For the first year of his sentence, Oscar Wilde was forbidden to write anything beyond the occasional letter. In 1896 a more sympathetic governor took charge and allowed Wilde sufficient paper to write De Profundis. Taking their cue from Wilde’s literary reflection on his separation, nine contemporary writers have composed a letter to a loved one from whom they have been separated by state enforcement. In some cases, these are written from direct personal experience of imprisonment.
An audio recording of each letter is available to listen to beneath each transcription.
Ai Weiwei writes to his young son during his own internment without trial for 81 days by the Chinese authorities in 2011.
When you were two years old, I disappeared for 81 days. With this letter, let me tell you what happened.
I was detained in an unfamiliar, enclosed place. My left hand was handcuffed to the arm of a chair, and there they left me. I felt like a miner trapped in a collapsed mine, not knowing if anyone up top were looking for me, or if there were any other miners trapped down here with me; if the rescue operation had been aborted. I was like a pea that had dropped into a crevice, immobilized, with no strength to move. No one knew where I’d fallen; I was entirely cut off from the outside world.
Across from me were two silent armed policemen who watched me constantly. I could do nothing, say nothing, except to ask for the basics: a glass of water. I raised a hand and asked permission, until they indicated that I would be allowed a drink. The rest of my time was spent waiting for the interrogator to appear.
The interrogator said that I would be placed under “house arrest”; I was told that this was a legally compulsory measure. I asked what my rights were; what house arrest meant exactly, and whether I would be allowed to call my family and tell them where I was. He told me very clearly that it was impossible, that I would not be allowed. I asked how long the house arrest would last, and he said six months at the longest. I asked if I could see a lawyer, and he said this, too, was absolutely out of the question. After getting handle on my situation, my first thought was that I’d essentially been kidnapped – I’d been kidnapped by the nation. It’s a little embarrassing to even refer to them as “the nation”. The people I was faced with had knowingly, unashamedly, done something in direct contravention of normal morality. They had forced a life out of its normal state into an involuntary, abject state, cutting me off from all social ties, cutting me off from the care, support and protection of others.
The military-style supervision was strict. They kept close watch over me 24 hours a day. I had to formally request for every action, every need. They were on high alert at all times, in strict obedience to orders from above. The place was run in a completely self-contained manner: after finishing their training, the armed police watching me had been sent here secretly, and they would remain here, unable to leave, until one day they were perhaps transferred elsewhere. They were all between the ages of nineteen and twenty-one, and they didn’t know where they were, either.
My simple yet rigorous daily schedule was as follows:
The soldiers stood by my bed all night long, in two-hour shifts. They stood silent and ramrod straight next to the bed, their eyes not leaving me for a second, even when I closed my own. In a dark corner of the room, two cameras were trained on me, recording my every move.
These fourteen activities of the day were carried out with extreme rigor. The guards were constantly looking at their watches, and their motions were almost mechanically regular.
Every time I made a request, they had to look at their watches before giving permission. I would say, Squad leader, sir, I want to scratch my head, and I couldn’t scratch my head until he said I could. Then he would look at his watch again. I said, I need the toilet, I want a drink of water, I want to stretch my legs – everything required their explicit permission. I’d say, Squad leader, sir, I’d like to move my chair over. Every time I sat in the chair, I was required to place it in the same fixed spot.
There was always a pair of them, working in two-hour shifts. When it was time to change the guard, one new soldier would come in, and one would leave. Then five minutes later the second would come in, and the last would leave. The door was locked from the outside – they, like me, were confined to this space. The spots on which they stood, every one of their movements… everything was completely regulated, as precise and orderly as the performance of the honor guard on Tiananmen Square.
Every time the guard was changed I had to stand up and say loudly, Hello sir… goodbye sir.
Sometimes I got it wrong, for instance I’d call the squad leader “team leader”, or say “good night” instead of “goodbye”, or call the doctor “nurse”. They could not resist but burst into laughter.
It became clear to me that going along with these rules, rather than resisting them, would make it easier for everyone. I stopped bridling at every little thing, and simply said, Squad leader, sir, I want to do such-and-such. They have never refused me. But if I didn’t ask they would become uneasy, and agitated; they would say, why didn’t you ask for permission? This made me feel awkward, I didn’t know I needed to ask. They said every single move must be reported.
This training process established a system, which both watchers and watched understood was necessary if we were to co-exist, and avoid unpleasantness. If the system fell apart, it could only mean that I was intentionally resisting them, that I was creating trouble for them.
They were only soldiers, following orders; I would never, ever meet the ones issuing the orders.
These armed policemen were innocent. They were doing simple jobs – I respected their jobs. The entire purpose of their lives was to make sure I did not get in trouble. They neither knew me, nor hated me. Their purpose as soldiers was to ensure that I conformed precisely to their regimen.
My condition, the interrogations, and the condition of the soldiers – these three elements constituted my life.
As they stood before me, I could clearly see every wrinkle of their clothing. I could see how their moods varied subtly from their moods of the day before. I could smell them, and knew what they’d been eating; how well they’d slept last night. Each one of them had joints that cracked. All the knuckles of their fingers, every joint in their bodies could make a sound. Every part of arms, legs, necks – all made noise as bones moved against one another. It was another way of announcing their own, otherwise soundless, existence. They stood straight, and always very rigid. Gradually, I began to feel sorry for them. The detainees they watched over might leave one day, but they couldn’t ask these people where they came from, or who they were, what they’d experienced or what their crimes where. But these people would leave, to where the soldiers did not know. They, meanwhile, would remain standing there. It was the only thing they could do, and it was what the nation asks of them, until they finally retired.
They said that, after they left, the first thing they would do was to come find me. They said I’d likely get out long before they did.
Listen to Ai Weiwei's letter read in Mandarin below, or on Soundcloud.
Tahmima Anam imagines herself imprisoned and pregnant, addressing a letter to her unborn child.
Letter to my Unborn Daughter
Dhaka Central Jail, July 2016
In four months, you will come into the world. We have already given you a name, in fact, had chosen it long before you were conceived. Remember, always, that you were dreamed in the sleep of your mother and father, that your seedling-self preceded you by many years, so that, when you are finally born, you will have lived many years, possibly even lifetimes, in the imagination of others.
I do not know what they will do with you when the time comes. There are laws about these things, about babies being born in prison, certain rights that you and I are supposed to have. But nothing about my imprisonment has adhered to any rules, and so I fear for both of us. In fact, I have come up with a list of things, from least bad to absolute worst. I have found, in this situation, that categorizing my fears is the best way to keep them at bay.
