Dressed in a power suit, ready for action, Sheila shook Martha’s hand and sat on the opposite side of the table. It looked like she had come prepared – inside an open black briefcase, lined with silk, was a pile of paperwork.
‘I’m so pleased you agreed to meet me,’ Sheila said, her hand outstretched.
‘I still stand by my decision not to appeal my sentence, but Laura wanted me to see you.’
‘All I can expect is you hear me out.’
Martha’s mind was still made up but was curious all the same. Thomas was dead. She killed him. But half an hour of her time wouldn’t hurt. At least it would stop Laura from worrying.
‘When I appeared with your daughter on the radio show, I thought she was extremely brave.’
‘She’s stronger than she thinks,’ Martha said.
‘You both have been through some horrific things.’
‘Thomas was capable of his own kind of brutality; I just never saw it until now.’
‘Why will you not consider an appeal? As I said to Laura, you would have every chance of winning next time.’
‘I still killed him, nobody forced me to take that crystal vase into my hand, and certainly, nobody forced me to hit him with it. I even drank his brandy – would an innocent woman have done that.’
‘Shock does strange things to the mind, but that doesn’t mean you meant to kill him,’ Sheila said.
‘I thought about it many times, that’s as good as wanting to kill him.’
‘You went through a traumatic time, that and your diary was the only action you could take against his violence.’
There was so much anger always under the surface. It was like she were a pressure cooker, and the steam hadn’t been released. The anger had to go somewhere. Thomas happened to be in the way when it did. Not that she blamed herself for killing him now, but he was dead all the same. ‘Nonetheless, my actions resulted in his death. I’ve found a freedom in here, I never had when I was with him.’
‘Have you ever heard of Kiranjit Ahluwalia?’
‘I think I’ve seen that name somewhere lately,’ Martha said.
‘Twenty-four years ago, she was in your position. She was a victim, just like you. She was sentenced to life in prison for setting him alight. She was a victim of domestic abuse and had a little boy. She fled the home because she was terrified of what he might do to her.’
‘I remember that happening.’
‘Originally, she was sent to prison for life, but in 1992 her sentence was overturned because of diminished responsibility.’
‘There was a book in the prison library. “Provoked” I think it was called. One of the prisoners took it out the other month. I was thinking of reading it myself.’
‘She did indeed write a book and so much more.’
What did another woman’s plight have to do with her actions? They were different weren’t they? In the moment after Thomas died, she was glad. But Sheila kept on talking, and Martha found herself listening.
‘So much has happened since she got released. There is a media spotlight on cases like yours. Public opinion has been swayed. You could also appeal your sentence, and I believe you can win.’
‘But I’m different to Kiranjit. I remember being angry at my husband, thoughts in my head about my lost child, and all the beatings. I meant to do it,’ Martha said, convinced she was saying the truth.
‘Do you actually remember thinking; I want to murder my husband, and I will use the vase to do it?’ Sheila asked. ‘You lost control pure and simple.’
‘No, but I remember drinking his alcohol, and not helping him.’
‘Did you know he was dead?’
‘From the blood on the floor, I knew there wasn’t any coming back from that.’
‘Then there was no saving him.’
‘No, but I didn’t really want to either, it was like my diary had come to life.’
‘You had every right to hate your husband, Laura has told me everything she witnessed, and there is probably so much more she doesn’t know. Private things, that she could never have known unless you told her.’
Martha studied her wedding ring and twisted it around a few times. ‘I hate the fact Laura knew more than I thought and yes, you are right, there is so much more. But the fact remains I killed him.’
‘So did Kiranjit, she put gasoline on his feet and set him alight, but out of fear, because she knew he would kill her and her little boy if she didn’t. She wasn’t in her right mind that day, everything was in a muddle. You’re the same, don’t you see.’
‘It sort of makes sense, but murder is murder, or manslaughter in my case.’
‘When you killed him, and you did, can you remember anything that happened afterwards? Can you remember collapsing and being sent to hospital? Can you remember anything past the phone call to the police?’
‘No, it was like snippets of information,’ Martha said. ‘I was in bed – at home. Theresa was there and the police. I wanted them to leave. I woke up in the hospital and was handcuffed to the bed? The first person I saw when I woke up was Laura. I remember thinking she had to leave.’
