The prisoner kneaded first one hand, then the other, liberating his fingers from the stiffness of the cold and the callouses on his palms. From his shirt pocket, he took the stub of indelible pencil he’d found on the road. He gnawed at the wooden casing until the purple lead showed through. It was dark outside; the ten-watt bulb screwed into the ceiling lightened the cell to a perpetual pale dusk. The prisoner waited until the guard passed on his rounds, then got up from his bunk, took a step to the toilet in the back corner and pissed. The rush of his stream ricocheted tinnily through the range. More than five hundred men and hardly a sound, just furtive rustlings like animals restless in their stalls.
Perhaps it was the oncoming cold that made him desperate. Perhaps it was the the sight of the Superintendent and his conversation with the reporter that made him bold. Or perhaps it was simply that six days of breaking stone had not beaten the thought from his brain.
He pulled a handful of papers from the wad suspended beside the toilet and stuffed them in his shirt. He sat on his bunk, facing the bars to catch the first footsteps approaching down the range, then he smoothed one thin, brown rectangle on his knee. He licked the exposed tip of purple lead, careful not to stain his lips.
Little friend, he began.
The burning barrel stood halfway between the house and the shed at the back corner of the yard. On Saturdays, it was Phyllis’s job to burn the week’s trash — newspapers, red butcher’s paper, letters already answered, occasionally scribblers filled with last year’s lessons.
This morning the air was honed with the edge of winter. Grey clouds bore down from the north, so low they threatened to snag in the bared branches of the trees. Phyllis could see her breath, white and wispy, as if a fire smouldered inside her. She pressed a shoebox into the mess in the barrel, then picked up a newspaper from the pile on the ground, twisted it into a tight taper and lit one end with a match. She held it at an angle until the flame crept halfway up the shaft. Then she touched the burning tip against an envelope, the corner of a tooth-powder box, the blue-and-yellow rim of a soap wrapper.
She liked this chore. She liked being outside. More than that, she liked being away from the crush of family, alone and out of sight, nestled by the lilac hedge, the cedars and the elm trees that shielded her from the wagons and motorcars that clattered down King Street towards the centre of Portsmouth village. On the other side, the property sloped steeply through three vacant lots to Cross Street. In theory, Rear Street connected King to Cross, but in fact, the dirt road extended only along the back of her father’s land, a thin boundary between the last house in the village and the prison quarry. The house itself with its large windows and broad verandah faced King Street; no windows looked onto the yard.
Phyllis reached into the pocket of her coat and closed her fingers around the roll of paper, thin as a cigarette. Lying in her palm, backlit by the flames, it did not seem remarkable at all. Thin brown paper, striped with faint purple markings.
For a week, the paper had lain first in one pocket, then another, coat to schooldress to apron to nightdress. She had picked it up in curiosity, boldly hidden it for days, but she could not bear the burden of her secret any longer. Whoever he was, this convict who dropped notes by the road, she would have no part of him.
When the letter touched the flame, the pages parted in the heat, opening like blossoms on a hot summer day. Words, illuminated briefly, pleaded ...never fear... ...little friend ... ...trust me ..., then withered and blackened. The embers spiralled skyward with the smoke, but the words remained.