Waking up with the sounds of keys in the lock and bright sunlight through the bars in the window, early mornings were the best part of life in prison. There was a bird on the tree outside. It would signal the day in, without the need for any alarm clock.
Martha reluctantly pushed her bedcovers off. She prodded Chris’s mattress. ‘Come on, all the best seats will be taken, and we’ll be late for breakfast again.’
What was Chris like? When she slept nothing much woke her. Martha wanted a lie in too. Was it really four in the morning before she crept back into bed? They talked for ages after the lights had gone out. Their conversation travelled to children, and before she could stop herself, Martha thought about the brother that could have been for Laura. A little boy, who didn’t even get a coffin, left at the hospital.
‘Why didn’t you tell Laura about your miscarriage?’ Chris asked, crossed legged on the floor.
‘She was only young and didn’t even realise I was pregnant. I honestly thought it was better for her. Now it’s too late, she won’t even talk to me.’
‘Pretend I’m Laura then. At least it will give you a chance to prepare for the real thing.’
Lowered to the ground, Martha joined her friend on the floor. This felt like role play during drama lessons at school. But it was worth a try. Maybe the letter would flow better if she spoke the words out loud.
‘When you were about three years old, I found out I was pregnant. I was so happy, your father too. There was this change in him. He was attentive towards me again, even took you to the park. I honestly thought things were going to get better. There were less late nights, and even his drinking slowed,’ Martha said.
‘Go on, I’m listening . . .’
‘That afternoon, it was the anniversary of his mother’s death. Your father was always worse around that time. I used to leave him alone with his memories – it was safer that way. Yet on that day I wasn’t worried. I don’t know why, but I asked him if he wanted to visit his mother’s grave. Put some flowers on, and he just . . .’ Martha closed her eyes, and leant against the frame. This was more difficult than she had thought it would be.
‘What happened?’ Chris said, gently, and put her hand on Martha’s shoulders.
‘He lost it, stormed out, took his whisky bottle with him. I should’ve stayed where I was, but I thought it was now or never. Let’s talk about her. She can be buried and his fury with it. I went into his office. Half the bottle had been drunk. I went to take it away from him.’
Martha grabbed her stomach.
‘Go on,’ Chris said.
‘He pushed me, not hard but he pushed me, and I fell into the computer desk. He told me to leave him alone, so I did. I sat on the bed for an hour, and you came into the room and asked me why there was blood on my skirt.’
‘Did you go to Thomas, tell him what happened?’
‘I couldn’t risk it, so I grabbed you and we went to Theresa’s house. I told her some stupid lie about falling down the stairs. She looked after you when I went to the hospital. I don’t know when, but Thomas joined me a little while later, while I was giving birth to our dead son. He held him first. I think that tipped him over the edge. I honestly do. It was the reason I stayed with him. Even when the punches and cruel words dug into my skin, your father was in there somewhere and I wanted him back.’
It wasn’t long before they had written the letter together. Everything Martha wanted to say but couldn’t say to the one person who needed to hear it. Chris spoke of her own mum in a way she could never do with the real thing. Martha spoke honestly and answered all her questions. For the first time in a year both of them slept through the night.
‘Chris, Chris. Come on sleepy head.’
Martha stood on the second rung of the ladder and leant over the rail. On her side, she always slept at an awkward angle, all feet, and arms. Martha pushed her again. ‘Chris!’ Her immobile body was cold to the touch, like she had slept in ice cubes. She tugged at Chris’s sleeve. Her arm flopped back. A limb like wilted tulips pliable in her hands. When Martha finally screamed, it crashed around the walls. She hardly recognised the sound of her own voice.
Keys in the lock, and Miss Prentice, closely followed by another two female officers entered the room. They glanced at each other but didn’t move at first.
Martha searched for recognition and resumed her stance. ‘Will you bloody wake up!’ With a severe twist, she forced the body over. She was confronted with her friend’s grey face and slack jaw. Each arm now taken by two officers she was dragged back. ‘You’ve got to save her! She’s not breathing! Miss do something!’ Eventually she pushed away from strong arms. She surged forward. Immediately she snapped back.
‘Martha . . .’ Miss Prentice said.
Why wasn’t she trying to save her friend? Why wasn’t she trying mouth to mouth? Martha rushed forward again, but their arms just tightened into her waist. ‘You’ve got to save her!’ Martha screamed.
Chris’s colourless expression was covered with a course blanket. A sweet sickly smell filled the room. Martha felt the bile rise up from her stomach but couldn’t be sick.
‘What are you all standing about for? Get Martha out of here and to the medical room.’
One officer either side, her arms were pinned. Legs couldn’t even move unless her escorts took a step. Finally directed out of the cell, Martha ignored the stream of bodies before her. Tears streaked across her face.
Across a corridor, down some stairs, and Martha was in the medical room. The doctor pointed to the bed. He busied himself with a syringe. Her eyes darted to the entrance and back to the bed in the corner of the room. Why was the doctor wasting time with her? It was Chris that needed him more.
‘Martha, why don’t you sit down?’
Not willing to do as instructed, she fixed her legs to the floor and stared at the open doorway. Another officer would walk through at any moment. They would say that Chris had been taken to hospital. Tell her it was all an elaborate joke. She felt a sharp scratch. The muscles in her arms unclenched, as all the strength left her. Swaying in the middle of the room, she watched Miss Prentice signal for her colleague to leave.
Martha, you need to sit down.’