Ketchup clouds, p.1
For my husband and best friend, S.P, with all my love and heartfelt thanks.
One More Letter
Also by Annabel Pitcher
How sad and bad and mad it was – but then, how it was sweet!
Robert Browning, Confessions
1 Fiction Road
Dear Mr S Harris,
Ignore the blob of red in the top left corner. It’s jam not blood, though I don’t think I need to tell you the difference. It wasn’t your wife’s jam the police found on your shoe.
The jam in the corner’s from my sandwich. Homemade raspberry. Gran made it. She’s been dead seven years and making that jam was the last thing she did. Sort of. If you ignore the weeks she spent in hospital attached to one of those heart things that goes beep beep if you’re lucky or beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep if you’re not. That was the sound echoing round the hospital room seven years ago. Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep. My little sister was born six months later and Dad named her after Gran. Dorothy Constance. When Dad stopped grieving, he decided to shorten it. My sister is small and round so we ended up calling her Dot.
My other sister, Soph, is ten. They’ve both got long blonde hair and green eyes and pointy noses, but Soph is tall and thin and darker skinned, like Dot’s been rolled out and crisped in the oven for ten minutes. I’m different. Brown hair. Brown eyes. Medium height. Medium weight. Ordinary, I suppose. To look at me, you’d never guess my secret.
I struggled to eat the sandwich in the end. The jam wasn’t off or anything because it lasts for years in sterilised jars. At least that’s what Dad says when Mum turns up her nose. It’s pointy too. Her hair’s the same colour as my sisters’ but shorter and a bit wavy. Dad’s is more like mine except with grey bits above his ears, and he’s got this thing called heterochromia, which means one eye’s brown but the other’s lighter. Blue if it’s bright outside, grey if it’s overcast. The sky in a socket, I once said, and Dad got these dimples right in the middle of his cheeks, and I don’t know if any of this really matters but I suppose it’s good to give you a picture of my family before I tell you what I came in here to say.
Because I am going to say it. I’m not sitting in this shed for the fun of it. It’s bloody freezing and Mum would kill me if she knew I was out of bed but it’s a good place to write this letter, hidden away behind some trees. Don’t ask me what type but they’ve got big leaves that are rustling in the breeze. Shhhhwiiishhh. Actually that sounds nothing like them.
There’s jam on my fingers so the pen’s sticky. I bet the cats’ whiskers are too. Lloyd and Webber meowed as if they couldn’t quite believe their luck that the sky was raining sandwiches when I chucked it over the hedge. I wasn’t hungry any more. In actual fact I never was, and if I’m being honest I only made the sandwich in the first place to put off starting this letter. No offence or anything, Mr Harris. It’s just difficult. And I’m tired. I haven’t really slept since May 1st.
There’s no danger of me dropping off in here. The box of tiles is digging into my thighs and a draught is blowing through a gap underneath the shed door. I need to get a move on because just my luck the torch is running out of battery. I tried holding it between my teeth but my jaw started to ache so now it’s balancing near a spider web on the windowsill. I don’t normally sit in the shed, especially not at 2am, but tonight the voice in my head is louder than ever before. The images are more real and my pulse is racing racing racing, and I bet if my heart was attached to one of those hospital things, all the fast thumping would break it.
When I got out of bed, my pyjama top was sticking to my back and my mouth was drier than probably a desert. That’s when I put your name and address in my dressing-gown pocket and tiptoed outside, and now I’m here face to face with all this blank paper, determined to tell you my secret but not sure how to say it.
Tongue tied doesn’t exist in writing, but if it did, like if my hand was a great big tongue, honest truth it would be all tangled up in one of those complicated knots that only Scouts know. Scouts and also that man off BBC2, you know the one with wild hair who does survival programmes and ends up in the middle of the jungle, sleeping up a tree and eating snakes for dinner? Now I come to think of it, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. Do you have TV on Death Row and if so do you watch British shows or just American ones?
I guess questions are pointless. Even if you wanted to write back, the address at the top of this letter is false. There’s no Fiction Road in England, so Mr Harris don’t go thinking you can break out of prison and turn up out of the blue on my doorstep because you hitched a ride from Texas and you’re looking for a girl called – well, let’s pretend my name is Zoe.
I got your contact details off a Death Row website and I found the website because of a nun, and that’s not a sentence I ever thought I’d write, but then my life isn’t exactly turning out the way I’d imagined. There was a picture of you looking friendly for someone in an orange jumpsuit with a shaved head, thick glasses and a scar down one cheek. Yours wasn’t the only profile I clicked on. There are hundreds of criminals who want pen pals. Hundreds. But you stood out. All that stuff about your family disowning you so you haven’t had any post for eleven entire years. All that stuff about your guilt.
