Authors: Nicola Upson
For Mandy. Two for joy.
by Josephine Tey
Holloway Gaol, Tuesday 3 February 1903
Morning arrived, cold and frosty and defiant, as unwanted as it was inevitable. Celia Bannerman looked up at two thin rows of glass, seven tiny panes in each, and wondered again why anyone had bothered to go through the motions of letting daylight into such a godforsaken place. Even if the dirt from the world outside had not made it all but impenetrable, the window would have been much too high to see from. Soot from the Camden Road was left to accumulate peacefully on the glass, shielding those inside from a life which continued without them. The cell was airless and oppressive. In the absence of adequate natural light, a lamp burned throughout the day and on into the night, denying the prisoner even the comforting anonymity of blackness. Like many other things about prison life, the brightness of the room was a compromiseânever truly light and never truly dark, as if a denial of such extremes could somehow keep their equivalent emotions at bay.
From her chair in the corner, Celia watched the shadows dance over the cell's familiar contents: a wooden wash-stand, with its pathetic ration of yellow soap, and a single filthy rag, meant to clean both mug and chamber pot but fit to touch neither; a corner shelf with a Bible for those still able to find comfort in its pages; and an enamel plate and knife, made from folded tin and sharp as a piece of cardboard. A low, black
iron bedstead took up most of the room's thirteen feet by seven. The woman in the bed had turned her face resolutely to the wall, but Celia knew she was not asleep. As she thought of what lay ahead, she felt the customary tightening in her stomach and, for a moment, she was a child again, remembering the mornings when she herself had pulled the blankets over her head and prayed for time to stand still so that she did not have to face what the day held. At the time, those young fears had seemed terrible enough, but surely nothing could compare with what was going through Amelia Sach's mind in the hours before her death.
Quietly, Celia stood up and walked over to the far side of the cell, where a dark-blue serge cloak hung on a hook, placed halfway down the wall to discourage those who might be tempted to take fate into their own hands. The bottom of the garment lay crumpled and dusty on the floor, and Celia rearranged the folds and smoothed the rough material as best she could, recognising the futility of the gesture but anxious not to let any opportunity of kindness go overlooked, no matter how small it seemed. In the three weeks between Sach's sentence and her execution, she was watched over constantly by two women at a timeâstrangers at first and then, as the days passed, allies, even friends. There was a peculiar intensity about the bond between wardress and prisoner: as she sat through her shifts, eight hours at a time, Celia shared every second of Sach's miserable existence, watching her as she washed and dressed, ate and cried, getting to know her habits and her preferences as she would have come to know a husband's in the early days of marriage. She had lived with Sach, and now she would see her to her death. Two warders had been brought in from another prison in case the distress
of the execution proved too much for their female counterparts, but there was an unspoken determination amongst Celia and her colleagues to see this through to the bitter end: not because of suffrage or professional pride, not evenâif she were honestâbecause they wanted to comfort the prisoner in her final moments, but simply because it was too late. The emotional damage had already been done. By the time the final week came, all but the most hardened of hearts found themselves counting the days as desperately as the condemned woman herself.
Long periods of sitting had created a numbness in her legs and back which she would willingly have shared with her other senses. She stretched her cramped limbs and wriggled her foot to get rid of the pins and needles, and her colleagueâasleep in the other chairâsensed the movement and opened her eyes. The two women looked at each other, and Celia nodded. It was time. She walked over to the bed, holding her keys to stop them janglingâridiculous, she thought, to suppose she could eliminate the reminders of incarceration, but it was another flicker of humanity to clutch atâand noticed Sach's body stiffen in anticipation of the hand on her shoulder. As Celia drew back blankets which were far too thin for the time of year, the smell of stale linen, sweat and fear rose up to greet her. Sach moved closer to the wall and tried to pull the covers back over her, but the hand was firm and she eventually allowed herself to be cajoled to her feet. In vain, Celia tried to reconcile the tall, gaunt woman in front of her with the arrogant, unfeeling creature who had filled the pages of the press since her arrest back in November. Sach looked much older than her twenty-nine years. Her face was grey with exhaustion, and her body looked barely strong enough to get
her to the scaffold. How different she was from the woman who had entered prison with an incredulity bordering on indignation, who had believed that this could never happen to her. Right now, crowds would be gathering outside the prison gates, waiting for the customary announcement, but had any of them come face to face with Amelia Sach, Celia doubted that they would recognise the monster who lived in their minds.
