Authors: Julie Parsons
for always and ever
HE REMEMBERED THE
way it was the first time she ever saw the prison. It was through the mesh that covered the windows of the van in which they brought
her from the Four Courts that day all those years ago. It was winter. It was late afternoon, early evening. Rush hour in Dublin. It was dark. Or it should have been dark. Instead it was very bright
everywhere. Shining white lights flooding the tarmacadam when the van stopped at the gate, so she could see out, and see the high cross and the gravestones set into the scraggy grass.
she asked the prison officer.
The tall well-built woman shrugged and said,
Kevin Barry. Monument to him.
She tried to think.
You know, Kevin Barry, the hero of the War of Independence. He was hanged here and a load of others too. Against that wall.
She tried to stand up to get a better look, but the officer tugged at the chain that joined them at the wrist.
Where do you think you’re going, eh? Sit down and mind yourself.
A snigger ran around the van. She looked at them all, the other women who’d made the short trip from the court to the prison. She had tried to sit away from them, to keep a distance
between their tracksuits and trainers and her best black skirt and jacket, to keep the smoke from the cigarettes that drooped from their mouths and tattooed fingers away from her nostrils and eyes.
But there was no distance in the van, no means to separate her and her shame from them.
And then the van began to move again, through the high metal gates, past the tall stone building that looked like a church, the cluster of portakabins at its side, and towards the metal cage
that surrounded the entrance. It was interesting, she thought, remembering back, how quickly she had become used to the metal. It was everywhere. Steel, she supposed. A malleable alloy of iron and
carbon was the way her architectural textbooks had described it, capable of being tempered to many different degrees of hardness. Incapable of rust. Beautiful too when used with glass the way her
heroes, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, had employed it. To create palaces of light and space. Ugly now in this place of containment, where it couldn’t be pulled apart and used as a
weapon of defence or attack. Interesting too how she had adapted to all the hard surfaces. The tiled floors, the bars on the windows, the upright chairs, the wooden doors, three inches thick,
decorated with locks and spyholes. Even the pad, as the padded cell was known, wasn’t soft. Walls, floors covered with hard rubber. Nothing she could use to damage herself, or anyone else,
that first night. After they had taken away her clothes and handed out her prison issue – a clean bra and pants, as if she needed them. A tracksuit, as if she ever wore one. A nightgown and a
dressing gown, as if she didn’t have her own, at home, lying across the bed, her own bed, that she had hoped she’d sleep in that night.
That she had hoped she’d sleep in that night. That she had been sure she’d come home to. That at the end of the trial the jury would believe her. That she hadn’t done what the
prosecution said. That she didn’t take the 12-gauge shotgun and shoot him, first of all in the right thigh, severing the femoral artery so his blood pumped out on the floor. Then as he
screamed and weakened and fell back that she didn’t shoot him again, this time in the groin, tearing his genitals apart, so there was a lot more blood, spattering her clothes with small
tear-shaped drops. And some of the jury, two, to be precise, believed her and not them. One of the women, older, pale-faced, wept as the foreman stood and delivered his verdict.
How do you find the defendant Rachel Kathleen Beckett? Guilty or not guilty of the murder of Martin Anthony Beckett?
Guilty, your honour, by a majority of ten to two.
And the sentence?
The judge with the ruddy face and flabby jowls leaned forward across the bench.
I have no choice in this case, when the verdict is guilty of murder, there is a mandatory sentence of life. And this I shall impose on you, Rachel Kathleen Beckett.
Life or death? Which began and which ended on that cold November afternoon twelve years ago? She still could not decide.
Form P30. That was what it was called, the stiff piece of cardboard which was slotted into the outside of her cell door. Everyone had one. It stated registered number, name and
religion. It stated when committed and for what sentence. And it gave the particulars of discharge, sentence expiration and earliest possible date of release, with a box beside for the day, the
month and the year. The other women, those who weren’t lifers, had numbers written in the boxes. But she didn’t. Hers were blank. She stood and looked at the piece of cardboard, put up
her hand to touch it, then pulled it from its slot and tore it into tiny pieces, shoving them into the pocket of her jeans. Behind her she heard the laughs, the taunts, the insults, and heard the
shout of the officer she remembered from the van.
What do you think you’re doing? Who do you think you are?
As she grabbed her by the arm, pulled her into the office, dragged the pieces of cardboard from her pocket and said,
Here, you, Miss high and mighty. Think you’re better than everyone else, do you? Think you can do what you like with prison property. Well, now, have another think while you put it all
back together again.
