No longer afraid to close her eyes, Martha found a strength she didn’t know was possible. From the officers to the other prisoners, she had seen a bigger part of the world around her. When new inmates arrived, she found herself drawn to the helpless. She guided them through their first tentative days inside just like Chris did with her.
Her bubble, with Thomas at the centre, had burst.
Deciding to take outside life running, she started at Elizabeth’s bakery in a few days. She couldn’t wait to visit Laura’s book shop. Being kept busy, would give her time to decide what permanent decisions she would make. A dream to go to Italy, where her father had been stationed, remained with Martha, throughout her marriage to Thomas.
But she missed Chris, her terrible jokes and forthright manner. Whenever a new prisoner was paired with her, Martha would give back a little bit of her friend’s knowledge. To admit to why you were inside and just do your time. It had been just over three years since she stepped inside the prison. They weren’t wasted years – just different.
‘How you feeling?’ Miss Prentice asked.
Pictures of friends and family taken down, which were stuck to the wall with tape, Martha placed them in a cardboard box. The last a picture of Chris sent to her by Alan. With it was a simple note of thanks. I’m glad Chris found a friend. Thought you might like this.
‘I thought I would be scared, but I’m looking forward to spending time with family.’
Clothes, a few art creations from Tabitha and a pad with a few of her paintings, were put on top of all her belongings.
‘It won’t be the same without you, but I’m pleased that you’re finally out of here.’
‘You’ll probably think I’m mad, but I’ll miss this place and the routine. I hope the next person in the library loves the books just as much as I do.’
‘You’ve taught the new girl well.’
‘It feels weird, being a free woman. I’ve just got used to being here.’
‘You belong on the outside, but be careful, the press will probably want an interview. You could always go out the side entrance, but I wouldn’t put it past them to hide in the shadows.’
Since the not guilty verdict, the press pestered Laura. At first she didn’t mind, but they camped outside Tabitha’s school. The only way to stop them was to give an interview. A few minutes where she spoke about the truth of her marriage. Perhaps they would be left alone if she gave an interview. That was the thing about news. One week a celebrity, and the other wrapping for chips.
‘Martha, I think it’s time to go,’ Miss Prentice said.
One last look around the cell, she wasn’t quite ready to leave. Martha looked to the top bunk. She could almost see her red hair crash over the mattress.
‘Bye Chris, I won’t ever forget you.’
Martha followed the officers down the stairs, the box holding her belongings in her hand. She took one last look at the place she called home. Some prisoners were clapping, and some even patted her on the back as she walked by.
Even Steph gave a brief nod from the balcony.
So many years had passed, she couldn’t even remember the walk into the cell. This moment she would never forget. Her head held high, and her steps clear, in a few minutes she would be at the reception desk.
There she would get the wages she hadn’t used up, and the items she walked into prison with. Amongst them was a blue suit, neatly pressed. It was the one thing she left behind.
‘Mum, it’s so good to see you.’
Martha brought Laura close.
‘Are the press outside?’ Martha asked, gently pulling away.
‘They’ve been there since early this morning, the prison officers said we could go out the side if you wanted to,’ Laura said, and emptied the contents of Martha’s box in a cotton bag.
‘I want to get it over and done with. If I don’t, they will only pester me until I do. Besides, there isn’t anything to hide anymore is there?’
‘No Mum, there isn’t.’
They walked out of the prison, arm in arm. Martha breathed in the first breath of free fresh air. As the morning sun fell across the street, she looked to the crowd, which accumulated just outside the prison.
Had they really come out just for her?
Cameras flashed. Reporters tried to shout louder than the others just to get heard. ‘Mrs Whitman, can you tell us how you feel about being a free woman?’
‘Are you sure you want to do this Mum?’ Laura asked, and took a step forward towards the press. ‘I can speak to them if you want.’
‘No, I’ll be fine,’ Martha said, glad the spotlight was on her.
‘Mrs Whitman, how do you feel about finally walking out of prison?’
‘It’s great to be a free woman again. I’m looking forward to spending some quality time with my daughter and granddaughter.’
‘Can you give us a few words?’
‘When I first gave evidence, I felt like I deserved to be in prison. I thought I was at fault for killing my husband. Endless years of marriage, and a victim through all those years. My husband abused me, both physically and mentally. Now, I can finally say that I feel no guilt in my husband’s death.’
‘Do you think you got off lightly Mrs Whitman?’
‘If you asked me three years ago, I would have said yes, but now I know there was a reason behind my anger. If I had my time over again, I would have left him the first time he hit me.’
‘Do you think the police and the justice system let you down?’
‘No, they were fair with me, and my family. If I were honest in my evidence, I probably wouldn’t have served any time at all. Prison has taught me that we must understand others before we can fully understand ourselves.’
‘What are your plans now that you have been released?’
‘I’m going to spend some time with my family,’ Martha said, and held on to Laura’s hand. ‘There’s one final thing I want to say before I go. During my marriage, I always thought it was my fault. That it was up to me to change my husband, so that he wouldn’t be violent towards me. I urge any woman, or man going through the same thing, to not stay in a relationship with a violent partner. Male, female, straight or homosexual, the advice is the same. Nobody should suffer at the hands of another human being. Never stay in a toxic relationship. You can go to a hostel. You always have friends that you can turn to. Refuges that will keep you safe. You’re not alone.’
‘That is all I’m going to say.’
The crowd of reporters parted, and Martha felt like Moses when he walked across the Red Sea. She didn’t know what the future held, but for the first time in her life, she was in control of her own destiny.