October 10, 2012
The Warden looked out through the bay window at the wide expanse of woodland park that surrounded Craigie Open Prison. Most of the inmates were in the common room at this time of day and the park was virtually deserted. One or two lonely figures could be seen outside, but it was darkening too quickly to be able to identify them.
“Dr Severin is concerned about Cramer. He’s convinced that the risk of suicide has increased dramatically,” the Warden said. “McCreadie, in the next cell, has complained of being disturbed by rambling one-sided conversations during the night. I’ve also noticed a change in Cramer myself. I don’t want to take any chances. A suicide at this time of year could have an adverse affect on the behaviour of the other inmates.”
“We certainly don’t need that at any time of year,” said the supervisor of uniformed guards turning from the fireplace.
The Warden frowned agreement, returned to the desk, sank wearily into the chair and grunted, “Just increase the surveillance, Murchison, and maybe we will both have a quiet holiday.”
Ben Cramer stared pensively at his bloodless hands before raising his gaze to the solitary leaf clinging to the extended finger of the oak branch. It appeared as a small forlorn silhouette against the leaden grey of the sky which, dependent on whether one was optimistic or pessimistic, promised or threatened snow. The minuscule remnant of foliage had survived the ever shortening days of autumn and Ben was about to wager that it would see out the ravages of winter when, for no apparent reason, the leaf suddenly trembled, loosened its hold and spiralled down onto the surface of the darkened green of the lake. Ben sighed.
“Life abandons everything, sooner or later,” he mused. He wondered if the tiny leaf had felt fear and had screamed before it died. Had it possibly died much earlier, remaining on the tree as a fossilized embryo, or did it die when it touched the dank ice-cold water? He knew that death did not always bring fear, or even pain, and that a being could pass over without any great discomfort. The murder four years ago had taught him that much. Two quick deft slashes across sleeping wrists with an open razor had elicited no more than a murmured groan to signify the soul’s silent egress into oblivion. The gore had spouted in great welters from the gashes to form a pool on the bedside rug. At any other time, he could not endure the sight of blood without gut-wrenching dry vomiting, but he had remained as strangely unmoved that night as though he were an impartial observer rather than a participant.
During the past few weeks, however, the scene had recurred in his thoughts with increasing frequency until it appeared several times a day and, try as he might, he could not subdue it. She was right when she had said that they did not communicate, but he had always found it difficult to discuss their differences impartially when the heat of the hurt was still on him. He tried repeatedly to subdue the anger that flooded through him but could neither stem it nor apologize for his actions until he had given expression to the rage. It was as though he were a cauldron of boiling vitriol, which needed venting, or it would explode, splattering everyone and everything in its vicinity with its corrosive bile. It didn’t help when she demanded to know why he had acted stupidly. Many of the things he did in those days he now knew had been puerile, and he had aggravated the situation by his immature inability to concede.
Ben knew that when he went to the cell she would be there. It seemed as if she never left it nowadays. He could not always see her but he could feel her presence. When he could see her, she was not as she had been before the murder. He longed to be able to touch her, but knew he could not; she was of a different time, a different dimension. The world in which she existed was as restricted and confined as his, and both appeared unreal. He got to his feet stiffly, turned and limped spectre-like along the grass verge toward the main building, avoiding the gravel walkway. Shuffling noiselessly across the main hall, he wearily climbed the stone stairs to the corridor leading to the cell. Head bowed, he paused and listened briefly at the door, but knew as he did that he would hear nothing. Surprisingly, the cell appeared empty but as he passed through the darkened doorway, his eyes became accustomed to the gloom. He started as he made out the fragile, almost ephemeral, seated figure at the table. He crossed the floor and placed both hands on the back of the chair but she did not raise her head to acknowledge his presence.
Despite his many rages, despite the violence, he was really shy and sensitive. Ben knew that he was a coward at heart and dreaded mental hurt more than any pain. He did not believe that she could physically hurt him, even if she wanted to. However, she had the capacity to torture his feelings and his well-hidden sensitivity with her moods and sulky demeanour. Those periods, where she could sit granite-still and silent for hours at a time, had never happened prior to the acrimonious days leading up to that ghastly Christmas Eve. Until then, she had been so vivacious, and so compulsively energetic, that he had often laughed at her efforts to do too many things.
Naturally, she blamed him for what had happened to change it all, of that he was ruefully sure, but although he knew he had been wrong time and time again, he could not, even now, accept responsibility for what had happened.
Recently, she talked to him more, mostly during the interminable nights, and he would try to answer in a belated but honest attempt to meet her earlier oft-expressed pleas for “communication”. It was obvious despite what had happened that she still loved him, although the passion had justifiably dissipated. He sensed that she too detested this enforced separation. He had no fear of death or of the mysteries of eternity now. He would not hesitate to do whatever it took to be at one with her.
“Out on the landing, Cramer!” barked Murchison from the doorway. The two guards ignored his presence and bustled into the cell to search it with the effortless efficiency of constant practice. It lasted less than eight minutes and, as he knew it would, proved fruitless. The search party did not appear to be foiled or frustrated and he guessed they had hoped to find nothing.
“You know what they were looking for?” she asked in a whisper.
“No,” he whispered. She rose and went to the sink where she pointed to one of the wall tiles.
“It’s behind there.” He looked at her quizzically and moved over to stand beside her. When the tile was removed, he remained baffled until he saw the razor blade taped to its interior surface.
“It’s now or never,” she murmured. He nodded acquiescence and took a deep breath.
“How could this happen,” the Warden demanded, “a blasted suicide that we had every opportunity to prevent? I thought you searched her cell?”
“We did, Ma’am,” Murchison responded, bowing her head dejectedly, “just minutes before it happened.”
“For Heaven’s sake, surely the way she butchered her husband gave you some indication of what to look for,” the Warden snapped irritably, expecting no reply and receiving none from the chastened woman before her.
“Get the staff back on duty and start a full scale search before any more of the inmates decide to “leave” us!” She turned abruptly from the guard and went to the bay window.
She looked out over the wide expanse of woodland park that surrounded Craigie Open Prison. Most of the inmates would be in the common room at this time of day and the park was virtually deserted. One or two lonely figures could be seen outside, but the falling snow made it difficult to identify them. The Warden gazed unseeing through the wraithlike couple, who were walking towards the gate, hand in hand.