Not in My Life
by S Michael Guthrie
Shivering shockwaves threatened to unclench lock jawed teeth and the only thing keeping her from falling off the narrow mattress was the ice cold stone that had settled just to the right of her stomach where her soul used to reside. The shivering bouts were a distraction from the noise which rushed in to fill her head once the attack had subsided. It was the breathing. The massive volume of exhalation. Inhalation. Accompanied by varying degrees of wheezes, snores and occasional shouts all around her. Invading her senses. Multiplying within her head into a cacophony that only subsided when the next shockwave threatened to tip her off the bed and only the lock jaw stopped her from crying out.
There was no way to tell the time. There was enough light to see her watch but that had been taken away from her. She couldn’t remember when. Sometime before she had arrived here. On this bed. Once during the night the monotony broke. A woman stood next to her, bent down to look into her face before blatantly sliding open the locker draw and removing Caroline’s toothbrush, toothpaste and soap before fading toward the far end of the room, lost in the haze of thirty sleeping women, stacked one above the other like giant misshapen Lego.
Even when the shivering bouts gave way to sheer exhaustion toward
dawn, Caroline was too scared to close her eyes. Not for fear of another robbery from her locker, but for the images etched inside her eyelids that had refused to grant her the respite of sleep for what seemed like a long, long time.
She tried to force her fine brain to calculate what day it was but her MBA education seemed to have set in the viscous clay which had claimed one part of head, oddly contrasting with wild screaming, rushing, insanity that triggered the shivers and totally dominated the rest of her mind. This was not part of the plan. In fact it had never, ever crossed her mind that she would find herself perched on a bunk, unhealthily close to a toilet, the night’s accumulated contents shifting the stone in her stomach to nausea.
Unclenching her jaw she ordered the clay in the heavy part of her brain to say the word and eventually it perforated her silence, popping through her lips in a quiet puff of pure terror.
“Prison.” She tried it again “Prison. I, Caroline Jenna Morrison am in prison.”
She jumped in fright, banging her head on the steel upright of the bunks as a hand slapped the side of the bunk just above her head before being followed a tousled head hissing,
“Shut the fuck up girl and for God’s sake, stop shaking the bunk. I’ve just about had it with you.” The head withdrew and Caroline stared at the wooden base of the upper bunk with hate. Wishing the pure hate would set it alight, start a fire. Get her out of here. Maybe burnt. Burnt enough to be taken to a hospital
where she wouldn’t have to sleep in the bottom section of a stack of bunks. The hatred was a pleasant distraction as was the vision of a hospital bed. Someone caring for her. That thought was a mistake. Who would ever care for her? Who would ever speak to her? Want to see her, visit her? No one came to mind and for the first time in a decade she cried for her mother who had died when Caroline was eighteen.
An invasive siren shriek shook her awake. Voices cursed, called morning greetings, someone began to sing and lights flicked on overhead as the cell door racked back, crash! A truncheon ratcheted along its length emphasising instructions harshly delivered in a language Caroline did not understand.
A short pretty girl with elaborate braids tucked close to her skull stood next to the bunk. She extended her hand to Caroline
“Let me help you up” she offered, “mind your head, it takes some getting used to, climbing out of these contraptions without hurting yourself. My name is Maria.” Caroline awkwardly climbed off the bunk, her tall frame struggling to upright itself after a long night on the hard mattress. Maria extended her other hand, it held a new toothbrush and toothpaste tube. Caroline felt tears start to her eyes at this kindness.
“We have to hurry now, we have twenty minutes to freshen up, and dress before roll call and breakfast and that includes making our beds, which is awkward as we are so cramped that it is difficult to work around each other and not upset anyone. Follow me.” Maria set off up the corridor and Caroline rushed
after her clasping her dry thin square of towelling and her new toothbrush. There was a queue at the end of the corridor which they joined and Maria introduced her to a few the other inmates who were queuing. They smiled at Caroline then resumed their conversations in Xhosa, of which Caroline did not understand one word. There was a commotion near the bathroom door and a woman swept out at the head of a small group amid raucous laughter. She stopped dead in front of Caroline and her entourage immediately fell silent. Cold, dark eyes travelled over Caroline’s frame, up and down. A sneer fixed on the other woman’s face.
