I have murdered three husbands. The first two, Gary and Harry, were useless specimens, lacking in all skills, including the culinary and the sexual. The third, Larry, was a good man, a proficient lover and chef, an enthusiastic gardener, a good provider and a competent fix-it man, but by the time he arrived on the scene, I had a taste for murder and he was as good as doomed. Just call me Black Widow.
I got away with Gary and Harry. They did me for Larry. He was a lawyer for a fancy city law firm – his colleagues reported him missing. They found him beneath the white magnolia that blossoms at the end of my garden. When they came for me, I hid behind the living room sofa.
Hello, hello, what have we here then? They dragged me out. There was a trial; I pleaded guilty.
Vera’s the name. Vera Magpie. Magpie by name, Magpie by nature; my home is filled with shiny bits and pieces that I have picked up from around the neighbourhood; hub caps, mirrors, mobiles made from milk bottle tops, the old-fashioned kind, from back in the day when they were made of tinfoil. They catch the light. Husbands are another thing I used to collect. My house is rented out now, to a young couple, while I serve my sentence. My mother tells me they are taking good care of the place.
My cell is ordinary. A window with bars, scratch marks in the concrete where those who lived in here before me have marked off the days until their release. I am protected. I won over one of the larger lesbians, Shirley, by promising to give her all the food that my mother brings – chocolate and biscuits and cakes. If anybody threatens me, Shirley sorts them out. Fists like boxing gloves. Shirley, who used to be a hairdresser, trims my hair, washing it first in the communal basin in the bathroom. I like the feel of her fingertips massaging my scalp.
Mum comes once a week.
“Vera,” she says. “O Vera, how did it come to this?”
She sits on the other site of the glass pane, sobbing into a hanky. But I have shed not a tear since coming to this place. Self pity is for fools; one makes one’s bed, one lies in it. I am grateful to have a roof over my head and three square meals a day, grateful to have met Shirley.
Murder is in my blood. My great-uncle Timothy, a gold-miner, bludgeoned a man to death for stealing his porridge. And me? Perhaps I liked the power, the power of life or death, the power to end another’s life, to put the lights out as easily as flicking a switch. A sick sort of kick. They have sentenced me to life, but life is rarely life these days. Perhaps they will let me out after twenty-five years if I keep my nose clean. I have learnt to keep occupied; I am taking a degree in English literature – I love Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontes, the good old girls, the frontliners, women who paved the way. I spend my days in the library, swotting, not deigning to join the others who sit in the common room, drooling at the TV set. Everybody knows - television rots the brain, literature expands it.
At night, my husbands come back to haunt me. I dream of them often, rising up from the dirt, hands like claws, looking for payback. They move towards me, all three of them at once, surrounding me, hands outstretched. They mean to strangle me, they want revenge. The landscape is always the same; snow, with red tracks across it, as if a bloody body has been dragged. They move across the snow in unison, Zombie-husbands, intent on my death. I wake always at the same point, just before they kill me; I sit bolt upright in bed, heart beating double-time.
The girls from the laundromat sometimes visit; three of them, they come together – Doreen, Suzy and Yvonne. They fill me in on the gossip – Doreen’s daughter has had an abortion, Suzy’s nephew has come down with glandular fever, Yvonne’s mother has died of acute myeloid leukemia at the age of eighty-one. I press my hands to the glass and they do the same. Good old girls; we have worked together for twenty odd years, enjoying after work drinks at the local Dog and Duck twice a week.
I am determined to stay alive for a number of reasons. Firstly, for my visitors. Secondly, I am looking forward to getting my degree. Also, I am looking forward to getting out of here again, to walking beside the ocean and feeling the fresh sea air on my face. Every night, after lockdown, I dance in my secret garden; the garden in my mind.
I was raised in a lighthouse on the coast near Devon. It was selling cheap. It took my mother’s fancy. It should have been a beacon of light, but it became a place of darkness. My step-father often let Mum have her way, hoping perhaps that if she got what she wanted she would become cured forever of whatever terrible malady it was that intermittently struck her down, snatching her from the earth’s surface and sending her, like Eurydice, spinning down into the underworld. When she was well, my mother worked in the Devon library. My real father flew the coop as soon as he found out that my mother was pregnant, flew all the way to New Zealand and hasn’t been heard from since. No card at Christmas. No toys and dresses sent on my birthday (ha! As if he’d even know what day it was). Nothing from him and so nothing was what I came to expect. My step-father or pseudo-father (PF) was a failed musician who, through financial necessity, had been forced to work on construction sites. He hated it. Music filled his head. He wanted to be soaring high in the sky, not earthbound, hammering and sawing and digging. He wanted to be an eagle, but he was forced to be a chicken. His thwarted ambitions made him bitter and angry. He was like a dormant volcano; you never knew when he was going to blow. He never hit me physically, but I was frequently on the receiving end of his word-fists, which punched, hit home. And later, other abuse. Even as an infant I was scared of him, would run and hide in my mother’s skirts, or in bed with her, if she was having one of her turns. (‘Her turns’, ‘Your mother’s turns’ were how PF referred to Mum’s bad spells.) PF would yell and scream at me if I didn’t make it to the potty on time, if I drew on the walls with a crayon, if I accidentally dropped my bowl from my highchair as I was eating. He would swing back his hand, preparing to smack me on the bottom, but my mother would interfere, Don’t smack her, don’t smack her, no child of mine will be hit. He’d snort through his nose and go outside to chain-smoke. Of course, I don’t remember any of this. My mother told me all this later, when I was older, old enough to begin to understand.
I wasn’t friends with any of the neighbourhood children. I was a solitary child, often to be found down at the seashore, collecting shells and driftwood. I was a doodler from an early age. My mother bought me a set of pastels and a scrapbook and I would amuse myself for hours. My first sketches were fairly basic; nothing fancy. Stick figures, the gulls that squawked and swooped outside the lighthouse, our dog Patch, the neighbour’s moggy. On my fourth birthday Mum splashed out and bought me a set of watercolour paints. She encouraged me to diversify and so I took to painting sunsets, the River Burn and the seashore. I dreamt of such scenery at night; visions that haunted me all through the next day.