The worst would be if you died. Obviously. This is a distinct possibility, not just because I find myself here, but because of your brother. He came two and a half months early, weighing practically nothing. We were in London at the time, and he was in the hospital for seven weeks before we were able to bring him home. I had chafed at the terrible things they did to him, digging around his ankles to find his veins, forcing the feeding tube through his tiny nostril, but I would give anything to know that this was the suffering you might be subject to. No, I will not let you come early. I will push you back into my body until you are ready to emerge with your lungs big enough for an almighty scream.
The second worst thing, I suppose, is if I die. When I fell pregnant, ecstatic and surprised at the age of 40 to have been able to make such a thing happen, the Harley Street doctor we had saved up to see said that I had a thirty percent chance of the whole thing happening again—pre-eclampsia and HELLP syndrome, which is what happened with your brother. Why do they call it HELLP? And why do they call it pre-eclampsia, when the thing that happens after the pre is death? Anyway, he said thirty percent, and that if I took aspirin every day that might bring it down to twenty. I did not ask why the medical profession has come up with only aspirin to treat a disease that is still killing women all over the world.
So, there is a one in five chance it will happen again, and if it does, I may well die. This wouldn’t be a great outcome for you, my daughter, but as you can imagine I do linger on my own demise a great deal. This is the kind of place that makes you think constantly about death, wanting it, wishing desperately for it, for some end to whatever it is that is happening. I have wanted very much to die, and if it weren’t for you, I might have taken matters into my own hands. But we are tethered together for now. And for now, you are keeping me alive. My body is your prison and your shelter from the world. Without it, you will not survive. Without you, I would have no reason to.
Travel before it’s too late, said the Harley Street doctor, so we planned our trip to Dhaka in the second trimester. We arrived in August, just after those people were killed at the bakery down the road. Your brother asked again and again if we could go – it used to be his favourite place in the city – but when we drove past of course the gates were shut and there were flowers strewn on the roadside. I wouldn’t have had the guts to go in anyway, but we had to show him it was closed. He has trouble believing things he hasn’t seen with his own eyes. The news reports were full of statements from the authorities claiming they had found the source of the attacks, the people who had funded it. They set up roadblocks throughout our neighbourhood, started doing random checks on people in cars. Around that time, the parents of a boy who had survived the attack started to get in touch with me. He was twenty-two, a college student, and the police had arrested him soon after they had stormed the café and rescued the hostages. Apparently, they were questioning him to see if he had any links with the attackers. He’s just a college student, the parents kept telling me. Innocent. They won’t even tell us where he’s being held.
I asked around. Word was the police had him all along, even though they repeatedly denied it. I wrote an article demanding an end to police impunity. The next day, they came to our apartment and arrested me. Six weeks later, here I am. And here you are.
Going to jail is a family tradition. Your great-grandfather and your grandfather both spent time right here in this very jail. In 1964, when the Pakistan army declared martial law, they jailed your great-grandfather for being a political dissident. He writes about it in his memoir, and for all accounts, other than being confined to a small space, he claims it was not so bad. He wrote letters, had regular visits from the family, spent the four years in relative peace, and was released when his health deteriorated. Your grandfather also spent a few nights here in 1970, before the war started. He was at a protest when the police charged, and before he could get away, they caught him. They broke his leg. He wasn’t actually charged with anything, and it was only a few nights. And now, me. And you.
When I was growing up, your grandfather made me read Nehru’s letters to Indira Gandhi, written when Nehru was in jail between 1930 and 1933. There are one hundred and ninety-six letters spanning the entire breadth of human history. I found it incredibly dull, especially because the hardback edition my father pressed on me was heavy and smelled like mothballs. But he was charmed by the idea of a man writing letters to his daughter from jail, and I suppose he presaged this very moment, now, as I write to you. I wish I had paid closer attention to those letters. I might have learned a thing or two.
Your father tried to convince me not to return to Bangladesh. Not now, he said, let’s wait until after the baby is born (he said your name, but I am not going to write it here. Superstition is as much of a tradition as going to jail). But I insisted. It was a matter of patriotism, of insisting that I belonged to this country and wasn’t afraid, like many others, of what might happen. They’ve shut the British Council office, and the diplomats are sending their kids to boarding school. What would it have said about me if I refused to return in case we all got blown up on our way home from the airport? I insisted. We packed ourselves onto the Biman flight and my parents collected us from the airport. Your brother, as usual, vomited intermittently throughout the flight so we came out irritated and smelling terrible. It took two hours for the luggage to arrive, another two hours through the traffic to get to the neighborhood. Finally, with a plate of late season mangoes on my lap, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was home.
Of course, it wasn’t the same. The streets were eerily quiet, even when they were packed with cars (fear has done nothing to ease the traffic). We avoided our favourite places, the sushi restaurant down the road, the place in Gulshan 2 where they serve that amazing hot chocolate cake. We stayed within our orbit. A bodyguard came with us everywhere (even though he doesn’t carry a gun, and frankly, looks rather frail). Your grandfather, though he had recovered from the back pain that had given him so much trouble earlier in the year, still looked a lot older than the last time we saw him. He’d stopped dyeing his eyebrows, so his face was no longer framed by those two enormous solid black lines. Everything was faded and solemn. I had never enjoyed the parties in Dhaka very much, the music was always terrible and everyone was horribly drunk from the very start, but now I missed them, because it meant people were afraid, and now that the fear had seeped into everything from the hot chocolate cake to the parties, it was as if we were all just waiting for the next bad thing to happen.
If there’s anything this cell has taught me – I am reluctant to impart any wisdom, but I will tell you this – it’s that we were afraid of the wrong thing. Those boys who held and killed those hostages, sure, there are more of them. They will do it again – I don’t see an end to that. But all that time, while we were waiting for the next bad thing to happen, our imprisonment was already in progress. The police were rounding up thousands of people and throwing them in jail for the things they wrote, or said, or how they voted. We were living in captivity all along, we just didn’t know it.
Your father came to see me yesterday, and I couldn’t look him in the eye. I know this is my fault, that my stubborn insistence that my home was a safe place was born not out of conviction but insecurity. Every time we visit that tiny village in New Hampshire where he was born, those mountains that framed his childhood, the beautiful old houses that smell of mint and camomile, I am struck with jealousy. Everything is peaceful and fresh. The world is somewhere else, somewhere remote and other; the generations have lived out their lives without jail sentences or blown-up bakeries or police raids. I asked to come here to prove a point, and what a futile point it was. Your father had nothing but compassion for me. He would not tell me if your brother calls out in the morning with his regular cry of, Mama, shall we have a cuddle? He would not even let me apologise. This made me angry. I banged my open palms on the bars and said, go, be a family. Take my children somewhere safe, with ice cream and clean lakes.
I haven’t talked about the thing which is most on my mind, dear daughter, because although I am afraid of your death, and also of mine, there is that third worst thing. Which is that, if you and I survive your birth, if we make it out of this twosome thing alive, we will no longer be together. They won’t let me keep you here, and I won’t want to. Every time your grandfather comes to visit I tell him the same thing. I don’t care if I rot here, just make sure you get my daughter out. Don’t let her spend a day in this place. He says don’t worry, you will both soon be released, together – it won’t be long now. But his eyes, framed now by those grey eyebrows, say something altogether different. Which is that I have no hope of leaving, and that he spends all day and night doing everything he can to ensure you do not have to spend a day of your life in this prison. You will join your father and your brother out on the world, you will have freedom, even if you do not have a mother.
And yet. The thought of being without you fills me with darkness. My body and your body, together for the last six months, together long before that, when we named you, when we dreamed you – how will I live if you are gone? What will I dream about when you are not kicking me from the inside, rousing my thoughts, punctuating every idea with the gentle shrug of your presence. It is the only way I will have it, and yet the thought of it obliterates me with pain, with hope, with love.
Dhaka Central Jail, August 2016
Listen to Tahmima Anam read her letter below, or on Soundcloud.
Anne Carson’s letter is from the condemned Socrates to his old friend Krito.
Dear Krito, don't come today. If you do I'll have
to pretend to be asleep or ashamed or explain
why I sent my wife home. Tears are all about the
weeper, aren't they? My kid has more sense. She
was here, took one look around, said, It's really
damp in this place you need a hat, came back a
half hour later with that knitted cap you gave me
last winter. I like practical people. My death is
set for three days hence. There's nothing you
can do. But let me thank you for the hemlock. I
know it cost a lot, and then the import tax and
then the bribes - why can't they just grow the
stuff in this country? - well, it's better than the
other way, the so-called bloodless crucifixion,
with the stakes and the iron collar. No one wants
to see another person die like that, dear Krito,
you'd have nightmares for years. And I sort of
like the idea of just numbing out. I've been numb
for years according to my wife - it was the only
way to bear her - oh that was unkind. I've been
unkind for years, at home anyway, funny how
the worst self comes out there. My life is guys,
you know that! guys and drinking. I'm a talker. I
believe in talk - rip the lids off! let all the cats out
of all the bags! - most of it's just common sense.
Do I frighten people? Saying there's no back
wall? Nothing between you and your heart of
darkness? Or if there is, you can't pray to it, you
can't write poems about it, you can't compete for
its love. It smells of predation and terrible plans
and nonexistence. Speaking of terrible plans,
though, don't let Plato come today either. He'll
start quoting stuff I said in the old days, I
shudder to hear it. Or he'll lecture me on The
Law. It's not the law putting you to death, it's the
lawyers, he'll say and I'll say, Pardon me if the
distinction is rather fine. Then he'll go on about
swans or gymnastics or who knows what, he'll go
on, he'll go on - whenever I talk to our dear Plato
I drift into a horror of eternity. You know what
I'm saying. Or maybe you don't. You're a wild
peculiar boy and your head is stuffed with
arguments. When did I stop caring about
arguments? Maybe it's the hum in here. This
humming, do you hear that? is it in the walls or
in my ears? It's there most of the time, kind of
like voices but it has no words. It can drown out
every other sound. Remember the old days
when they used to play Iggy Pop all night to
break the prisoners down? That was when the
war was on, the beast is dozing now. Anyway, if
you were here I might not be able to get what
you're saying - on the other hand, beloved Krito,
if you do come, can you bring another one of
those knitted caps? I gave mine to the guard. It's
really damp in this place.
Listen to Anne Carson read her letter below, or on Soundcloud.
Joe Dunthorne not only imagines his own confinement, but also the constraints of a dystopian world where the use of only one vowel is permitted.
The cells smell fresh. The bedsheets feel new. The gentle breeze wends between the beeches, the yews, the elms; the slender trees lend the ten-metre fence serene resplendence. We never feel repressed, never resent the screws’ keys.
Remember, Sweetness, when we revered ‘free speech’ – “free speech,” we yelled! “we, the rebels, reject depleted texts!” We sneered whenever we met well-dressed gentlemen yet, Sweetness, we were the sheep. We were the pretenders. The well-dressed gentlemen: they knew best.
The well-dressed gentlemen helped me see: the less speech the better.
The well-dressed gentlemen helped me delete these excess letters.
The pens the gentlemen lent me spell the letter e best, hence the preference.
Sweetness, we never needed every verb, every sentence. The letter e, yes, yet let the rest rest. Let the stress end.
When the screws here keep me well fed, we need never feel tense.
Elevenses, they serve sweet crêpes.
Three pm, they send the Greek mezze: cheese, eggs, herb-scented bell peppers.
Seven pm, they serve beef cheeks en créme, shelled whelks, fresh greens, stewed fennel, Welsh leeks, French cheeses, bejewelled desserts. Creme de menthe helps the feed settle.
Eleven pm, the bell knells then we enter deep sleep.
See, Sweetness, these cells represent the new Eden. The well-dressed gentlemen’s cleverness renders me speechless.
Hence, we let the clever well-dressed gentlemen see where we keep the secret den.
Hence, when the well-dressed men descend, let them enter, Sweetness, tell them: “yes yes yes.”
Let them see the rebel texts. Let the texts be shredded.
Remember, Sweetness, the new Eden needs settlers. When we get wedded here, get preggers here, brew red beer, sell the kegs, breed red hens, sell the eggs: endless glee. Three cells between three: the three-bed des res, better rent-terms, well-deserved rest.
Sweetness, Sweetness, be clever. Let the well-dressed gentlemen see we respect them.
p.s. they helped me select “Peter”, the clever, clever men.
Listen to Joe Dunthorne read his letter below, or on Soundcloud.
Deborah Levy writes to Oscar Wilde himself, questioning what a man is and the motives of those who condemned him to imprisonment.
Dear Oscar Wilde,
It is true that you have nothing to declare but your genius.
You declared your suffering in De Profundis, the letter you wrote here in Reading Gaol, and in so doing, I found I could reach you in all your dimensions; as a father separated from his children, as a son mourning the sudden death of his mother, as a political prisoner of your time.
The men who used the law to chase you to gaol, said: “I do not say you are it, but you look it.”
They needed you to feel their own undeclared fear. You did the suffering for them Oscar.
Alas, they had no genius to declare.
Yet, they did declare their own fragility and anxiety.
They asked you: “Is this the kind of letter one man writes to another?”
They asked you: “Did you kiss him?”
They seemed to be asking another question, too.
A question that dare not speak its truth.
What does it mean to be a man?
What should a man be?
How might we begin this conversation - in parliament, in prisons, in the light and not in the dark where we are freer with our most confronting thoughts?
Oscar, you met the poet Walt Whitman when you toured America. Whitman was not punished, as you were, for his language of feeling. He wrote this:
There is something in personal love, caresses, and the magnetic flood of sympathy and friendship, that does, in its way, more good than all the medicine in the world.
What should a man be, if not skilled at personal love, caresses, sympathy and friendship?
How might we begin this conversation - in schools, in church, in the light and not in the dark where we think the thoughts we really think?
The boys who cried themselves to sleep in brutal boarding schools became the men in wigs and gowns who sentenced you to two years hard labour. The boys who cry themselves to sleep on the streets and in state care become men who see love as a cage fight. The boys who sign away their lives, become killing machines in war. Some of them go mad. How can we slaughter and be sane? What should a man be? He knows the story written for him is doomed to make him unwell - it is the most interesting thing he knows. Yet, it is the secret he takes to his grave. The state covers that secret with a flag. And with flowers.
It has always seemed to me Oscar, that flowers have to do such a lot of talking for us all. Do we know what they are really saying?
You uncovered that secret with language.
Language lifted you off earth.
You told us that at your happiest, you had one hand on the moon.
And it is language that crushed you. They asked: “Is this the kind of letter one man writes to another?”
Oscar, if it is easier to punish, control and abuse than to risk love, with all its dimensions, what does this tell us about love?
Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) tried to protect his mother from his brute of a father. Oscar, you offered him an abundance of love. He was fortunate to have met you. Are there enough flowers in the world to convey how you did the suffering for him?
Meanwhile, the old white men of politics, like an ancient crocodile, drags its thick tail across the 21st century. They are still with us, fragile but powerful, those who whisper, “I am not saying you are it, but you look like it.”
Thank you, Oscar Wilde, for your plays, novels and political essays.
They do all the talking for you – like flowers.
With all my admiration,
London, July 2016.
Listen to Deborah Levy read her letter below, or on Soundcloud.
Danny Morrison imagines a final letter from Irish revolutionary Reginald Dunne who was involved in the 1916 Easter Rising and held in Wandsworth Prison.
From Wandsworth Prison Reggie Dunne sends a smuggled letter to the leader of the IRA in London.
18th July, 1922
Commandant. It’s all but over. Joe and I are to be hanged in three weeks’ time, on 10th August. The trial lasted three hours, then the jury were out. As our solicitor was trying to keep our spirits up in the holding cells, the sergeant shouted through the bars that we were wanted back up in court, they had reached a decision. The jury took just two minutes to find us guilty! Even the sergeant said it was the quickest verdict he had known but that everybody was in a rush today to catch “the biggest wedding of the century”, Lord Louis Mountbatten was getting married to some wealthy English heiress.
So, we left the Old Bailey for here much earlier than anticipated. But that shouldn’t have mattered, nor affected your plans. As we had known we would be, and as had previously been described to you, we were handcuffed and locked in the back with two guards for what we thought was our last journey. The driver was repeatedly blowing the horn at pedestrians. At one stage the fool opened the grill and took great delight in telling us that there were thousands flocking the streets, out to kill us. By our bearings we thought we had just crossed Blackfriars Bridge. Shortly after, there was a dull thud and we all shot forward as the van suddenly braked. The driver was shouting and we could see our guards’ faces turn pale. Joe and I nodded to each other, braced ourselves, and were convinced, “This is it”. I thought of my parents and the young woman whose heart I’ve broken. Then, the driver cursed the dog that must have darted onto the road and across our path. We could hear the old thing whimpering and children crying. After a few moments we resumed the journey.
Commandant, when escape plans fell through, we meant it when we told you to blow us up in the van. You were our last hope. If the Mountbatten wedding or extra police on the streets thwarted the plan, then there’s nothing we can say, no complaint can we make. But I would not like to think that you had qualms about despatching us this way. Don’t misunderstand me. Joe and I will go to the gallows with our heads held high - and our secrets well kept – but we would have preferred to deprive these people of the pleasure of hanging us.
Churchill’s claim that we were caught with papers linking us to Rory’s garrison was a downright lie. There were no documents on us.
We kept our mouths shut in Gerald Road Police Station. Even our interrogators initially hadn’t a clue who we were. Joe was charged under the alias ‘John O’Brien’ and I as ‘James Connolly’. You should have seen the mortified look on the Detective’s face when he discovered that they had already shot ‘James Connolly’ in 1916! I laughed when he had to re-arraign me under ‘Reginald Dunne’.
But he came in the next day all cocky and threw down the dailies, inviting me to read them. I never flinched. He read out Rory’s denial of involvement, which I expected. But to be honest, the condemnation of the killing and the strong language from Mick’s spokesman was bloody hypocritical. The Detective then gleefully read out Churchill’s ultimatum to Mick that if he didn’t deal with Rory’s defiance of the Treaty, the British army would. That put me in good form, as I thought, yes, our plan is falling into place.
But you can guess how sick Joe and I were when Mick bowed to Churchill and attacked the garrison, capturing Rory and his men. If Churchill had tried that every volunteer would have flocked to Rory’s cause. And now there are attempts to blame Joe and me for the fighting that has now broken out. We can see through that but our poor families are badly shaken and confused and have asked what we thought we hoped to achieve. And of course because our visits are closely monitored we cannot speak plainly to them.
One day, be it years from now, when the dust has settled, the rest of the world can be told that Reggie Dunne and Joe O’Sullivan were not mavericks or renegades but were soldiers of the Republic on official business aimed at killing a tyrant and re-uniting the IRA against the common enemy.
I’ll not see Joe again, until the morning of 10th August. I’ll miss him over the next few weeks. He holds himself responsible for my arrest and, now, for my death. I remind him that it was me who picked him for the Wilson job and that I knew well beforehand that he was no ‘sprinter’! That made him smile a little. After the shooting a hue and cry was raised and we had to run in a different direction than planned, away from our car. Let our driver know, we do not blame him. We were chased by a hostile crowd and by policemen blowing whistles. Joe, because of his war wound, losing a leg in France, was much slower than me and was quickly overtaken by the mob shouting, “Lynch him!” When I looked back I could see that he had fallen and was being pummelled by the mob. We were always in this together and I would never have left him. I turned back and threatened the crowd with my Webley and could have taken a few had I wished. I was overpowered from behind and beaten unconscious before we were taken into custody.
In court we admitted shooting Wilson but refused to plead, so a Not Guilty plea was entered on our behalf. One of our prosecutors was a fellow called Humphreys who I found out had in his younger days acted for Oscar Wilde in the same court.
Our solicitor asked the judge could I read out a brief statement. The judge asked to see it. His jaw kept dropping the further he read, then he said he was impounding it because it was nothing but a political manifesto! We then instructed our defence team to withdraw.
That forced the judge to address us directly. He asked if we had anything to say before he pronounced sentence so I spoke. I said I was sorry that the jury was denied the chance of hearing our statement which explained why two former servicemen with exemplary war records, both wounded in action, would kill their former commander.
Try and get what I said published as it is important that the public hear the truth about how our struggle for freedom was subverted by Wilson and his ilk.
I said that for England I had killed many German soldiers, most of whom were conscripts. Ordinary working men, farmers, students and teachers - teachers just like myself. I and thousands of other Irish soldiers volunteered to fight in the European war. Thousands of our fellow countrymen died for Britain because we were told that if we did so then Ireland would be treated fairly and given her rights at the end of the War. But this was a huge lie. We were praised to the high heavens, in press and from pulpit, for savaging men by bullet and bayonet. But for killing one man for Ireland – a scourge, who encouraged the British army to mutiny against Irish Home Rule, who divided our country, who had the blood of thousands on his hands, and who had been rewarded and elevated and indulged by Britain for his role - we were being slandered as criminals and condemned to die on the gallows.
When they took two minutes to find us guilty, Joe said with that dry wit of his, “Your speech certainly won them over, ‘Mr Connolly’. You were very persuasive!”
Shortly afterwards we were taken back to here from where we shall not be moving. Any appeal will be heard in our absence.
We have a bully of a warder. ‘Kitchener’ is his nickname. Apparently, he gave himself that name when Lord Kitchener’s ship went down. Everyone is afraid of him. He constantly gives us a rough time and he tries to goad us.
“I see Michael Collins has disowned you and is now shooting your comrades in Ireland,” he said, when news came through about the fighting in Dublin. When he cracks what he thinks is a joke he belly-laughs until he almost falls over. He soon shut up when I asked him what regiment he had fought with. Turns out that the white feather coasted through the war in charge of the borstal wing while Joe and I and our comrades were up to our eyes in muck and blood in Flanders.
When we found that out we turned the tables on him. I shouted across the landing to him for all to hear. “Hey Kitchener! Is it true, Your Country Didn’t Need You?”
“Be fair,” said Joe. “He had a terrible bunion in his big toe which meant he couldn’t retreat.”
When we were first being assigned our cells some weeks ago and led through the gaol we were spat at and called murderers and cutthroats by the other prisoners. But that was to change, especially when they saw our attitude to authority. Today, when we got back after court we were allowed briefly into our own cells to gather some things before being moved to the condemned cells in E-Wing. It was strange being taken down through the landings. Even though the environment was alien on Day One, our wing had become familiar to us in the past few weeks as relations with the other inmates thawed.
Old Syd, the orderly, Wandsworth’s veteran jailbird, stopped mopping, came forward and pressed his precious ration of tobacco on Joe, against regulations. Kitchener bawled like a madman and ordered a warden to place Syd on punishment. From behind their doors prisoners banged their tin mugs and shouted messages of support to us. Kitchener warned us not to reply or encourage ‘contumaciousness’, his favourite word, or we would be punished!
Joe said with sarcasm, “How punished? What are you going to do, draw and quarter us!”
Each day on the way to the exercise yard we passed Oscar Wilde’s old cell mid-way up the long gallery, where he had contemplated suicide before being moved to Reading Gaol. As we passed it tonight for the last time I thought of his torturer, Sir Edward Carson, the man who opposed our freedom and helped divide Ireland. A man whom we should have shot in 1920 when we had the opportunity.
The man who shall deliver this to you is trustworthy and expects no reward. But please give him something because he has a young family and is taking a great risk which would land him in gaol and make him unemployable in this society. I have taken the opportunity of including another letter. It is for a friend, a young woman I had been seeing, though no one but Jack knew about this or is aware of her identity. She was only vaguely aware of my activities and I feel a great guilt for potentially compromising her and placing her in jeopardy.
Commandant, the organisation must promise, that one day, be it in five or fifty years’ time, our remains are removed from this prison yard and that we are laid to rest in the soil of Mother Ireland. That is where we want to be buried, even though we were born and grew up here in London. This is not our home.
And so it is goodbye, my old friend and comrade. Many have trod this well-worn path, the path to Freedom, before me. I love my countrymen and I love Ireland and I trust that God will have mercy on the souls of Reggie Dunne and Joe O’Sullivan.
Up The Republic!
Listen to Danny Morrison's letter read by Will Howard below, or on Soundcloud.
Gillian Slovo writes to her mother Ruth First, who was murdered by the South African secret service in Mozambique whilst living in exile.
As children that's what we called you but you never liked it
and so instead,
I have fetched your Hermes 3000 down from the high shelf where
it has been kept. I slide off the green metallic cover and see,
stuck above the keys and punched in white stencil on red tape,
your name, Ruth First. I wonder at the need to name this machine
which was your right hand and your left. I imagine it was sent
by boat from South Africa in 1964 when we made our English move
after they had let you out of gaol. And I assume it was crated
up again and shipped south when, in 1976, you went to live in
Despite that I have not looked at it tor many years having it
here on my desk is enough to carry me back to other homes: the ding
of the carriage as it nears the end of a line and the click and
slide as I send it back to its starting position are in fact the
soundtrack of my childhood. As my fingers hard press the keys
I also remember how these sounds greeted me when I woke on the
first morning of my visit to Maputo in 1981, that year before
they killed you.
When they carted you off to jail in 1963 they wouldn't let you
take your Hermes. You tried to pack a book - Stendhal's The Red
and the Black - but it was confiscated along with anything with
which to write and anything to write on. They kept you in solitary
under the 90 day rule which meant they could hold you for 90
days without charge and then for another 90 and another after that
until, as the then Justice Minister BJ Vorster boasted, this side
of eternity. You were put in a cell with nothing but the bible
and your thoughts and fears for company until eventually, towards
the end of your incarceration, you were given a pencil and crossword
puzzle book. But there were no letters that you were allowed to
write and none for us to read. With one exception - but I' ll talk
about that later.
After they let you out and after we came to England, you wrote a
book about your detention. You didn’t write it so the world would
know what you had endured but so it would see what was happening
in South Africa. You wrote of the cells in which they kept you,
the way the interrogators toyed with you and of course since it was
you, you wrote about the black prisoners who cleaned the cell of the
white madam they weren't allowed to talk to and about the mistreatment
of other non-white political prisoners some of them tortured
unto death. You were a journalist used to speaking up for others
but you also did reluctantly write about yourself and your ex-
periences. You described your time in Pretoria Central gaol
where they kept you in a glass cell whose bright edges subdued you
and you described how you plotted out a novel in your head as
distraction, and about the excitement you felt at each ration of
brown sugar because it came wrapped in newsprint. Most memorably
for me you wrote about the way you used to unpick seams in your
pillow case, your towel, and your dressing gown and sew them back
with the needle you had smuggled in, soon to start the whole process
once more. When I read these passages it's almost as if I can see
your head bent to the task, and your fingers, strong am knotted,
needling the frayed cotton back into position. I would know those
fingers instantly were I to be allowed to see them again.
I am writing to you now as if I could reach across your death but
even as I do I know that the person I all really reaching for is
me. I am older than they ever let you be. I have lived many years
with the knowledge of their hatred of you, that hatred that
made them send the bomb that killed you. Yet even after all this
time there is still something I want to talk to you - to talk to
myself - about.
As I was thinking about the best way to say this I got an email
from South Africa. It was from an actor who has just finished
her one woman show based on 117 Days, the book you wrote about
your incarceration. She wrote to us, your three daughters, with
the reviews and notes she'd received. And there amongst them is
one audience member's assessment of you as a 'clever, articulate,
glamorous, brittle and varnished woman who was fighting a fight
that was not hers.' 'One who willing her to crack,' the sender
continues 'to break down and be who she actually was on the
inside… and when she did? Wow.’
Let's leave aside that you would have insisted that the fight was
yours and should have been every South African's no matter the
colour of their skins. It's the cracking that I am writing to you -
to myself - about. That audience member wanted your vulnerability
exposed perhaps because this was the only way she could empathise
with the intimidating woman behind that brain, that courage and
that sharp tongue. I, your daughter, do not feel the same.
When I was thirteen I read the book you wrote about your time in
gaol. I thought I read every word and perhaps I did. But when I
was in my twenties one of your friends made passing reference
to your suicide attempt and I said: 'you what?' 'Ruth wrote about
how she tried to kill herself in gaol, 'the friend told me, and sure
enough when I went back to the book I saw what my 13 year old mind
had not been able to absorb: which is that you took pains to describe
the moment when rather than give up names as you feared you might
be driven to do, you tried to kill yourself. I was anguished
when I thought of the children,' you wrote, 'but what good would
I have been to them in mental pieces?’ And so you used the pencil
you'd been given to do crosswords with to write the only message
from your time in gaol. You wrote it on the fly leaf of the cross-
word puzzle book apologising for your cowardice, expressing your
love for us, and for our father, Joe Slovo, who was out of the
country and could not return without being jailed for life. And
then you used your note to let your comrades know that you had
not betrayed them. And after that you took all the pills you had
Your doctor hadn't left enough to kill you and so you survived.
Your first act on regaining consciousness was to rip the message
from the crossword puzzle book and flush it down the lavatory.
To get back to normality you decided to psychologically seal
yourself into solitary because the longer you stayed 'inside'
the more certain your friends would be that you had not capit-
ulated. This is how you found strength in what could have been
your last act of despair. 'I had been reeling towards a precipice,'
you wrote, 'and I had stopped myself at the edge… in the depth of
my agony I had won.’
When I read this in my twenties I thought how much better to have
a mother in mental pieces than no mother at all. Pieces can be put
together again, is what I thought: death cannot. And I thought -
although I never said this to you - that you weren't really thinking
about losing us or us losing you, you were thinking about how if
you did crack and betray your friends, you would lose yourself. I
never shared these thoughts with you. I wasn't grown up enough, I
guess, to broach the subject in ways that wouldn't have put us
both on the defensive.
You ended your book with the moment of your release. 'When they
left me in my own house at last,’ you wrote, 'I was convinced that
this would not be the end, that they would come again.’ And of course
they did - in the form of a letter bomb that took your life in 1982.
So many years gone by. So much has happened including the growing
up into adulthood of the grandchild, my daughter, who you didn’t
live to meet. Although I often think of you, my thoughts no longer
dwell on the way you died or on the time when you nearly did.
But then a few weeks ago, when I was thinking about writing this
letter, I read a book that turned those old thoughts to me in
It's a novel about a true life massacre that took place in the town
of Gwangju in South Korea in 1980. It's Han Kang's Human Acts and
it is as fine a book as I have recently read, and also almost
unbearably painful. So much so that half way through I wanted to
grab hold of its author and demand to know: why? Why are you
putting your reader through this horror? And then Han Kang used
the final pages of her book to answer the question that she had
provoked in me. Her book, I learned as I neared its end, is the
exploration of what she calls the 'radioactive spread of brutality.’
It's about remembering not just the murdered but also their murderers.
About looking them in the eye. Literally: at one point Kang writes
of the moment when a man, almost dead, found the strength to open
his eyes so he could look his attacker in the face.
Human Acts: the courage to resist despotism and also the barbarity of
the despots. Human responses: the trauma that trails a life,
and the confident self possession of the people whose actions
provoked it. Reading the novel (no, l was doing more than reading,
I was inhaling it) made me think of you and your time in gaol,
and it brought back a story someone told me long after you were
Of all the legions of stories that I have heard about you, this
is the one that has persisted. It was told to me by a woman who,
nearer my generation than yours, had also been detained in South
Africa. She had been tortured psychologically as you had been
but also physically - and for long periods of time. On her release
she had left the country and, trying to recover from her experience
had landed up in Maputo where you were then living. She was a mess,
she said. While most people offered silent sympathy, you asked
questions, encouraging her to sit with you and tell you what they
had done to her. You heard her out without a word until you heard
her saying that surely they couldn't have known, or fully understood,
what they were doing and still be human. It was then you spoke.
‘They knew exactly what they were doing,' you said.
This is a story I have always kept in mind although I haven't
written about it. Perhaps this is because I didn't understand
why it was so important to me. And now I think I might. You were
able to tell this victim that her torturers had done what they
did to her deliberately and you could do this because they did it
to you as well. And after they did it, you looked them in the
eye and saw them for who they really were.
I know now, and Han Kang’s novel has brought this into sharp
relief, how childish was my reaction that, if you had broken we
(and I am sure by we I really meant I) could have put the pieces
together, and still had my mother. Because you were a person who
wouldn't have been able to live with your own betrayal however
it was wrenched from you. That’s what made you who you were.
And yet, because of the trauma to which they subjected you, you
were prepared to abandon us. That hurts and that is why, unlike
that person watching the play of your book, I wouldn't be waiting
for the moment that you were going to break in order to see that
you were as frail as any other mortal.
I have written a letter to you on your typewriter that I always
knew was a letter to myself. But as I wrote it, and especially
as I press on these familiar keys, it's as if I can feel you
here beside me. Or if not beside, then at least inside me.
With love, always.
21st July 2016
Listen to Gillian Slovo read her letter below, or on Soundcloud.
Binyavanga Wainaina writes to his dead mother about the struggle to reveal his homosexuality and to tell her that he is in love.
It has been 15 years since you died. Baba died 5 years ago now. It was worse, his death. Than yours. It was so sudden. I feel that we thought he was going to live for a long long time. He wasn’t even sick. I am ready for anything now. `I haven’t been well. I have had two strokes. And they are not quite sure what causes them. I gave up smoking last October. I am in Berlin for a year. You died before I got famous, I still hurt because I was a failure when u died. Ill be honest and say I am a coward. I just cant imagine it with you. I can imagine telling Baba that I am gay. With. I almost did. But he died. Chiqy has a lot to do with it, living openly with Wanja the way she does. It gave me courage. Mum, I am in love. I have been in love for 5 years now. He is a soldier. He fixes tanks, and trucks in the army. We broke up, 3 years ago. He hurt me very badly. I guess I was heart-broken when I came out to the world. That was a factor, plus baba dying on us so suddenly. I knew I had time – you see. Time to tell him, properly. But you know me. I like to make u happy. You know, those days I was in South Africa, one day I got a phone call from baba. He had rerouted from Australia, on pyrethrum board business, to Johannesburg, I don’t know where he got my telephone number. He called the youth hostel I was in. I am sure you told him to call. I had not been in touch with you for many months. I did not know what to say. I was busy failing mum. Anyway, he told me something I never forgot. He said, “You do not live your life for us, we have done our bit. Your life is your own. Your mother misses you. Don’t let guilt that we will be disappointed in you affect you.”
Anyway mum, meet John, I have changed his name because nobody can know we are in love. You know it is not legal in Kenya. To be honest, if you were alive today, maybe we would be living together, married even, in South Africa. You see, this is the plan. We are working for it both of us. He is in Somalia now. I do not know where to begin with this. We Kenya, are in Somalia because of Al Shabab, who are terrorists, who killed many hundreds of Kenyans at Westgate and in Garissa university, last year. Mum, he is so handsome. He loved me first, long before I loved him. I gave him much trouble. After my first strokes 5 years ago, they did a brain angioplasty on me. On the plane home, I realized I almost died, I sent him a text saying “ I’m in your hands now”. He did not let me down mum. His heart is so big. I love him because he believes that all 10 of his siblings are his responsibility. He takes care of them and me. I love him because when I got home, after the strokes, he is the only one who could calm me down, I developed a fear of crowds. Ultimately, we had to break up because of his parents. They won. I was heartbroken. So, to earn more money, he joined UN Troops at Amisom. Oh mum, Somalia is so dangerous. 180 Kenyan troops were killed by Al Shabaab in January this year. It was horrible. John had trained with many of them. Al Shabaab broke into the camp by ramming a 4x 4 truck at the gate- and breaking in. There were so many bodies. Anyway, I asked him if he still loved me. He said yes. I flew to dar es salaam to meet him for 5 blissful days. He was on leave. He is back in Somalia. I don’t see him until December. We talk every day on the phone.
Your loving son,
Ps. Everybody calls me Binyavanga these days.
Listen to Binyvanga Wainaina read his letter below, or on Soundcloud.
Inspired by Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Jeanette Winterson imagines a letter from Hermione to Perdita written during the sixteen years she is adopted by persons unknown, following her father’s savage abandonment and her mother’s presumed death.
Hard labour. It means something different depending on your sex.
I was in prison when you were born. It is easy to accuse someone. Easy to believe your own madness. Dictators do it all the time. I should know; I was married to one.
Hard labour. I was nearly 2 days giving birth to you. But you had lived inside me for 9 months and it takes time to move out. Time to begin again. Your home had been a 2 pint tank inside my body. My little amphibian ancient as the beginning of life. Your lungs last-formed took their first gulp of oxygen. And cried in protest and shock. Don’t wipe her. Give her to me. There. There she is.
Your new home is the world.
You were born under a shining sun. Every baby is a symbol of the sun. Life. Warmth. The Future. The everyday miracle of love.
Dear Perdita – yes I should have written that at the top of the page, but so many things have slipped since you were gone. Much is in the wrong order since you were gone. Sometimes I feel like I am living my life in reverse – everything I do taking me back to the time when I lost you,
Dear Perdita. It means ‘little lost one.’
Dear Perdita, did your father lie about me to hide his guilt? He broke our family and blamed me. Stories like ours make the news every day. A guy, let’s call him Leo, believes his wife is sleeping with his best friend. So he tries to kill his best friend, who runs away, and he humiliates his wife, drags her to a show-trial, dismisses all the evidence that says she’s innocent, throws her in gaol, and when she gives birth he wants to kill the little bastard. Even his cronies won’t let him do that, so he gives the baby to an employee and tells him to dump the child on a rubbish heap somewhere. Leave it for the animals to raise – kites ravens wolves and bears.
It takes so little time to lay waste to love.
Dear Perdita, I’ve never met a woman who wants to give away her child. I didn’t want you to be adopted. I had no choice. I was in prison. Decisions were taken by others. I had no rights. I had no way to keep you. I had no power, I had no money of my own. He controlled everything. And they were all afraid of him. Fear is love’s opposite. Not hate. Hate and love are too close, too intertwined, emotionally and psychologically to be opposites. Fear is what you should fear in this life. Fear makes bad decisions and fear is the ruler of our time.
For love of you I have tried not to be afraid. For love of you I have tried to go on, in the belief that one day I would see you again. That one day, if I could stay alive, stay sane, and not chain my heart to a bitter stone, I would see you again and tell you the truth.
You were always wanted. Do you know that?
