It was dusk over Her Majesty’s Prison Ormerod Farms; crows cried over the empty brown fields all around, golden leaves fell in silence from the trees. A great darkness was spilling over the treetops behind the long, low white buildings clustered behind the perimeter fence. There was no razor wire on that fence; this was minimum security. This was the place where your time, you were told, passed more easily. There, it was dinnertime already and that wasn’t so hard, was it? Marie grinned to herself. You liar. She hated the countryside. This transfer was the worst part of her sentence. She’d have given a lot to stay in the city jail, but no, here she was and she’d get through it, and be out soon. That’s what she told herself.
Marie worked with Nan in the library now. She catalogued books and tried not to look out of the windows at the dark moors or think about Kamal, who had been with her every step of the way on the credit card frauds, and then wept on her shoulder and begged her not to grass him up, his family would die of the shame. So she hadn’t. She didn’t have any family to die of shame.
“Right gloomy isn’t it, pet, now the days are drawing in. I always think of my Alfie this time of year. It was around this time that he died, you know.” Marie looked up from under quizzical eyebrows. “Yes. Because that was when you poisoned him.”
Nan’s laugh rattled. She’d done almost fifteen years in maximum security, before good behaviour and bad arthritis got her a transfer to this facility in the north. “Just because you poison ’em yourself love, don’t mean you can’t miss ’em sometimes, you know. Here,” she said, “I’m nipping out for a fag. Yates is on duty, she’ll never know I’m gone and she’ll never grass if she does notice. You cover?”
Marie nodded again, continuing to paste slips into donated books.
With Nan gone, the library was too quiet. The ticking of the clock grew louder and louder until it was unbearable. The clock was Marie’s enemy; the clock was not on her side. She’d tried to get it on side, talking gently to it, smiling when she saw it. It hadn’t worked. She was still here for four months and two days. Marie shifted in her chair, listening to the mean little stacks of books hissing at her in their paper-voices: You’re old, they said, you’re pushing forty-five and you’re stupid, you’re a doormat, nobody in here even knows about Kamal and the way you took this time for him and why not? Because you know what they’d all say. They’d say you’re a fucking fool and they’re right.
“Shut up,” said Marie, standing up and feeling her knees creak, “shut up, books, what would you kn-”
She stopped, quite still, and alert. Near the door, there was a…shadow. Head tilted, she couldn’t see the face but whoever it was, they were clearly watching her, waiting for her to notice them. She picked up a dictionary with a good thick spine on it. “Who’s that?” she called, and her breath came out in a little white cloud. Cold. She drew a deep breath and then marched round the desk and down the aisle towards the figure. Reached the end of the shelf and it was gone.
She looked around the cheap steel shelves, even looked under the reading table. Gone. Her ears were ringing. The ticking of the clock was so loud, and so erratic, somehow. She tore her eyes from the strange shadow and glanced at the clock. It was half-past six. The second hand was clunking around the dial. It reached twelve, and then it skipped. Backwards.
It was half-past six, again.
Her bottle went and she ran from the room.
Back in their room with Katy before lights out, Katy was writing to her daughter while Marie slouched on her bed. Every time she blinked, a head tilted in her direction, dark within the dark. “Hey, have I made any enemies here so far, Kate? Any… sneaky kind of enemy?”
Katy raised her worn face. She had dull eyes and so many tattoos you couldn’t see bare skin below the neck. “Not that I know of, Pollyanna. Well, you used to get on Ronnie’s tits for smiling too much but now she’s back down Holloway for trying to scalp Rahima…. So I don’t think so, no. Why?”
“Oh.” Marie rolled over and stretched. “Someone was fucking with me in the library tonight. Probably nothing.”
When lights out came, Marie stared at the ceiling for a long time, because she didn’t want to see the flicker on the flimsy curtain, of a form moving back and forth. Head tilted.
The fat guard Bentley stopped her on the way to the rec after work and sent her to the ward for plasters “for my corns,” he said, dolefully regarding his fat feet, “they’re flaying me alive tonight.” She wanted to watch The Great British Bake-Off but she went without a word, she always did. Outside, it was raining, and the wind was getting up.
The sound echoed around the white walls. If it grew stronger in the night, it would boom and scream, and wake some girls up, and then maybe there’d be trouble. The ward was in another building, two hundred yards from the central hall where the rec facilities were, connected by an umbilical cord of plywood, barred with steel. This corridor was windowless, but the sound of the wind was somehow louder here, and the sound of the footsteps behind her. That was louder too.
There is somebody fucking with you, Marie. Just look back and see who it is, and maybe you can have a laugh about it. Maybe it’s Stacy, playing ghosties. Look behind you, Marie.