When they first bought me to this place I was numb and dumb – almost mute. Just before the cops bought me in I had gone through a bout of self-harming. It wasn’t that I wanted to lacerate myself, particularly, it was just that I couldn’t feel anything and I thought that if I sliced myself feeling might come back. I cut my arm so badly that it needed stitches. And still feeling didn’t return. I was automata, robotic – my limbs as heavy as lead, a hole where my heart used to be.
The thaw began when I met Shirley – I started to unfreeze a little, with our conversations. Or maybe it was just that, after the outside world, prison felt safe. A haven. No men in here to abuse me, and apart from Hard-Nosed Harriet, the other female prisoners mind their own business and do not bother me.
Shirley’s in here for murder too. Another thing we have in common - she used to work in a clothing store which isn’t so far removed in concept from a Laundromat. One day Shirley came home from work and found her husband in bed with her sister, so she stabbed her sister to death. If it were me I would’ve done in the husband but everybody’s different. And me and my murders? I hated myself for using death cap mushrooms. Such a cliché. I should’ve liked to have been like Aileen Wuornos, living in seedy motel rooms and bludgeoning men to death, hitting the road, turning tricks, hard as nails and half crazy to boot. But no, mother had raised me to be a lady and so a lady I became. Manners were very important to mother. Just because we weren’t wealthy didn’t mean we shouldn’t follow correct social etiquette at all times. Lord help her, she did her best with me. I was an impossible case; marked from the start, branded as surely as if a big red X were inked on my forehead.
Mother arrives, with Bill in tow. It is the first time he has visited. One of the guards brings me a smoked mackerel which is a gift from Bill. Bill presses his palm to the pane.
“How are you getting on in there, Vera? It’s not getting on top of you I hope. Keeping your pecker up?”
“Oh yes,” I say. “Thanks for the mackerel. I am studying – English Literature.”
He nods. Normally a loquacious man, on this occasion he seems wanting for something to say.
“Oh Vera,” says Mum. “If only we’d known what you were up to. Perhaps we could’ve got you some help.”
She begins to sob.
“Now, now Dorothy,” says Bill, putting his arm around her shoulders. “What’s done is done. The important thing is to go forwards from here. Vera’s still young. She’s got her whole life ahead of her.”
“Yes, but what kind of life is it going to be, trapped in this place…”
“She’ll make the best of it, won’t you Vera?”
I smile weakly.
“There’s hope,” I say. “There may be a retrial. I may be able to plead Battered Woman’s Syndrome. A lawyer interested in my case has been in touch.”
The call had come that morning; Libby Clements had read about me in the papers and was interested in defending me.
“Why the hell wasn’t that raised at your initial trial?”
“I guess the lawyer wasn’t much chop,” I say. “He was just somebody provided by the State. Libby is very experienced. She’s pleaded BWS before and won.”
Mum looks doubtful; Bill looks expectant, hopeful, ever the optimist.
“I hope you’re on your best behaviour in there,” says Mum.
“Oh yes. I help out in the library and of course I’m great in the laundry, what with all my years of experience and all.”
“Don’t worry Mum,” I say. “It’ll all work out. You’ve gotta have faith.”
“And are you seeing somebody? A psychiatrist or a counselor, to help you understand why you did what you did?”
“Oh yes, they have counselors in here. I am learning anger management skills.”
“And do you feel any remorse?”
“For Larry, yes. For the other two, no. They’re better off where they are, Ma. Three feet under.”
She looks exhausted, drained, a pale shell of a woman, a husk.
“May God forgive your sins,” she says, crossing herself. “Goodbye Vera. I will see you next week.”
She exits, with Bill in tow. The emptiness that follows their departure threatens to crush me like a crumpled tin can.
On my fifth birthday I started at All Saints Primary. I had a pencil case filled with the usual tools; pencils, a ruler and an eraser, I had socks pulled up to my knees and a backpack with a picture of a white kitten on it. My mother held my hand, led me in through the school gate to the classroom and introduced me to the teacher, who introduced me to the class.
“Children, this is Vera. I am sure you will all make her very welcome.”
My mother began to back away through the door. I ran to her, clutched onto her leg. Gently, she prised away my fingers.
“No, Vera, this is where you will spend your days now.”
To my five year old mind it was as if she had announced that she was abandoning me forever. Where was she going? Why wasn’t she staying here, with me? Was she ever coming back? And who were all these other people in the room? I hadn’t had much contact with other kids; Mum and PF didn’t have many friends, and none with children. It was all so new, so overwhelming. The teacher took me to my desk, pulled out my chair and motioned for me to sit. I sat.
Welcome, the teacher had said. I am sure you will all make her feel very welcome. Was I made to feel welcome? Sure I was, if welcome includes being booted in the shins once an hour, being pushed through a plate glass window and having other kids yell abusive names at you every time you passed by. Bitch, smart arse, tart, psycho. I took to pissing my pants in protest. It was the only avenue of rebellion open to me. Just a little tinkle, mind, not a great flood, just a leak, but every day at around the same time, two pm, I would pee a little on my chair and stink out the classroom. I could’ve gone to the toilet at lunchtime, like everybody else, but I saved it up on purpose. I could’ve put up my hand and asked to be excused from the classroom but I didn’t. Urine was my revenge. (I grew out of it eventually. By the age of eleven I was over the habit.)
As I grew older, sarcasm was PF’s weapon of choice. (There’s no point being sarcastic to a young child; all they know is literal meaning. They will not be able to decipher your vitriol.) He was always disparaging towards my achievements. Art was my favourite subject; I drew vampires and gremlins and ghosts, and was frequently praised by the teacher and rewarded with gold stickers. Homewards I would trot, clutching my picture of Vernon the Vampire, with his two inch fangs that hung down over his lower lip, dripping with blood and his gleaming yellow eyes and his razor-sharp claws. After dinner, I would take my picture from my bag.
“Two gold stickers for this one Mum,” I would proudly declare.
“Oh, that’s lovely dear,” mother would say, in her vaguely insipid way.
