL room behind him.
“Is that your room?” says his son.
“Nope. This is … an office I use. To talk to you. Like a study.”
“Have you got a bookshelf in your room?”
“How many books have you got?
“Eight,” he says. It’s the truth. That’s the maximum they’re allowed.
“I’ve got 20! And all the Treehouse ones.”
“Well,” says Lucas, missing the smokes for the first time since he’d had to give them up, “I bet your mum is really proud of your reading.”
“What’s your teacher’s name?”
“Is she nice?”
Despite the guard in the corner, Lucas is glad that they make them come in here for these Zoom calls and he’s not talking to his son from his cell. People liked saying jail was like a bed and breakfast, but no joke, if they wanted to try out what it was like they should take a single foam mattress into a bathroom and stay there for 24 hours. See how much they like eating in there, next to the stainless-steel toilet.
If you’re a two-out it’s worse, because you’re sharing that bathroom-sized room with someone else who’s lying right there on the bunk, so much as Lucas hates living in a two-by-four-metre cell he knows he’s lucky to be a one-out, with a bookshelf and a window.
Now his half-hour’s finally come but he suddenly can’t think of what he wants to say. He’s content to just watch his kid in the muzzy yellow lamplight, his wrists sprouting out of his PJs and no fear on his face, for the whole half-hour.
“Tell me about those toys,” he says.
They’d all jacked up about it at first. All visits cancelled, and lockdown. The first rumour to get round was that the guards would probably try to bring the virus in deliberately. Because after all the inmates were sitting ducks. All breathing each other’s air. But then they’d had to let them out for exercise and the gym daily to stop them going completely ballistic, keep the routine going. He’d got fitter, but couldn’t stop the overthinking – his brain was like a rat on a fucking wheel. No wonder they called the guys who lost it “spinners”. The doctor they’d made him see had called it catastrophising but it was hard to believe that guy was a real doctor and not just some uni student with a bunch of brochures, and Lucas doesn’t want any of the medication now because it makes him feel like a stupefied bullock, shuffling down the ramp at the abattoir, so this doctor says it’s all about changing the narrative, what he has to do is practise visualising a different outcome or future.
He’s doing the breathing and the “Reading with Dad” sessions and just keeping his head down now. Covid has got the psychs busy, that’s for sure. But that’s the other thing – with no visits, so no contraband coming in, there are men in here who are clean for the first time in years.
He’d told Sharon to stop bringing Sam, anyway. To get to the “Visits” room they had to go through a metal detector and bag search like security at an airport. Kids too.
He’d seen his son’s pale face take it in, going stiff, looking around the big, echoing hall, all the tables and chairs bolted to the floor, everything painted grey. And the outfits they made you wear – the zip-up white overalls with no pockets you get locked into – and Sam looking over at the crappy broken toys in the basket and the vending machines for drinks and lollies Lucas had to tell him he wasn’t allowed to use. All three of them sitting there, that place stamped and bolted hard into his son’s mind as the place where his dad was living, and having to stay glued to that metal chair because if he stood up the visit would be suspended. Hard to visualise a different outcome for that, Doc. For a seven-year-old.
But then along comes this, a hundred times better. Zoom. What looked like it was going to be an absolute shitstorm when it hit first has turned out different than anyone thought.
“Who’s that on your Doona, mate?”
“That’s a cartoon, is it?”
His son shows him some stuffed toys, some Lego thing he’s made. Lucas just sits, soaking it in, hungry for every detail. When the half-hour’s up and he’s taken back to his cell, he gives it a try. Visualises the room about a metre wider than it is, with a lamp on and a trundle bed, a Doona cover with dogs on it. A big window he can open, so he can breathe in and breathe out. Ten months down, and five to go.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 14, 2021 as "One-out".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial