It was the quiet that got to me—the silent animosity of the watchtowers; the glaring looks and gloved hands pawing my things, my body. Who was Republican and who was Loyalist? Who would kill me given half a chance?
What the hell was I doing?
I’d never been to a prison before, not even Alcatraz as a tourist, but I was no tourist here. The guard door crunched closed behind me. I walked down the aisle, heart pitter-patter, ticket with our booth number sweaty in my hand.
He was better looking than his pictures. Not the leather-jacketed, long-haired, British bike-riding type I was usually drawn to, but he had that particular Irish charm. I sat across from him on a hard, wooden bench. Similar booths ran on either side of the long room with a low wall in between. If you looked, you could see into most of them. But you didn’t look. Ever. Each booth was its own private world.
Eyes soft, he reached across the graffiti-corroded table, our immediate, but not only, obstacle. I took his hand and everything faded but us.
“Can I sit next to you?” His voice, a softness in the din.
It will be hard—his writing tight on thin paper—the hardest thing you’ve ever done. And there’s no guarantee I will ever get out.
Hard? I knew hard. Hard was cowering under threadbare blankets listening for the sharp creak outside my door in the dead of night; the soft whisper of cotton as rough hands lifted my nightdress; the heavy sigh against my neck. There being no escape. Hard was my lost childhood. My lost child.
I took in my four bare walls, the TV dinner on the Formica table. Looked out the air shaft of my San Francisco apartment. Saw my neighbours’ lights and shadows. Heard discordant music, clanging dishes, arguments. Thought of my job on the 35th floor with its panoramic bay views and tinnitus of white noise and office politics. Read his letter again. Was there more? Could there be more? The fog horns bellowed as fog billowed down the avenues calling the sleeping to dream.
I knew hard but I also knew hope. I picked up my pen.
We love each other, that’s all that matters. It’s all that ever matters.
Until it doesn’t.
“We don’t call it that.” She was squashed next to me in the minivan which transported us from prison visitor centre to the blocks, kid on lap, knee, they call it knee here, not lap, kicking his toddler shoe into my leg. I resisted the urge to swat it away. She smelled of cigarettes, fags, they call them fags, Christ, I’d never get away with that back in San Francisco, and breath mints. Young and pretty, her eyes would never be soft again, not even when kissing the top of her bratty kid’s head.
“Excuse me?” Don’t say excuse me, it’s “sorry.”
“WE don’t call it that,” she emphasized the ‘we’ this time, just in case I didn’t get it, which I didn’t. “It’s called the Kesh or H-Blocks, NEVER the Maze. That’s what THEY call it.” Her head jerked towards the front of the van and she sniffed like smelling a dirty diaper nappy, for fuck’s sake.
Had I heard her properly? Her Belfast accent was as thick as the prison walls but there were only so many times you could ask someone to repeat themselves before they told you to coponyourselfalready. The other women stared—Stupid fucking Yank.
“Oh and get yourself a different coat.”
“What’s wrong with my coat?” I asked as he sat next to me.
“Dunno,” He kissed me quiet but I needed to know. He couldn’t put a finger on it at first. “It’s the same as the screws’,” he said finally. He must have seen the puzzlement in my eyes for he added, “The prison guards. That’s what we call them. Probably best not to wear it on visits.”
Visits. Two a week. Two hours if you went in the morning. Ninety minutes in the afternoon. Visits. Sounded like a cup of coffee or a pint of beer. Not a lifted skirt and a quick fumble bent over a dirty table, pausing when the screws decided to take a stroll with a smirk in their eyes and a twist to their lips.
This was my new life. I didn’t know much then, at the beginning, but I knew some, and was learning fast. Like Tariff. To Americans it meant a tax, to him it meant thirty-five years. To me? Hell.
“You signed up for it.”
I knew I’d get no sympathy from my mother who wouldn’t even come to the wedding. “I’m not going to any prison wedding,” she said, “what’s that noise?”
“Just a helicopter.”
“It’s very loud.”
“It’s right over the phone box.”
“Don’t you have a phone in the apartment?
“The last person in the flat didn’t pay the bill so the phone company won’t put a line in. Jesus, would you look at that.”
“What? What’s happening? Can you hear me? Sarah? What’s going on?”
“It’s nothing, just a bus on fire. There’s a big crowd, half a block away, protesting something. Marches. Orange Men or something.
“Just a bus on fire? Orange men? What?”
“It’s a political society I think, I’m not sure. I’m still figuring it all out myself. They look like those idiotic Shriners, except with orange sashes instead of red hats. They hate Catholics and want to march down their streets to put them in their place. Catholics don’t like it, hence protests and bus burnings.”
“What? Catholic streets? Marches? Why are you standing next to a burning bus? What if there’s a bomb? I hear there’s bombs all over the place there. Have you lost your mind?”