Her feet kept walking. The wind howled and her legs were like stilts tottering along, as the footsteps, light and somehow shambling, came closer. She fixed her gaze on the light at the end of the tunnel, shining through the tiny windows in the old doors.
Just look behind you. Look behind you.
No. I can’t.
Do it, Marie! If you let ’em see you’re as weak as all that, you’re in for hell in here, so just – look – behind you!
“I can’t,” and she stumbled over her own feet. Slowly she realised she had come to a complete, frozen halt, and still the footsteps sounded. She couldn’t move her neck, and something was behind her –
The lights began to flicker, and then there was grey light flashing through the seams of the walls and then sunlight, sunlight, it was daytime, how could that be? It reddened, darkened, the wind dropped and then there was a golden silence which could only be the dawn. She heard the dawn chorus, clearly and speedily, a chipmunk crew of tweeters. Fast and fleet, the moment flew past and the cold clouds slid over the unseen sun, the corridor darkened and the fluorescents buzzed back on, all the changing lights flickering over Marie’s bulging eyes and gaping, wide open mouth.
The Something reached out through the unbearable cold and touched her, softly and hopefully.
Marie let out a broken shriek and bolted for the doors of the ward. She hit the doors and darkness took her.
“Oh, look at that. Two days ago I had these nails done, would you believe it? Look, this one’s chipped and this one just broke clean across.”
“See that’s why I always go acrylic Linda. They’re tougher.”
Marie coughed, her mouth as dry as old bone, and opened her eyes, squinting. The two nurses turned and stared at her, then the older of the two said, “Alright now Stokes? Back in the land of the living?” and Marie identified her as the lady who preferred to go acrylic. She was lying on one of the medical bay beds and it was a bleak grey morning. Nurse James came at her with a blood pressure cuff and began to pump. “Any dizziness, nausea, headache?”
“N- no,” she lifted her head and looked around, “don’t think so. I – I feel alright. What happened?”
She knew what happened. She remembered it all.
“Come flying in here screaming, you did, and then passed out cold. No drugs you want to tell us about, Stokes? Hmm. Low blood pressure.”
“No. No drugs, no booze.” Marie closed her eyes.
James nodded. “Right, we need to rehydrate and see if that helps. One hour, rest up, plenty of fluids, I’ll be back.”
Marie closed her eyes. Plenty of girls in here due a haunt, deserved a haunt. But she’d never killed anyone. Not even hurt, not so much as slapped. Fraud was as far as it went, a bit of money nicked and not from pensioners, from big companies that’d never miss it. It’d been a glorious game that she played with Kamal, one that brightened her hopeless life. So why haunt her?
She heaved a sigh, and then from above her head there was another sigh. But this sigh was a mere hiss of breath, a copy, as though a robot tried to replicate human sound.
The cold was back, licking and kissing at her helpless, blind face. She would not open her eyes. She would lie here and in a moment it would be gone, it couldn’t stay there and watch her forever, or maybe it could, maybe it was dead, maybe it was something dead –
Her eyes flew open without her permission, and it was inches from her face; that broken-neck tilt left the face hanging over hers. It was inside the wall, it was dangling out of the wall, a sort of human shape, but badly-formed, done not quite right. There were crude features in the shape, but no eyes. It was like something that wanted to be human, but wasn’t. Yet it watched her face with breathless attention, and when her breath caught in her throat and her eyes bulged from a face the colour of old cheese, it turned its face down to hers, and sighed, impossibly long and low, its breath smelling of ice and dust.
She didn’t scream this time. She just – disconnected, the way you did when a guy got up on you that you didn’t want, you just left your body to it, and walked away to a safehouse in your head. That’s where she went. So she never saw it go. And when Gibbons came back to check on her, she agreed that she was perfectly fine and should get back to work.
Back in the library, Nan asked from under suspicious brows: “Where’ve you been since Tuesday, girl? What happened to you?”
Marie said, “I got sick. I fell down. I’m alright now.”
Then she said, “What?”
“What do you mean, what?” Nan’s grey tangled eyebrows swelled to double size.
“What’d you mean, Tuesday?” Marie’s stomach roiled a little.
“Day that comes after Monday. Before Wednesday. You know.”
Marie swallowed. “What day is it today, Nan?”
Nan’s eyebrows shot up so far they disarranged her forehead wrinkles. Wordless, she pointed at the desktop calendar.
Marie’s breath caught in her chest.
Oh shit, oh shitohshit. In her mind, light flickered from grey to gold through seams in a plywood tunnel, and a speeded-up dawn chorus chattered in her ears. Marie chewed on her lip and gouged a hole in her neck with her nails, just to keep from fainting away.
It was three months, three weeks and four days. She hung onto the days, paranoically checking calendars and clocks, remembering the hopeful, gruesome touch, wondering if it had the power to do that crazy thing to the next three months, suspecting it could, trying to forget it could.