‘I was worried Thomas would throw Laura out.’
Martha gave a deep sigh, which started at the soles of her feet.
‘Does that sound like a woman who was in her right mind at the time? You didn’t even remember killing your husband, only that Laura was in danger if she stayed. If it were someone else, not you, what would you say to them?’
Martha pushed her bottom on the seat of the chair and thought about putting herself in an outsiders shoes. Laura, Theresa, James, Lucy, and Elizabeth – they all couldn’t be wrong.
‘I would say I wasn’t at fault, but . . . say I agreed to what everyone is asking me to do, how would this time be different? The evidence would still be the same, and we would have wasted valuable money, which could be spent on Laura and Tabitha.’
‘When you gave evidence the last time, you were still beholden to Thomas. You still blamed yourself and thought you were at fault. In short, Martha, you were a different person then.’
‘Laura said that.’
‘And she was right. If you went on the stand today, I’ve a feeling you would give an honest account of your husband’s actions. But, if you do decide to appeal your sentence, be prepared to tell them everything, don’t leave anything out, however upsetting that might be for others.’
‘There’s so much I protected Laura from.’
‘Maybe, but what is upsetting Laura more, you being in prison, or your experiences with Thomas?’
‘Me being in prison.’
‘Then you know what you must do.’
‘Laura said something about Battered Woman Syndrome, is that actually a thing?’
‘But I didn’t fight in battles, or witness atrocities, I was just married to a violent man.’
‘You fought in your own battles and were part of the atrocities. I would imagine there wasn’t a day of your marriage, where you weren’t afraid of Thomas in some way. Especially when he didn’t hit you, but looked at you in a certain way, or remarked about something in front of other people, that would make you afraid for later.’
For the first time, Martha picked up the paperwork in front of her. If she were honest, she didn’t completely understand the concept behind Sheila’s words on how the mind worked, but what she was saying made sense.
She was aware of a change in her understanding of her own mind. Session by session, with the help of the psychiatrist, her negative thoughts dwindled, and she accepted that Thomas was a monster. But part of her was a monster too, or so she thought until now.
‘If I decided to go for an appeal, how would that work?’ Martha asked.
‘You will talk to the solicitor that took your case last time, or get the notes passed on to a new solicitor. They will review the files and ask the courts for an appeal, giving in new evidence to support that request.’
‘How long will it take? I mean will it be the same as last time?’
‘Pretty much, but this time, as well as loss of control, we can add “Battered Woman Syndrome”. Your evidence will be different, and Elizabeth will also give evidence. Don’t get me wrong, there are no certainties. It could take months, or even a year to get this through the courts again, but I’m in no doubt you will win this time.’
Martha studied the notes in front of her – doctors testimonies on men, and women, who suffered at the hands of abusive partners. A realisation hit her, like finding gold in a forgotten mine. She spent years scared of Thomas, convinced her actions were to blame for his actions.
Now, Martha accepted, even perfection wasn’t acceptable to Thomas.
Prison visits weren’t perfect either.
Every time Laura visited, Martha felt a spike in her heart, that wouldn’t go away. Being so close, but not together, was just as bad as complete isolation. She didn’t want Tabitha visiting her. Also, her last picture showed Laura, Martin and Tabitha standing outside their house. Martha was behind a set of brightly coloured bars.
She didn’t want to be thought of like that, desperately wanted to be amongst friends and family again. ‘Okay, tell Laura to set the process in motion, I’m going to appeal my sentence. But if it looks like I won’t win, then it stops, yes.’
‘You’ve every chance to win this appeal.’ Sheila passed over a card to Martha. ‘This is a solicitor I know, she’s brilliant at her job. When I told her about you, she wanted to be involved.’
Martha held the small card, no bigger than the palm of her hand, and stared at the cursive letters after her name. ‘Won’t she cost a lot of money? Even this card looks expensive.’
‘She isn’t as expensive as you think, and for the most part is willing to take your case with a huge discount. It isn’t all about the money Martha. It’s about her winning the case and making more money from it that way.’
‘This all seems so surreal, but then I thought prison was, until I’ve lived it.’
‘You are an amazing woman; do you know that?’
‘Not amazing, a survivor, but I want to see my granddaughter. Thomas took my time away from Tabitha when he was alive, he’s not going to do it now that he’s dead.’