“Ah!” She spat. “Another lifer to join the ranks.” She snatched Caroline’s free hand, forced it open and inspected the palm laughing loudly “never done a days hard work these hands! She loudly denounced “that’s gonna change girlie!” She and her gang swept on down the corridor nearly doubled over with mirth at the thought of how Caroline’s life had changed.
Lifer! Beads of sweat stood out on Caroline’s forehead as the word bounced around her head, Lifer! She fought to control the wild nausea rattling her oesophagus in an escape attempt. Somehow she knew she could not vomit now. No sign of weakness in front of this crowd. Maria came to her rescue by prattling in a practical way about how she was to follow Maria down to breakfast after which she would be taken to the Warden for an interview before spending an hour with the state psychologist all of which would get her through to lunch when Maria would find her again.
The corridor outside the Wardens office was bland. Three chairs lining the cream coloured wall were occupied. A guard instructed one of the women to stand then pushed Caroline’s shoulder so that she sat in the recently vacated seat.
“Come.” The guard grasped the now standing prisoner and lead her away. The remaining two women glanced at Caroline, said “Hello” then resumed their interrupted conversation in Xhosa. Caroline sat in silence, for the first time in her life considering her sorry history with languages. Her Afrikaans was bad, her grasp of other South African languages non existent and she suddenly realised it would be a huge disadvantage here, in this other world. Time dragged by and it occurred to her that she could not remember when last she had just sat. No magazine, no business file, no cell phone, nothing to do. Nothing to do. Just think.
Caroline dragged her mind back to the bland walls, the murmured Xhosa and was relieved to hear her name being called from a door halfway down the corridor. The warden introduced herself formally as Ms Nkwana and calmly but politely informed Caroline that she had no wish to hear her story.
“Save that for your lawyer. I cannot possibly spend my time listening to every prisoner’s tale of woe. You’re simply here so I may inform you that you will be seeing a state psychologist straight after this and that I would advise you to speak to Janice in the kitchens to find you something to do. Your case could take
a long time to come to court and the interim boredom may be more than you can handle. You may be assigned to the cleaning detail but it will keep you busy. Are there any questions?”
Caroline was stunned. Cleaning detail! She cleared her throat.
“I have an MBA!”
“Means nothing in here my dear! It is up to you. You may choose to do nothing at all whilst awaiting sentencing but I can assure you that boredom could be your biggest foe right now. As an un sentenced prisoner you will start at the bottom like everyone else. The best you can hope for is an influx of newcomers that way you get pushed up the privilege ladder provided you behave.” The Warden’s phone rang and she waved Caroline away whilst finishing her final sentence, “you may receive visitors on weekends and public holidays, no telephone calls may be received but you may purchase a telephone card to call out. If you have no money ask your visitors to buy you one. Good day.”
Caroline hesitated outside. The Xhosa conversation interrupted long enough for one of the woman to tell Caroline to proceed round the first corner to the second door on the left and knock, the state psychologist had arrived and was expecting her. She shuffled off wondering who was ever going to visit her and buy her a telephone card.
The psychologist visit was almost as short as the Wardens. She ticked off Caroline’s answers to some fairly standard questions, name, age, occupation, childhood disease, allergies, family members contact telephone numbers for
“Are you telling me you have no family in South Africa?” Dr Marga, as she had introduced herself sounded irritated.
“My parents are dead and I doubt anyone from my husband’s family will have anything to do with me.” Caroline whispered. “The rest of my family live in Zimbabwe and Zambia.”
“Well give me your lawyers name then” Dr Marga interrupted. “You do have a lawyer don’t you?”
“I haven’t met him yet.” Caroline said. “I was only arrested last night.” Tears threatened to flow. “I had been in touch with a divorce lawyer, she is arranging a criminal defence lawyer for me.”
“Well make sure you let me have his details.” Dr Marga finished, “you will report to me once a month whilst awaiting sentencing. You may go now.”
