The Matron and the Fox

Catriona Riordan’s piercing emerald eyes peered at the black storm clouds gathering rapidly above the prison courtyard that were threatening to relent their full force upon the crowd of convicted below.

Give it a few minutes, Catriona thought. Thunder growled warningly, lightning flashed white across the dark canvas.

“Are we right?”

Catriona’s eyes slowly glided down to earth and landed on the expectant grimace of Jane ‘Matron’ Donovan sitting across from her on the lunch table. The woman’s brittle greying hair was thrust upwards in her usual unceremonious ponytail, her stocky build accentuated by her apparent short stature. Catriona noticed Matron’s hands repeatedly clenching and unclenching, a habit of hers before a potential confrontation.

“Yeah boss,” hissed the raspy voice of the third person deemed worthy enough to sit on their table, Gurn. Her body bobbed erratically. The way her head swayed side to side reminded Catriona of a bobble-head figurine.

“Let’s gut these pigs.”

Catriona instinctively rolled her eyes at the blonde woman’s excitement. Catriona’s calm even tone, aided by her straight back and low, broad shoulders clashed dramatically with Gurn’s appearance.

“We should wait a moment. The storm is about to hit. It will provide extra cover.”

Her gaze slowly travelled to one of the guards on the edge of the courtyard. His expression was one of boredom, clearly not sensing the intense, unfaltering set of eyes upon him. Catriona’s mouth curled into a scowl. The guard’s name was Murphy. Peter Murphy.

In his early thirties, Murphy already harboured a grotesque pot belly and a flat saggy behind. His image matched his personality, and Catriona detested him. He was one of the few guards who relished his authority over the women within the prison.

Murphy leant against the kitchen door, picking at his nails.

“Fuck the rain,” Gurn uttered with venom, hating the dominance in Riordan’s voice. “Let’s get thi-”

The fidgety woman’s voice instantly cut off as the hand of Matron shot up.

“We wait for the storm to hit,” her deep croaky voice drawled.

Catriona remained passive as her eyes returned to the dark sky. The clouds were almost upon them by now, the thunder making the table vibrate softly. The flashes of light burnt behind her eyes. She hardly blinked, enjoying the gentle pain.

Finally, she felt the first few heavy drops of freezing cold rain on her ivory skin. Goosebumps rippled, her skin pulling tight and she closed her eyes savouring the sensation for barely a second. Her red hair grew heavy and flat against her scalp and cheeks as the pattering quickly turned to a shower.

They would have to act before the guards ordered them in from the rain. Her eyes opened suddenly, light soaring back in, her pupils dilating. She met Matron’s own furrowed eyes. Her head twitched, barely a nod.

Matron’s fist thrust down on the table and even though the deafening crack of lightning deafened its contact with the wood, her action was seen across the courtyard by her waiting soldiers.

Chaos broke.

Inmate suddenly turned on inmate. Fists met jaws. Feet met stomachs.

For a moment, the guards looked on utterly awed and horrified, no warning of the sudden riot but the break of the falling rain. Sirens were rung, and finally, the guards reacted.

Catriona watched as Murphy rushed forward from his post, baton in hand, ready. Catriona felt a deep pit of disgust in her stomach by the apparent unfettered lust etched across his face at the prospect at lashing out upon her fellow inmates.

“Go,” Catriona could just hear the older woman’s voice cut through the bedlam, pushing Gurn roughly. “Go!”

Gurn bolted from her seat, her face an expression of sheer joy as she rushed towards Murphy. Catriona couldn’t help but feel a small flicker of satisfaction as Gurn tackled the surprised guard and sat on top of him, clawing at his petrified face. His fellow guards were too distracted to notice the assault. They were avoiding the violence or attempting to break it up.

Matron and Catriona rose at the same time and began to walk over to the kitchen, past the tumbling Murphy and Gurn. Catriona was at least a foot taller than her superior, a fearsome-looking bodyguard.

They slipped in, shutting out the hellish commotion of the prison courtyard outside. As the door clicked shut behind the two women, all that could be heard over the growling thunder was a rumbling angry hum.

Seemingly oblivious to the scene outside, Cullen was stirring the night’s dinner, a giant vat of minestrone soup. Every meal served by the prison came ready-made in giant cans that left a metallic taste permeating through every meal. But Cullen, with her white hair, strung back into a loose bun, and her oversized apron liked to pretend she was the cook. In truth, being eighty-years of age with an almost kindly face, she was one of the only inmates the guards trusted to heat up the food. But Catriona knew that the guards had short memories. The woman stirring the pot delicately was anything but innocent. Matron was her prodigy, just like Catriona was hers.