For once, she was probably right but morbid fascination froze me to the spot. Helicopter thumping overhead, crowds shouting at the flaming bus—it was like a controlled burn to prevent a forest fire with no way to predict which way the wind would turn. And to add fuel to the flame – the police, RUC, peelers, take your pick, clumped like bonfire tires around their armoured Saracens, fingering their machine guns and looking nervous.
“Jesus, I think it’s going to blow up.”
It wasn’t like the movies at all, more like a giant fart pushing a fetid, oily stench towards me.
“Yeah, I better go.” I dropped the phone.
“Sarah? Sarah? Sara…”
“Jaysus, you can’t be standing on the bloody street corner taking his calls every night. You come over to mine. I’m just down the road. He can ring you there.” Her name was Mary, her kid still kicked me but I didn’t mind as much.
“It’s every night, though. I couldn’t ask you to do that.”
“Ah for fuck’s sake, don’t you be worrying about anything like that. We women have to stick together.”
No one approved but my American friends, they all came to the wedding. They’d never been in a prison either, let alone a wedding in one. At the party after, upstairs at the Felon’s, I danced my wedding dance alone. Until his Uncle—old man, bent with butchered hair and gummy grin—took me in his arms and spun me round and round, speeding past painted smiles like horses on a carousel.
Gave up a great job to move to a foreign country and marry a stranger.
Stupid fucking Yank, coming here, stealing our men with notions of some grand romance.
Who marries a prisoner? Someone desperate and insane.
I drank to drown them out, even though the voices were all my own.
It was the best wedding, the best party, my friends all agreed. Don’t go, please don’t go, I wanted to say but they did. They had to. Reality beckoned for all of us.
Netting twitched as I walked the dirty streets of Lenadoon. They watched. Much as the watchtowers on Stewartstown Road, always watching. There were no trees, only joy-rider rubber, burning skips and tossed chippie cartons. I went to the Spar across from the black taxi rank. Took my time. Listened. Tried to understand. Fit in. But they stopped speaking when I entered. Watched.
In the kitchen, a greasy, plastic clock tick-tocked the days, weeks, months. I bought a car, TV, books. Anything that could help me escape without leaving. I thought of my bank statement – all debits and no deposits. I needed a job but wasn’t allowed to work.
Something will happen. There will be peace. He’ll get out. Hold on.
I never called anyone. I told you so — they’d think but never say. Besides my nightly visits to Mary’s flat to take my husband’s calls, I was alone.
Close your eyes. Don’t think about it. No one is watching. Close your eyes. Imagine. Dream…
“They let you have a holiday from prison?” Like the shifting political situation in Northern Ireland, everything changed in a dramatic leap.
“Yes, we negotiated a right to home leave.”
“So you’re coming home? Home? Really? Home?”
“Really! But only seven days. They don’t have to be taken all at once though. They can be spread out over time.”
The week before his first home leave, there was a knock on the door. Republican heartland of Lenadoon or not, anyone at the door made me nervous. It was a ground-floor flat with too many windows and a door that a steel-toe boot could kick in.
Through the peephole, two big men with what looked like a door made of red metal bars. “We’re here to put in the gate. For your safety,” they said.
“You’ll need to start checking the car.” The guy with the drill said when they were done.
They showed me where devices could be placed – under the wheel wells and bonnet. “Call down to Mike over on Suffolk if there’s anything suspicious.”
I stared at my red Ford Fiesta, now a potential death trap. It’ll be okay. He’s coming home. There will be peace and he will get out for good. I won’t be alone to navigate the dangerous maze of my new life. I thanked the men, walked back into the flat and closed my own cell door.
An empty, late winter’s beach. I’d grown up on the Atlantic coast of America, a childhood full of dreams, imagining what lay on the other side of the vast ocean. What adventures I’d planned. And now, here I was.
“I hear them sometimes,” his head was on my belly as we lay in the sand watching seagulls squabble over a crab carcass.
“Seagulls? Lisburn is a bit far inland for seagulls, isn’t it?”
“Tis. Maybe it’s just the wind.” He closed his eyes, luxuriating in the sea mist blown to shore with the tide. “Or a memory.”
The ocean was possibility stretched before him, perhaps never to be further explored, only imagined from the confines of his memories. Neither of us spoke. I picked up a piece of sea-washed glass. Where had its journey begun and how did it end here, on this desolate Donegal beach? I threw it as far as I could, back into the water where it sank without so much as a sound.
ThumpaThumpaThumpaThumpaThumpaThumpaSCREEEEEEECHThumpaThumpaThumpaThumpaThumpaSQUEEEEEEEEL… Each night, a symphony of helicopters and joy riders. Through my window, council skips burned while teen-packs smashed bottles and laughed. On the 12th, the world lit up, orange aflame, burning buses, gas tanks exploding pop-pop. Watchtower cameras zoomed as the peelers in their Saracens tore down the road, armoured hides like rampaging rhinos.
