Martha looked down to her lap and then back to Helen. ‘Yes, she’s my daughter. I didn’t understand why she was so angry with Thomas. Chris helped me to see it from her point of view. On that last night helped me write a letter. I told her the reason why I couldn’t take Buddy. It’s not allowed. But she saw it as me pushing her away again. I wasn’t. I couldn’t. The funny thing is Thomas brought her that teddy bear and it was one of the things that brought her most comfort. I’m not even sure I can post that letter now.’
‘I’m afraid she’ll reject me all over again.’
‘I don’t know whether your daughter will accept your letter, or if she’ll push you away, but if you died and those were the last words, she spoke to you.’
‘I don’t know, it just doesn’t seem like it would do any good.’
‘Chris had written her own letter, was scared like you are.’
‘I have it, but her brother wouldn’t want it now.’
‘I think maybe he would – it would give some comfort.’
‘Do you think I should send my letter to Laura?’
‘It’s up to you, but Laura deserves to have the full facts don’t you think.’
Their session over, and back on the top bunk, Martha took the letter again. What had Chris thought when she died? Was there any pain? Was it like falling asleep? Thomas must have known he was going to die when she smashed his head open. For a split second he must have.
Martha gently unfolded Chris’s letter. It covered two pages, and was full of an untidy scrawl, but it was made all the more special because of it.
I don’t know whether you want to hear from me. Or even if you are at the same address. I’ve been thinking about you. My friend Martha killed her husband. She blames herself, but I tell her daily he deserved it. She is so gentle, and he hurt her in the most brutal way possible. I’ve learnt so much from her too. The reasons she stayed with him. He wasn’t going to change, but it was still up to her to do it. What she needs to know is he never would. He had his own demons to fight, just like our father. Just like you. I killed him and his demons so he wouldn’t hurt Mum. I was only three years old when I saw him hit you for the first time. I saw the bruise and tried to sleep on the dry side. The next morning Mum came into my room and changed the covers. You tried to protect me from the worst, but when Dad took a belt to me. It hurt Alan. He forced you to watch, and little by little I saw you change into him. Mum and me crept around the house when he was there. Him drinking in the front room. Us in the kitchen cleaning and making cakes. You holed up in your room, with your earphones in. If Mum burnt his dinner. If she refused his advances. Fucking hell if Mum sneezed in the wrong way. I wasn’t afraid of the monsters in the cupboard, or under the bed. He was sleeping in the next room. He was our father. So I killed him and watched as the blood rushed down the side of his face. Mum tried to save him. I wanted to know why? Why did Mum tried to save him? I wanted him to die. And he did, but you hated me for it. I didn’t understand then. I do now. I’ve helped Martha and in return I hope I have learnt something from her. You loved Dad and hated him too. In a weird, strange sort of way you thought I loved Dad too. I never did or could love the man that beat you with a belt and strangled the decency out of you. That’s why I killed him because I wanted you to be free of him. That’s it. If you want to see me, you know where I am.
The letter drifted to the mattress and Martha pulled her knees towards her. The tears didn’t come at first, but when they did, they wouldn’t stop. Is that what Laura thought of her father? A monster who didn’t live under the bed, but a few doors down? How often had Laura wet the bed and the sheets were washed for that same afternoon? How many trips to the launderette to clean the blood from her clothes? How often had they cowered in Laura’s bedroom until Thomas went to bed? Too many. There were so many things she was to blame for, but Thomas wasn’t one of them. He died, but Laura was right, it could have been her that day. She slipped the letter back in its envelope, brought hers out of her back pocket.
She would post both letters today and hope at least one person would find peace within their words. Thomas killed Martha Whitman that day, but now she had taken back her identity. She was Martha Shaw again.
Martha concentrated on her toast and took a small bite.
Head low against the table, she focussed on the plastic knife in front of her and kept her body as still as she could. If she didn’t engage Steph in conversation, they would go away eventually.
She had been warned Steph might take the chance to threaten her. Miss Prentice’s advice was clear, grass or no grass, if she went to her, then she would be safe. Up in the rafters, they always kept an eye on things, but she didn’t feel in any danger. Even Steph’s crew wouldn’t be stupid enough to start trouble where they could be seen.
Even so, where Steph was concerned, nothing was certain.
‘Some people, think they’re above their station, don’t they Beverly.’
The prisoner, to the left-hand side of Martha smirked. Looked her up and down, like she was on parade in an old-fashioned hanging.
‘I heard you found Chris dead on the top bunk,’ Steph said.
As if you didn’t know? You sit here opposite me, and I know you’re going to be trouble, and yet you speak to me like I have dementia. Martha kept her thoughts to herself; it made the conversation more secure.
‘I’m offering my condolences here and you’re too high and mighty to take them.’
Steph looked across the table, where two of her friends had pushed a little closer.
Aware of the warning behind her sarcasm, Martha picked up her plate, but was wedged in like a sandwich filling.
Steph, using clean and concise movements leant forward so only Martha could hear her.
‘What do you want really?’ Martha said.
‘A little favour, nothing that would bother you too much.’