In the summer of 1975, Matron was found guilty of conspiracy to murder. The screws had uncovered not only her communications with prominent Irish Republican Commanders, but her own influence in the ranks and her motives and means to add to the republican cause. The soldier had been conspiring to plant an explosive in the home of a prominent member of the Ulster Unionist Party, which if successful, would have most likely also killed his wife and two children, a fact that Catriona always thought Matron skimmed over too apathetically. Fortunately for the family, unfortunately for the cause, the middle-aged commander and her willing participants were unable to follow through on their assault.

“The fuckers came on the morning of the job,” Matron would say as she retold the story to any willing audience. “Bombs were packed, armed even, so we could be out and in the house within minutes. It’s often like that, as some of you know. There’s always a chance the bomb can go off before you plant it. Often the only way. At least it’s a quick way to snuff it. Surprised the bricks didn’t go off when the screws broke the door down and threw me to the ground. Wish they had. That way I could have at least taken some RUC scum out with me.”

She would often spit on the ground next to her at this point of the story, for effect, Catriona remembered.

“But, alas, no. God decided it wasn’t my time yet, and I was thrown into this pisshole, to rot. But my purpose isn’t over yet, I can feel it. Whether it’s from within these walls, or out in the real world, I’ll have a say in which direction my country moves.”

Depending on the audience this would often get a stir of respected agreed chatter, or subtle looks of indifference, even perhaps an eye-roll if they knew Matron wasn’t looking their way.

“But one thing’s for certain,” she would always add. “Someone betrayed me that day. Someone from within our own ranks. To silence me, to make sure that I wasn’t a threat to their authority. I know who that man is. I’ll put a bullet through his head before I’m gone.”

Not before I do, Catriona would always think to herself. A silent unspoken prayer, a promise. For both women knew that the man that had betrayed Matron was Derry Riordan, Catriona’s uncle. Maybe that was why Matron kept Catriona so close to her, knowing that one day, hopefully, possibly, fatefully, niece and uncle, student and teacher, would reunite once more. It was almost like an undeclared race. Both women knew that their hatred for the same man roiled within them, he was with them constantly. And they both knew that neither would step aside to let the other one reap their own revenge. But the day for vengeance was not on the horizon, and that score would be settled later.

In the year that Matron arrived in Armagh, Cullen was top dog, but her power over the convicted was weakening, on a knife’s edge from total anarchy. There were many others willing to take her place, but Cullen despised all the candidates. She had ‘ruled’ over the inmates, without much dispute, for over thirteen years, and those who were ready to take her place, where in her words “self-serving and petty, willing to reawaken the factions and violence that she had worked so hard to contain”. Reawaken was an overstatement, Catriona knew, as Cullen’s influence had been more violent and ruthless than anything Matron could dish out.

Cullen instantly took an interest in Matron. Though she supposedly didn’t care for nor hate the republican cause, she admired the middle-aged woman’s tenacity, mostly her willingness to kill. She saw a little bit of herself in the woman, though Cullen had far more convictions under her belt. She would often list them in her head before she went to sleep, polishing them in her mind like small medallions, careful not to forget a single one.

She wouldn’t make it easy for Matron however. There still had to be the usual tests. Matron, eager to quickly work her way up the chain of command, easily managed the brawls, the politics and the endless nights in solitary confinement. But it was her final test that set the two older women’s partnership in stone.

Cullen said that one crucial ability to be top dog is to have the ability to smuggle goods and messages in and sometimes out of the prison, without the guards knowing and interfering. Your contacts out of the prison were sometimes more important than your relationships within. She requested that Matron smuggle ten kilograms of contraband in, within a month. She didn’t specify what type of contraband, or how many deliveries, just that it had to weigh the amount she specified. In truth, Cullen wanted to see how many connections Matron had still in the wider world, to see whether she could exploit any herself.

Catriona knew that Cullen, still to that day, didn’t know how Matron did it but within a week, she had smuggled four kilograms of cigarettes, three kilograms of instant noodles, and three kilograms of chocolate bars, into the kitchen storeroom without anybody, guard or inmate noticing. The kitchens had always been Cullen’s domain. She had been equally impressed and ruffled.

Matron even had the nerve to smuggle in a pair of knitting needles and yarn, placing it coquettishly in front of her, now predecessor.

“To pass the time in your retirement,” Matron had said.