“Things are coming to a head. There are those who don’t want peace. Who will fight till the bitter end. Hold on. Things will get worse before they get better. I love you.”
I put down the phone. The bill had been sorted and I no longer had to go to Mary’s each night. I twitched the curtains; watched the city burn.
The GP handed me a leaflet. “Here’s a list of foods to avoid. Oh, and a script for folic acid. You need to be taking that every day. The Jubilee will send you an appointment to see the consultant at eight weeks, then another at twenty….”
He kept talking but my attention had already flown—across borders, time zones and five years. Back to the specialist clinic at UCSF. The bitter, white walls and lab coats. The four scans by three different experts. My first husband’s warm fingers on my cold arm…
“I’m sorry, Sarah but your choices are limited. You can carry the baby to term but it will die at birth. Or, you can terminate the pregnancy now.”
The pregnancy? A second ago, it was my baby.
“You must decide soon. You can’t go much longer if you choose to terminate.”
My baby boy. Too small to punch but big enough to wave, I felt the flutters in my belly, but not against my hand. My clammy hand. I shouldn’t have sat in the sauna so long. Not had that glass of wine. That last cigarette. That abortion when I was eighteen. I’d killed my first baby and God was now taking his due. I stared at the walls; blinked under the bright lights. The judgement. Choked on snot and denial.
This time would be different.
I took the pack of Bounty coupons and advice booklet from the GP. Went home and read about all the things that could hurt my baby: soft cheese; peanuts; liver and Vitamin A; raw fish and shellfish; raw or undercooked, unpasteurized eggs or milk; cat litter—germs.
I opened my cupboards. The fridge. Started throwing things out. The greasy, white clock tick-tocked. I took it down and washed it.
That night, I dreamt of the hospital gurney clang, clanging down the corridor. Sheets, military tight. The disgust in the nurse’s eyes. Don’t look at me that way. Why are you looking at me that way? “I don’t want my baby to die.” The drugs doing their business—pulsing lights above, stars in the ceiling panels. There’s no heaven for murdered babies. I sobbed, clutched at the nurse. She shrugged me away. “Please, oh god. Please. My baby.”
Three A.M. I woke, sheets like memory tentacles round me. Screaming.
The smell hit me —like the stench of black blood that dribbled from me for weeks after. My baby’s blood. My dead baby. It was the mould which crept from the single-glazed windows like mutant spider legs. The back of peeling wallpaper black with the stuff. I ripped it down; scraped stubborn strips with a maxed-out credit card. Bleach straight, I scrubbed the walls white. Scrubbed the flat until my skin wept.
At eight weeks, the nurse couldn’t find my baby’s heartbeat. She fiddled here and there with the stethoscope. Frowned. My baby’s not dead. Not dead. My baby’s not dead. Then, there it was. Thump, Thump. Thump, Thump. Like a rabbit.
“Your weight’s a bit low, Sarah,” she said. That’s what they told me with the baby that died. It was the first sign. “No, everything’s fine,” she assured me. “Just eat more.”
Eat what? What could I eat? Anything fresh was dangerous. What if I didn’t wash it properly? Water can’t kill microbes, anyway. Who handled all the food before I bought it? Did they wash their hands? What if they had Hepatitis? Hepatitis could live for days on food. Or HIV? What if some assembly-line, factory worker cut themselves and bled on the food? I could get HIV. My baby could get HIV.
I bought tinned food and frozen meals and cooked them until charred. And tea. I drank a lot of milky tea. Going to Spar for milk was torture. I’d stand in front of the cooler, hands twitching. Everyone will have touched the one in front with their dirty hands. The one behind had a crease. Put it down, bacteria can get in a crack. The next two were splashed with mud from sitting on a pallet in the rain. Dirty. Dirty. People came in, reached around me, shot odd looks as I began to shake. Pick one, Sarah. Pick one. I lifted one in the back. That’s where they put the out of date ones.
“Are you okay?” A touch on the arm from one of the store clerks. Don’t touch me! You’ve been handling money, the dirtiest thing in the world, full of germs. Disease. Oh my god, I’ll have to wash these clothes now, they’re crawling. But how will I take them off? I don’t want to touch them.
“Yes. Thanks.” I said and fled, empty-handed.
I sat in the consultant’s office. He had grey hair and a white coat. I’ve been here before.
A quick flip through some papers, “Sarah, your triple blood test came back and the results show your baby has an increased risk of Down’s syndrome.”
“Down’s Syndrome?” He means a retarded baby, you idiot. No. Don’t call them that. Why? That’s what we called them when we were kids. Remember Ricky the Retard who lived on the corner? That was mean, I never called him that. But…but, I don’t want a retarded baby.
