The Boy From Berlin
Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, Newark, New Jersey. 2010.
Babs Mason kept picking at the loose thread in her prison skirt. It was almost like an unconscious gesture, twisting it in her fingers as she looked around her cell, and up at the bulkhead light recessed into the ceiling. When the young writer sitting opposite got no response to her question, she put it to Babs again. She had a small voice recorder beside her and a notepad resting on her lap.
‘What year was it?’ Babs repeated the question finally, turning to look at the young woman.
‘Yes, the year you met your husband.’
Babs couldn’t think for a moment. Her mind refused to batten down and concentrate, set as it was on other things. The young woman’s presence didn’t help either; Babs envied her youth, her freshness and most of all, her freedom. It distracted her and became a point of focus almost. The irony was that she had specifically asked for the woman to visit her and record the events leading up to her imprisonment, so she had no reason to wish the young woman wasn’t there. The prison administrator had taken some persuading, but Babs still had powerful connections outside, and that helped.
‘The year I met my husband,’ she muttered and lowered her head in thought, trying to take her mind back several years. ‘It was when I was having an affair with his father, William. He liked to be called Bill. It was in the late sixties. I was about eighteen or nineteen. I was studying for my degree in Chemical Engineering. I met Bill at a University Ball. He was a handsome, strong, forceful man. I was fascinated by him.’ She sighed, recalling the memory. ‘The affair burned itself out. That's when I got to know Gus. He was about fifteen years older than me, give or take.’
Babs thought of her youth, her beauty, now faded. The silky blonde hair had become dry and grey, like thin cords. It was no wonder; she was over sixty and her years in prison hadn't helped. She studied the backs of her hands where the truth always rested. Whatever face a woman tried to present to the world, whatever falsehood about her age, the truth was in the hands.
‘William Mason, Bill, you said,’ the young woman reminded her. ‘How old would he have been then?’
‘About forty five or so.’
The writer scribbled on for a short while. Babs watched her intently. The young woman looked up and brushed a small wisp of hair from her face.
‘Would you say that was when it all began?’
Babs smiled. ‘The truth is that it began a long, long time before that, but none of us were to know. Not then anyway.’
‘Could you elaborate on that’?
Babs thought about the statement she had just made, about it all beginning a long, long time ago, and the names of people she had never heard of — names that meant nothing to her, some who had died before she had been born. Now she knew them all: each and every one of them. Their destinies were as much hers as they were theirs. Their paths began in different places, in different times, but each path had moved inexorably closer until they were linked as one. And that single path finished in the walls of this cell and would be consigned to the pages of the young writer’s notebook. In there would be the names of the strangers, of the loved ones, of the deceit, the cunning and the violence, of the life and death of Babs Mason.
‘Well perhaps I should start at the moment I knew my husband was going to become President of the United States of America.’