You were breastfed. The one thing I had to give you was milk from my own body. And I fed you like that – the two of us in our cell – for 6 weeks. You didn’t know it was a cell. You were fed and dry and held and close and my warm skin was between you and the cold walls of this place. The window was barred but I held you up to the light. And the rain that fell on your face was gentle. And through the long nights of your crying I walked with you - ten steps and turn ten steps and turn -as if we were explorers in a kingdom whose end never came. We had no cities to defend, no ports to guard, no gates to barricade. In this one room - an everywhere - we were free.
And when, at night, you slept and I could not, you were the comfort of my days. And I would have given my life for you – what mother would not? And I did give my life for you in that I had to let you go to allow you the smallest chance of surviving him.
He destroyed my past – what I had believed about him, his love for me, our trust. I had to make a choice to save you – so that you might not be destroyed.
Men kill their partners, and they kill their children, and sometimes they turn the gun on themselves.
Leo killed me – although I am still alive. Leo killed himself – although he is still alive. When everything you live for and what you live by, is destroyed, what is life worth? Leo poisoned the water-supply and then drank from it .
Dear Perdita, I don’t want you to hate your father. Anyone could have stood up to him; only one did, and she has sheltered me these 16years, hoping that we had enough time to undo what took so little time to do.
Leo is the kind of man who gets his own way. He’s called a leader. He’s rich. He said to me of my betrayal that he was like a man who is about to drink his favourite wine and as he raises it to his lips, he sees a spider in the cup.
But the web around him was of his own making. His yes-men, his hit-men, his con-men, his money-men, his body-guards, his drivers, his press office, his deals, his handshakes, the rich-list, the secure telephone line, the phone hackers, private detectives, spies and informers hired to keep him safe.
What safety for any of us in a world like his?
But I married him. A lot of women find him attractive.
He always fears a coup. Someone has weapons of mass destruction. He controls the press. There is no freedom of information – only what he wants leaked. At the same time there is no privacy.
Everyone is afraid. The prisons are full. A private security firm runs them for profit.
In all of this there’s a mother and a child. In all of this, there’s you, and me. And I’m not a wine he’s drinking, and you’re not his possession.
They came to take you away. In the mother and baby unit, in the women’s prison, we know our babies will be taken away. If we’re lucky a grandmother might look after them till we get out. Violent partners can file for custody. The baby might go into foster care or be put up for adoption straight away.
This is our last night together. Your unsteady blue eyes gaze at me like Galileo seeing the Milky Way through a telescope. I’m so close. I’m so far away. We’re lying on our backs watching the stars and the stars are each other. There is no world where you are not. You are night sky and dawning day to me. We are each other’s little round, the heavens in movement in the rhythm of our love. Am I the fixed star and you my orbit, or is it you who was waiting to be discovered while I wandered through unnamed constellations seeking what I had lost?
When I gave birth to you I felt like I had waited for you always. You made sense. You were the unknown known. I couldn’t describe you – I couldn’t say – this is what I am waiting for – but it was you. And there you were bawling bright like a talkative comet, a streak of light landed after a long-ago sighting.
And when the midwife cut the umbilical cord – your long tail of love – we launched together a new heaven and a new earth.
Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
Dear Perdita, it takes some time for the milk to dry up when the baby is taken away. My body didn’t believe you were gone. I woke, and went on waking, my arms holding a tiny emptiness. A black hole where no light escapes it.
And you? You trusted me with your whole self and I disappeared. What was your loss, without language? Without any way to say I hurt. I want. I love.
My baby cast out into that sea of stars. Love went with you but you did not know it. You could not know it. Your loss sank down into the depths of you. Mine stayed on the surface. An open wound that skinned over, in time, into an ugly scar.
There is some of me, therefore, that cannot leave this prison cell. I can’t, because it’s the last place where we were together. The narrow bed, the bleak chair, the strip-light, the bedding that smells of bleach, the barred window onto the yard, the tin dish and cup, the slop bucket. And you.
I doubt that you will forgive me. I doubt that you can. Should I have fought back? Killed us both in a Gotterdammerung of death?
But he wanted that. He wanted to end it all. All. Do you understand? He was the Death Master.
But there was a chance and I took it. I tried to fling you clear of the wreckage. And I thought that although it would take you years to trust anyone and years to love anyone, that you might just do that.
And that if you could not forgive me you could forget me.
And forgive yourself
All adopted children blame themselves. And repeat the rejection – either by doing the leaving or finding that they are the one who is left.
And must it repeat over and over till the groove is worn and the print is fuzzy but the pain is no less?
Why is the measure of love loss?
I know I have given you hard labour of your own.
Does it make any difference to know that I serve my sentence every day? We both have to live with this.
But yes, you’re right, it wasn’t your choice.
I’m writing this to you from the locked up place that I can’t open. I’m still here, holding you, on our last night as ourselves; mother and child.
I’m writing this to you because the past is a memory palace. There are gardens, fountains, picnics on the lawn, small dark rooms, and deserted outbuildings. There is a library and a playroom. A bedroom and a bear. There are empty rooms with the shutters closed. And rooms we would rather not enter. And always, the room at the end of the corridor, locked with a bloodstained key.
Time can’t unhappen. We did what we did. We lived as we lived. People make choices that change forever the choices of others. What do we do with that? There’s a war, there’s a bomb, there’s a car crash, there’s a love affair, there’s another country, there’s a child.
And always there’s … if only… the regret, the forking paths, the parallel life, the split second, the train leaving. The me that is still with you. The you coming in through the door. Home.
Do you know this line? ‘What stands before me is my past.’
The past is always just ahead of us, waiting for us. Time is not an arrow. Time is a boomerang. It’s back and we throw it again. It’s back and we throw it again, until we are what it hits and brings down. We’re the big game. We’re the hunted we’re hunting.
The big game is still playing.
Dear Perdita, I’m writing this to you because I’ve heard you’re coming home. I’m not looking for a happy ending. Do you see? I’m not looking for an ending at all. The ending happened 16 years ago. It was a disaster for us both.
This is a beginning
Time has come after us after all.
What shall we do with this wide gap of time? How shall we scale the walls of the past and land hand in hand without fear?
Who sets the prisoner free?
There is no prison where love cannot enter.
And when I see you the lock will spring and door will open and the walls will fall and the bars will burst and the guards will put flowers in the barrels of their guns and the roof will give way to stars long distant steadily sending light-years of love, like code, down the stretch of time, unreadable for so long, a message in a bottle that I knew one day you would find and unseal, and tell the story in your own way.
Stories are escape routes through time.
And here we are let loose in open fields.
Listen to Jeanette Winterson read her letter below, or on Soundcloud.