A rush of anger shook Caroline. “Is that it? Shouldn’t you be asking me why I’m here?” Dr Marga leaned back in her chair, removing her glasses with a sigh “Trust me my dear, I am not here to hear your problems. I have heard them all before. I am only here to ensure you are relatively physically and mentally fit to stand trial.”
“But how would you know?” Caroline was strident. “You’ve barely spoken to me, what kind of assessment is that?”
“An unbiased one, that is the best you can hope for don’t you think?.” Dr
Marga spoke with quiet menace. “Goodbye, see you next month.”
Next month! Caroline was shocked into silence. Would she really still be here next month? Could she last that long? Numbly she stood and left the room. Unsure where to go next she followed the endless cacophony of shouts coming from down the corridor and came to a barred gate that opened onto a large room where women were variously occupied with cleaning duties. A guard opened the door and shoved her into the room calling “Esther take this girl to Janice. A small timid, toffee coloured girl put down her mop and hurried over to Caroline.
Kom met my, she turned and hurried down some stairs, Caroline followed, relieved the girl hadn’t tried to strike up further conversation. No one at RBMM Investments ever spoke Afrikaans and she could barely remember the rudiments of the language even though she had passed it at Matric as part of her University entrance qualification. The stairwell smelt strongly of boiled cabbage and disinfectant and Caroline realised the smell was a constant. It never quite disappeared. Institutional smell. The smell of incarceration she thought and immediately felt an overwhelming sense of despair. She stopped dead in her tracks and whispered “I can’t do this. I have to go home now.” Esther heard her. She stopped, turned around and walked back up to Caroline. Cupping her hand under Caroline’s elbow she helped her down the stairs with surprising strength, hissing under her breath,
“Don’t you ever say that girl. This is your life now, until your case is heard anyway, and maybe even longer. You can’t quit on your first day and you can’t let
people see you’re weak. Straighten up or Janice will make mincemeat of you.”
Propelled into the back of the kitchens, past racks of vegetables, through steaming wash up areas to a small office, Caroline barely had time to think before she found herself on her hands and knees in a communal shower, trying to scratch mould off tiles that seemed a hundred years old with steel wool and some watery detergent. Janice had been charming. She’d examined Caroline’s hands with a sneer, unlocked a cabinet behind her desk and fished out a pair of large nail clippers. She cut Caroline’s beautiful long, manicured nails to the quick. Caroline didn’t protest. Locking the clippers up again Janice handed her a bucket, charging her not to lose it and to make sure the steel wool lasted the whole afternoon before instructing Esther to show Caroline to the showers on the large cell blocks. It was lonely, hard, cold work but it was exhausting and that, Caroline decided was a plus. The downside was: it gave her time to think.
Caroline slept a little better on her second night inside. Her problem was no longer being able to fall asleep. She had a new problem. She didn’t like the nightmares.
The next day her lawyer arrived.
“Jason van der Heever” A lean, good looking man in the kind of beautiful suit mark would have liked leant over the table to shake her hand. “I understand from my colleague you need some help. Tell me what brings you here.” Jason indicated the bare cream coloured walls around them. ‘Didn’t she tell you?”
“Oh I have the charge sheet right here.” Jason waved at a file that already looked well thumbed “I want your version, and leave nothing out, I need to hear everything about your relationship, sex drugs rock and roll and I do mean everything!
“He attacked me again” she began only to be immediately interrupted by Jason.
“Detail Caroline. From the beginning. I assume that by he you mean your husband,” he paused, glancing into the file “Mark James Morrison. You said he attacked you again! Had he attacked you before? I need you to go back from the time you met him.”
Caroline was surprised at the tears that started to flow as she described her life with Mark to Jason. It was the first time she had cried since that night. The tears were not the wrenching sobs of a bereaved wife, but soft tears for loss. Loss of love, respect and hope. All the dreams they had held as a couple as she remembered the first time she saw him.