She encouraged the prisoner to dress, trying not to adopt the expression of pity which she had noticed in every other visitor to the cell. Most of Sach's clothes were already on, worn in bed to fight the cold, but Celia helped her pull the standard blue shiftâfaded, and sufficiently shapeless to smother any sense of individuality amongst the Holloway womenâover her head. Kneeling down to guide Sach's feet into shabby, ill-fitting shoes, she noticed holes in her stockings where the nails which held the shoes together had snagged the black wool and punctured the skin beneath. The feet felt so small and vulnerable in her hands that, for a few seconds, Celia found it difficult to breathe; the jury had been right, she thoughtâit must be so much worse for a woman to be hanged than a man. Or was that unfair? Did male warders feel this same raw despair when the time came for their prisoner to die? Too shaken to stand, she felt Sach's fingers rest briefly on her head; whether the gesture was a benediction or a silent plea for strength, she did not know, but it was enough. Pulling herself together, she began to scrape Sach's once-pretty auburn hairânow lank with neglectâback into a ponytail and fixed it in a bun, away from her neck, where it would not catch in the noose. It was a simple act, but it seemed to affect Sach more deeply than anything else and Celia took the cloak quickly from the hook,
trying to blot out a sound which was more like the whimper of an animal in pain than anything she had ever heard coming from a human being. As she wrapped it round Sach's shoulders, she wondered if terrorâlike dirtâcould find a way of weaving itself into the fabric, accumulating with each poor soul who wore it. She turned the prisoner round to face her, desperate somehow to stem this outpouring of grief, but the woman's cries only grew louder and more coherent. âDon't let them do it to me. I haven't done anything,' she repeated over and over again, drawing Celia into her hopelessness until the other wardress was forced to intervene.
âCome now, Mrs Sach,' she said, gently but firmly removing the hands that clung pitifully to Celia's dress. âYou haven't touched your breakfast. Try and eat something.'
âCan't we give her something stronger than bread and tea?' Celia asked angrily. âWhat use is that to her now?'
The older woman shook her head and glanced quickly at her watch. âThere's no time,' she whispered. âIt's nearly nine.'
As though to prove her point, there was a noise in the corridor outside. Like most prisoners, used to spending so much time waiting and listening to events which could not be seen, Sach was quick to hear the approaching footsteps and eager to guess at their meaning. As they stopped outside the cell, then moved on again, the flicker of hope on her face was unbearable to Celia, who knew that only half the execution party had walked past; the other half would be just outside, waiting for the governor's nod. Staring at the door, she saw the slightest of movements as the hangman moved the peephole cover to one side to assess the mental state of the prisoner and then, after what felt like an interminable wait, the chime of the bells from the church next door signalled nine o'clock. Celia counted two
strokes before she heard the rattle of the keys in the lock, three before the heavy iron door opened, and then the small group of men was in the cell, setting in motion a relentless sequence of events from which there was no escape, which could never be undone.
The hangman moved swiftly across the cell and began to pinion Sach's hands behind her back. As soon as she felt the leather straps against her skin, she seemed to lose what little strength she had left. Celia stepped forward to prevent her falling to the floor, whispering words of comfort, but they seemed to have the opposite effect and Sach had to be half-led, half-carried out into the corridor. A few feet to their right, at the door to the adjacent cell, a similar scene was being played out, but the contrast between the prisoners could not have been more marked. Annie Walters was a short, grey-haired woman in her early fifties, as sturdy and homely-looking as Sach was delicate, but it was their demeanour that set them apart, not their build or their age. The sight of the other woman only increased Sach's distress until it bordered on hysteria, but Walters remained cheerful and talkative, swapping casual remarks with the second hangman as if oblivious to the fact that these were her final moments. Looking at the two women now, brought face to face for the first time since their sentencing, it was hard to believe that they were conspirators in the brutal murders of babiesâas many as twenty, some said, and most only a few days old.
Everything happened quickly from then on. The first hangman steadied Sach and prepared her for the short walk to the gallows. With a wardress on either side, the prisoners followed the chaplain towards the double doors at the end of the wing and into the newly built execution shed. It was only
a dozen steps or so, but far enough for Celia to notice that the prison seemed unnaturally quiet, almost as if a collective breath were being held. For three weeks now, the Holloway women had been restless and uneasy; the inevitable mixture of distress and sensationalism which greeted the sentence had been replaced by an angry helplessness, and everyone was touched by it, staff and prisoners alike. Celia knew she was not alone in longing to move the clock forward or back, to exist anywhere but in this present moment.