I’d do another year if it meant I never had to see that thing again!
Only now, she began to see it everywhere she went. In the yellow-lit, echoing dining room it sat on the table behind her, and the other women complained of the cold, pulling their cardigans tighter. In the library, she could feel it nearby. In the room at night, oh God that was worst of all, sometimes it stood by her bed and waited.
“Marie,” said Kelly one night in the room, after lights were out and the door was locked, “you’ve got to pull yourself together. You’ve got less than three months left, and when you’re out, Kamal will be there.”
Marie said nothing. She had three months, two weeks and six days.
“Or is that what’s up your arse, is it Kamal? Has he got another lass? Marie!”
She pretended to sleep, though she knew she didn’t fool it; she felt its not-eyes gazing at her. It wanted to be looked at. She felt its shade inside the walls, sliding around. The walls which crept a little closer every hour of every day. It could make those days disappear. She could see Kamal tomorrow, have a cuddle with him, yep, and a mad fuck too.
“Aye, well, fuck ye then, Marie Stokes.” Kelly turned over with a great flouncing huff. It was still there.
Kelly fell asleep and began to snore. Marie kept her eyes closed. In her head she was in cousin Lucy’s flat, and they ate spaghetti together, slippery with chilli oil; curled up on the sofa, cosy and warm in friendly pink light.
She opened her eyes. The deathly ashen grey of the room met her. Everything around her was bleak and black and chaotic with unknown and unknowable debris, the dandruff of human lives gone far beyond wrong.
The sound began first in the walls.
It was low at first, a sort of rattling moan, and Marie grit her teeth. The sound grew louder, coming from no fixed point.
“Kelly, I know that’s you,” she said. Her voice was trembling. “Kelly?”
There was no response but snoring.
The sound grew into a wail. She dug her claw fingers into the flesh of her thighs. She would not make a sound and she wouldn’t look at the thing. That’s what it wanted, but it wasn’t going to get it.
Louder, louder, shrieking about her now with the force of a gale, the walls were inches from her face, she flung up her hands to her ears to block the shrieking like dentists’ drills, like burning witches, like fighting drunks, like everything that had ever tortured and terrified Marie in her life.
When the screws came running through the door and barrelled into her, she thought that they had heard it too until she realised that her mouth, desert dry, was gaping wide in a scream of her own. Kelly was wedged into the corner of her bed, and she was screaming too. Gibson, everybody’s least favourite guard, had Marie’s right arm twisted up behind her back and was trying to sit on her.
“Oh, you crazy bitch,” Gibson muttered, close to her ear, “winding everyone up and making my night a misery, I’ll see to it that you get extra time for this-”
With no warning, Marie twisted like an eel, ears burning with hatred, and clocked Gibson left-handed, right in her piggy eye. Then something hit her over the head from behind, and she knew no more.
When she awoke, it took her quite some time to realise where she was. When she did realise, she passed right out again.
The segregation cells at HMP Ormerod Farms numbered only three, and were rarely used. White-walled, ten by eight feet, with a stainless steel toilet, sink and recessed, stainless-steel shower in the corner, they were lit by a 40-watt bulb day and night, and other than the lavatory facilities, contained only a shelf and a bed with blue blankets.
Marie was grateful for the blue blanket. It was old and fuzzy, rumpled and humped. She kept her eyes fixed on it – blue hills in the sunshine, that’s what she could see. She blinked rapidly, in little bursts, couldn’t seem to stop. Everyone said that they only ever put you in here for a day. Two at most. To cool you off. This was not forever.
No window of course, she didn’t need it, she had blue sunshiny hills right here! She sat very still, trying to work out what had made her do something so mad as to lamp a guard, especially a vicious one like Gibson. She didn’t know, couldn’t remember, it was hard to think. It was impossible to think.
The ticking was annoying, but she could live with that. It was just a loud clock. There was no need to panic, they might add a week or two to her sentence for what she’d done but she could get through that, a day at a time. God, that ticking was driving her mad! How loud was that bloody clock anyway?
She looked up. The walls were white, scuffed, stained. The ceiling was low and covered with spiderweb cracks. There was no clock.
Of course there wasn’t a clock. This was solitary. So where was the ticking coming from?
There was nothing in here but her, Marie Stokes, loser at life. Nothing and nobody.
The form sat on the bed, nodding in agreement. Nothing and nobody. Its leg swung back and forth under the bed, and slowly Marie realised, that it was the ticking, it was the clock in here.
“Stop it,” she said, addressing her spectral companion for the first time, “stop that, it’s driving me mad.”
Its eyeless face nodded, but the leg still swung and the ticking went on. Marie stared. There was only one way to get it to stop, and that was to grab it. She couldn’t do that. She couldn’t touch it.