“Oh, hoo, hoo, a vampire is it?” PF would mock. “Well, look at that. We’ve got the next Monet here.”
I didn’t even know who Monet was, but I knew PF wasn’t being friendly. I would take my vampire to my corner of the lighthouse and impale him to the corkboard Mum had attached to the wall so that I might pin my pictures to it. At night, I would lie in bed and try to summon my ghoulish friends to life.
“C’mon Vernon,” I would whisper. “Rise up and go suck PF’s blood, suck him dry. C’mon Kelly the Ghost, breathe into life and give PF a major fright so that he has a heart attack. Do what ghosts do; switch on appliances, stomp up and down on the lighthouse stairs, smash window panes.”
My attempts to summon the spirits were always in vain. Nothing was switched on, nothing shattered.
The essay topic is Sexual Politics in ‘Pride and Prejudice’. I have written one thousand words and have another two thousand to go. The tutor for this paper, Suzanne Henry, seems very nice although I haven’t met her in person (we only correspond via email). She doesn’t seem to mind one bit that I am in prison and is very encouraging. She seems to believe in ‘constructive criticism’, unlike some of the others who lacerate everything I write, which does not make me despondent, but only more determined. Some people just fuel my fire. “A thoughtful well-written essay”, Ms Henry typed on the bottom of my last effort, which was a paper entitled The Window as Metaphor in Wuthering Heights. Ghosts with lacerated wrists and all that. I am writing about how the Bennet girls are ‘other’ to Mr Darcy, how he does not see them as fully functioning humans, with hearts and minds, but as objects. He objectifies them. I have learnt all sorts of fancy concepts since beginning my studies. I believe I have become something of an object myself, stuck away in this place, like a slab of rotting meat. Shirley’s had a bit of a read through of the first thousand words.
“Cor blimey,” she said. “I didn’t know you knew all them big words.”
The truth is that I don’t know many big words at all, but keep my trusty thesaurus by my side at all times, in order to exchange a smaller word for a bigger, more impressive one. My mind wanders. Scatter-brained.
“The independent nature of Elizabeth Bennet,” I write, “served as a role model for young women of the time who wished to assert themselves. No longer did they need to hide behind their petticoats and frills.”
One of the prison wardens comes to stand behind me.
“There’s a lawyer here to see you,” she says. “Follow me.”
She leads me into a small room near the reception area, where a small red-headed woman in a blue coat sits.
“I’m Libby Clements,” she says. “I would like to take on your case.”
“Nice to meet you.”
She shakes my hand firmly, a no-nonsense grip, then sits back down in her chair. I take a seat too.
“So,” she says, opening her briefcase. “I’ve been through the case notes from your trial. I don’t know why your previous lawyer didn’t plead BWS as I think we’ve a fairly good case for it.”
I nod expectantly.
“If you’ll let me defend you, it’s possible, just possible, that I can get you off the hook.”
I don’t want to get my hopes up. In my experience, raised hopes crash down into bitter disappointment.
“Do you have a history of being abused?”
“Yes. By my stepfather. And my husbands.”
“It all works in your favour.”
“So, I just wanted to introduce myself. I’ll come back next week for a proper meeting and you can tell me everything. I mean, everything. I’ll need all the details. The abuse that you suffered at the hands of your stepfather, and from your husbands.”
“It’s nice to meet you, finally. I am sure we can get you out of this place without you having to serve your full sentence. And you’re doing okay in here. You’re surviving?”
“Yes,” I say. “I am skilled at survival.”
“Good to hear it.”
She rises to her feet and exits. I return to the library, go back to my essay.
“Mr Darcy signifies the oppressive nature of the patriarchy,” I write.
I don’t have anything more to say.
I was slow to learn to talk. In my early years, I could understand what other people were saying, but I never responded, choosing instead to remain locked within my muteness. It was difficult, but I got by. At school, the teacher, perhaps feeling sorry for me, let me get away with writing my answer on a piece of paper and holding it up for him to see. Mum tried to gently encourage me to talk, but when there was nothing doing, she didn’t push the issue. How old was I when I finally began to speak? Eight maybe, nine. My voice, when it emerged, did not sound like the voices of other children. It was harsh, rasping, as if a crow was learning to talk. Reading came shortly afterwards, stories that were intended for far younger children. Mother took to staying out late after finishing work at the library. I was too young to comprehend it then, but she was having an affair. I remember her during this time as lighter, ethereal, all her sadness and heaviness lifted. She seemed to float on air. PF must have noticed it too; heard her humming gaily to herself as she cleaned the lighthouse, noticed that she began to take more care with her clothes, her makeup, realised that the insomnia which had plagued her for most of her life, had disappeared. I would come home from school and she would be absent, missing. The space seemed enormous. I would busy myself with my paintings, producing tidy triptychs of spooks, with open wailing mouths and dark hollows for eyes. I began to wet my pants again. The lighthouse began to smell like some Barcelona alley. Mum didn’t notice the pant wetting, but PF did.
“You been pissing in here?” he would ask and I would shake my head and then do another spiteful piddle.
Meals were late, sometimes non-existent. If Mum wasn’t home, PF would crack open a couple of cans of baked beans and heat them on the stove, burning them more often than not. He did not confront Mum directly, but rather, began making pointed remarks, little razor stabs.
“That’s a nice lipstick. New, is it? Out to impress somebody are we?”
“Rather low neckline on that frock. Showing off your assets nicely, aren’t you?”
Mum would reply with a lighthearted, “Oh, don’t be silly dear, I’m allowed to take pride in my appearance.”
Fucking slut, PF would mutter under his breath, and down another couple of cans of lager.
I was working on William the Superspook, when PF came home from work. There was something different in his voice that day when he spoke to me.
He leaned over me as I shaded Will’s mantle.
“Gosh that’s nice.”
He looked outside.
“Bit bright, isn’t it? Here, why don’t we close those curtains for a bit?”
I hunched, head down over Will and pressed my black crayon so hard into the paper that it snapped. He came towards me and removed something in a shiny foil wrapper from his pocket.