Mark Morrison was an imposing man. Tall and broad shouldered he looked more like a rugby player than a chartered accountant. He wasn’t startlingly handsome but he had a pleasant face, straight brown hair and the most beautiful green eyes Caroline had ever seen. They met outside their exam hall during the finals of their honours year at University and he confessed he had had an eye on her for the last semester but never seemed to get out of class fast
enough to catch her. Caroline remembered being flattered and blushingly accepted a date for that very night. “Just to celebrate an end to exams” Jason had emphasised as they swapped telephone numbers and arranged to meet at a bistro they both favoured near Hatfield. Within two short weeks Caroline was captivated and head long in love with this gentle, intelligent man. A year later they were married, both lucratively employed and living in a beautiful high rise flat in a recently renovated building in down town Joburg. The view was spectacular and a huge balcony made entertaining easy and fun. Life was great. Business was excellent for them both and Caroline’s regular bonuses from work ensured they quickly grew accustomed to a heady lifestyle. They adored each other. So much so, that after five years of marriage people still commented on their honeymoon attitude. A year later the arguments began. Caroline could not figure what caused most of them but believed Mark’s opinion that they were both far too stressed and she booked an extra long Christmas holiday that year. The geographical change helped a little but not much and looking back later, Caroline recalled being alarmed at how much Mark had been drinking on that holiday but had put it down to stress alleviation and indeed began enjoying a glass of good Cape wine with lunch herself.
Then Mark was fired! Caroline had been worried about him and decided he was depressed. He was unbelievably hurtful and snappy. His moods swung from excellent to deep, angry sullen silence, interspersed only with remarks that were untrue and cruel. Caroline found out about his being fired by accident. She
had been to lunch with two colleagues in downtown Joburg, an unusual event in itself but they had been on a course during the morning and were playing truant for an extra half hour to catch a quick bite to eat on their way back to head office in Sandton. The pub they chose was near Mark’s offices and they happily dived into the lunchtime crowd, pushing their way to the pub where the bar lunch specials were randomly scrawled on a blackboard.
“Hey Caroline! How’re doing?” A large man cut through the crowd and gave Caroline a hug. “Barry! So good to see you here. Is Mark with you?” Barry Crane worked with Mark on the lofty twentieth floor of a large corporation nearby. He hesitated at her question “No. How is he doing?” Caroline was confused, wondering if the roar of the crowd was playing tricks on her hearing. “You tell me.” She laughed “you must have seen him today.” Barry blushed. Turning away from the bar, he grasped Caroline’s hand and pulled her behind him to the door. Pushing the door open, he handed Caroline out onto the pavement outside then frog marched her across the road to a large paved square with benches. Barry pulled her onto a bench and sat next to her. Seriously pushing his glasses back up his nose, leaning in closely he said. “Mark was fired three months ago Caroline. Surely you know this?” Caroline was shattered. Speechless. She tried to think when last he had been up before her, rushing out, bagel and tie in his hands to make an early meeting as he was wont to do from time to time. Barry put his hand on her shoulder. “He was fired for offensive behaviour and routinely turning up for work drunk. Shit Caroline, don’t tell me you didn’t know this!” Barry
was angry but she knew his anger was directed at Mark, not her. “He was away.” She started “he was away on business for three weeks not long ago.” She stuttered. “How could ….”
“He wasn’t on business!” Barry interrupted. “The company sent him to a clinic to dry out. The condition for his remaining at work was to remain sober, failing which he would be fired. He was sober for two days Caroline.”
“How can I not know this?” She cried. “Maybe you work too hard.” Barry replied. “Take the afternoon off Caroline. Go home. If he’s there he’ll be drunk or sleeping it off so he can keep up appearances for you when you normally arrive home.” Barry got up and walked away. Back to his twentieth floor office. To his life that worked.