The form mewled. It disagreed. It leaned towards her, and Marie smelled that smell again, ice-cold deserts and dust and dry, dead lands. It reached out, rudimentary limbs boasting nothing so well-formed as hands, reached out for her. It wanted to be touched. Marie set her teeth. Never would she touch that bloody thing. She’d do her day and she’d fucking ignore it.
The ticking was slowing, the outreached limbs of the lonely phantom were faltering, its head dropped to its chest in what she recognised as failure and despair, and then it stopped moving and the ticking stopped.
With it, stopped time.
Marie felt it happen. Felt the march of the seconds slow and halt. Her heartbeat slowed with it, slowed to a distant boom somewhere out over a grey marsh that she had once seen in her childhood.
An eternity slipped by, trickling like mud over the ashen years.
In the eternity she lived it all over again, all the neglect, all the humiliation, all the daily wounds and bites and self-inflicted pains and regrets. There went her life, past her eyes. She fell fathoms deep and watched it from below, from a cold pit underground she watched herself squander and waste each precious drip-drop of time she had, and in that pit she lived for an eternity. Watching herself put her trust in Kamal’s cheap charm, the easiest of all his conquests, plumpest, dumbest. Letting him talk her into going much farther than she’d ever gone with a scam, go much too far, all so he could buy designer shoes and watches, and letting him run away crying when the cops caught up.
Oh, if she could live it all again, she’d never make mistakes like that! She’d squeeze the sweet out of herself before it could destroy her, she’d destroy them all first!
She lived it all again, and it was all just the same. She failed to destroy anyone or anything. She lived it again, with that fake, Pollyanna smile on her lips to hide everything inside. Watching her life from thin, freezing, uncertain air, watching from above, she sighed and gave up. Gave up and floated away, a spore of a soul in a cloud, and the cold currents of air sighed around her as she tumbled, aimless and fleshless, through nothing, until she fell back into her body with a hideous, bone-shaking, heart-attack kind of thud.
The thud was the metal door of the solitary cell, closing. There was a blue blanket. She had blue, sunshiny hills! It was all good, she could get through this, she knew that they hardly ever left anyone here for more than a day. Two, at most.
She looked around. Wait. She’d had that thought, before.
She looked around. Wait. Blue, sunshiny hills, two at most.
She looked around.
“Wait!” she cried, her voice cracked and older than the blue hills, but it was too late. The lonely shadow turned its petulant head from her, because she had rejected its repulsive, mewling advance, and it flipped her time back again and again and again and again.
She lived. She died. Blue sunshiny hills in the distance, Kamal found her so easy, he never stopped smiling when he was with her, not because he loved her, but because he couldn’t believe the way the fat fish in the barrel swam up, naked, to be shot, over and over and over. The minute spore in the freezing cloud lost its way and wept, forever. And then did it all over again.
She lived. She died. The door went thud! Her heart went thud! She reached for the blue sunshine of the hills with hands that were ancient, haggard, liver-spotted, tear-drenched. Her hands found only fuzzy cloth. There was not another human soul to be found. There was only her, swimming through eternity, and the thing that watched without eyes, and punished without heat or spite.
Day after day became week after week, months and years and hundreds of years. She did her time, and she did her time, and the solitary shadow turned its head and reached for her, turned its head and reached for her, turned its head and reached, mewling with need, cold from rejection.
Fuzzy blue hills basked in the sunshine, under endless 40-watt skies. She fell forever, and then
There was a terrible, jolting crank, and a dark space opened in the wall of the world. A person looked in. A real person.
Marie looked up. Black eyes sunken in a dead-white face awash with tears.
“Had enough time to cool down, Stokes?” asked Marsden. She put a metal tray with food on it onto the shelf, exchanged a glance with somebody who Marie couldn’t see. Marie tried to prise her mouth open and speak –
“Maybe we’ll give you another day to think it over.”
The door slammed shut. The white space in time was again whole and complete.
The door slammed shut. She wailed.
Over the day over the day over the countless repeating days, the door slammed shut and the door slammed shut and Marie dissolved and burned and disintegrated until at last she reached out with the ghost of her ancient hand over miles of blue hills, and took the shadow’s solitary limb, folding her old cold fingers around it. The shadow folded its dusty ice made flesh around Marie’s hand in return, and the cell solidified around them once again, a tiny white space in time.
They sat together, heads bowed, Marie sobbing long and low. Her head throbbed, her hand burned. The loneliness was older than history.
She didn’t know what time it was.
Sinéad McCabe asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
I absolutely loved this story! Some of the details reminded me of M. R. James’ style. This
is the best story I’ve read in months and it’s gonna hang around in the dark corners of my
mind for quite awhile.