“You want a piece of chocolate? It’s Caramello, your favourite.”
He didn’t wait for an answer. He snapped off four squares and put them down on my picture, right on top of Will’s open, screaming mouth.
“There’s a girl, eat it up. Mmmm.”
He sat down beside me and put his arm around my shoulders.
“You’re becoming quite a pretty girl, aren’t you Vera.”
I scribbled harder.
He reached out and tucked a stray strand of my hair behind my ear. I shivered despite the heat.
“Now then. I’ve got something very special to show you, but it’s a secret. It’s just between the two of us. I know we haven’t always got on in the past Vera, but I think we could come to an understanding. Yes, that’s right, an understanding.”
He unzipped his fly and pulled his penis out through the gap in his Y-fronts. It sat, a flaccid sausage in his lap. I looked away. He took my right hand.
“That’s right Vera, just give it a little stroke. Have another piece of chocolate.”
Snap. He broke off another four squares and pushed them into my mouth.
“Good girl. A firm stroke. Maybe you could put your whole hand around it.”
His moustache twitched. He put his hand over mine, made me encircle his circumference.
“Back and forth now, that’s the ticket, nice and firm, ow, not too firm. You’re a good girl Vera, you’ll get the hang of it in no time. You’re smarter than you seem now, aren’t you?”
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t look. My face was turned to the wall. The sweetness from the chocolate buzzed in my head. Finally, PF gave a loud moan. The floor was sticky. He rose to his feet, zipped up his fly, got a cloth from the kitchen bench and wiped up the mess.
“Tell your mother and I’ll slit your throat from ear to ear,” he said, drawing his index finger across his jugular.
There were footsteps on the stairs. Mum entered the room, looking resplendent in a white skirt with big red roses on it, a neat white blouse, tucked in at the waist, a string of shiny pearls around her neck.
“Why are all the curtains drawn?” she asked.
She yanked them open. The sun streaming in through the lighthouse windows was far too bright and hurt my eyes.
“Mr Darcy would like to have Elizabeth Bennet under his thumb,” I write. “But Ms Bennet is not the sort of woman who is easily tamed. She is headstrong and forthright – it is this that makes her appealing to Mr Darcy.”
Shirley creeps up behind me.
“Whatcha working on?”
“Essay about Jane Austen.”
She sighs heavily through her nose.
“Bloody writers. Words, who needs them.”
“Words can enrich our lives,” I say, putting down my pen.
She gives a snort.
“You should think about furthering your education yourself,” I say. “It’s the perfect way to spend time, while you’re in here, doing time.”
“Education, schmeducation. I have my hairdressing to support myself. I don’t need anything more.”
“Yes, but you could take a paper on Greek mythology or anything. Expand your horizons.”
“My horizons don’t need expanding.”
She burps and wanders off. I pick up my pen and continue.
“As the title would suggest, the novel deals with the themes of pride and prejudice. Darcy is a very proud character, and his pride often serves to alienate him from others. An example of this is when he acts snobby and superior at the first ball with the Bennets. In the beginning of the novel, Darcy dislikes Elizabeth because of her low social status and poverty, however, he falls in love with her and at the end of the novel he gives in to his feelings and they marry.”
My words are inadequate. I know what I want to say, but I can’t spit it out, it’s as if the thought that I want to express is somewhere, crystal clear and pure but when I try to give it form it falls short of the mark, fails somehow, can’t find expression. Frustrated, I wander down the prison corridor to the television room. Several of my fellow inmates sit slack-jawed, staring at the TV screen, watching Reese Witherspoon in Freeway. I sit down and join them, becoming temporarily engrossed in the action on screen. That’s how I would have liked to have been; free-wheeling, loose, not just the sly underhand killer I actually was. I would have liked to have been glorious, a peacock with proud gaudily-coloured feathers, rather than a common, raffish sparrow with its sharp little beak always pecking. Peck, peck, peck in the dirt.
My reign of silence seemed appropriate, a sane response to the insanity of my immediate universe. Every day that Mum wasn’t home before he was, PF and I would go through the same little routine. Other things took place, things that I don’t want to describe, events that have been pushed to the spare room in the back of my mind, where it’s best that they stay. I hated him, with a pure, steel hatred, hate like the blade of a knife that could slice you open with one swift slash. I hated the way he chewed with his mouth open, his ape-like walk, the way he breathed, the way he sat, fish-eyed, in front of the telly. I didn’t say anything to anyone about what was happening between PF and me. There was no-one to tell, except Mum and she never would’ve coped with the news. I believed PF when he threatened to kill me if I narked and there was no doubt in my mind that he would make good on that promise. At school, the other kids hung out in groups of two, three or four, but I was always alone. The pictures that I drew became increasingly dark; men being shot, women being run over, tidal waves hitting the coast of Devon, hurricanes tearing the lighthouse apart. Pictures of PF being stabbed.
There were nights when I howled like a banshee, collapsed with my back against the lighthouse door. Everything was gone, had been taken. Mother would be with some fancy man or other and PF would be out drinking or gambling. My howls ricocheted around the lighthouse. There came a point, also, when I could shed no more tears. Something inside that should have been alive was dead.
At school, I began to express myself with my fists, lashing out wildly at my persecutors. I had one distinct advantage over them - when they hit me back I didn’t feel it, didn’t feel anything; I was numb. I received bruises as big as houses, but there was no pain involved. I was a walking corpse; a ghost. I struggled through my days, looking forward only to the art room where I could draw my colourful friends. My mind was as black as the blackest night, but down there, in the darkness, something was kicking.
After PF had been abusing me for about six months Mum came home and caught him in the act.
“Oh my God,” she said, standing at the top of the stairs. “Get the hell away from my daughter. Get the hell out of my house. You creep, you pig, you foul rotting louse. Get out now. Don’t even bother to collect your things.”
PF pulled on his trousers and crept guiltily towards the door. Mum booted his arse as he went past and then rushed to my side.
“Oh Vera, oh sweetheart. What has he done to you?”
She wrapped her arms around me.
“Oh I’m sorry Vera, I’m so sorry.”
