RUTH (a short story)

Posted on: September 19, 2015

The woman who stared back at her in the tiny scrap of mirror was dark-haired, pale-faced, and had sad eyes.  A woman of nearly 40 years of age.  Ruth shuddered and looked away.

“Don’t worry Ellis”, said the prison officer  “No one will recognise you after all these years”.

“They’d still be looking for a pretty young platinum blonde, is that it Harriet?” said Ruth, more in sorrow than with any bitchy element to her voice.  No one had ever known Ruth to be bitchy, not in all these years.  Her soft, somewhat wispy little voice, often husky from years of heavy smoking, only added to her general air of almost child-like vulnerability.

“Age comes to us all”, said the wardress, robustly.

Ruth gave a thin smile.  It was all right for the Harriets of this world.  In recent years Ruth had grown to envy women who had never been attractive.  They had nothing to fear as they got older.  Ultimately, Time was their friend.  They could look pityingly on the beauties who fretted about every wrinkle and grey hair.  For a woman like Ruth though, her looks were all she had had, or so she had convinced herself anyway.  What would it be like to walk into a public place and not turn any men’s heads?  To have no one attempt to chat her up?  To have people seeing her – if they saw her at all – simply as another faded middle-aged woman.

With a shaking hand, Ruth reached for a cheap plastic comb and ran it through her short dark locks.  She combed her hair back off her face, in an austere way, as though she was a martyr preparing herself to pay the ultimate price.  Ruth had to give a grim smile at that.  At her trial, 12 years before, she had taken great pains with her appearance.  Asking the prison governor’s permission to re-dye her hair, so that no dark roots would be showing.  Appearing snappily dressed in a trim black suit, crisp white blouse, and high heels.  Everyone had been afraid that this brazen look would turn public sympathy against her.  But no, when the judge had placed that square of black silk on his head, public sympathy had been vehemently on her side.  How could anyone even think of hanging this pretty young woman, this mother of 2 small children?

And then had come the reprieve.  Almost at the eleventh hour.  Her sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment.  Everyone had reassured her that, with good behaviour, she would be out in 12 years.  It was what Ruth had feared far more than facing the hangman’s noose.  That she would be released when she was a faded old woman.

Unknowingly, she had spoken the last words aloud.

“Old woman?” Harriet snorted “My dear girl, you’re only 39!  You’re in your prime”.

Ruth looked at her faded reflection and gave a grimace.

“Oh you sexy dames”, Harriet sighed, using an old expression she had picked up at the cinema, from her love of film noirs “It’s nothing that a decent hairdresser and a facial can’t sort out.  You’ve kept your figure anyway”.

“I can still get into my old trial suit”, said Ruth “I expect I’ll look odd Out There in that.  I’ve seen the magazines my visitors have brought in, clothes have changed somewhat since my day.  I don’t think they’re as elegant as they were”.

“You’ll soon get some new togs”, said Harriet, briskly.

“Harriet”, Ruth looked at her beseechingly “I wanted to die.  I deserved to die.  I loved David, and I killed him.  I owed his mother my death.  I wanted us to meet again in the After-Life.  And how can I face people Out There, when they know I’m a murderess?”

Harriet gave a no-nonsense snort.

“I think you’ll find things have moved on in that department too”, she said “No one’s going to give two hoots about a woman who once shot her lover, not when we’ve had the likes of that Hindley creature since then.  You were a very foolish girl, my dear, but you’re not evil, and you’re not a danger to the public.  The System has decided that, and the System is right.  You need to think of your children now.  They need a mother’s guiding hand”.

Ruth gave a rare laugh.

“A mother’s guiding hand?  This mother standing here?  Oh Harriet, I was a dreadful mother.  I’ve had women in here asking me how I could have gone after David with a gun, and not given a thought to my babies.  And the answer is … I don’t know.  I still don’t.  I felt like a different person then.  A different Ruth.  I still don’t know what came over me that weekend.   All I  could think of was shooting David.  That I couldn’t cope with the situation anymore.  That something had to be done.  The horrid truth is I didn’t think of them.  I wouldn’t blame them if they didn’t want to see me”.

“Well you’ll have to face that possibility”, said Harriet “But at least you will be around if they need you … not in a coffin in the prison cemetery”.

Ruth gave a shudder.  She had been told all about that one.  Of how she would probably have been buried in a communal grave, piled on top of Edith Thompson and Mrs Christoffi.

She had had years to constantly think over that fateful Easter weekend in 1955.  She had felt de-humanised somehow.  Going through the motions, like a cold-bloodied assassin.  And afterwards, all those weeks on remand in prison, waiting for her trial, she had still been unable to feel anything.  She had spent her time in her cell reading books and smoking cigarettes, oblivious to all the attempts going on around her to try and make sense of what had happened.

“I still don’t know what happened, Harriet”, she said, softly “I still don’t know what came over me”.

Harriet didn’t reply, she simply squeezed Ruth’s shoulder.

Suddenly there was a clanking of a key in the lock.  The cell door swung open, and the prison governor stood there, smiling, in her shapeless fawn-coloured suit.

“Well Ellis”, she beamed “You have a nice day for your release.  A beautiful September day.  A lovely day to walk around London.  I quite envy you”.

“People are being too kind to me”, said Ruth.

Harriet gave a sharp intake of breath, born of exasperation.

“Now let’s not have any of that, Ellis”, said the Governor “The Home Secretary has decided that you have paid your dues to Society, and it would be sheer ingratitude for you to argue otherwise.  Now, it’ll soon be 8 o’clock.  Have you got all your things together?”

“We’re almost done, Madam”, said Harriet, indicating the large bag and a brown paper parcel set out neatly on Ruth’s bunk.

“Excellent”, said the Governor “I will meet you in reception”.

She turned briskly and left the room.  Ruth knew they were anxious to be shot of her.  The life of the prison had to go on, regardless of whether she was there or not.  They had work to do.  Work.  At some point she would have to get a job.  What could she do?  Her previous jobs had been nude modelling, and as a nightclub hostess.  She doubted she had much future in that line in this new Swinging London of 1967.  They had glorious young women these days.  Tomboyish girls who were genuine free-spirits.  No one would be interested in a relic from the 1950s.  The Sixties looked with contempt on it’s previous decade.  It’s whole existence was built around kicking back at it.  Harriet had been right.  If anyone noticed her at all, it would be with a minimal vague curiosity.  “She shot her lover once, outside a pub in Hampstead.  God, you wouldn’t think she had it in her to look at her would you!”

Ruth picked up her black tailored jacket, and pulled it on over her old white shirt.  It was an outfit that had been designed to go over formidable push-up brassieres and pretty slip petticoats.  Going by the pictures in the magazines these days, Ruth doubted the present generation of young women wore any underclothes at all!  Underclothes.  Ruth had been told at some point during her incarceration, by an old prisoner, that, if she had been hanged, she would have had to put on a pair of monstrous canvas knickers the morning of her execution, to stop her insides falling out on the scaffold, as Edith Thompson’s had done.  Ruth suddenly felt very cold.

“Are you ready my dear?” asked Harriet, kindly.

“Yes”, Ruth nodded resolutely “Yes Harriet, thank you, I am ready”.





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