“Thank you, I was in need of a good shiv,” Cullen had reportedly replied, picking up the present, her eyes wet with humour. Apparently, she still had those knitting needles stuff under her mattress, a bittersweet token from her successor.

Now, Cullen turned to Matron and Catriona as they sauntered over to her, the red-head a few paces behind the older woman. As they came closer, they looked like a menacing prison family. Three generations of crooks.

“The delivery’s in the storeroom, usual place,” she said, addressing Matron. She turned to Catriona. “Sit, Cat.”

As Matron moved past Cullen and slipped into the dark pantry Catriona pulled up a stool in front of the kitchen bench and sat down. Cullen grabbed one of the plastic bowls from the cupboards and ladled a bountiful scoop of minestrone into it. Steam wafted in front of her nose, and though it was the usual tomato scent she was so used to on minestrone-night, her stomach grumbled. Cullen placed a spoon down beside the bowl and Catriona began to eat.

“You’re getting too skinny,” the older woman said, doting on Catriona. “Your skin’s a bit peaky too. You need to keep up your strength.”

Catriona just nodded, used to the older lady fussing over her. Cullen was leaning over the bench on her, resting on her elbow, facing Catriona.

“I got a message from my son today, with the other stuff that was smuggled in. It was tucked away in between the Mars Bars. He knew they were my favourite. He’s about your age actually. You would be a good match. He’s very tall and handsome. Sweet, though. Maybe one day I’ll introduce you.”

“What does he do?” Catriona asked. She noticed a shadow filter across Cullen’s face.

“He’s a soldier like you were. IRA. Provisional, I think. Or maybe a new faction. I don’t know.”

“What’s it like fighting out there these days,” Catriona asked.

Cullen shrugged, her face sad. “Not sure, we don’t talk about that. He knows I don’t like it.”

Catriona couldn’t understand how Cullen was so indifferent towards the republican cause, or how she even refused to condemn it. Through the years, Catriona had met many people like Cullen on both sides, natural-born criminals who relished violence and found it easy to kill. She had even addressed this fact before, and Cullen’s inability to pick a side.

“Ideology is a dangerous thing,” she had replied.

“Isn’t it the only thing worth fighting for? For something?”

Cullen hadn’t replied and had only shaken her head in disapproval. Catriona could still remember the dismay etched across the woman’s face.

Matron returned into the room, seemingly satisfied with the deliveries.

“Your son did well.”

Cullen nodded, her expression one of stony indifference once more as she turned away from Catriona and focused on Matron. She often disliked accepting praise from the woman who had replaced her role as the top dog. Made her feel smaller.

“Mars Bars, cigarettes and shampoos, as promised.”

“Since I’m feeling generous, you can keep as many Mars as you like. And a few packets of fags.”

The old woman refused to say thank you. “I’ve given up smoking. Trying to at least.”

Matron just shrugged. “Suit yourself. Don’t know why you’re extending your time in here. You’re going to die in here regardless. Why prolong the inevitable?”

Cullen didn’t reply, but Catriona saw her rub her pocket instinctively, where the letter from her son must have been. Matron just shook her head slightly and sauntered over to the kitchen table.

“Distribute them as we usually do,” she said, picking up the ladle and slurping on the soup. “I’ll be back later to pick up the excess.”

The ladle made a small splatter as she dropped it back in the vat. Without another word, Matron walked towards the kitchen door. Catriona stood up, and gave a small jerk of her head towards Cullen, her smile cold but genuine.

The chaos from outside was still underway but the guards were now seizing control. Nobody saw the two women slip out of the kitchen doors. Catriona saw Gurn being held by Murphy and another guard on the ground as she wriggled and thrust around, screaming profanities.

Catriona sensed Matron’s head swivelling slightly in her direction as they walked calmly across the courtyard. Her voice was low.

“I think Cullen’s losing her touch. She never liked me in charge, not really. But you noticed how she refused to acknowledge it today? She’s growing bitter, the old bitch.”

Catriona remained silent.

“She’s all alone in here. Nobody bothers with her anymore. If I ever become like that, make sure you cut my throat in my sleep.”

Catriona’s lips stretched into her trademark grimace.

She knew that old Cullen thought that she still had considerable sway among the inmates. Perhaps the woman thought that she was pulling the strings and Matron was still her inferior. But Catriona knew he influence was minimal. Those in here long enough to remember the days before Matron, don’t miss Cullen’s ruthless occupation. Those new and naïve enough, not yet hearing the stories, wouldn’t even know that the old, almost affectionate lady who heated up their meals was a cruel killer. Sometimes, like today, Catriona could easily forget that herself.

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