Not that I believe in God, but I went to confession to get rid of my guilt after triple-checking on Wikipedia that the priest wouldn’t be able to say anything to the police. But when I sat down in the booth and saw his silhouette through the grille, I couldn’t speak. There I was about to confess to a man who’d never done anything wrong in his life, except for maybe having an extra sip of Communion wine on a bad day. Unless he was one of those priests who fiddle with children, in which case he would have known all about sin, but I couldn’t be sure so I didn’t risk it.
You’re much safer. And you sort of remind me of Harry Potter to be honest. I can’t remember when the first book came out, if it was before or after your murder trial, but anyway in case you’re confused Harry Potter has a scar and glasses and you have a scar and glasses and he never got any post either. But then all of a sudden he received a mysterious letter saying he was a wizard and his life was miraculously transformed.
Now you’re probably reading this in your cell wondering, ‘Am I about to be told I have magical powers?’ and if the website is anything to go by, I bet you’re imagining healing every single one of those stab wounds in your wife. Well, sorry to disappoint you and all that, but I’m just an ordinary teenage girl not the Headmaster of a School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Trust me, though, if this biro was a wand then I’d give you the magic to bring your wife right back to life, because that is something we have in common.
I know what it’s like.
Mine wasn’t a woman. Mine was a boy. And I killed him, three months ago exactly.
Do you want to know the worst thing? I got away with it. No one’s found out that I’m responsible. No one has a clue and I’m walking round like that boy,
So yeah, you can call me Zoe. And let’s pretend I live in the west of England, I don’t know, somewhere near Bath, which is an old city with ancient buildings and lots of tourists at the weekend taking pictures of the bridge. Everything else I’ll write will be the truth.
1 Fiction Road
Dear Mr Harris,
If you’ve opened this letter I guess it means you’re interested in what I have to say. That’s nice but I’m not taking it as too much of a compliment because let’s be honest you must be bored in that cell with nothing to do except your poems, which by the way are really good, especially the sonnet about lethal injections. I read them on your profile and the one about the theatre made me sad. I bet you had no idea when Dorothy followed the yellow brick road that in forty-eight hours you were going to commit murder.
Funny I can write that almost without blinking. It would be different if I hadn’t done it too. Before, I might not have touched you with a barge pole, but now we’re in the same boat. Exactly the same boat. You killed someone you were supposed to love and I killed someone I was supposed to love, and we both understand the pain and the fear and the sadness and the guilt and the hundred other feelings that don’t even have a name in all of the English language.
Everyone thinks I’m grieving so they don’t ask too many questions when I turn up looking pale and thin with bags under my eyes, my hair hanging in greasy clumps. The other day Mum forced me to get it cut. In the salon I stared at the customers wondering how many of them had skeletons in the closet because the nun said no one’s perfect and everyone’s got good and bad inside them. Everyone. Even people you don’t expect to have a dark side e.g. Barack Obama and Blue Peter presenters. I try to remember that when the guilt gets bad enough to stop me from sleeping. It didn’t work tonight so here I am again and it’s just as cold but this time I’ve used Dad’s old jacket to cover the gap underneath the shed door.
I can’t remember the nun’s name but she had one of those raisin-faces you could still imagine as a grape because somewhere underneath the wrinkles there was something beautiful. She came into my school a week before the summer holidays to tell us about capital punishment. When she spoke, it was in this quiet voice that wobbled round the edges, but everyone paid absolute attention. Even Adam. Normally he pushes back his chair and throws pen lids at the girls’ heads, but on that day we could take down our hoods because no one was doing anything they shouldn’t, and we all gawped at this old lady as she told us about her work to abolish the death penalty.
She’d done a lot. Petitions and protests and articles in newspapers and letters to criminals, who’d written back and confided all sorts. ‘Like their crimes and stuff?’ someone asked. The nun nodded. ‘Sometimes. Everyone needs to be heard.’
That’s when I had the idea, right there in the middle of the R.E. classroom as the nun said a load more things I can’t even remember. When I got home, I ran upstairs to the study without taking off my shoes even though Mum had just bought beige carpets. I turned on the computer and found a Death Row website, ticking the box that said Yes, I am eighteen. My lie didn’t shut down the computer or set off an alarm. It took me straight to the database of criminals who want pen pals and there you were, Mr Harris, second man from the left on the third row of the fourth page, as if you were waiting to hear my story.
