by Nichola Johnson
After it happened, there was a stillness in the air, like death had reached from the depths of that room and cast its shadow. Nobody spoke for half an hour. Not out of respect, but because nobody had anything to say. They came into his cell as night crept in to gather up the little things he possessed. A photograph, a newspaper, a pack of cards, cigarettes, tattered clothing. They stripped the bed and replaced the sheets, fanning out the material like a shroud. A piece of paper had escaped all this. In the hustle of the moment, in the bustle of the night, a slip of paper eluded them as they removed the man’s shoes from under his bed. As they lay down the bed sheet, the paper lifted up and blew across to the cell opposite. No-one noticed its presence.
For what seemed like an age that scrap of paper lay on the dusty floor of an empty cell. When a man moved there, he picked up the scrap, grateful for something to do. It was a folded letter; to who, he could not make out; the sender unknown. Yet the man knew, from the way the words played out, that it was a letter filled with regret and apologetic promises. But the man couldn’t read, had never bothered to learn, and while he could make out the faded love note, he could not tell what it said. He asked one of the guards to read it to him, and they took it from his shaking hands, with pity in their eyes. He lay back on his bunk and closed his eyes, listening to the lull of the guard’s voice.
‘There is a man sitting on the floor in the corner of a roomsurrounded by pages torn from a notebook. This man is me.The torn pages are my weak attempts to say goodbye to you.I don’t know how I can begin. First, let me tell you that I know that I loved you. It was once and a long time ago. I rememberyou told me that love was meant for fools. But I think I would prefer to be foolish. Perhaps if I was a foolish man, I wouldn’t have done the things I am in here for. I gave myself up for love,so that you could realize what you had lost. But I have found that I am the one who is lost and I can’t seem to find my way back. I don’t recognise who I used to be, only what I have become.My life has been reduced to these dark days, to the walls thatsurround me; the little things I own worn and beaten, as thoughI no longer have use for them. I will just exist here, until the end; until my body becomes ashes and they scatter in the wind. If Icould still remember what it was like to hold you close to me, to feel your heart beating against my own, I would miss it terribly. Now as I sit here, the only thing I miss is freedom. Freedom fromregret. Regret for the things I didn’t say. I’ve been here so long now,I can’t bring myself to remember those things. I can only sit and wait as the regrets taunt me, as it fills me up and weighs me down.Waiting for death in here is not like I thought it would be. I haven’tbeen given the chance to take my last days and turn them into somethingworth remembering. I know they will send my things back to you, which is the only way I know that you will read this.There is a man in the cell opposite who is going to die tomorrow.Looking at him now, I can tell his soul died long before he ever realised his fate. I do not want to become that. I still need the lightto shine in my eyes before it goes out.
Dying will not hurt as much as it does waiting for it alone but I
hope this letter finds you, like death has found me – easily and without question.’
The guard does not comment but folds the note and hands it back to the man. He sits up on the edge of his bunk and looks out to the empty cell opposite. He does not know if the occupant of that cell wrote this, or if he, like himself, found it by chance on a dusty cell floor. The letter could have been years old, passing from prisoner to prisoner, to those who have yet to lose hope. Hope; a notion that he will too soon forget, like a lost soul that blows away with freedom in the wind.
Nichola Johnson completed a degree in English and Creative Writing at the University of Salford and currently writes short stories and scripts for both theatre and TV formats.