Caroline complained of a splitting headache all the way back to Sandton and insisted on leaving work as soon as she had cleared it with her boss. No one argued with her. She never, ever missed work so for her to take time off was only noticeable in its rarity. She drove badly, the half hour trip taking longer than it should have as she impatiently tried to jump traffic lights and take short cuts. How had she missed this? His share of the living expenses was still being paid into her account every month. She took care of the bond and living costs, he saved for holidays and luxuries and paid all the insurance and investments. The flat was debt free as were the luxury cars. Or were they? She suddenly remembered she hadn’t seen his car in his usual spot in the basement for a while. She had asked him about it and gotten her head bitten off as he’d
mumbled a story about a fight with the agents who were supposed to be fixing a warning light that kept coming on. That had been over three weeks ago and she hadn’t thought to query it again other than to comment that the courtesy vehicle they had given him was a far cry from his luxurious sports model. He wouldn’t sell his car and not tell her surely? He wouldn’t get fired and not tell her? He wouldn’t go to a clinic to dry out and not tell her? Would he? Barry must have got things wrong. They worked for a huge corporation and rumours were always rife, especially among the young up and coming set as they fought their way up the corporate ladder. This was a nasty story that’s all. But Barry didn’t seem like the lying type really did he? In her heart she knew he had told her the truth. She tried to reconstruct the last few months of her life with Mark and realised it was a haze of wild, throwing arguments. He’d broken their living room reading lamp. The remote control for the television. He’d chucked a jug of water at her when she had queried another late night after cricket and almost all the arguments ended with him stomping off to the spare bedroom where he instantly fell asleep leaving her tense and worried as she tried to reconstruct the argument in her head. Mulling over things said by the two of them she was often bewildered at what had triggered the irrational responses. She recalled asking him what had happened to their wine collection last time she had taken two minutes to pop her head into the specially cooled room under the stairs which had been artfully converted into a wine cellar by the architect when they had moved in. He had immediately blamed the cleaning lady and Caroline flushed as she recalled uncharacteristically yelling
at poor Isabelle about stealing vintage wines even as the poor woman had tried to protest that it was not her with a drinking problem. Caroline remembered clearly being insulted at the time, thinking Isabella was pointing a finger at Caroline’s habit of pouring herself a glass of red wine every evening with dinner. As Caroline swung into the basement, she tried to recall how much wine Mark drank with dinner and realised that often he opened another bottle as they rose from the table. Inevitably Caroline worked for about an hour on the internet in the study and by the time they fell into bed, or an argument, she had usually forgotten the second bottle.
Caroline realised that she had been praying Mark’s courtesy car would be gone from his parking but it wasn’t. She pulled in and glanced through the window. It was shabby inside. She studied the window stickers, desperately hoping one would indicate that this was a courtesy car and gradually realised the truth. This was Mark’s car.
The flat door swung in on silence. Isabella only worked three days a week but the home was relatively tidy. Caroline silently crossed the hall and peeked into the living room. The television was on but muted. Her eye travelled downwards as she caught sight of Mark’s foot. He was asleep on the couch. Still wearing the boxers he slept in these days, unshaven. She sniffed, then gagged as the smell of unwashed alcohol caught in her throat. My God, how had she not noticed this before? Bewildered she stomped over to the couch and roughly, angrily shoved at her sleeping husband.
“Get up! Get up you bum! Wake up you lazy lying bastard! Wake up and tell me how your day at work was!” Mark moved with surprising speed. He was on his feet in a second, pushing her hands away from him he stared at her then looked at the windows to see if it was dark yet.
“No it’s not night yet.” Caroline spat. “I came home early today to see if my husband had really been fired for being a drunk!” Mark slapped her face. Once. Hard. Hard enough to spin her away from him so she had to catch the back of a chair for support. The fight left her and her legs collapsed. Sinking to her knees she slouched behind the chair too stunned to think or cry. Mark was on her in a second. Not violent but crying, trying to reach for her “I’m sorry Carry. I’m sorry!’ He called over and over again. Caroline pulled herself into a ball, rolling away from him until he gave up. He left her there hunched into a cold knot of horror and went to pour another drink.
“When was this?” Jason interrupted for the first time. “Two, maybe two and half years ago.” She replied, the cold walls of the prison a safer place than her memories. “Did he hit you again?” Jason busied himself with a note pad. “Yes.” Caroline whispered. “Hell yes!”
“Whom did you tell?” Jason asked. Caroline stared at him. Silence. “How bad did it get?” Jason tried again, “you must have told someone.”
“Mr van der Heever, you are a high powered lawyer aren’t you? How well do you think it would go down with your work colleagues if one of your female workers arrived at the office regularly sporting a black eye and bent double in
pain from the beating she received from her husband the night before. How often could she appear in court before magistrates in such a state, before losing credibility? Jason slapped me in the face once. I stayed home the next day because the marks were too severe to appear in public. Thereafter he only punched and kicked body areas which could be hidden under my clothes. It was convenient that I have always complained that our offices were cold and wore a long sleeve suit most days to work. After all, if both of us were fired there would be no more money for alcohol.”
