By Angela Rozwadowski

Angela says: I live in the Cotswolds with my husband. I have enjoyed writing short stories for several years, but only during lockdown did I consider entering competitions. My dream was to become long listed one day!

I am not paranoid. People are looking at me. Another man glances in my direction, just for a second. Had he held his gaze a little longer, would he have recognised me? Maybe. My hair is shorter now though, bobbed. I settled on a dull brown – fence colour. Nothing to turn heads. I’m heavier too, something I need to address when food is no longer my only comfort. But do my eyes give me away?  

A car toots its horn, making me jump.  My heart pounds, my hands sweat, my eyes shift from side to side. Parole offers little security without vigilance.  

An old truck with a rattling exhaust passes, spewing out diesel fumes. They catch the back of my throat and I muffle a cough, keeping my head down. I step to the back of the pavement and bump into a boy engrossed in his phone. He mutters an apology. He doesn’t look up.

I breathe a sigh of relief as I see a familiar car amongst the slow-moving traffic. It’s yellow with the registration number GBH, an irony I might see the funny side of one day, but a probation officer should be more sensitive to her clients’ longing to blend in.  

Nicky pulls up and I jump into the passenger seat, moving her handbag to the floor. I glance up at her – conscious that, while I’m not a thief, I am a criminal who isn’t trusted by anybody now. I catch a whiff of pine from the wooden balls hanging from her mirror and I think of Tom kicking the leaves in the forest and then tripping up on a prominent root. I wrap my arms around him. I can taste his salty tears and smell the peanut butter he had for breakfast that morning. I let the image linger.

Nicky’s bangles jangle as she changes gear. Like bunches of keys. My heart quickens again. I take a deep breath, close my eyes and slowly exhale.  

“Morning, Lucy!”  Nicky is always cheerful. Full of hope and optimism – characteristics necessary to inspire and cajole ex cons who invariably see their future down a long, dark tunnel. Her slender figure and fresh face without a hint of makeup portray an enviable lifestyle. I notice a pile of sweet wrappers in the pocket of her door. I’m comforted she has a weakness, succumbs to temptation, indulges in the not-so-healthy. I am reassured she is human. But most of all I am glad that the smiling, non judgemental woman sitting next to me was happy to take me on. So many people wanted to throw away the key after my conviction – reform an unthinkable option for taking a life. I had acknowledged during the trial that exercising my right to silence might imply guilt. I would make that decision again. For my son.

Lucy indicates left then turns into the car park of Pete’s Garden Centre. I completed a horticultural degree Inside and am looking forward to my first day of paid work. Pete had taken on ex-cons before, but Nicky must introduce me and remind us both of the rules. The adjustment will take a while, she reiterates, as we step out of the car. I will find it strange not asking to use the toilet and being able to wander freely or approach others without threat or confrontation. Nicky smiles, a comforting smile.  

We walk up to a wooden hut, the closed door bearing a faded sign that says Office. I peer through the window. Pete isn’t here. We wander round the plants and shrubs. The roses, past their best, still exhibit their brightly -coloured heads above glossy green leaves. The scent of the lavender and the large heads of the hydrangea trigger a flutter of excitement in my stomach.  I have been counting the years, months and days for this moment. And here I am. 

A man steps out from behind a row of bamboo. Our eyes meet. He has a look of my ex father-in-law, with his weathered skin, bushy brown hair that needs a cut and steel grey eyes. I hadn’t heard his footsteps. Had he been watching me? I feel my heart falter before it resumes its frantic rhythm again. 

Nicky breaks the ice: “There you are, Pete.”

Pete steps forward holding out his hand – his dirty, thick fingers remaining curled and stiff like a cat’s claw waiting to take a swipe at its prey. I reluctantly mould my hand round his, but he makes no effort to tighten his grip.  

“Pleased to meet you, Lucy.” A scowl suggests otherwise. His frown deepens. He nods his head, then tilts it from one side to the other. His visual appraisal of me is so blatant, I want to turn round and run home, back to the safety and security of the four walls in my bedsit.

After the run-down of rules, Nicky leaves. Pete doesn’t move. I can hear his breathing, a subtle wheeze breaking the silence. I fiddle with my hair, put my hands in my pockets, take them out again and look anywhere but his eyes.

“Right, then,” he says eventually, with a swing in his voice. “Let’s get you to work. Follow me.”

I walk behind him. His shoulders are strewn with dandruff, his soil-covered jacket torn at the sleeve. Shuffling along the path, his heavy boots leave a trail of oversized footprints in the gravel. He stops abruptly and hands me a box, saying, “Collect the seeds from the perennials.” He gestures around us then leaves, his footsteps retreating like the postman on a frosty morning.

I get to work, with the thoughts that were my only companion during my time inside. Until they allowed me to work in the gardens of the prison, I had an overwhelming urge to care and nurture something – anything. Denying a mother of her child was like withholding heroin from a user. I went cold turkey too. My body writhed in agony, my head pounded, my arms ached. I reached out for those little hands that needed mine just as desperately.  For 12 years I tried to hang onto the sounds of their voices but they faded just like the image of their faces. Still I remember that day like it was yesterday. The ashen face, the stillness of her body, the emptiness in her eyes. The pillow on her face. Emily was just three weeks old. Tom was watching the TV, staring at his favourite cartoon characters. There must have been the familiar singing, but I couldn’t hear it.  

At lunchtime I sit in the corner of the staff room, keeping my eyes to the floor. I speak only when I am spoken to. Inside, I was no contest to the heavy antagonists daring me to make eye contact in the wrong way. It will take time to learn to interpret body language and facial expressions again.  

A boy sits opposite me. Too young to recognise me. Sixteen? The same age as Tom is now and I wonder what he is doing. Having his lunch too, perhaps. Does he think of me? I hope he will agree to meet up one day. I have no doubt I would recognise him if I saw him again. His hair might be darker, he will have lost his baby teeth, but smiles never change. I imagine him to be tall, like his dad. He had my eyes, long lashes. A small scar on his cheek where he fell on the pavement and had to have a couple of stitches. I remember the glances then. And the questions. How exactly did he fall?  

The boy stands up and brushes the crumbs from his jumper. He catches my eye and his lips attempt a smile. I nod my head. I imagine he is Tom. I want to rush forward and wrap my arms around him, ruffle his hair and feel the softness of his skin. I want to say I am sorry, but the price of my lie is worth the freedom for my son. 

I have no regrets. Other than leaving Tom and Emily alone while I answered the telephone.