But all the sorrys in the world couldn’t make up for what had happened.
Within two weeks mother had moved her lover, who was by now a permanent boyfriend, into the lighthouse. His name was Bill and he was a fisherman. He had his own boat. He was a keen reader, and mother had met him during one of his frequent trips to the library to withdraw books. He was a good man and his presence seemed to prevent my mother from slipping into her terrible black moods, her doldrums, her fits of despair. He brought home fresh sturgeon, cod, pike, mackerel and eels and my mother and I would eagerly devour this bounty. We fried, baked and boiled the fish. We lived off the stuff. We were healthier than we’d ever been before. At night, Bill would read aloud to us from the Russian classics; War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Idiot, Crime and Punishment. After PF, I was wary of all adult males, but Bill had a lovely voice and was as gentle as a lamb. It took me a month or two to come round but then, in the evening, I would curl up at his feet like a puppy and listen to him read, his soothing voice washing over me like the waves of a golden ocean.
It was Shirley who instigated the friendship with me and not the other way round. I was in the library, working on one of my Romantic Literature papers, when she sat down in the spare chair that was at my table.
“Hi, I’m Shirley,” she said.
I stared at her. Was she potential friend or potential enemy?
“Vera,” I said tentatively, thinking it only polite to offer my name.
“Watcha up to then?” she asked, craning her neck to see what I was writing.
“Just a paper for university,” I said. “Romantic Literature.”
“Romantic literature,” she echoed. “Gawd, who needs romance?”
“I know. All my romances ended in murder.”
“Don’t talk to me about anger. I’ve fended off hurricane-like bouts of rage.”
“Yes, we are angry girls, aren’t we?”
She picked up the piece of paper I was writing on and read aloud.
“The central premise of William Wordsworth’s poem The World Is Too Much With Us is the conflict between nature and humanity. “We have given our hearts away” means that we have sold the vital part of us.”
“Hmm, interesting,” she said. “You really believe all that guff?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“Isn’t it just waffle?”
“If I ever get out of this place,” I said. “I intend to become a teacher. No more launderette for me.”
“I see. Onwards and upwards.”
“But for now, incarceration.”
Hard-Nosed Harriet is after me again. She is waiting outside my cell, smacking her fist into an open palm. From behind my bars, I eye her and she eyes me. She is waiting for me to emerge so that she can beat me to a pulp, so I don’t budge, just sit down on my bunk and patiently wait for her to leave. She does not leave. I know that of the two of us, I am the one with the stronger will, so I quietly wait it out. Eventually she wanders away. I peer out through the bars of my cell looking both left and right. When I am sure that the coast is clear I leave my cell and scurry down the corridor to the dining hall. Harriet is in there, eating a plate of fishcakes smothered in tomato sauce. I walk swiftly past and she does not rise up from her chair, but lets me continue on my way. Shirley enters the hall and joins me in the dinner queue. Fishcakes and leeks.
I often daydream about how life will be when I get out of this place. Note, I use the word ‘when’ not ‘if’. I will be educated, of course, an educated woman. I will have my degree. I doubt that I shall go back to work at the launderette; I rather fancy that I might become a teacher, passing on the knowledge I have gleaned from reading all these books. In my mind’s eye I can see it; myself in front of a row of quiet, complacent children, all sitting obediently with their arms folded. In reality, of course, the brats would be screaming and running riot while I struggled to gain control. A girl needs dreams. In a situation such as mine, it pays to stay positive, to look on the bright side, to keep at bay the black bile, the black dogs that snap at my heels, the melancholia that threatens to engulf me, floating around my ears like a thick black cloud. I often have to cheer Shirley up; she gets very down in the dumps. She says she did not intend to murder her sister, she says that rage took her out of herself, that she lost her mind, temporarily, that she didn’t know what she was doing. I don’t know whether or not I believe her when she says this; she could be ‘making it up’, making excuses for herself.
At high school I came out of my shell a little. I befriended or was befriended by another girl with dubious social skills – Ingrid Gibson. Ingrid was often to be found in the music room, bashing on the Glockenspeil, or pounding on the piano. Like me, she didn’t speak much. Music was her way of expressing herself. She was lurking in the music room by the bongo drums, when I, on an errand from a teacher, entered the room. She stopped bongo-ing for a bit and turned to face me. She looked at me, I looked at her. She broke the silence first.
“Hey, are you called Vera?”
“I’ve seen you around. You into music?”
“Sure, isn’t everybody?”
“No, some people hate it.”
“Oh well, not me.”
I stood opposite her, on the other side of the drums. She bashed out a beat and I mimicked her. She beat another rhythm and I copied that too. Soon we were having a whale of a time, bongo-ing our hearts out.
We took to meeting every day in the music room. With time, we progressed from the bongos to the piano and from the piano to the glockenspiel. Ingrid was always nagging me to start a band.
“We could move to London and hit the big time,” she said. “Scale the giddy heights.”
I told her that we’d need a manager.
“What about my friend Jimmy?”
“My one and only friend from primary.”
“I’ll bring him to our next practice session.”
At the next session I met Jimmy. He was enormous – well over six feet and as solid as a house. He extended his hand in greeting.
“I hear you girls need a manager,” he said.
“Yes,” said Ingrid. “We thought we’d start off gigging around Devon then move to London after high school.”
“Sounds like fun. Let’s hear what you’ve got.”
Ingrid jumped behind the drums and I sat behind the piano. We played one of our more recent numbers – “Ode to a Cat with Sunglasses – Number Nine.”
“I bought some sunglasses for my moggy,” explained Ingrid. “She looked so cute in them I thought we’d write a song about it.”
She nodded in my direction.
“Hit it sister.”
I played the prelude and Ingrid came in right on cue. At the end of the song Jimmy burst into applause.
“Wow, you girls have got real talent,” he said appreciatively. “You’ve got heart. Can I hear that Cat with Sunglasses again?”
We played it again, from the top. Ingrid did the vocals from behind the drums, like Karen Carpenter, only without the anorexia. She had quite a manly voice – sort of like a male Lou Reed.