“Did you ever consult a doctor?’ Jason ignored the comment about fellow workers being beaten.
“Yes, several times when I needed a sick note for work.”
“Did she take pictures.?
“No! I told her I had fallen.” Jason van der Heever lifted his eyebrows “and she believed you? Caroline, if we have no proof of this abuse, we have no case. Think about that and please continue with your story.”
Caroline tried to gather her thoughts, where had she left off? The first slap! Mark had cried and whined and wept his way through a bottle of vodka insisting on following her as she crawled to the bathroom to see the damage to her face. The whole story came out then. How he had been drinking more and more. Couldn’t get through the day without alcohol. How he tried to stick to vodka so he didn’t smell so bad. That thought started him ranting at her.
“Why couldn’t you see it? Why didn’t you smell it? All you ever think about
is work. You leave before me in the morning. You come home after me at night. You work straight after dinner. You wouldn’t even notice if I were dead or alive. It’s your fault I drink. You have left me nothing else.” Caroline had risen to the bait and verbally abused him about deceiving her. About not telling her about the warnings from work. Not telling her he had been in a clinic, never mind omitting to mention he had been fired three months ago and done nothing since then but drink all day then cause arguments at night so he could feel free to pass out in the spare room, where she subsequently discovered a stash of vodka that could drown a man. “My God!” she screamed at Mark “where is the man I married? Who are you? You are a monster!” Mark punched her. Twice in the stomach. He dragged her folded body out of the spare room, away from his precious stash. Left her in the passage like a sack of garbage and locked himself in with his drink. She did not see him again for a few days.
Their lives fell into a rapid downward spiral. Caroline would ignore him for days. He made no pretence at washing or drying out any longer and she avoided him as much as possible. Every night as she locked her bedroom door she would promise herself that tomorrow she would call someone about this mess that was their life but the energy required to function at work as if she was still the happily married success story sapped her of every ounce of energy and eventually even the arguments died a little as she was too tired to fight back. She had committed Mark to a rehabilitation centre for three months at great expense but he signed himself out after two weeks and she had come home to find him passed out on
her bed. This monstrous evil had sneaked in the back door of their lives, invited in during the good times, celebrated and toasted on grand occasions, graduation, marriage, friends, milestones and then it had gripped them by the throat and begun a reign of terror that neither of them knew how to shake. Until one night last week. Caroline paused.
When I got home, I found him raging in the kitchen. Throwing things and screaming on the phone. When he saw me he hung up the phone and turned his rage on me. He had obviously been trying to call someone for help, maybe Lifeline or the AA and apparently they had suggested he call back first thing in the morning when he would be sober and more receptive. I noticed my beautiful crystal fruit bowl shattered at my feet and felt as though I were looking at my very life, lying in scattered shards across the tiles. I disparagingly asked “Really Mark. And when will that happen?”
He pulled open the drawer that held the meat mallet and launched himself across the kitchen at me. I lifted my bag and the mallet only caught my forehead a glancing blow but it triggered an anger that I never knew existed. I felt if I didn’t fight back I would end up on the kitchen floor along with, and just as broken as my fruit bowl. A red rage possessed me. I kicked him in the balls and while he was hunched over, I picked up a knife from the kitchen island and stabbed him in the back. He fell to his knees and I stabbed him again. He started to get up and so I stabbed him a third time. This time he stopped moving. I sat on the floor watching him for a while and when I was sure he would not get up again I
crawled to my bag, took out my cell phone and called the police. I killed him.
Jason van der Heever gathered up his papers. “I will speak to the divorce lawyer, see what sort of defence we can put together and I will be in touch with you in a week. Good day.”
It took twelve months for the sentence to be handed down. Caroline Jenna Morrison was sentenced to life in prison. The judge deemed her education, lack of children and adequate funds were such that she should have got out or got help. Caroline, in the deepest part of her soul agreed. Get out or get help!