Not the most original of titles but this is real life not fiction, a bit of a departure for me. Normally I write fantasy and in case you’re wondering my best ever story is Bizzle the Bazzlebog featuring a blue furry creature who lives in a tin of baked beans at the back of a family’s food cupboard. He’s been there for years, but then one day a boy called Mod (real name Dom, but he’s into mirror images) fancies beans on toast so he opens the tin and turns it upside down and Bizzle plops out onto a microwaveable dish.
Now Mr Harris I have no idea how long you’ve been writing poems but I’ve wanted to be an author ever since I read The Famous Five when I had to do my first book review at primary school. 4.5 out of 5 I gave it because the adventure was good and they found the treasure in the end but this character called George who was a borderline transvestite kept talking to her dog so I knocked off half a star for being unrealistic.
A load of stars are shining through the window now and every single one is full and bright. Maybe the aliens are giving Earth a brilliant review, which just goes to show how much they know. It’s so still outside, as if the world’s holding its breath waiting for me to get on with the story, and probably you are too so here goes.
It all started a year ago with an unexpected phone call. For a whole week last August, I’d been plucking up the courage to ask Mum if I could go to a house party on Saturday night. This house party wasn’t just any house party but Max Morgan’s house party, and everyone was invited to mark the end of the summer because we were due back in school a couple of days later. Unfortunately the chances of Mum agreeing to let me go were less than 1% because back then she never let me do anything, not even shopping in town with Lauren because she was worried about me being abducted and also about my homework.
There was no skiving off in our house because Mum quit her job as a solicitor when Dot was little. She was a sickly baby, always in and out of hospital, so I guess it was a full-time job to look after her. Mum was there when I woke up to ask what lessons I had that day, and she was there when I got home to supervise the work I had to do that night. The rest of the time she did chores. Because of its size, it was hard to keep the house spick never mind span, but Mum managed by sticking to a strict timetable. Even when she watched the news she folded the laundry and paired the socks and when she was supposed to be relaxing in the bath she wiped the taps with a flannel to make them shine. She cooked a lot as well, always with the best ingredients. The eggs had to be free range and the vegetables had to be organic and the cow had to have lived in the Garden of Eden or somewhere with no pollution and no chemicals so the meat wasn’t contaminated with anything that could make us ill.
Mr Harris I hope you don’t mind but I Googled your mum (without any luck) to find out if she was strict, making you try hard at school and be polite to your elders and stay out of trouble and eat all your greens. I hope not. It would be a shame to think you spent your teenage years munching broccoli now you’re locked up in a cell with no freedom to speak of. I hope you had some crazy times like sprinting naked through a neighbour’s garden for a dare, which is what happened at Lauren’s fourteenth birthday party after I’d gone home early. When Lauren told me about it at school, as per usual I put on my unimpressed face to show I was too mature for such things. But when my History teacher asked us to stop whispering and look at the worksheet, I didn’t see the Jews, just all these boobs boinging in the moonlight.
I was sick of missing out. Sick of listening to their stories. And jealous, really jealous, that I didn’t have a few of my own. So when I was invited to Max’s party, I made up my mind to ask Mum in a way that would make it impossible for her to refuse.
On Saturday morning I lay in bed trying to work out how to word the question before my shift at the library where I stack shelves for £3.50 an hour. That’s when the phone started ringing. I could tell from Dad’s voice it was serious so I climbed out of bed and went downstair
‘There’s no need to rush off,’ she said and Mr Harris now we’re getting into proper conversations I think I’ll set them out properly to make them easier for you to read. Of course I don’t remember every single thing that everyone said so I’ll paraphrase a bit and also miss out any of the boring stuff i.e. anything about the weather.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked, standing in the porch probably with my face looking worried.
‘At least have a slice of toast, Simon.’
Dad shook his head. ‘We’ve got to go now. We don’t know how long he’s got.’
‘We?’ Mum asked.
‘You’re coming too, aren’t you?’
‘Let’s think about this a minute . . .’
‘He might not have a minute! We need to get going.’
‘If you feel you have to go, I’m not going to stop you, but I’m staying here. You know how I feel about—’
‘What’s going on?’ I said again. Louder this time. My face probably more worried. Not that my parents noticed.
Dad rubbed his temples, his fingers making circles in the patches of grey hair. ‘What do I say to him after all this time?’
Mum grimaced. ‘I’ve no idea.’
‘Who’re you talking about?’ I asked.
‘Do you think he’ll even let me into his room?’ Dad went on.
‘By the sound of it, he’ll be in no fit state to know if you’re there or not,’ Mum said.
‘Who won’t?’ I asked, stepping onto the drive.
‘Slippers!’ Mum called.
I stepped back into the porch and wiped my feet on the mat. ‘Will someone tell me what’s going on?’
There was a pause. A long one.