“Alright Ladies,” said Jimmy when we were done. “Let’s hear what else you’ve got up your sleeve.”
“Let’s do our other new one – Sunny Day with Thunderclouds,” suggested Ingrid.
“Okay,” I agreed and we burst into song.
“Yes, I think I can take you on,” said Jimmy. “I’ll book you in for a couple of shows at the Devon Shark Club. When do you think you’ll have a set ready by?”
“We should be good to go by the end of next month,” said Ingrid. “Be great if you could get us in at the Sharky.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” replied Jimmy.
We practised hard for the next month and a half – and at the end of the six weeks we were good to go.
We called ourselves the Devon Duo.
“This could be it,” I thought to myself. “My chance to come out of my shell and ingratiate myself with the local youths.”
We piled into Jimmy’s van and headed down to the Shark. We pushed past the small queue and made our way inside the club. It was in the days before the smoking ban and the place was thick with smoke. Jimmy found a place in the audience and Ingrid and I headed backstage. We didn’t have a support band – we were both support band and main act. We stepped onstage – our instruments had been set out for us. We took up our usual place and let rip with our cat number.
Dead silence greeted us for the first half of the song, then somebody yelled from the audience “Get off the stage ya tone deaf halfwits”. Ingrid and I ignored the heckling and continued. At the end of it there was a brief smattering of applause then more heckling. “Christ, what was that caterwaul? Who dragged you two in?”
I wondered whether or not we should continue. I glanced at Ingrid to get the signal. She gave the nod; we ploughed into the second number on our song list, one of our older songs, “No-one Will Remember Me When I’m Dead.”
O, No-one will remember me when I’m dead,
Dead, dead and gone,
O, No-one will remember me when I’m six feet under
Pushing up daisies and dirt.
I held my own for as long as I could, but halfway through ‘No-one Will Remember Me’ one of the bikies in the front row threw half a pint of beer at me and I crumbled, abandoned my piano and ran offstage.
Admirably, Ingrid stayed to finish the song, but at the end she too fled in terror. Jimmy came backstage to meet us.
“Okay ladies, so that wasn’t such a good start to proceedings, but maybe we can improve with time.”
I burst into tears.
“I just wasn’t expecting such a hostile reaction,” I said.
Ingrid stayed staunch.
“Things can only improve from here,” she said. “I think we just picked a difficult first venue. Why don’t we try the Anchor Inn?”
I was terrified by our experiences and threatened to quit the band. That half pint of beer had rattled me. I hadn’t imagined that people would throw things at me if I took to the stage. Ingrid was on the phone every night, pleading with me not to quit. When I asked her what was in it for me she said that plenty of good things lay just around the corner – fame, money, men throwing themselves at me after gigs. I’d have the pick of Devon men, she said. She’d check the next venue out more thoroughly, make sure that it was more benign than the one previously played. I said I’d think about it.
I thought for two or three nights. I wrote down all the pros and cons on a scrap of paper.
Fame. Money. Men throwing themselves at me before gigs?? (dubious pro)
Pints of beer being hurled at head. Fear of heckling. Feeling like wanting a big black hole to open up and swallow me when onstage.
In the end, I decided to stick with Ingrid. After all, she was the only friend I had in the world. The next venue she picked was the Amber Rooms. We met beforehand at Ingrid’s house for a pep talk.
“Okay”, said Ingrid. “I’ve talked a fair number of family and friends into coming to the show, so it should be an amiable audience tonight.”
For my nerves, she handed me two beta blockers which I promptly swallowed. We set out into the night, with the moon full in the sky overhead. This time we were well received. Warm applause greeted us at the end of the set. I walked offstage feeling positively buoyant. That was the night that I met my first groupie who was to become my first boyfriend. His name was Ken and he didn’t throw himself at me, instead he sidled up to me after the show and offered to buy me a drink.
“I’ll have a gin and tonic please,” I said.
He bought me my drink and we fell to talking. He was four years older than me – Ingrid and I were only fourteen. He worked at Timmo’s Trading Post, lugging furniture around. Or he had until yesterday, he said, when he’d put his back out. Timmo had given him two weeks off to recover. He was meant to be at home resting up, but he’d snuck away for an evening out. He still lived at home with his mother, he said. Bit embarrassing, but he was saving up a deposit to move into a flat. I didn’t tell him much about myself, just that Ingrid and I were starting this girl band and that we hoped to move to London after high school and find a record label.
“Well, you’ve certainly got something,” he said.
“Not quite sure what though, eh?”
“The world’s full of young hopefuls. Most of them get chewed up and spat out. Let’s just hope that Ingrid and I don’t end up on the scrapheap of discards and wannabes.”
There were no shows for two months, as Ingrid and I practised religiously. Ingrid was the main song-writer, with me suggesting a little something every now and then. At the end of two months we played the Anchor Inn again. This time the place was packed to the rafters.