I was offered an amnio to find out for sure but when I opened my mouth to accept, a cold trickle went down my spine. No. Don’t do it. It will go wrong. Horribly wrong—white walls, bright lights.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” I asked.
He checked the notes. “The ultrasound shows it’s a boy.”
My boy. My lost boy. I decided to wait and hope.
But that’s not what happened.
Visits were torment. The dirt. The stains. I wouldn’t let him touch me though he tried.
“I love you,” he said, thumbs twiddling. “It will all be okay. Everything will be fine.”
There were knocks on the door. Through the peephole, Mary. Could she sense me watching? When I didn’t answer, she slipped a note under the door—let me know if you need anything.
I needed food but could no longer buy it.
“Could I have a different note, please?” I asked the cashier.
She looked at the filthy fiver in her hand. At me like the lunatic I was, but gave me a different one. It was dirty too. They’re all dirty. My hand shook. They’re watching. Take it. Go. Get home. Wash hands. Wash tins, tin opener, the already washed pot, hands again. Open tins, put in the pot. Boil. Wash bowl. Wash tea cup. Wash hands. Open box of tea bags—dirty, dirty. Wash hands. Take out a tea bag. Wash hands. Pick up kettle—dirty, dirty. Wash hands. Pour water in cup. Wash hands. Open fridge. Wash hands. Pour milk in cup. Wash hands.
I sat in the dark by the light of the television, crying into my tea. I won’t let anything hurt you, son. I promise.
The waves came on suddenly at four in the morning. At the hospital, I laboured alone. The midwives checked on me regularly. The obstetrician less so. Eyes intent in lamp glare, his mask did a bad job of hiding a frown. After a few hours of stalled labour, he spoke of forceps.
“No,” I said. You’ll break his neck. Kill him. Paralyze him.
The midwife snapped on a pair of gloves. “Push then, Sarah. Push or you’ll have no choice.” She examined the foetal monitor and shook her head.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” I shouted. White walls closed in, lights so bright I thought God had opened the gates for my son. You won’t take him. Hell no, you won’t take him.
I pushed as hard as I could. A giant whoosh and my son was out. A flurry of activity. Two more midwives rushed in.
“What is it? What is it?” No answer. They rushed my son to a table and bent over him. Then miracle of all miracles, a cry.
“Is he okay?” I looked down at him all wrapped and clean in my arms. Searched for signs of injury, for retardation.
“He’s fine. Absolutely perfect.”
Baptismal tears rained upon his head. I did it. I saved you.
We were wheeled to the ward. A nurse brought tea and toast. I ate it without washing my hands. It was the best meal I ever had in my life.
I was free.
I was still alone when the paediatrician did her rounds. She measured my son’s length, weight, and head circumference. “Umm.” She frowned.
“Sarah, I’d like to do some additional tests on your son.”
I couldn’t speak. Couldn’t move.
“His head is a little big. It could be nothing at all but it could also be a sign of hydrocephalus, water on the brain.”
I stared at the tape measure in her hand. Was it sterile? Did she use it on other babies? Babies with germs? Why wasn’t she wearing gloves to handle my son? Why did she touch her mouth before stroking his head?
I reached out to my son. Pulled back.
Wash your hands.
“Sarah, Sarah. I can’t talk long; the lads are all queued up. Sarah, there’s been a peace agreement. We’re getting out. I’m coming home. I love you. I’m coming home.”
I hung up. Trembled. Cries from the cot. Face twisted, my son’s tiny fists punched at the stars and moon dangling from a wind-up mobile- Twinkle, twinkle, little star. How I wonder what you are…”
I reached for him with raw hands, pinpricks of blood drip, dropping tiny red bombs onto bleach-white sheets. He smelled of baby – that clean perfume not even a shitty nappy could taint. He grabbed my breast, tears cascading down fat, gurgling cheeks as he latched on.
“Peace, my darling.”
Barbara Byar started off in Connecticut; moved around a bit but now lives in Kerry, Ireland with her two boys and her two dogs.
A recipient of a 2021 Literature Bursary from the Irish Arts Council, she was long-listed for An Post Irish Short Story of the Year 2020. A previous Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair winner, her critically acclaimed, debut flash fiction collection: Some Days Are Better Than Ours (Reflex Press) was short-listed for the 2020 Saboteur Awards. 2020 also saw Pushcart and Best Small Fictions nominations. Barbara’s short fiction has been widely published and listed, most recently, a 2022 3rd prize at the Bray Literary Festival and a 2022 Best Microfictions nomination from Reckon Review.
She’s been a Judge, Editor and Reader for various Literary Zines and competitions. In 2015, she founded a local writing group Thursday Night Writers which is still going strong. She’s had five residencies at Cill Rialaig Artist Retreat and was selected as a participant in the inaugural XBorders project run by the Irish Writers Centre. She is currently working on a novel.
© Variant Literature Inc 2023