Here’s a short story I wrote some time ago about two men in a debtors’ prison called The King’s Bench, London, which was open until 1880. Both had very different fates. I’d be happy to hear any comments; I’m not sure the two voices are ‘separate’ enough. Thanks.
Hello. Can anyone hear me?
Even to me, the words sound muffled, as though not coming out of my mouth. It’s cold here. I am disorientated, in a plane of white mist. But how did I get here? And where is here anyway? Helloooo. Still no one replies. The mist starts to clear. I can see an earthen floor, overlaid with rushes. It stinks, old stink of sweat and fear, of shit and rot.
I can feel my face, pressed into the rushes, scratchy and coarse. There is pain in my arm, and I slowly turn my head. My arm is handcuffed at the wrist to a man. A man I’ve never seen before, sitting on the floor, rocking slowly back and forth as he mumbles and moans. As he rocks, he moves my arm and wrenches it at my shoulder. I open my mouth and try again. Who are you? The sound I make is still muffled. What’s wrong with my ears? The man doesn’t reply, hasn’t noticed that I spoke. I move the arm which is handcuffed, and dig my elbow into the floor. It helps me sit up and eases the pressure on my shoulder. The man hasn’t noticed that I have moved. He just keeps rocking and moaning.
No, no. no. no. Doesn’t matter how many times I say it, nothing changes. I’m on the floor manacled to a corpse. And until my debt is paid, I’m not getting out. ‘No money no leavee’. But there is no one for me on the outside of this debtor’s prison. No one to pay my debt, or bring me food and I have nothing left to sell. So that leaves me to die here, of hunger, hopelessness, gaol fever. It was 1600 when I came in. God only knows what year it is now.
I see the man more clearly now, sitting upright with his head bowed. He is all but naked and I wonder why he is here, bound to me. And why he doesn’t hear me or reply. A door opens; the cell fills with light and fresh air and hope. A woman appears, silhouetted against the light. She moves into the cell, regardless of the filth on the floor and casts herself down next to me. She sobs, as though her heart would break. ‘My Thomas, my only one’. My confusion eases, and my mind and hearing clears. I know her, it’s my Mary. The jailkeeper appears behind Mary, taking a key from the ring on his belt. ‘Here, undo the manacle. I’m not touching the filthy swine’. Mary takes the key, puts it in the handcuff and turns it. My hand is freed and falls to the floor. No longer attached to the end of my arm, it lies there, black and seeping. I raise my face in horror to Mary. But she takes her hand, that beautiful delicate hand, and traces the side of my face with it. Mary, I say. My sweet Mary. She doesn’t hear me, and I see some hair and skin falling to the floor, where she has caressed it from my head. ‘I’m going to take you home, Thomas’ she whispers, ‘I’m going to lay you to rest properly’. My beautiful Mary. I smile, and close my eyes against the overwhelming light pouring into the cell, sweeping me away.
I come to myself, feeling more alert than for some time. I am no longer manacled to the corpse on the floor, and I breathe a sigh of relief. Rigor had been and gone, and the rot had been starting to set in. The cell door opens, and a man is thrown into the cell to join me. He screams. ‘I can’t stay in here, there’s a dead man in here’. There’s a laugh from outside the cell, the jailkeeper has seen and heard it all before. What does he mean about a dead man being in here? The dead man has been taken out, I watched his wife take his body away.
With realisation dawning, I take a look at my hand, where it was manacled to the body of the dead man. It looks grey and cold, and an icy sweat trickles down my neck. No, no, no, no. He can’t be talking about me. I can’t be dead, I can’t be de..’