Handed her the roll of Sellotape, made her stay there in the stuffy little office, until the jigsaw was complete, then forced her back out on to the landing. The women lined up on either side,
jeering and shouting as she walked up the first flight of stairs to her cell. She took the piece of cardboard and put it back where it had been. And looked down and away as the officer, Macken,
that was her name, said loudly so that everyone else could hear,
You’d better start using your brains and using your education, Beckett, and finding out how best to please us. You’d
better be bloody eager to please me, or else, Beckett, your life sentence is going to last a lot longer than anyone else’s. Do you hear me now? Do I make myself plain?
Pushed her into the cell, followed her and said,
It’s a funny thing about time, isn’t it? Right now it’s standing still for you. The hands of the clock aren’t moving
at all. And they won’t until you get your attitude straight. Do you hear me now? Do you read me loud and clear?
She was right about that, Macken the bitch, as she was right about most things. It was such a long time, her first night and first day. Her first week, month, year. So long
till Christmas, Easter, New Year. So long that she hardly noticed her daughter, Amy’s birthday. And the anniversary of Martin’s death. When all she wanted to do was stay in her cell,
turn her face to the wall and weep. Because she missed him, because she had loved him. Because she had lost him and everything else.
She didn’t remember much of any of that year, or the one after that or the one after that. Time passing had no meaning for her now. No meaning at all. The only thing that meant anything
was the mood, the atmosphere, the feelings around her. Sometimes they were good. Most times they were bad. What was it all about, she wondered, these waves of tension that washed up and down the
landings, dragging the women with them. She watched how they would congregate outside one cell or another, how huddles would take shape in the far corner of the exercise yard, in the laundry in the
basement, or in the showers. They would turn to her when she approached, sometimes laughing, joking, their faces animated with an inner glee which frightened her with its excess. At other times
they would turn on her, far too ready with their fists and feet. And their needles. Although they were much too careful of their precious spikes to waste them on an outsider like her. An outsider?
Hardly. Not when she slept every night behind a locked door. When she woke every morning to the sound of a key. When her prison sentence drifted out in front of her like a piece of seaweed in
mid-ocean as she lay in her bed in the dark and conjured up the sea beneath her. Felt the lift and surge of an Atlantic swell. Heard the rush of water beneath the keel, the breath of the wind on
her face, the sudden lurch in her stomach as the boat heeled over, and she felt as if she would fall, tumble head first down through white water, green water, and into the blackness of the deep
from which there was no way up. No way out. Not now. Not for her.
The Outside. What could it possibly be like, now, after all these years inside? She remembered how in the beginning she would try to stand as close as she could to the prison
officers, so she could smell the freshness they brought with them every day. She tried to ask them what it was like outside, beyond the enclosing stone walls which leached out even the brightest
colour. Was it raining, was it sunny, from which direction came the wind? She wanted to know in early summer if the dew was thick on the grass in the mornings, and in midwinter if they had to
scrape the ice from their windscreens. In the beginning they shrugged off her questions, suspicious of her motives. But most of them softened, gradually, came to see that all she wanted was the raw
material with which to imagine.
Most of them softened, and some even came to like her. She was different. She wasn’t the same as the other women. They were in and out of here every few months, prison a respite from the
demands of the street, a chance to rest and sleep and eat, maybe even go to school for a few months, catch up on a bit of the childhood that so many of them had missed.
They talked about her, some of the prison officers, and speculated why she had done what she did. But that kind of interest wasn’t encouraged. The tall well-built woman who had brought her
to the prison, Macken, Macken from the van as she called her, put it into words for the others.
You’re kidding yourself if you think any of them are like us. They’re not. They’re different. They think differently, they act differently. None of us will ever end up here.
Don’t start getting into a ‘there but for the grace of God’ kind of mentality. And as far as Rachel Beckett goes, forget it. She killed her husband. She murdered her husband. She
stood over him when he was drunk. She loaded his gun. She took off the safety catch. She aimed at him and she pulled the trigger. Twice. Stay away from her, I’m telling you all. And
, Macken said,
will she admit it? Will she take responsibility for it? For what she did. She’ll no more do that than saw her way with a nail file through the bars out
And they turned from their cups of tea and watched her as she slouched with the others against the wall of the landing, her expression as blank and withdrawn as any one of the rest.
The exercise yard on a dull, blowy afternoon. The women, twenty, thirty of them, standing around, smoking, bored, idle. Gossiping, moaning, complaining. And Rachel, by herself,
in the corner, reading. Then a voice began to sing a favourite song, a song of defiance. And soon another had joined her, and another and another, until there was a circle of women, arms linked,
all singing. Throwing their voices out and up towards the windows of the men’s prison next door.