We split profits from the door fifty-fifty. Ingrid was generous and didn’t expect extra money for being the main songwriter. Takings were good – one hundred and fifty pounds each. Vera, Ken and I went out to dinner on the proceeds. The relationship between Ken and I was progressing nicely. I’d never had a boyfriend before – Ken had already been through three girlfriends, so I let him take the lead and followed behind with my two-four waltz. We took long romantic walks along the Devon coast, we collected seashells and made mobiles, we went to the Sunday matinee together. It was nice to have the company, although at times I felt that Ken was too clingy, too restricting – I felt as if he was choking me. For instance, at the pictures, holding his hand wasn’t optional – holding his hand was compulsory. If we were walking on the coast I had to walk right beside him – I couldn’t walk slightly ahead or behind. Looking back on it now, I can see that he was just another controlling male out to assert his will over mine, but at the time, what with me being caught up in the flush of first love and all, I thought that I had found my mate for life, even if he could be a little overbearing. Soon enough we were doing everything together. There was even talk of him moving into the lighthouse, what with his home life being less than satisfactory and all. His father, like mine, had vanished early on in the piece – his mother was a social worker, which was ironic, said Ken. She had so many problems of her own, how could she possibly help other people sort out theirs. At work, said Ken, she was the model employee. She’d even won counselor of the month a couple of times. At home, she drank too much and chain smoked and ranted and raved if he left so much as a sock lying about on his bedroom floor. She was a control freak, he said. She wanted everything perfect. She didn’t tolerate dirty socks. And all that control, that rigidity, had to have a flip side, a vent, hence the drinking and smoking and ranting and raving. He wanted out. He’d had enough. He envied the setup that I had, he said, with Mum and Bill, even if mother was prone to the doldrums, to lying around the house all day with her head surrounded in a big black cloud of despair. Mum liked him too. He was always pleasant and polite to her, never arrived at the door empty handed, always had a big bouquet of flowers to present to her. He helped out around the place too – if he was there for dinner he always busied himself helping Mum chop the beans, or slice the zucchini, or crumb the fish. He came to every show that the Devon Duo played. After I’d been dating Ken for two months, mother, who knew of Ken’s dire position on the home front, suggested that he move into the lighthouse’s spare room. Ken jumped at the offer and moved in at the end of that week. Our relationship was fairly innocent, by which I mean that we didn’t sleep together, although I did give him a couple of blow jobs in the back row of the movies. Ken’s transition from his own house to my place was fairly smooth. At first there was a little friction between him and Bill, as Bill wasn’t used to having another man around the house, but eventually they settled down. Night-times saw mother, Ken and I sitting around in a semi-circle as Bill narrated to us from whatever classic he was currently ploughing his way through. His lovely, velvet voice often made me doze off and I would re-awaken with a start to find that Bill had finished reading and the rest of the lighthouse’s inhabitants had gone to bed, leaving me alone in the living room.
It was summer, I was fifteen – times were good. Ingrid and I played nearly every club in Devon. We had a dedicated cult following, composed mostly of bearded men over forty who looked like they belonged at a Hawkwind concert. Ken, who had done a graphics design course at Polytech before going to work for Timmo, designed our poster for us. The poster consisted of a snapshot of Vera and me grasping shotguns – holding the audience to ransom. The Devon Duo haunted Devon’s pubs and clubs for two years, until Ingrid and I finished high school. The three of us – Ingrid, Kevin and I, headed down to London, intending to find a flat together. Mother didn’t want us to go.
“But how will you fare in the big smoke?” she asked. “It’s a rough world out there, duckie.”
“I’ll take care of her,” said Ken, putting one arm around my shoulders.
Mum raised one skeptical eyebrow.
“My baby had better come back in one piece,” she said.
She let us go.
Ken had a cousin in East Dulwich she said we could stay with until we found our feet. On the train down to London tragedy struck. Ingrid, in need of a lungful of fresh air, put her head out the train window and failed to see the approaching tunnel, therefore ending up decapitated. Ken and I were beside ourselves. On a selfish front, I wondered how the Devon Duo would fare in the Big Smoke if it was only the Devon Uno. On another note, I felt terrible about the waste of a life that the headless body on the seat beside me represented. Ken ran to get the guard who ordered the driver to pull in at the next station. Upon arrival at Reading everybody was ushered off the train and one of the local doctors climbed on board to remove the body. At the sight of the headless Ingrid being carried from the train I vomited profusely into the nearby shrubbery. Ken patted my back.
“Come on, soldier”, he said. “You’ll be alright.”
He ushered me back onto the train.
For the remainder of the journey, Ken rambled on about marketing me as the Devon Uno – a one woman show.
“Bongos, ukulele, flute – the lady does them all.” – the new poster would read.
“We lost somebody on the way down”, Ken said to his cousin. “Now there are only the two of us.”
My mind was filled with thoughts of Ingrid’s funeral. And what would I tell her parents? That neither of us saw the tunnel approaching? That her darling daughter was now dead and gone, never to return. I couldn’t face calling her – I made Ken do the honours. Understandably, she was distraught. She burst into tears then hung up on Ken.
I tried to make a go of it in London. I took my name to a couple of temping agencies, but I couldn’t type and I didn’t have any secretarial or administration experience so they weren’t interested. In the end, I got a little work down at the local off licence, stuck behind the counter, serving customers. It was as boring as hell. After two weeks I quit. So much for making my name in the Big Smoke, I thought, and headed back to Devon.
I walk into the dining hall to find a birthday cake sitting on the table with Happy 40th Birthday written on the top in pink icing. No candles, in case we burn the place down. Shirley and one of the wardens are standing behind the table. HNH sits at the next table over from mine, looking sour. Shirley and the warden burst into a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday. There’s not much to collect here in prison – it’s slim pickings. I make do with what I can. So far I have managed to purloin a pack of cards from another prisoner, a light blue hair-tie which some fool left in the shower and, a major coup, two cigarettes – which just about started a fight. Cigarettes are currency in prison. After the rousing chorus of Happy Birthday has finished, we slice into the cake. I devour mine greedily. One thing I have had my eye on for quite a while is Waynetta’s doll.
It’s time to mention a little about the other inmates, besides Harriet and Shirley. For me, most of the women here blend into a homogenous mass, but there are a few exceptions - Molly, Waynetta and Helene. I first met Molly in the art room. Yes, there is painting in prison too – they call it ‘art therapy.’ It’s hard for me to summon enthusiasm locked in here behind bars. In order to paint I need a breeze of fresh air against my face, the crunch of shells beneath my feet, the feel of long grass brushing against my shins. Not so for Molly, when I met her she was splashing paint down upon the canvas like she fancied herself to be the next Jackson Pollock. The paint splattered upon the paper – violent shades of purple, red and green; great big splotches of colour.
“I like your work,” I said tentatively.
She didn’t say anything. Just jabbed her brush into the paint and flicked a bit more colour onto the canvas. I stood watching for a few minutes more.
“I hate this bloody place,” she said eventually. “I get so depressed I can hardly even get off my mattress. If it weren’t for the prison guards prodding me I’d probably just stay lying down forever.”
“What you in here for?”
She picked up the piece of paper she was working on and screwed it up into a ball.
“Art therapy, schmart therapy.”
She slumped down on the floor with her back against the wall.
“Christ, will I ever get out of here?”