‘What little favour?’ Martha asked.
‘You see, Chris took something from me, and well, I would like it back,’ Steph said.
Martha thought of the little pouch in her pocket. Chris thought it valuable, but that was her business. Whatever the reason for her friend hiding it, she wouldn’t want Steph to take control.
‘And if I say no.’
‘Well, that perfect little face of yours will get a face lift.’
Threats. Threats. Threats.
Martha put a hand to her face and closed her eyes. She was left with two choices. Do as Steph wanted, and betray Chris, or stick up for herself for once. So that she was in direct eye contact, she lifted her head. ‘No.’
Steph’s crew tightened their grip, and Martha felt a sharp stab. It wasn’t enough to draw blood, but enough to recognise the threat. She didn’t blink, not even when her back felt the cold side of the hand-made weapon. Chris had told her that razor blades, connected to toothbrushes were common in prisons.
It felt like an injection she had as a child. Her father held her hand until it was all over. He was here now.
‘Did miss prim and proper say no to me Patsy?’
Anger didn’t rise to the surface this time.
‘I think she may have misheard you,’ Patsy said and pushed the blade in a little further.
‘Is the shank meant to scare me?’ Martha whispered. ‘Do you really want more years on your sentence? There are five officers around us, and they’re watching all the time.’
‘You may think you are safe now, with the screws looking on, but there are places you won’t be quite so safe.’
‘I’m fully aware of what you’re capable of,’ Martha said.
‘You’re being very brave, for a woman who has a death wish?’
‘You can threaten me all you like. My answer will always be no.’
The blade no longer touched her skin. She kept her movements slow and steady. Her mind was clear. Thomas had walked away.
She wasn’t afraid anymore.
Chris would have thought her foolish, but it didn’t matter what they threatened to do. It wouldn’t be any worse than what Thomas had put her through.
‘I don’t think you know what I’m capable of,’ Steph said.
Martha turned her head in both directions and looked to the women sitting beside her. They were heavily built. They towered over her like a hawk with a tiny mouse. Everything that Steph said, they laughed at, as if they were the only people in on the joke.
She held each of them in contemplation for a few minutes before facing Steph once more. ‘I do, Chris filled me in and I’m still not afraid. She is my friend and whatever it is that you want, I won’t get it for you.’
‘Then you’ll have to keep watch because the moment you’re alone.’ Steph glared at Martha.
‘You’re going to hurt me. I’m fully aware of your intentions. But you forget I was married to a violent man. Threats were part of my daily life. From day one I was afraid of what he might or might not do to me. My face, this face, has had many lifts and it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s already been done.’
‘Oh, there are many ways, apart from a beating, where we can get our point across.’
‘Are you okay Martha?’ Miss Prentice said, standing beside the table.
Steph pasted on a fake smile, like they were all friends together.
‘I’m okay Miss, we’re just chatting aren’t we Steph,’ Martha said, her backbone straight.
All four women looked to the officer, and Martha even put an arm around Beverly. Eventually, the officer walked away, only to stop at the end of the room.
Her arm gently removed – Martha leant forward. ‘You say what could happen to me, but have you ever thought about what I could do to you,’ Martha said.
Steph’s top lip quivered. ‘Are you threatening me?’
‘Look I get it; you’ll beat me up, perhaps rape me. But you forget why I’m here.’
Martha relaxed as the space between the other prisoners expanded.
‘Are you stupid or mad? We could hurt you and nobody would recognise you after we’re done.’
Threats didn’t scare Martha. To leave her body was easy and even when blows rained down from Thomas she could always put herself in a place where she couldn’t be hurt. She blinked. Realised, the threats of violence scared her more.
Now, there was no fear – just facts.
‘Maybe you’ll hurt me, but I still won’t do as you ask.’
‘I think you’re wrong in the head,’ Steph said.
‘It took you long enough, yes I am and the last time I snapped my husband died.’
‘You ain’t scaring us.’
‘I don’t intend to. You say I’m mad. Probably you’re right. Years of beatings will do that to a woman. If you want to take that risk, then so be it, but don’t blame me if you get hurt.’
Steph’s shoulders hunched down. She moved her head from Martha to her crew.
‘Now, if you’ve finished your little chat, I want to go to work. I’m late and the library gets busy this time of day. So, if you don’t mind I would like to leave.’ Martha stared out one of the women beside her. ‘I said I want to go to work now.’
With a nod from Steph, they both got up from the table.
Martha moved her legs aside and walked to the far end of the room. It was full of chatter and her confident footsteps, but it almost felt like the world had fallen silent. Chris would have been proud of her.
When she reached Miss Prentice, Martha stopped to be let out. With a clean swipe, something was passed between them. It wasn’t much, but at least some of the drugs were out of circulation.
‘Is Steph a problem, don’t keep things quiet, we can always find somewhere you can be safe,’ she said, and took one of the keys from her belt, to unlock the door.
‘I don’t think she’ll be a problem Miss,’ Martha said.
As the doors slid open, Martha smiled.
‘Are you sure, it looked heated?’
‘Never more certain Miss,’ Martha said, and stepped into the corridor.