“’Course you will Molly. It’s only two years.”
“They’ve got me on these anti-depressants, but they don’t seem to be working.”
She tells me that she has a history of depression, but that it’s got worse since she’s been in prison, for obvious reasons. Apart from the odd bout in the exercise yard, there’s not much opportunity for exercise in this place. Stress and depression build up with no hope of ever being vented, except in the odd random bout of rage.
Waynetta’s a different kettle of fish altogether – physically robust but mentally fragile, she haunts the prison corridors talking loudly to herself, which is what she was doing when I first stumbled across her. She bumped right into me – she wasn’t watching where she was going. She carries a doll with her everywhere she goes – a gollywog. A cute little thing with black sprouts of wool coming out of the top of its head.
“Hullo there”, I said. “What are you up to then?”
“I’m looking for my cat,” she said, and made a small hissing noise.
I knew right then and there that I was dealing with a loony – no prisoner is allowed to take a pet into this place. I befriended her anyway. It was a curious friendship with Waynetta talking far more to herself than she talked to me. I wondered what had happened to her to make her snap, what accident, what mishap or misfortune had occurred.
Does anybody in this place have a clean bill of mental health? I guess Helene does – at least she doesn’t talk or laugh to herself, or complain of depression. Maybe she has unrealistic dreams though – she says she wants to be a country singer when she gets out of here. She makes a microphone out of empty air and sings into it. She mimics strumming a guitar. Delusions of grandeur. She’s got a decent voice, but I’m not sure that it’ll get her a record deal. Then there’s her age; she’s fifty if she’s a day – is there a market for greying stars? I don’t know whether it’s tragic or comic, seeing her cling to her dream like this. Who says she won’t ‘make it’? I won’t be the one to burst her bubble, to shatter her illusions. I play at being the audience – clapping and laughing at her one-woman show.
So, four friends in total. Better than zero, I suppose. All of us with delusions, all of us with dreams. Who’s to say what may or may not come true? I’m not one to shatter another’s illusions. After all, it’s human nature to want to dream a little.
Libby has set up another meeting. She has booked the same spare room we sat in last time. She is waiting for me. I arrive and sit down in the chair opposite hers. I am nicely dressed in my prison overalls.
“I’m here for the details,” she says. “Of the abuse that you suffered.”
I can feel the blood drain from my face. This isn’t territory I wish to revisit, it’s too traumatic.
“Okay,” I say quietly.
“So,” she says. “Can we start with your father? How old were you when he abused you and how frequently did the abuse take place?”
“I was six,” I say. “And it happened every day for about six months until my mother caught him in the act and kicked him out of the lighthouse.”
“You were living in a lighthouse?”
“Yes, near Devon.”
She scribbles all this down, her glasses pushed down upon her nose.
“I know this might be difficult for you,” she says. “But what exactly did he do?”
“Well, you know. Forced me to give him blow jobs and penetrated me vaginally against my will.”
“So he raped you.”
“Let’s move on now to your husbands. And the name of your first husband was…”
“Tell me all about Gary.”
“Gary was a plumber. He seemed a good bet at first. But he turned out to be way too controlling. A few months into our marriage he became very critical of me; my clothing, the way I walked and talked, everything. It got to the point where he said even my breathing irritated him. He once called me a ‘fucking cunt’ in front of a table full of people at a restaurant.”
“Yea, he turned out to be a total arsehole. Completely bonkers. If I went out for a drink and told him I was going to be home by nine pm, if I got home at five past nine, he would fly off the handle.”
“And how did you cope with this….this abuse.”
“Well, I murdered him. A simple and clean solution.”
“Yes, quite. Illegal of course…but then…”
“Well, then I wasn’t in the best head space. I thought I was beyond the law. I thought I’d get away with it, that they’d never catch me.”
“And you did get away with that one, didn’t you?”
“Sure did,” I say, allowing a note of pride to creep into my voice.
“And your second husband was…”
“Larry. Another man who seemed like a good bet on the surface. Another man with hidden warts.”
“Well, a massive cocaine habit for one thing. I was always working, slaving away in the launderette and he was always out partying, shoving the devil’s dandruff up his nose.”
“That does sound stressful.”
“Stressful isn’t the word for it. I was beside myself. I thought I’d finally landed myself a man who could provide me with safety and security and what I’d landed was a party animal. Then he started abusing me verbally. Coming home high and calling me a fucking bitch and worse.”
“How did you cope?”
“And you got away with that one too. Wasn’t anybody suspicious?”
“No. I dumped the body in the Thames. Had the car professionally cleaned. The cops came sniffing around but they couldn’t nail anything on me.”
“So, tell me about the third husband.”
“Larry was a great guy, but by then murder was in my blood. I was on a roll and I just kept rolling. Also, I miscarried just before I murdered him.”
“So would you say that you became addicted to murder.”
Libby scribbles a bit more, pushes her glasses up more firmly onto her face, peers out at me.
“It sounds as if you’ve had quite a big life,” she says.
“With Larry I just snapped,” I say. “He did nothing wrong. Larry’s is the only murder I feel guilty about. I feel that the others deserved it, were asking for it. The problem was, that by the time Larry came along, I had a history of abuse and part of me, the strong, dark part, was anti-men.”
She says nothing, just scribbles a bit more.
“I think that’s enough to be getting on with. You definitely have a history of being abused by men. The problem is that Larry wasn’t actually abusing you when you murdered him, but you had been so badly treated by that time, that you just, as you say….’snapped’.”
“Yes, that’s definitely the word for it. My mind fragmented, I saw red. I baked him a steak and kidney pie with added death cap mushrooms, which is the same way I killed the first two. But they caught me for that last one, you see. That’s why I’m stuck in this place.”
“Well, I wouldn’t give up hope. I think we have a good case here. I’ll see what I can do.”
“You only pay me if we win.”
“About five thousand pounds.”
“But I don’t have that kind of money.”
“We can set up a payment plan. If you get off, you may get some financial compensation from the government for your time spent in prison.”
She gathers her papers together and heads out the door. I sit in my chair, staring at the blank prison walls.